John Chrysostom’s Christmas Homily

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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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Seeking the Common Good with Humility & Perspective

Introductory Note

I preached the following sermon at First UMC-Edcouch & First UMC-Lyford on October 23, 2016. Original title: “Nations, Rulers, & the God of All.” Texts: Daniel 11:36-12:4 & Galatians 3:23-29.

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I am a political junkie

Some of you may have noticed by now that I am addicted to political media. My interest in politics began in second grade, when I stared at a poster of US presidents in class instead of paying attention to the teacher. Since then, I have absorbed so much political facts and news that for a while I thought I would go into politics—I’m very grateful that God had other plans for my life! Yet I still obsessively read historical and current political data. It took the severe toxicity of this election to get me to reduce my consumption of political media, and I only started detoxing after this last presidential debate!

You see, as much as I enjoy political engagement, such engagement can take an emotional toll on our souls and on our relationships. I think this is especially true in the last twenty or so years, in the age of the internet and the expansion of news media options. The internet has allowed us to have more information than ever, but it’s also given each person more power to choose their own media and news sources. In my case, it used to surprise me that social media and news websites altered their content based on my preferences—as if everywhere I turn, I only see and hear people with the exact same views as me!

As Christians, the technological and media culture we live in presents opportunities, but also many dangers. When all the messages we see and hear emphasize the truth of our particular worldview, we can forget to listen and love those who don’t share those experiences or perspectives. We can forget that, in the words of today’s New Testament lesson, in Christ “there is no longer Jew or Greek…slave or free…male and female; for all…are one in Christ Jesus!” We can forget that whenever we engage in the public square, including when we vote, we as followers of Jesus Christ are to seek the common good for all with a sense of humility and perspective, knowing that our only true ruler, Jesus Christ, is the only ruler who will remain when all else fades away.

Galatians: you don’t have to be Jewish to follow Jesus

In today’s reading from Galatians, the author is frustrated with the church in the city of Galatia. The author of this letter, the Apostle Paul, had helped start this church, which was made up of Gentiles—people who were not Jewish. You see, some very early Christians thought that one had to be Jewish to also be Christian. Paul, along with the original 11 apostles, opposed this teaching, because Jesus wanted the church to baptize members of every nation (Matthew 28:19). Paul wanted Christians to place their trust in Christ alone by the power of the Holy Spirit, instead of putting their trust in a set of laws meant for one exclusive group of people.

Yet after Paul had left this church to spread the gospel elsewhere, other teachers went to the Galatian church to tell them that they all had to become Jewish! Paul writes this letter to the Galatian church to set them straight. He uses the language of inheritance, reminding them that even though human inheritance is restricted by family, economics, and gender, that in Christ, ALL people, “male and female” (Genesis 1:27), are children of God worthy of the inheritance offered by Christ.

Paul reminds them that when Jesus returns, Jesus will not judge us by our ability to adhere to one set of cultural rules and perspectives. Rather, Jesus will judge us by our ability to love God and love our neighbors, especially those neighbors who need food, water, clothing, comfort, and healing. In short, we love Jesus when we love “the least” in our world (Matthew 25:40), not just those who look and think like us. Paul admonishes the church to find their security and purpose not in self-preservation as part of a like-minded group, but to find their security and purpose in the grace that Jesus Christ offers to all.

Tribalism and political self-righteousness

It’s easy to convince ourselves that we love everyone when we don’t. We go to church, and many of us have raised—or are raising—our children to follow Jesus. Yet the forces of sin and evil find subtle ways to divert us from loving others. We naturally find camaraderie among people who are like us: same life experiences, same culture, same opinions, same interests, etc. There’s nothing wrong with finding common ground with others; unless those relationships become the exclusive focus of one’s engagement with the world. Too often, even in a nation as diverse as the United States, we find ways to associate only with those who abide by the same set of unspoken rules and customs as us. Too often, we only engage in the public square to support and uphold the interests of our group.

Today’s media culture does not help to alleviate this temptation. We can choose news and information sources that confirm opinions that we already have, so that our opinions slowly become more and more entrenched, leading us to judge those different from us ever more harshly. We can even convince ourselves that faithfulness to Jesus Christ and his way isn’t enough, that seeking to know Jesus through the Scriptures, regular worship, and sacrificial service to others just isn’t enough. We can convince ourselves that a set of candidates or policies take priority over what Jesus has already done for us, that checking the right box on a ballot is the true test of one’s faith.

Yet today’s reading from Galatians remind us otherwise. Paul reminds us that all are one in Christ Jesus. For Jesus reigns over heaven and earth, and when he returns to fully establish that reign, all other rulers and systems go away. Today’s reading from Daniel reminds us that even the strongest human ruler will lose their throne in the end. Daniel reminds us that the Day of Resurrection will come, that the righteous will live forever with God. Jesus is the only one who makes us righteous through his death and resurrection; he is the only one who sits on the eternal throne and makes all things new (Revelation 21:5).

Voting for the common good, with humility and faithful perspective

In the state of Texas, early voting starts tomorrow, and concludes on Election Day, November 8. As a self-avowed political junkie, I have firm opinions about how I will vote. In fact, I explicitly chose to deviate from my normal preaching style and read my sermon today to reduce the chance that I would accidentally express those opinions from the pulpit. But even though our eternal salvation does not depend on which ballot box we check, our motivations for voting, and the way we engage in public issues, can reveal the depth—or shallowness—of our faith in Christ. Therefore, I want to offer some general principles about how to serve Christ while engaging in civic responsibilities, based largely on today’s reading from Galatians.

For starters, we engage in politics and voting with great humility. Here is an uncomfortable fact: how one votes in the United States of America has more to do with one’s ethnicity than one’s faith. Per Christianity Today, 65% of church-going evangelical white voters will vote for one candidate, and about 65% of church-going evangelical non-white voters—Hispanic-Americans, African Americans, Asian-Americans, etc.—will vote for the opposing candidate. What does this uncomfortable fact have to do with humility? It takes humility to recognize that our social identity too often plays a larger role in how we think about important social and political issues than our faith in the risen Christ. It takes humility to avoid the temptation to arrive at simplistic solutions for why “the other” is wrong and we are right. It takes humility to prayerfully seek God’s help to overcome our desire to only serve our personal or groups interests. It takes humility to take the log out of our own eye before removing the speck in someone else’s eye (Luke 6:41-42).

To engage in voting and political discourse while serving Christ also takes perspective. No matter who we support on the ballot, Jesus Christ is Lord. No politician can exert more power than Jesus, no politician can model God’s way better than Jesus, and no political system can fully implement God’s kingdom. The best we can hope for, in our church and in our politics, is to offer a witness to the kingdom that God ushers in through the risen Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. All rulers and nations will end one day, even the United States, for when Jesus returns, the faithful will have no need of earthly rulers.

Finally, today’s New Testament lesson reminds me that Jesus Christ died and rose from the dead for the whole world. His ministry revealed God’s love for all people, even those on the outskirts and margins of the dominant cultures of his time. His death atones for all sin at all time, and his resurrection affirms God’s triumph over sin and death so that all might find new and eternal life through faith in him. So how do we live for all people? How do our daily decisions—even our public engagement and our voting—reflect God’s love for the whole world?

Those are not easy questions to answer, and I have already preached too long, so I will not answer them today. But when we seek to engage in politics with faithful humility and the perspective that sees Jesus as our true Lord, then discerning the common good becomes easier. When we recognize the ways that current media and technology too often bring out the worst in us, we can prayerfully seek God’s help in combating those forces. We can do the hard work of seeking relationships with those who are different from us, perhaps even those who we might see as “less” than us, recognizing that in Christ, all are equal, regardless of race, social status, gender, or any other human category. As Christians, we place our faith in Christ alone, not in any political party or candidate. Yet our faith in Christ can still guide how we vote and engage in public issues, so long as we prayerfully seek the common good with humility and perspective, knowing that when the nations, groups, and public policies of this world fade away, Christ will remain as our Savior and Lord. Amen.

More United Than We Think: A Friendly Reply to Confessing Movement

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Perusing on Facebook–Confessing Movement UMC

This morning, I opened my Facebook app, as I am prone to do roughly 18,000 times per day. I discovered an article from a leading voice in the Confessing Movement of the UMC that several Facebook friends shared. Here it is: http://myemail.constantcontact.com/Happenings-Around-the-Church-8-11-16.html?soid=1101870871517&aid=pj9VxPJ3xwc

Sympathetic to Confessing Movement’s Concerns

I agree with Dr. Case’s understanding of the gospel, and with much of what Good News stands for. The gospel is the good news that Jesus Christ, fully God and fully human, died and rose again for the salvation of the world. Through his death and resurrection, we find forgiveness in him and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, put our faith in him, dying to sin and rising to new and eternal life with him (Matthew 26:28; Mark 1:4; Luke 1:77; John 3:16; Acts 2:32-39; 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, 20-21). This new life includes witnessing to Jesus’ love with our words and deeds, in our public and in our private lives (Matthew 28:19-20; James 1:27). With respect to the most contentious issue in the UMC today, I agree with Confessing Movement—and the current UMC Book of Discipline—that the Scriptures describe sexual intimacy as a union reserved for marriage between one man and one woman (Genesis 2:24; cf. Matthew 19:4-5; Ephesians 5:31-33).

So I understand Rev. Dr. Case’s perspective, and have similar experiences to the ones he describes. Early in my ministry discernment process, I felt shocked and confused when I discovered that some clergy within “mainline” Protestant denominations did not believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ! At other points in my ministry—perhaps even fairly recently—I would see his article, pump my fist in the air with outrage at the UMC’s spiritual and theological malaise, and post his article proudly. Then I would go on with the rest of my day, feeling accomplished.

Unity Exists in the UMC–Core Orthodoxy, Diverse Perspectives

Yet something else happened when I saw his post this morning. I thought two things: (1) as a theologically orthodox, evangelical-leaning, young-ish Methodist pastor, this article doesn’t resonate with my current experiences in ministry with UMC colleagues, and (2) With that core orthodoxy as the source of our unity, we are stronger, long-term, when we seek a diversity of voices within the church.

As to point number one, it is true that some UMC pastors would be a better fit theologically and ideologically in the UCC, or perhaps even the Unitarian Universalist Church. Conversely, it’s also true that a handful of our evangelical colleagues would be a better fit in a Baptist, non-denominational, or Nazarene context. But generally speaking, the colleagues who I know—regardless of political and social ideology—agree on the basics of the faith. As the UMC approaches a fork in the road with respect to its future, we should all find comfort and strength in that unity.

As to point number two, I earned my M.Div. at a UM Senate-approved seminary that many would describe as “liberal” or “progressive.” While I occasionally struggled with the disagreements I had with some professors and classmates, I valued my time there. I was encouraged by the core orthodoxy taught by the vast majority of professors, and had time to reflect anew on the importance of social witness and action as a part of faithfulness to Christ (Matthew 25:31-40). I was challenged by professors with experiences in evangelizing impoverished, non-Anglo communities as to how I can learn from and speak to the truth of the gospel in contexts that vastly differ from my white, middle-class upbringing. My faith and ideas were challenged, but ultimately strengthened and improved, by exposure to ideas about the Christian faith that differed from my own.

Realistically Hoping for Unity Amidst Division and Diversity

Last month, I wrote a post on this blog about possibilities if the UMC were to divide or dissolve. I also wrote that I hope the UMC can stay united. I reiterate and emphasize that hope now, in the face of the conflict and division described by Rev. Dr. Case in his article for the Confessing Movement. I believe that the vast majority of Methodists—even Methodist clergy—are united about the core of our faith, the need to believe in and follow our crucified and risen Lord, Jesus Christ. We often disagree about where that path leads us, and I believe we’re going to have to implement some “tough love” and, when we once again settle on a path forward, require and enforce adherence (even while allowing disagreement) to that path. But that doesn’t mean we cannot come together, rooted in our common faith in Christ, while also learning from one another as to how the risen Christ speaks to us and motivates us in unique ways.

I’m sure Rev. Dr. Case hopes for the unity I speak of. Yet I wish I saw that hope in his article. For even in our disagreements, we can live and grow in our faith with one another. The possibilities are before us, rooted in our Wesleyan heritage, which is centered around growing with God together in mutually accountable relationships. As a pastor serving in a context where the UMC is “dying”—the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, where the population is 85%+ Hispanic but the UMC is still mostly Anglo—I still have hope for our church. For I believe in a God who raises the dead, who unites us as a church to proclaim and live into our hope in the resurrection, even if we disagree sometimes as to what that precisely looks like in daily life.

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.

Augustine on the Departure of Christ

But our very Life descended hither, and bore our death, and slew it, out of the abundance of His own life; and thundering He called loudly to us to return hence to Him into that secret place whence He came forth to us — first into the Virgin’s womb, where the human creature was married to Him, — our mortal flesh, that it might not be for ever mortal, — and thence “as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, rejoicing as a strong man to run a race.” For He tarried not, but ran crying out by words, deeds, death, life, descent, ascension, crying aloud to us to return to Him. And He departed from our sight, that we might return to our heart, and there find Him. For He departed, and behold, He is here. He would not be long with us, yet left us not; for He departed thither, whence He never departed, because “the world was made by Him.” And in this world He was, and into this world He came to save sinners, unto whom my soul doth confess, that He may heal it, for it hath sinned against Him. O ye sons of men, how long so slow of heart? Even now, after the Life is descended to you, will ye not ascend and live? But whither ascend ye, when ye are on high, and set your mouth against the heavens? Descend that ye may ascend,n and ascend to God. For ye have fallen by” ascending against Him.” Tell them this, that they may weep in the valley of tears, and so draw them with thee to God, because it is by His Spirit that thou speakest thus unto them, if thou speakest burning with the fire of love. – Augustine.  Confessions 4.19.  (Trans.  J.G.  Pinkington.  Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Vol. 1.  T and T Clark, 1886.)