Christians in many traditions celebrate on January 18 the “Confession of St. Peter”, or “The Good Confession”:

When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?
And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets.
He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am?
And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.
And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.
And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
(Matthew 16: 13-19, Holy Bible, King James Version)

Peter’s statement, which is subsequently praised by Jesus, is a breathtaking pronouncement of Jesus’ exalted status. It has been used and repeated by Christians down the centuries as a kind of “credo”, and in a broad sense Peter speaks for the Twelve as well as all of us here. (As recently as last year, I have witnessed this used in Evangelical churches as a profession of faith at the time of baptism). Here, Jesus is identified by Simon as “the anointed one” (the awaited “messiah”), and also “the son of God”.

Jesus turns about and gives the disciple a fresh identity, and engages in a bit of a pun. Simon was from henceforth to be “Peter” (“Πέτρος” meaning “stone”), and declares that his community of believers would be founded upon this rock (“πέτρᾳ” or “boulder”). One strand of interpretation has been to identify the church as being founded upon Simon Peter. The foundation stone is more likely not Peter himself but rather his confession, his belief.

In the words of one Dr. James Boyce, Professor emeritus of Greek and New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN:

Peter speaks for the disciples, for Matthew’s gospel and the community to which it is first addressed, and certainly for us, announcing that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God (16:15-16). Jesus confirms this “confession” by Peter as a mark of God’s blessing and as the “rock” upon which he will build his church (16:17-18).
(The full comments on this are available online at this site).

“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted,or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”

Lord God, on this day you revealed your Son to the nations by the leading of a star. Lead us now by faith to know your presence in our lives, and bring us at last to the full vision of your glory, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. AMEN

Lutheran Book of Worship, pg 15

This performance is by the London Symphony Orchestra and Tenebrae chorus under the direction of Sir Colin Davis.

We are God’s Hands

image

The other day I was dropping my son off at wrestling practice when a lyric from a song on the radio jumped out at me and grabbed my attention. It was from the Matthew West song “Do Something.” The singer describes awakening and seeing the moral evils of “a world full of trouble,” including poverty and children being sold into slavery.” The following words grabbed my attention:

The thought disgusted me
So, I shook my fist at Heaven
Said, “God, why don’t You do something?”
He said, “I did, I created you”

This is s sobering reminder that we–you and I–are God’s hands. If we are fulfilling God’s mission for our lives then we are part of the body of Christ, the current physical manifestation of God on earth. Paul advises us of this in his first letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 12. An old Anglican prayer puts it so beautifully: “We are very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy son.”

One of the first things that came to my memory as I drove away from the school was that joke, of unknown authorship, which I have heard more than once as a sermon illustration. It is called “I sent you a rowboat”.

A very religious man was once caught in rising floodwaters. He climbed onto the roof of his house and trusted God to rescue him. A neighbour came by in a canoe and said, “The waters will soon be above your house. Hop in and we’ll paddle to safety.”
“No thanks” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure he will save me”

A short time later the police came by in a boat. “The waters will soon be above your house. Hop in and we’ll take you to safety.”

“No thanks” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure he will save me”

A little time later a rescue services helicopter hovered overhead, let down a rope ladder and said. “The waters will soon be above your house. Climb the ladder and we’ll fly you to safety.”

“No thanks” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure he will save me”

All this time the floodwaters continued to rise, until soon they reached above the roof and the religious man drowned. When he arrived at heaven he demanded an audience with God. Ushered into God’s throne room he said, “Lord, why am I here in heaven? I prayed for you to save me, I trusted you to save me from that flood.”

“Yes you did my child” replied the Lord. “And I sent you a canoe, a boat and a helicopter. But you never got in.”

The corollary of this story would be this: Do you want God to rescue that man on the roof of his house? Then go grab your boat. Do you want God to do something about poverty and other ills? Find out what efforts might be underway already, and cooperate with the churches who are working in this area. Encourage and support others. One pastor elicited from me a large pledge and inspired me to launch this website–to add my voice to the public square in some small way–by simply inviting his audience in a sermon to “take the plunge”.

Is the problem that you have noticed, that is currently occupying your worries, something that no one else is trying to solve right now? Then, “tag, you’re it.” Pray for empowerment. Then roll up your sleeves.

C.S. Lewis had this to say about being the body of Christ, in his book Mere Christianity:

Is it not frightfully unfair that this new life should be confined to people who have heard of Christ and been able to believe in Him? But the truth is God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved by Him. But in the meantime, if you are worried about the people outside, the most unreasonable thing you can do is remain outside yourself. Christians are Christ’s body, the organism through which He works. Every addition to that body enables Him to do more. If you want to help those outside you must add your little cell to the body of Christ who alone can help them. Cutting off a man’s fingers would be an odd way of getting him to do more. (pg. 64)

(Image credit: “Jesus Christ–Christus Statue”, Jan 2006, posted at FLICKR, by midiman, available under Creative Commons license).

This week brings news of the passing of a great Christian teacher and organizer. I personally count theologian R. C. Sproul as one of my “virtual teachers”, as his publicly available lectures have been a great source of personal reflection and spiritual formation.

He was a powerful advocate for Reformed theology and helped me to understand it better as at least one very logical approach to understanding scripture. (I don’t necessarily regard myself a convert to that approach but I see its validity). Most of all he was passionate about Christianity and can be considered one of its better expounders from the late 20th century.

A tribute from famed author and speaker John Piper praises Sproul for “an incomparable combination of his unashamed allegiance to the absolute sovereignty and centrality of God, his total devotion to the inerrancy and radical relevance of the Christian Scriptures, his serious and rigorous attention to the actual text of Scripture in shaping his views, and his jolting formulations of biblical truth in relation to contemporary reality.”

“This was R.C.’s goal: a heart that is stunned and humbled and captivated by the transcendent greatness and purity of God.”

I cannot say it better. He died Dec 14 at age 78.

Yoda

Yoda, from Lucasfilm, (fair use)

As we enjoy the release of the next installment from the fantasy movie universe known as “Star Wars”, it seems a good time to meditate upon some of the themes that resonate with Christianity, that can be traced through many of these stories.

1. There are unseen realities that govern the visible universe.

That’s a pretty generic religious assertion, but it fits the Christian worldview, in contrast with a purely atheistic and materialistic worldview. In the “Star Wars” universe, an invisible Force governs the fate of the galaxy. Foreknowledge, and other kinds of supernatural powers are available to mortals. The Force often preserves the lives of the just, and thwarts the malignant designs of the evil.

In “Star Wars” the exact nature of the force and any higher Intelligence behind it remains vague and nebulous. George Lucas borrowed richly from religious and mythic themes, but he was clearly about entertainment rather than theology.

Christianity proposes that the Universe has a living God, who is more than merely an impersonal force. We believe in a being of immense power and wisdom who has not only communicated with humanity but squeezed into human form and stepped into history as one of its players. More on that in a moment.

2. There is a cosmic battle between good and evil.

“Star Wars” boldly offers that there is a distinction between Good and Evil, between Light and Dark. As Yoda says in “The Empire Strikes Back”:

“But beware of the dark side. Anger, fear, aggression; the dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan’s apprentice.”

When Luke asks if the dark side is stronger, Yoda replies, “No, no, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.”

Already this takes us in a counter-cultural direction. In the last few generations, at least in Western cultures, we have greatly weakened the concepts of Good and Evil. This idea finds consonance with Christian thought, though.

The apostle Paul warns his readers in Ephesians 6:
Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might.
Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

As in “Star Wars” movies, this battle against evil is often desperate, and seemingly hopeless, but those who engage in it cling beyond reason to hope. In the original “Star Wars” movie, later named “Episode IV: A New Hope”, that hope is a possibility to overthrow oppression, specifically thanks to a transmission of secret plans that reveal a weakness in the fearsome Death Star. For Christians, it is a person, Jesus, who is our “New Hope”. He promises to overthrow oppression and liberate us from evil. Ultimately, however lost the cause may seem, the good will prevail, and the Light will vanquish the Darkness.

3. People can fall into temptation and evil.

Jedi warriors are sometimes tempted and seduced by the power of the Dark Side.  The major example of this is Darth Vader, once a good man who fought for the Republic. By the time his son, Luke comes of age, Obi Wan muses that Vader is “more machine now than man, twisted and evil”. In the prequel we are treated to another ex-Jedi turned evil, Count Dooku, who was formerly a pupil of Yoda.

Christianity goes a step further–all of us have succumbed to the darkness. “All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory” (Romans 3:23). However, there is hope for redemption.

4. There is a long prophesied “Chosen One”, who will put things right.

In the prequel movies, we are given the idea that a “chosen one” has been long prophesied. Qui Gon Jinn becomes convinced that Anakin Skywalker is the “chosen one”.

In the Bible, numerous passages of the Old Testament predicted the coming of “messiah”, literally the “anointed one”, or in essence “chosen one”. Anointing by oil is a sign that one has been chosen by God; an example would be the anointing of the shepherd boy David to indicate his selection by God to be the next king of Israel.

In the New Testament, which was written in Greek rather than Hebrew, we have the word “Christ,” which is identical in meaning to “messiah”.  (“Christ” isn’t a last name of Jesus, like “Smith” or “Johnson” or “Carter” might be for us, but rather it is an identification of Jesus as “the chosen one”).

We have this story of Jesus from Matthew 16:

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”

5. Sometimes a heroic character sacrifices self for the good of all.

We see numerous examples of this. In “Rogue One”, Jin and her colleagues bravely go to their deaths trying to retrieve the Death Star plans that may revive the flagging hopes of the Rebellion. In “A New Hope”, Ben Kenobi sacrifices himself to allow his comrades to escape from the Death Star. In “Return of the Jedi” Luke prepares to die at the hands of the Emperor in hopes of saving his father.

Christianity has as its central story the sacrificial death of Jesus to atone for our “manifold sins and wickedness” (Book of Common Prayer), and offer a way of reconciliation between God and humans.  He essentially pulled an Obi Wan that we might escape our metaphoric Death Star, which in the end is Death itself.

6. For even the baddest of people, there is an opportunity for forgiveness and redemption.

The main narrative of the first six movies is the rise, fall, and redemption of Anakin Skywalker. Initially a brave pilot and able Jedi knight, he is lured into the Dark Side through fear of losing his wife and anger at his mother’s death. He makes a “deal with the devil” in a sense, when he chooses to serve the nefarious Palpitine (who becomes the Emperor) and betray and destroy the Jedi. He becomes Death Vader, the black robed villain and chief hitman for the Emperor.

Ultimately, he turns from the dark path after his son Luke comes to him in “Return of the Jedi.” After dispatching the evil emperor by tossing him into the reactor core of the new Death Star, he is weakened and struggles to walk. Luke tries to get him to safety but Anakin collapses. Although he is about to die physically, he knows that his spirit has been saved, as emphasized in his final dialogue:

Luke: “You’re coming with me. I’ll not leave you here, I’ ve got to save you.”
Anakin: “You already… have, Luke. You were right. You were right about me. Tell your sister… you were right …”

7. This life is not the end.

Star Wars proposes life after death, as when Yoda remarked to Luke, “luminous beings are we, not this crude matter”. In almost every movie dead characters speak or appear as apparitions to guide the hero on his quest, and to give a kind of glowing benediction at the end of the first movie trilogy. Yoda’s words echo those of one of my favorite Christian authors, C. S. Lewis, who elaborated on the Christian idea that we are beings who possess an immortal soul:

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.
(Lewis, The Weight of Glory, HarperOne, reprinted in 2001: pp. 45-46).

Adoration of Shepherds Art

Adoration of the Shepherds by Gerard van Honthorst, 1622

From our parent website”:

This is the season of preparation for the coming of the Christ Child. As St. Paul said in Galatians 4:4 “But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son”. In his book Time, Science, and Society in China and the West, Nathaniel Morris Lawrence suggests a metaphor in which “fullness of time” can be thought of as the moment before delivery in a pregnancy. During advent, the universe is pregnant. All of history has led up to this moment, when the God of time and creation takes upon himself our nature, becomes enfleshed, and steps into our timeline, into the specific time and place of Bethlehem circa 4 BC. The universe is pregnant, awaiting this moment. Mary, the future mother of Jesus, is pregnant, awaiting the delivery of her child. The people of Israel are expecting a messiah. The moment is almost upon us.

Notorious cult leader and “craziest man in America”, Charles Manson, passed away from colon cancer. While his deeds and those of his brainwashed “children” are remembered, a real next of kin has been making the news.

The grandson of Manson, a man named Jason Freeman, is trying to claim the remains and give him a proper burial. Jason relates that he grew up a “fighter” in the shadow of his notorious grandfather, struggling also to cope with the death of his own father by suicide. While in jail for drug trafficking he turned to Christ. He turned away from crime and is now married and raising a family.

Two quotes illustrate the fascinating difference between these two:

“From the world of darkness I did loose demons and devils in the power of scorpions to torment.” (Charles Manson, 1934-2017; courtesy of Brainyquote).

“Laid in bed probably for hours just crying and just asking for forgiveness and help; help to understand, give me some wisdom to realize the path I’m on isn’t the right path.” (Jason Freeman, discussing the birth of his Christian faith in an interview with “700 Club“).

It sounds like his path will be a better one.

Contrary to popular belief, the earliest Thanksgiving took place at Virginia’s Berkeley plantation:

Berkeley Plantation

“…wee ordaine that the day of our ships arrivall at the place assigned for plantacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perputually keept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty god.”

(Instructions to Captain Woodleaf, Virginia Papers, 1619; available online here).