Slavery and the Bible — Part 3: How Should We Then Live?

If you’re at Westminster Abbey, walk over to the St. James Park tube station and take the District line over to Embankment where you’ll connect to the Northern line.  Head south (you’ll need a Zone 2 pass) until you reach your stop: Clapham Common station.  Head up the stairs and you’ll see a lovely green space in front of you, dotted with families relaxing, people walking their dogs, and a few pick-up games of football (aka soccer).  Tucked away in a corner of the park, almost out of view behind some trees, will be Holy Trinity Church.  Unlike the Abbey, this place is not overrun with tourists snapping photos or school groups in queues.  It certainly doesn’t look like much.  But, for my money, this is one of the most important churches, indeed one of the most important buildings, in the world.  Affixed to the edifice is one of the ubiquitous blue signs denoting a historic location.  It reads: “William Wilberforce and ‘The Clapham Sect’ worshipped in this church.  Their campaigning resulted in the abolition of slavery in British dominions, 1833.”  Another plaque erected by the church lists ten names of “servants of Christ…who in the latter part of the XVIIIth and early part of the XIXth centuries labored so abundantly for national righteousness and the conversion of the heathen and rested not until the curse of slavery was swept away from all parts of the British dominions”.  A small bulletin board informs you that the church promotes racial reconciliation through regular “Wilberforce meetings”.  Standing on that lovely common in the outskirts of London and gazing upon that simple church is to stand on holy ground.

One year after Richard Furman wrote his “Exposition”, William Wilberforce wrote “An Appeal to the Religion, Justice, and Humanity of the Inhabitants of the British Empire in behalf of the Negro slaves in the West Indies”.  The epigraphs were Jeremiah 22:13 (“Woe unto him that buildeth his house by unrighteousness, and his chambers by wrong; that useth his neighbour’s service without wages, and giveth him not for his work;”) and Micah 6:8 (“He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”).  Wilberforce and a small group of evangelical Anglicans and Methodists had worked tirelessly to awaken England from its moral slumber and had succeeded, after a 20-year campaign, in abolishing the slave trade in the British Empire in 1807.  Now, this aging member of Parliament was calling on the British people to finish the job and abolish slavery entirely.  It was the final chapter in one of the truly heroic lives in world history.  Wilberforce was born wealthy in 1759, went to Cambridge, and became an MP at the age of 20.  He seemed to be on his way to the comfortable life of a gentleman politician.  But then Jesus got a hold of him.  In 1785, he experienced a Methodist-style conversion and, upon talking with converted slave-trader John Newton (of “Amazing Grace” fame), he was convinced to use his position to do good.  He committed himself to a life of advocating justice for the oppressed.  He worked on prison reform, labor rights, electoral reform, missionary outreach, and even the prevention of cruelty to animals.  But his great crusade was the end of slavery and he would soon link up with a small but committed group of men and women to do just that.  It was these Christians who would end the practice of slavery in the largest empire the world had ever seen, and their example would cause a cascade of abolitionist movements in the 19th century which eradicated the practice in most of the world.

Discovering Wilberforce in college on the eve of my foreign study in England renewed my faith as only studying the saints can.  Here was a Christian who, rather than taking Scripture out of context to justify his own selfishness, delved deep into the heart of the gospel message and allowed it to change him and, thus, the world.  And that story is repeated wherever you find abolitionist movements anywhere in the world.  The gospel message of radical equality before God (a unique message of Christianity) has broken chains around the world.  In America, it was Quakers like John Woolman who started the first abolitionist societies.  The Grimke sisters of South Carolina combined a passion for women’s rights with abolitionism, all spurred on by a deep faith in Christ.  Indeed, it was the spiritual revival of the Second Great Awakening that lit the fuse of abolitionism.  After all, it was a committed Calvinist preacher’s kid named Harriet Beecher Stowe who penned Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the book that woke the conscience of the nation.  Of course, African-Americans themselves were spurred on to work for their liberation by the message of gospel, which calls us out of slavery into freedom.  And the list goes on.  While there has been a concerted effort by secular historians to downplay it, committed Christians were at the forefront of the abolition of modern slavery wherever it was found.  The Enlightenment, when not leavened by the gospel, did not stand against slavery and the “meritocracy” of Enlightenment thinking was often just thinly-veiled white supremacy.  To its great shame, the Church has sometimes stood alongside those who promote power above all.  But Christ declares the power of the powerless, and the riches of poverty.  Those who took Jesus seriously changed the Church and made the world more just, peaceful, and equitable.

Christian abolitionism didn’t start or end with Wilberforce.  Early Church Fathers both Eastern and Western condemned slavery.  St. John Chrysostom (349-407) said that “slavery is the fruit of covetousness, of degradation, of savagery…[it] was the fruit of sin.”  Similarly, St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) wrote that “the condition of slavery is the result of sin…by nature, as God first created us, no one is the slave either of man or of sin”.  In the supposedly-backward Middle Ages, the Church worked to end slavery in Europe.  In 873, Pope John VIII declared it a sin for a Christian to own another Christian.  The Sachsenspiegel (c. 1220), the most important law book of the Holy Roman Empire, condemned slavery as a violation of man’s likeness to God.  Queen Isabella of Castille banned slavery in the newly-discovered colonies and banned the enslavement of Native Americans in 1493 (that second decree was more successful than the first, to be fair).  And so on.  While the Church has never been consistent in applying Christian principles, slavery could not withstand the gospel and faithful Christians have always stood against it.  Even today, it is Christians who stand at the forefront of movements to end slavery and sex trafficking (see, for example, the wonderful work of the International Justice Mission).  The message of Scripture, far from promoting slavery, has liberated millions from bondage both material and spiritual and broken down systemic oppression the world over.

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In light of all this, how are we to interpret difficult passages of Scripture?  How do we keep our own biases and presuppositions, conscious and unconscious, out and allow God in?  These are big questions, of course, much too big for this essay.  But I want to underline a few basic principles as I conclude this study.

First:  “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).  The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the inerrant Word of God and contain all things necessary for salvation.  They are the bedrock of all truth and the basis for living a holy (and joyful) life.  Simply dismissing difficult passages as “from a different time” and therefore able to be discarded denies God’s ability to use His word to teach, correct, and encourage.  We must avoid the Thomas Jefferson-ish temptation to remove the parts of Scripture that make us uncomfortable and face them head on.

Second:  That said, not all Scripture is the same.  The Bible contains a wide variety of literary styles from history to poetry to philosophy to prophecy to personal letters.  Each passage must be interpreted with an understanding of the style of writing and the historical context in which it was written.  Conversely, each passage must also be interpreted in the light of the entire message of Holy Scripture, since each part contributes to the whole of God’s salvation story.  Which brings us to…

Third:  The central story of Holy Scripture is the incarnation of Jesus Christ and His salvation of the world.  All Scripture must be interpreted through the lens of the gospel message.  Interpreting the Old Testament without reference to the Jesus revolution is to miss the entire point of the story.  The four Gospels are the center of the Biblical canon for Christians, the first among equals, just as the Torah was (and is) for the Jews.  Any interpretation of Scripture that undermines, detracts, or contradicts the message of salvation found in the Gospels is a false interpretation.  If you have to discard the Golden Rule to justify what you are doing, you have entered the realm of heresy.

Fourth:  The tradition of the Church should not be ignored, especially the teachings of the early Church Fathers.  When the united Church spoke with one voice, particularly in the councils, we ought to give special weight to their interpretation of Scripture and not throw it out because the culture has “moved on”.  Moving on is not the same as progress.  When Sts. Augustine, John Chrysostom, and Gregory of Nyssa (among others) condemn the practice of slavery as sinful, we ought to take notice.

Fifth:  Interpreting Scripture is not meant to be a solo activity.  Christ gave us the Church to build each other up in the faith.  Praying and studying Scripture together, seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit, will keep us from straying too far off the narrow path (Matthew 7:14).  If the Church speaks with one voice on something, we ought to be humble enough to submit to its teaching, understanding that our obedience will be rewarded even if the Church is in the wrong.  That is why those in Church leadership must be especially careful about how they present the Gospel, for if they lead the sheep astray, it is the shepherds who will be held accountable.

Lastly:  Sometimes we must say with St. Paul: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33)  If a particular passage continues to elude our understanding, we may continue to struggle with it, perhaps all of our lives.  But we must be radicals, that is we must delve our roots deep into the center of God, which will always be a mystery.  The center of that mystery is love and that love is demonstrated to us in Jesus Christ.  Scripture is not an end in itself — it is merely a window through which we may glimpse the infinite God in all His inscrutable wonder.  This can be frustrating at times or even disheartening, for sometimes God acts in ways we think unjust or feels absent when His presence seems necessary.  That is why we must have faith.  Life is a risk and none of us will get out of it alive.  I intend to use what little time I have in service to love, specifically the love found in Jesus Christ.  If I’m right in taking this risk, I will leave behind a legacy of peace and hope and salvation.  If I’m wrong, at least I will have served something greater than my own selfishness, at least I will have tried to make the world a little better by my being here.  Isn’t that worth the risk?

 

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Slavery and the Bible — Part 2: The Jesus Revolution

The first shots in the revolution were fired by the prophets.  Isaiah declared, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” (58:6).  Jeremiah proclaimed a new covenant of forgiveness in every heart (ch. 31).  Joel pronounced that the Spirit of God would be poured out on all flesh, even on slaves, leading to salvation for all who call upon the Lord (2:28-32).  Clearly, something new was coming into the world, a radical departure from everything that had come before.  Then a young woman gave birth in a stable in the town of Bethlehem.

As I mentioned in part 1, Dr. Richard Furman argued that the Golden Rule had been taken out of context, that it couldn’t possibly apply to slaves.  So let’s avoid proof-texting, and take it in context.  Matthew 7:12 (“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets”) occurs at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, often considered the central moral teaching in the Gospels.  In chapter 5, Jesus declares blessings upon the poor, the meek, the hungry, and the persecuted (and, in a parallel passage, woe upon the wealthy and esteemed [see Luke 6:24-26]).  He expands our obligations to care for our neighbor even beyond the law, prohibiting anger, lust, and divorce.  He cites the “eye for an eye” passage we mentioned yesterday in order to strengthen it even further, demanding forgiveness and radical generosity.  Rather than singling out who we’re allowed to hate, Christ commands love for all, even our “enemies”.  In chapter 6, He reiterates the need to give to the needy and not to hoard wealth on earth.  To the slaveowner who would protest the economic cost of freeing a slave, Jesus declares that you cannot serve God and money.  And just before the verse in question, Christ reminds us that God will give us everything we need if we ask Him and seek Him first.  So let’s summarize: Christ blesses the marginalized and oppressed, condemns greed, demands that we love without prejudice, and calls for radical dependence on the generosity of God against the unjust systems of this world.  I find little comfort for slaveowners here.

Jesus never directly addressed slavery during His earthly ministry.  But that doesn’t mean He didn’t care.  His love for “the least of these”, going so far as to identify Himself with them (Matthew 25:40), speaks volumes.  Instead of shunning lepers, he touched and healed them.  Instead of rejecting the Samaritans, He ministered to them and used them as examples of righteousness (Luke 10).  He seemed to have a special place in His heart for women, be it the woman at the well (John 4) or the woman with the issue of blood (Luke 8), and for children (Matthew 19:14).  He healed a Gentile slave of a Roman Centurion (Luke 7).  Two passages stand out to me as instructive here.  The first is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16.  In the parable, a poor and injured man named Lazarus lays at the door of a rich man (who is unnamed — notice God’s priorities!).  The rich man ignores him and Lazarus dies and goes to heaven.  When the rich man dies, he ends up in hell, begging Lazarus for the mercy of just a little water.  But the rich man did not show mercy on earth, so he would be offered none in the afterlife.  The parallels with slavery should be clear.  The second passage is the rich young ruler in Matthew 19.  After the young man lists off all of his righteous deeds, our Lord looks upon Him with love (Christ even loves the rich!) and says that to be perfect, the man must sell all that he has.  Did that include slaves?  Possibly.  But either way, Jesus just undercut the economic argument for slavery.  Jesus condemns the pursuit of wealth at the expense of others, as when he condemned the scribes who “devour widow’s houses” (Luke 20:47).  This is nothing short of a revolution, in which the poor and oppressed triumph and the rich and influential fall.  Or, as Jesus put it, “the last will be first, and the first last” (Matthew 20:16).

While Christ’s teaching undercuts slavery, there’s something even more fundamental.  It’s who Jesus is and what He accomplished.  The central story of the Jewish faith is a journey out of slavery in Egypt into the freedom of the Promised Land.  Slaveowners in the American South understood this, as they refused to let ministers preach on this passage to slaves.  There’s a reason Harriet Tubman was nicknamed “Moses”.  But that story was incomplete until Jesus came.  As Paul puts it in Romans: “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life” (6:20).  The sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross freed us from slavery to sin and made us slaves of God.  More than that, He has given us the right to become children of God (John 1:12).  “So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God” (Galatians 4:7).  This salvation was not earned through righteous acts or by accident of birth, but by the grace of God alone (Ephesians 2:8-9) and it is offered to all people, Jew and Gentile alike (see, e.g., Acts 11:18).  This is why Paul could declare, in one of the most triumphant verses of Scripture, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, emphasis mine, see also Colossians 3:11).  The walls that people build between themselves, be they gender, class, race, or national origin are abolished in Christ as we form one body in Him (Ephesians 2:11ff).

So what are we to make of all those verses I listed yesterday, calling on slaves to obey their masters?  Context, as always, is key.  Let’s take each passage in turn.  Ephesians 6 occurs in a lengthy section dealing with how to “walk in love as Christ loved us” (5:2) by “submitting to one another out of reverence to Christ” (5:21).  This is practical guidance for family living.  1 Timothy 6 concludes a barrage of advice from Paul to young Timothy about how to conduct Church life in an orderly manner, including honoring widows and elders and even adjuring him to try some wine for his balky stomach (5:23).  Titus 2 similarly includes myriad pointers for people in all walks of life, concluding with an admonition to “renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in the present age” (2:12).  Lastly, the 1 Peter verse is directly preceded by “honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (2:17) and followed by an admonition to endure suffering for Christ.  So Paul and Peter are not operating on some lofty theoretical plane here, wrestling with the philosophical and theological justifications for slavery.  They are dealing with the intensely practical questions of how to live out the gospel in this fallen world.  Jesus started a revolution, but it is a revolution that calls upon us to love our enemies and forgive those who hurt us.  As a slave, honoring your master could be a way of showing Him the love of Christ.  Slave revolts rarely ended well and individual slaves that attempted escapes were punished severely and ceded any privileges they might have (see this entry from my Philemon meditations for more on Roman slavery).  Paul and Peter aren’t so much endorsing the Roman slavery system as giving recommendations for how to live as a Christian within that system.  The most instructive verses here are from 1 Corinthians:

Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God. (7:20-24)  

Unlike some, including Dr. Furman, I don’t think the Golden Rule is Jesus’ ultimate moral teaching.  I think that the pinnacle of Christ’s instruction comes at the Last Supper after He washed His disciples’ feet.  He turns to them and says: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34).  Or, as Paul put it, “love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10).  Just as love requires the bondservant to treat his master with respect, so does it require the master to treat his slave as a brother in Christ (Colossians 4:1; Philemon 16).  In this way, slavery is abolished not through force, but by the adoption of the slave as a son in a reflection of the gospel story.  More than that, the law of love requires that we treat all whom we meet, regardless of wealth or race or status as if they were Christ Himself.  This means working toward a more just and equitable society, challenging systems which lead to the subjugation of marginalized peoples be they immigrants or the unborn or the homeless or the elderly.  Slavery cannot stand, and it does not stand, where the gospel is lived out.

Which brings us to the end of part 2.  In my third and final entry in this series, I will share how I resolved the trouble in my soul raised by Furman’s essay and explore how Christians have been the driving force of abolition around the world.  I will also cover how we can best interpret difficult passages like the ones about slavery in light of the gospel message and how we can live out a skeptical faith in light of the challenges presented by Scripture and a fallen world.

Slavery and the Bible — Part 1: What Does Scripture Say?

Three days before Christmas in 1822, the Rev. Dr. Richard Furman, first president of the Trienniel Convention (predecessor of the Southern Baptist Convention), published a paper entitled “Exposition of the Views of the Baptists Relative to the Coloured Population of the United States”.  The paper was published at the behest of South Carolina governor John L. Wilson as a response to the slave uprising led by Denmark Vesey in Charleston earlier that year.  Furman called the suppression of this revolt, including the execution of 35 slaves, “an instance of Divine Goodness”.  His defense for this view is simple:  “the right of holding slaves is clearly established by the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example”.  He goes on to cite many examples of the Bible condoning slavery, and he anticipates abolitionist responses, such as when he claims that the Golden Rule does not apply to slaves because it cannot supersede “the order of things, which the Divine government has established”.  Indeed, Furman goes farther by saying that slavery benefits the slaves by giving them a family with a benevolent Christian father (the master) who cares for them and brings them up in the faith.  He waves off the cruelty inherent in the slave system by saying that husbands and fathers have been tyrants, but that doesn’t mean that being one is immoral.  Indeed, the master has a Biblical duty to subjugate his slaves in order to retain social order and inculcate Christian values among the heathen.  In short, Furman concludes, “the holding of slaves is justifiable by the doctrine and example contained in Holy writ”.  Three years later, the Baptist convention opened a theological academy in South Carolina and named it in honor of their leader and thus was born my alma mater, Furman University.

I read Dr. Furman’s “Exposition” at least three times during my education at the university (they don’t shy from their past), and each time it troubled me.  It troubled me because I could not fathom how a faithful Christian could justify the subjugation of an entire group of people under a cruel, inhumane, and racist system.  However, my unease was deeper than that, spurred on by a nagging question:  what if Dr. Furman was right?  What if the Bible does promote slavery?  Are Christians just glossing over the clear message of Scripture because the Confederacy lost the Civil War?  If that was the case, I could not live with myself morally and remain a Christian.  I would, like Huck Finn, go to hell if it meant standing for racial justice and the equality of all.  It would be my encounter with another Christian from the early 19th century who would change my perspective and renew my faith.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let’s start in this essay with a simple question.  What does the Bible actually say about slavery?

In Old Testament times, people became slaves in different ways.  Many slaves that worked in the courts of Israel and Judah’s kings and in the temple were captives from war (see Numbers 31:25-47, Joshua 9:23, and 1 Kings 9:21).  Private slaves often became so because of personal debt.  For example, if a thief could not pay back what he stole, he would be sold into slavery (Exodus 22:2-3; see also 2 Kings 4:1).  Sometimes people would sell themselves into slavery in order to achieve a measure of protection and stability (Exodus 21:5; Leviticus 25:39).  Generally speaking, the Hebrews were only to enslave outsiders and not their fellow Hebrews (Leviticus 25:46).  Nobody seemed to question the system of slavery; it was simply a fact of life that needed to be managed.  Before you start feeling too lofty on that high horse of yours, remember that our own society depends upon wage slaves making subsistence income both in our country and abroad.  Overthrowing that system, however moral, would create incredible suffering especially for those being liberated.  We recognize the complexity of reforming late capitalism in a just way, but somehow we look at Old Testament slavery and say “just get rid of it, you immoral ninnies”.  Perhaps we ought to start from a place of humility.

The real question, of course, is what the Old Testament says about the treatment of slaves.  The ur-texts here are Exodus 21, Leviticus 25, and Deuteronomy 15.  The main principle seemed to be to treat your slaves as a member of your family.  Slaves were not to be separated from their spouses or children, and if you forced a slave to marry your child, that slave became an heir.  Slaves were to be circumcised and allowed to participate in the Passover and other religious observances (see, e.g. Exodus 12:44).  The real sticking point verse for most people is Exodus 21:20-21:  “When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money.”  So it’s o.k. to beat a slave as long as they don’t die?  Only if you don’t keep reading.  The rest of the passage prescribes fines for hitting a pregnant woman and the death penalty for causing a miscarriage.  It requires freeing slaves to whom they cause bodily harm such as the loss of eyes or teeth.  In fact, it is here that we get the famous principle “you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (vv. 23-25).  This command is directly aimed at slave masters in order to keep them from mistreating slaves.  The problematic verse above merely says that striking a slave is not punishable by death, which is hardly the same as condoning mistreatment.

Far from promoting cruelty, Old Testament laws regarding slavery made provision for the slaves’ well-being.  Foremost among this was requiring that slaves be given Sabbath rest (Exodus 20:10).  Moreover, slavery was not intended to be a permanent condition.  Hebrew slaves and all debt slaves were to be freed every seven years (Exodus 21:2; Deuteronomy 15:12) and any manumitted slaves were to receive financial gifts to allow them to start a new life (Deuteronomy 15:14).  Self-sold and voluntary slaves were to be freed on the Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:40).  Freeing foreign slaves would not have worked as well since it would be more difficult for them to integrate into Israelite society and they might well not be accepted back by their native countrymen.  Remaining in slavery, especially given the protections afforded by the Torah, was probably a better option.  Indeed, in light of current political controversies, it should be noted that foreign slaves were to be granted asylum (Deuteronomy 23:16).  The Law and the Prophets repeatedly condemn the mistreatment of foreigners, aliens, and the poor.  Indeed, the most important point to remember is this: Old Testament laws regarding slavery are framed by moral obligations to God’s law and just treatment of the poor.

I say all of this not to brush away the uncomfortable issue of owning people, but simply to differentiate the way we view slavery through how it was practiced in Bible times.  When we think of slavery, we think of the horrors of the Middle Passage across the Atlantic and the treatment of slaves as chattel in the rice and cotton plantations of the American South.  One major difference between American and Biblical slavery was the issue of race.  Because foreigners could be kept as slaves in Bible times, people like Dr. Furman justified a racist ideology of enslaving black people.*(see note)  But the Bible never differentiates by race, but rather by loyalty to God.  It is highly likely that people with darker skin owned those with lighter skin in Israel (and vice versa).  And foreign slaves in Israel were treated as human beings as opposed to American slaves, who were treated like animals.  The word “slavery” meant something very different in the Old Testament than it did in the antebellum South.

But the troubling question remains:  does the Bible justify slavery, even if it tries to mitigate its worst abuses?  Turning to the New Testament, it certainly seems to:

  • Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man (Ephesians 6:5-7)
  • Let all who are under a yoke as bondservants regard their own masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled (1 Timothy 6:1)
  • Bondservants are to be submissive to their own masters in everything; they are to be well-pleasing, not argumentative, not pilfering, but showing all good faith, so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior (Titus 2:9-10)
  • Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust (1 Peter 2:18)

These verses seem inarguable.  Slaves are to obey their masters in everything and masters are justified in expecting obedience.  Slavery is the Biblical system for organizing society.  Yet there is one important figure we haven’t heard from yet: Jesus, the very God Incarnate.  What is the teaching of Christ in relation to slavery?  How does the message of the gospel recontextualize these passages?  More than that, how does the gospel reorient our view of all marginalized people, indeed of all people everywhere?  These questions and more will be addressed in part 2.

 

*NOTE: Richard Furman, like many in the antebellum South, justified enslaving Africans by pointing to Noah’s drunken curse of his son Ham (“a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers” [Genesis 9:25]) and asserting that it was Ham who fathered the peoples of Africa.  Actually, the curse was on Canaan, Ham’s son, and thus of the peoples who settled in what we now call the Middle East (Noah’s curse perhaps anticipates the subjugation of the Canaanites to Israel).  It was Ham’s other children who peopled Africa.  Either way, it’s pretty tenuous to argue that this drunken rant justifies anything, much less the enslavement of an entire race or the prohibition of interracial marriage.  Bigots love to proof-text, a major reason I’m doing a deep-dive on this topic.

Stabat Mater Dolorósa

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.

John 19:26-27 (ESV)

To her, he would always be the baby in the manger.  Even up there, beaten, bloodied, and humiliated, he was still her little boy.  And now he’s hurt; now he’s dying.  I cannot really understand or feel the sufferings of Christ — the grand passion of our Lord, the alienation of the only-begotten Son from his eternal Father.  But I understand Mary.  I’m a parent.  My heart breaks when my children get a cold or scrape their knees.  I cannot imagine, I do not want to imagine, I will not imagine watching one of them die.  The memories must have flooded into her mind: his first steps, his first words, his first miracle.  She could close her eyes and see his smile, the way he crinkled his nose when he was thinking, the small mole on his left wrist.  She remembered what it was like when she had first felt him stir in her womb, how the sheer miracle of it all was almost too much to bear.  That overwhelming joy had caused her to burst into song.

And now this.  The ultimate horror.  God’s promise to Israel, the hope of the world, and her little boy dying on a cross.  There is no word big enough to contain this, not sadness or heartbreak or grief or despair.  The God that had appeared in blinding light and had filled her womb was now shrouded in darkness, leaving her empty, alone.  The Mater Dolorosa.  Motherhood is suffering, of course.  It is about slowly letting go, first through birth and then through the transitions of life all the way to adulthood.  But what a letting go this is!  It is a final release of vanity and false hope — all the vainglorious ideals of a triumphal, militant messiah.  This is the cost of salvation: only everything.

The early Church declared Mary to be the Theotokos “the Mother of God” or “the God-bearer”.  Thus she became a symbol for the Church and, by extension, for each one of us.  We are all called to carry Christ within us just as she did.  Therefore, we are also called to suffer as she did, to bear the burden of motherly sorrow.

But there’s one part of the story I omitted.  As Jesus hung upon the cross, he looked down upon his mother and knew her sorrow, more than you or I ever could.  He also saw John, the disciple whom he loved.  And with some of his final breaths, he gave them to each other.  The suffering Christ cared, even then, for the widows and orphans.  Even on the cross, especially on the cross, he comforted and restored.  Jesus did not leave his mother alone.  He gave her to John and, by extension, to the church.  We are still called to care for and be cared for by his mother (and ours).  We care for her by listening to her son, by living his life with him, by suffering alongside her.  She cares for us through Mother Church, that mystical body that sustains us all.  If we are in Christ, if we are his Body, then Mary is our mother, too.  So I pray that we will stand with her today at the cross, hold her close, and love Jesus just as she does.

Below I have included a translation of the Latin hymn Stabat Mater, a 13th-century hymn on this topic that poetically meditates on Mary’s suffering at the Cross.  It is blessedly devoid of Marian heresies (perhaps a whiff of the ever-virgin nonsense), and thus encourages a healthy devotion to the Blessed Mother.  May entering the sufferings of our Lord’s mother deepen your walk on this Good Friday:

At the Cross her station keeping,
stood the mournful Mother weeping,
close to her Son to the last.

Through her heart, His sorrow sharing,
all His bitter anguish bearing,
now at length the sword has passed.

O how sad and sore distressed
was that Mother, highly blest,
of the sole-begotten One.

Christ above in torment hangs,
she beneath beholds the pangs
of her dying glorious Son.

Is there one who would not weep,
whelmed in miseries so deep,
Christ’s dear Mother to behold?

Can the human heart refrain
from partaking in her pain,
in that Mother’s pain untold?

For the sins of His own nation,
She saw Jesus wracked with torment,
All with scourges rent:

She beheld her tender Child,
Saw Him hang in desolation,
Till His spirit forth He sent.

O thou Mother! fount of love!
Touch my spirit from above,
make my heart with thine accord:

Make me feel as thou hast felt;
make my soul to glow and melt
with the love of Christ my Lord.

Holy Mother! pierce me through,
in my heart each wound renew
of my Savior crucified:

Let me share with thee His pain,
who for all my sins was slain,
who for me in torments died.

Let me mingle tears with thee,
mourning Him who mourned for me,
all the days that I may live:

By the Cross with thee to stay,
there with thee to weep and pray,
is all I ask of thee to give.

Virgin of all virgins blest!,
Listen to my fond request:
let me share thy grief divine;

Let me, to my latest breath,
in my body bear the death
of that dying Son of thine.

Wounded with His every wound,
steep my soul till it hath swooned,
in His very Blood away;

Be to me, O Virgin, nigh,
lest in flames I burn and die,
in His awful Judgment Day.

Christ, when Thou shalt call me hence,
be Thy Mother my defense,
be Thy Cross my victory;

While my body here decays,
may my soul Thy goodness praise,
Safe in Paradise with Thee.

– Translation by Edward Caswall, Lyra Catholica (1849)

The Apocalypse of Maundy Thursday

And I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom,

–Luke 22:29 (ESV)

The first three words of the Book of the Revelation in Greek are Apokalypsis Iēsou Christou — “[This is] the revelation of Jesus Christ”.  So the “apocalypse” here is not primarily about the end of the world.  It means an unveiling, uncovering, or revealing.  In Christ, the hidden things of God were revealed, and, in John’s prophetic book, the full majesty and dominion of Jesus are uncovered.  The apocalypse has already happened.  God has come down into His world in spectacular fashion, conquered death, freed the righteous from sheol, kicked in the gates of Hell, risen from the dead, and ascended to rule forever on His heavenly throne.  His eternal reign is already here; His triumph is accomplished.  All we await now is His final return, ending the story and declaring His final judgement.  Jesus is king NOW.

I emphasize all this because I think it’s the message of Maundy Thursday.  The Last Supper wasn’t just any old meal — it was the Passover.  By recontextualizing the meal as a feast upon the very Body and Blood of the Lord, He reveals what He is all about.  He makes it abundantly clear that everything that had come before — the first Passover, the Exodus, the sacrificial system, the Temple, the prophetic promises — had all pointed in one direction: to Him.  Jesus was the true Passover lamb whose sacrifice would save the firstborn of God.  Jesus would lead His people out of bondage and into the Promised Land.  Jesus was the new Temple, the point where earth and heaven met.  And Jesus was the promised Messiah who would finally free us from our unforgivable guilt.  That is the apokalypsis found in the Holy Eucharist, the holy food and drink of new and unending life which allows us to partake of Christ’s ultimate sacrifice.  That is why we call it the Last Supper — no more sacrifices are needed, the blood that sets us free forever has been shed.  Now the dwelling of God was with man, as God and man at table were sat down.

Then, of course, Jesus disrobed and wrapped Himself in a towel and washed His disciples feet.  This was a demonstration of the apokalypsis that had been going on for three years, the revelation that God Himself came not to be served, but to serve (Luke 22:24-27).  He declared that those who wanted to lead must be slaves to all, that the first should be last, that the meek inherit the earth.  He upended all worldly wisdom and revealed the ultimate truth to be a paradox: strength is found in weakness, wisdom in foolishness, leadership in submission, life in death.  This sort of truth is not something reason can find out; only revelation, only an apocalypse, can show these things to us.  When Jesus knelt as His disciples feet, the world ended, the world of the power-driven and glory-seeking.  Jesus inaugurated a new world of compassion that would feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, heal the sick, visit the prisoner and give the orphan and widow a home.  The first were now last, and the last first.

So, just before leaving for the garden, Jesus gives the disciples one final assignment: the administration of the kingdom of God.  They are to bear the apokalypsis out to the world and rule as regents of the King of Kings.  They are to celebrate the Lord’s supper and wash one another’s feet and, above all, love one another.  We, of course, are heirs of the kingdom with them.  We have our part in bringing on the apocalypse, the revelation of Jesus Christ.  We reveal Christ to the world as we administer His kingdom in our daily lives.  And we pray that His kingdom will come and His will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  That is our mandate on this Maundy Thursday:  “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34).

 

Spy Wednesday

Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was of the number of the twelve. He went away and conferred with the chief priests and officers how he might betray him to them. And they were glad, and agreed to give him money. So he consented and sought an opportunity to betray him to them in the absence of a crowd.

–Luke 22:3-6 (ESV)

As a Protestant, I had no idea this was a thing.  The Wednesday of Holy Week was always just Holy Wednesday, but in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions it is called Spy Wednesday.  This is in reference to the tradition that Judas agreed to betray Jesus on Wednesday, becoming a “spy” among the disciples.  If a service is performed tonight, it’s often the tenebrae service, in which the candles in a candelabra are gradually extinguished to symbolize Christ’s journey to His death.  Also commemorated today (especially in the East) is the anointing of Jesus by Mary of Bethany (John 12:1-3).  This connects to Judas in that he complained about the cost of the spikenard used, which could have gone to the poor.  However, John the Evangelist notes with evident anger that the only reason Judas cared about this was because he was the treasurer for the disciples and was stealing from the money-box (John 12:6).  The contrast of Mary, who gave an extravagant, expensive offering to Jesus, and Judas, who stole from Christ and betrayed Him for a paltry sum, throws our choices into stark relief.  Will we serve ourselves this week, slaves to greed and self-interest, or will we offer all we have to God as a fragrant offering?

Traditions have sprouted up on this holy day.  In Greece, congregants receive Holy Unction in preparation for the triduum sacrum (that is, the three holy days that follow).  In the Czech Republic, today is called “Ugly Wednesday” or “Soot-Sweeping Wednesday” or just “Black Wednesday” as it is tradition to get your chimney cleaned for Easter today.  In parts of Scandinavia, this day is known as Dymmelonsdagen (a dymbil is a piece of wood).  The metal clapper on the church bells are replaced with the wood dymbil to make a duller sound for the remainder of the week.  These traditions, along with the tenebrae service, demonstrate how today is about preparation.  Nothing much seems to be happening on the surface, but we know the great tragedy and triumph that is about to unfold.  Jesus wasn’t too busy today, but the devil sure was.  It’s a reminder to take to heart Peter’s warning: “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).  Old scratch is lurking like a spy, trying to stir up trouble while our guard is down.  But we are called to always watch and pray, not because of the devil, but in expectation of the coming of our Lord (Matthew 24:42).  So we clean our chimneys and anoint our heads with oil and quiet our bells, so that all is prepared for Christ’s work in our lives.

I chose to cite the Luke passage above because of two details that only he includes.  One is that Satan “entered” Judas.  I’m not sure what that means exactly, except that clearly Judas, through pride and greed, had made room for the enemy in his life.  After a season of cleaning house in our lives, we ought to be careful today to invite the Holy Spirit into the vacated space, lest the enemy take advantage.  The second detail is that Judas wanted to betray Jesus “in absence of a crowd”.  Sin thrives in darkness.  As Jesus Himself put it, “for everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed” (John 3:20).  If you have to sneak around like a spy to do something, perhaps you ought not to be doing that thing.  St. Paul explores this idea in Ephesians:

For at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. (5:8-14)

Let us walk in the light as Jesus is in the light (1 John 5:7).  As we participate in Christ’s life, we become beacons of light to the world.  What was said of Jesus could be said of us: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5).  Light always overcomes darkness.  That is the ultimate message of Spy Wednesday.  The devil put everything he had into defeating Jesus, even including turning one of His disciples against Him.  But the enemy failed.  Not only did he fail, he unwittingly set into motion the event that would save humanity from his clutches and spell his doom for eternity.  God turned what was meant for evil into the ultimate good.  Let us rejoice in that and prepare our hearts for the celebration of our Lord’s passion and resurrection.

Conclusion: A Prayer at the Hearth of the Heart

[Jesus said] I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled!

–Luke 12:49 (ESV)

I just saw a most remarkable picture.  In the midst of the smoke and rubble in the nave of Notre Dame Cathedral, the cross behind the altar gleamed in the firefighters’ searchlights.  Until I saw that, I didn’t really have the heart to write a meditation today, especially about a book called Catching Fire, Becoming Flame.  I don’t know why, but watching Notre Dame engulfed in flames filled me with tremendous sadness, although I am not Catholic or French, and I’ve never even been to Paris.  But, on this first day of Holy Week, to watch this great cathedral succumb to flame seemed symbolic of something.  Perhaps it’s a reminder of what we’ve lost in the West, that our neglect and recklessness toward our heritage of faith is destroying treasures that we don’t even recognize.  Maybe Jesus is lighting a fire on the earth and it’s coming for the Church first.  If so — Lord, have mercy upon us.  Maybe it’s just an accident and a reminder that what we build, no matter how grand, will not stand for eternity, not even Notre Dame.  Whatever the symbolic import, this fire reminds us that on the last day “each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done” (1 Corinthians 3:13).  We will all be subject to God’s fire.  Perhaps He is encouraging us to submit to it today willingly before we must submit to it unwillingly.

I have found this book to be greatly helpful.  I go into reading these sort of things hoping that something will finally click for me, that I will finally “get it” and understand how to operate my life.  But I always reach the end and say, “oh, yes, that’s right.  It’s not about me.”  There is no magic formula, no secret mantra, no blueprint to unlock the secrets of life.  We learn how to live by living.  We learn to love by loving.  We learn to follow God by intentionally seeking Him.  This book is intensely practical and yet just following those practicalities would leave you with a sum that was lesser than the parts.  But the sum of our spiritual life is greater than the works we do, because the end of life, the goal of our journey, is Christ Himself.  Thus, every journey will look different, for we all relate to Christ differently.  I cannot tie all of this up in a pretty bow because each of us will take away something different from this book and from our Lenten journeys.  Yet we are all united in the goal we seek.  That unity-in-diversity is the secret strength of the Church, and the gates of Hell stand no chance against Her.

A quick, book-review aside:  I like Fr. Haase’s style, or, rather, lack thereof.  So many spiritual writers want to use flowery words or empty a thesaurus to try to preach the gospel.  Haase’s unadorned prose radiates with pastoral care and an internalized sense of Christ’s command to keep our speech and prayer simple.  He summarizes subjects in five pages that would take lesser writers whole books to explicate.  Clarity and directness are the order of the day, without losing any warmth or insight.  Christian authors take note.

So how do we catch God’s fire?  It’s as simple and as difficult as offering everything we have to Him.  Through prayer and discernment, in discipline and surrender, we allow the Spirit to transform us into little Christs.  Just as I found hope in seeing the cross amid the rubble of the cathedral, so must we keep our eyes on the cross of Christ amid the fires and storms of our lives.  Like Peter, if we keep our eyes on Jesus, we can walk on water.  God says to us as He did to Isaiah: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you” (43:2).  The fire of God will refine us, not consume us.  But we must submit to His fire; we must walk through the raging waters.  Like the Levites carrying the ark to the Jordan River, we must step out on the water in order to see God part the waters (Joshua 3).  Only then will we see the Promised Land.  God is asking us to have radical faith, but He has not left us comfortless.  His Spirit will be with us through it all.  So let us walk with courage the road to Calvary with Christ this week, believing in faith that if we die with Christ, we will also live with Him (Romans 6:8).

Chapter 33 — Soul Training

Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.

–1 Corinthians 9:25 (NIV)

There is nothing quite like the energy of a college campus on a Saturday morning.  And today was a home football game at Furman.  The boys in my freshman dorm were all adorning ourselves in purple and white and getting ready to walk to the stadium.  One of my hallmates, a tall, muscular guy, let out a deep sigh.  “You know,” he said, “I was so glad I wasn’t playing college ball when I saw those guys sweating through summer practice and two-a-days.  But on game day…” he paused and shook his head a little, “man, I miss it.”  Despite being neither tall nor muscular, I knew exactly what he was talking about.  When actors are trucking to endless rehearsals, memorizing lines, enduring tedious tech rehearsals and the like, I am very happy not to be part of the process.  But on opening night, I wish I was on stage.  We human beings all want the reward and the glory of the big game or opening night.  What we don’t want to do is all the work required to get there.  We want the crown without the training, the fruits without the self-control required, the Easter without the Lent.

We always want a shortcut.  People search for that one easy trick that melts away the pounds or the surefire way to fabulous wealth or the simple trick for getting the girl or boy.  But we know that’s not how it works.  What we need to hear (and don’t want to) is that pounds melt away through diet and exercise, wealth is accumulated by careful budgeting and prudent investing, and you will win the guy or girl by becoming a better person, the kind someone wants to be with.  The spiritual life is no different.  We want spiritual transformation; we want inner peace; we want wholeness.  But that doesn’t come about through some magic formula or guru’s method.  It comes through discipline, the daily choices we make to reject sin and choose holiness.  There is no shortcut.  Fasting, prayer, almsgiving, and, indeed, all the other disciplines train our souls in the same way the practice trains the athlete or rehearsals train the actor.  We are learning how to be citizens of heaven by denying ourselves on earth.  We are killing off that old man, with his self-destructive desires, and taking on Christ, who brings new life.

We’ve already talked about prayer quite a bit, so today I’ll discuss fasting and almsgiving.  Fasting is a big topic (see chapter 4 of Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline for an excellent discussion of the spirituality and practical concerns of fasting).  Suffice it to say, we should take time, especially during Lent, to reevaluate our relationship with food and abstain from that which is causing us an addiction.  Giving up sugar, coffee, meat, or something similar for Lent can be a way to teach our bodies to desire that which is healthy.  Of course, fasting is not a health plan.  We fast in order to train ourselves to seek our sustenance from God.  Taking specific days to fast entirely from food can be an especially intense way to deny yourself in order to discover God’s grace in your weakness.  I like how Haase points out that fasting is larger than just food.  We can fast from television, the Internet, shopping, etc. in order to reorient our lives away from self-indulgence and toward God.  The motive here is key: we don’t do these things to be seen by others or to punish ourselves for sin.  We fast in order to put God on the throne of our lives.  And in doing so, we too will be lifted up: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (James 4:10).

Almsgiving is basically like fasting from money.  If we commit to giving some of what we have to the less fortunate, it means we will not be able to spend that money on ourselves.  It is a way of saying to God that “all things come from you, and of your own have we given you” (1 Chronicles 29:14).  We are just taking care of that which belongs to God: “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Peter 4:10).  One easy way to do this is to tithe the first 10 percent of all you earn to your local church.  This is a way to serve Christ’s body directly, and hopefully your local church is also involved in charitable outreach.  We can also give to causes that move our hearts, as a way of living out the call to love our neighbors as ourselves.  There is a great deal of online “slacktivisim” these days, as people post self-righteously on social media about the cause of the day while doing nothing to actually better their fellow man.  We would benefit spiritually, and the world would actually improve, if we put our money where our mouth is.  Moreover, almsgiving reorients our relationship with money, taming our need to hoard and our belief that money buys happiness and security.  Modern consumer capitalism wants us to be servants of our wallets; Christ wants us to serve Him alone.  We must choose between the two (Matthew 6:24).

Self-denial is not punitive or the product self-hatred.  Quite the opposite.  Denying ourselves that which is less than God allows us to receive more of Him.  And in Him is life and light (John 1:4).  Emptying our bellies and our pocketbooks give the lie to the idea that we need to keep either full in order to find fulfillment and joy.  So let us take this final week of Lent to look for opportunities to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus.  Let us train in such a way that we will win the crown.  May we die with Christ that we may experience the joy of His resurrection this Easter.

(Suggested Bible reading: Matthew 6, Jesus’ teaching on prayer, fasting, and almsgiving)

Chapter 32 — Pilgrimage

Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.

–Psalm 84:5 (NIV)

Pilgrim (n.) — 1) one who journeys in foreign lands: wayfarer; 2) one who travels to a holy shrine or holy place as a devotee; 3) one of the English colonists settling at Plymouth in 1620. [from early French pelerin, pilegrin, from Late Latin pelegrinus, altered from Latin peregrinus “foreigner”, from per “beyond” + agri “land, country”]

When I got off the Soviet-style train at the station in Prague, dusk was already beginning to fall over the city.  The journey up from Salzburg was my first solo sojourn on the Continent — having left the group of friends with whom I had been traveling, I was meeting up with two more in the Czech capital.  Since the Czech Republic had not yet joined the EU, there was still a passport check on the train, and the agent made a big scene of carrying off my passport to “verify it”.  After that small hiccup, I spent the remainder of the journey devouring the novel Treasure Island as an attempt to calm my nerves.  Arriving at the station, I stowed the novel and retrieved my Lonely Planet guide to the city, on which I’d mapped a route in pen from the station to my hostel.  I looked up at the signs and saw the inscrutable Slavic script of the Czech language and no translations.  Taking a deep breath, I consulted my map and carefully made my way through the narrow medieval streets, looking every bit the American tourist.  Arriving at last in the darkness at the tiny, hole-in-the-wall hostel I sought, I checked in at the desk and went to the bathroom to scope out the showers (dodgy) and use the toilet (also kinda dodgy).  I felt my entire body relax and a smile bloomed on my face when I saw a sign on the door from the young couple I would be tagging along with.  It said, “Welcome to Prague, Christopher!”  For the first time in a while, I felt at home.

Being in a foreign land is simultaneously exhilarating, terrifying, and disorienting.  Everything from the language to the food to the customs throws you out of your usual rhythms and makes you question that which you take for granted.  To be a pilgrim is to travel to a foreign land (even if it is in your own country) to seek out the “thin places” where God can be more easily found.  By getting out of our usual routine and comfort zones, we discover much about not only God but ourselves.  I have never been on a pilgrimage myself (my travels in Europe were part of a college study abroad program).  But I sometimes try to seek ways to get outside my comfort zone in order to stretch myself and let God change me.  That’s the important distinction that Haase points out between being a tourist (where comfort and pleasure are paramount) and being a pilgrim.  Traveling to the Holy Land or other sacred sites is just another way to discover God hidden in plain sight.  As for the practical matters of the journey and the spiritual preparation for it, I bow to Haase’s greater expertise; his advice seems sound.

Of course, not all of us have the time, money, or physical capability to go on a physical pilgrimage.  But there is more to this discipline than just geographical travel.  First off, we must remember that we are already foreigners.  The Bible reminds us repeatedly that the earth is not our home:

  • For we are strangers before you and sojourners, as all our fathers were… (1 Chronicles 29:15)
  • I am a sojourner on the earth; hide not your commandments from me!
    (Psalm 119:19)
  • [Jesus said] they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. (John 17:16)
  • These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. (Hebrews 11:13)
  • Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. (1 Peter 2:11)

All of these verses emphasize that we are living on earth temporarily, not as residents, and that the customs of this world are antithetical to those of our true home.  “But our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20).  We are all, every day, on the pilgrim way.  To go on a physical pilgrimage is simply to remind ourselves of our true citizenship, our true identity.  Just as the passport checks and foreign signs remind the traveler that they are far from home, so do the inconveniences and suffering of our daily lives remind us not to get too comfortable down here.  The journey of our life is the journey back home, prodigal sons and daughters returning to our Father’s house.

When the Pilgrims of England traveled across the Atlantic for the shores of the New World, they were certainly headed into foreign territory.  But they also saw it as a journey home, a chance to create a “city on a hill” that would shine with God’s light.  Indeed, their permanent residence would be in Massachusetts rather than England.  But they had to leave where they lived to find their true home.  That is the message of pilgrimage.  By the Spirit, we must be willing to travel beyond the place where we find ourselves in order to find where we truly belong.  Our home is not the house we live in, our city of residence, or even the United States.  Our home is in Christ and wherever we find Christ.  That is why the Church is such a gift, for no matter where we are in the world we are not foreigners as long as there are other believers to be found.  “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19).  Perhaps the pilgrimage we need to make this Lent is to our local church, to discover a home and a family with those whose citizenship is in heaven.  And may we always keep the “welcome” signs up on our church doors as we minister to the strangers and sojourners in our midst.  For we are all on this journey together.

[By the way, if you are in the CEC, our Patriarch Craig Bates is taking a group to the Holy Land next year.  If you’re interested, let your rector know and he can get your information to Abp. Bates.]

(Suggested Bible reading: Luke 10:1-20)

Chapter 31 — Sabbath Rest

Then Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made to serve us; we weren’t made to serve the Sabbath. The Son of Man is no lackey to the Sabbath. He’s in charge!”

–Mark 2:27-28 (The Message)

Human beings can be so hardheaded and stiff-necked sometimes.  The Lord gives us a command to relax, and we somehow construe that as an order to make a bunch of rules to follow.  In Israel, there are elevators that stop at every floor of buildings because some ultra-Orthodox Jews will not “work” on the Sabbath by pressing the buttons of the elevator.  One Jewish website opens up its discussion of this topic with these two sentences: “The Shabbat laws are quite complex, requiring careful study and a qualified teacher. At first, it’s often overwhelming and seems like an impossible number of restrictions.” (link to the complete article here)  All this, I feel a need to repeat, for a day of rest.  The sabbath story from Mark (quoted above) might as well begin with an audible sigh from Jesus.  His disciples were picking grain because they were hungry.  But good Jews don’t harvest on the Sabbath, so God will be angry with them.  Jesus rightly retorts that the Pharisees have made themselves slaves of their own rules.  As He says later in Mark’s gospel, “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men” (7:8).  If you need years of study and a qualified teacher to tell you how to relax, I’m afraid the god you have been following is your own legalism and workaholism.  The whole point of the Sabbath is not about what you do or don’t do, but who you are.

That said, what are we supposed to do on the Sabbath?  Is a day spent on the couch watching t.v. a sabbath pleasing to the Lord?  Well, no, but not because He’s mad that you’re not working.  The Sabbath is about doing that which brings us life, restoring the parts of ourselves that get worn down by the daily grind.  Doctors will tell you that sitting in front of the t.v. all day is not good for your health, and thus does not bring life.  Not that watching t.v. or a movie is necessarily bad in moderation, but Sabbath- keeping should be done thoughtfully.  A good question to ask is “what activities bring me joy?”  Do things that you enjoy doing on the Sabbath, simple as that.  For some people that could be gardening or yard work; for others sewing or cooking or painting; for others playing sports or hiking in the woods; for still others reading a book or writing in a journal.  Thinking about your Sabbath activities should give you something to look forward to.  Ideally, this intentional time off will also allow you to spend time with those you love be it your spouse, kids, parents, or close friends.  The Sabbath is about restoring our relationships with God and each other, fulfilling the Great Commandment.  Spiritual pursuits are, of course, a part of this, but if they are done with a sense of obligation and striving (“I better catch up on my Bible reading”) than you have slipped into serving the Sabbath rather than letting it serve you.

The story of Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42) is instructive here.  Martha did not do anything wrong; she was just attempting to be a good host for Jesus.  She was trying to do everything “right”.  But she missed the point of Jesus’ visit.  Mary sat at Christ’s feet and listened to Him, soaking in His presence.  Mary did what was “necessary” and received the “good portion” precisely because she wasn’t trying to earn it.  We get so busy trying to earn God’s love that we don’t realize that it’s there for the taking all the time, it “endures forever” (Psalm 136).  God wants to pour out his peace, his joy, and his love upon us — we just have to be open enough to receive it.  That is the “work” of the Sabbath.  As Jesus succinctly puts it: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:29).  The radical work of the Sabbath is that we take a day not to work, believing by faith the God can run His world without our help.  Our pride would like us to work ourselves to the bone, believing to the bitter end that we are indispensable.  But God calls us to the humility of resting in His arms, finding our value not in what we produce but in our identity as sons and daughters of God.

“And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new’” (Revelation 21:5).  The revolution of Jesus Christ is still ongoing in the world today.  But to participate in changing the world for Christ, we must be changed by Christ.  Sabbath-keeping is an integral part of how Jesus makes us (and the world) new.  We get burned out by our hectic lives and sometimes it feels like all we have to give Him is ashes.  But, like a phoenix rising, the Spirit can use the Sabbath to make those ashes into something beautiful (Isaiah 61:3).  We cannot do that work on our own; no book will teach you how to do it; there are no teachers wise enough to guide you through.  Only by the Spirit will we discover the heart of Jesus Christ, which is to lead us to His Father.  So how do we practice this discipline again?  We slow down.  We stop.  We relax.  We listen.  And we just live.  By doing this, we get a preview of heaven.  For when we die, we will see Jesus face-to-face and hear those happiest of words: “Well done, good and faithful servant… enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21).

[For a good book on this topic with many practical suggestions, I highly recommend Mark Buchanan’s The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath]

(Suggested Bible Readings: Mark 2:23-28 and Luke 10:38-42)