Church Calendar

Jesus Means Savior

Jesus Means Savior

Q. Why is the Son of God called “Jesus,”
meaning “savior”? a

A. Because he saves us from our sins, and because salvation should not be sought and cannot be found in anyone else.

We sometimes can overlook the particular meaning of these titles for our blessed Lord Jesus Christ. But they are all intentional in the Scripture. They describe a particular function in the messianic work of Jesus. This expectation we undergo during this Advent Season provides us with reasons for meditating on the nature of our Lord. And in this catechism question, we see that the very definition of the name that is above every name, Jesus, means “savior.”

This Savior accomplishes two activities: First, he saves us from our sins. Part of the Advent expectation is an expectation of salvation from sin. Our natures are marred by the fall, and the Savior transforms our natures by uniting us to Himself. Jesus means deliverance from past sins, current sins, and future sins. But secondly, to expect Jesus, the Savior, means that we long for no other messiah, but Christ alone. We dare not seek other gods. We dare not doubt the salvation of Jesus. He is our only hope.

On this morning, we pray as the songwriter taught us:

Savior of the nations come, Virgin’s Son, make here Thy home!

Marvel now, O heav’n and earth, That the Lord chose such a birth.

  1. Heidelberg Catechism, #29  (back)
Expecting a New Season

Expecting a New Season

Last week I talked a little about what it means to go through this cycle called the Church Calendar. This week, which is the final Sunday of the Church Year, I’d like to prepare you for why it’s important to expect.

The Advent Season, which starts next Sunday, is the beginning of a season of expectation. What does Advent expect? Advent expects or anticipates the coming of Christ. The word “Advent” a refers to “coming or arrival.” And you may say, “Why are we expecting Jesus, when Jesus has already come for us?” One answer to that is that we are still living in light of that first coming. The consequences of Messiah’s coming had and still have repercussions for how we live, and move, and have our being. But also because Jesus does not cease to come. In fact, during the Advent Season we will stress the idea that Jesus comes for us again and again. He comes in our darkness, in our joy, in our repentance, in our confession, in our gathering, in bread and wine, he comes again and again.

As we enter into a season of expectation, we enter into a season of hope and desire to see the Son of Man minister to us by His Spirit and comfort us as we worship joyfully and truthfully.

  1. Adventus, Latin; arrival  (back)

The Ascension of our Lord: A Brief Introduction

The Church celebrates the Ascension of our Lord this Thursday. Since most churches are not able to have Thursday services, traditionally many of them celebrate Ascension on Sunday.

The Ascension of Jesus is barely mentioned in the evangelical vocabulary. We make room for his birth, death, and resurrection, but we tend to put a period where God puts a comma.

If the resurrection was the beginning of Jesus’ enthronement, then the ascension is the establishment of his enthronement. The Ascension activates Christ’s victory in history. The Great Commission is only relevant because of the Ascension. Without the Ascension the call to baptize and disciple would be meaningless. It is on the basis of Jesus’ enthronement at the right-hand of the Father, that we image-bearers can de-throne rulers through the power and authority of our Great Ruler, Jesus Christ.

The Ascension then is a joyful event, because it is the genesis of the Church’s triumph over the world. Further, it defines us as a people of glory and power, not of weakness and shame. As Jesus is ascended, we too enter into his ascension glory (Col. 3:1) This glory exhorts us to embrace full joy. As Alexander Schmemann once wrote:

“The Church was victorious over the world through joy…and she will lose the world when she loses its joy… Of all accusations against Christians, the most terrible one was uttered by Nietzsche when he said that Christians had no joy.”[1]

But this joy is given to us by a bodily Lord.

We know that Jesus is at the right hand of the Father. He is ruling and reigning from his heavenly throne. He has given the Father the kingdom, and now he is preserving, progressing, and perfecting his kingdom. He is bringing all things under subjection.

We know that when he was raised from the dead, Jesus was raised bodily. But Gnostic thinking would have us assume that since Jesus is in heaven he longer needs a physical body. But the same Father who raised Jesus physically, also has his Son sitting beside him in a physical body.  As one author observed:

Jesus has gone before us in a way we may follow through the Holy Spirit whom he has sent, because the way is in his flesh, in his humanity.[1]

Our Lord is in his incarnation body at the right hand of the Father. This has all sorts of implications for us in worship. We are worshipping a God/Man; one who descended in human flesh and who ascended in human flesh. He is not a disembodied spirit. He is truly God and truly man.

As we consider and celebrate the Ascension of our blessed Lord, remember that you are worshiping the One who understands your needs, because he has a body just like you; he understands your joy because he has a body just like you.

[1] Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World. Paraphrased

[2] Gerrit Dawson, see http://apologus.wordpress.com/2012/05/16/ascension-and-jesus-humanity/

The Benefits of Lectionary Preaching

When I arrived at my local congregation in Pensacola we were using the Revised Common Lectionary. The RCL is a fine Lectionary and provides a wonderful tour of the Scriptures in a three year cycle. But as time went on I realized that the RCL was fond of omitting controversial texts in its cycles. Through the influence of man like Jeffrey Meyers and Jim Jordan I came to realize that there was an alternative Lectionary, namely, the Lutheran Missouri Synod Lectionary (LCMS) who not only dealt with the difficult passages, but also honored Reformation Sunday. We quickly switched to LCMS a few years ago and haven’t looked back.

N.T. Wright also noticed this trend in his own tradition when he wrote the following:

“Whenever you see, in an official lectionary, the command to omit two or three verses, you can normally be sure that they contain words of judgment. Unless, of course, they are about sex.”

Anyone who has been sitting under Lectionary preaching is often more aware of the flow of the Biblical text since the sermons/homilies cover more territory in a year (on a typical year I will give my parishioners an overview of at least 10-15 books of the Bible. This has been my experience. On the other hand, Sunday School lessons can cover a more long term expository-based look into the Scriptures. Our former Sunday School teacher, James Jordan, spent over 30 Sundays on the “Exodus” themes in the Bible. Naturally, preachers are not bound to the Lectionary Lessons (especially during the Pentecost/Trinity Season). Certain times of the year may demand a more personalized sermons to address particular needs or concerns in the congregation.

As for the Lectionary, when it is not hindered by theological fears, it can serve as a remarkable immersion and re-immersion into the Scriptures every three years. It is incumbent upon pastors as they invest on these texts to provide a clear and fresh perspective on these narratives. Repetition is good. And the constant working through the broadness of the Gospel story can be a fruitful liturgical work.

Pastors too benefit greatly from it. As I navigate through the high church year (Advent-Easter) it is always encouraging to detail and consider these marvelous gospel texts that shape our faith and even our own lives.

Christ is risen!

The Brothers Karamazov and the Apostle Thomas

In the compelling narrative of The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky  elaborates a little, but beautifully on Thomas’ encounter with our Lord:

The Apostle Thomas said that he would not believe till he saw, but when he did see he said, “My Lord and my God!” Was it the miracle forced him to believe? Most likely not, but he believed solely because he desired to believe and possibly he fully believed in his secret heart even when he said, “I do not believe till I see.”

 

Lent, Ligon Duncan, and Legalism

Lent, Ligon Duncan, and Legalism

Collin Hansen wrote an article for the Gospel Coalition entitled Should You Cancel Good Friday? which has brought to the attention of many a conversation they have never had before. What is Lent? Why celebrate it?

As a committed Protestant, I am committed to the Church Calendar, not because I want to be a slave to it, but because I am aware of its inevitability. We all follow some calendar. The question is which calendar? I ask that question because Protestantism is grounded in a Trinitarian view of the world. In its best expression it does not isolate ideas; it brings ideas together to form a coherent system.

I suggest that Lent is highly Trinitarian. As the Trinity is a communion of love, so Lent provides a means to express that love to one another in the community. Where sins are confronted and battled, there you find a vigorous Trinitarian community and vision. Lent is service to the community by giving us a season of determined battle against sin for the sake of our neighbors.

It offers a vision of history that undergirds the biblical history and that reflects the normal routines, liturgies, and rituals of human beings. Lent is a form of restructuring our lives. All Christians need a re-structuring of order in their own lives. All Christians need to re-balance and re-form areas where there is disproportionate indifference. We all undergo a Psalmic journey of lamentation and feasting. Lent draws us into this journey.

In essence, Lent reveals the God who suffers in the Person of Jesus Christ. God’s image-bearers are formed from the dust of a fallen Adam to the glorification of the risen Final Adam. To disconnect Lent from the Church Calendar is to disparage history.

It is true we live in the age of an ascended Lord, but this same Lord guides a Church that is still broken, suffering, and healing from brokenness and suffering again and again. The removal of Lent is to proclaim an over-realized eschatology.

It is true that Lent can be abused, and history teaches us that it has. But it is also true, as Luther so memorably stated, “the abuse of something is not an argument against its proper use.” So if Lent can be proven to be profitable, then is there a legitimate way to benefit from it without falling into some its former abuses. Protestant Christians are not bound by Romish structures of food or rituals. We use wisdom in forming healthy habits for a Church and individuals while not binding the Church or the individual to a particular habit.

Lent and Wilderness

Lent teaches us that Satan’s gifts are easy to master. They come with first grade instruction manuals. They are made to be mastered quickly and enjoyed rapidly (fornication, drugs, alcohol; various temptations). God’s gifts are a little harder to master. They require self-control and patience. They anticipate spiritual growth; they demand a kingly attitude to grasp kingly wisdom. God’s instructions mean you have to seek others in the community to understand them properly. You have to exercise and express a theology of patience built into a theology of blessings.

In the wilderness, a garden stripped of colors, fruit, and water, Jesus faced the devil again in a re-match. He knew well that temptation had a triumphant history of subtly winning arguments. Jesus wasted no time and rebuked temptation. just like He would do with the demons and the demonic-like religious teachers of the day.

We are not to sit in temptation’s classroom. God already said we are to flee it; to rebuke it with the only source of authority that is permanent and stamped with divine truth.

The Church finds herself in a wilderness scenario. She is stripped of her former glory. But she is destined to journey from glory to glory like her Lord and Master. As in Luke four, we need to sit in Yahweh’s school house. We need to be instructed by the two-edged sword that muzzles the Tempter and tells him to not come back again. He is not welcome and neither are his offers.

Lent offers us a 40 day class on temptations and the glories and rewards of resisting it.

But Why 40 Days?

Lent follows the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness. His fasting for 40 days speaks to the evil and the hardness of heart of the Israelites who succumbed to the Serpent’s whispers. So as the Church walks with Jesus from wilderness to Golgotha she re-lives the messianic journey. The 40 days are symbolic for that wilderness testing, and as a result it is chronologically set before the Great Paschal Feast, commonly referred to as Easter.

Should Lent be Observed?

Ligon Duncan and others in the Southern Presbyterian tradition argue that Lent has a history based on merit. Lent was a way to earn something. The Reformation fixed this soteriological error, and therefore Lent is no longer to be observed.

Duncan and others also go on to say that celebrating Easter and Christmas offer no such harm (he also believes that a National Holiday like Thanksgiving is also a uniquely American holiday to be celebrated). There is no doubt Easter and Christmas, and even Thanksgiving–to a lesser degree–offer wonderful benefits. But the question and the opening presupposition is that Lent is not biblical therefore it should not be practiced in the Church. If that is the case, then the question is not whether one day (or Season) is more beneficial than the other, but rather is it explicitly stated in the Bible or not? If the “explicit reference” argument is used, then Duncan will have to conclude that this is faulty reasoning.

I concur with Vance Freeman that “each of his (Duncan’s) reasons for not observing Lent are undercut by the observance of Christmas and Easter.” Mr. Freeman also concludes:

The biggest threat to Christianity today is not the church in Rome, or that Americans are prone to elevate traditional Christian rituals, like Lent, over discipleship. The biggest threat to the church is that our rituals are increasingly only secular ones. We are Americans before we are Christians. Super Bowl Sunday not only competes with the Lord’s Day, it dominants it. And when we relegate the Christian life to a mere facet of our American lives we fall into Moral Therapeutic Deism.

The formation of godly habits is the issue at hand. In other words, is there an adequate time of the year where the Church should have an explicit focus on the cross of Jesus and how that cross must shape our understanding of sin? Is there room for setting aside a season for a cruciform hermeneutic? I believe there is.

As Peter Leithart so ably summarizes:

Lent is a season for taking stock and cleaning house, a time of self-examination, confession and repentance.  But we need to remind ourselves constantly what true repentance looks like.  “Giving up” something for Lent is fine, but you keep Lent best by making war on all the evil habits and sinful desires that prevent you from running the race with patience.

If this is true, then Lent serves an enormously important role in the life of the Christian. Naturally, to quote Luther’s first thesis, “the Christian life is a life of daily repentance.” A faithful understanding of the Lord’s Service provides that for us weekly. However, an extended period where our sins are deeply brought to our attention by the preaching of the Word and prayer (and fasting) are regularly considered, practiced and meditated upon can provide great benefits for all Christians on each Lord’s Day and throughout the week.

The legalism concern is legitimate. We are all tempted to fall into this trap, but it does not have to be so. If we view Lent as a time to additionally focus our attention on mortifying our sins and killing those habits that so easily entangle us, we can then consider the cross in light of the resurrection, not apart from it. If we do so, Lent will become legalism’s greatest enemy and repentance’s best friend.

Advent and Term Limits

“There is a new King in town,” and the good news for us is that there is no term limits. The bad news for those who reject God is that there is no term limits. –Sunday Sermon

The Saints of Providence Church in 2012

 

What is Trinity Sunday?

The Church celebrates this Sunday the blessed, Holy Trinity. God is Three and One. In the calendar, Trinity Sunday follows Pentecost. Pentecost was the pouring of the Spirit (The Third Person of the Holy Trinity) upon an infant Church. Pentecost enabled the Bride of Christ to be the instrument of change in the world. She has become the fiery sword that conquers evil and puts foreign armies to flight. Pentecost was the undoing of Babel. The unclean lips of Babel have become–by the Spirit– the clean lips of the messengers of Yahweh going to all the ends of the earth.

The Trinity seals this mission with divine approval. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit have covenanted together to see that the divine promises are fulfilled. Trinity Sunday is the renewed call to go into the world not in the name of some unknown God, but in the Name of the True God who reveals Himself in Three Persons.

Furthermore, Trinity Sunday is the Church’s Catholic response to disunity. To believe in an apostolic and catholic Church is to affirm the Trinity. There can be no true unity without this affirmation. The Trinity shapes our catholicity. We are bound by it, and anything else is a cosmic betrayal. But beyond that, it is also the Church’s response to cults who thrive on denying the sacred Trinity. The Trinity is the Church’s proclamation that the Christian faith is not just any other faith, but a unique faith centered on the divine covenant made from eternity.  The Father sends the Son, the Father and the Son send the Spirit. The Father loves the Son, the Spirit loves the Son and the Father. There is love forever within the relationship of the Trinity. In fact, love is Trinitarian. There can be no love in a God who is only One. This God has no equal love to share. But in the Trinity, the Father loves the Son equally, and the Son and the Father love the Spirit equally. Therefore, a denial of the Trinity–as the cults do–is a denial of true love.

Trinity Sunday also exhorts us to trust in God alone. This God who is love loves us and incorporates us into this Trinitarian love. Because He is love, we too are called to model this divine love in our communities.

We celebrate the Trinity because we are shaped as a Trinitarian people: to love one another and to enter into this eternal feast with God as head, and we as body.

What is Pentecost?

What is Pentecost?

Many Christians know little about the Church Calendar, which means that many evangelicals will  treat this Sunday like any other day. This Sunday marks the beginning of the Ordinary Season (not in the mundane or common sense, but the term comes from the word “ordinal,” which probably means “counted time”). This season is composed of 23-28 Sundays, and it fleshes out the mission of the Church. To put it simply, Pentecost is the out-working of the mission of Jesus through his people.

Some pastors–myself included–usually take these few months to focus on passages and topics pertaining to the specific life of the Church, and how the Church can be more faithful and active in the affairs of the world. The Pentecost Season emphasizes the unleashing of the Spirit’s work and power through the Bride of Jesus Christ, the Church.

Liturgically, many congregations wear red as a symbol of the fiery-Spirit that befell the Church. The Season brings with it a renewed emphasis on the Church as the central institution to the fulfillment of God’s plans in history. As such, it brings out the practical nature of Christian theology. Joan Chittister defines Pentecost as “the period of unmitigated joy, of total immersion in the implications of what it means to be a Christian, to live a Christian life” (The Liturgical Year, 171).

Pentecost as Spirit-Work

There is a Spiritlessness in Reformed teaching and worship today. Pentecost exhorts us to be spiritual (Spirit-led) while emphasizing the titanic involvement of the Third Person of the Trinity in beautifying the world to reflect the glory of the Father and the Son.

Calvin was known as the “Theologian of the Spirit.” This is hardly manifested in many of his followers who tend to flee from the implications of a Spirit-led anything, choosing a mental overdose of theological categories. However, the Spirit is crucial to the forming and re-forming of any environment. It communicates our thoughts, emotions, and prayers to our Meditator. The Third Person of the Trinity emotionalizes and intercedes on our behalf in the midst of our ignorance (Rom. 8:26-30).

Further, the Spirit draws individuals (John 6:44) to enter into one baptized community of faith. The Spirit, in the words of James Jordan, is the “divine match-maker.” He brings isolated individuals into a Pentecostalized body, a body that has many parts, but one Head.

So, let us embrace this Season! Let us join this cosmic Pentecostal movement and embrace the mission of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.