Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Some Thoughts on the Love of God

About a year ago, I started a subscription to The New Oxford Review. For those who are not familiar with it, the NOR is a monthly magazine created by Anglo-Catholics who later crossed the Tiber and became Romans. The journal has a tongue-in-cheek approach to some of the messes of modern-day Christianity and its writing often crosses the line into being venomous attacks against those with whom it disagrees. In the February issue was an article by Carmelo Fallace that stopped me in my tracks. It was called, “Is God’s Love Unconditional?”

I’ve never really given much thought to that question, presuming always that the answer was, “Of course God loves all people without condition.” Wasn’t this the conclusion of the saints and theologians over the centuries? No, says Fallace, the Bible is quite clear that not only is God’s love conditional, but that those who do not follow God’s law actually earn His displeasure. I had to go back and re-read the thesis to make sure that I had seen it correctly. But there it was, Fallace was asserting that God’s love was something that definitely had conditions attached to it.

He then outlined passage after passage in both the Old and New Testaments in support of the argument. The author highlights example after example of things that God does not love: wickedness, the worship of false gods, the offering of children as sacrifices, lovers of violence, and so on. Fallace’s point is that were God’s love unconditional to those who commit these and other sinful acts, then this would place God in direct contradiction with His justice, which is also an attribute of God, and God cannot have any intrinsic contradiction in His nature. Further, all the covenants of the Bible are conditional, stating what God will do for His people if they adhere to the covenant.

Then I began thinking about some other sources that touched on this theme. The first one was our Lord’s words of institution of the Holy Eucharist. When he took the cup, Jesus said, “This is the cup of my blood of the new and everlasting covenant which shall be shed for you and for many.” Note carefully that the institution narratives do not say, “It will be shed for you and for all.” The New Testament is quite clear that Christ’s blood is shed for those who accept His sacrifice for their sins and not for all people indiscriminately. St. Paul elaborates the point further when he cautions believers not to receive the Body and Blood of Christ unworthily because to do so is to consume it to their own damnation.

Even modern Scripture scholars have wrestled with the conditional nature of God’s love. Ernst Kaesemann, a German exegete, described the relationship of the person to God in his Commentary on Romans. According to Kaesemann, everybody exists in relationship to God whether they are aware of it or not. Those who believe in Christ and have accepted His offer of salvation live under the “righteousness” of God, while those who do not or have not accepted the offer live under God’s “wrath.” In Kaesemann’s exegesis, righteousness and wrath are two sides of the same coin. To put it crassly, the side of the coin that you see determines where you stand.

Perhaps another example might clarify the point: medieval theologians often defined the love of God as being a “all-consuming fire.” Even the angels who existed closest to God were called the Seraphim, which means “the burning ones.” They were called this because they dwelt so close to the throne of Almighty God that they were literally “on fire” from His love. Hellfire, to these theologians, was the fire of the love of God, only in this case it scorched and tormented those who rejected Him, those who were out of relationship with Him.

I recognize that this is a pretty grizzly concept and it is one that is not likely to earn Christians points in this world of tolerance, or religious “I’m OK, You’re OK” thinking. However, as we celebrate Holy Week this month, as we remember that moment in history when Jesus Christ suffered, died, and rose again for us, maybe it’s good to reflect on the fact that God’s love is conditional and that it is conditioned on our acceptance of it. Maybe with this realization, we can approach the mysteries of Holy Week with a new vision, a vision of gratitude for the glorious gifts of God. Maybe we can recommit ourselves to living according to God’s law, to placing ourselves in right relationship with Him.

Fallace concludes the article by reminding us of the words of Pope Benedict XVI. In addressing consecrated religious in the Roman Catholic Church, Benedict “has indicated the proper use of the word ‘unconditional:’ Unconditional love is the relationship we must have toward God -- not God toward us. Furthermore, because He is the Creator and we are the created, we are His servants and He is our Master -- and He owes us nothing.” But for those who accept new life in Christ Jesus, the God who owes us nothing gives us everything.

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Third Sunday in Lent

The Holy Gospel is written in the 11th Chapter of St. Luke, beginning at the 14th Verse.
Jesus was casting out a devil, and it was dumb. And it came to pass, when the devil was gone out, the dumb spake; and the people wondered. But some of them said, He casteth out devils through Beelzebub the chief of the devils. And others, tempting him, sought of him a sign from heaven. But he, knowing their thoughts, said unto them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desola-tion; and a house divided against a house falleth. If Satan also be divided against himself, how shall his kingdom stand? because ye say that I cast out devils through Beel-zebub. And if I by Beelzebub cast out devils, by whom do your sons cast them out? therefore shall they be your judges. But if I with the finger of God cast out devils, no doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you. When a strong man armed keepeth his palace, his goods are in peace: but when a stronger than he shall come upon him, and overcome him, he taketh from him all his armour wherein he trusted, and divideth his spoils. He that is not with me is against me: and he that gathereth not with me scattereth. When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest; and finding none, he saith, I will return unto my house whence I came out. And when he cometh, he findeth it swept and garnished. Then goeth he, and taketh to him seven other spirits more wicked than himself; and they enter in, and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first. And it came to pass, as he spake these things, a certain woman of the company lifted up her voice, and said unto him, Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and the paps which thou hast sucked. But he said, Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it.


The Third Sunday in Lent finds us almost at the midway point in the preparation for Easter. Most of us have given things up for the season and some of us have taken on new spiritual disciplines. But for all of us, the awareness grows that we are moving toward a significant time, the time in which we recall our Lord’s Passion and Resurrection from the dead. During Lent, there is a tendency to think in terms of the negative, in terms of what we give up, what penance we are willing to endure in order to cleanse our souls. But our Gospel today stands in stark contrast to this negative approach to this season and offers us a model for where our sacrifices and penances should lead us.

Our Gospel selection begins with Jesus’ expulsion of a dumb demon from a man. The Pharisees’ criticize Jesus and say that his ability to expel demons actually occurs because he is in cahoots with the Beelzebub, the prince of demons. Jesus responds with the famous statement that the house divided against itself cannot stand, and that if he were to cast out demons by Beelzebub, then Satan is divided against himself. Then, Jesus turns to the real meat of our passage.

In referring to those who are possessed by demons, he says, “When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, that spirit walketh through dry places, seeking rest; and finding none, he saith, I will return unto the house whence I came out. And when he cometh, he findeth it swept and garnished. Then goeth he, and taketh to him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first.” In this powerful passage, the Church helps us keep our Lenten focus with three very simple cautions concerning our penances.

First, it is important for us to remember that a man’s soul can never be left empty. In our passage, we see that when the demon is thrown out, that the man’s house is swept and clean, but empty. Nothing has replaced the evil that dwelt there. And that is a lesson for us: It is not enough for us to cleanse ourselves of our sins, vices and bad habits. Just ask any recovering alcoholic. Is it enough just to quit drinking? If you don’t replace the drinking behavior with a strong spiritual life and all that comes with it, then your sobriety will probably be fleeting and you may well find yourself in a worse pickle than where you were at the beginning. It is not enough simply to cleanse ourselves from our bad habits, sins, and vices. That is important. But if all we do is rid ourselves of our sinful behavior, then we have an empty spiritual house and we are vulnerable to anyone or anything that decides to take up residence there. The soul of a man or woman which has been cleansed from sin can only be left empty at great risk.

But, with what do we fill our souls? What can we know about religion and our religious disciplines, especially during the season of Lent? Well, and this is our second point, the religion with which we fill our soul cannot be based on negatives. Oh, wait. That’s a negative, too, isn’t it? Well, let’s put it another way. True religion must be geared more toward helping people grow in Christ, rather than simply bludgeoning them with their faults and foibles. A preaching teacher once said that the easiest sermon to preach is the one that tells people about how easy it is to go to Hell. The more difficult task is to tell believers what they can do to get to Heaven. While Jesus does spend time in the Gospels taking people to task, he always balances that with instruction and guidance toward the hope of salvation. He does this because this message of hope, this positive development is not only more useful to men and women, but it is something that you and I both need to hear and long to hear. Yes, our empty houses can only truly be filled with a religion that tells us not only what not to do, but – more importantly – what we are to do.

And what is it that we are to do? This is our third point: We must believe that Jesus Christ suffered, died, and rose again for our sins. He did this so that we can live forever in the presence of the blessed Trinity. Now think about that for a moment. Left to our own devices, we are separated from God by sin, both the sins of our first parents, Adam and Eve, and also by our own “sins, wickedness, and neglect.” Because of this, we can never hope on our own to ever see the face of almighty God! But, thanks be to God, Jesus Christ has taken our sins upon himself and died on the cross so that we can be free. Well, if we truly believe that, if deep down in our souls we understand this priceless gift that Jesus has won for us, then we must respond by doing good works. You see, in some ways the Reformers of the 1500s were right. Our good works, our ministry to others, our prayers, our support of our church, these things do not save us of themselves. Rather, our lives are touched by Jesus Christ and radically changed by Him. It is this action of Christ, which leads us to good works that remind us that there is more to life than just what we see in this world. The good deeds that we do further stand as a witness to others that our lives are different, that we have been touched and changed by a loving God, even though we still fall short, we still sin.

And here is our message, here is our lesson as we approach the mid-point of Lent. As our fasting and penances gets harder we recall that we are doing these deeds to remind ourselves that there is more to this life than a clean and empty soul. Our fasting and penance reminds us that there is a life beyond this world. That this life is so special, so beautiful, that we can even put on penitential purple and give up the legitimate cares and pleasures of this life to bear witness to the life to come. As our Lenten observance continues, let us continue to bear witness in our fasting to the Lord who has set us free from the bondage of sin, who has set us free to be His own forever.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Ecumenical Dialogue for Lent?

Check out this series from "what does the prayer really say." It's a billboard dialogue between three churches discussing Ash Wednesday.

Here's the link: