Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Believing in Jesus

I preached a homily at St Theresa's and St Mark's Community of the Deaf on the meaning of John 3:16 this past Lord's Day.  Many asked for copies of the homily so I am posting it here.
     I know that some Protestants have ‘hijacked’ John 3:16.  Remember that man who used to always hold up a sign with “John 3:16” on it and showed up at major televised sports events wearing a rainbow coloured clown wig?  He would stand in front of every camera shot at baseball games and golf tournaments, making weird faces and push his message.  His name is Rollen Stewart and we can thank him for our ambivalence towards John 3:16 especially because he’s in prison for taking a hotel housekeeper hostage in Los Angeles, threatening to shoot airplanes taking off and landing at LAX while taping Bible passages to his window.  He’s now serving three life sentences in California, but the damage was done.  John 3:16 has become, unfortunately, that ubiquitous but least favourite verse that everybody knows.  Today, I want to fix that.
     “For God so loved the world that he gave his Only-Begotten Son…”  What did Jesus mean when He said that God “gave” Him?  We say in the Stewardship Prayer, “the great gift of Jesus your Son.”  How did God “give” Jesus to us?
     God “gave” Jesus to us in three principal ways:  at Creation, at the Incarnation, and at the Cross.
     God gave us his Son in Creation by way of anticipation.  Hence “For God so loved the world…”  God created the universe, and us, as a ‘meeting place’ between himself and us.  The Church teaches that God created us in order that we may “to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him for ever in heaven.”  Creation took place in anticipation for the human race’s encounter with the God-Man, Jesus Christ.
     With creation in place, and thus a ‘meeting-place’ between creatures and the Creator, God sent his Son as one of us, as a human being.  This we call the Incarnation, as we read in John 1:14, “and the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.”  As Catholics we believe that the Incarnation was the first Christmas gift, when God gave  to us his Only-Begotten Son by uniting the Eternal Word with our human nature in the womb of the Virgin Mary, so that God the Son would speak to us in a human language, share our human experience, and even endure our human end, death.
     Finally, God gave us his Son even to the point of surrender at the Cross.  Why?  Jesus did for us what none of us could do for ourselves—Jesus gave His life perfectly, completely, and obediently to the Father, thereby ‘proving’ that He is a Son.  By our own sinfulness, on the other hand, we have irreparably withdrawn ourselves from God; our nature became so deformed that we were thus henceforth incapable of repairing our broken relationship with God.  God gave us, or rather gave up his Son to do for us what we were unable to do for ourselves:  making satisfaction and reparation for humanity’s offence against God, thereby meriting for us mercy, grace, and pardon.
     I cannot stress that last point enough.  The Church has gone so far as to excommunicate those Catholics who believe that you can be your own saviour.  “I’m going to heaven because I’m a good person.”  Wrong!  “I’m going to heaven because I’ve earned it.”  Wrong!
     So how, then, can we be qualified that we “may not perish but may have eternal life”?
     Jesus makes it clear, although the English Bible obfuscates it just a bit:  “so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  What does it mean ‘to believe’ or ‘to have faith’—which in Greek is the same word?  It means, on one hand, to be devoted to Jesus; it also means to intellectually assent to the Truth that is Jesus.  The tense of the verb “believes” used by the gospel writer is in the present active tense, which means we believe and continue to believe and never relent in believing.  Hence St Paul writes in his Letter to the Romans, “from faith to faith.”
     There’s more.  At the beginning of John’s gospel, it says “But to all who received Him, to believed in His Name, He gave power to become children of God.”  But to adhere to Jesus already implies a package deal:  Jesus the Son points to the Father by His obedience; Jesus is the Christ points to the Holy Spirit who anointed Him.  So by adhering to Jesus, we automatically adhere to the Trinity.  This is why one of our lesser-known creeds, the Athanasian Creed says, “Whoever wishes to be saved must, above all keep the Catholic Faith.  For unless a person keeps this faith whole and entire, he will undoubtedly be lost for ever.  This is what the Catholic Faith teaches:  We worship one God in the Trinity, and the Trinity in unity…”  Remember what ‘Catholic’ means?—‘according to the whole.’  To follow Jesus is to take the package deal—everything Jesus teaches us, and just by believing in Jesus Christ the Son of God, we believe in the whole Godhead, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in Trinity.  To not believe, as Jesus unambiguously said, is to be “condemned already.”  Vladimir Lossky, a Russian Orthodox theologian, put it this way:  “Between the Trinity and hell, there lies no other choice.”
     God has given his Son to us, and therefore the whole Trinity, in Creation, in the Incarnation, and in the Cross.  God has given God’s self to us entirely.  This self-gift of God we call grace.  In Greek, the word for ‘grace’ is charis.  But charis, grace is freely given to us.  Free, why?  Because we can’t afford it.  So what is left for us to do?  We receive Him, by faith, that is to say, with adherence of mind and heart to Jesus.  And we cannot repay this costly, priceless, invaluable grace except in thanksgiving.  It’s interesting to note that the Greek word for ‘thanksgiving’ is eucharistein, where we get our word for ‘Eucharist.’  But look what’s hidden in the word eucharistein:  the word charis is hidden in the middle of it, because the only ‘repayment’ we can give for grace, if anything, is thanksgiving.
     Notice how Eucharist mirrors the gift of Jesus.  From Creation we harvest the wheat and the grapes to make bread and wine; this bread and wine, like the Incarnation, changes into the Body and Blood of Christ here at the Table.  And this table is where we celebrate the memorial of the Cross.  We’ve come full circle.
     We renew our faith here at this Table.  Listen to this prayer used in the Byzantine Liturgy just before the Communion:  “I believe, Lord, and profess that You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God, come to this world to save sinners, of whom I am the greatest.  I believe also that this is really Your spotless Body and that this is really Your precious Blood.  Wherefore, I pray to You: have mercy on me and pardon my offenses, the deliberate and the indeliberate, those committed in word and in deed, whether knowingly or inadvertently, and count me worthy to share without condemnation Your spotless Mysteries, for the remission of sins and for eternal life.  Amen.”

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Top Ten Evidence That Jesus Was Raised

What follows is the homily I preached this past Lord's Day, the III Sunday of Paschaltide, at Corpus Christi and St Theresa's Parishes.
     "My brothers, one can confidently say to you about the Patriarch David that he died and was buried, and his tomb is in our midst to this day."  This is St Peter speaking here, and he is making a comparison to the burial of Jesus.  "God raised Jesus; of this we are all witnesses!"
     Really, now?  I’ll bet there are fair few of you who might be a bit sceptical.  Jesus survived His own death?  He came back to life?  And we know this?  It’s a fair question.  Actually, no:  It’s the question.  Because if Christ was not resurrected, you and I are wasting our time with this Christianity business and we are suckers for history’s greatest hoax.
     This morning I’d like to present you with the Top Ten Evidences That Jesus Was Raised From The Dead.  Here we go.
     1.  The tomb of Jesus, which exists to this day, remains empty.  In Jerusalem, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre houses the original gravesite of Jesus Christ, but His body isn’t there.  I invite those who may be interested to read a groundbreaking article by the Biblical archaeologist Fr Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, The Argument for the Holy Sepulchre, available online.
     2.  No other tomb claims to have the body of Jesus.  The founders of the world’s religions all have identifiable tombs:  Mohammed, Siddhartha, Confucius, and so on.  Only Jesus’ tomb is both identifiable and empty.  What’s even more, Jesus’ opponents were partially convinced that the His empty tomb was a hoax, but have never been able to blow the whistle, so to speak, by producing His corpse.
     3.  The Easter-event was experienced by those indisposed to believe in any kind of resurrections.  In first-century Judaism, belief in the resurrection was only an obscure theory held by Pharisees, a lay movement within Judaism.  The Sadducees, who were the religious aristocracy tended to be somewhat rationalist on matters pertaining to the hereafter.  Ordinary folk, let alone fishermen-become-Apostles, when they listened to Jesus predicting His own Resurrection, it went right over their heads.  Being thus indisposed to believe in resurrections, it is highly, highly unlikely that they would have invented an Easter faerie-tale because it would have been too foreign to their way of thinking.
     4.  The Easter-event was proclaimed by those who experienced, it at great cost.  Almost nobody would believe in their own hoax and die for it, too.  But to those who witnessed the Risen Christ, the experience was so real and so palpable that they were willing to surrender their lives for it.  St Peter was crucified upside-down.  St Thomas was speared, branded, then burned.  St Bartholomew was skinned alive.  All of the Apostles—the Twelve and others—except one, were martyred.  St John was exiled to the isle of Patmos for his testimony.  If the Easter-event were a fabrication, you’d have a heck of a time trying to explain why the Apostles believed it to the point of gruesome execution.
     5.  None of the original followers of Jesus provided an alternative to the Easter-event.  We know that the Apostles did not always get along.  Yet they were consistent in their proclamation that Jesus resurrected.  Moreover—and listen to me carefully—if the Easter-event were a hoax, we would have to account for the fact that nobody, but nobody blew the whistle.  There is no early Christian leader, or sect for that matter, who said “Hold on, wait a minute.  The Easter story is a fake.  I’ll tell you where Jesus’ body is.  I’ll tell you what really happened.”  No-one, whether Jesus’ opponents or former followers, have been able to uncover any sort of ‘Easter conspiracy’—because there is none.
     6.  Nor were the original opponents of Jesus able to uncover the Easter-event as a fabrication.  A very curious absence in the historiography of our ‘elder bothers’—the Jewish people—is that very little is said beyond the fact that Jesus was crucified.  We possess nothing from the Sanhedrin—who condemned Jesus and who opposed the preaching of the Apostles—trying to falsify the Easter-event.  The absence of any alternative explanation whatsoever to the Easter-event speaks strongly for the truth that Jesus was resurrected.
     7.  The precise moment of the Resurrection was never recorded or described.  Another curious thing—if the Easter-event were a fabrication, then there would have been at least one storyteller describing, with grandiose imagery, what the Resurrection looked like:  How someone saw a blinding flash of light, the tomb-stone being rolled, and Jesus actually emerging gloriously from the tomb.  The absence of a predictable element in any false alibi—someone seeing someone somewhere and doing something—lends credibility to the Easter narrative.  If the Easter-event were a fabrication, there would have been at least one lying eyewitness, even more than one for the sake of corroborating testimony, but there isn’t.
     8.  The first witnesses to the Resurrection were women.  In Semitic jurisprudence, the testimony of women was inadmissible in court, let alone in culture enough to give a witness that triggered the rapid expansion of Christianity.  As one of the ‘Holy Myrrhbearing Women,’ St Mary Magdalene has the distinction of having the title of ‘Apostle to the Apostles’—and this woman, whose word shouldn’t count, had audacity enough to tell a bunch of coarse men that she met the Risen Christ.  The boldness of second-class people being the first to proclaim the Good News speaks to the truth of Jesus’ Resurrection.
     9.  St Paul ‘calls his own bluff’ on the veracity of Christ’s Resurrection.  He was ardently opposed to Christianity and was personally responsible for arresting and summarily executing Christians.  But on the way to Damascus to continue his genocide of Christians, St Paul met the risen Jesus and his life was changed.  He even goes so far as to say, “if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.  …If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile.  …If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”  But, he says, “in fact Christ has been raised from the dead.”  And what did he get out of all this?  A meagre income as a tentmaker, dangerous mission trips, and finally a beheading at Rome, but all for the simple truth that Christ is risen.
     10.  Only an historically supernatural event can account for the rapid expansion of Christianity.  That is pretty self-explanatory:  The very basis of Christianity’s validity lies in the first Easter, nothing else.
     My friends:  That is what makes us Christians; we believe that Jesus Christ was victorious over His own Death.   As Consuela the house maid from Family Guy would say,  “No…no…Mr Jesus no es here.”  Not only was Jesus rasied—past tense—but he is risen—present tense.  It is the quintessential, defining ‘thing’ of Christianity.
     And if Easter is true, then mediocrity, a mediocre life is out of the question.  By rising triumphant over sin and death, Jesus Christ has bestowed a newer, higher life on us, as a gift.  What’s left is for us to live Easterly, knowing that His Resurrection has renovated the universe—from the furthest galaxy to the tiniest atom.  Can we be content to live as before?

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Refuting Adventism's so-called "Three Angels' Message," Part I

The following is a response to a challenge by a Seventh-Day Adventist to refute their (anti-Biblical) doctrine of the ‘Three Angels’ Message’—a pet belief within that religious system.
            My method is to provide, first, an exegesis of Apocalypse 14:6-13 in three parts (6-7, 8, then 9-13), each with a subsequent comparison with Adventism’s official pronouncements on this same text’s interpretation.  I have consciously set aside any comparison to Adventist doctrine during the exegesis itself so as to maintain academic honesty in the hermeneutical exploration of the Sacred Text before contrasting it with Adventism.  The intention is to refute Adventism’s ‘Three Angels’ Message’ angel-by-angel, so to speak, and to highlight why the same Sacred Text cannot be invoked as a critique of the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church founded by our Lord Jesus Christ.
            Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Thy faithful, and enkindle in them the Fire of Thy Love!

Then I saw another angel flying in midheaven, with an eternal Gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and tongue and people; and he said with a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, for the hour of his judgment has come; and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the fountains of water.

Unlike the ‘angels of the Churches’ in Apoc 1:20 et al., “angel” here refers to the supernatural beings created by God prior to the creation of the human race; we derive this from the description that this angel is “flying in midheaven”—Scripture often describes angels as ‘flying’ and this particular text is reminiscent of Apoc 8:13 in which an “eagle crying with a loud voice, as it flew in midheaven, ‘Woe, woe, woe to those who dwell on the earth.”  The comparison here highlights the fact that an angelic being is traversing the skies so as to have a vantage point to announce something to those on earth who hear the angel’s message.  And the message is addressed, like “to those who dwell on earth” [πετόμενον  ἐν  μεσουρανήματι] 8:13, 14:6—highlighted by the exact same Greek pattern—as well as by the fact that it is addressed to “every nation and tribe and tongue and people.”  In other words, the angel proclaims something catholic—‘universal’ or ‘according to the whole’ of humanity.
     This follows upon the Great Commission given by the Lord Jesus just prior to His Ascension:  “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (Mt 28:19); “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation…” (Mk 16:15); “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in His Name to all nations” (Lk 24:46-47).  Similarly, St Paul commends the Roman Christians for their “faith is proclaimed in all the world” (Rom 1:8).
            What about this “eternal Gospel”?  Gospel, εὐαγγέλιον, is an imperial term, from ‘good’ [εὐ-] and ‘message’ or ‘tidings’ [ἀναγγέλλω], which in its Latin form (evangelium) was used to describe a victory of the Romans after battle or the accession of the Roman emperor.  Its usage in Mk 1:1, given its Roman provenance, is intended to be a slap-in-the-face to Caesar:  Christ, not Caesar, is the ‘good news’; Christ, not Caesar is the ‘Son of God’ (as the Roman emperors were considered to be divi filius, ‘son of the divinity.’
            And this Gospel remains unchanged and unchangeable, as St Paul insists in Gal 1:6-9.  But what is the content of the Gospel?  It is, above all, the glad tidings that the Lord Jesus, by His Death and Resurrection, has conquered sin and death.  “[T]he Gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh [i.e., His Davidic royalty and His Incarnation] and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by His resurrection from the dead [Easter], Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Rom 1:3-4).  He is named “Lord” because of the Easter event:  “[F]or to this end [εἰς  τοῦτο] Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living!” (Rom 14:9); “And being found in human form He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a Cross.  Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him a Name that is above every name, that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:8-11).  This, by the way, is why we call the First Day of the week ‘The Lord’s Day’—as it is the anniversary of the resurrection when Christ was exalted as ‘Lord.’  Again, “God has made [ἐποίησεν] Him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified!” (Acts 2:36).
            The content of the apostolic preaching, the Gospel, can be found in the eight kerygmatic sermons of the Acts of the Apostles:  2:14-36; 3:12-26; 4:8-12; 5:29-32; 10:34-43; 13:16-41; 14:15-17; 17:22-31.
            One more thing.  Speaking of the “eternal Gospel,” we must take into account Jude 1:3, “Beloved, being very eager to write to you of our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints [ἅπαξ παραδοθείσῃ].”  The Greek clause ἅπαξ παραδοθείσῃ can be translated as “once traditioned”—that is to say, handed over once and only once for all time.  This is to say that St Jude Thaddeus here precludes the idea—harboured by the assemblies of the heretics—that the Gospel somehow was obscured as the Church’s history moved on and, at one point, resurfaced thanks to the teachings of a sect’s founder, whether it be Charles Russell, Ellen White, or any heresiarch.  The Gospel, as St Thaddeus tells us—and the Greek text makes this plain—is delivered once.  It will not be delivered again, which also precludes the idea that the Gospel could ever be lost or obscured.
            In addition to the “eternal Gospel,” the angel exhorts all to “worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the fountains of water.”  This is not unlike the preaching of Sts Paul and Barnabas in Acts 14:15.  But what of the “hour of judgment”?  We have already spoken of the centrality of the Cross in the Gospel.  The Fourth Gospel describes the ‘Hour of Jesus’ as an hour of “judgment”:  “Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out” (Jn 12:31; cf. 16:11).  The Apocalypse of St John shows the ‘heavenly side’ of Good Friday, of the Lamb’s Passion (cf. 5:6, 12; 14:1).
            The last question we must address is this:  When does this episode of Apoc 14:6f take place?  As we will see, it took place in the first century of the Church, as evidenced by the fact that it follows the showing of the two “Beasts”—the second of which is described thus:  “This calls for wisdom:  let him who has understanding reckon [] the number of the beast, for it is a human number, its number is six hundred and sixty six” (Apoc 13:18).  Curiously, the Vetus Latina or the Italic manuscripts has a different number:  616.
            Recall that the Greeks invented the article.  The RSV’s “a human number,” in Greek is  ἀνθρώπου ἐστίν; the absence of the direct article means that the indirect article is intended, ‘a’ or ‘an’; the fact that ἀνθρώπου is in the genitive singular means it is one human person, and precisely a human being.  It refers to some-one.  Who is this someone?  The answer is crucial, because it will put the next episode of chapter 14 into its proper historical context:  The ‘Three Angels’ announced their tidings in the first century, not later.

            More to come.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

God in the Gallows


The following homily was preached at our Good Friday Celebration of the Lord's Passion.

In high school, we were required to read Night by Elie Wiesel, in which he recounted his imprisonment at Auschwitz and Buchenwald.  But there is only one scene that I recall from the book.

     Three prisoners were being punished with execution by hanging, including a small boy.  The SS, as was their custom, forced all the prisoners to watch the punishment in order to impress upon them their subjugation.  When the trap doors were unhinged, the two men died almost instantly.  The boy was not so fortunate because he was too light to have the weight of his body break his neck suspended in the noose.  For a half hour, the boy remained suspended, writhing with his legs.  Watching the ordeal, Elie Wiesel then heard someone behind him ask, “For God’s sake, where is God?”  “And from within me,”—this is Wiesel speaking—“I heard a voice answer:  ‘This is where—hanging here in the gallows.”

     That silence we hear in our suffering is in fact God shouting so loudly that we become deaf.

     Just four short months ago we celebrated God becoming an infant, becoming one of us—and why?  God became Man not to take away our sufferings, but to share in it.  “Ours was the sufferings He bore; ours the sorrows He carried.”  Like I said when we celebrated Jesus’ birth, Christmas is the empathy of God.  And how far does God take His empathy?  So far, in fact, that the cry from the Cross, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me,” Jesus lends His voice to the tears, the grief, the anguish of all humanity.

     But why allow suffering in the first place?  What’s the point of suffering if someone concludes that an omnibenevolent God and evil cannot exist at the same time?  Because at least it’s gotten even the atheist to think about God; suffering shifts our gaze to God, even if our hearts remain closed to him.  God can deal with a closed heart later, but for now, he’s got your attention, and that’s why we’re allowed to suffer.  As C. S. Lewis said, “Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

     Holy Mother Church teaches that we are made for happiness.  St Thomas Aquinas defines happiness as the “attainment of the Perfect Good”; most of us, however, confuse happiness with pleasure, and pleasure always leaves us hanging, wanting more.  Happiness makes us content.  And happiness cannot be found in anything or anyone other than God.  Why?  Because our hearts were made to be in friendship with God and the immensity of God and his love means that there can be no substitute to fill that void in our hearts.  As the Trappist monk Fr Thomas Merton said, “We are not called to pleasure; we are called to joy.”

     The sad reality is that suffering has entered the world through the collusion of our First Parents:  They—and we in them—have disobeyed and turned away from God; and when we turn away from the Only One Who can make us happy, we will be anything but happy; we will suffer.  And the turning of the human heart back to God is a painful process, even if it is only that of a pure heart already turned to God but opposed by you and me—by crucifying Jesus.  “Obedient unto death, even death on the Cross.”  Jesus’ perfect gaze and heart fixed upon His Father shows the Man of Sorrows reaching the fullest of human flourishing.  Jesus, for all His extreme humiliation and pain, on the Cross was the happiest of men.

     My friends:  There is no-one in this house of the Church that does not suffer.  But Holy Mother Church offers us no faerie-tales so that we can go on imagining that the whole wide world is our nursery.  To be Christian means to take off those ridiculous rose-coloured glasses and to see the reality around us, and the reality within us:  “Pain insists upon being attended to.  God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains.”

     Elie Wiesel was right.  God was in the gallows that day when that boy was hanging between life and death.  Even the bad news of human suffering has its silver lining, and the Good News isn’t far off.  God will overcome suffering.  Despair does not exist in Christian vocabulary.  We now wait outside the Tomb of Jesus, the tombs of our lives, in hope.