Tag Archives: theology of the cross

Faith and Politics

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The American patriot Samuel Adams once remarked: “If ever a time should come, when vain and aspiring men shall possess the highest seats in Government, our country will stand in need of its experienced patriots to prevent its ruin.”

My friends, that time has arrived. As I wrote a few days ago, Patriotism is distinctly different than nationalism and the President, the Vice President, and many of their most strident followers, especially so-called “conservative Christians” are not patriots but nationalists who in their stridency would co-opt God into their battle with their political opponents. The German Catholic theologian of the Second Vatican Council, and student of Martin Luther, Hans Kung wrote words that are quite applicable today: “Religion often is misused for purely power-political goals, including war.”

Really, what else could motivate Trump’s followers on the Christian Right to not only defend him but in doing so toss their belief in the Crucified God to the curb for the crass cause of gaining political power?

Somehow the old motto of the Wehrmacht and the Imperial German Army before seems to suit them Gott mit Uns or God is with us. Sadly, while a Christian who believes in the incarnation of Christ as a man, born of a woman may take comfort in the belief that God shares our humanity, the concept of Gott mit Uns is the understanding of nationalism and imperialism bent on the domination of other people and other countries is foreign to the ministry of Jesus and the early leaders of the church. Sadly, in our day, the Imperial Church has found a new savior, President Donald Trump and unless one is taking a knee for the National Anthem, one better be ready to bow their knee to this President or face the wrath of both the State and God, at least say the self-anointed prophets and priests like Robert Jeffress, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell Jr., and Franklin Graham, who demand that people, even non-Christians follow their lead and obey the President.

Despite the best attempts of the Imperial Church beginning with the Emperor Constantine who cemented the alliance of the Church and Empire to secure his kingdom, and for that matter every empire that followed, has been resisted by people of conscience. The fact is that this Imperial Church concept is not only foreign to the Gospel but also to the founders of our country who resisted every attempt to to impose a state sponsored religion on the people. But neither do the most strident supporters of the President on the Christian seem to think that is important. Likewise these “disciples” neither think of the future of generations to come and their responsibility for perpetuating the Christian faith. Instead they sell their birthright for an illusion of political power that will fade as quickly as the grass in winter.

Future Christians as well as non-Christians who care about this world will look at them and wonder how they could support a man so opposed in almost every conceivable way to the faith of Jesus the Christ. The same Jesus who became incarnate, was born of a woman, who hung out and ministered to the very people who the current “faithful” despise. This is the Jesus who suffered under the scourging of Roman soldiers, was abandoned by his own people, died on a cross as a criminal, and was buried in a borrowed tomb. According to scripture he rose again from the dead bearing all the marks of his humanity, including his scars.

This is what Martin Luther called “the theology of the Cross” and one cannot understand the Christian faith, and I do say faith, without at least trying to comprehend, for it flies in the face of those who desire an earthly kingdom where alleged Christians dominate the government in the perpetually vain attempt to establish the kingdom of Christ on the earth. The best modern exponent of the theology of the Cross, German Lutheran theologian Juergen Moltmann wrote:

“When God becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth, he not only enters into the finitude of man, but in his death on the cross also enters into the situation of man’s godforsakenness. In Jesus he does not die the natural death of a finite being, but the violent death of the criminal on the cross, the death of complete abandonment by God. The suffering in the passion of Jesus is abandonment, rejection by God, his Father. God does not become a religion, so that man participates in him by corresponding religious thoughts and feelings. God does not become a law, so that man participates in him through obedience to a law. God does not become an ideal, so that man achieves community with him through constant striving. He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him.”

Why do I say this today? Well actually I began this article a couple of days ago with a different concept in mind, but I basically had writers block. But meditating on it as I walked today I was reminded of just why I stand so strongly against what the President has been doing and how the allegedly Christian Right has sold its soul to him. I cannot look at scripture, profess my belief in Jesus and reconcile that belief with a sham Gospel that despises the poor and values earthly power and prosperity.

Sadly today I had a Facebook follower, a man who I do not know, but who is a Byzantine Catholic Priest tell me that he would no longer follow me because of my “constant anti-Trump rants.” That didn’t bother me at all. I don’t know the man and everything I see that he posts, including his pictures shows me that his faith is more concerned with power, both ecclesiastical and political than the theology of the Cross.

So when you read my criticisms of the President, please know that much of my political beliefs are formed by my faith, a faith that I struggle with on a daily basis since my deployment to Iraq in 2007-2008. For me this is important, because though I believe I still doubt. But there is something that I don’t doubt and that are the words of the Declaration of Independence, the preamble to the Constitution of the United States, and the First Amendment and that means that I cannot abide a President who flaunts all of these things and supposed Christians who sell their souls to defend him. I just can’t go there. I heartily agree with John Leland, the Virginia Baptist pastor who fought to ensure religious liberty for all when his fellow Virginian Anglicans tried to establish a state church after the colonies has secured their independence from England. Leland worked with James Madison to craft the Bill of Rights, especially the First Amendment which both President Trump and his Christian supporters seem to want to destroy.

We are in a terrible time of testing. The German pastor, theologian, and martyr during the Nazi Era, Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” 

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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I Want to Believe this Easter

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“Religion carries two sorts of people in two entirely opposite directions: the mild and gentle people it carries towards mercy and justice; the persecuting people it carries into fiendish sadistic cruelty…” Alfred North Whitehead 

Sometimes Holy Week can be a downer and I can understand why people who doubt, or who have been abused by Christians, either in the church or as outsiders find this to be so. I am a Christian, a priest, a Navy Chaplain. By all estimates I should be on the “inside” so to speak, but in the current religious and political climate I am an outsider. My crime to the “true believers” is that I question their certitude, and I reject the hateful ideas of an American Christian theocracy preached by the politicians, pundits and preachers of the Christian Right.

As for me, this year, Holy Week has been a bit of a downer. I believe, but I don’t. For a while I wondered if it was my post-Iraq agnosticism returning, but after spending some time meditating and thinking on it I realized that was not the case. I do still believe, or at least I want to, but my doubt and unbelief now mainly comes from of my experience with Christians, not so much God.

Truthfully I wonder. I wonder if God is the God whose Son reconciled the world to himself, how those that claim to be his most devout followers seem more intent preaching a message of alienation and rejection rather than reconciliation. I wonder how people who claim to be the disciples of the Prince of Peace seem far more intent on conducting a jihad like culture war than the message of peace and reconciliation. I wonder how such people who claim to be God’s elect and anointed can so maltreat the very people who Jesus would have gone out of his way to care for, and in fact died and rose again in order to save. But I am not alone in this.

Rachel Held Evans wrote in a CNN religion blog yesterday:

“This is the tragic irony of the culture wars: The casualties tend to be the very people Jesus went out of his way to serve: the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the outcasts, the people ostracized and deemed “sinners” by the religious elite. And when the world sees Christians hurting rather than helping such people in the name of political gain, our testimony is profoundly diminished.” 

I fully understand what she is saying. Personally I am tired of the abuse of people who in the name of their culture warrior political Christian elite must resort to the most loathsome methods to demonize people who do not agree with them, including me. Sadly, in addition to people who don’t know me from Adam who do this I have experienced it from so called “Christian” friends. If it wan’t for people, including conservative Christians who have stood by me through thick and thin, even when they disagree with me, I probably would just chuck Christianity and the church.

But I cannot do that if I believe in the message of Jesus. I cannot do that if I actually even somewhat believe message of Jesus. A message that reaches out even to the same people who seem to loath me and others like me with a hate stronger than life itself.

When when a person like me struggles to believe in the first place, and at the same time is rejected by those who loudly proclaim to be the disciples of Jesus it does get old. Way too old.

Since it is Holy Week and I am struggling I have decided to not get involved with any discussions this week with the supposed followers of Jesus on any social media that denigrate those who Jesus died to save. If I am to preserve any sort of faith I have to do this.

Sadly, that can and does include things not even connected with the actual Christian faith, mostly the politics of the supposedly “Christian Right.”  A couple of days ago I dared to state the truth that a certain Republican Presidential candidate espoused the same theocratic views as his Christian Dominionist preacher father. That got me attacked by a number of so called Christians including one whose Facebook avatar picture was a soldier wearing a death’s head mask with a pistol pointed directly at me. That man called me a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” I told that man that I had a feeling that I knew what he would do if he actually met me. I picture is worth a thousand words, especially when it comes to revealing attitudes of the heart.

Personally, between the rejection and abuse I have experienced from Christians that I thought were friends, as well as those who are no better than hateful trolls on social media I am pretty much done with all things remotely considered Christian by most Americans today. I find it no wonder that people are fleeing the church, and have no doubts as to why why every poll and trend shows that people increasingly want nothing to do with the those that call themselves Christian or the church.

But I stay, and the the only reason I remain now I think is that I believe in the Jesus of Good Friday, the Jesus who is rejected by all the theologians of glory and Christian Dominionists, the crucified God. I believe in the Jesus whose death was considered a scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks. If I am to believe this is the Jesus that I have to believe in, not the God of the “theologians of glory” or the Dominionists who seek to establish their kingdom on earth with a thin veneer of faith. It as as Jurgen Moltmann wrote:

“The God of freedom, the true God, is… not recognized by his power and glory in the history of the world, but through his helplessness and his death on the scandal of the cross of Jesus”

Theologian Paul Tillich, who served as a U.S. Army Chaplain wrote “Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.”  

In light of my belief in the scandal of the Cross, something that certainly is offensive to those that seek the power and glory of God even if it means trampling those that Jesus most identified, is a mission that I can subscribe.  Most of the people I deal with are those marginalized and rejected by the Christian pharisees, or what I call the “Christian Taliban.”  Personally I am tired of being associated with people who treat the poor, the alien, the different, the sinful and the afflicted as less than human, or less than worthy of God’s love and grace.  I am tired of being associated with people who claim to be pro-life so long as it only applies to life in the womb, who have no problem blessing war without end and the merciless killing of innocents abroad. I am tired of people who scream “let them die” at Presidential debates referring of course to the the poor and uninsured being the voice of Christianity in this county. People who have so discredited themselves and the faith as to make no one want to have anything to do with Jesus.

In the movie Joyeux Noel a priest and chaplain serving with a Scottish regiment during the Christmas truce of 1914 tells the Bishop who is sending him home: “I belong with those who are in pain, and who have lost their faith, I belong here.” Of course the bishop is a man who heartily subscribes to a war without mercy, just as so  many who call themselves Christians do today. When the priest questioned the bishop about being relieved of his duties, the bishop, in a manner similar to what I have experienced tells the priest: “You’re not asking the right question. Think on this: are you really suitable to remain with us in the house of Our Lord?”

I have experienced such comments too much. So regardless of the cost, even the cost to myself I will chose to believe and serve the Crucified God, the God who is not the God of the theocrats of the “Christian” right, but the Crucified God who stands against them. The God who in humility and weakness  proclaimed that his kingdom was not of this world and who stands against those who fraudulent attempt to establish their kingdoms in his name. People that often do so upon the bodies of those that they kill, and the lives of those that they despise. If this means that I am not suitable to “remain in the house of the Lord” than I would rather be an outcast on my own Golgotha this Holy Week than in that house.

Frankly, I don’t know what this Holy Week will bring for me. I am struggling. I want to believe, but sometimes I get so discouraged as one of those wounded by such people that I need to create some safe space if I am to find some solace.

I am opposed to the conservative Christian “Culture Wars” that so many of my friends and others have, and sadly still embrace. I see the “”Culture Wars” as antithetical to the Gospel. I see them as vain attempts to establish a state religion, an American Theocracy that would crush and destroy any that dare oppose it.

That being said I want to remain open to any who seek God. Henri Nouwen wrote:

“Ministry means the ongoing attempt to put one’s own search for God, with all the moments of pain and joy, despair and hope, at the disposal of those who want to join this search but do not know how.”

My journey this Holy Week is one of hope. I do want to believe. Jurgen Moltmann wrote:

“Totally without hope one cannot live. To live without hope is to cease to live. Hell is hopelessness. It is no accident that above the entrance to Dante’s hell is the inscription: “Leave behind all hope, you who enter here.”

That is my journey this week, a journey from my own Golgotha to the Easter Alleluia. To do so I cannot give up hope. I probably won’t do very well at it,this week or any other, but that is my journey.

I don’t know if that makes any sense, but somehow, it does make sense to me.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

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The Excommunication of Martin Luther and the Journey of Padre Steve

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Leo X’s Papal Bull Exsurge Domine

“We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it, the process is not yet finished, but it is going on…” Martin Luther

On the 3rd of January 1521 Pope Leo X issued his Papal Bull of Excommunication Decet Romanum Pontificem against Martin Luther. The excommunication followed Luther’s publication of his three masterful works published in 1520 To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church and On the Freedom of a Christian.

The excommunication was the second act of a three part drama. The first part began with Luther’s publication of the 95 Theses on October 31st 1517. That launched a series of actions by the Papacy in which various representatives were sent to bring Luther back into line. Failing this the last of the inquisitors, Johann Eck became Luther’s and other Reformer’s constant nemesis for the next 25 years.

In the summer of 1520 Eck brought back to Germany Leo X’s Papal Bull Exsurge Domine which attacked and condemned Luther’s writings, a prequel to the formal excommunication. Eck was not well received and Luther’s movement began to gain more traction especially among much of the nobility and among other theologians.

The message of the Bull was clear, Luther, his works and those who supported him or published his works were condemned. In part it read:

“…we likewise condemn, reprobate, and reject completely the books and all the writings and sermons of the said Martin, whether in Latin or any other language, containing the said errors or any one of them; and we wish them to be regarded as utterly condemned, reprobated, and rejected. We forbid each and every one of the faithful of either sex, in virtue of holy obedience and under the above penalties to be incurred automatically, to read, assert, preach, praise, print, publish, or defend them. … Indeed immediately after the publication of this letter these works, wherever they may be, shall be sought out carefully by the ordinaries and others [ecclesiastics and regulars], and under each and every one of the above penalties shall be burned publicly and solemnly in the presence of the clerics and people.” 

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Luther burning the Bull

Luther who received a copy in October of 1520 reacted in kind noting: “Since they have burned my books, I burn theirs. The canon law was included because it makes the pope a god on earth. So far I have merely fooled with this business of the pope.”

Neither the Bull dealt with the substance of Luther’s teachings, instead they were both heavy handed missives of Papal primacy and punishment on those that disobeyed. The Bull of excommunication read in part:

Nevertheless Martin himself—and it gives us grievous sorrow and perplexity to say this—the slave of a depraved mind, has scorned to revoke his errors within the prescribed interval and to send us word of such revocation, or to come to us himself; nay, like a stone of stumbling, he has feared not to write and preach worse things than before against us and this Holy See and the Catholic faith, and to lead others on to do the same.

He has now been declared a heretic; and so also others, whatever their authority and rank, who have cared nought of their own salvation but publicly and in all men’s eyes become followers of Martin’s pernicious and heretical sect, and given him openly and publicly their help, counsel and favour, encouraging him in their midst in his disobedience and obstinacy, or hindering the publication of our said missive: such men have incurred the punishments set out in that missive, and are to be treated rightfully as heretics and avoided by all faithful Christians, as the Apostle says (Titus iii. 10-11).

III. Our purpose is that such men should rightfully be ranked with Martin and other accursed heretics and excommunicates, and that even as they have ranged themselves with the obstinacy in sinning of the said Martin, they shall likewise share his punishments and his name, by bearing with them everywhere the title “Lutheran” and the punishments it incurs.

Our previous instructions were so clear and so effectively publicised and we shall adhere so strictly to our present decrees and declarations, that they will lack no proof, warning or citation.

Our decrees which follow are passed against Martin and others who follow him in the obstinacy of his depraved and damnable purpose, as also against those who defend and protect him with a military bodyguard, and do not fear to support him with their own resources or in any other way, and have and do presume to offer and afford help, counsel and favour toward him. All their names, surnames and rank—however lofty and dazzling their dignity may be—we wish to be taken as included in these decrees with the same effect as if they were individually listed and could be so listed in their publication, which must be furthered with an energy to match their contents.

On all these we decree the sentences of excommunication, of anathema, of our perpetual condemnation and interdict; of privation of dignities, honours and property on them and their descendants, and of declared unfitness for such possessions; of the confiscation of their goods and of the crime of treason; and these and the other sentences, censures and punishments which are inflicted by canon law on heretics and are set out in our aforesaid missive, we decree to have fallen on all these men to their damnation.”

It was an extraordinary and misguided document which failed to understand the significance of what was happening in the Church and in Europe. It was a document that echoes what every authoritarian structure does when challenged, it ignored the causes, it ignored the issues and simply condemned those involved. Instead of dialogue it chose retribution and destroyed the unity of the Western Church. Phillip Schaff, one of the great Church historians wrote about the Bull: “The bull of excommunication is the papal counter-manifesto to Luther’s Theses, and condemns in him the whole cause of the Protestant Reformation. Therein lies its historical significance. It was the last bull addressed to Latin Christendom as an undivided whole, and the first which was disobeyed by a large part of it.”

After his excommunication Luther appealed to Emperor Charles V who initially rejected it outright but reconsidered in light of the danger that the Empire faced if German states revolted. Charles invited Luther to the Diet promising him safe passage. The fact that Luther was able to appear at the council safely was in large part because of Elector Friedrich the Wise, his protector insisting that Luther not be imprisoned or outlawed without a hearing. Along the way Luther was greeted as a hero by townspeople, it was something like a victory parade.

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When the hearings began the Archbishop of Trier asked Luther if he would recant his writings. Luther asked for time to consider and at 4 PM the following day was called back to the Diet, where before the Emperor and the Princes of Germany he stood alone.

The Archbishop demanded: “Explain yourself now. Will you defend all your writings, or disavow some of them?” 

Luther provided a rather long answer regarding his writings, categorizing them and explaining them. Eventually the exasperated Archbishop asked: “Martin–answer candidly and without horns–do you or do you not repudiate your books and the errors which they contain?”

Luther then gave the answer in German rather than Latin, which has reverberated nearly half a millennium:

“Since then your sere Majesty and your Lordships seek a simple answer, I will give it in this manner, neither horned nor toothed. Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.”

Friedrich the Wise spirited Luther away in a staged “kidnapping” to the Wartburg Castle, allowing him to evade those that sought his life and to stabilize the Reformation in Germany.

I have always felt a closeness to Luther. He is one of my heroes. I recognize that he was neither perfect, nor do I agree with everything that he wrote or some of the things that he did. That being said, this very imperfect and often impetuous Monk, Priest and Professor is close to me. His “Theology of the Cross” makes more sense than others I have read, and his defense of the Eucharist was instrumental in my faith journey.

Luther, despite many in the Catholic Church who fight for him has not been “rehabilitated” nor the bans of excommunication removed. He has been called by some a “reluctant revolutionary.” I hope that Pope Francis will lift the excommunication despite the Roman tradition of not lifting such bans on those who have passed away.

Luther, like me was somewhat blunt, earthy and liked beer. In fact after Worms he wrote:

“I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing.  And then, while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my Philip [Melanchthon] and my Amsdorf [Nicholaus von], the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a prince or emperor did such damage to it.  I did nothing.  The Word did it all.” 

In seminary Luther, his writings and theology were instrumental in coming to a catholic understanding of the the Christian faith. Now that understanding was much more interpreted in light of the Second Vatican Council and more progressive theologians such as Hans Kung, Bernard Haring and Yves Congar, but it was still catholic and a clean break from my Evangelical Protestant background and education.

Likewise, when I was ordained as a Priest in a more conservative Anglo-Catholic denomination in the mid 1990s I never dreamed that I would face a time where my writings would mark me as a “heretic” in the eyes of some in that church. Nor did I think that I would be told that I was “too liberal” and needed to leave that church. Before that I had been censured and forbidden from writing because I was “too Catholic” by another bishop. Like Luther I assumed that what I wrote and said were readily apparent. Since I have written extensively about that situation and don’t feel the need to go into detail here.

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In 1996 I led a series of tours of Luther’s reformation sites in Germany, including Wittenberg, Heidelberg and Worms. I posed for pictures outside the door of the Castle Church as well as at the site where Luther gave his “Here I stand” speech. I was so familiar with the locations in Wittenberg that I was asked if I had ever been to them before. I could only say that I had never been there in person, but had been there many times in my mind. When at each location I felt a tremendous closeness to a man who had influenced so much of my spiritual journey.

As Luther wrote:

“This life therefore is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness, not health, but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it, the process is not yet finished, but it is going on, this is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.” 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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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:

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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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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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