The Sign and the Sacrifice: The Meaning of the Cross and Resurrection by Rowan Williams

Rowan Williams numbers not only among the most influential theologians in the world, but among the top living minds, period. His career is both impressive and praiseworthy—dedication over the course of his career to both local church ministry and the Christian academy, faithful leadership at the top of the Anglican Communion through its recent global rupture, and no hesitation to use his weight as a public theologian and political figure in the UK and beyond.

Williams also keeps writing lovely little books for the church, like The Sign and the Sacrifice: The Meaning of the Cross and the Resurrection.

Rowan Williams Sign and the Sacrifice

This book is divided neatly in two. Part 1: The Meaning of the Cross is subdivided into “The sign,” “The sacrifice,” and “The victory.” Part 2: The Meaning of the Resurrection is split into “Christ’s resurrection—then” and “Christ resurrection—now.” Along the way Williams presents, analyzes, and invites us to contemplate just as wide of a swath through Christian history, theology, and practice as the book’s subtitle and organization suggest. Deep dives into Scripture and theology accompany references to literature as well as—in what turns out to be most distinctive in this book—the hymnody and prayers of the church.

The annoyance I have with this book is that points of theological argument and conversations in Biblical criticism are frustratingly lacking in footnotes. The bigger qualm I have is that in the second part of the book, I want Williams to unequivocally state, “I believe in the resurrection of the body,” and he never does. There are certainly statements that can be read that way, particularly a conversation on how Jewish conceptions of resurrection at the time of Jesus could not imagine a resurrection apart from this earth. In Part 2 as a whole, however, I find Williams to be equivocating on what the nature of Jesus’ resurrection is, and thus the nature of what our resurrection will be, although he certainly believes that God raised Jesus from the dead, and that it was the defining act of the new creation.

In terms of best audience and application, the book is successfully aimed at normal church folks. It is intellectually serious, but it isn’t unapproachable, and it even has helpful conversation questions at the end of each chapter. For me personally, I can think of several people to recommend it to, especially fellow pastors. It would be a tremendous book to plan a sermon series around, especially during Lent.

I’ll end with a longer quote to draw you in to take a chance on this excellent book:

Jesus’ death is not a ritual sacrifice. It doesn’t happen in a temple, it happens on a bleak hilltop on an execution ground. Jesus’ sacrifice is the sacrifice of obedience. At every moment of his life he has given his heart to God in such a way that God is able to work through him with no interruption, with no diversion. At every moment Jesus has fulfilled the law; not by ticking off at the end of every day a series of acts performed; not by obeying God like a reluctant corporal with a sergeant major ordering him around; but at every moment Jesus has done what God wants. So even before his crucifixion we could say in Jewish terms that he was offering a sacrifice, giving his heart to God in such a way that God is pleased with his gift.

But as with those martyrs in the period between the Testaments, it was an obedience that led to death. Jesus’ single-minded gift of his heart to the Father leads him to the shedding of his blood, because obedience to God in this world of sin, oppression and violence puts you lethally at risk. This is a world in which if you try to give your heart to God you may find your blood shed.

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God’s Filing Cabinet

The X-Files

When I was growing up, I was taught to understand the daily Christian life as “walking by the Spirit” (cf. Gal. 5:16).  What that meant until perhaps ten years ago (and still means at times of high stress and low coping) was that there was some exactly right plan in God’s head, and I was anxiously trying not to fail it.

Things which aren’t psychologically healthy are never spiritually healthy.

They’re not theologically accurate either: that vision of God and God’s plan had nothing to do with Jesus or the Spirit of Jesus Christ (as the Holy Spirit is repeatedly named in Scripture).

Thomas Merton puts this all so well (from “Renunciation and Contemplation,” quoted in Fr. Albert Haase, Swimming in the Sun, pp. 123-124):

“Your vocation isn’t something that’s in a filing cabinet in Heaven that is kept secret from you and then sort of whipped out at the Last Judgment and [God says], ‘You missed, buddy! You didn’t guess right.’ But your vocation, or anything in life, is an invitation on the part of God which you’re not supposed to guess and you’re not supposed to figure out. It’s something you work out by free response.”

I still think “walk by the Spirit” is a decent, short description of the daily Christian life. But now I want to offer a bigger picture: “walk by the Spirit” when the Spirit is experienced through the whole Biblical canon; in community with other Christians, living and dead (the Tradition); via the Sacraments; and in lived experience, both my personal experience and in connection with the larger human experience.

Joyfully.

Not a Psalm of Asaph

Psalm LXXXII
And there was December and there was January,
A new year.

And in this new year, I will
I will, I will, I will, I will, I will
I will–

But what will I be?

I will be more beautiful
Than the angels,
Although with regard to me
The answer is zero
Can dance on the head of a pin.

But what shall I be
And what shall be and
What shall be
And what shall I be?

God has said, “You are gods,”
And God meant it.

What of the Star?

Magi following star
This week I finished reading Scott Hahn’s Joy to the World: How Christ’s Coming Changed Everything (and Still Does). It’s a good devotional read for the Advent/Christmas/Epiphany seasons, especially for its deep dives into traditional Christian interpretations of the Christmas story.

From his chapter on the Magi of Matthew 2:

And what of the star?

As far back as the fourth century, Saint John Chrysostom pointed out that it didn’t behave like any other star anyone had ever seen…

“This star,” said Saint John Chrysostom, “was not of the common sort, or rather not a star at all, it seems to me, but some invisible power transformed into this appearance.”…stars in the sky were often identified with angels in heaven. The motif appears in the Bible, and in other Jewish sources from the time of Jesus. The philosopher Philo of Alexandria speculated that the stars “are living creatures, but of a kind composed entirely of mind.”…

John Chrysostom may have been pre-scientific and pre-critical in his thinking, but he wasn’t stupid.

With John Chrysostom I have to conclude that an angel appeared to the Magi as light and led them to true worship—which, as I’ve said before, is what angels were created to do.

Key for me is this sentence: “Chrysostom may have been pre-scientific and pre-critical in his thinking, but he wasn’t stupid.” For some of us, we need that basic fact: he wasn’t stupid. For others of us, it’s not that we think people of the past were stupid, but rather that we assume they were ignorant.

“Pre-scientific” means that Chrysostom didn’t understand the motion of celestial bodies as well as we do. At the same time, Chrysostom’s view of reality was larger than many of ours. He had room for the observable and empirically measurable as well as room for things beyond those categories. I hope I have room in my life and my outlook for things that don’t make sense. I hope I don’t have an explanation for the glory of God. I hope that sometimes I can still experience wonder and worship and lead others to worship—which is what humans were created to do.

The Church Is More Than a Business

Church by Buildings
This is the time of year in the United Methodist Church where much of our formal reflection on the previous year’s ministry takes place. Among the persistent goals in my ministry is to fully live into my job description from Ephesians 4:12–“to equip the saints for the work of ministry.” I’ve written previously on just how little attention is given to leadership formation (in terms of character or skills development) in seminary. This lack is multiplied when the ordained minister’s job is both to lead and to form and lead other leaders (many of whom highly capable leaders in the marketplace).

For United Methodists, there are particular leadership structures already laid out for us in our Book of Discipline. Instead of a board of deacons or elders, we have various leadership committees dedicated to particular tasks. Sometimes this prescribed structure is very, very helpful: it’s possible to develop a deep and wide lay leadership within the church. Sometimes the structure is very unhelpful: even small churches have slow decision-making processes, and the number of required roles can mean filling leadership positions with bodies rather than placing people according to their gifts and calling.

(I hope this last doesn’t sound like a slight against anyone. In Paul’s bodily terms, sometimes the Book of Discipline calls for a set number of ears, a set number of eyes, a set number of hands, but your church doesn’t have those people, so it just uses whoever is willing to fill prescribed roles. The best pastors and leadership teams get shrewd at this point, through creating alternate structures, re-crafting roles around particular people, and trusting that the Gospel at its heart says that God is creating beautiful things with whatever raw materials we have to offer.)

And then there are the meetings. Even if meetings are good meetings–actually, especially if they are good meetings–they are full of business from beginning to end. But the church is more than a business. In far too many churches, a church meeting is a small business meeting with a prayer at the beginning and maybe at the end, if we remember. Most pastors and most lay leaders long for something better, something that differentiates what we’re doing from what any other institution with a business side is doing. But we don’t know how to do better.

There was some literature several years ago on transforming church business meetings into worship services. You introduce a liturgy, have a call to worship, some prayers, maybe some singing, maybe even celebrate the Eucharist, and in the midst of the worship service is the business meeting. This might work in some settings, but it has massive downsides: 1) It’s difficult to actually enter into worship because of the business that actually does need to be done, and 2) It’s difficult to get all the business done because we’re trying to worship together. I’m glad if that works somewhere, but it sounds like a lose-lose.

So here’s my goal: find a schedule and shared practices for the coming year in which business happens at business meetings, but we also have time for worship and spiritual formation specifically as leaders. The foundational text for thinking through how to do this practically is going to be the ever-excellent Ruth Haley Barton’s Pursuing God’s Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups.

The Immortal Hazelnut

Julian with Hazelnut

I’m currently rereading Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, and this is from the Short Text (Elizabeth Spearing translation):

And in this vision [Christ] showed me a little thing, the size of a hazel-nut, lying in the palm of my hand, and to my mind’s eye it was as round as any ball. I looked at it and thought, ‘What can this be?’ And the answer came to me, ‘It is all that is made.’ I wondered how it could last, for it was so small I thought it might suddenly disappear. And the answer in my mind was, ‘It lasts and will last for ever because God loves it; and in the same way everything exists through the love of God.’ In this little thing I saw three attributes: the first is that God made it, the second is that he loves it, the third is that God cares for it.

The multiverse is the size of a hazelnut, and you couldn’t find me or yourself in it if you looked at it with the most powerful microscope on earth, and this is good news. As Julian continues a page later, “until all that is made seems as nothing, no soul can be at rest. When a soul sets all at nothing for love, to have him who is everything that is good, then it is able to receive spiritual rest.”

There are times, in the thick of things, when I get overwhelmed and too close to the work I am trying to do as the pastor of two small churches. Despite being regular in spending time in Scripture and devotional readings and prayer, fairly regular in mindful silence, in journaling, in conversation with others, I simply lose perspective. And when this happens, I become less effective and more anxious, and it takes some time and effort to regain perspective and balance.

I stumbled into a miniature retreat on Friday in the form of an 80-minute drive to a meeting. I found that I needed to turn the podcast off and just start talking to God out loud. What I was looking for was God’s reminder, “This is who you are.” I’d name that in retrospect as the need for a renewal of calling. And I received what I was looking for, in this case the sense of “Do not over-identify with the churches you serve, their successes or failures or programs or hopes or fears or futures or lack of future.”

Who I am is A Person God Made. I can have great success, and that won’t make me more than that. I can utterly fail in every sense that you or I could consider failure, and that won’t make me less than that. Richard Rohr terms this understanding of personhood the “immortal diamond” (a phrase from Gerard Manley Hopkins, after Rohr puts a couple layers of Jung on top of Merton’s concept of the “true self”) to name what identity actually means in God. It’s part of the same whole that Julian once saw as a ball the size of a hazelnut.

Before and after all the voluntary and involuntary associations and relationships and places and works that I enter into, there is some eternal, inviolable identity which God has made from love and which God sustains in love. And that self has no fear, because that self still resides in the hand of God, who is Love, and there is no fear in love. That’s not something I need to know as a pastor. That’s something I need to know as a human being. Only when I know this can I enter fully and healthily into all those relationships and works I’m a part of. And only when I know this can I find rest.

“forgiveness is not a legal action”

Alexander Schmemann on “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” from his Our Father:

to ask forgiveness of this sin, means to acknowledge our disunity with others, and it implies an effort to overcome it, which already implies its forgiveness. For forgiveness is a mystical action that restores a lost wholeness so that goodness reigns once more; forgiveness is not a legal action, but a moral one. According to the law anyone who harms me must be punished, and until he is punished the law is not satisfied, but according to conscience the moral law does not require a legal satisfaction, but rather the restoration of wholeness and love, which any law is powerless to effect. Only mutual forgiveness has this power. If we forgive one another, then God forgives us, and only in this mutually related forgiveness of ours and the forgiveness from above is the conscience purified and light reigns. It is this for which man thirsts and searches at his very depths.

For indeed, man does not really need external order as much as a clean conscience, that inner light without which there can be no true happiness. Therefore, ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’ is actually a petition for moral purification and rebirth, without which any law of this world is no help.

Perhaps the terrible tragedy of our times, of those societies in which we live, consists precisely in the fact that while there is much talk about legality and justice, while many assorted texts are cited, these societies have almost entirely lost the power and moral beauty of forgiveness.

Especially with the last paragraph, it is worth explaining that this book was originally a set of radio lectures on the Lord’s Prayer broadcast by Radio Liberty into the USSR (culled from 30 years of weekly broadcasts which Schmemann made). Yet “those societies in which we live” not only accurately describes the Soviet Union in 1980 but the United States in 2016. Far worse is that Schmemann’s words to a large extent describe American Christianity.

I find myself wondering how much of this is due to Protestant reduction of the reconciliation of all things in Christ to a mere legal transaction resulting in eternal salvation, benefits payable on (and not before) death. As easily as that can be packaged and preached, a courtroom drama is far from expressing the fullness of the Gospel. Even Paul, the main popularizer of that legal metaphor, experienced and spoke of the Gospel in much larger terms than any courtroom could hold, as in Colossians 1:19-22:

Because all the fullness of God was pleased to live in him,
        and he reconciled all things to himself through him—
        whether things on earth or in the heavens.
            He brought peace through the blood of his cross.

Once you were alienated from God and you were enemies with him in your minds, which was shown by your evil actions. But now he has reconciled you by his physical body through death, to present you before God as a people who are holy, faultless, and without blame.

To make the practical turn: preachers who are interested in proclaiming a Gospel that draws and then transforms people with its goodness, beauty, truth, hope, and love (to be clear, this is the only Gospel) have to stop taking lazy shortcuts in presenting the Gospel in narrow and shallow terms week after week. And if we don’t take up that challenge, then we bear moral responsibility when people don’t seem to grow spiritually or to find growth in relationship with God or to practice substantive peacemaking with their closest neighbors and family. A legal action cannot accomplish those things, but the power of the Gospel is the power of God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–to do infinitely more than we can ask, think, or imagine.

Preaching the heights and depths of the Gospel destroys the shallow “gospel” of legal action in any contest of theology, Biblical faithfulness, missionality, or the pure practicality of transfigured lives and communities. Thanks, Fr. Schmemann.

Schmemann Icon