Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Summary of the Gospel

A practice I loved at Mass was the reading of the Summary of the Law at the beginning:

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these hang all the Law and the Prophets. (From Matthew 22)
These words, spoken by Jesus, tell us what we truly need to know about the Law. The Law's fulfillment comes from living a life of love toward God and neighbor. When St Paul talks about the inability of the Law to justify anyone, he means that even the greatest Christians and Jews alive couldn't keep the Law without messing up. Inevitably we will mess up and love something other than God or love our neighbor or ourselves less than we should. We have the Gospel of Christ, however, to save us. We aren't perfect, but there is still help for us.

The Summary of the Law, then, is intended to guide us and show us our failing. If we weren't sinful people in a fallen creation, we wouldn't need to be told to love God, our neighbor and ourselves. Because we are sinful we need the Law to tell us how we have messed up and what we need to work on.

But what is the Summary of the Gospel? In order to answer that we would have to say what the Gospel itself is.

Frequently we might say something about loving God or something about the cross or something about the blessing of the 'least of these' in order to explain the Gospel. These all touch on some dimension of the Gospel story.

My question: "What does the Gospel say about us and God that couldn't be accomplished by the Law?" We are not 'saved' by the Law. There's nothing we can do to deserve God's love, and our highest duty is to love God and our neighbor. Contrary to popular belief, there's also not a base percentage of loving we have to do in order to get into heaven. (Yes, Lord, I loved people 76% of the time! God's response: ah ha! you didn't love 77% of the time, and that is the base standard for entry. Off to hellfire with you! Too bad, so sad!)

If being a 'good enough' person was enough to get in, then would we try hard? Would we really feel sorry for not loving God, ourselves and our neighbors, just as long as we were 'good enough' overall? We wouldn't. We need a challenge. We were created in the image of God to love God and creation, so behaving like anything less than what we are is a rejection of our true nature.

Love is the foundation of the human nature. Or at least it was meant to be that way. Because of sin (rejection of God, rejection of neighbor, rejection of ourselves) we do not live up to our fundamental human nature. Because the Law commands us to love, it restores our sight. We see more clearly what we should do. The Gospel is the fulfillment of the Law; the Gospel completes what we fail to do through the Law.

So where the Law tell us what to do, the Gospel tells us who we are. We are loved by God and called to love. The Law tell us to do what is already written on our hearts, and we are not anywhere near close to doing that perfectly. We are fundamentally flawed yet loved.

The cross stands in stark contrast to the world. An instrument of torture, shame and oppression has become a sign of our salvation. Our God loves us so much that he became incarnate, he became flesh and blood, to walk with us and love us and teach us and die for us.

We do not believe in a completely 'foreign' God, someone who can't understand our pain and suffering. We believe in a God who left behind so much of his God-ness in order to become a mortal human being. We believe in a human who was not fundamentally flawed- he lived up completely to his true nature as human because only God could do it.

And God in Christ Jesus died on the cross. Died.


What kind of God does this? What kind of God suffers the death of a traitor, what kind of God has the life of a peasant?

God is a God who descends to the depths of human suffering and cruelty to save us. When we close our ears and when we feast upon riches and power, God stands among the poor and the weak and the oppressed. When we sacrifice an innocent to save ourselves, when we make that dark bargain, God is there.

The poor and the tax collectors and the prostitutes. Peter who denied Christ in his suffering. Paul who persecuted Christ's disciples. People who felt so estranged from God and people who walked away from God. All of these people, too, are not abandoned by God.

God can't be chased away by the darkness of the fallen human race. The Law tells us what to do, and it shows us what we do not do. So the Gospel shows who God is: God is a God who will be with us even in darkness.

The essence of the Gospel is thus: We are made for love, and God will not abandon us because we do not love. God will go to the depths to find us and be with us. God will give up everything, even Godhood, to be with us.

The Scripture that sums this up in a way for me is this piece from St Paul's letter to the Romans:

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,

‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8)
We are not abandoned to judgment because we do not love. We are not abandoned to darkness because of the darkness of human hearts, both ours and others. Nothing, nothing, nothing can ever completely separate us from God. Our darkness does not keep God away. No sin, oppression, poverty, pride, despair, political system, and not even death and destruction itself can keep God away. God wants to be with us.

To anybody who is reading this: what do you see as a "Summary of the Gospel"? Any particular piece of Scripture that sums up the Gospel to you?

Monday, September 27, 2010

The unworthiness of Ministers does not hinder the effect of the Sacraments

Or thus says the 26th Article of Religion for the Church of England and the Episcopal Church.

In a time of trial for the church in the world with all the scandals and hypocrisy, this is probably one of the least desired statements. We want to be able to point to clergy behaving themselves like, well, clergy. People of the highest moral caliber who do not lord it over others. Quick to bless, slow to anger, hasty to love and hesitant to criticize.

Yet the media calls up yet another example (every morning, it seems) of another cleric behaving horribly. An antigay preacher suddenly being accused of having relationships with young men in his care. A cleric stealing money from his parish. A whole bunch of bishops covering up sexual abuse. No wonder that people aren't beating down the doors of the church to come in and pray!

For those in the church world, too, we see these same things. We see clergy who wear their collar as a crown and are full of a sense of superiority. We see clergy who micromanage and dictate to their congregations and who attack any who disagree. We see clergy who use their power on the budget/discipline/discernment committee to keep other clergy and laypeople from speaking out. No wonder that people can get burnt out when those entrusted as pastors start to believe that they are lords in God's kingdom.

In all this, it would be so easy to just walk away. Run away. Never turn back. Escape into the desert, free of the stain of evil. Indulge ourselves in the comfortable Gospel of Consumerist Conformity which promises to satisfy every desire and need. After all, what is supposed to be a community forged in the love of God and of neighbor is so frequently a place of politics and abuse of power.

This article of religion is actually an antidote to the despair that harms the church every day. Yes, we have corrupt leaders. Yes, our people are incredibly flawed. Yes, we are far, far from being the perfect community that Jesus calls us to be. Yes, we can be a den of hypocrisy and judgment. Perfection and goodness are far from us, we freely admit.

And there's no excuse for it. None at all. The church is continually under God's judgment for its flaws and sins.

But that's not the end. In a community that proclaims the Gospel, even if the tongues that do it are full of venom, the Gospel can still be heard however faintly. There is always a hope that things will change and that courage and grace can once again flourish. And an unworthy minister can still bless and preside at communion because it is Christ who does it, not truly the minister. Christ will not and cannot be banished by evil. I can not out-sin the grace of God, and neither can any cleric, priest, bishop or pastor.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Memento Mori

Remember your death.

A few years ago I remember a priest's sermon about death and the afterlife. Or, rather, his meditation on what we think the life-after-death will be like. Any afterlife we might have would not be all clouds, angels and harps, of course, but we're very quick to go back to that image.

Wondered the priest: might we focus too much on living, walking and thinking in a life after death? Do we really imagine that life after death will be peaches and cream where life on earth goes on, just better and more permanent? Is it all because we are too afraid to peer into death and see the end of "me"?

One of the most frightening experiences of my childhood was when I realized that there was a time before I existed. My family was watching TV and I was staring at our leather-bound encyclopedias. The thought just hit me: where was I before I was born? In 1985, the year before I was born, I wasn't even a thought. No consciousness. No mind. No soul. Nothing. Complete nothing. Not a soul in heaven waiting to be born, to be exiled to earth. Nothing.

That same fear makes me cling to life. Now that I have thought and memory, how can wonderful me cease to think and remember? Once a thinking mind has been made, can it be unmade at death? What would it be like to die? How would it feel?

Being dead and no longer a thinking soul would leave me, well, empty. I wouldn't be there to protest against death since "I" wouldn't exist any longer. The prospect of losing "I" still terrifies me.

Christian talk of the "life after death" seemed too convenient to me. Too easy a way of pretending that death wasn't anything after all, nothing really to be afraid of. I could imagine my grandfather (God rest his soul!) having arguments with the angels about Scripture, my pets waiting eagerly for me to arrive (how morbid!) and the great figures of the past all having tea and muffins around a table (a great set up to a joke!). But all those images felt so crafted and finely tuned to my need for stability and continuity. Everything has to continue on, right?

These images try to preserve the way things are. It assumes that death does not change those we love. It assumes that heaven might just be us walking around in a nice village where everyone knows each other and God is hanging around as everybody's favorite neighbor. It can coat over the real pain and alienation and sin that we are stuck in. It preserves the "I", the ego, something of such monumental importance that God would seemingly ensure that it survived mostly intact after death, possibly in even better shape.

But what if it isn't like that? What then?

What if we die and are no more? What if we sleep in death and do not get to walk around in a charming celestial village?

Would you or I be content to be in God's memory?

Sitting in that aged pew I remember the relief I had when the priest mentioned that idea. Relief! I didn't feel like I had to fight for a naive image of heaven. It didn't matter. God would always be, even if I ceased to be. God would remember, even if I failed to remember. Nothing that lived, nothing that was done, nothing since the beginning of creation would be forgotten.

This isn't to say that I do not believe in the Resurrection. I do. God has taken a liking for us incredibly flawed and fallible human beings, giving us so much love and light. God, in Jesus Christ, chose to walk among us. He lived with us, argued with us, judged us, loved us, taught us, died for us. God chose that! Against all odds, God delights in us, so it isn't a far jump that God might choose to spend eternity with us (whether that 'us' is a select few, the multitudes, or all).

Knowing that God can remember us even without the Resurrection can free us from the greeting card image of heaven. Death is painful and powerful. It attacks at the human soul through fear and anguish.

Death does not have the final say, however; God has chosen us, remembers us, and loves us.