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Martin Luther and My Theological Formation: An Old Catholic Priest talks about Luther’s Influence on his Life

The Luther Rose: When they stand under the Cross Christian Hearts turn to Roses

“Grace is given to heal the spiritually sick, not to decorate spiritual heroes.” Martin Luther

When a young Priest and Theology Professor at the University of  Wittenberg named Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses on the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg it changed the course of Western as well as Church history.  He also changed mine.

Martin Luther was the first of a series of theologians that helped make me what I am now. When my Church History professor Dr. Doyle Young and Systematic Theology professor Dr. David Kirkpatrick introduced me to Luther’s writings and his “Theology of the Cross it was earth shaking.  It was his Theology of the Cross brought me to an incarnational understanding of the Christian faith because it is only through the Cross that we come to know God in a truly Christian sense of understanding.  For Luther the Cross was central to understanding the humanity’s relationship to the Trinity, and stands against Calvin whose understanding of God’s will and predestination from before time began tends minimize the Cross, for Calvin it is a mechanism but for Luther it is the most profound and personal revelation of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit. The incarnational and Trinitarian found in the Theology of the Cross also opened for me essential nature of the Eucharist to the Christian faith and which helping bring me to a catholic understanding of the faith.

The relational aspects of the Theology of the Cross were personalized in the Three Solas; Sola fides by faith alone, Sola Gratia by grace alone and Sola Scriptura by scripture alone. These became the hallmarks of the Reformation and without getting into the weeds to dissect all the ramifications for the Church and the world impact the way that many Christians practice and express their faith to the current day.

The Catholic in me tends to discount Sola Scriptura because Luther himself was such an imperfect practitioner of this. I find that the Anglican and Old Catholic triad of Scripture, Tradition and Reason is a more Biblical way of understanding what we can understand of God as well as in bearing witness of the self revelation of God in Christ in our world than is Sola Scriptura.

The Reformation which began when Luther posted his “theses” on the door of the Schlosskirche broke the hold of the Roman Catholic Church on Europe brought about many changes. It was the watershed moment when western church unity was fractured forever. As the years passed this increasingly fractured and diverse church in the west and helped end the primacy of the Church over the State.  The Reformation was also essential to the future Enlightenment as educational institutions, philosophers, historians and scientists gained the freedom to operate free from the all pervasive reach of the Church.

In the beginning when he walked up to the Schlosskirche to post his theses Luther intended nothing more than reforming and curtailing abuses in the Catholic Church and how the Church saw grace, faith and scripture.  Instead he changed the course of history in ways that most modern people, especially conservative Christians fail to comprehend today.  If they did they would not be embracing such heresy as the Dominion movement and it’s Seven MountainsTheology.

I did a lot of study on the Lutheran Reformation in and after seminary. In 1996 while stationed in Germany as a mobilized Army Reserve Chaplain had the privilege of organizing a series of Reformation tours to Wittenberg, Worms and Heidelberg.  We went to Wittenberg on Reformation day where we attended the Reformationstag service at the Schlosskirche.   I led a walking tour of the town that day.  One of the parishioners from the chapel asked me if I had been toWittenberg before because I seemed like I knew every place in the town.  I had to tell her that I had not been there in person but because of my study had imagined it so many times that I knew every place by heart.  When we went to Worms where Luther on trial before Charles V was told to recant his writings it as the same, except that in Worms the town hall where the Imperial Diet met was destroyed long ago.  However a stone in the pavement marks the spot where Luther concluding his defense before the Emperor Charles V and the assembled Princes and prelates with these immortal words:

“Unless I am convicted by scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.” It is legend that Luther said the words “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me, Amen!”  These words were probably only added later by someone else to make the story more interesting as they do not appear in the council notes.  Not that Luther would have objected.  The film version is linked here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U0tk_EvWXQQ&feature=player_embedded

Likewise Luther’s debate with Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli at the Marburgcolloquy regarding points of doctrine was significant for me. It was held that they might unify their separate reform movements. They agreed on all points except the Eucharist where Luther enunciated a very catholic understanding of the “Real Presence.”  Zwingli argued it to be a symbolic memorial though he conceded that it might have some spiritual component.   Luther would not budge and to each of Zwingli’s arguments pulled back the tablecloth to reveal the words “This is my body, this is my blood” which he had carved on the table.  They departed without achieving unity, something that has plagued Protestants to this day and when Zwingli was killed in battle when leading the militia from Zurich to fight the approaching Catholic Army.  When Luther heard about the Zwingli’s death he commented Zwingli drew his sword. Therefore he has received the reward that Christ spoke of, ‘All who take the sword will perish by the sword’ [Matt. 26:52]. If God has saved him, he has done so above and beyond the rule.” (Table Talk #1451) When I visitedMarburg with my friend Gottfried in 1997 I stood in the room where the men met and standing at that table I imagined Luther arguing with Zwingli.

Martin Luther helped begin the journey to the Priest that I am now. Others similar to Luther, the Catholic theologian and reformer in his own right Father Hans Kung who was able to do what Luther couldn’t do, make a case for Luther’s theology as part of catholic theology.  Lutheran theologian Jürgen Moltmann has brought Luther’s theology to the modern world and Dietrich Bonhoeffer who showed me an example of how to live out the incarnational message of theTheology of the Cross in a world gone mad.  Kung’s book On Being a Christian, Moltmann’s Theology of Hope and The Crucified God have being influential in my theological formation. Bonhoeffer’s contribution was how that theology is important in standing up to oppression in all forms, his writings including The Cost o Discipleship, Ethics Creation Fall and Temptation, Life Together and Letters and Papers from Prison.  All of these men helped me in my transition following seminary to a moderate Anglo-Catholic to an Old Catholic faith that places a high place to Scripture, Apostolic Tradition and Reason in interpreting and living out the faith.

Of course there are others that have influenced me, the early Church Fathers, Francis of Assisi, John Wesley, Karl Barth and Emil Brunner, Henri Nouwen, Father Andrew Greely  and Bernard Häring to name but a few.  But even so I have always had a special place in my heart for Luther even with all of his flaws which were many.  Luther was earthy, spoke his mind often in a direct and coarse way and had no problem with having fun or good beer.  I relate to him a lot and am in his debt because he helped me become who I am today.

Peace

Padre Steve+


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The Predictable Unpredictability of Revolution and the Christian Call to Reconciliation

Revolutions often end with one Tyranny replacing another

“In a revolution, as in a novel, the most difficult part to invent is the end.” Alexis de Tocqueville

“All great movements are popular movements. They are the volcanic eruptions of human passions and emotions, stirred into activity by the ruthless Goddess of Distress or by the torch of the spoken word cast into the midst of the people.” Adolf Hitler

We are living in revolutionary times. When we look around the world and down the street we cannot help but notice the flames of revolution burning. While we are focused on the amazing revolutions going on in the Arab World there is revolution brewing in the United States. Revolution that has been stoked on the airwaves and in cyberspace against ineffective government and political parties concerned more about their power and financial institutions that have devastated our economy for years as is hitting our state capitals as the country lurches deeper into economic and social crisis.

“Every successful revolution puts on in time the robes of the tyrant it has deposed.” Barbara  Tuchmann

Many good and honorable people are part of a new revolutionary movement in the United States but such movements sometime morph into the very thing that they protest when unscrupulous people take them over. (Reuters photo)

Whether actual revolutions that have been relatively peaceful in Tunisia and Egypt to ones where those in power have resorted to deadly force such as Libya and Iran as well as those in their incipient stages they are forerunners of many more to come. Just count the countries in the Middle East, Asia, Europe and the Americas where for a variety of reasons protests, dramatic political change and revolts erupt threatening the old order. Be it the overthrow of despots in the Middle East, calls for a Jasmine revolution in China, economic collapse in various European Union countries that cause massive electoral shifts that threaten the breakup of that union, narco-anarchy in Mexico or chaos in U.S. State Capitals all signs tell us that we have entered a new age of revolution. Likewise the talk of revolution is everywhere even in the United States where some in the Tea Party movement call for a revolution against the status quo in Washington D.C. and against the growth and power of the Federal Government.

“The scrupulous and the just, the noble, humane, and devoted natures; the unselfish and the intelligent may begin a movement – but it passes away from them. They are not the leaders of a revolution. They are its victims.” Joseph Conrad

The one constant about revolutions is that they unpredictable even those that begin with the most altruistic of motives. Likewise in many cases those who begin the revolutions often become the victims of those that come after them. That is a fact from history and it is often true that as Barbara Tuchmann said “Every successful revolution puts on in time the robes of the tyrant it has deposed.” That is the danger that is faced as we enter this revolutionary era.

It is always cool to see tyrants fall and for people to have a chance to be free, but unfortunately evil always lurks in the hearts of those who seek to exploit the revolution for their own power’s sake. No movement is immune from this threat and those who are convinced of their own righteousness and rightness of their cause are very likely to take up the mantle of tyranny that they helped overthrow.

Larry Klayman who writes for World Net Daily made this comment in a recent opinion piece on that site:

“What establishment governmental institution will hold our judges, legislators and even the president accountable to the “rule of law”? The answer is none! It’s all one happy club of “establishment felons,” who, whether Democrat or Republican, play the game, scratch each others’ backs and feed at the huge trough of government money and favors.

It’s the establishment, stupid – whether it’s in the good ol’ USA, Cairo or Tripoli – that has ruled the school. And “we the peons,” are given the crumbs that are left after the establishment pillages, rapes, perverts and destroys the at one time noble institutions of government that were created by and for the people.

Thousands of years ago, a revolutionary in the Holy Land confronted a similar total breakdown of values, ethics and the rule of law. He confronted corruption in the highest places of government – before his fellow clergy, the Jewish high priests and the Roman Forum – and did so fearlessly. He paid with his life, and his name was Jesus Christ.

Our rotting and diseased institutions need to be attacked legally and, I am sorry to say, torn down – and then built back up again into the “faithful city of Jerusalem.” While I do not advocate violence – indeed, Jesus never resorted to this – we must urgently find other ways such as civil disobedience to wage a new revolution. We cannot be afraid, and we must act immediately. Because our nation and the planet stand on the precipice of complete chaos and extinction. And, unless we rid it of the vermin who inhabit and have seized our establishment institutions as their own, and reform these corrupt institutions, we will soon perish. The American people did their first house cleaning in our first Revolution.

Now it’s time to bring on the second! If even the Arabs, who have no history of democracy and freedom, can do it, then why can’t we?” Larry Klayman: If Arabs can Revolt why can’t We? 27 February 2011 retrieved from World Net Daily http://www.wnd.com/index.php?fa=PAGE.view&pageId=268289

While the  Revolution in Egypt was mostly peaceful no one is sure exactly how it will end

Klayman voices the anger of many, maybe not a majority but a significant minority of the American electorate, many of which are conservative Christians, a minority that is becoming more organized daily and is threatening to supplant the establishment Republican Party as the voice of conservatism. Now I have little respect for the two corrupt political parties that have gotten us into this mess but when writers, especially Christians refer to people, even corrupt rulers as vermin is scary. I do think that elected and non-elected officials need to be held accountable but never believe that dehumanizing them by referring to them as “vermin” is wise. Such calls usually mean that when the new order, whatever it is comes to power those in the old order are not just swept away but many times exterminated. One only has to look at history to see that this is the case.

Likewise for them to reduce Jesus Christ to a mere revolutionary who “confronted corruption in the highest places” as Klayman does actually does violence to the message of the Gospel of the Kingdom and the message of Jesus which was never about his followers changing governments or overthrowing kingdoms by means other than the love of God and the call to be reconciled to God as Paul the Apostle writes “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” (2 Cor 5:19 NRSV)

Revolutionary times often bring out the worst aspects of the human condition be it from the oppressors or the revolutionaries themselves. The unbridled passions that underlie revolutions are very difficult to contain. Anger, hatred, envy, distrust, cynicism, disrespect and the dehumanization of opponents only add fire to the legitimately unjust and evil conditions which feed calls for revolution and calls for change and often lead to violence and repression from those that harness the revolutionary spirit for their own ends. Revolution often begets tyranny.  Hitler understood this when he said “if today I stand here as a revolutionary, it is as a revolutionary against the Revolution.”

This is the danger zone into which some Christians plunge with wild abandon a zone where some radically depart from the message of reconciliation to the legitimization of violence through their interpretation of Scripture to buttress a political and revolutionary end. Doug Giles who is a commentator at Townhall.com and has his own radio program writes:

“The believer, however, has an insanely powerful arsenal of divinely-inspired dynamite to utilize against unrighteousness and those who propagate it. Yep, Dinky, it’s a prayer against both sin and sinner—the problem and its perpetrator. Theologians call these the imprecatory prayers, or maledictions. I call them Dirty Harry prayers, prayers to pull out and pray when things get bad. Real bad. Prayers you use when a nation’s getting mucked up by degenerate priests or politicos.” Note to Church: Pray Dirty Harry Prayers for Our Nation. Posted July 25, 2009 by nhiemstra in Doug Giles, Townhall.com retrieved 27 February 2011.

Giles uses Scripture to drive home his point but he uses Scripture against Jesus. If I recall correctly Jesus was not about this. He may have pronounced woes upon the religious elite of his time but when they arrested him and abused him he did not protest. He acted in accordance with his instructions to his disciples:

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also…But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:27-29a and 25-36 NRSV)

In revolutionary times we are not called to become one with the revolution nor the status quo brought about by corrupt rules, institutions or oppressors. The call of the Church and Christians is to be salt and light and ambassadors of Christ’s call for humanity to be reconciled to God and to one another. It certainly is not a popular position now days as extremists of all types, including Christians throw gasoline on already raging fires.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer so stranger to the evils of revolutionary times and the tyrants that they often beget wrote in “The Cost of Discipleship”

“The followers of Christ have been called to peace. . . . And they must not only have peace but also make it. And to that end they renounce all violence and tumult. In the cause of Christ nothing is to be gained by such methods. . . . His disciples keep the peace by choosing to endure suffering themselves rather than inflict it on others. They maintain fellowship where others would break it off. They renounce hatred and wrong. In so doing they over-come evil with good, and establish the peace of God in the midst of a world of war and hate.”

C. S. Lewis

That call is radically different than almost anything that we hear from politically active “revolutionary” Christians.  One of my regular readers posted a response to an article that I wrote a few days ago. In that response he quoted C. S. Lewis from his book The Screwtape Letters.” The quote which I include here is so appropriate to the spirit of our times and Lewis in one of his typically poignant observations has the demon Screwtape write his nephew Wormwood of how to use Christianity as a means to bring down mankind.

Uncle Screwtape pens his advice

“Whichever he adopts, your main task will be the same. Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the “cause”, in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favour of the British war-effort or of Pacifism. The attitude which you want to guard against is that in which temporal affairs are treated primarily as material for obedience. Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing. Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades, matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours—and the more “religious” (on those terms) the more securely ours. I could show you a pretty cageful down here.”

Screwtape’s advice seems to have been heeded by many Christians in the United States. Our causes have usurped the faith. Scripture is nothing but a tool to advance the causes that we choose and the politics that we follow.

We do live in interesting times don’t we? Pray for me a sinner.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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It is Finished

“28 After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” 29 A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. 30 When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” John 19: 28-30 NRSV

 Good Friday, I wrote about it last night and published it very early this morning.  I just completed the Good Friday Liturgy at the hospital and am set to get an early start on the rest of the Easter Weekend.  I am not going to repeat last night’s article here, just something that struck me as I prepared for the service and read the Passion narrative from John’s Gospel.  The words It is finished” which come from the lips of Jesus as he dies convey a finality that sometimes we miss as we fast forward to Easter. Upon the Cross Jesus really did die and this can be very uncomfortable in fact a number of major religions reject the notion that God would condescend to become human and certain would never consent to death.  Such a stream of thought was even evidenced in Gnostic Christianity where God is “pure spirit” and the God of the Old Testament was corrupt being powerful enough o create humanity and wicked enough to do so as for the Gnostics the flesh was evil and the spirit good.  Likewise the Aryan Heresy invoked the notion of a Jesus who was not really God, more like a superman as God could not die.  The thought of the Aryans is still present in Islam as Mohammed the Prophet had exposure to Aryan Christianity and the image of Jesus in Islam is nearly identical to the Aryans.

 “It is finished.” They are haunting words and when one reads the words of Isaiah one gets the picture of something that if we passed by on the street that we would probably turn our heads away from to avoid the unpleasantness of the sight as “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. 3He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.”   

 The hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross is particularly vivid in painting the picture of the crucified Christ: “See, from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and love flow mingled down. Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, or thorns compose so rich a crown.”

 The fact that Jesus dies on the cross and dies rejected is a paramount truth of the Gospel and is necessary if we are to comprehend the Gospel, we do not get to the resurrection without the crucifixion and any attempt to do so especially by his people creates a false Gospel, a Gospel devoid of the forgiveness of sins and a Gospel where God knows not our sorrows.  It is the Gospel of Theism where God is not involved in the real world; untouched and unmoved by human suffering and even arbitrary and capricious in his dealings with humanity.   Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote Jesus is a rejected Messiah. His rejection robs the passion of its halo of glory. It must be a passion without honor. Suffering and rejection sum up the whole cross of Jesus. To die on the cross means to die despised and rejected of men. Suffering and rejection are laid upon Jesus as a divine necessity, and every attempt to prevent it is the work of the devil, especially when it comes from his own disciples; for it is in fact an attempt to prevent Christ from being Christ.” 

 The fact that Jesus did not let the cup from him has implications for his disciples which again are not comfortable as they stand opposed to the “Gospel” of those who present the faith as one of respect, prosperity, earthy power and health.  It is not the “Gospel” of materialism where we remain in relationship with God only for the blessings but the Gospel of discipleship and suffering.  It is the cry My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” which Jesus utters as rejected by man and by God as Bonhoeffer said “It is not suffering per se but suffering-and-rejection, and not rejection for any cause of conviction of our own, but rejection for the sake of Christ. If our Christianity has ceased to be serious about discipleship, if we have watered down the gospel into emotional uplift which makes no costly demands and which fails to distinguish between natural and Christian existence, then we cannot help regarding the cross as an ordinary everyday calamity… We have then forgotten that the cross means rejection and shame as well as suffering.”

 Again, such a Gospel is not comfortable for the disciple the Gospel of the Cross whereby we come to know God is the Gospel which “bids a man to come and die.” This is not the kind of martyrdom sought by fanatics who seek to destroy their and presumably God’s enemies but a call that is unique to every disciple:

 “But each has a different share: some God deems worthy of the highest form of suffering, and given them the grace of martyrdom, while others He does not allow to be tempted above that they are able to bear…. The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. … we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with His death—we give over our lives to death. … When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.…death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man [or nature] at his call. Jesus’ summons to the rich young man was calling him to die, because only the man who is dead to his own will can follow Christ. In fact, every command of Jesus is a call to die, with all our affections and lusts. But we do not want to die…”

 There is a hymn that means much to me is “And Can it be” which personalizes the great mystery inherent in the Gospel.

And can it be that I should gain
an interest in the Savior’s blood!
Died he for me? who caused his pain!
For me? who him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be
that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
Amazing love! How can it be
that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

’Tis mystery all: th’ Immortal dies!
Who can explore his strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
to sound the depths of love divine.
’Tis mercy all! Let earth adore;
let angel minds inquire no more.
’Tis mercy all! Let earth adore;
let angel minds inquire no more.

He left his Father’s throne above
(so free, so infinite his grace!),
emptied himself of all but love,
and bled for Adam’s helpless race.
’Tis mercy all, immense and free,
for O my God, it found out me!
’Tis mercy all, immense and free,
for O my God, it found out me!

 It is finished and with it we wait. Like the disciples we know not what tomorrow holds we live in a tension knowing Christ’s suffering and awaiting resurrection.  The Centurion Loginous at the Cross saw what no one else saw that day knew that “surely this was the Son of God” and like the disciples would lay down his duties to follow Christ.

 I pray that God will richly bless us this Good Friday with his peace which as he says passes all understanding.

 Peace

Padre Steve+

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Palm or Passion Sunday…the Paradox of the Triumphant Entry and the Cross

The Triumphant Entry

“Although we praise our common Lord for all kinds of reasons, we praise and glorify him above all for the cross. Paul passes over everything else that Christ did for our advantage and consolation and dwells incessantly on the cross. The proof of God’s love for us, he says, is that Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. Then in the following sentence he gives us the highest ground for hope: If, when we were alienated from God, we were reconciled to him by the death of his Son, how much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life!” John Chrysostom (AD 347-407)

God speaking to Luther: “Discipleship is not limited to what you can comprehend—it must transcend all comprehension. … Not to know where you are going is the true knowledge. My comprehension transcends yours. Thus Abraham went forth from His father… not knowing whither he went. … Behold, that is the way of the cross. You cannot find it yourself, so you must let me lead you as though you were a blind man. Wherefore it is not you, no man… but I myself, who instruct you by my Word and Spirit in the way you should go. Not the work which you choose, not the suffering you devise, but the road which is clean contrary to all you choose or contrive or desire—that is the road you must take. To that I call you and in that you must be my disciple.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer the Cost of Discipleship

Palm or Passion Sunday always is a day that invokes mixed emotions in me. It is the last Sunday of the Lenten Season and in modern times has become a juxtaposition of two events, the Triumphant Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem where he according to all four Gospels was greeted by crowds of people who lined the street with palms as Jesus riding on a donkey processed from Bethany and Bethphage where he had been staying with Lazarus into Jerusalem and the narrative of the Passion.  As such it is a roller coaster ride in our experience of walking with Jesus in the most difficult times.

This particular occasion is the Sunday where the disciples of Jesus are confronted with the reality that our earthy expectations of him do not meet the reality of his condensation to walk among us fully Divine yet fully Human but one too well acquainted with suffering, rejection and shame.  He shatters our expectations that he will bless any particular political or social ideology that we allow to take pre-eminence over him, even those that invoke his name. Thus our liturgy brings us to this strange day where in a sense we are confronted with celebrating the entrance of the King and in the next breath cursing him and betraying him to those who torture and crucify him.

In the Roman Catholic and Anglican liturgy the observance is divided between the Liturgy of the Palms which takes place outside the Church Nave either outside the church building or in the Narthex in cold or inclement weather.  After an opening collect and reading of the Gospel passage from one of the synoptic Gospels, which one depends on which of the three year liturgical readings that the church is in. Following the reading of the Gospel the congregation led by choir, acolytes and clergy process into the church reciting the words of Psalm 118: 18-29 or singing a hymn such as “All Glory Laud and Honor.”  Once the congregation is in the church the Liturgy of the Word continues and when the Passion Gospel is read and specific roles may be assigned to members of the congregation, while the congregation remains seated through the first part of the Passion the congregation stands at the verse where “Golgotha” is mentioned and remains standing.

The liturgy takes the congregation on an emotional and spiritual roller coaster.  As the congregation begins outside the following is read:

When Jesus had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.'” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,

“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!

Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” Luke 19:29-40

It is hard when you read this passage and be caught in the reenactment of this procession not to feel the excitement that must have accompanied that procession.  It has the feeling of a victory parade but this road ends in a manner that those present, those seeking an earthly king and Messiah who would drive our the Roman oppressor and restore the kingdom to Israel would not expect with some of them perhaps playing a role in the drama that would take place later in the week.  I particularly like the hymn “All Glory Laud and Honor.”

All glory, laud and honor,
To Thee, Redeemer, King,
To Whom the lips of children
Made sweet hosannas ring.

Thou art the King of Israel,
Thou David’s royal Son,
Who in the Lord’s Name comest,
The King and Blessèd One.
Refrain

The company of angels
Are praising Thee on High,
And mortal men and all things
Created make reply.
Refrain

The people of the Hebrews
With palms before Thee went;
Our prayer and praise and anthems
Before Thee we present.
Refrain

To Thee, before Thy passion,
They sang their hymns of praise;
To Thee, now high exalted,
Our melody we raise.
Refrain

Thou didst accept their praises;
Accept the prayers we bring,
Who in all good delightest,
Thou good and gracious King.

During the Liturgy of the Word one of the following is read, either Isaiah 45:21-25 or Isaiah 52:13-53:12, the second being the Song of the Suffering Servant.  The Psalm is Psalm 22 where the Psalmist foretells Jesus’ anguished cry from the Cross; “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? and are so far from my cry and from the words of my distress?”And then we have the New Testament reading Philippians 2: 5-11, the hymn to Christ is read:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Peter Denies Christ

This year the Passion Narrative is that of Luke (22:39-71) 23:1-49 (50-56).  The three parts that stand out in this narrative for me are Peter’s denial of Jesus:

“Then they seized him and led him away, bringing him into the high priest’s house. But Peter was following at a distance. When they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them. Then a servant-girl, seeing him in the firelight, stared at him and said, “This man also was with him.” But he denied it, saying, “Woman, I do not know him.” A little later someone else, on seeing him, said, “You also are one of them.” But Peter said, “Man, I am not!” Then about an hour later still another kept insisting, “Surely this man also was with him; for he is a Galilean.” But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about!” At that moment, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. The Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.”

Peter’s denial is in large part because he has had his illusions about Jesus shattered and the fact that he had not understood the message up to that point.  As Bonhoeffer says “Jesus is a rejected Messiah. His rejection robs the passion of its halo of glory. It must be a passion without honor. Suffering and rejection sum up the whole cross of Jesus. To die on the cross means to die despised and rejected of men. Suffering and rejection are laid upon Jesus as a divine necessity, and every attempt to prevent it is the work of the devil, especially when it comes from his own disciples; for it is in fact an attempt to prevent Christ from being Christ.”

Likewise Jesus interaction with the condemned thieves that were crucified with him:

“One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

The Crucifixion

The final passage from this narrative that strikes me is the moment of Jesus’ death on the Cross:

“It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent.” And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts. But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.”

The darkness of this is event is perplexing to those who want to find God in some place where he is untouched by human suffering to them the Cross is folly for what kind of God would submit himself to such ignominy but as Martin Luther wrote “He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore, he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly. For they hate the cross and suffering and love works and the glory of works. Thus they call the good of the cross, evil and the evil of a deed, good. God can only be found in suffering and the cross.” It is in the contradiction of this week that we come to know God, not a God who seeks not the righteous or the powerful, those who seek the power of an earthy kingdom backed by an ideology of power which tramples the weak, but rather those who will simply walk in the footsteps of Jesus the Christ who rules by serving the least, the lost and the lonely.

The liturgy of this day takes us to the heart of the Gospel as we led by the writers through the triumph of the entrance into Jerusalem, to the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, the abandonment of him by the disciples and the denial of Peter.  As the writers lead us through his trial, conviction, scourging and trek to Golgotha we see the gamut of human emotions and reactions to Jesus and we know that we can be there as well in any of the characters simply because we are human and capable of compassion or betrayal.  As Jesus is on the Cross it is not the religious or upstanding that remain with him.  He is left with his mother, the other Mary and John the beloved.  He is shown compassion by a thief and recognized as the Son of God by the Roman Centurion, a gentile serving an empire oppressing the people of Israel and whose governor had pronounced the sentence of death upon him.  In this liturgy we have been taken from the heights of exhilaration in the triumphant entry to the depths of despair felt by his disciples that Friday afternoon. It is in this time that we realize how right Dietrich Bonhoeffer is when he writes “God loves human beings. God loves the world. Not an ideal human, but human beings as they are; not an ideal world, but the real world. What we find repulsive in their opposition to God, what we shrink back from with pain and hostility, namely, real human beings, the real world, this is for God the ground of unfathomable love.”

St Longinus, Centurion at the Cross and Martyr

It is the Centurion for which I have the greatest affinity in this story. He is a soldier and in the words of so many soldiers who have obey orders carried out the sentence upon Christ by crucifying him and then as the life ebbs out of Christ’s crucified body exclaims “surely this was a good man” or in other accounts “surely this was the Son of God.” That is the cry of a man who knows that he has executed an unjust sentence, the reaction of a true penitent, the reaction of a man who comes to realize even before many of Jesus’ closest followers understood.  According to tradition the Centurion was named Longinus who left the service of the Imperial Legion, was baptized by the Apostles and was martyred under the orders of Pontius Pilate by soldiers of the unit that he had once commanded.

It is important for the Church not to lose this identification.  The Church is not to become enmeshed and co-opted by those who attempt to use the Gospel to promote ideologies foreign to it as is the temptation in times of crisis.  As Jürgen Moltmann notes:

“In Christianity the cross is the test of everything which deserves to be called Christian… The Christian life of theologians, churches and human beings is faced more than ever today with a double crisis: the crisis of relevance and the crisis of identity. These two crises are complementary. The more theology and the church attempt to become relevant to the problems of the present day, the more deeply they are drawn into the crisis of their own Christian identity….

Christian identity can be understood only as an act of identification with the crucified Christ, to the extent to which one has accepted that in him God has identified himself with the godless and those abandoned by God, to whom one belongs oneself.” The Crucified God [pgs. 7, 19]

Nor is our task is not to attempt to invent “crosses” for ourselves in acts of pseudo-martyrdom but simply to be faithful in loving Jesus and our neighbor as Bonhoeffer noted “Must the Christian go around looking for a cross to bear, seeking to suffer? Opportunities for bearing crosses will occur along life’s way and all that is required is the willingness to act when the time comes. The needs of the neighbor, especially those of the weak and downtrodden, the victimized and the persecuted, the ill and the lonely, will become abundantly evident.” The mark of the Christian is not to blindly give his life for a cause or be consumed by the false “messiah’s” promoted by politicians, pundits and even preachers captivated by the lust for power and glory.

As we walk through the mystery of Holy Week together let us renew our faith in the Crucified One and not be conformed to those things that seek to turn us from the way of discipleship and the way of the Cross.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Alleluia! Memories of Easter…Past and Present

easter-2002-on-hue-cityEaster aboard USS Hue City CG-66 off the Horn of Africa 2002

I find Easter to be an interesting time.  I tend to get reflective and while I do joyfully say “Alleluia! Christ is Risen!” I also tend to be somewhat subdued.  By nature I am reflective person, I like to watch, observe and think.  I am not into big Easter productions and extravaganzas. I prefer much more simple expressions of the Risen Lord.  I think that Jesus would go along with me on this as he spent that first Easter walking with friends, who failed to recognize him, and then breaking bread, he celebrated the first Eucharist after the Resurrection at Emmaus.

For me my most memorable Easters have been connected with my life in the military.  They have almost always been simple affairs, and most involving the liturgy somehow.  I think the first Easter that I remember was at Cubi Point Naval Air Station in the Philippines, it was seeing the Chaplains in their Summer White uniforms that still stands out to me today.  I remember a Easter Sunrise service at Naval Station Long Beach and looking in wonder at two “mothballed” carriers of World War II vintage, the USS Boxer and USS Princeton moored near the site of the service on the waterfront.  When my dad was in Vietnam and we had been made unwelcome in a civilian church, we attended Mass at the Quonset hut that served as the Chapel on the little Naval Communications station.  In my senior year of high school I made a cruise on Navy ships to and from Pearl Harbor Hawaii.  During the week at Pearl I made the trip to the Arizona Memorial on Easter Sunday.  For some reason that experience reverberated as loud as any church service I have ever attended.  When I was a young Army Officer running from God and hiding in the Chapel, the Deity Herself patently used the events of Holy Week to “rend my heart” so to speak.  I left the Good Friday Tenebrea service praying that Easter would come.  Our good Lutheran Chaplain, Lee Rittenbach had driven home the reality of Jesus’ death so well that I really started to understand what the disciples went through.  When Easter came I learned to say “Alleluia! Christ is Risen!”

After that I went through kind of a spiritual desert as far as Easter was concerned.  In seminary I was attending mega-churches which did nothing with Holy week, and made a big evangelical production of Easter, complete with overly loud and insipidly shallow “worship” music and laborious preaching.  I have to say that these big productions were more of an ordeal than a celebration for me.  During seminary we were going through sickness, financial disaster, loss of our home, cars and struggling to survive working multiple jobs while being a full time student.  How we got through seminary I will never understand, other than that the Deity herself provided for us through a lot of wonderful people.  The “happy talk” at church, the prosperity Gospel, focus on signs and wonders seemed to reflect almost a gnostic other worldly view of life that I did not see in the Scriptures.

Academically and from a theological point of view Easter began to rally take shape for me.  Reading the Church Fathers as well reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, Emil Brunner’s The Scandal of Christianity, Alister McGrath’s The Mystery of the Cross, Hans Kung’s On Being a Christian and Jurgen Moltman’s The Crucified God brought me to greater understanding of the connectedness of Easter to the Incarnation and the Passion.  One of my professors, a kindly gentleman named Yandall Woodfin, made a comment in his Philosophy of Religion class:  “We do not do Christian Theology without coming to grips with the reality of suffering and death.”  That comment was at first offensive to me because my mega-church pastors all focused on the Resurrection.  Death to them seemed to be a bother. One pastor said in a sermon how he did not do visits to the sick.  When asked by someone how sick they had to be for him to see them, he stated “You don’t want to be that sick.”

However, what Dr. Woodfin said planted a seed in me.  This went from an academic question, to daily reality during my Clinical Pastoral Education Residency at Parkland hospital.  Doing various Holy Week services there, in the midst of the amazing amount of pain, suffering and death in that gargantuan Medical Center brought into focus and made real what Dr. Woodfin said.  At Parkland there was no avoiding death or suffering, and what Dr. Woodfin said was right.  We don’t begin to do Christian theology until we we deal with suffering and death.  Easter and the Resurrection don’t happen without the Incarnation and Passion of Jesus.  Easter disconnected from the reality of suffering and death is nothing more than a “happy thought” or escape that avoids the the great Mystery of Faith: Christ has died. Christ is Risen. Christ will come again.

After Parkland my understanding of Easter grew as I was immersed in the liturgy, began to observe the liturgical year, and occasionally “clandestinely” attend Anglican churches during Christmas and Easter. During this time Judy became Roman Catholic, something that accelerated what was already going on in me.  During my formation process and following my ordination to first the Deaconate and then the Priesthood, the understanding deepened as I saw how the Gospel in Word and Sacrament. As an Army Reserve chaplain serving on active duty I experienced the life of a parish pastor at a small base in central Pennsylvania.  There I saw how the how the liturgical year and life are so intimately connect.  In life and death, in sorrow and joy, in good times and bad, the Holy Spirit touched people.

Easter became even more part of my life when I became a Navy Chaplain and left the Army in the “rear view mirror.”  Here I began to see how wonderful Easter is when you do not have all the “smells and bells” “praise teams” or great music or facilities.  It goes back to simplicity.  On Easter Sunday 2001, I was on the USS Frederick, LST 1184 with my Marines going from Korea back to Okinawa.  It was on Frederick 23 years before that I had first felt the call to be a Navy Chaplain during the trip to Pearl Harbor.  In 2002 I was deployed on USS Hue City CG-66 at the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom. Off the Horn of Africa we had both sunrise services as well as a morning Eucharist on our flight deck. While with the Marine Security Forces I spent an Easter celebrating Eucharist on the fence-line adjoining Communist Cuba.  I now have come back to critical care hospital ministry in my ICUs.  Here we live Good Friday every day.  For me Easter is not just a nice thing to observe, but a necessity in life.

This morning I attended the early Mass with Judy at Ascension Catholic Church.  I love the church, though it is a bit big and busy for me now after Iraq.  So I found me a corner near the choir where I could sit with my back against the wall, an emergency exit to my left, and where I could observe what was going on.  Yes I was having a PTSD moment, but I got through it with the help of the Deity herself and a little ant-anxiety medication.  But the really cool thing was seeing a man who was one of our patients on the ICU a couple of months back.  A man who almost died on us several times, and his wife.  We had grown close during that 2 1/2 weeks and he made it through.  He looked great this morning.  We all hugged and talked of how good God is before Mass, exchanged the Peace and then spent some time together after Mass. That was really cool.  What a way to celebrate Easter.

Life and death, pain and suffering, healing and resurrection.  Alleluia, Christ is Risen. The Lord is Risen indeed. Alleluia!

Peace, Steve+

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