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This year, my Anglican parish’s Palm Sunday reading included Psalm 118 but omitted the middle verses.

Some clergy think that ‘too much Bible’ bores the congregation. I disagree. This psalm is a case in point.

This is what we heard for the first reading:

1 Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
   for his steadfast love endures forever!

 2 Let Israel say,
   “His steadfast love endures forever.”
3 Let the house of Aaron say,
   “His steadfast love endures forever.”
4 Let those who fear the LORD say,
   “His steadfast love endures forever.”

 5 Out of my distress I called on the LORD;
   the LORD answered me and set me free.
6 The LORD is on my side; I will not fear.
   What can man do to me?

19 Open to me the gates of righteousness,
   that I may enter through them
   and give thanks to the LORD.
20This is the gate of the LORD;
    the righteous shall enter through it.
21I thank you that you have answered me
    and have become my salvation.
22 The stone that the builders rejected
   has become the cornerstone.
23This is the LORD’s doing;
   it is marvelous in our eyes.
24This is the day that the LORD has made;
   let us rejoice and be glad in it.

 25Save us, we pray, O LORD!
   O LORD, we pray, give us success!

 26 Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!
   We bless you from the house of the LORD.
27The LORD is God,
   and he has made his light to shine upon us.
Bind the festal sacrifice with cords,
   up to the horns of the altar!

 28You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;
   you are my God; I will extol you.
29 Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
   for his steadfast love endures forever!

What follows is what was omitted. One wonders how many people opened their pew Bibles to read these verses (emphases mine below):

7 The LORD is on my side as my helper;
   I shall look in triumph on those who hate me.

 8 It is better to take refuge in the LORD
    than to trust in man.
9It is better to take refuge in the LORD
    than to trust in princes.

 10 All nations surrounded me;
   in the name of the LORD I cut them off!
11They surrounded me, surrounded me on every side;
   in the name of the LORD I cut them off!
12 They surrounded me like bees;
   they went out like a fire among thorns;
   in the name of the LORD I cut them off!
13I was pushed hard, so that I was falling,
   but the LORD helped me.

 14The LORD is my strength and my song;
    he has become my salvation.
15Glad songs of salvation
   are in the tents of the righteous:
“The right hand of the LORD does valiantly,
 16the right hand of the LORD exalts,
   the right hand of the LORD does valiantly!”

 17 I shall not die, but I shall live,
   and recount the deeds of the LORD.
18The LORD has disciplined me severely,
   but he has not given me over to death.

Bible scholars generally agree that David wrote this psalm after fully gaining the kingdom which God intended for him.

Matthew Henry notes that it could have been sung when the Ark of the Covenant was installed in David’s royal city and was sung thereafter during the Feast of the Tabernacles.

Henry explains, citing the King James Version of his time:

He preserves an account of God’s gracious dealings with him in particular, which he communicates to others, that they might thence fetch both songs of praise and supports of faith, and both ways God would have the glory. David had, in his time, waded through a great deal of difficulty, which gave him great experience of God’s goodness

There are many who, when they are lifted up, care not for hearing or speaking of their former depressions but David takes all occasions to remember his own low estateAll the nations adjacent to Israel set themselves to give disturbance to David, when he had newly come to the throne, Philistines, Moabites, Syrians, Ammonites, &c. We read of his enemies round about they were confederate against him, and thought to cut off all succours from him. This endeavour of his enemies to surround him is repeated (Psalm 118:11): They compassed me about, yea, they compassed me about, which intimates that they were virulent and violent, and, for a time, prevalent, in their attempts against him, and when put into disorder they rallied again and pushed on their design … Two ways David was brought into trouble:– (1.) By the injuries that men did him (Psalm 118:13): Thou (O enemy!) hast thrust sore at me, with many a desperate push, that I might fall into sin and into ruin. Thrusting thou hast thrust at me (so the word is), so that I was ready to fall. Satan is the great enemy that thrusts sorely at us by his temptations, to cast us down from our excellency, that we may fall from our God and from our comfort in him and, if God had not upheld us by his grace, his thrusts would have been fatal to us. (2.) By the afflictions which God laid upon him (Psalm 118:18): The Lord has chastened me sore. Men thrust at him for his destruction God chastened him for his instruction. They thrust at him with the malice of enemies God chastened him with the love and tenderness of a Father. Perhaps he refers to the same trouble which God, the author of it, designed for his profit, that by it he might partake of his holiness (Hebrews 12:10) howbeit, men, who were the instruments of it, meant not so, neither did their heart think so, but it was in their heart to cut off and destroy, Isaiah 10:7. What men intend for the greatest mischief God intends for the greatest good, and it is easy to say whose counsel shall stand. God will sanctify the trouble to his people, as it is his chastening, and secure the good he designs and he will guard them against the trouble, as it is the enemies’ thrusting, and secure them from the evil they design, and then we need not fear.

It takes profound faith to believe that God will preserve us through our greatest, most violent trials and tribulations. God used David’s enemies’ attacks to strengthen his love for Him. As Henry says at the beginning of his commentary for Psalm 118:

It appears here, as often as elsewhere, that David had his heart full of the goodness of God. He loved to think of it, loved to speak of it, and was very solicitous that God might have the praise of it and others the comfort of it. The more our hearts are impressed with a sense of God’s goodness the more they will be enlarged in all manner of obedience.

This is why it is so important for us to pray for more faith, especially when things are going well so that we can draw on it during times when it seems as if everything and everyone are working against us. Bible study will also help build our understanding of God’s purpose for us.

However, there is an even greater prophecy here which is why this psalm is chosen as a reading from Palm Sunday through the Easter season. It speaks of Jesus and Jesus himself cites it in referring to Himself.

Matthew 21 begins with His triumphal entry into Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday. This is the final week of His public ministry. Longtime subscribers of this blog will have followed my Forbidden Bible Verses series which recount the constant verbal assaults on Jesus not only by the Jewish Sanhedrin but also by ordinary people.

Palm Sunday was a brief moment of happiness in our Lord’s ministry on earth. The next few days, which we commemorate during Holy Week, turned so dark and treacherous that He suffered death on the Cross for our sins on Good Friday.

As Henry says of Psalm 118:

In singing this psalm we must glorify God for his goodness, his goodness to us, and especially his goodness to us in Jesus Christ.

Matthew 21 tells us that after riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, He went to the temple and toppled the tables of the money-changers. He then returned to Bethany, where He had been previously with Mary, Martha and Lazarus, whom He resurrected the day before.

Jesus returned to Jerusalem the following day. On His way there, He became hungry and cursed the barren fig tree when he found it had leaves but no fruit. That episode is analagous to those who do not bear fruits of faith; they will die eternally, never seeing God.

At the end of Matthew 21, Jesus had yet another confrontation with the Jewish leaders. He gave them two parables: those of the two sons and the talents. The chapter closes with His citation of Psalm 118:22-23:

22 The stone that the builders rejected
   has become the cornerstone.
23This is the LORD’s doing;
   it is marvelous in our eyes.

Matthew tells us that Jesus went on to warn of condemnation for unbelief:

43Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. 44And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”

The chapter ends with this:

45When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. 46And although they were seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds, because they held him to be a prophet.

Henry tells us that the last ten verses of Psalm 118 relate specifically to Jesus Christ. Of the gate in verses 19 and 20, he says:

Some by this gate understand Christ, by whom we are taken into fellowship with God and our praises are accepted he is the way there is no coming to the Father but by him (John 14:6), he is the door of the sheep (John 10:9) he is the gate of the temple, by whom, and by whom only, the righteous, and they only, shall enter, and come into God’s righteousness, as the expression is, Psalm 69:27. The psalmist triumphs in the discovery that the gate of righteousness, which had been so long shut, and so long knocked at, was now at length opened. 3. He promises to give thanks to God for this favour (Psalm 118:21): I will praise thee. Those that saw Christ’s day at so great a distance saw cause to praise God for the prospect for in him they saw that God had heard them, had heard the prayers of the Old-Testament saints for the coming of the Messiah, and would be their salvation.

And Peter says the same when the Jewish leaders confronted him and John after they healed a lame man at the temple in Acts 3. They later arrested and held both apostles overnight in custody for speaking of the resurrected Christ to the public. The next day the hierarchy questioned the apostles. This was Peter’s reply (Acts 4:8-12):

8Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, 9if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, 10let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well. 11 This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. 12And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” 

Psalm 118 tells us that, just as God saved David from death, so He also saved His only begotten Son.

We celebrate His Resurrection on Easter Sunday. He lives forevermore.

May we share the psalmist’s joy on Easter:

24This is the day that the LORD has made;
   let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Hibiscus rosa-sinensis - closeup detail of a HibiscusSunday, March 30, 2014, is Mothering Sunday in the UK.

My prayers and best wishes go to all British mothers on this day. I hope that losing one hour’s sleep as the clocks change to British Summer Time will not have too much of an adverse impact on this happy occasion! Enjoy the day and may it be filled with pleasant surprises!

Laetare Sunday has been Mothering Sunday for centuries, beginning with the Church in Britain.

In Lent, this is the Sunday when the celebrant — Catholic, along with some Anglicans and Lutherans — wears a rose coloured vestment. It is the one Sunday in Lent which allows a small celebration as the faithful anticipate the commemoration of Christ’s Resurrection on Easter Day.

The Catholic Church traditionally has given Laetare Roses to those who have shown exceptional faith and charity.

You can read more about all these traditions in the following posts:

Laetare Sunday, Mother’s Day and the Golden Rose

Laetare Sunday is Mothering Sunday

Stained glass shadows westernskycommunicationscomWhen I was growing up only nondenominational — what are known today as ‘evangelical’ — churches had mission slogans.

Everyone I knew who was a member of an established denomination thought that was a strange thing to do.

Sometimes the church names hinted at a slogan. We lived in a city which had a house of worship called The People’s Church.

The other day I saw an Anglican church mission slogan which read:

Living God’s love.

Really?

Is it humanly possible to live God’s love? As we are all sinners, that seems doubtful.

What if it turns out the aforementioned congregation only lives God’s love — what a prideful thought — if you, the visitor, agree to charismatic gifts or the Alpha Course? If you disagree, you don’t receive that ‘living’ of ‘God’s love’.

Personally, I would much rather attend a church without slogans. None of us can show ‘God’s love’ to everyone, although some of us might be able to show it to a few. Just let me know the times of the services and I’ll decide based on the preaching and liturgy. The coffee get-together and bric-a-brac sale can wait.

That said, the only slogan which ever persuaded me was the old (not sure these signs are up anymore in the United States):

The Episcopal Church welcomes you.

A simple welcome was all I needed. No promises and no churchy frou frou (for lack of a better term). That was over 30 years ago — I was in my early 20s at the time.

That slogan was a major factor in my going to an Episcopal Church and being received into one of their congregations two years later. I should say that I had been to an Episcopal wedding in the early 1970s which used liturgy from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. The memory of the solemnity of that service has stayed with me ever since. It’s a shame that so many Episcopal clergy have abandoned the traditional language.

It seems — to me, anyway — that slushy slogans open up a congregation for a fall: ‘Sure, they said they were “living God’s love” but they were really aloof’.

So, I open it up for discussion.

Would you shy away from a church which had a slushy mission slogan that promises too much?

Or would you say, ‘That actually sounds good and appeals to me’?

Feel free to comment below briefly elaborating why such slogans would attract potential new members. Thank you in advance for your time.

Stained glass cross crown 3rexesblogspotcomThe other day, my post on Lenten fasting mentioned the American carbon fasting advocated by the Church of Christ and the Episcopal Church.

The same is occurring here in the Church of England (CofE). On March 3, 2014, Jenny Jones — Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb — a Green Party member of the London Assembly, praised the Anglican promotion of a carbon fast for Lent in her blog for the Telegraph.

The baroness writes of the

practical information on how to reduce carbon emissions has been sent out to churches in Bath and Wells, Bristol, Exeter, Gloucester, Salisbury and Truro. In areas of transport, food and housing, Christians in the South West have been advised on how to reduce their impact on the planet and how to reduce their own bills. For example, on food, less meat and cheese consumption, while upping veg consumption, is good for fewer emissions (meat production is very costly in environmental terms), but also good for health and shopping costs. On transport, the Bishop of Ramsbury has set an example by rescheduling his diary and duties in Lent to use only public transport and bicycle. What practical muscular Christianity!

How sad — yet unsurprising — that the CofE would advocate environmentalism as being Christian.

Anyone can be an environmentalist. There is nothing about the green movement that relates specifically to church.

Would it not be better for the Church to promote Lent as a time of prayer and Bible reading instead in order to make Good Friday and Easter Sunday more relevant in the 21st century?

There are too many Anglicans who lack an understanding of Christ, His sacrifice on the Cross and His rising from the dead. A good reading of at least one of the Gospels during this time would help my fellow CofE members appreciate what He accomplished among us and for us.

As I said a few days ago, the Anglican Communion really needs to return to its Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion and the Bible which inspired this doctrine.

Instead, we find that the Episcopal Church (TEC, as it’s known in the US) advocates walking a labyrinth as a Lenten discipline. TEC — and many other denominations — believe it is a ‘divine imprint’, as Wallace Hartley of And the Band Played On tells us.

Underground pewster, of Not Another Episcopal Church Blog, helpfully passed along his church newsletter to Hartley. The newsletter lauded the benefits of labyrinth walking, mentioned nowhere in Holy Scripture:

The path winds around and doubles back on itself, becoming a mirror for where we are in our lives, a metaphor for our spiritual journey; it touches our sorrows and releases our joys. The pathway in and the pathway out are the same; only the pilgrim has changed in the process.

When Christ went away for 40 days, He did so to pray to His Father in Heaven. Jesus wasn’t walking labyrinths. Our Lord found the need to go away to pray and communicate with God. Today, we’re advised to walk around in circles, maze-like. What does that tell us about the Church and her clergy, one wonders.

Hartley cleverly reworded the late Chicago folksinger John Prine’s song, ‘Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore’, to comment on the labyrinth ‘discipline’. Below is one verse and the chorus (more at the aforementioned link, don’t miss the last stanza):

Well, I went to the church this morning,
And the priestess said to me,
If you pay your Episcopal pledge,
We’ll let you run around the labyrinth for free.
Well I didn’t mess around one bit,
I took her up on what she said.
And I went into the parish hall
With a blessing on my forehead.

Chorus:
But your labyrinth won’t get you into Heaven anymore.
All that spiraling inward
Won’t open Heaven’s door.
Keep your eyes on Jesus,
And off those patterns on the floor.
No your labyrinth won’t get you into Heaven anymore.

A much better answer — rather than satisfying our carnal desires to get into a trance during Lent — is to actually reflect on God’s divine sovereignty, in particular His sending Christ to live among us and die for our sins.

Did Jesus live in a castle? No. Was He remote high on a mountain? No, only when He retreated to pray. Did He demand money from anyone? No. Was He carted about on a sedan chair borne by the Apostles? No. Did He screen anyone who approached Him? No. Did He promise deliverance from Roman rule? No. Was He ever responsible for murdering or maiming anyone — or stealing from them? No. Did He have an ego? No.

Was He humble and kind? Yes. Was He plain and unassuming? Yes. Did He associate with everyone, rich and poor? Yes. Did He heal the sick? Yes. Did He rid people of demons? Yes. Did He show divine mercy to sinners? Yes. Did He promise an everlasting Kingdom to come? Yes. Did He promise salvation to the faithful? Yes.

Yet, He was condemned to death. By whom? By people who preferred carnal and temporal desires.

Although the feeding of the 5,000 is often touted as ‘Christlike’ socialism, it is essential to read the whole story to find out how our Lord criticised those who expected another temporal food-centred miracle.

Read What John 6 really says for the full story behind the miracle and the astounding aftermath which isn’t what most people understand about that episode in Jesus’s ministry. I cite this yet again for all of us during Lent as an illustration of our expectations of Christ and the reality of His promises.

As John 18:36 says:

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”

May we avoid engaging in Lenten practices which do Him no honour yet make us feel comfortable. The labyrinth comes to mind.

Stained glass cross turbophotocom imagesCAGIG2KHIt is time for Anglican clergy to return to the Bible and the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion.

One of my readers, undergroundpewster, rightly applauds two retired bishops of South Carolina who recall what Christ came to accomplish.

The first is retired Bishop Duvall who said:

As I stand there with my head hung low facing the judgement seat of God, ready for my sentence, I feel an arm around my shoulders, the arm of Jesus, who says ‘This one’s with me’.

The second is the Right Revd C FitzSimons Allison who wrote against postmodern false teachers in 2011:

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan are two remarkably popular theologians who teach a version of Christianity that reduces the Christian faith to contemporary secular assumptions. For Crossan, Jesus was an illiterate Jewish cynic. No Incarnation no Resurrection. The Easter story is “fictional mythology” (p. 161, Jesus a Revolutionary Biography). Borg claims that Jesus was only divine in the sense that Martin Luther King and Gandhi were divine.  Borg dismisses the creeds (p.10, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time) Jesus was a “spirit person,” “a mediator of the sacred,” “a shaman,” one of those persons like Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Mohammed, et al. (p. 32)

Recently Borg and Crossan have collaborated on a book, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem.  Their Jesus is a semi-revolutionary leader of peasants and outcasts against the priestly elite and those who accommodate to the dominant system of Roman coercive authority. It was not our sinful condition that demanded his crucifixion but this elite.  Borg and Crossan’s Jesus does not come from God to take away sin but arose from among the innocent to teach us how not to be a part of the dominant systems. They fail to understand the depth of sin in all of us at all times, including peasants, as well as the elite. More importantly they lose the assurance of ultimate mercy and forgiveness.

On the other side of the world, the Revd David Ould wrote an article for Stand Firm which directed us to return to the Thirty-nine Articles, rooted in Scripture. By way of contrast, he cites an Australian rector, the Revd Rob Bower who recently wrote:

Progressive Christians believe that Jesus came to manifest the Kingdom. That is to reveal the Sacred in our every day life. For far too long we have been obsessed about Jesus’ death being a payment to a wrathful god for the insult of human sin.

The gospels have Jesus mention the Kingdom 106 times; there are very few allusions, and they are only allusions, to Jesus dying for our sins.

Admittedly St Paul and other New Testament writers understand Jesus’ death as replacing the temple sacrifice, and that is understandable given their context. However there is no necessity for us to understand the death of Jesus in this way.

Why did Jesus have to die? For him to do anything else would have required him to compromise with violence rather than absorb it.

Mr Ould reminds us of the historical ‘artifacts’ of the Anglican Communion, the Thirty-nine Articles, specifically (emphases in the original):

Article II

Of the Word or Son of God, which was made very Man

The Son, which is the Word of the Father, begotten from everlasting of the Father, the very and eternal God, and of one substance with the Father, took Man’s nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin, of her substance: so that two whole and perfect Natures, that is to say, the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one Person, never to be divided, whereof is one Christ, very God, and very Man; who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile His Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for all actual sins of men.

Article XXXI

Of the one Oblation of Christ finished upon the Cross

The Offering of Christ once made is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction, for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin, but that alone.

1Cor. 15:1-3    Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand.By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance : that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,

He also calls to our attention Article VI which says that the Bible is our undisputed authority with nothing added to or subtracted from it.

Errant Anglican clergy — priests, ministers and bishops — would do well to take their postmodern, unifying blinders off and read the New Testament.

As to Christ’s once-sufficient sacrifice for our sins, we have several New Testament verses, also prophesied in the Old Testament — no matter what version we choose to read:

He was handed over to die because of our sins, and he was raised to life to make us right with God.  (Romans 4:25, New Living Translation)

Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption [for us].  (Hebrews 9:12, King James Version)

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, (1 Corinthians 15:3, New International Version)

Who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.  (1 Timothy 2:6, King James Version)

For Christ died for sins once and for all, a good man on behalf of sinners, in order to lead you to God. He was put to death physically, but made alive spiritually, (1 Peter 3:18, Good News Bible)

And ye know that he was manifested to take away our sins; and in him is no sin. (1 John 3:5, King James Version)

The King James Version page with verses relating to Christ’s atonement for our sins has a complete list. May we read and not forget.

May Anglican clergy preaching another gospel do the same, prayerfully.

Stained glass cross StJcom St James Episcopal Fremont CA WindowSideDoor-smAs I write this, many in the world today will have celebrated some form of Mardi Gras — Fat Tuesday — often including a dinner which features a sumptuous or high-calorie foodstuff.

The end of Epiphany and beginning of Lent traditionally occurred in Europe at a time when fat and flour stored over the winter were in danger of going rancid or wormy. It had to be consumed in order to avoid household waste. The Tuesday before Ash Wednesday became the perfect opportunity to do this. In France and the UK, this means eating crêpes. In other European countries, a dish which is fried, sautéed or high-calorie features prominently.

My Christianity / Apologetics page has a selection of articles about this time in the Church calendar. Here are a few:

Ash Wednesday reflections

Ash Wednesday: ‘No, that wasn’t dirt on my forehead’

Lent, denominational differences and freedom in Christ

Controversy continues today as to whether Protestants in particular should mark the Lenten period with a willing — not enforced — period of Christian devotion or activity.

Last year, Anne Kennedy — wife of the Revd Matt Kennedy — gave a good précis of the Episcopal / Anglican reasons for using Lent as a special time:

My psalm reading this morning just happened to be Psalm 32 which begins,

“Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.”

This strikes me as a perfect entrance into a Lenten season of repentance and self examination. The gift of God’s forgiveness to the one who turns in sorrow for sin is the beginning point. It is the moment of greatest blessing. Many things come after it—love, grace, maturity, knowledge, enlightening of the heart and mind—but none of them can be had in their fullness without repentance, without turning around and walking towards God rather than away from him. And yet this beginning step is usually always the hardest, whether it is a first time repentance, or one of the many many times of contrition the Christian faces …

I pray you will take the time in this blessed season of Lent to open yourself to Jesus and let him look at your whole heart, your whole mind, and allow him to adjust things according to his own plan and purpose. Blessed is the one whose transgression, whose sin is forgiven!

This isn’t to say that you and I are obliged to ‘do something’. No Christian has to ‘do’ anything during Lent — a topic which I’ll explore once again in tomorrow’s post.

A number of us have grown up with Lenten traditions, however, and look forward to a dedicated time of year when we can focus more on Christ, who gave His life for our sins. If we willingly decide to devote this to prayer or self-examination — and it is hoped that we carry this on after Lent ends as a means of sanctification — who is to say we cannot use this time productively in our Christian walk?

One of my favourite Episcopal priests, the Revd Matt Kennedy of Church of the Good Shepherd in Binghamton, NY, had another excellent post on Stand Firm.

Kennedy’s ‘The Perfect Agony’ explores the dichotomy between experiencing happiness in the Lord and the fear as well as the sorrow which accompany significant events in our lives. He uses as his text Mark 14:32-42.

Christians read and hear much about the potential pitfalls of experiencing negative emotions. As Kennedy says (emphases mine):

… this is a hard text for many American evangelical Christians who have been taught that God became incarnate to give us happy lives and therefore any lack of joy, peace, and/or happiness is the result of some kind of faith deficiency. But Jesus, the sinless lamb, experienced emotional turmoil on a level unknown to any other human being. And he wasn’t doing anything wrong.

Citing a real life example — one which is typical in every congregation — Kennedy describes how the more a cancer sufferer he knew (in another church) heard happy verses parroted from the New Testament, the worse she felt.

He explains:

The problem is ours. We read scripture emotively. Paul says: “rejoice.” We think: feel happy. James says: “Count it all joy”. We think: feel joyful. John says “love casts out fear” we think: If feel love I won’t feel fear. Jesus says: don’t worry. We think: I mustn’t feel worry.

No. God doesn’t say to the mourner, the frightened, the anxious: Don’t feel emotion. He says: Don’t let sorrow, fear, worry, rule you as if they were your gods. You have One God, And I’m greater than your emotions. Let me bear them with you. Come to me. (Matthew 11:28)

Therefore, it is perfectly normal to fear and to grieve. It is normal to experience the panoply of negative feelings, such as loneliness and the blues. However, as with so many other things, it depends on how we treat these feelings. Will we be enslaved to them or will we use those experiences as an opportunity to pray to the living God for help and guidance?

What Kennedy says has implications regarding how we minister to our fellow Christians, including those facing death. Instead of sounding glib by prooftexting, we might well advise prayers for emotional strength during difficult, seemingly impossible times.

One wonders whether reading the New Testament emotionally is a 20th and 21st century trend. I do not recall my parents or grandparents understanding it as such. My grandparents’ generation born in the 1890s would have been used to infant mortality. For my parents’ age cohorts, living to 75 and beyond was an achievement. The deaths which, today, we would consider premature were an occasion for family and friends to pray fervently (a popular word at the time) whilst feeling sorrowful.

Strangely, few of them lost their faith. Churches were full.

These days, instead of looking for wisdom in the New Testament, many of us disregard it. Again, as Kennedy says, it’s all in the way we read it. If we mistakenly read it as an emotional self-help manual — ‘if I really loved, I wouldn’t feel afraid’ — we’re bound to be disappointed, even angry.

Perhaps it is time for us to focus more on God in times of need, when we need to overcome a devastating situation. May we ask Him for help, for grace, for comfort. He will provide.

28But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! 29And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. 30For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you.  (Luke 12:28-31)

Stained glass pitcher christtheservantsc Lutheran Church Conway SCThe trial Church of England (CofE) baptismal rite — running from now to Easter Sunday 2014 — omits any reference to Satan.

In any other Catholic or Protestant denomination, one of the principles of this holy sacrament, the first Christians (should) receive, is to actively renounce Satan and his works.

Today’s rites

In the latest CofE prayerbook (first used in 2000) — Common Worship — the part of the text called The Decision reads as follows (‘president’ refers to the priest):

A large candle may be lit. The president addresses the candidates directly, or through their parents, godparents and sponsors

In baptism, God calls us out of darkness into his marvellous light. To follow Christ means dying to sin and rising to new life with him.

Do you reject the devil and all rebellion against God?

I reject them.

Do you renounce the deceit and corruption of evil?

I renounce them.

Do you repent of the sins that separate us from God and neighbour?

I repent of them.

Do you turn to Christ as Saviour?

I turn to Christ.

Do you submit to Christ as Lord?

I submit to Christ.

Do you come to Christ, the way, the truth and the life?

I come to Christ.

Where there are strong pastoral reasons, the alternative form of the Decision (page 168) may be used

The Alternative Form of the Decision — reads as follows:

Where there are strong pastoral reasons, the following may be used in place of the Decision in the service of Holy Baptism and at other Initiation services.

The president addresses the candidates directly, or through their parents, godparents and sponsors

Therefore I ask:

Do you turn to Christ?

I turn to Christ.

Do you repent of your sins?

I repent of my sins.

Do you renounce evil?

I renounce evil.

These rites have been in place for several years and are nothing new. Some revisions were made in 2000 and others in 2005.

However, why they need further watering down is anyone’s guess. To say that Satan is theologically incompatible with 21st century living is farcical.

As is the case for marriage, the vicar or curate should have discussions with the parents of the child being baptised. (Any adult candidate for Baptism would no doubt undergo an interview.)

He — or she — would ask what their understanding of basic Christian teaching is, the way most of us learnt it as children. Where one of the parents (or an adult candidate) says, ‘Well, I don’t believe there is a devil’, then the priest can explain that, scripturally, there is and discuss the theological position.

I find it curious that Religious Education is mandated in England, yet we have so many a) unbelievers and b) churchgoers who are theologically ignorant.

I agree with my Episcopalian reader from across the pond, underground pewster, who writes:

Screwtape is rubbing his hands in glee. His devils have successfully carried out the biggest stunt they ever attempted. They have killed the Devil. To the collective mind of Man there is no more Devil. This accomplishment tops their earlier elimination of the concept of Sin.

The Devil is dead! Long live the king, ME!

“Hee, hee, hee…” – Screwtape.

I pity any clergyman who cannot explain the existence of the Devil as the author of evil.

Why the changes?

Personally, I suspect that England does not have enough confessing — professing, choose as you like — Christians to serve as godfathers and godmothers.

The CofE offers other explanations, these from the Daily Mail (emphases mine):

The Bishop of Wakefield Stephen Platten, who chairs the commission, said repentance was implied in phrases urging people to ‘turn away from evil’, and defended the omission of the devil by saying it was ‘theologically problematic’.

Odd, that. The New Testament has several references to the devil — Satan — and demons, his servants.

And, whilst not agreeing, another prefaced his opposition with this general comment:

… one senior member of the General Synod, who did not wish to be named, said: The trouble is that large parts of the Church of England don’t believe in hell, sin or repentance. They think you can just hold hands and smile and we will all go to Heaven. That is certainly not what Jesus thought

True enough — and to unbelievers’ peril. In fact, the ceremony from Common Worship concludes — after the aforementioned Decision (president’s words first, then the witnesses responding [in bold]):

Do not be ashamed to confess the cross of Christ crucified.

Fight valiantly as a disciple of Christ against sin, the world and the devil, and remain faithful to Christ to the end of your life.

The revised conclusion of invocation and response for the trial period, reads:

Do not be ashamed of Christ. You are his for ever.

Stand bravely with him. Oppose the power of evil, and remain his faithful disciple to the end of your life.

If one reads John 6, it is unclear whether everyone is His forever. Jesus states the following (John 6:37 — there are more statements in this chapter):

37 All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.

Jesus gladly and graciously accepts those whom His Father sends to Him. That does not, however, necessarily mean everyone.

The older series of invocation and response ended as follows:

Do you believe and trust in God the Father?

I believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of Heaven and Earth.

The ending to the trial version has been reworded:

Do you believe in God the Father, source of all being and life, the one for whom we exist?

I believe and trust in him.

Hmm. Seems as if there is a bit of ‘paid jobs for the guys and gals’ in the CofE, not unlike the editors and compilers of the Lectionary.

Why reword the ceremony invocation and responses at all?

In addition to the aforementioned unbelief prevalent among our population, objections to the old wording, according to those whom the Mail interviewed, have to do with a certain word:

The new text … also drops the word ‘submit’ in the phrase ‘Do you submit to Christ as Lord?’ because it is thought to have become ‘problematical’, especially among women who object to the idea of submission

Wow. Anyone who has a problem submitting to their only Mediator and Advocate really does have a problem. It seems as if heresy is alive and well within England’s established Church in that so many people seem to believe that Christ was merely human, but not, as all true Christians believe — all human and all divine — one of the holy mysteries which is impossible for us to discern.

The objectors

According to the Mail, many CofE churchmen and synod members agree that this wording is weakening the baptismal vows taken by or on behalf of the candidate:

Alison Ruoff, a lay member of the General Synod from London, said the new version was ‘weak and woolly’ and lacked conviction.

She said: ‘By removing all mention of the devil and rebellion against God, we are left to our own vague understanding of what evil might or might not mean.’

The retired Bishop of Rochester, the Right Reverend Michael Nazir-Ali, wrote the conclusion to the Mail’s article, pointing out (excerpts below):

Since at least the 1970s there has been a fashion  in the Church of England to minimise depth and mystery in its worship because of the alleged need to make its services ‘accessible’.

The new alternative service for baptism, which has been sent for trial, continues this trend. Instead of explaining what baptism means and what the various parts of the service signify, its solution is to do away with key elements of the service altogether!

From ancient times, the structure of the service has included the renunciation of sin, the world and the devil and the turning to Christ as Lord and Saviour.

The very first baptisms of the Church took place after St Peter’s call at Pentecost to ‘repent and be baptised .  .  . for the forgiveness of sins’ (Acts 2:38).

The Church has always regarded repentance as necessary for beginning the Christian life and, for children, a cleansing, if not from actual sin, then certainly from the sinfulness of the whole race since the original sin.

Because of its anxiety to make everyone feel welcome and its desire not to offend anyone, the new service, almost entirely, does away with sin and the need to repent from its personal and social manifestations and consequences.

Baptism is nothing less than taking part in this story of salvation, no part of which can be sold short.

Rather than the constant ‘dumbing down’ of Christian teaching, whether for baptism, marriage or death, we should be spending time preparing people  for these great rites of passage.

It is best to call a halt to this perhaps well-meant effort before  it further reduces the fullness of the Church’s faith to easily swallowed soundbites.

Conclusion

As Bishop Nazir-Ali says, these periodic rewordings of the baptismal liturgy are not new. Progressively, they have been watered down to the point of ‘easily swallowed soundbites’, rendering the Christian faith meaningless.

If you are seeking the sacrament of Baptism for yourself or your child, I would advise that you seek a discussion with your vicar or curate and also request that s/he use an older liturgy, preferably that from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

What follows are excerpts from the original liturgy for the public baptism of infants in the Church of England:

Then shall the Priest speak unto the Godfathers and Godmothers on this wise [in this way].

Dearly beloved, ye have brought this Child here to be baptized; ye have prayed that our Lord Jesus Christ would vouchsafe to receive him, to release him of his sins, to sanctify him with the Holy Ghost, to give him the kingdom of heaven and everlasting life. Ye have heard also that our Lord Jesus Christ hath promised in his Gospel, to grant all these things that ye have prayed for: which promise he, for his part, will most surely keep and perform. Wherefore, after this promise made by Christ, this Infant must also faithfully, for his part, promise by you that are his sureties, (until he come of age to take it upon himself,) that he will renounce the devil and all his works, and constantly believe God’s holy Word, and obediently keep his commandments.

I demand therefore,

Dost thou, in the name of this Child, renounce the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world, with all covetous desires of the same, and the carnal desires of the flesh, so that thou wilt not follow nor be led by them?

Answer. I renounce them all.

Minister.  Dost thou believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth?
And in Jesus Christ his only-begotten Son our Lord? And that he was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary; that he suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; that he went down into hell, and also did rise again the third day; that he ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; and from thence shall come again at the end of the world, to judge the quick and the dead?
And dost thou believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy Catholick Church; the Communion of Saints; the Remission of sins; the Resurrection of the flesh; and everlasting life after death?

Answer. All this I steadfastly believe.

Minister. Wilt thou be baptized in this faith?

Answer. That is my desire.

Minister. Wilt thou then obediently keep God’s holy will and commandments, and walk in the same all the days of thy life?

Answer. I will.

Circumcision of Christ stained glassOddly, the more sexualised our society has become, the more prudish we have become about the life of the infant Jesus.

In Jewish custom, the male child was circumcised on the eighth day of his birth and duly given a name. You can read more about it concerning our Lord Jesus Christ in my post from 2010.

For centuries in Christianity, the eighth day after Christmas was called the Feast of the Circumcision. Not many parents explained to their young daughters the meaning of this word. However, if there were sons in the house where Christian cultures practiced the rite for hygiene purposes, then it is probable that the girls knew what the term signified.

Yet, at the end of the 20th century, there was a move away from the ‘dirty’ word in an age which saw ever-soaring teenage pregnancies and general fornication. The more carnal we become, the more modest we falsely make ourselves appear to be in the face of the Almighty God and His Son. It is laughable — and pathetic. It seems that, by notionally sanitising the life of Jesus we attempt to appear cleaner in His sight. Nothing could be further from the truth. Remember Who died on the Cross — for all our sins and failings. His circumcision was only the beginning of the blood which He would shed a few decades later.

Wikipedia gives us the full story for Catholics and Protestants. You shall see that calling this feast by the name that it was originally known — the Circumcision — better explains its significance in the life of Christ and His relationship towards us sinners.

Most of the content of article follows, emphases mine.

The circumcision of Jesus has traditionally been seen, as explained in the popular 14th-century work the Golden Legend, as the first time the blood of Christ was shed, and thus the beginning of the process of the redemption of man, and a demonstration that Christ was fully human, and of his obedience to Biblical law.

Roman Catholic Church

Until the 15th century the Catholic Church celebrated the Circumcision and what is now the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus together. The emphasis on the latter in the preaching of Saint Bernardino of Siena appears to be the origin of the de-coupling. Until 1960, the General Roman Calendar gave 1 January as the Feast of the Circumcision of our Lord and the Octave of the Nativity. In the 1960 rubrical and calendrical revision under Pope John XXIII, incorporated into his 1962 Roman Missal (whose continued use is authorized by the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum), 1 January is called simply the Octave of the Nativity. Since 1969, the General Roman Calendar celebrates 1 January as the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, referring to it also as the Octave of the Nativity.

Anglican Communion

The Anglican communion‘s Book of Common Prayer liturgy celebrates this day as the Circumcision of Christ.

Since 2000, the Common Worship of the Church of England lists this day as the “The Naming and Circumcision of Jesus Christ.”

In our Anglican parish, the midweek service for the first day of 2014 is called … ‘Happy New Year’.

Lutheran Church

Since it was a feast of Christ and related directly to Scriptural passages (notably Luke 2:21), the Feast of Circumcision was retained by churches of the Lutheran Reformation. It remains on most Lutheran liturgical calendars to this day, although there has been a general move to call it “The Name of Jesus.”[8] Martin Luther preached at least one notable sermon on this feast day which is still available in his Church Postils, and up until the late 1970s, Lutheran hymnbooks would contain several hymns relating to this subject.

Even the Reformed (Calvinist) churches continue to refer to this feast by its proper name:

The feast is also praised in the Second Helvetic Confession, Chap. 24. So, it at least was permitted by elements in the Reformed wing of the Reformation…

Provided that the feast falls on a Sunday, no doubt. The Reformed often do not observe Christian feast days between Sundays. Feeling obliged to attend a service held on a Christmas Day which occurs between Sundays can also be a source of conflict in some Reformed demonimations.

To put Christ’s circumcision into larger context — denominational differences aside — let us look at the following excerpt from a sermon by John Wycliffe. He reflected on Matthew 26:26, wherein Christ declared to the Apostles at the Last Supper, ‘This is My Body’:

for when Jesus spake of the bread, and said to His disciples, As ye do this thing, do it in mind of me, it was set for a mind of good things passed of Christ’s body; but when the angel showed to John the sacraments of the woman and of the beast that bare her, it was set for a mind of evil things to come on the face of the earth, and great destroying of the people of God. And in the old law there were many figures or minds of things to come. For before Christ, circumcision was commanded by a law; and he that kept not the law was slain. And yet St. Paul saith, “And neither is it circumcision that is openly in the flesh, but he that is circumcised of heart in spirit, not the letter whose praising is not of men, but of God.”

For that reason, New Year’s Day will always be the Feast of the Circumcision for me.

May we remember Christ’s sufficient sacrifice for us as we go about our daily duties in 2014.

A happy New Year to all of my readers. Thank you, to old friends and new, for your support throughout 2013.

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