The Host and the Servant of the New Creation: A Homily

This is a sermon I preached on Maundy Thursday 2016, which Joel graciously let me share with you via his blog.


Gospel Text: John 13.1-17; 31b-35

Please pray with me as I pray a prayer written by St. Anselm of Canterbury:

“O my God teach my heart where and how to seek you,

where and how to find you…

You are my God and you are my All and I have never seen you.

You have made me and remade me,

You have bestowed on me all the good things I possess,

Still I do not know you…

I have not yet done that for which I was made….

Teach me to seek you…

I cannot seek you unless you teach me

or find you unless you show yourself to me.

Let me seek you in my desire, let me desire you in my seeking.

Let me find you by loving you, let me love you when I find you.”

Amen.


I don’t know about anyone else, but I grew up a little turned off by the idea of washing someone else’s feet. In our culture we just do not practice these sorts of things—largely because there are no conventional reasons to. However, in the historical context of tonight’s Gospel lesson there were a few reasons for the washing of feet, and, after exploring these reasons, I promise that the idea of foot washing will make a little more sense.

First, feet were primarily washed for hygienic reasons. Proper hygiene in the form of foot washing was imperative to societies that primarily relied on foot traffic along dusty roads. After all, first century Palestine was essentially a desert location, and therefore washing the dust that had been accumulated from travel off of one’s feet would have been as essential then as washing one’s hands is in today’s society. This is often overlooked by us today as there are socks and shoes, while back then there were only sandals.

Second, feet were often washed as a gesture of hospitality. What this means is that upon entering one’s residence, the service of foot washing would be offered as a gesture of good faith that was extended for the hygienic practices mentioned above. Sort of like our efforts to make a sink and bathroom available for guests to freshen up in today’s culture. We’ll talk more about this in a moment.

The third reason for foot washing in John’s cultural context would have been cult activity. There are some cases in which foot washing was enacted for cultic worship, though it’s worth noting that never would these cult leaders or deities ever be depicted washing the feet of their followers.

Considering each of these options, it seems most likely that John’s Jesus is washing his disciples’ feet for the sake of hospitality—not only that, but representing the unique portrait of a God that serves his disciples and not the other way around. So, let’s dive into the intricacies of hospitable foot washing in John’s culture.

The host of a gathering would typically make foot washing available for their guests, especially if the gathering was a meal—think hygiene—and the host’s servants were usually the ones who carried out this service. In other words, it was highly unlikely that the host of a gathering would have washed the feet of his guests himself. This is where the novelty lies in John’s account of this gesture. Not only is Jesus hospitably providing the means by which his disciples are to be cleansed and cared for, as any good host would have done; but he is performing this service himself, as any good servant would have done.

In this passage of Scripture we are confronted by Jesus as both the host and servant, the one who invites us and delivers us—who serves us as he leads us. Notice how that Jesus’ identity as teacher and Lord is directly tied in with his actions of self-emptying love and servant leadership. He even asks his disciples to imitate this gesture toward one another—a suggestion that is directly paralleled with the commandment to love one another as we have been loved by God. What can this mean? There are a few things to consider.

First, this isn’t just an ethical formula for living into one’s faith. In other words, one cannot simply reduce this text to yet another rule that the Christian is to follow. It’s not that we must simply wash feet once a year, even as when we don’t want to, even if we are repulsed by feet, or even as we might find this particular, liturgical expression obtuse and awkward. For us to assume such a conclusion would be almost as clumsy as Peter’s insistent misunderstanding in tonight’s Gospel lesson, refusing to have his feet cleansed by the Lord. This isn’t just a suggestion; this is an opportunity to be transformed by the acts of love carried out by and through Jesus Christ. This act serves as an expression of our transformation in Christ. How are we transformed? When we dine with Christ! When we receive God’s sacramental grace, we are transformed and renewed in such a way that we can performs acts of hospitality, such as the washing off of our neighbor’s feet.

Second, there is more going on in this text than the act of foot washing itself, as alluded to above. While this specific gesture was culturally relevant at the time, and the water can be seen as symbolic for a whole slew of other elements in the Christian faith, it must not be forgotten that this scene is unfolding in the shadow of a meal—and not just any meal! The washing of the feet is just a liturgical act unfolding in the context of the bread that is broken, the wine that is poured and ingested, the feasting upon Christ’s broken body and shed blood.

The sacrament of Holy Communion is the meal in which we are invited to attend—the meal that Christ is hosting for us, into which he invites us so that we may receive the ultimate fulfillment for which we long. It is in the imitation of our teacher who accomplished for us what we cannot accomplish ourselves that we are able to see the revelation of God’s nature, and we are able to find a deep love for one another through our abiding love of God’s presence.

So while I want you to see this liturgical act, this tradition of washing feet, as something essential in John’s Gospel for revealing the character of God through Jesus Christ, it is insurmountably more important that you realize that through this act you are being invited into something so much more profound! Namely, the presence of Jesus Christ and the grace of the Father, as it dwells among the elements of this table before us, calling us into deeper union and intimacy with both God and each other.

The host that serves you in everyday life—by washing your feet, by suffering even until his death on the cross—is throwing a banquet in which heaven and earth fuse together, and the glory of God is shown forth from within the self-emptying love of Jesus Christ.

May God’s Holy Spirit call us into a deep meditation on the nature of Jesus’ ministry—his sacrifice and his self-emptying hospitality.

May we participate in and imitate the inconceivable hospitality of our host as we serve one another by the washing of our feet and the cleansing of our hearts.

And, while we imitate and embody our Lord’s hospitality, may we realize the invitation to behold the New Creation that’s unfolding within our midst.

Behold, God is making all things new; let us embody the example of Jesus and rinse off the dust that we have accumulated while walking down the roads of our lives—welcoming and serving each other as we have been served through Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and his ongoing work in our lives through Holy Communion.

Let us serve those gathered, seeing this expression of faith in the shadow of such a seismic meal. Let us see Christ as our example—our host and servant—upon whom we feast and feast with.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

Amen!

St. John Chrysostom on keeping Christmas

6-188 This greeting on thy impious crest
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Yesterday, although it was a feast-day of Satan, you preferred to keep a spiritual feast, recieving our words with great good will, and spending most of the day here in church, drinking a drunkness of self-control, and dancing in the chorus of Paul. – On Wealth and Poverty, Sermon 1

The feast day that John mentions is Saturnalia. Many have painted the corruption of the Church with the brush of conspiracy, but here we see that it was not conspiracy, but a matter of people choosing to hold a worship servicce as opposed to partaking in the feast of Saturnalia.

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John Chrysostom’s Christmas Homily

Mosaic in the northern tympanon depicting Sain...
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I have come to admire the Golden Mouth, John Chrysostom, from a homiletic standpoint as well as an interpretative standpoint. He is sound in many of this thoughts, and although we may arrive at a different view of the Godhead, it would be difficult at best to find that difference in this homily.

BEHOLD a new and wondrous mystery. My ears resound to the Shepherd’s song, piping no soft melody, but chanting full forth a heavenly hymn. The Angels sing. The Archangels blend their voice in harmony. The Cherubim hymn their joyful praise. The Seraphim exalt His glory. All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth, and man in heaven. He Who is above, now for our redemption dwells here below; and he that was lowly is by divine mercy raised.

Bethlehem this day resembles heaven; hearing from the stars the singing of angelic voices; and in place of the sun, enfolds within itself on every side, the Sun of justice. And ask not how: for where God wills, the order of nature yields. For He willed; He had the power; He descended; He redeemed; all things yielded in obedience to God. This day He Who is, is Born; and He Who is, becomes what He was not. For when He was God, He became man; yet not departing from the Godhead that is His. Nor yet by any loss of divinity became He man, nor through increase became He God from man; but being the Word He became flesh, His nature, because of impassability, remaining unchanged.

And so the kings have come, and they have seen the heavenly King that has come upon the earth, not bringing with Him Angels, nor Archangels, nor Thrones, nor Dominations, nor Powers, nor Principalities, but, treading a new and solitary path, He has come forth from a spotless womb.

Since this heavenly birth cannot be described, neither does His coming amongst us in these days permit of too curious scrutiny. Though I know that a Virgin this day gave birth, and I believe that God was begotten before all time, yet the manner of this generation I have learned to venerate in silence and I accept that this is not to be probed too curiously with wordy speech.

For with God we look not for the order of nature, but rest our faith in the power of Him who works.

What shall I say to you; what shall I tell you? I behold a Mother who has brought forth; I see a Child come to this light by birth. The manner of His conception I cannot comprehend.

Nature here rested, while the Will of God labored. O ineffable grace! The Only Begotten, Who is before all ages, Who cannot be touched or be perceived, Who is simple, without body, has now put on my body, that is visible and liable to corruption. For what reason? That coming amongst us he may teach us, and teaching, lead us by the hand to the things that men cannot see. For since men believe that the eyes are more trustworthy than the ears, they doubt of that which they do not see, and so He has deigned to show Himself in bodily presence, that He may remove all doubt.

Christ, finding the holy body and soul of the Virgin, builds for Himself a living temple, and as He had willed, formed there a man from the Virgin; and, putting Him on, this day came forth; unashamed of the lowliness of our nature.

For it was to Him no lowering to put on what He Himself had made. Let that handiwork be forever glorified, which became the cloak of its own Creator. For as in the first creation of flesh, man could not be made before the clay had come into His hand, so neither could this corruptible body be glorified, until it had first become the garment of its Maker.

What shall I say! And how shall I describe this Birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of Days has become an infant. He Who sits upon the sublime and heavenly Throne, now lies in a manger. And He Who cannot be touched, Who is simple, without complexity, and incorporeal, now lies subject to the hands of men. He Who has broken the bonds of sinners, is now bound by an infants bands. But He has decreed that ignominy shall become honor, infamy be clothed with glory, and total humiliation the measure of His Goodness.

For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking my flesh, He gives me His spirit; and so He bestowing and I receiving, He prepares for me the treasure of Life. He takes my flesh, to sanctify me; He gives me His Spirit, that He may save me.

Come, then, let us observe the Feast. Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the Nativity. For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken, paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed from us, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused, and spreads on every side, a heavenly way of life has been ¡in planted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and men now hold speech with angels.

Why is this? Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle. He became Flesh. He did not become God. He was God. Wherefore He became flesh, so that He Whom heaven did not contain, a manger would this day receive. He was placed in a manger, so that He, by whom all things arc nourished, may receive an infant’s food from His Virgin Mother. So, the Father of all ages, as an infant at the breast, nestles in the virginal arms, that the Magi may more easily see Him. Since this day the Magi too have come, and made a beginning of withstanding tyranny; and the heavens give glory, as the Lord is revealed by a star.

To Him, then, Who out of confusion has wrought a clear path, to Christ, to the Father, and to the Holy Ghost, we offer all praise, now and for ever. Amen.

St. John Chrysostom, “Homily on Christmas Morning”

HT.

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Dear UMC: Please No New Denominations

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Personal Note

This is the first time I’m writing a blog post for Unsettled Christianity—or any blog post, for that matter. I want to thank Joel Watts for the opportunity to share these thoughts on Unsettled Christianity.

Schism—a sad possibility

If for some reason you are not familiar with the current state of the United Methodist Church as a denomination, here are some helpful perspectives:

I felt compelled to share my thoughts on the uncertain future of the United Methodist Church because I love the UMC, and even now, am hopeful for its future. I want to make one thing clear: I am absolutely committed to serving the UMC. As a recently ordained elder in full connection with the Rio Texas Conference, I intend to serve Christ’s church through this denomination for as long as it exists, or until, God willing, I retire many decades from now, whichever comes first.

But at this point, to deny the possibility of schism in the UMC is to deny reality. Given that sad reality, I want to share some perspectives about the UMC’s future, especially with respect to the possibility of a schism. If the UMC ceases to exist as one body, I believe our congregations should join existing Christian denominations. I believe that new denominations would only serve to further divide the body of Christ.

Unity in the Body of Christ—a biblical mandate

I have strongly opposed the dissolution of the United Methodist Church for one simple reason: God wants the church to stay united. The psalms tell us “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity” (Psalm 133:1). Jesus prayed to his heavenly Father for unity amongst Christ followers (John 17:20-23). The Apostle Paul reminds us that all believers are part of one body, for we’re all baptized by the same Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13). We believe in one God, one faith in Jesus Christ, and one Spirit who gives us the ability to live in peace and unity (Ephesians 4:3-6). That’s why John Wesley preached against the possibility of schism from his own Church of England five years before his death. It’s why Karl Barth referred to the division of the global church as a “scandal” (Church Dogmatics, Volume IV.1, New York: T&T Clark Intl., 1956, pg. 677).

Pursuing Unity—even when a church body splits

Of course, if unity were the only biblical value, no church body would ever split. The Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches would never have split. Luther never would have left the Catholic Church. The global church would not consist of something like seven major ecclesial global blocs. In the previously cited sermon, John Wesley says that,

Suppose you could not remain in the Church of England without doing something which the word of God forbids, or omitting something which the word of God positively commands; if this were the case, (but blessed be God it is not) you ought to separate from the Church of England.

Nonetheless, the occasional necessity of institutional separation does not negate Scripture’s command for the church to seek unity. A divided church offers a confused and divided witness to the world about the power and love of God in Jesus Christ. Therefore, even when one must separate from a church body, one must seek as much unity as possible within the global church.

A Modest Proposal—No New Denominations. Period.

Regardless of the future of the UMC, we’re called as Christ followers to seek, as much as possible and with the Spirit’s help, unity with the global church. Many within the UMC seek such unity, and I applaud them for their efforts. In the seven months I’ve served in my current appointment, I’ve connected with many local pastors from other denominations, and I treasure those connections. Especially with the sad possibility of schism arising over the next few years, I believe we should all take a step back and assess our role within the global church.

Given these reflections, I believe one thing for sure: the world does not need any more Christian denominations. We have already split in so many ways that the global church must seek greater connection, for such connection leads to a stronger witness of the power and love of Jesus Christ. Such unity, of course, does not require uniformity. Different ministries and cultural contexts require different evangelistic and missional strategies, and in many cases different worship styles. Nonetheless, splitting a denomination and forming new denominations, in my opinion, ignores our Christian mandate to exist as a united body of Christ.

It is my hope and prayer that as the various factions within the UMC engage in difficult conversations over the future of our denomination, we form no new denominations. A plethora of denominations already exist that could fill the void should the UMC no longer exist. Conservative/evangelical Methodists (I find myself in this “camp” most often) have much in common with the Wesleyan Church and the Anglican Church in Northern America, for example. Those on the progressive side have a lot in common with plenty of existing mainline denominations, such as the Episcopal Church, ELCA, UCC, and PCUSA.

I would also hope that non-Caucasian and multi-ethnic congregations could join such church bodies. However, if that didn’t work out, there are existing options for those congregations. For example, AME & AME-Zion could offer a home for African American congregations. I’ve also heard colleagues mention the possibility of Spanish-speaking churches linking up with the Mexican Methodist Church. Regardless of how such a scenario would specifically shake out, seeking connections with existing denominations would provide a powerful witness to the Spirit’s ability to draw us together as Christians. Such unity would at least partially mitigate against the inevitable damage that a dissolution of the UMC would create.

I hope none of these contingencies are necessary. It is my hope and prayer that the United Methodist Church stays whole. I hope Methodists can find a way to evangelize and minister to the world for the cause of Jesus Christ as one body. However, regardless of what the future holds for United Methodists, Christ calls us to seek unity with the entire church. The formation of any new denominations, in my humble opinion, would not serve that end.

ADDENDUM: I appreciate the feedback that a reader offered on social media that I did not address the reality of the UMC’s global nature in this post. This is absolutely true, and I’m grateful for that feedback. It should be noted that both the Wesleyan Church and the ACNA are global, or at least closely connected to a global church body. But in discussing the possibility of schism, we should ponder the response of the non-American church to this possibility.

Anselm v. Calvin

Anselm of Canterbury was the first to attempt ...
Anselm of Canterbury was the first to attempt an ontological argument for God’s existence. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Church has never taken an official stance on what exactly it was that Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection accomplished in order to secure salvation for humanity. One of the most innovative theories of atonement is St. Anselm of Canterbury’s Satisfaction Theory. Unfortunately, most seminarians that encounter Anselm’s work do so through the lens of John Calvin’s Penal Substitutionary Atonement. Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) can be historically placed underneath the umbrella of satisfaction atonement, though it often comes with the temptation to identify PSA as the definitive satisfaction theory of atonement. As a student of Anselm’s teachings, I believe there are more powerful and deeply orthodox ways of understanding atonement in a satisfaction paradigm that do not involve Calvin’s theory. What follows is an attempt to distinguish Calvin and Anselm’s atonement theology from one another, concluding with a short explanation of why, in my opinion, Anselm’s theory is a better option.

Calvin’s Penal Substitutionary Atonement

To begin understanding Calvin’s soteriology, we must start with the fallen state of humanity. Humans are totally depraved, deformed by the curse of sin, and beyond any recognizable form of holiness in the eyes of God. God, being utterly Just and Holy cannot simply overlook sin, nor be in its presence. Therefore, sin had to be punished by necessity, which meant that unless God’s wrath was satisfied in some alternative way, every human being would have to be punished in the eternal torments of hell. Thus, that which needed to be satisfied in Calvin’s theory was the wrath of God toward sin, and Jesus was the substitute who took God’s wrath in our place.

Out of God’s love, God the Father sent God the Son to became a son of man and suffer all of the afflictions brought upon humanity by the curse of sin. Jesus, God’s only begotten son, suffered in body and soul all of which humanity must suffer; himself being innocent, he took the full curse of sin upon himself and subjected himself to the full wrath of God. Important to note is that Jesus didn’t just have to die, but had to die a death reserved for the worst sinners and criminals (crucifixion), after being publicly condemned by Pontius Pilate (in accordance with the Apostle’s Creed), and before descending into hell; all of this happened in order to undergo the full penalty of human sin. The resurrection is God’s vindication of Jesus, his victory over death and hell, and the sign of hope for the elect who will become purged from sin and redeemed by God’s irresistible grace.

Anselm’s satisfaction theory is often retroactively interpreted with Calvin’s theory in mind because many Christians are indoctrinated with the Calvinist understanding of atonement in their local Church before ever encountering the proto-scholastic thought of Anselm in college or seminary. This causes many distinguished aspects of Anselm’s theory to go unnoticed. For this reason, I will now present a brief synopsis of Anselm’s theory for contrast.

Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory of Atonement

To assess Anselm’s theory of atonement, we will begin again with the human condition. According to Anselm, humans were created by God and fell under the seduction of sin. Sin introduced dishonor for God in the place of honor, injustice in the place of justice, and disorder in the place of order. All of which thwarted God’s intended goal of a harmonious, heavenly city in which creation and God delighted in one another. As those who acted out of their free will, choosing to sin, humanity was obligated to make recompose for its sin, restoring God’s honor, and along with it, his justice and order. Yet humanity was unable to do such a thing because the affects of sin produced too heavy a weight for humanity to bear. God was capable of such restoration, able to give a recompense for humanity’s sins, but under no obligation to do so (meaning if he does enact such a restoration it’s out of his free will to do so and not an external indictment).

At this point God had two options. Either God could punish humanity for its sin, trapped as it were in a prison of its own making, or God could restore creation from its sin God’s self. Choosing the latter, God the Son chose to take on human nature in order to restore humanity to its former perfection.

God the Son became a human being, Jesus, and, being fully God and fully human, was capable of making recompense on behalf of those obligated to do so, satisfactorily restoring God’s honor among creation. Being a human, Jesus was already obligated to be righteous, but, being without sin, he wasn’t under the obligation to die. Thus, the giving of his life for God’s glory was the one thing that wasn’t otherwise required of him—something he could do to honor God like the martyrs who died for God’s glory (note: unlike Jesus, the martyrs were going to die anyway). Being fully God, Jesus is the greatest possible being, making his death the greatest possible injustice; thus the greatest possible good (God) underwent the greatest possible evil (crucifixion) for the sake of redeeming an undeserving humanity. And, by his voluntary death, Jesus secured the greatest possible reward. Since no reward could benefit Jesus, as he was already perfect, he was free to give his reward over to anyone of his choosing. God the Son therefore gave his reward over to the rest of humanity, enabling humanity to be liberated from sin’s bondage.

With these two distinct understandings of atonement parceled out above, let me explain what is problematic about Calvin’s theory and preferable in Anselm.

Why is Anselm’s Theory Better?

To depict the ways in which PSA is problematic one could refer to its implication of parental abuse, its glorification of retributive justice, etc. etc. Yet, I can sum up my concerns in one question. That is, in PSA, who is punishing whom? After all, it would appear that one person of the Trinity is punishing another, bound by an external logic of punishment that cannot be forgone in any other way. And, as Calvin’s theological determinism would suggest, this rather problematic depiction of Triune discord is what the Godhead had preferred all along out of all other possible options.

On the other hand, in Anselm’s theory, it is clear that God the Son wasn’t punished by God the Father, but that God the Father and God the Son shared the same will as coequal members of the Trinity. Moreover, God the Son voluntarily laid down his life to restore his own honor, along with the honor of the Father and the Spirit, as he was in fact fully God. Thus, in Anselm’s system, we can definitively say the Father didn’t punish the Son because Anselm is very careful in demonstrating that a distinction between the will of God the Father and God the Son is a failure to understand the Trinitarian backdrop of the incarnation. Anselm makes it clear that the person of the Son taking on human nature is part of the shared Trinitarian mission to avoid any form of punishment. By God choosing to find a way to make recompense, God is saying “no” to redemptive punishment and retributive justice. This isn’t quite so clear in Calvin’s theory. Since Calvin’s Godhead demands punishment, which means one person of the Trinity must punish another, it must be accounted for how PSA can maintain the unified will of the Godhead in each of its persons.

Anselm’s presentation is deeply orthodox in its understanding of the Trinity. In my opinion, it’s also more Biblical in its rejection of retributive justice, and its orientation toward sacrificial love over divine wrath. It’s my hope that from my brief synopsis above that I have articulated at least some of the many contrasts between Calvin and Anselm’s atonement theories. More importantly, I hope that everyone would take the time to read Anselm’s work with fresh eyes so as to discover many powerful qualities that I wasn’t able to dive into here.

 

Further Reading:

St. Anselm of Canterbury’s Cur Deus Homo (Eng. Why God Became Man)

Book II of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion