Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Lord Has Comforted His People -- A Christmas Message

In the quiet of the night, in lowly estate, the Lord bared forth his holy arm before the eyes of the slumbering nations. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. In the darkness of the darkest night, in poverty, in humility, in the womb of a virgin mother, the Creator of the Cosmos came, and entered into our humanity so that all the ends of the earth might see the salvation of our God.

And on this morning, as the shepherds return to the their sheep, and the angels’ glorias fade into the waning night, as a young mother comforts her newborn child, we know that the Lord has indeed comforted his people.

Comfort – comfort in our weakness. He came, for those who could not come and kneel at the foot of the manger – he came.

Comfort – comfort in our sorrow. He came, for those who had lost hope that God could ever be with them in their despair – he came.

Comfort – comfort in our darkness. He came, for those who had turned from the goodness and mercy of God – he came.

He came to his own and they knew him not. But those who were weak, those who were sorrowful, those whose spirits were clouded by darkness – he came also to them.

He came to a man whose child had died, who called to him in confusion and despair with the words, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!” He came to a Samaritan woman at a well, who had been ostracized by her people who, in spiritual thirst, uttered the words “Give me some living water.” He came to a blind beggar, who, though he could not see healer, still called out “Son of David, have mercy.” He came and they received him and they received power to become children of God.

He has come. And as with those of old, so it is this Christmas: He comes to us. The creator of the world, the heavens and the earth, and indeed the cosmos, comes to us. And we behold his glory, the glory of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. This grace and truth, in the Word made flesh, in Jesus our Lord, is the light that lightens this dark world, and not only the world at large, but lightens us, at the core of our very being as individuals created in his image and likeness. It is a life-giving light that illumines the darkness of our weakness, our despair, and our sorrow.

In our darkness, it is the light of the presence of God amongst us that never leaves us, that never forsakes us. In our darkness, it is the light of a promise that we are children of God. It is a light that shines this very day. It is a light that will never be extinguished. It is a light that burns for each one of us and for all of us as a people, as a human race. Jesus our Lord is born among us, and by his Spirit he abides with us still, uttering these words, “follow thou me.” So that even in a troubled and saddened world, in the ruins of Jerusalem, the children of God break forth with singing, “The Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem. The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations: and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.”

O God, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ became man that we might become the children of God: Grant, we beseech thee, that being made partakers of the divine nature of thy Son, we may be conformed to his likeness; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and forever. Amen.[1]

[1] “Collect for the Second Sunday after Christmas,” Book of Common Prayer (Scottish Episcopal Church), 1929, p. 113.

Text copyright 2008 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This post may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, by any means, without the express, written permission of the author.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Imagine -- An Advent Reflection

A reflection for Advent from the fortieth chapter of the Prophet Isaiah

The Word of the Lord endures forever. Even though we wither like the grass, God goes ever unchanging on, ruler and Lord of all. And in the unending faithfulness of God, he is ever working to reconcile us to himself and to each other. The season of Advent is about us becoming reconciled to God, it is about waiting on the moment that God himself entered human history and called us back to his heart as a shepherd leads his flock. In the time of the Second Temple, John the Baptist was making this very call, telling people to turn back to God and be made ready for his coming – Make straight a pathway for our God.

John’s words evoke another time spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, a time when the Temple had been destroyed and the people of Judah had been taken into captivity by the neo-Babylonian empire. Imagine yourself there. It is very much like the time of the Exodus – it is a time in the wilderness, a time that will apparently never end.

But then, IMAGINE, a voice calls out: “Make straight a pathway, for your God is coming!” You are told that you have suffered long enough for your sins. And God speaks to his prophet, “Speak tenderly to my people, be comforting – be comforted O my people, your time of suffering is ended.”

And then, as if by a miracle, your line of vision is cleared – the low valleys are lifted up, and the high mountains are flattened, and the rough places are smoothed over, and your cloudiness, and despair, and hopelessness give way to clarity. You, and all those who have lived under the shadow of foreign domination, in captivity in a foreign land, for you, the horizon clears and you behold the glory of the Lord. You can return to your beloved Jerusalem. It matters not that it is in ruins, for you have beheld the Glory of God.

IMAGINE, God calls you out of your place of darkness, out of your captivity. Get up he says, get up to the high mountain. Return to Jerusalem and call out to the cities of Judah, call out to all the nations: “Behold, your God!” Shout, shout for joy that God has reconciled his people to himself, and to each other.

IMGAGINE, God calls to you and his people who have wandered in the wilderness of captivity, that he will lead you, not into battle, not into hardship, but will lead you like a shepherd, and he will nestle all the nations against his bosom, like a shepherd leads his sheep.

Now, IMAGINE, lo these many years later, a voice calls out to you – you who are captive in your own wilderness; you whose vision is clouded by high mountains and dark valleys; you whose way is made difficult to navigate by rough pathways. IMAGINE, a voice calls out to you: “Be comforted, my people, be comforted my friend. Make straight a pathway in you heart for me and I will make the low valleys of your despair rise and the high mountains of you fear recede. The rough pathway that you cannot walk will be made smooth… Be comforted and make me a pathway, and at the horizon you will see me, you will behold your God.

IMAGINE, from that horizon, God will reach out to you, and draw you unto himself and lift you up to a high mountain from which you can call to others “Behold your God” and witness to his gentleness and care.

My friends. You do not have to imagine. It is so.

To read last year's Advent reflection, click here.

Text copyright 2008 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This text may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, by any means, without the express, written permission of the author.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Gospel of Mark Challenge: Reflection Six -- The Little Apocalypse

This Generation Will Not Pass Away Until All These Things Have Taken Place

It can be frustrating for those of us in mainstream Christianity when we feel as if certain very conservative sectors of Christianity have appropriated the Bible for their sole use, and their own particular stream of interpretation as the only “true” mode of interpreation. Who are we to blame, but ourselves, though? Do we in the Christian mainstream assert ownership over the Bible? Do we openly engage in a public conversation with the text of the Bible? Do we attempt to deal with difficult passages as they present themselves? I fear we do not. As I have said previously, sometimes our lectionary does not help us much. It often excises difficult passages, and in particular, severely edits many of the apocalyptic passages of Scripture. As I see it, this is extremely problematic for mainstream Christians. For most mainstream Christians, the only teaching that they ever get, or sermons that they ever hear about the apocalyptic passages of Scripture, come from televanglelists or from visits to so-called “bible-believing” churches. While it would be easy to blame such churches and their dubious literal apocalyptic teaching and interpretation, I suggest we consider our own failure to take up the challenge of interpreting these passages for ourselves and for our people.

Advent provides an opportunity for us to do this. In the weeks leading up to Advent and throughout Advent itself, the lectionary gives us the opportunity to read some of these passages and to think about them. Certainly, the lectionary editors have carved up some of this material and it is incumbent upon us to try to handle it not in its edited versions but in its textual integrity.

Lately, I have been considering the Gospel of Mark, as we are moving into Year B, the year in which said gospel is read. The first Sunday of Advent includes a portion of Mark’s “Little Apocalypse,” from chapter 13. The verses offered are verses that look toward the coming of the Son of Man. In Advent we are balancing two themes related to the coming of God to us. First, we look forward of the birth of the Christ child at Christmas. Many of the Old Testament passages as well as a couple of Lukan passages speak to this. Secondly, we look toward the consummation of all things in the coming of the Lord on the day of judgment. Often we play down the latter in favour of the former. Is it not more palatable to talk about the birth of Christ in a stable rather than the coming of the Lord in judgment? Yet, how similar the two events are. In a world that was filled with oppression, injustice and hatred, Christ appeared. And in our present day, in such a similar world (although so much has changed, so little has changed) he comes again.

The earlier portion of Mark 13 is not read, but speaks of all sorts of signs of the times – terrible things that will indicate that the coming of the Lord is at hand. But has this not been the theme of Mark’s entire gospel? Recall the first words we find on the lips of Jesus, “The kingdom of God has come near… Repent and believe the Good News.” The kingdom of God has come near. The gospel was written to call people to the point of decision. Every age is the end-time. It is a time for the old to be put away and for the new to break forth. It is a time for repentance, re-creation, reconciliation and transformation. The old order is passing away. The bad news is this: that evil rears its head in every age and tries to take control of the world. The bad news is this: that we are, from age to age, complicit with the powers of evil in their attempt to control the present age. The bad news is this: that we have no power of our own to change this. From age to age there will be wars and rumours of wars. We cannot change that.

But here is the good news: God does. God has. God will. In Christ Jesus, in the birth of the Messiah, the old order is passing away, and the kingdom of God has come very near… indeed, is at hand. Here is the Good news: although the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet. Here is the Good news: God is making us anew, changing us and calling us his children, on this very day, in this very age.

Apocalyptic theology is not to be feared, for it is not really about some future revealing of God, but his present self-disclosure, to you and to me, in Christ Jesus. Every age is an age of great upheaval. But in every age our Lord comes to us with healing in his wings.

c. 2008, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Gospel of Mark Challenge -- Reflection Five: Cursing the Fig Tree; Cleansing the Temple

Some time ago, one of our parishioners asked me about the passage in Mark 11 in which Jesus curses a fig tree and it dies. I had hoped to write on this sooner, but moving house at the beginning of the month followed by a week of conferences delayed things a bit. Subscribing to the adage, “better late than never,” here is my reflection:

The story of Jesus’ cursing of a fig tree occurs in the second half of Mark chapter eleven, following his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The day after, he goes out to Bethany and comes upon a fig tree in leaf. The tree however, has no fruit. Jesus curses the tree and says to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” Jesus then returns to Jerusalem, goes up to the Temple and overturns the tables of the money-changers in what has become known as the story of “the cleansing of the Temple.” The next morning the disciples and Jesus pass by the fig tree again and Peter points out that it is withered to its roots. Jesus then proceeds to give a short “sermon” on faith and prayer.

Just what is happening in this complicated text? I must admit, that I had not originally intended to comment on it. Upon, reflection though, it not only illustrates a number of key Markan themes, but also gives us a nice example of Mark’s literary style and structuring. The “book-ending” of the story of the cleansing of the Temple between the story of the cursing of the fig tree has been referred to as a “literary sandwich.” Mark does this on a number of occasions. It is generally an indication that he intends the two stories to interpret each other. So, just what are we to make of this “literary sandwich?”

Let us consider for a moment what the two stories have in common. Both immediately follow his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, perhaps indicating something of the coming kingdom, namely, an element of judgment for those who do not receive him.

Let us ask what it is about the fig tree that he finds so objectionable. The tree is in full leaf, but it does not bear fruit. It looks healthy, productive and verdant. But is it? And what of the Temple? Let us remember that during the time of Jesus, an impressive multi-year reconstruction project was underway. It had been inaugurated as part of a massive building programme throughout Judea by Herod the Great. The edifice was fantastic. It was meant to be a place of great piety and devotion. But was it? Was it like the fig tree that appeared healthy and verdant, but bore no fruit?

It has been suggested by many scholars that Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree is an enacted parable in which Jesus not only offers caution about the Temple establishment, but indeed passes judgment on it. Like the fig tree, so too with the Temple, not all is as it should be. Appearances are deceiving. There are wolves in sheep’s clothing (to borrow from one of the Matthean sayings of Jesus – Matthew 7:15). Of what sin is the Establishment guilty? Mark tells us that as Jesus approaches the fig tree he is hungry, but it has no fruit. The people of God are hungry -- hungry for the living God. The people of God are hungry – hungry for righteousness and justice. The people of God are hungry -- hungry for peace and reconciliation. Mark seems to be telling us that in all these things the Establishment failed.

This would seem to be very bad news for us in the Establishment we call Church. Dow we not recognize ourselves in this struggle? Do we not see ourselves, within our great edifices, failing to offer hope, failing to offer justice, failing to offer peace, failing to offer the living God? Are we any better? Has the Church fared any better in changing the world than any other establishment in any other time or place?

Well, as God is our judge, God alone will know. But I do wish to suggest that there is good news in the passage. Whereas Jesus cursed the tree and caused it to wither, likewise he cleansed the Temple. Of course the Temple is not simply to be understood as the physical temple in first century Jerusalem, but stands for all human institutions that seek to do the work of God but periodically fail in the task. He prophesied to it. He called it to account. He cleansed it. And in doing so he offered hope. Hope is found not in our own works but in the work of God in Christ. We can work for the kingdom, and so we should; but as St. Paul said, not I but Christ in me – the hope of glory. The tree was cursed, but we are cleansed. God is sovereign.

Finally, Mark concludes the story with Jesus’ saying on faith and prayer. “Have faith in God,” he says. This is the kind of faith that moves mountains, because it is not our faith but the faith of Christ. It is the faith of Christ that moves the mountains of our lives and rolls the stones away from the tombs in which we are buried. What is more, it is the faith of Christ that calls to account, transforms and cleanses our human institutions. What should be judged as failures are redeemed by a loving God.

How does the story end? With words of forgiveness: “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive your trespasses.” Forgiveness. He does not curse the fruitless vine of our lives but instead offers cleansing and forgiveness – to us as individuals and to us as a people. Thus, we stand not alone, withered to the root as if cursed, but as a temple to the Holy Spirit, enlivened through his abiding presence and through his faith, by his grace, offering his words of hope to a broken world.

c. 2008 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Sermon I Did Not Preach

I prepared two sermons for last Sunday. One of them I never gave.

In our parish, as in many parishes across Canada, we celebrate Harvest Thanksgiving on the Sunday before National Thanksgiving. Given the events of the previous week and the turmoil created by the financial crisis, I felt very strongly moved to offer a sermon that would challenge those who, even in the midst of such crisis, still have so much more than many in the world.

However, after writing the sermon I found myself filled with considerable anger. Indeed, the process of writing brought that anger to light. I then found myself questioning my motives in writing such a sermon. Whence came my anger? I had hoped that it was righteous anger but was worried that it might be something else. I spoke with others close to me about the sermon and tried to sort out my motives and goals. I argued that, in the words of that great scholar and preacher, Walter Brueggemann, a preacher must always "bring a word from somewhere else." I had hoped the sermon would challenge those with wealth to reconsider the so-called financial catastrophe that the West was now facing. I had hoped to preach something prophetic. I slowly came to wonder if my anger might be founded more in jealousy and resentment than truly righteous indignation. The pulpit is never a place for a personal rant. If the anger was my own then all I would be doing was ranting. I never fully resolved to what degree I was accessing personal anger.

The second factor in my deliberations was the fear that the sermon would not be well-received. After all, I would be preaching to a largely wealthy group. In addition, what does a young (well, fairly young) priest who has no money invested in the markets and lives off the good graces of these same parishoners know about money or the markets? Could I possibly understand what those who are invested in the markets must be feeling at the moment? Would it be an act of self-righteous arrogance on my part to presume to speak to the situation? Would I be rejected for preaching a challenging word? If I failed to preach it for this reason, would I be a coward?

The third factor involved a comparing myself with my peers. This is never a good thing, but I am being honest, so I'll name it. Many of my fellow clergy with whom I was educated are strong social gospel and outreach priests. Care for the poor and advocacy for the marginalized forms a large part of their ministry. You will all know that I am something of an ivory tower priest. I am old fashioned. I visit the sick, I write, I preach. I must confess to feeling half a priest some days because I do not share the same passion for outreach as many of my peers. I suppose that when I felt the righteous indignation stirring within me for the gospel of God's "preferential option for the poor," that I must finally take up the call. But was I seeking to be someone who I am not?

I did not preach the sermon. I am not sure if it is because I felt the anger was my own rather than God's. I am not sure if is because I am a coward. I am not sure if it is because I realized that I am not really a social gospel preacher. In the end I felt too confused over my motives in wanting to give the sermon and as to why I wrote it in the first place.

"Preach compassion," said my wife, Athena.

Preach compassion. That is what I try to do every week. I knew that to do so would be authentic to who I am. I struggled with that at first. Am I never allowed to preach a word of challenge? Perhaps. But not this time, I concluded. So I wrote a different sermon and preached it (click here to read it). Several people responded that it had touched them and spoke to them. Should I have preached the first sermon? I do not know. I do believe in preaching the second one that I preached faithfully.

What follows is the sermon I did not preach. I present it not as the word proclaimed or interpreted. Rather, I offer it as an example of the process that we sometimes must go through when we preach a sermon. If I had preached this, would I have abused my call? Or, was I a coward in abandoning it? I leave that to God, for he his my judge.

Homily for Harvest Thanksgiving, Year A, 2008
Intended for Sunday, Oct 5th, 2008
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Psalm 126

“Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy.”
Ps. 126:6

For those of us who grew up not in the country but in the city, or at least the suburbs, the distance between the field and the table can seem quite vast. Therefore, the church’s traditional celebration of thanksgiving, which focuses on the bounty of the harvest, can seem somewhat out of place. After all, when we have fresh produce and all manner of food from around the world at our fingertips, does it not seem odd to celebrate that we the harvest at all? Have any of us here in Thornhill laboured in fields this year? Are we preserving now what we have laboured over because we will not be able to find fresh food once the snow flies? Aside from the beautification of our grounds and some hobby gardening, how many of us rely on our own tilling of the soil for our annual sustenance? And so I say again, why do we celebrate the harvest?

However, because so few of us till the earth perhaps it is crucial for us to make our annual celebration of the harvest. I would suggest that we need to be reminded that our bounty comes not from the store but from the land, and that it comes from the hands of those who still labour against all odds in our quickly decaying environment, and most especially it comes from our creator who has made provision enough for all. All good things around us are sent from heaven above. We should ever remember this fact. Thus, I suggest that it is imperative that we make our annual celebration of the harvest to give thanks to God not only for the bounty that comes from the earth but also for the many blessings that we receive day by day at his hands, the bounty of our lives.

Yet, this calls to mind another reason for keeping the harvest festival, and sadly, it is the darker side of our bounty, and in it there is no cause for celebration or festivity. In our privileged society it is easy to forget that what may be seen to us even as an impoverished life may seem to those in other places as luxury. Even when we do without and find ourselves lacking in something, we may still have much more than so many others. And we must ask ourselves, very seriously, what have we done to till the earth for those who go without? What have we done to share the bounty of the harvest? What have we done honour all that we have received from God?

The psalmist writes, “The Lord has done great things for us and we are glad indeed.” It is easy for us to be glad when we have so much, and yet do we rejoice and give thanks to God for what we have received? Or do we complain and lament over what we do not have? There is a certain irony in the so-called economic crisis facing the world this week. We are crying that the sky is falling and yet, has the sky not already fallen for those who live daily with the reality of hunger in various parts of our world? Has the sky not already fallen on that child who has lost both parents to the ravages of HIV and now must raise her younger siblings into a world of poverty and hopelessness? Has the sky not fallen on them? And where have we been? In the course of a very short week, one world power has the will and the means to commit SEVEN HUNDRED BILLION DOLLARS of the world’s bounty to bail out those who, even in the midst of tragic financial loss, would still be deemed wealthy by the world’s poorest children. Where is the seven hundred billion for those who die because we cannot find the will or the means to offer even the basic blessings we take for granted, like medicine and food. Why is there no moral ambiguity about finding seven hundred billion dollars to offer the rich (and yes, even the average working family in the west is rich by global standards), but when the suggestion is made that we help the poorest of the poor, the way is marred by moral obstacles and ambiguities and cries of “we cannot” for all sorts of apparently logical reasons. How dare we cry “they sky is falling,” when we should be giving thanks and sharing the bounty that God has given us.

The Lord has indeed done great things for us. Shall we believe that the Lord has great things to offer for the rest of the world? Shall we work with our Lord to bring forth his kingdom of justice and dignity for all? Did Christ not come for the whole world? If we rejoice in this life it is because we also know what it is to feel pain, loss, and poverty, be it poverty of goods or poverty of spirit. Each of us knows, in some way, what it is to hurt, to hunger and thirst, to lament, to lose. We may never have done without food or shelter, but we may have gone without love. We may, at some time or another, have been rejected or forgotten. And we all have, I am sure, from time-to-time, felt lost and alone. There are many kinds of poverty in this life. All of us have known some kind of poverty at some point in our lives. Thus, we know what it is to rejoice and celebrate deliverance from affliction, strife and need. We know what it feels like to be relieved of suffering and pain. To rejoice is to confess the reality that there is a way through our poverty, be it economic, material, emotional or spiritual, into the land of promise. As the psalmist writes, “When the Lord restores the fortunes of Zion…Then our mouth is filled with laughter.”

As we celebrate this Harvest Thanksgiving festival, let us never lose sight of the fact that we have much for which to give thanks. The field is far from the table to us in the First World and it is easy for us to forget that we need to give thanks. But because so much comes to us so easily we should not forget that there are those for whom the field and the table are very close and sadly, for them the field is barren and the table is empty. We must pray for God to restore the fortunes of those who go without this day, but what is more we know from whence those fortunes are to come: the fortunes are to be found on our table, my friends, even in the midst of a so-called economic crisis. God has the will for all the needs of the world to be supplied. Do we? God has given growth to the earth that none might go without. Shall we hoard or shall we share? God has given us the compassion to feel the poverty of others; shall we walk alongside them in their time of need? They go along weeping and sow their seed. Let us join with them in sowing the seed our Lord has given us to share. If we do we shall find that we all shall come home with shouts of joy and thanksgiving in our hearts.

Text copyright 2008 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Gospel of Mark Challenge: Reflection Four -- You Are Not Far from the Kingdom of God

“The Kingdom of God has come near.” These are the first words spoken by Jesus in the Gospel of St. Mark. As the gospel unfolds, Jesus’ various miracles, exorcisms and healings all serve to underscore the reality of the closeness of the kingdom. It is therefore ironic that during his lifetime few of his followers really come to understand and believe that the kingdom truly is breaking through in their midst.

I often wonder how much we are like those disciples who hear those words but cannot quite believe them to be true. As I noted in a previous post, we long to believe that God is alive, active, and working in our lives and in our world, but so much of what goes on around us speaks to the contrary. Furthermore, if we do believe these words, “the kingdom of God has come near,” we often have our own particular ideas of what the kingdom of God means. Is the kingdom of God a small select group of holy individuals who have “got it right” with respect to their theology, doctrine, ethics, liturgy or prayer? It is tempting to think so. After all, the words that follow this proclamation of Jesus is the admonition, “Repent, and believe in the good news.” Thus, at first glance it appears that the kingdom is solely for those special people who turn from one way of life and believe all the right things. I wonder, though, if this is how we are to interpret this text. It seems that the first disciples interpreted it this way, for they turned from their former lives and followed Jesus. Yet, the fact that they continually got it wrong leads me to wonder if they really understood what this means, and thus, I wonder if we truly understand what Jesus meant.

As noted previously, it is often the demons and adversaries of Jesus that recognize the true nature of his mission, his true identity, and indeed the nature of the kingdom he brings. In many instances in St. Mark’s gospel, the scribes try to “trip-up” Jesus, and get him to say something by which he will incriminate himself. He usually turns the tables on them and they leave, themselves confounded. But as we turn to Mark 12:28-34 something very different happens.

The story goes like this. A scribe, overhearing a dispute that Jesus was having with someone, and being impressed with Jesus’ answer, asks a question of Jesus. Note that this scribe is not trying to “trip-up” Jesus, but something has been genuinely stirred within him. He is authentically seeking to understand who Jesus is and the message he brings. It is not a “trip-up” question, and although it might have been construed as one, Jesus did not take it as such. Jesus took the question as one offered faithfully with an open heart. He of course responded with what has become known as “The Summary of the Law” (which Anglicans today recite as part of our liturgy), namely, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself.” The scribe received these words as true, confirming them and intensifying them by elucidating to Jesus that he, himself, understands these precepts as being more important than burnt offerings and sacrifices. To the scribe’s affirmation Jesus responded, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”

You are not far from the kingdom of God. Love God with your entire being and love your neighbour as yourself – this is the meaning of the Kingdom, and indeed, this is the reality of the Kingdom.. It should never be forgotten that these two precepts are interwoven, love of neighbour is always an act of worship, and God can be loved in service to our fellow human beings. If this love animates our very essence, then we are not far from the kingdom The disciples missed the point that God was in their midst, in Jesus Christ, and thus they failed to truly understand that the kingdom of God was at hand. The reality is that Christ remains in our midst today and the kingdom of God is indeed very near, yea, at hand.

Thus, we must repent. But from what shall we repent? We shall repent from our pride and vanity that we always know the mind of God. We shall repent from our judgment and criticism of others who also believe that they alone know the mind of God. We shall repent from a close-mindedness that keeps us from being open to the possibility of God transforming the world and the church. And we shall repent from the fear that keeps us from taking risks in following God and being reconciled with neighbour.

Thus, we must believe in the Good News. But what is that Good News to which we turn? It is the Good News that peace is our pathway and love our banner. It is the Good News that reconciliation is possible between us and God, and between us and our estranged brothers and sisters. And it is the Good News that we are never left alone in this world and all it throws at us. It is the Good News that the kingdom of God is very near indeed.

I certainly do not want to throw away the precepts of our faith, neither our theologies and doctrines, nor our ethics. Yet, I must say that the message of Jesus in Mark is one in which we are challenged beyond and through a religiosity that veils the kingdom and into a different sort of religious awareness in which the veil is lifted and we realize that the kingdom of God is not far off indeed. Let us therefore seek the Lord where he may be found. Let us turn from selfishness to love and we will find ourselves, with that faithful scribe, very close to the kingdom of God.

Text copyright 2008 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This post may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, my any means, without the express, written permission of the author.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Gospel of Mark Challenge: Reflection Three -- Lord I Believe, Help My Unbelief

The ninth chapter of St. Mark’s gospel features one of my favourite sayings in the whole of Holy Scripture. A man whose child is possessed by a self-destructive spirit has come to Jesus and asks him, if he is able, to cure his son. “If you are able! – All things can be done for the one who believes,” to which the man responds in a cry, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.”

Lord I believe, help my unbelief. Were truer, more honest words ever spoken by any man or woman of any age? Each of us, especially in moments of crisis, earnestly longs to believe that God is not only present but also active in our lives. Yet, in the midst of crisis when it can seem that we are alone and lost, when world comes crashing down around us, when we feel most powerless, when we our lives tumbling out of control, how difficult it is to believe. At the same time, it is in those moments when all seems lost that we, in our exasperation, most frequently call upon God in a call of last resort to intervene and pull us out of the mire.

God is faithful. God is faithful when our faith is insufficient. God is faithful when we have lost the faith of those around us. God is faithful in a world that has forgotten that God even exists. Amidst all the ambiguity of our lives, even as we turn from God, God seeks us out and calls us by name asking, “Have ye faith?” To which we can often only respond, “Lord, I want to believe, I long to believe, I fear I cannot believe – help me to believe.” And God is faithful.

The very fact that we have this conversation with God is a recognition of both the presence and sovereignty of God and a sign of God’s faithfulness. Even as we fear that we do not believe in God, we find ourselves in a conversation with him. Even as we lament his abandonment we witness to his presence by calling his name. Even as we fear we have lost our faith, he makes his faith our own as we call upon the great “I am” in which our very existence is ever grounded.

I have often thought that the entrance to every church, a plaque should prominently be displayed with the words, “Lord I believe, help thou my unbelief.” Such a plaque would surely be a sign to the world that the Christian walk is not one in which we travel under our own power but through the mercies of God. It would be a recognition that to be a Christian is to escape the travails of the world but to live in the midst of them, calling upon God to journey with us in all our faith and in all our doubt. After all, in our baptism we respond to the call to walk the Christian life with the words, “I will, with God’s help.” Is this not simply another way of stating what that man said so long ago when implored by Jesus to believe?

There is something about this story that is troubling, though. Mark describes the man’s son as “having a spirit.” In the language of the first century, it seems likely that the child was actually suffering some kind of mental illness. Jesus healed the child. However, I am deeply conscious that not every illness in this world is healed by a prayer of faith and that may make it seem like God is faithless, even when we are faithful. I walk with people every day who have great suffering in their families, be it mental, spiritual or physical illness. I am quite aware that there is no quick fix. I also believe strongly that wholeness may not be as much about cure as about living as faithfully, humanly, lovingly, courageously, in the situations in which we find ourselves. How much more poignant this saying then becomes. When the quick fix or cure does not come, then the prayer “help my unbelief” becomes much more real to us.

When the quick fix or cure eludes us, our sense of aloneness might grow. We can begin to feel that we have done something wrong, or worse, we can be accused by others of not doing something right. If only I were a better caregiver, parent, or friend; if only I were more faithful, prayed harder, or lived a purer life. These are all sentiments that can threaten to enslave us. They are also sentiments that can threaten to separate us from our each other. The most destructive thing about illness of any kind is not what it can do the human body but what it can do to our shared body, that is, the community. In the vulnerability of illness (and caregiving) anger, guilt, doubt, and regret can all be exposed, driving a wedge between those who love each other, separating us, leaving us feeling alone. But this is when we realize that we are not alone, this is when that cry of despair forms on our lips, formed not under our own power but by a loving God who knows the depths of our pain. These words are given shape on our lips, in faith, by a faithful God who responds in faith to our deepest angst.

Perhaps there will be no cure, but surely a “demon” is driven out, and that “demon” is hopelessness. In recognizing that we do not walk alone along a hard path we find hope. We begin to see the healing of wounds that have separated us as members of a family and community. We begin to understand that life is not without pain and suffering, but neither are we without a friend and counselor who takes our hand on this life’s journey, that great physician of our souls, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Text copyright 2008 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This post may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, by any means, without the express, written permission of the author.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Gospel of Mark Challenge: Reflection Two -- "Who Are My Mother and My Brothers?"

For the introduction to the Gospel of Mark Challenge, click here.

In the latter part of the third chapter of The Gospel of Mark we learn that Jesus’ family is somewhat worried about what he has been up to. When he returns home (Mark 3:21), his family tries to restrain him because people were accusing him of being out of his mind. A Scribe had even come down from Jerusalem and accused Jesus of being possessed. In 3:31, with his mother and brothers (and possibly his sisters, depending on the manuscript evidence) standing outside, he shrugs off their concern for him. In fact, Jesus seems to shrug off his family of origin entirely and insists that those amongst him (his disciples, the ones who do the will of God) are actually his true family.

As a parent I am sympathetic to his poor mother. On the one hand, she must have seen what he was doing and been wonderfully proud and deeply moved, and yet, she certainly would have feared for both his safety and his reputation. But if trust is a theme emerging in this gospel, then members of his family were without trust. They are sharply contrasted to the fishermen who laid down their nets and left their former lives to follow him. Where Simon and Andrew, James and John, and all the others followed him (their continued misunderstanding of his mission notwithstanding), his family tried to restrain him and hold him back.

How easy it is to hold on to what we know best. How much simpler the world seems if the life never changes. We cannot keep our children from growing up any less than we can face the reality that each are growing older every day. Time does indeed flow like an “ever rolling stream.” I suppose we instinctively oppose change because it reminds us that we will inevitably have to let go of things. Whenever I officiate at the funeral of someone who is my parents’ age, I must face the reality that the day will come when I will need to say goodbye to them. Whenever I speak with friends and colleagues who have children who are leaving home (and facing both exciting and challenging times with their near-adult offspring) I must face the reality that my children will grow and leave me before I realize that their childhood has slipped away. I can understand his family’s reaction because change for one member of a family system means change for the rest.

However, healthy families systems are systems that can embrace change and live into the uncertainty and mystery of change. I think that this is what Jesus was getting at when he said to his disciples “You are my mother and brother and sisters.” They became his family because they were able to embrace change with all its ambiguity and uncertainty. They were able to take risks, make mistakes, and even get it wrong. They were able to do these things because they knew God was with them.

But lest we think that Jesus wrote off his birth family, consider this: Mary became an important figure in the Early Church, the mother of a new family, nascent Christianity, after the death of her son. Consider this: Jesus’ brother James became the leader of the Jerusalem Church and even suffered death by stoning for his faith. Consider this: According to Eusebius, the historian of the Early Church, his cousins became great leaders in the early church and witnesses to the faith.

Like the family of Jesus, it may be difficult for us to trust. Like them, we may wish to cling to a childhood image of Jesus that involves no risk to us, but neither does it challenge us to grow. But like them, we too may be transformed by God’s grace. Like them, we may cast off the fears that enslave us. Like them, we can change. Like them, we may become incorporated into a new, more inclusive family, in which we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, and children of the living God. May we always seek to do his will.

Text copyright 2008, by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This post may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, by any means, without the express, written permission of the author.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Gospel of Mark Challenge: Reflection One - "Follow Me"

When I issued the Gospel of Mark Challenge (click here for original post) and pledged to read and pray alongside each of you, I had no preconceived program for what form my reflections on the Mark’s Gospel would take. I planned simply to reflect on themes that occurred to me in my own reading and to speak to comments and questions offered by each of you.

There are certainly several themes and concepts that emerge in the first two chapters that would be fruitful to consider. There is, of course, the fact that St. Mark begins not with a birth narrative but with Jesus’ baptism, temptation, and immediately moves into his early ministry. Indeed, you may have noticed that the word “immediately” is a connecting word that Mark uses very frequently. Mark’s narrative moves along at a quick pace, in the present tense, and certainly has a sense of immediacy and urgency. The immediacy is also found on the lips of Jesus, “The kingdom of God has come near/is at hand; repent and believe in the good news!” The Kingdom is not something far from us, but very near, even “at hand.” Thus, in this sense of urgency and immediacy, St. Mark’s Gospel is not a narrative that is terribly interested in describing Jesus’ “back-story” but rather draws the reader/listener in the “eternal present” of Jesus’ ministry.

Then, of course, we come across the healings, exorcisms, and miracles. Much could be said about his these wonderful works. On the one hand each of these moments are signs of the breaking through of God’s kingdom, and yet Jesus’ is very reserved about sharing his identity as Messiah. Throughout the story, Jesus orders his disciples not to tell anyone who he is. How can this be if his deeds are to be signs of the Kingdom? Scholars call this problem of Jesus’ hidden identity, “The Messianic Secret.” As you read on you will note that there are many who recognize Jesus as Messiah but do not follow him (e.g. the demons that he casts out), while his own disciples often fail to recognize him. I have often thought that this Gospel might be appropriately subtitled “The Disciples – the Stupid Years.” Jesus works all these signs and yet even his followers do not seem to understand what he is about! Of course, the narrative holds a great literary irony, for we, the readers, are really the ones “in the know.” It baffles us to think that the disciples could be so dense, while demons and outsiders understand. The point is, of course, that we see through the lens of our faith and through the lens of the Resurrection, as surely as did the first readers/hearers of this Gospel. We know the story even before we read or hear it. Yet, there are times in our lives when even with all that we know, we fail to see the obvious. The point is surely this, that we do not always recognize the signs of God’s hand even when it should be most apparent to us.

This leads to my final reflection for today. A parishioner wrote to me about this passage and suggested that we live an age in which trust is very difficult. Our lawyers must double- and triple-check any transactions we make. We are suspicious of the motives of our fellow human beings. In these first to chapters of St. Mark we see Jesus calling his first disciples, Simon and Andrew, and the Sons of Zebedee. They lay down their nets, they leave their past lives, and follow him. No contracts. No lawyers looking over their new employment arrangements. “Follow me,” says our Lord, and they come. Later he calls Levi, a rather disreputable tax collector, and sat down to a meal with other tax collectors and sinners.

To answer that call, “Follow me,” involves risk. It involves leaving behind certain things that we might otherwise wish to cling to; it involves sitting down to dine with people we might otherwise not choose to dine with; it involves stepping out in faith, without the approval of others; and it involves trust. However, our trust is placed in the one who will never desert or abandon us, or leave us without hope. Our trust is a Lord who opens new doors as old ones close. Our trust is in the one who meets us in our hour of deepest need, or in our darkest night. Our trust is in the Lord Jesus Christ, who opens for us the way of life and continually proclaims the new day of God’s kingdom ever dawning upon us.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Gospel of Mark Challenge

In my August 31st, 2008 homily (click here), I issued a challenge to parishioners to engage in praying the Daily Office over the next month and reading through the Gospel of Mark. In my homily I stressed that prayer (although requiring both effort and discipline) is not principally about doing, but about being. Prayer is about being in relationship with the living God. All relationships require commitment, effort, and time. However, the most important thing about being in a relationship, be it with a friend, lover, child or parent, is simply being together.

As Christian people, prayer is our way of being in relationship with God. In prayer we make the time, we commit ourselves to being together with God, and we enter into a conversation with God. How do we do this?

In my homily I suggested the following. First, make a regular time everyday to spend in prayer. If you are a morning person, this could be early in the day, before anyone else in your house awakes. Perhaps ending the day with prayer before you fall asleep will be more suited to your personality and lifestyle. Some people I know take a bit of time in the middle of the day, over their lunch hour, in a quiet place to engage in prayer. It is important to make the time and pray daily. The time of day does not matter.

Secondly, all relationships involve mutual conversation and shared experience. As Christian people, Holy Scripture is our shared story and the beginning and ending of all our conversations with God. Thus, a daily reading of Scripture should be at the core of our daily prayer. To this end, I have invited the people of my own parish to join me over the next month and read through the Gospel of Mark as part of our daily time of prayer. The Gospel of Mark (which will be the Gospel that read through next year during our Sunday liturgies) has 16 chapters, so this means roughly half a chapter a day -- a mere couple of paragraphs! (If you do not have copy of the Bible you may find the Gospel of Mark online by clicking here).

How are we to pray? There are many ways to pray but I suggest (as I have in the past in this blog-- click here) that we take up a particularly Anglican form of prayer, the Daily Office. The Daily Office is that ancient cycle of morning and evening prayer and reading that has nourished the life of the Church for centuries. It consists of sentences of Scripture, versicles and responses, canticles, pslams, readings from Scripture, an affirmation of faith, intercessory prayers, collects and other prayers. The Daily Office can be either a short or lengthy service, depending on whether or not we include all the variables that are offered -- it is up to the one praying! The wonderful thing about the service is that the words are words of "common prayer," that is, words that are found in a common text and shared by other Christians who are also "praying the office" either individually or in communities around the world. Some people will wish to pray both the morning and evening office, while others will be satisfied with one or the other. The late night office of Compline (Night Prayer) is also a beautiful service that ends the day.

Where can these services be found? If you own a Book of Common Prayer or Book of Alternative Services, Morning & Evening Prayer can be found toward the beginning of these books. If you don't own either, they can be obtained very inexpensively through The Anglican Book Centre. I have also included, on the sidebar of this page, several resources (books and online resources) which might be of assistance.

Thus, I encourage you, in the days ahead, to pray the Daily Office each day, and as part of that prayer, where a passage of Scripture is appointed, read half a chapter of the Gospel of Mark. In my homily I made two further points. First, if you miss a day, don't worry. No one is keeping track. Just pick up where you left off -- no need to double-up. Just keep going. Secondly, I pledge to read and pray with you and be a companion on the journey of prayer. As you pray daily and read through Mark I shall be doing the same. If questions arise, or if you have any comments (either with respect to The Gospel of Mark or praying the Daily Offfice), please do not hesitate to contact me at the email address above. I will be offering reflections on Mark's Gospel in the days ahead and would be pleased to address any of the questions or comments that might emerge out of your reading and prayer.

Finally, I would like to reiterate that prayer is not so much about doing but about being. Prayer is about being with God in a relationship, and Scripture is the anchor of our conversation. The Daily Office is one way in which we can intentionally nurture and deepen that relationship. I invite you to join me on the journey.

Text copyright 2008 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This post may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, without the express, written permission of the author.

Friday, August 15, 2008

What the Lectionary Doesn't Let Us Read

In preparing for my homily for Proper 20, I found myself once again frustrated with the Revised Common Lectionary. Throughout the summer I have been preaching on the The Epistle to the Romans. For Proper 20, Year A, the lectionary appoints Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32, to be read, thus skipping over a large portion of chapter eleven. This happens several times with respect to Romans. On Proper 9, we read 1:16-17, 3:22b-28, thus skipping much of chapters one and three, and all of chapter two. Similarly, much of chapter nine is missing later on in the cycle. As a result, we are carefully directed away from passages that might lead us in the direction of sermons that address themes and concepts such as homosexuality, knowledge of God through natural theology, supersessionism, predestination, and yes, sin). Careful readers of the lectionary will note that considerable portions of the The Revelation to St. John are also absent, as well as several unpalatable passages from the Old Testament. This is only to scrape the surface.

As I explain in my Sunday homily (click here), I first encountered this problem some years ago when I was preaching on the The Book of Revelation and noted that all the nice “pie-in-the-sky” passages and glorious eschatological hymns were included but difficult passages, such as a series of “woes” in Revelation 22, were not. I asked someone with whom I worked, who had been a member of the lectionary committee, why this was the case, and was told that many difficult passages had not been included because preachers would have to spend so much time explaining the difficult pieces that they might never get to preaching the Good News.

Well, I’m sorry, but this has always stuck in my craw. Just who are the lectionary editors to judge that preachers are incompetent to exegete the text responsibly? This is not to say that the state of preaching in the Church is not in a sorry state. I have heard many sermons that have left me positively unedified, but not because the text of Scripture was unedifying. I am not above being the object of the criticism, either. I have preached some bad sermons in my time. I suggest, though, that our congregations should be the judge of our preaching and not the lectionary people. Furthermore, I would suggest, in opposition to my colleague on the lectionary committee, that excising difficult passages may actually inhibit the preaching of the Good News.

If we consider ourselves to be believers in the Incarnation, we must face the brutal but glorious reality that the Incarnation occurred in the muck and mire of our human existence. God in Christ redeems us in our brokenness and brutality because that is precisely what needs to be redeemed. God did not do a clean-up job before the Incarnation; the Incarnation occurred in the midst of a mess. I suggest that we need to approach the Scriptures through this same incarnational lens. The Scriptures speak of and to the muck and mire of our world, and often times reflect it. The question to ask these difficult texts is the incarnational question: What does a belief in the Incarnation teach us as we approach a difficult text from Holy Scripture. In any given difficult text, what is the human brokenness in search of divine healing? How does the God’s grace provide a context for this story or passage?

Last Sunday, we found ourselves responding to the story of the sons of Jacob selling their brother Joseph into slavery with, “Thanks be to God.” But as I pointed out before I began my sermon, the Psalm appointed for the day was a portion of Psalm 105, which sung about the wonderful works of God through Joseph in Egypt and ends with an “alleluia!” I tried to make it clear that our “Thanks be to God,” is only uttered in the context of the whole story in which God’s grace is revealed. The psalm provided this context. In this instance, the lectionary editors got it right – a difficult text was included, but given its proper context. What we learn is the truth that even in (and especially in) the muck and mire of our human existence God can work mighty acts of grace. This is the reality of the Incarnation.

There are, of course, those passages that are difficult and seemingly without context. Sometimes, we simply need to name the horror of the text and stand in silence before it. This is, of course, why we value our tradition of preaching. It is the task of the preacher to help the congregation interpret the text, understand its difficulties and perplexities, live within the tension of certain texts, and most importantly, to proclaim the Good News of God in Christ in the text.

The Revised Common Lectionary offers us grand possibilities and a wide selection of Scripture over the three-year cycle. Indeed, as Anglicans we are reading more Scripture than ever before (much of the Old Testament was left unread in the old BCP lectionary). We have the opportunity to follow large pieces of text sequentially, week after week, as well as hear thematic selections at particular points during the festivals and seasons of the Church Year. Believe it or not, as mainstream Christians, through the gift of the lectionary, we actually read and hear much more Scripture in worship than many of our Evangelical brothers and sisters! Yet, the lectionary is not without flaws. I believe the courageous preacher will address these gaps and take up the task of preaching the difficult pieces of Scripture that have been excised, and work toward their inclusion in the difficult journey that we call the way of faith.

Copyright 2008 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This post may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, by any means, without the express, written permission of the author.

Friday, August 8, 2008

On Reaffirming Our Faith

During these summer months I have decided to move away from the prescribed Daily Office readings and instead read a chapter from Paul during each of my prayer times. I have been moving through the Epistles in canonical order and have found this a most edifying discipline. As parishioners and regular followers of my sermons page will note, since June, I have been preaching on Romans. The daily reading of Paul, combined with reflection and research on the texts for my Sunday homilies has helped me consider the importance for Paul of turning to Christ in our moments of crisis. I have preached on this subjected much, of late, and from several angles.

Several key themes have emerged – decision, community, being alive to God, not being ashamed of the Gospel, amongst others – and I suppose what I find most exciting about reading Paul, and particularly Romans, is the challenge he lays before us. It is essentially a reworking of that old deuteronomic admonition: I set before you life and death, choose life! For we live in a wonderful but broken world and we can choose how we shall live in it. It is a world that is so imbued with the imprint of divine love and yet it is a world that fails to recognize the beauty bestowed upon it by our creator. It is a world that paradoxically seeks after the divine and simultaneously rejects any authentic encounter with the God who both consoles and challenges.

But what does it mean, in Christian terms, to choose life? I suppose the most poignant thing that we learn from Paul, and especially in his letter to the Romans is that we, in and of ourselves, are unable to do what God alone can do, namely, bring about the reconciliation of the world to God. This goes for each of us as individuals, for our communities, and for the human family as a whole: strive as we might, God alone, in Christ Jesus, is the one who transforms human hearts, brings about reconciliation amongst peoples, and transforms us into his likeness; it is not we, ourselves.

What then are we to do? As I understand it, from my reading of Paul, we are to turn to Christ, put our whole trust in him, and follow him as our Lord. This is what it means for a Christian to “choose life.” Traditionally, turning to Christ has been a phrase that has been appropriated by Evangelicals and members of the "religious right" to speak specifically, and only about our moment of conversion. While I certainly believe that this can, and might very well be the most poignant moment in many lives, a moment in which one experiences God first time, I have tried to suggest over these past weeks, and I believe that in doing so I am faithfully presenting the position of Paul the Apostle, that “turning to Christ” is something that we must continually do, especially in our moments of crisis, change, and even triumph. Choosing life is something that we must do again and again, and to choose life, we must choose Christ.

We are each faced with moments in which we know that we cannot do it on our own, no matter how hard we work or strive. Perhaps you or someone you love is facing a chronic or terminal illness; perhaps you have been engaging in intensive psychotherapy and confronting the demons of your past; perhaps you are facing frightening decisions about beginning, ending or changing your employment; or facing decisions about discontinuing the life support of a family member; or going through one of those difficult life transitions in which your whole world has been turned upside down. These are moments when we are apt to meet God if we simply put our whole trust in him.

Then there are the moments of joy in which we realize that God has walked with us and that is only by his grace that we are where we are. It may be the joy of the gift of new life in the birth of child; or perhaps the joy of fulfillment and sense of relief after making the risky, but correct decision about a life change; or maybe the opening of a door when one has closed; or simply the emerging reality that God has walked with us and carried us to the other side of our sea of troubles.

These are all “moments of conversion” in which we have the potential to see that God in Christ has transformed our lives and set us on the path of life. These are moments when joy comes out of suffering and meaning out of chaos. And to respond to these moments by recommitting ourselves to seek and serve Christ all our days is, I believe, the truth at the heart of the Gospel preached by St. Paul.

In the Church we have a moment in which we can respond to these encounters with the living God. Many will feel that it is appropriate to respond either to the stark conversions that we experience in the midst of crisis or to the gentle unfolding of God’s grace over many years with a re-affirmation of faith. To such an end (or rather, new beginning) we may share in the rite of Confirmation.

Confirmation is a moment in our shared liturgical life when baptized Christians who have had an encounter with the living God choose to make the vows of their baptism their own, perhaps for the first time, or perhaps for the hundredth time. It is a moment in which our bishop lays hands upon the Christian person and confirms for them what they already know to be true, that they share in the apostolic faith of our fathers and mothers, in the gospel of our Salvation – that in Christ, they have chosen life. It is a moment in which individuals stand in the midst of the community and say “yes”, once again, to following Christ as their Saviour and obeying him as their Lord. It is a moment in which all our moments with our Lord coalesce into an affirmation of faith that is a witness to our broken and hurting world that hope is not destroyed, that death is not the final story, and that Christ is indeed Risen, restoring life, releasing us from the captivity of meaninglessness existence, releasing us from fear, from death and calling us forth to share this Good News with the God’s beautiful but broken world.

Text copyright 2008 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This text may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, by any means, without the express, written permission of the author.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

In Search of a Passionate Spirituality

As churches in this diocese have engaged in a self-evaluation process called Natural Church Development it has become clear that surveyed Anglicans feel that they lack a “passionate spirituality.” “Passionate spirituality” is one of several categories under which survey responses are collated and evaluated using this valuable assessment tool. While churches have high scores in a variety of other areas such as worship, small groups, leadership and effective structures. There has been a general concern that Anglicans across this diocese are not spiritually engaged. In the parish in which I serve as Assistant Curate, “passionate spirituality” has certainly been one of our weaker rankings. With parishes in our dioceses fairly consistently ranking “low” in “passionate spirituality,” a recent clergy conference was held with “passionate leadership” as its theme. The call has gone out to work on these results.

While tools such as the NCD survey are quite useful in taking the pulse of our congregations and determining strengths and weaknesses, I sometimes worry about the next steps. NCD suggests that we must use our strengths to build on our weaknesses. I can certainly see this as a valuable assumption. For example, if one of a church’s strength is in its small groups (be they social groups, women or men’s groups, parish meetings, or support groups), this strength can be used to build on a weakness such as a lack of passionate spirituality by introducing a spiritual component to such groups, particularly the social groups (i.e., opening with prayer, ending with compline, including a short bible study or spiritual reflection). This is one approach that we have taken at Holy Trinity and it has begun to bear some fruit. However, if we mistake the implementation of programs and new congregational methodologies for an encounter with the living God, we will continue to miss the mark when it comes to developing a passionate spiritual life. We will never work our way into a relationship with God simply because a relationship with God is built on our willingness to respond to the call of God in our lives, and ultimately, to make the decision to say “yes” to God, when the world around us encourages us otherwise.

In no way am I intending to disparage the many wonderful programs available to churches for Christian education and spiritual development, nor do I wish to denigrate any of the many excellent congregational development methodologies currently being applied (indeed as a bookseller I heartily recommended and endorsed many of these very programs and methodologies, and as an educator and priest I have used many of them and even developed some), but these are tools intended to assist in the proclamation of the Gospel, not replace it. A program is not and can never be the answer. The answer is an encounter with the living God in Jesus Christ.

Passionate spirituality is not something that can be “worked up.” We can spend time and money on programs, run them faithfully, and at the end of the day people may or may not feel that they have a deeper Christian faith than when they started. We can offer prayer at the beginning and ending of church meetings, we can make people feel more at home and welcome in our church buildings, we can effectively manage the finances, but unless people give themselves over to the Gospel, there can be no passionate spirituality.

I address this issue in my homily for Proper 18 (click here to view). The Christian life is about a series of decisions – decisions rooted in claiming and reaffirming the decisions made in our baptism. In one way, this is a solitary task. The community can uphold and support us, nurture us, teach us, love us, but cannot make our individual decisions for us. It is up to each of us to decide for ourselves if we will continue to walk in the way of Christ day-by-day. When faced with crises in our lives, when faced with angst over our own frailty, humanity, sinfulness, and mortality, we must ultimately make a decision. Will we decide that we can do it without God or do we turn to Christ who will work in us that we may grow into the image and likeness of the one who created us? If, after crisis upon crisis and decision upon decision we choose to walk alone rather than with Christ, if we choose ourselves over Christ, our ways over Christ’s ways, then we shall be a spiritually vacuous people and no amount of bible study or prayer, no program or church growth paradigm, will help us.

In each day of our lives, again and again, in the small things and in the grand things, in the details and in the epic crises that confront us, we are called to turn to Christ. We are called to risk losing all. We are called to look Jesus in the face and ask, “Who are you calling me to be in this decision that I need to make? Who do you want me to be as a result of this crisis?” We are called to put our whole trust in his grace and love and follow him (and not ourselves, our whims, our egos, our programs and paradigms) as Saviour and Lord. If we are willing to meet our Lord, it will not be under our own power that we grow in our spiritual life, but by his love and grace He shall make us a passionate people.

Copyright 2008 by The Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This post may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, by any means, without the express written permission of the author.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Book Review Page Added

To my readers:

I have added a new Book Review page to this site. You can visit the site by clicking on the link in the right-hand column of this page. I intend to publish about one book review per month and offer reading suggestions from time-to-time. I have moved the "currently reading," and "recently read" lists to that page, as well.

As always, I welcome your comments and (as with this page and my sermons page) you are free to post them.


The Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Problem with Spirituality; or, Why I’m Not Ashamed to Say that I’m Religious

It seems to be all the rage these days to claim to be spiritual but not religious. In this dichotomy, spirituality is characterized as an authentic searching after a connection with God, whereas religion is characterized as a false way, followed only by spiritually dead institutional dunderheads, who unwittingly succumb through either stupidity or spiritual vacuousness to empty regimes of liturgical banality. On the other hand, spirituality is for those who are enlightened, and in their enlightenment need no mediator between themselves and whatever or whoever they define as “God” (be that the Judeo-Christian God, or a more ethereal “source of being,” or even the universe, itself.). To these post-modern spiritual elites, those who are “religious” have placed their very small God in a very small box and seek to mold him (yes, him) in their own image. Religious people are legalists who are only concerned about the rules and not about a relationship with God. Indeed, do religious people even have a relationship with God at all?

I would suggest, though, that this dichotomy is a false one. In fact, I would dare suggest that spirituality is a part of religiosity. The word “religion” can be understood on two levels, collectively and particularly. For example, in its collective sense, we can speak of the “religion of Jesus,” as being Judaism of the Second Temple period. This would be the religion to which Jesus would have belonged, i.e., his religious affiliation. At a more precise level of classification, we can also speak of the “religion of Jesus” in the particular sense, namely, the content of the particular beliefs, way of life, and understanding of God of the individual man Jesus of Nazareth. This would be an examination of how Jesus, in particular, lived out his life and as a Second Temple Jew. In either case, we might ask that given the religion of Jesus what did his spirituality look like? Thus, to me at least, spirituality is a subset of the question of religion. Even in its particular sense, religion is always relational and always involves the community.

In religion, I suggest that we find three components: Faith or belief; the experience of God; and a life ethic lived out. Spirituality is the second component in which we as both individuals and as a community, through and experience of God, appropriate the faith and beliefs learned and bequeathed in community and bring that faith into action for the building up of the community and the world.

Thus, religion is an entire way of life that includes belief in the content of faith, the experience of the divine, and faith lived out. A religious life makes us accountable to ourselves, to our faith community, to fellow humankind, and ultimately, to God. While I do not mean to suggest that we cannot, or will not have individual experiences of the Spirit of God, which may be very personal and individual in our experience of them, rather I suggest that these experiences are for the building up of God’s kingdom.

A friend of mine sometimes teaches a course entitled the “Spirituality of the New Testament.” When he explained the course to me, it was clear that it was really about the “religion of the New Testament,” (spirituality be a part of what was studied). He lamented that it was difficult to get the students to engage academically using any critical skills because all they wanted to talk about was how THEY FELT about the subject. Because the course was a spirituality course, they felt that the subject matter was automatically subjective and that no one could question anything that they said (least of all the professor) because that meant their spirituality was being criticized – it was their spirituality, after all, who had any right to comment on it? The poor professor felt like it was impossible engage the material deeply or for the class to grow in understanding the subject matter. As such, their insistence on their own subjectivity inhibited not only their academic growth but also their spiritual growth. Most importantly, it became impossible for them to grow as a community.

To my mind, this story confirms that most people think of spirituality as a private, individual affair that is beyond the critique of community. Yet, I ask, how does one begin to grow in the spiritual life if they are not in conversation with fellow human beings who themselves are seeking to understand their own spiritual lives? Like love, a spirituality that is selfish can never grow and mature. We must also wonder if a selfish spirituality is even a spirituality at all.

St. Paul reminds us in I Corinthians that yes, there are many spiritual gifts, but there is one Spirit who gives them. However, these gifts amount to nothing if they are not used and offered in concert with the gifts given to other members of the community. The spiritual life is a sacred symphony, not a solo act. It is in sharing the gifts of our spiritual life in community that we learn to test the spirit and indeed learn if the spirit with which we commune is the Holy Spirit of God or some other force, even our own selfishness that seeks to draw us from the love of God. We test the Spirit in community, and in doing so we test our motives for seeking a spiritual life at all.

Any gift from God is given for the building up of the community, and so it is with the gift of faith. Faith teaches us about a God who reaches out to us in Christ, and acts to bring about transformation and hope not only in my life but also in the lives of others. And what is more, God invites us, in faith, to participate in this work of the transformation of the world. The building up of the Kingdom of God is not the work of one individual, but the work of Christ. We are invited as members of his body, working as part of a holy organism, a sacred symphony, to do our part to the edification of the whole. If one stumbles another support, if one mourns, another comforts. And likewise, is there not something wonderful to journey together in joy and excitement in moments of wonder and beauty. We were created for relationship and in relationship with walk through the sorrows and joys of this life. In relationship we seek the meaning of our lives. In relationship we seek to understand and serve God.

The more we learn about a God who seeks a relationship with us, the more we come to understand that it is God’s deep longing that we grow in our relationship with each other. For in experiencing and walking together in those moments of pain and joy, we come to recognize that Christ journeys with the community as a constant companion, yet Christ is not only a companion on the way, but a shepherd of our souls and captain of our lives. In our shared sense of what the Spirit is saying, not simply to us as individuals, but as the Church, we discern who God is calling us to be for a hurting and broken world. When we realize that the way of Christ is not a way that points to self, but rather to self-offering, we come face-to-face with the stark reality that a spirituality that only involves me can never be a Christian spirituality. A Christian spirituality is a spirituality rooted in community and all its challenges. It is a spirituality that is rooted in reconciliation, and thus it can be quite messy and require great courage at the confrontation of our darkest fears and deepest estrangements. It is a spirituality that is rooted in hope – a hope beyond my soul alone, but for every human soul. It is a spirituality that is rooted in dignity; the dignity of every human being, whether I like them or not. Most poignantly, authentic Christian Spirituality is shaped by our faith – faith learned in community, through the community – and shapes a way or rule of life that makes us participants in the divine work of the Kingdom. Authentic Christian spirituality animates the life of the people of God and is the means through which faith becomes action. When faith becomes action through the work of the Spirit of God, this is the religious life. It cannot be done without God or without God’s people.

Thus, I cannot for the life of me see how it can ever be enough to simply advocate a “me and God,” or “me and the universe” spirituality. To do so is to abdicate responsibility as part of the created order as part of a human race and ultimately, to embrace a spirituality of loneliness. We grow physically, emotionally, psychologically because we are part of a community who nurtures and cares for us (and for whom we offer mutual care). Without a community we will not grow into maturity. And so it is in our spiritual life. A spirituality that asserts simply “me and God” will never be a mature spirituality, nor will it make much of a difference to a broken world. To have a religion, to share a faith, to walk as part of a “way of faith,” in the shared experience of the life of the Spirit, is the road not only to individual spiritual maturity but the maturity of our shared life as the people of God.

Copyright 2008 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This post may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, without the express, written consent of the author.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Anglican Book Centre to Publish Collection of Healing Prayers

I am pleased to announce that ABC Publishing (The Anglican Book Centre) will be publishing an anthology of healing prayers that I have been collecting for some time. Prayers for Healing in the Anglican Tradition is a collection of healing prayers from official prayer books from around the Anglican Communion. The tentative release date is January 2009, pending the securing of rights and permissions from the respective copyright holders. My hope is that clergy, lay visitors, lay anointers, those involved in prayer chains, those leading the prayers of the people, or simply anyone involved in the healing ministry will find this book useful. The collected prayers are grouped thematically (e.g., general collects, prayers for recovery, for those facing chronic or terminal illness, those facing depression, those preparing for surgery, etc.). Each section is introduced with a short series of "pastoral considerations." The book's Introduction gives a short history of the healing ministry, how Anglicans are seeking to reclaim the healing ministry to the "mainstream," and oultines a theology of healing as a ministry of "wholeness" rather than simply seeking a cure. The book concludes with appendices containing suggested scriptural readings, suggested psalms, and a litany of healing. Updates will be posted on this website in the near future, including updates on the publishing date, the price and availability, and a launch party. Prayers for Healing in the Anglican Tradition is tentatively priced at $13.95 Cdn., aprox 96 pp, and will be available through your local diocesan bookstore, The Anglican Book Centre/Augsburg Fortress, or your favourite independent bookseller.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Secular Observance of Religious Holidays

It was recently found that York University’s long-time custom of canceling classes on specific Jewish holy days is discriminatory against other faith groups. As a student at York in the early nineties, it never occurred to me that such a practice might be construed in this way. Indeed, as a member of the so-called dominant culture, which forced its Christian holidays on all other faith groups, I thought this practice a good one, given the number of Jewish staff and students at the university in those days.

Given current demographic studies of students, faculty and staff, I now understand how a practice that was meant to extend fairness has ultimately limited it. I believe that it is high time that this country abandons the practice of honouring the religious holy days of some religious groups at the expense of others. My wife is a teacher in a local school board that allows days of “religious observance” to be taken by its staff. While there is always some negotiation around what constitutes a day of “religious observance,” I believe the practice of allowing faith groups to take their own days to be a sound one and one that should be embraced by public institutions and private corporations alike. However, the problem remains that certain Christian days of observance continue to be legislated statutory holidays. I believe that no religious group should receive the privilege of government-enforced (or institution-enforced) statutory religious holidays. The fact that this anomaly continues in our society is the result of our Christian-dominated colonial heritage. It is now time that we “de-listed” Christian statutory holidays.

Statutory holidays should be days of “secular observance” in which we celebrate both our diversity and what we hold in common as a society. Statutory holidays should be an opportunity for Canadians to celebrate what it means to journey together in our diversity. They should never be an occasion for one religious group to remind another of their demographic and/or historic dominance over another. I have come to feel increasingly uncomfortable with the fact that fellow citizens of a different faith -- Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, or others -- must take a holiday on Christmas Day simply because that is the way it has always been. If we truly seek to be an inclusive society we will honour all by allowing each group to hold their religious observances with integrity, not forcing the observance of the holy days of one group upon another.

For schools, instead of a two week Christmas Break and one week March Break (often still called the “Easter Break” by many), I suggest that we offer a one week mid-term break in the middle of each of the three school terms, not explicitly tied to the religious holy days of any particular group. Inevitably, from year to year, the “breaks” will coincide with certain days of religious observance for any given group, but the should not be tied to such days.

Christians in general, and Anglicans in particular should lead the way by encouraging their employers and politicians to change the current discriminatory legislation and unfair “holiday” policies related to religious observance. Anglicans should seek to observe the most important days of our calendar, while encouraging fellow citizens to observe the most important days in their own religious traditions.

In the Canadian Anglican tradition, our Book of Alternative Services notes the following Principal Feasts of the Church Year:

Easter Day
Ascension Day
The Day of Pentecost
Trinity Sunday
All Saints’ Day
Christmas Day
The Epiphany

In addition we have two major Fast Days:

Ash Wednesday
Good Friday

I would suggest that all Anglicans consider these days as days of “religious observance” in which time is taken away from the regular tasks of the day to attend a Church service, to celebrate the mystery of our faith, prayerfully engage our Christian journey, and in the case of the two fast days, to engage in self-reflection and acts of repentance.

At the same time -- politicians and business leaders take note -- let us enable our friends of other faith groups to do the same thing according to their own traditions. Passionate engagement in our own faith tradition and tolerance of fellow Canadians of differing faith traditions will serve the building up of this great nation and give us cause to celebrate when we come together in our secular festivities.

Text copyright 2008 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This post may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, without the express, written permission of the author.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

On Article XXVIII

During a recent meeting of our Lenten series at Holy Trinity, a well-esteemed and highly respected member of the community made the suggestion that the clergy of this parish (and many clergy in the Anglican Church, at large) have either rejected or neglected the Articles of Religion (i.e., The Thirty-Nine Articles). In particular, it was suggested that we were acting in contravention of Article XXVIII, “On the Lord’s Supper.”

I would not presume to speak on behalf of any other cleric, but as the suggestion of neglect or contravention was made publicly to this cleric I wish to issue this public response, on my own behalf.

The Articles of Religion, or as they are commonly known, The Thirty-Nine Articles, are a “set of doctrinal formulae finally accepted by the Church of England in its attempt to define its dogmatic position in relation to the controversies of the sixteenth century.” (F.L. Cross, Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed., p. 1368). The Articles, approved by Convocation in 1571, are the culmination a process of a lengthy process of theological reflection and editorial work. Earlier collections of Articles included Ten Articles of 1536, the Forty-Two Articles of 1553, and the Thirty-Eight Articles of 1563. Although individuals and parties within Anglicanism have, from time-to-time, suggested that the Articles function as a kind of “Confession of Faith,” in the same sense as the classic Reformed Confessions, this appears to have been neither their intent nor their received usage; instead, they are clearly recognized to be theological summaries of the Anglican position against what were perceived to be both Roman Catholic and advanced Protestant errors of the day. Subscription to the Articles has never been a condition of membership in the Anglican Church and until recent times, only clerics (and until the nineteenth century, members of Oxford and Cambridge as well) have been expected to subscribe to them. The Lambeth Conference of 1968 (Resolution 43) made the recommendation that subscription to the Articles, “be no longer required of ordinands.” The Diocese of Toronto followed this recommendation and clerical subscription to the Articles has not been required for some years.

Yet, the Articles remain an important part of our theological heritage and in many cases still assist Anglicans in our efforts at theological self-understanding. We must always bear in mind the tenor of the times in which they were formulated, and yet, we must also carefully consider our arguments if we seek to move beyond, outside, or against the theology of the Articles. We must always remember that the Articles are not a “systematic” theology of Anglican thought, but short doctrinal statements, most of which allow a breadth of theological interpretation.

But the question will remain, even if I, as a priest in the Church, am not legally required to subscribe, uphold, or assent to the Articles of Religion, have I actively taught against them? I do not believe that I have. Since this suggestion was made in particular with respect to Article XXVIII, I propose to examine the Article in some detail against my own thought, practice, and what I have consistently taught about the Eucharist, to investigate whether or not I have indeed neglected or rejected this Article of Religion.

The text of the Article states in full:

XXVIII. Of the Lord's Supper.
The Supper of the Lord is not only a sign of the love that Christians ought to have among themselves one to another, but rather it is a Sacrament of our Redemption by Christ's death: insomuch that to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ; and likewise the Cup of Blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ.

Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by Holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.

The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper, is Faith.

The Sacrament of the Lord's Supper was not by Christ's ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped.

I find nothing in this Article to which I – as both a baptized Christian and a Priest in the Church of God – might object. In the first paragraph, the Article clearly articulates both the communal and mystical nature of the sacrament. As Christians, we gather, in love, around our Lord’s Table. In faith we do indeed receive Him in the breaking of the bread and partaking of the cup. This first paragraph clearly rules out what Brian Gerrish (see Brian Gerrish, The Old Protestantism and the New: A Study of the Fundamental Religious Ideas of the Reformation and Their Relationship to Liberal Protestantism, New York: Continuum, 2004, pp 120ff) has called Symbolic Memorialism, a view held by Zwingli (in his earlier Eucharistic thought) and the Radical Reformation. In this particular school of thought, the Eucharist is a memorial in which symbols are used to evoke remembrance of Christ’s act, but “the Spirit needs no vehicle, least of all material” (Gerrish, 130). The Article clearly rules out this position and states that in worthy receiving we actually receive the body and blood of the Lord.

If am guilty of anything, it might be that I err on the side of receptionism. Reception has always been an important part of Anglican Eucharistic theology. Cranmer sought to encourage reception as the crucial component of the Lord’s Supper (after all, a meal is first and foremost about partaking and the benefits thereof). Worthy reception, or reception in faith finds its roots in 1 Corinthians 11:27 (it is of course, one of the great ironies of Anglican Eucharistic theology that this injunction might be, in part, a cause of infrequent Communion, due to the presumed “unworthiness” of communicants in general). My preference, when administering Communion, is to use the words of the 1559 Book of Common Prayer:

“The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life: take and eat this, in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith, with thanksgiving.”

I prefer this next not because I believe or think that other “words of adminstration” (in particular those of the BAS 1985) are deficient. I do not; rather I prefer the 1559 wording because of the didactic quality of the words. First, in administration, the words affirm that the bread and wine are indeed the body and blood of the Lord (as in Article XXVIII); secondly, they suggest the spiritual effect of eating/drinking, namely nourishment unto eternal life; and finally, in concord with Article XXVIII, that reception is done “in faith” (“feed on him in thy heart by faith, with thanksgiving). The words are didactic and expressive of the theology of this Article. They speak against the Symbolic Memorialism of the Radical Reformers and point to a real encounter with Christ in the sacrament, whether or not we choose to use such a controversial phrase as “real presence.”

If the first paragraph has served to rebuke the Radical Reformers, then the second paragraph stands against what were perceived to be the abuses of the Medieval Roman Catholic Church. While in modern ecumenical dialogue, we look toward what binds as us rather than separates us, As Anglicans and Romans, in the sixteenth century, this was not the case: The language here is strong and polemical. However, what binds us with our brothers and sisters of the Roman Communion is that we both believe we truly meet our Lord in the Sacrament, what separates us is the “how.” As I read it, this Article denies that the bread and wine change in substance; and as I understand it, Roman Catholic Eucharistic theology teaches that the bread and wine actually become in all ways, except appearance (i.e., everything about it changes except “the accidents” or appearance) the body and blood of our Lord. While the Anglican Church has traditionally avoided transubstantiation, a diversity of opinion exists as to what exactly happens to the elements, materially.

The phrase, “given, taken and eaten … only after an heavenly and spiritual manner,” in the third paragraph, while at first glance apparently specific and restrictive, is open to wide interpretation. The Article does not define what “heavenly” and “spiritual” might mean. Nor does is restrict a localized “heavenly” or “spiritual” presence in the elements. Therefore, we must ask what other views prevailed during the period, to which the Article might be referring? Brian Gerrish has isolated two further views that are found in the Reformed Confessions of the day. The first is Symbolic Parallelism (perhaps embraced by the later Zwingli, and certainly embraced by Bullinger), which suggests “the inward spiritual occurrence is symbolized by an outward eating of bread” (Gerrish, 120). The relationship is not causal, though. This means that the divine nature of Christ is somehow present, but not locally in the elements. Gerrish also draws attention to the more advanced view, usually associated with Calvin, of Symbolic Instrumentalism. Gerrish notes, “in Calvin’s view it is the nature of the Sacraments to cause and communicate what they signify” (Gerrish, 122). Thus, God actually uses the Sacraments in a causal way. Although a localized presence is likely ruled out. It would seem to me that the Article would not disallow either Symbolic Parallelism or Symbolic Instrumentalism as legitimate theological positions with respect to how the Lord is received in the Eucharist, but both Symbolic Memorialism and Transubstantiation are forbidden. This is not surprising to those who suggest that the Articles are represent a Calvinist theological position.

However, it has recently been argued in the scholarship that the Articles, in their genealogy, reflect more of a Lutheran than Calvinist influence. It is beyond the scope of this short response to investigate this claim extensively, but let us assume for the moment that this is an accurate reading of the historical context, we must ask about the Lutheran position of Consubstantiation, as well. As I understand it, Consubstantiation suggests that in the consecrated elements, both the bread and wine and the body and blood coexist together: Thus, allowing a kind of local presence in the elements. It does not appear that Article XXVIII explicitly rules out this position. Indeed, Bishop Edmund Guest, claimed that this Article, “of my own penning,” was not intended “to exclude the Presence of Christ’s Body from the Sacrament, but only the grossness and sensibleness in the receiving thereof” (Letter to William Cecil, December 22, 1566, unsigned but apparently in Bishop Guest’s handwriting, State Papers “Domestic”, Elizabeth lxxviii, 37. I am indebted to Canon David Neelands for this reference). Therefore, it appears that it was not the intent of the framers of the Article to disallow the Lutheran position, either. Neither does the Article itself rule out this position. I believe that it can be claimed with certainty, that the Article allows a wide berth of interpretation with respect to a “theology of presence.” My own position is probably somewhere along the spectrum between Symbolic Instrumentalism and Consubstantiation. Thus, with respect to “Eucharistic Presence,” I do not take myself to have believed or taught anything contrary to the Eucharistic doctrine deemed permissible by Article XVIII.

Finally, there is the matter of the fourth paragraph, which states, “the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper was not by Christ's ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped.” Many who characterize what might be termed Anglo-Catholic practice as disagreeable, turn to this statement as evidence of ritualist error. To be sure, our Lord never ordained any of these things. However, there are a good many things -- with respect to our ceremony, polity and theology -- that were not ordained by Christ. As I understand it, Anglicanism has never taught that ceremony, polity and theology may only be regulated by dominical statements or Scriptural precedent. Rather, while the Church cannot teach or expound something contrary to Scripture, it is not bound to base its rites, ceremonies, polity and even its theology (except, perhaps with respect to salvation) solely on what is taught in Scripture. Article XX states:

“The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: And yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything that is contrary to God’s Word written…”

While our Lord did not ordain such things, neither did he forbid them. To some they are edifying, and to many, they are pastorally crucial.

I am no Anglo-Catholic (in principle, I eschew “partyism” in the Church), but it is indeed my own practice to reserve the Sacrament for the communication of the sick. I take this to be a legitimate pastoral extension of the principal act of Sunday corporate worship. Although not practiced by all Anglicans in all times, from personal experience, I can attest that those who receive the reserved sacrament experience not only a communion with our Lord but a communion with the love of the community, which seems to me to be congruous with the understanding of the sacrament expressed in the first paragraph of Article XXVIII.

With respect to elevation and other manual gestures, it is my own practice to elevate the host and cup at certain points during the Eucharistic Prayer, as well as to make certain manual gestures at appropriate places. Even the prayer book included manual gestures (in their simplest forms). I take these gestures to be both didactic (i.e., the gestures seek to elucidate visually the words of the prayer) and dramatic (the gestures allow the congregation to enter into the Eucharist experientially – i.e., the Eucharist is something enacted by the whole people of God). Most importantly though: I do not take these gestures to be, in any way, either mystical or magical. The priest does not have “magic fingers.” It is God that blesses in response to the invocation of priest and people in sacred harmony. The gestures are gestures of prayer in the same way that we teach our children to kneel, or stand, or clasp their hands or open wide their arms. No manual acts or gestures are needed, much less ordained by Christ, but they can be edifying on a variety of levels. I do not believe that I act contrary to Holy Scripture or to the teaching of the Church in this regard (nor in contravention of Article XXVIII) when I elevate the host and cup or when I make manual acts.

There are those Anglicans who would carry the Sacrament in procession and reverence it. The question, of course, is what are they reverencing? If they are adoring our Lord, then all is well. If they are worshiping a piece of wheat or a grape of the vine – in which our Lord is not taken to be in any way present – then I think we are dangerously close to idolatry. However, I do not know a single Christian -- Anglican, Roman, or otherwise -- who believes that they are worshiping a piece of bread or cup of wine. Ask any of them and I believe that they will tell you that they are worshiping Christ our God. The degree to which Christ is present in the sacrament is what is in dispute, of course. My own thinking is simply this: If Christ is truly present in the Sacrament, then, should not I reverence the Sacrament? However, I am always mindful that it is but a sacrament and my adoration is directed to the one who is made present in the Sacrament. My own Protestant sensibilities make me a bit squeamish about carrying the Sacrament about in procession and about devotions to the Sacrament, but I do not disparage the piety of those who engage in such things as I am confident that they in doing so they are adoring Christ and being spiritual edified in their piety.

Thus, with respect to the final paragraph of Article XXVIII, I believe that Christ did not ordain such things, but neither did he forbid them. The framers of Articles clearly held a suspicious view of such practices, but they held them against what they perceived to be abuses by the Roman Church. The article does not forbid such practices but reminds us that they are not of divine but human origin.

Throughout all that I have said above, I have sought to respond to the suggestion by a learned friend that I have rejected or ignored the Articles of Religion in general, and Article XXVIII, in particular. On the contrary, I contend that I have paid very close attention to the Articles of Religion in my own pastoral ministry and theological reflection. I believe that the Articles continue to serve a very useful purpose in Anglican thought and belief. I do not believe that they are immutable, and I do not believe that it is necessarily unlawful to hold a contrary theological position, but I do believe that they are a sound and reputable repository of Anglican teaching. To my knowledge, I have never taught anything to the contrary, nor have I taught or expounded anything contrary to the substance of the Articles themselves, and in particular, contrary to Article XXVIII. If I have, I stand open to correction to which I would submit, most willingly.

Text copyright 2008 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This post may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, by any means, without the express, written permission of the author.

Special thanks to the Rev. Canon Dr. David Neelands, and The Venerable Harry Huskins, for assistance in clarifying several points, theological and legal. It shall be noted that the opinions expressed herein are entirely my own.