Thursday, August 30, 2012

Star-Gazing and Agnosticism (as explained by an orthodox rebel)

"...we look not at things that are seen, but at things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are temporal, but the things that are unseen are eternal." II Cor. 4:18

We must be heavenly-minded if we are to be any earthly good. If we are to accomplish anything of value in this world, then our view must exceed our circumstances and self and every fleeting fad of this age. If we desire to be agents of change, then our eyes must be fixed on the unchangeable God: His character, His kingdom, and His glory that we share with Him even now as we are being changed into His image (II Cor. 3:18). If in all our earthly doings we lose sight of the Empyrean Prime and the beauty of His holiness and His transcendent yet incarnational kingdom, then all of our work is in vain, pure in intention though it may be. If eternity and eternal things and the eternal God are not our prime reality while we walk upon this green earth under the white light of the sun, then our work (whatever it may be) has failed before it has even begun.

We must understand: this is not about some kind of dreamy-eyed abstractionism but rather the lost art of practical mysticism, for Christianity is practical mysticism. It contains all of these high, holy concepts of hidden realities (the trinitarian dance, the indwelling presence of the Spirit, wars in the heavenlies, etc.) and then says that we are to realize their reality in the midst of things, for that is right where they are. The Trinity is not a distant abstraction but is the very life that you are bound to at this very moment and every moment, whether you are at Bible study or the drive-thru at McDonald's (John 14:20; 17:23; Col. 3:3). The Spirit's indwelling presence is not an apparition but a possession, one that has actually already happened and has actual real-world consequences for your actual bodily life (I Cor. 6:19-20). The spiritual warfare around us is not a mere religious romanticism but is a part of Christ's reality and therefore is a part of ours: He is in the "heavenly places" (Eph. 1:20), we have been raised with Him to the "heavenly places" (Eph. 2:6), and it is in the "heavenly places" that the war against Christ rages (Eph. 6:12). These are but three examples; all of Christianity is full of more, for practical mysticism is the very heart of our religion, i.e., the Incarnation, the Word made flesh: that is the beginning and end of all orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

There has never been a more serious case of divorce in the Church than our constant attempts to divorce word and flesh. Either we are some form of starry-eyed abstractionist, too entranced in our own pious moralizing or dogmatism to be of any use; or we are practical agnostics to whom God is a non-present secondary issue and guru-Christ is merely a loudspeaker for our own private notions. Yet Christ was neither abstract or agnostic. He was neither merely mystical or merely practical, nor half-and-half. He was both all at once, one informing the other. He understood that the Father and His will were the Highest, and He loved the Father (as only the Trinity can love) because He understood that the Father and His will were the Highest, and out of that understanding and subsequent love He lived and moved and had His being. His abstract realities had practical results, and not in spite of each other. His mind was on heaven and the joy set before Him, and thus He did the earth the greatest good. How can we who are called by His name dare do any less?

-Jon Vowell (c) 2012

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Homily 38: A Day of Days (as preached by an orthodox rebel)

"Then comes the end, when [Christ] shall have delivered up the Kingdom to God the Father, when He shall put down all rule, and all authority and power. For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death...." I Cor. 15:24-26

The ancient Middle-eastern concept of a "redeemer" had several different facets to it, and Christ (being the great Redeemer) fulfills them all. As a "kinsmen redeemer," He has come and completely purchased back His people from Sin, making them a Church widowed by the Cross and being made spotless and pure until He returns for her and takes her away to His Father's house. As a "property redeemer," He has purchased back all of creation that was sold under Sin, and He will deliver it back up to the Father as a kingdom renewed by redemption. These two facets of a "redeemer" are the two we hear the most often about, and we ought to continue hearing about them, for they are for our joy and strength.

There is one other facet of a "redeemer," however, that Christ also fulfills and yet doesn't get nearly as much thought. In light of recent tragic events, it would do us good to hear it again: that of the "blood redeemer," the one who avenges their family and loved ones against those who have harmed them. We find much comfort in the "gentle" Jesus of the gospel narratives, but have we forgotten the mighty Jesus of "the end"? There He is no longer the suffering savior but the blood redeemer, coming for vengeance with red sword in hand.

Understand this: the first time Jesus came it was for the redemption of His beloved; the next time He comes, it will be for the redemption of His beloved's blood against all her enemies. I am not speaking of temporal institutions or powers (though they will have much to answer for as well), but rather her greater enemies: Hell and all its malicious guile, the Devil and all his cruel hate, and Death, the last and greatest enemy of them all, the one whose mindless travesties have broken every heart including the heart of God (John 11:33-35). Vengeance on Hell and the Devil would be vengeance enough, but how sweet will be that final vengeance? Vengeance against the last enemy? There is coming a day when death will answer for its many crimes: for all the loved ones lost in agony and fear, for all the millions consumed in disaster or atrocity. The end is coming, where death will have neither power to stand nor any place to hide. Christ, death's great nemesis, will return in splendor and with purpose. He will claw death's wretched frame from out of the very fabric of existence, hold him up against the blood-red sky, look him in the eye and say, "Now is the day of my vengeance."

What a day it will be, a day of days, when the problem of evil will be answered at last, for Christ the mighty Blood-Redeemer will take the scoundrel death and smite his ruin against the wrath of God.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2012

Thursday, August 9, 2012

"The more things change...." (an observation and plea by an orthodox rebel)

"If any man does not love the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be accursed." I Cor. 16:22

First Corinthians is about ending divisions within the church. The theme of the whole book (stated in many different passages throughout it) is that all things must be done out of love in order to edify the brethren and save the lost. All prideful desires that tear the Body of Christ into sectarian pieces must be done away with, and the diversified unity of the Body must remain intact. Paul gives the Corinthians (and us) no grounds for division except for one: if Christ is not the center of someone's life, then that person is not a Christian (no matter what other qualities they possess). For Paul, Christ was everything: the foundation (I Cor. 3:11) and direction (Col. 2:6-7) of every believer's life. If one did not love Christ, to the extent that He is the absolute center of every facet of their existence (their hopes and dreams and actions and opinions), then they have no fellowship with Christ. That is how serious the matter was and is.

On the whole, we don't take that matter as seriously anymore. We think we do, but we don't. Jesus is not the center of our lives. Perhaps He is a part; some vital, peripheral element, but not the center. Regardless of our talk or walk, Christ is always subjugated to some whim or passion of our own, a consistent phenomenon that seems to be the one true plague of Christianity. In our parent's generation, Christ was equated with holy living (a true if incomplete notion), and soon He became subjugated to pious-sounding, man-made moralisms. To the broken and lost, He became a menace rather than a strongtower of safety, and the effects of this linger to this day.

Our generation has done no better, however. We equate Christ with loving service (another true yet incomplete notion), and soon He becomes subjugated to pious-sounding, man-made movements. And what, exactly, have we gained by this change? To the lost and broken, Jesus is little more than a handout or a bumper-sticker slogan and not Savior or Lord. It is a supreme tragic irony that we have two different generations with two different sets of ideas and activities and yet they commit the same fundamental error: Jesus is not the center. He is an assistant or homeboy or example or taskmaster or poster-child or convenient bludgeon, but never the center. With our own hands we drown Him in the midst of our own manias.

You who boast of living lives of morality and purity, abiding solidly in dogmatic perfectionism: do you pursue such a life out of pride and the gratification of your own ego? To save face before the eyes of others? Or do you pursue it because you love Jesus? And you who live to help the poor and oppressed, standing on the frontlines with pickets and posters in hand: do you rage against the machine because you hate your parent's generation? Because you have a political ax to grind? Or do you do it because you love Jesus? In spite of whatever good intentions we have, anything done for any reason other than a true, deep love for Jesus is dead wrong, a reaping of the wind. May God have mercy on us all and cleanse us of the motives that come in such clever disguises to supplant our Lord in our hearts.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2012

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Without Love, There is Nothing (as expressed by an orthodox rebel)

"Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels...and though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith...and though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing...[for] the greatest of these is love." I Cor. 13:1-3, 13

Paul lists here examples of the three great ideals of antiquity: beauty, truth, and goodness. Beauty: "though I speak with the tongues of men and angels," i.e., rhetorical excellence and perfection, a quality highly prized in the ancient world. Truth: "and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith," i.e., achieving a level of understand and wisdom (both secular and religious) that guides one straight into the heart of the real, also highly prized in Paul's time (and today). Goodness: "and though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor," i.e., the life of sacrificial magnanimity that would impress even the gods, the virtuous life dreamed of and desired by every ancient philosopher. Paul takes these three exalted things and reduces them to utter shambles with one simple qualification: without love, these things are nothing (a qualification he makes three times). Devoid of love, they have no substance at all. Without love, all beauty is vanity, all truth arrogance, and all goodness self-serving. Love is the core of their being, and without it they all fade into corruption.

Paul gives love this ultimate position in the scale of things because God is love (I John 4:8). So the truth is, without God, these great ideals are nothing, for in God alone is real beauty, true truth, and great goodness. If you seek beauty without Him, then you will never find beauty at all, but only vain and empty spectacles. If you seek truth without Him, then you will never find truth at all, but only well-constructed and self-satisfying lies. If you seek goodness without Him, then you will never find goodness at all, but only egotistical self-buttressing.  Make any of these things (or anything at all) a god without God, they will become a demon, regardless of your hopeful desires or good intentions. Without the substance of love, the substance of the Trinitarian dance, thrusting outward towards another who is ever-receiving, towards God who is ever-loving, then all things fade to black, the horror and great darkness of hell.

So create your great works of art, and search your books relentlessly, and exhaust every bone in your body for the sake of the least of these. If you do any of it without God as the highest in your life, without His love filling every marrow and joint of your being, then all your efforts are filthy rags.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2012

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Christ is Not an American (political commentary by an orthodox rebel)

American individualism can never be Christian, for the Christ-like life is never about the self, its own aggrandizement or realization or actualization or discovery or love. We are not here to find ourselves, but rather to be found by God in Christ. We are not here to realize ourselves, but rather to realize our union with Christ and the mystic, sweet communion of God in our day-by-day, moment-to-moment circumstances. We are not to love ourselves, neither hate ourselves, nor consider ourselves at all, but rather be loved by God and thereby love God and others. So you see, obsession with our self, with our own individual advancement and success, is poison in the veins of the Christ-like life, for Christ was and is not an individualist.

American socialism can never be Christian either, for the Christ-like life is not about material security in the here and now. We look not to the things that are temporal but rather to the things that are eternal, for that which is temporal fades away, but that which is eternal abides forever. Your health will fade and so will healthcare. Your wealth will fade along with the wealth of others. Your home will fade as will your employment. All these things are passing away, and only God and His love remain. Tell me, then: what "compassion" is there in placing people's hopes in the things of this world? There is no greater hatred and cruelty than causing people to trust in material peace and equality rather than the love of the sovereign God, for what profits a man if he gains the whole world (including consistent federal welfare checks) but loses his soul? So you see, our obsession with political solutions to eternal problems is also poison in the veins of the Christ-like life, for Christ was and is not a socialist.

Brothers and sisters, whatever your persuasion politically or socially and however good or noble your intentions, understand this: Christ is sui generis because Christ is God, and both His advancing kingdom and His saving Gospel do not, cannot, and must not be made to resemble the imperfect and ever-fallible schemes of men.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2012

Saturday, August 4, 2012

It's Time to Grow Up (as explained by an orthodox rebel)

"All things are lawful for me, but all things are not beneficial. All things are lawful for me, but all things do not edify. Let no man seek his own, but every man [seek] another's well-being." I Cor. 10.23-24

Christian liberty is not meant for ourselves, a fact we too often miss. If after salvation your attitude is, "I am free from the law and the wrath of God, so now I can do what I please," then you have yet to grasp the Christ-like life. There was no drop of selfishness in that Great-Heart, and the life that lives for itself (even in the name of "Christian liberty") is a selfish life, immature and in need of God's hard hand to knock the adolescent arrogance out of it. Understand, that though we are not enslaved to others, we are enslaved to Christ, bought with a price (I Cor. 7:22-23), and the Christ-like life lays down His life for others, for their benefit and edification and even the salvation of their souls (I Cor. 10:33).

It is not about us anymore. It never was. That is the hard yet beautiful truth. All of our misery (globally, nationally, corporately, communally, relationally, and individually) comes whenever we make everything about our self: our wishes, wants, desires, preferences, opinions, prejudices, biases, cleverness, and good intentions. The self-centered life, no matter how pious, is the Devil's playground. Real freedom and real life are only found when we acknowledge and accept the fact that everything is not about us and never will be about us. It is about God: His kingdom, His glory, and His great works that he has done. Get this straight: we belong to Him, and He did not free us from Sin so that we might live for ourselves. He set us free to be His Body and His presence in the here-and-now, and to save a people unto Himself so that he may present them spotless unto Himself, and to let His goodness be good to us so that we might show forth His praises (I Pet. 2:9) in the hope that some might hear and be saved. It's time to grow up, children. Finish with yourself so that you might find true life in Christ (Matt. 10:39).

-Jon Vowell (c) 2012