Sermon: A Good Name (Prov 22:1-2; 8-9; 22-23)

The book of Proverbs doesn’t make for easy preaching. Apart from three or four large sections at the beginning and the end, which praise wisdom and decry foolishness as way of life, it is just short sayings. Each saying is a nugget on its own, not necessarily related to what came before or after. The same is true today. What our first lesson presented as one paragraph addressing wealth and poverty is three selections. In between and around these three are all sorts of bits of advice on fearing God, raising children, and generally how to approach life.

Moreover, Proverbs’ advice is often not terribly “religious” or “inspirational.” It’s just good. Wisdom literature—to which Proverbs belongs—is not a particularly Jewish genre. Wisdom literature is found throughout the writings of Ancient Near East. Indeed, much of Proverbs can be found elsewhere in ancient sources outside the Bible.

Why is this a hard book for preachers? It’s full of good advice that’s easily understood and not terribly religious or even culturally limited. It’s given in bite-size chunks, too small to do much with. Do you get it? Good. Go home. That’s a sermon from Proverbs.

Some of you are thinking, “Yes! Five minute sermon today!” And yet. . . The Proverbs of Solomonare part of our canon. They do need to be proclaimed and not merely announced.

The Proverbs need to be proclaimed because they remind us that the Gospel is ultimately about a way of life. The Gospel is about living a life covenanted to God. It is about being and becoming the people of God.

The Gospel is not about abstract truths which we acknowledge when we recite the Creed and then ignore for the rest of the week. It is about these truths forming us into a people shaped to live life as God’s friends and heralds of God’s Kingdom.

But the life is not so peculiar to have no points of contact with other peoples. The moral and spiritual formation the Gospel brings is good news for everyone. Christians are wise to affirm all that is good and right and life-affirming wherever it is found, recognizing that God has not left himself without a witness anywhere.

So, with all of that in mind, let’s look at the Proverbs before us today.

The first two wise sayings put matters of wealth and poverty in perspective: they are not ultimate or final. More important, the first proverb tells us, is a good name. A reputation, in other words, as a decent, honorable, and trustworthy human being. And the place to begin cultivating a good name is to remember God—who makes rich and poor alike.

What’s the point here? Is it that our wealth or lack thereof is a matter of divine will? There is nothing to be done about it either way? In the movie Gods and Generals—a powerful portrayal of the Civil War—General Stonewall Jackson expresses this kind of fatalism when he’s asked how he can stay calm and stand in the midst of the most intense battles. Here’s what he says: “Mr. Smith, my religious faith teaches me that God has already fixed the time of my death; therefore, I think not of it. I am as calm in battle as I would be in my own parlor. God will come for me in his own time.”

No, I don’t think that’s the point the Proverb writer is making. He’s saying something else. He’s saying, rather, there is a court outside the self to which to be grateful in times of plenty, to whom to appeal in times of poverty. And, in this seemingly endless election campaign, it’s good to remember it isn’t government (whether one tilts red, blue, orange or green). It’s God.

What’s more important than wealth? A good name. Where does one begin to get a good name? One begins by remembering I’m not the centre of the universe.

Which brings us to our second set of sayings—“whoever sows injustice will reap calamity. . . . Those who are generous are blessed.” The relationship to the first set of sayings is not immediately clear. It becomes clear, however, when we read verses 8-9 alongside verse 7. “The rich rules over the poor and the borrower is the slave of the lender.” V. 7 describes the way things are; not as they should be.

The word translated poor is different from the first saying we’ve just looked at. There, the word “poor” is the Hebrew word ras. It simply means, poor. There’s no moral connotation to it either way. In v 7, the word rendered poor is dal. It also means poor but carries with it connotations of helplessness and even oppression. It is a favorite term of the prophets. And here we find it in the proverbs.

The wealthy person rules over the helpless person, and the borrower is the slave of the lender. Ah. Now we are dealing with matters of good and evil. This is not simply a description of the way things are. It is a description of the way things are, and should NOT be. And, if one is wealthy and desires a good name, it is behavior that they will avoid. For to sow injustice by “ruling” over the poor through the unjust lending of wealth is to reap calamity and the rod of anger will fail.

On the other hand, those who are generous are favored by God—that is what blessed means—for they share their bread with the poor. They do not rule through lending. In their generosity they share.  To build for oneself a good name—the thing to be valued more than riches—is to cultivate a life of generosity. Of sharing.

Which brings us to our final saying. “Don’t rob the poor!” that’s how it begins. A simple enough imperative. But then there’s a reason given—because they are poor. Hang on. That doesn’t make sense. Who would take advantage of the poor because they are poor? The short answer, is “somebody who wants to get away with it!” Who better to take advantage of than the one who has no means to fight for justice, no wealth to hire a lawyer to plead their case before the judge? Don’t crush the afflicted at the gate. This makes the legal setting obvious. For it is saying that when the poor come to the gate—the place where the cases were tried by the wise of the city—to plead their case, don’t crush them. Don’t keep them from finding justice. Don’t keep them from finding whatever relief is available to them.

Why? Because the LORD is their advocate. He will please their cause. And the LORD is their judge. He will despoil of life those who despoil the poor. God, in other words, is not a neutral and unbiased party. God has taken a side. He has seen how the rich rule the helpless, how borrowers have become slaves of lenders. And he has taken up the cause of the poor and will render a judgment on their behalf. This is a theme that runs throughout the Scriptures, old and new.

So it is that we are left with one piece of advice about how those who claim to be the people of God should behave. They should above all things, cultivate a good name. Here’s how. Because God has created rich and poor alike, they should be generous with the poor—not the far away poor either, but the poor close enough to break bread with—for the situation could very easily be reversed. For God has intervened decisively in behalf of the poor and their rescue is at hand.

So, people of God, one way to bear witness to the good life—a life that has been and is being shaped by the claims of the Gospel, a life that is being shaped by the claim that God has, in fact, intervened on behalf of the poor in the most radical of ways, by becoming one of them, the Jew, Jesus of Nazareth—one way is to be generous! To live a life of generosity.  And not generosity at a distance, but the get-your-hands-dirty generosity that comes with breaking bread in close quarters.

Here, at last, I can be specific. I hope that you have seen and been horrified by the pictures of the little Kurdish boy who drowned as his family fled the Syrian civil war. And I hope you’ve been similarly horrified by politicians who would use this unmitigated tragedy as leverage in the election. Should it influence your vote? Certainly. But let’s be clear, that little boy’s tragic death is no more the fault of any politician, European, North American or Canadian, than it is yours and mine. There needs to be political debate about the right course of action, but not, as Archbishop Justin reminds us in his letter, as an alternative to seeking practical ways to help refugees. That little boy’s death is a call to all of us, and a judgment on all of us.

So let’s ask the really hard question. If I am to have a good name before God, if I am to break bread with the poor, if God will finally judge in their favour and hold accountable those who rob them of justice, of safety, of life itself, then what shall I do?

So, Epiphany, what shall we do? What are the avenues for us to be generous?

In our newsletter this week, I’ve included Archbishop Justin’s reflection on the refugee crisis. Start by reading it. It’s focused largely on UK and European matters—as it should be—but it doesn’t take much of a leap of imagination to re-cast it in Canadian terms

Then start asking questions like. . . .

How can I increase my prayer support for people like Archbishop Mouneer of Egypt and Archbishop Suheil of Jerusalem?

How can I increase my financial support for refugee relief through organizations like PWRDF, AURA (Diocese of Toronto), and the Refugee Working Group (Diocese of Ottawa)?

Am I prepared to do the work to cooperate with others to sponsor a refugee family to come to Canada?

Might I have to forego this home reno, that long waited for trip, this little extravagance (none of which are evil in themselves) to do what the Lord, who is the advocate of the poor, has called me to do?

As you prayerfully reflect on these questions, remember “I have an idea that someone else needs to accomplish,” won’t do. It’s an evasion. Think in terms of “this is what generosity looks like for me.” And then do it.

The Gospel and Ashley Madison (Mark 7:1-23)

It’s hard to read today’s Gospel and not think about the Ashley Madison hack, is it? Famous names of people or maybe infamous names. People who loved to talk about marriage and family being publicly shown to have failed to live up to their own standards. And the reactions spanned the gamut, didn’t they. Shock, anger, disappointment, smug schadenfreude—I love that word. It means finding joy in the failures of others. They were all on display. What do you think Jesus would have to say to those whose names were found on the list? What would he say to their critics? What does he have to say to us?

There are three audiences for Jesus’ words in our Gospel this morning. I think the audiences in the text map neatly on to the audiences in our three questions. I wonder if you do, too.

Some Pharisees and scribes have come from Jerusalem and are following Jesus around the Galillean countryside to sniff out just who this young upstart thinks he is. It’s as though the Pope sent cardinals from Rome, or the Archbishop of Canterbury sent a sufferagan from Lambeth, to a backwater parish to check up on a priest who had begun to make waves. Head office wants to know what’s going on. So boots are on the ground. And immediately, they find a fault. “Why do your disciples not wash their hands?” Why, in other words, do they not obey the religious rules?

Here are the religious rule enforcers. And they’ve come to make sure everything is being done decently and in order.

And Jesus says, these rules are dumb. So my followers don’t follow those rules. Right? No? That’s certainly what we expect Jesus to say. He’s relaxed compared to those uptight overly religious Charlie Churches that have come from Jerusalem. He tells them to lighten up!

Except he doesn’t. He, as Jesus so often does, changes the subject. You, he says, also abandon God’s commandments. And what’s worse, you do it by creating religious rules to help you get around religious rules! In an important paragraph that our reading omits, he accuses them of inventing religious justifications for disobeying one of the 10 commandments! The really big rules!

And Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah. You honor God with your lips, but your hearts are far from God.

And I think that would be the rebuke that Jesus would offer to those people who publicly extol family values, but privately register on Ashley Madison. You honor me with your lips, but your heart is far from me.

The problem is not so much that they hold people to rules they themselves cannot obey. The problem is that their heart needs to be renewed and their preoccupation with rules prevents that renewal from happening.

The second audience is the crowd. The gaggle of people following along from town to town hoping to see a miracle. They’ve just seen Jesus shame the religious experts who seem to enjoy making life difficult for people, who thrive on calling the judgment of God down on those who can’t measure up to their list of expectations no matter how hard they try.

And what does Jesus say? He says, “Those uptight religious nuts. I’m with you guys!” No. That’s not what he says.

“Listen!” he says, “Nothing coming from the outside in makes you unclean. It’s what comes from the inside to the outside that defiles.”

Jesus is using the Old Testament language of cleanliness and belonging to make his point here. In his day, as in the days of the Old Testament, to be part of the community was to be “clean.” To be cut off from the community was to be “unclean.” And one could be cut off from the community for many reasons. If a person had a skin disease, that person was unclean. Separated from the community to contain the contagion. If a person had touched a corpse, that person was unclean because of taboos surrounding death. If a person had sinned, had broken the laws by which the community lived, that person was unclean.

And what does Jesus say here? He says that belonging to God’s community is indeed a matter of being clean. But being is not about being fastidious about purity rules. It was about being renewed, changed, converted from the inside out. In other words, his message to the crowd is the same as his message to his enemies. You need to be renewed! You need to be converted!

And I think that would be his message to our second audience this morning, too. To those who were heartbroken at the Ashley Madison scandal as much as to those who enjoyed it. Don’t be distracted by their failure to obey the rules. Your hearts need to be renewed, too! Don’t think that because they failed, the rules are without value; don’t think that because they failed, you are their moral superior. You’re in the same boat! Your heart needs to be renewed, it needs to be converted, it needs to be changed too!

Then there’s a third audience. We miss the audience shift because our Gospel lesson again omits a paragraph. But it is there in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus left the crowd, we read, and entered the house and called his disciples to him. So we’ve moved from the Pharisees, to the crowds, to finally the small group of dedicated followers. The disciples.

To this last group Jesus gives a bit more explanation. The problem with purity he tells them, is not a matter of the body. It’s a matter of the heart. It’s from the heart that evil intentions come. From the heart comes fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, evny, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within! They defile a person.”

What cuts people off from the community of God’s people? The sin in our own hearts.

The disciples too are not immune from Jesus’ judgment. Look inside, Jesus says. What’s in there? What intentions lie within? Keeping the rules, following me from a distance, even following me into the house is no guarantee. Your heart is what matters. The core of your being.

And the message is the same for us, Jesus modern disciples. Look inside. Do you find adultery there? Then who cares if you’ve registered with a cheating website. Do you find a desire for another person’s property? Then who cares if you’ve actually stolen it or not! It’s the heart that needs changing! Even yours.

This past Thursday, we celebrated the feast day of that great sinner become a saint, Augustine of Hippo. Maybe you’ve read some of his Confessions. In the early chapters, he details his own sexual awakening, and how he enjoyed women. And from this side of his conversion, he’s ashamed of his sexual promiscuity. But he acknowledges that that promiscuity was rooted in an understandable inner intention. I longed for nothing but to love and to be loved, he writes.

Why didn’t my parents intervene to help me? Why didn’t they get me married off to channel my sexual desire? Clearly, he thinks they failed in their parental duty. They sinned, too. But again, his parents’ sin is also understandable. They wanted me to gain an education and a good living. What parent doesn’t want a good future for their children? And all of us who are parents can understand when that good desire sometimes leads to bad actions.

But then comes, for Augustine, the sin of sins. The sin that cannot be justified. Do you know what it was? Stealing pears. He tells that he and his friends did not steal the pears because they were beautiful. They were kind of ugly, in fact. He tells us that he and his friends did not steal because they were hungry. They fed the pears to pigs. No what makes the theft of the pears the worst sin—far worse than his promiscuity—is that he and his friends stole for the sheer joy of stealing. It showed that there was something wrong with Augustine’s heart. It needed to be renewed. It needed to be changed.

So it is that all of us are with the religious inspectors, the miracle seekers, the dimwitted disciples. All of us are with Augustine. All of us have hearts that defile. That keep us from God’s community. That, if we look inside and honestly, show us all—every one of us—to be sinners. That’s the bad news.

Here’s the good news. Only sinners can be saved.

And I, as likely the worst of all the sinners here, can invite the rest of the sinners here to come to this table with these words:

Ye that do earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead the new life, following the commandments of God and walking from henceforth in his holy ways, draw near with faith and take this holy sacrament to your comfort.

Here, at this altar, God has promised to change our hearts. Here at this altar as we feed on Christ by faith in our hearts and with thanksgiving, the rules will be set aside for the law will be written in us. We will be converted. We will be born again.

This Column is Not About Marriage

Evangelicals have been writing about marriage for many years. We still are, 10 years after same sex marriages became a legal reality in Canada. Still, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Ogberfell decision has once again put marriage on the front burner for evangelicals and other Christians across North America. And we are writing, writing, writing at least with greater ferocity than before.

Having been asked what I think, I submit that this is a great time NOT to write about marriage.

I think the controversy has provided us evangelicals with an opportunity to write about Christendom’s higher calling: celibacy. Sadly, however, it has also demonstrated to some of us that we can’t talk with people about celibacy because the popular evangelical understanding of marriage is so feeble.

First the opportunity. How might our singles react were they to hear that the celibate life was a vocation, a calling (Matthew 19:11)? That this vocation was not so much a gift from God as the gift of one’s whole self to God? How might they react were they to hear that this gift was a sacrifice, and like any sacrifice, it involved pain? To give one’s self entirely to God means sacrificing the possible life of spouse and children. What if we were to teach them that the inevitable pain of singleness is not a sign that their lives are incomplete, but the sign of a gift offered to God?

How might some of our singles respond were they to hear that the calling of celibacy, while painful, also freed one for service entirely to God and his church by laying aside a family’s inevitable demands (1 Corinthians 7:32-35)? Goodness me, we’ve heard lots about people surrendering marriage and family for the sake of career goals and the acquisition of wealth. How about for the sake of God’s mission in the world? That would be radical!

Or, finally, how might some of our singles respond were they to hear that their life anticipates the kingdom in a way that marriage does not? Marriage, as the union of male and female, points to God’s union with creation, to YHWH’s union with Israel, and to Christ’s union with the Church. When the full divine-human union of the kingdom comes, the sign will pass away (Matt. 22:30). If marriage brings the future into the present as a sign, celibacy brings the present into the future through anticipation. As a chosen vocation, celibacy is the wager of one’s self that the blessedness of the future kingdom will exceed the blessedness of family life now, and so is embraced in the present. Celibacy is not some sort of “failure to launch” but uniquely points to the Kingdom in a way that marriage cannot.

Now the challenge. When I worked at a Christian bookstore in the early nineties, an entire shelf was devoted to “marriage and family life.” We even sold Christian sex manuals. I don’t know a couple my age who didn’t survive an excruciating exposition of The Act of Marriage or Intended for Pleasure. People like me, older and unintentionally unpartnered, tended to fall into one of two camps: super-apostles “gifted with celibacy” or failing in our Christian vocation to marry. Holy freaks, or just freaks. Either way, we weren’t popular. Church was for the married or the on-the-way-to-be-married. Far too often in my experience, marriage was caricatured as the license to have sex. In hindsight, pretty thin gruel.

If the evangelical view of marriage really is that which surrounded me twenty-five years ago, we don’t have the resources we need to preach those sermons I mentioned above. We need a robust theology of marriage to help us flesh out an equally strong theology of the celibate life.

With the conflation of sexuality and identity thrust upon us in our culture’s marriage-and-sex-obsession, we have a chance to recover the deeply Christian language of celibacy. Are our pastors and leaders, men and women, married and celibate, up to the challenge?

Sermon: Who is This Man?

Here is today’s sermon. Who is This Man?

Sermon: Obstacles to Discipleship

Here is today’s sermon: Obstacles to Discipleship

The Gifts of Reformational Catholicism

I ran across this essay, about a year old now. Thought it might be of interest to some of you. Let me know if my suspicion is correct (or not)!



On November 8 of last year, the gadfly Presbyterian pastor, theologian and author, Peter J. Leithart created a significant amount of internet controversy, especially in Reformed and Evangelical circles, by publishing the essay, “The End of Protestantism,” on the First Things website, where he blogs regularly.[1] In that piece, he argued that Protestantism—defined as a perpetual negative reaction to all things Roman Catholic—needs to, and indeed is coming to, an end. In its place, he proposed Reformational Catholicism; a position which, without negating the classical emphases of the Reformation, no longer needed to define itself over against Roman Catholicism, but sought more to accentuate what the traditions held in common: the Scriptures, the Creeds, the first 1500 years of Christian faith, and so on.

The ensuing controversy was helpfully articulated as a public conversation at an evening entitled “The Future of Protestantism,” held at Biola University in Los Angeles, co-sponsored by the Davenant Trust and First Things, and featuring Leithart as well as responses by Carl Trueman and Fred Sanders. [2] While the content offered by all three speakers was helpful, I couldn’t help but feel that that Leithart on one side and Trueman and Sanders on the other talked past each other because of different working definitions of Protestantism. Leithart assumed a sociological definition. He was talking about a movement within history; one that is now entering its denouement. Here, as in his original essay, he hoped—as some have noted in Hegelian fashion—to try to sketch the contours of what would replace it. It was a great act of Aufhebung, that is, a simultaneous discarding and taking up, going forward into the future. Trueman and Sanders, on the other hand, defined Protestantism doctrinally. It was a system or collection of fairly fixed doctrines that, because they were true, needed to abide and to be defended by any and all perceived attempts to weaken those doctrines. And any attempt at downplaying the differences with Roman Catholicism—and this is clearly what Leithart was up to—needed to be protested.[3]

Leithart has to my mind drawn a line under the conversation, or at least his own contribution to it, in the recent essay, “Staying Put,” in which he insists he is not about to become Orthodox or Roman Catholic, or, me genoita!, Anglican. He will stay in his Presbyterian denomination, and continue to advance Reformational Catholicism within it.[4] While several reasons were offered, the most important was theological. In Leithart’s own words:

My main reason for staying put is theological. God is alive, and that means he surprises, and that means he frustrates the silly projections of creatures who can’t see past the horizon. Jesus will unite his church. He asked his Father to make his disciples one, and the Father won’t give his Son a stone when he asks for one loaf. But the united church won’t look like any of the products presently on the market. God is an entrepreneur who is in the business of creating new markets.[5]

I begin this paper with a nod to Rev. Leithart because I am in fundamental sympathy with his project. I think the sociological evidence is incontrovertible: Protestantism—in all its varieties and iterations—is dying in the West. What, 25 years ago, was seen as a liberal Protestant disease that led to some conservative sneers is, today, an epidemic across the spectrum. The United States, like Canada and Europe before it, is losing its faith. This is hardly news. The question that Leithart has asked, and his critics have often missed, is what is going to replace it.

I confess, I do not know. From within my own denomination and diocese, that lack of knowledge coupled with the increasing closing of parishes and “streamlining” of budgets keeps me perpetually unsettled. And when that discomfort approaches anxiety, as it does more often these days, it is hard not to look longingly at Rome for the rest it might offer. With Leithart, however, I do feel the call of God to stay where I am, a priest in a church founded by a King who wanted a divorce, a priest in a church now tearing itself apart over marriage, but still a church where at least sometimes, the Word is rightly preached and the sacraments faithfully administered.

So, if Leithart is right that, going forward, is not going to be a matter of individual conversions, but some sort of growing together toward something new that preserves the gifts God gave to his church uniquely through the Reformation, what are those things? In the remainder of this paper, I want to advance three. One doctrinal, one liturgical, and one, political.

  1. The Centrality of the Word

Doctrinally, Reformational Catholicism would, I hope, continue to insist on the centrality of Holy Scripture as a guide for both personal and corporate piety. The writings of the Fathers, the Saints, and so on, as helpful as they might be, must themselves be submitted to the scrutiny of the Word of God. Of course, this touches on one of the neuralgic questions of the Reformation—do we begin with Scripture or Church?—so I need to start with a couple of qualifications.

First, I am not talking about a particular theory of inspiration or infallibility or inerrancy. These issues have their place in Christian theological reflection. But they are simply not what I am talking about here. I am talking rather about how Scripture is deployed in communities of faith. Is its reading and careful application central to decision-making from the highest level down? Second, I am not challenging the place and importance of some sort magisterial organ of interpretation of Holy Scripture. Here, in my view, the classical Reformation does not depart from Rome on whether there should be such a thing, but rather, on the matter of what such a thing should look like. The classical Protestant tradition heartily agrees that sola Scriptura does NOT mean that each unaided can interpret the Bible correctly, but would nevertheless affirm that the Scriptures are themselves the organ used by the Spirit of God to judge, purify, and heal his church when it seems to stray.

In short, beginning with the question, “What do the Scriptures say?” is, I think, a gift Reformational Catholicism offers to the whole Church, and one that will continue.

To unpack just what this looks like, I direct us to the French-Swiss Reformer, John Calvin, and his understanding of ordination under the Word.

John Calvin broke with the threefold understanding of ordination of deacon, priest and bishop, to affirm instead only two ordained offices: that of doctor (or teacher) and that of pastor. Both offices were further redefined away from sacerdotalism, which by the late medieval era had come to look to many Reformers, both those who remained within and those who either left or were pushed, as a species of magical superstition, and toward a Word centred understanding.

For Calvin, those called to the office of Doctor were called to the task of training of pastors in the reading and preaching of the contents of Holy Scripture. They were to do so in two ways. First of all, doctors were to write Institutes, which Calvin himself famously did. His Institutes of the Christian Religion first appeared in 1536, and was constantly revised, being republished in 1539, 1543, 1550, and finally in 1559. There is no reason to suppose that the Institutes had achieved some sort of perfection in their author’s mind by their final published edition. Rather, the task of continual revision was interrupted by Calvin’s death.

Institutes were to function on two levels. They were first of all, intended to read for moral formation. Calvin himself makes this plain in his prefatory letter to King Francis of France, a letter which appeared in the 1536 edition, and in every edition thereafter: “My purpose was solely to transmit certain rudiments by which those who are touched with any zeal for religion might be shaped to true godliness.”[6]

And how did they intend morally to form their readers? By functioning as a hermeneutical guide. The Institutes are not a systematic theology, per se. Indeed, systematic theology as we know it—a semi-scientific enunciation of Christian doctrine in an ordered way—is a unique creation of the second generation of the Reformation as Catholic and Protestant thinkers both sought to vindicate their own theological conclusions over against those of their opponents. And while the Reformed tradition, of which Calvin (with Zwingli and Bullinger) is the source, has produced its share of systematic theologians (for good and ill), Calvin is not a systematic theologian nor do the Institutes constitute a systematic theology. They are, rather, a hermeneutical guideline. They are to make clear the principles by which the contents of Holy Scripture are rightly interpreted, in order that the Scriptures may themselves by properly understood and that, through that understanding, readers might by morally formed.

Of course, Institutes on their own, while helpful, are incomplete. Doctors must train pastors in the application of the hermeneutical principles laid out to the text of Holy Scripture. They do so through the writing of commentaries. And again, Calvin is himself a guide here. Having written commentaries on every book of the bible, except the book of Revelation. The purpose of the commentaries was to bring the hermeneutical principles to bear upon the sacred page in order that their contents’ meaning might be made clear. And this might be seen to function both backward and forward—forward into the pastoral tasks of preaching and visitation, which I’ll get to in a moment, and backward into the task of revising the hermeneutical principles in the first place. Which is why Calvin’s own Institutes were always under revision. They were always themselves being submitted to the Scriptures in order to make certain that people really were being formed in godliness, and that thy were being trained to read Scripture rightly.

This brings me to the second ordained office—that of pastor. Like the doctor, the pastor’s task was primarily directed toward moral formation through the teaching of the contents of Holy Scripture. Like that of the doctor, Calvin conceived that task as functioning in two ways. The difference between the offices had to do with audience and tasks. Where the doctor was charged with the training of pastors, however, the pastor was charged with the training of lay people. Where the doctor wrote institutes and commentaries, the pastor preached sermons and visited his people. Where the doctor was concerned to elucidate the contents of Holy Scripture, the pastor focused on the application of these contents to the everyday lives of their parishioners

Here I think we can move more quickly because the structural similarities of the offices are both deliberate and obvious and also because I intend to reflect on the importance of preaching further on. The sermon is to the pastor as the institutes are to the doctor. The sermon is the general application of the Bible’s contents to the lives of parishioners. The visit is then the space for the specific application in specific situations.

What to take away from this? Not, first, Calvin’s understanding of ordination. As an Anglican, I do think it misconceived. But Calvin does offer the whole church a gift in his insistence that part of the ordained office is teaching, the content of that teaching is Holy Scripture, and the goal of that teaching is a biblically literate and shaped laity. The writings of the fathers and the saints, as indeed the writing of the medieval theologians—and Calvin is quite capable of deploying them and not merely as foils—are themselves guides into, and open to the corrections of Holy Scripture. They are not alternatives, or short cuts, to detailed and persistent biblical study. But as Calvin’s own work makes clear, such a study does take place within a community of faith, well-versed the great tradition, and always on-going. This is the first gift that Reformational Catholicism can offer to the entire church.

  1. The Importance of Preaching

A second is an insistence upon the importance of preaching as the activity of the pastor. Again, this can be cast negatively—as a reaction against biblically and theologically illiterate priests and against a sacramentology divorced from the Word from which they received their sense. I would prefer, however, to cast it positively, and say that this should be seen not so much as an attack on sacramental ministry as the attempt to recover preaching and preaching’s place in the saving economy of God. And so it was with great pleasure that I watched Fr. Robert Barron, President of Mundelein Seminary, give the keynote address at the Catholic Media Convention in Denver.[7] When calling his audience to the New Evangelization, he offered six points, all of which are good. But he caught my attention with point #3. “Preach with ardour!” he said to his audience. And I said, “Amen!” to my computer.

We see this throughout the documents of the Reformation era, whether it is transcripts of Luther’s or Calvin’s sermons, or even some church architecture, with the pulpit replacing the altar as the focal point of the gathered community. I want to highlight just one example from my own tradition—the Canterbury Six Preachers.

In 1540, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer responded to Henry’s dissolution of the Christ Church Priory by creating in its place the Six Preachers. Enacted by Parliament in 1541, the six preachers had the right to eat with the dean and canons, to sit in the quire in Canterbury Cathedral, and they were required to preach 20 sermons / year, whether in their own parishes or in a parish dependent upon the Cathedral. And they were to preach in the Cathedral, too. Cranmer’s vision in establishing the Six Preachers, was to stress that the Church of England would be a preaching church. And from 1544 to today, there has been an unbroken succession of Six Preachers. (For those of you interested in Anglican church politics, Archbishop Justin raised eyebrows and some hackles by appointing Rev. Dr. Tory Baucum, of the Anglican Church in North America, as one of the Six Preachers last year).

While for some Protestants, preaching is accentuated at the expense of the sacraments, and especially the Eucharist, for Reformational Catholics, preaching is accentuated as the place where the Christ who claims us as his own in baptism and feeds us with his very life in bread and wine, speaks to us in with and under the words of the preacher. Preaching is not some kind of dry exposition of an academic text book. But rather, it is the announcement of the promise of God to save all who believe, and it accomplishes that which it announces when it is received in faith. While it is not a sacrament, it is a sacramental act. And when it is diminished, the mission of the church suffers. For when it is diminished, the laity are left unformed, and the sacraments become mute signs, divorced from the promises they express and contain.

  1. The Authority of the Church

Finally, Reformational Catholicism offers to the whole church a reconception of the Church’s authority. I recognize the potential for misunderstanding here, so I am going to proceed slowly and with an extended appeal to example so that we can avoid many potential pitfalls. Let’s have a look at Article 20 of the Anglican 39 articles:

The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies and Authority in Controversies of Faith: yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing contrary to Gods word written, neither to may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore although the Church be a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to Decree any thing against the same; so besides the same it ought not to enforce anything to be believed for necessity of salvation.[8]


The article opens with a strong declaration of the Church’s teaching authority.  But notice how it goes from there to delimit it significantly. The Church’s authority is bounded by Holy Scripture—it cannot ordain that which is contrary; nor can it set Scripture against itself; nor can it teach as necessary that which is not found therein. Moreover, the Church’s authority not self-generated, but is founded upon the prior authority of Scripture. The Church’s authority rests in the fact that the Church is witness to and guardian of these documents.


There are a number of points that might be worthy of comment here, some of which would take us back into the nettle bush of Reformation debate and disagreement. Without denying the importance of such, I want to focus on the positive. At a time when the Pope could command his own armed forces, this article strictly prohibits conformity to the Church’s teaching under compulsion. Also, the Church’s authority to teach or to convince lies outside the magistrate’s authority to command. While the magistrate may be called upon to use the sword to prevent false teaching, or perhaps less dramatically, help the church organize itself in ways and matters that are indifferent to Holy Scripture (See Article 34), the magistrate may not compel the Church to teach what it believes to be false.


The Church’s authority lies, simply, in its calling by God to tell the truth. It does not have the authority to command, but instead, the authority to convince. As Pope Benedict himself put it in 2008, the church does not impose, but freely proposes the Catholic faith.


It seems to me this vision of authority is especially needed in our own day, when those charged with the exercise of coercive power, far more than simply policing the public square so that people of deep conviction and good will can civilly conduct themselves therein, want to use that coercive authority to make sure only like-minded people can participate in public debate. This, it seems to me, is the bedrock of the co-belligerence spoken of my Fr R J Neuhaus and Chuck Colson even as they founded Evangelicals and Catholics Together. The Catholic Church—which I pray encompasses both Roman and Reformational Catholics—stands today as a sign of contradiction to such political visions. And it does so not with opposing armies, but with the insistence that the authority to tell the truth is itself a legitimate expression of authority, that as such serves both to ground and to delimit the authority to command, that indeed without it, the authority to command soon devolves into tyranny.




I hope it is clear that my argument that Reformational Catholicism offers to the whole church gifts of word-centred piety, preaching-centred worship, and truth-centred authority, does not imply that Roman Catholicism lacks these things. I do think that historically, each of these elements were in severe decline in late medieval Roman Catholicism, and that the Reformation reaction against this decline was an expression of legitimate concern for the whole church. Insofar as I see these gifts taken up and received in Roman Catholicism—and I hope it’s clear that I do—I rejoice. Insofar as I see these gifts rejected by those who claim to be the Reformers’ heirs, I weep. In the West, I do believe that the Lord is calling Reformational and Roman Catholics into deeper unity, a unity that will not be the capitulation of one to the other, nor the creation of a new third thing. I believe further that, as has so often happened in the past, the external push toward such unity will be persecution. But that is a subject for another paper.

[1] Peter J. Leithart, “The End of Protestantism,” Accessed May 27, 2014.

[2] See for a recording of the event. Accessed May 27, 2014.

[3] One is tempted to ask how these authors feel about J. Gresham Machen’s similar attempt at rapprochement in the introduction to his classic fundamentalist work, Christianity and Liberalism

[4] Peter J. Leithart, “Staying Put,” Accessed May 27, 2014.

[5] Ibid.

[6] John Calvin, Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion. LCC XX (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), p. 9.

[7] The entire address can be found here:–Barron-s-7-Keys-to-the-New-Evangelization.aspx. Accessed, May 29, 2014.

[8] Book of Common Prayer, ed. Cummings, 679

The Love that Is God: A Sermon for Trinity Sunday

Here is this morning’s sermon for your consideration:The Love that is God. Whaddaya think?

Three Birthdays: A sermon for Pentecost

Here is today’s sermon for Pentecost. Three Birthdays

Messy Church

The persecution that took place under Diocletian (303-313) was especially severe in North Africa. As a result, the question of how or whether to re-admit Christians to worship who had recanted their faith, was a very difficult pastoral question, especially when they were priests or even bishops.

Some insisted that lapsed believers could not return, or if they could, only after a protracted and public period of repentance. Priests and Bishops, if readmitted to the community, could never return to their former roles. Others were more lenient. After a period of repentance, mercy and forgiveness should determine the course. Priests and Bishops could also return to their ministries.

By the time of the fifth century, the positions had become so polarized that the North African Church split into two competing churches. On the one side, the Donatists insisted that the Church, and especially its leaders, must be pure. On the other, the Catholics held that before the kingdom of God came in its fullness, a certain amount of messiness was unavoidable.

St. Augustine was convinced by his reading of the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13:24-30), that the Church would never be pure until the Final Judgment. Until then she would be a mixture of sinners and saints, people resisting grace and resting in it. Communities should not be too quick to judge who’s in or not, even among the leadership.

I wonder whether some of my friends on the religious right and the red-letter left could learn from Augustine’s reluctance to rush to judgment. On just about every hot-button issue today, we find Christians divided amongst ourselves. To our collective shame, we far too easily call down the judgment of God on those who disagree with us. We do so with particular verve in social media, where one’s enemies are anonymous and therefore demonized—that word is used deliberately–much more easily.

We act in this way because we want a pure church. We want to presume upon the judgment of God; we want to short-circuit the path to the Day of Judgment. We want, if I may put it more provocatively, to present God with a holy Church of our own making all the while refusing to receive the holiness that is God’s gift in Christ to his Church. We act this way because we are sinners as much as our opponents are.

Already I can hear my neo-Donatist critics sharpening their rhetorical swords. “Christians should not tolerate [insert preferred ideological opponent here]! We need to exercise discipline! We need to call them to repentance!” I have no answer to that, because I largely agree. When the behaviour of believers become a scandal to their unbelieving neighbors, the Church needs to discern the source of the scandal. If the scandal is rooted in fidelity to the Gospel (as with Stephen in Acts), then the Church celebrates this believer as a prophet, or a saint, or possibly a martyr. If the scandal is rooted in persistent sinfulness (as with the immoral brother in 1 Corinthians), then the Church disciplines even to the point of exclusion from the community.

Here’s my point: what is lost in so much debate today is precisely the wisdom and time needed to discern. We want to identify who’s right, and who’s not and pass sentence right away. But that is not how the Church should work. Discipline working rightly recognizes that every situation is different, and even someone caught in serious sin (like those who lapse under persecution) may need restoration with a gentle hand rather than condemnation.

So before you share that next meme that so skewers Focus on the Family or Sojourners, ChristianWeek or Geez, for their latest failure, remember Augustine and the Donatists. Leave room for the Church to be messy. Leave room for the Church to discern. Leave room for the judgment of God.

Ascension, Abandonment and Intercession

It was a gift to be able to preach and serve at both services at St. Thomas Anglican Church in Toronto this past Sunday. Here is the text of my sermon.


This past Wednesday, I enjoyed spending some time with the Society of Mary, talking with them about the place of Mary in Luke’s Gospel. And I, as all public speakers do these days, tried to sell some books afterwards. Since we were on the threshold of Ascensiontide, one of the books I brought with me was a little devotional my brother Aaron and I wrote about this wonderful event. One of the listeners picked up the book and asked me, “Will this book make me like the Ascension?”  What a great question! Well, it prompted one of my own. “Why don’t you like the Ascension?” I asked. “It leaves me feeling abandoned.”

I get that. There are times in our lives as disciples of Jesus when we might feel profoundly alone, wishing, if this is not too crass, that we had a cellphone number. Direct encounters with Jesus, at least before the kingdom comes in its fullness, are the unique provenance of mystics and saints. I don’t know about you, but I am not a mystic. And while I am, I pray, on my way to sanctification, I have never been “caught up into the third heaven,” as St. Paul was.

So I get the feeling of abandonment that my new friend spoke of. Do you, too? And like her, that loneliness is sharpest for me in the days between Ascension and Pentecost.

On the threshold of his departure from the world, the Lord Jesus knew that feelings of loneliness and abandonment would be a returning trope in the lives of his disciples. Not just the twelve or the extended company who travelled with them, but all those whom the Father had given him, as he describes the people for whom he prays in our Gospel lesson. All of them.  All includes my friend. All includes me. All includes, well, all of us. The Lord Jesus himself, in his humanity, prayed for us on the verge of his departure. He continues, in that now ascended humanity, to pray for us before the throne of his Father. And that is good news. Let’s explore it further.

What does Jesus pray for us who live between the already of his ascension into heaven and the not yet of the final transformation of ourselves and all creation?

He prays, first of all, that the Father protect his disciples that they may be one even as he and his father are one.  His words call to mind the powerful image that was developed in our Gospel lessons for the previous two weeks: that of the true vine. You remember the image, which accentuates how the life of discipleship is an organic union with Jesus such that the divine life flows through him—the vine—into us—the branches. In this way, we participate, we share in God’s own life, we are deified. And through our sharing in that life, we are fruitful and we are “pruned” to become more fruitful. And the fruitfulness Jesus describes here is the fruitfulness of a faithful disciple.

When Jesus prays for us that we be protected, and that in that protection we might be one, he prays that his disciples would remain united to him, and in that union, we remain united to each other.  Jesus prays this way because, he says, he is leaving the world and his disciples are not, or at least not yet. And in his absence, if the joy of the disciples is to be complete, if the disciples are to rest in the protection of God, if they would continue the mission of bringing the life of God to the world, they will need to be protection.

This is not the only request the Son makes to the Father for us. Here is the second. I ask that you not take them out of the world, I ask that you protect them from the evil one. The protection that is continuing in the life of God that comes to us through the Lord Jesus is protection from the evil one. We are not accustomed to thinking or speaking in this way. This parish church lives on a lovely street in a city noted around the world for its, well, dullness. Very little bad happens in Toronto. And so it is that we might regard Jesus’ words here with a little confusion. For so many of us the world is basically a good place. Oh we have our challenges, but we would not cast them as attacks from the enemy of our souls.

Is that true for you? It is for me. But here’s the thing: it is not true for the majority of the followers of the Lord Jesus around the world today. It is truly tragic that most of our media sources leave the global persecution of our brothers and sisters underreported. Some, worse, sensationalize it. But there are a few that tell the truth. (If I may commend a book here, the title is Christianophobia and the author is Rupert Shortt, the biographer of the former Archbishop, Rowan Williams). If Jesus prays for his disciples that they be protected from the evil one while they remain in the world, it is because they need such prayers.

Here’s the nugget—if we are united to God, and through that union to each other, and if in that union we bring the life of God to the world, we will need to be protected from the hostility provoked. And so we add our prayers today to the prayer of the Lord Jesus for those of our brethren who, so much more than us, need his protection from the evil one today.

To the two requests for protection, Jesus adds a third: that his followers be made holy by the truth of the Father’s Word. The notion of holiness here is not some mystical quality, but simply means separateness or otherness. Jesus prays that by the truth of the word, his followers would be kept separate from the world. Of course, the connection to the previous requests is clear isn’t it? And there is a deeper one.  Who is the Father’s Word in the Gospel of John? None other than the Lord Jesus who spke of himself as the truth. Jesus prays that, by his own life flowing in us, we would be drawn into the truth, we would be protected from the world, we would be made holy.

It is hard not to work our way through this part of Jesus’s prayer for us and not feel a sense of dislocation, otherness from the world. And so we are wise to remember that the world which the Lord Jesus left in his Ascension, the world in which we remain, the world which is acknowledged by the Lord as a place of hostility both for himself and those who would follow him, is also the world that the Father loves, the world to which the Son was sent, the world to which we who are in the Son are also sent.

Have we been abandoned? It may well seem like it in this time between the times, in the tension between the already victory of Jesus and the not yet consummation of his kingdom. But we remain united to him who even now prays for our protection and sanctification, who lives his life through us, and who calls us out into the world that he loves. And in that mission, we are never alone.