Ignatius and the Hebrew Bible

Ignatius vs. the LionsIgnatius of Antioch is a fascinating figure from the early 2nd century. Famous for encouraging Christian unity through obedience to bishops and for getting eaten by lions, he also had a helpful and balanced, if not much elaborated, view on what it means for Christians to read the Hebrew Bible on this side of the Christ event. In his Letter to the Philadelphians, Ignatius confronts 'Judiazing' Christians, probably not too dissimilar from those Paul confronted, though Ignatius does so with noticeably more gentleness than Paul does in his letter to the Galatians.

After offering his trademark prescribed cure for disunity - stand by your bishop - Ignatius proceeds to attack what appears to be the greatest risk to brotherly love within the church in Philadelphia.

He explains that although he is in chains and on his way to his death, he nonetheless has hope because of the gospel message proclaimed by the Apostles. But this message was also proclaimed proleptically by the Hebrew prophets, who themselves "have obtained salvation within the unity of Jesus Christ" and "are included as participants in the universal Gospel hope" (IPhil 5).

But this doesn't mean, for Ignatius, that Christians should practice Judaism. Without Christ we're dead (cue tombstone metaphor), so avoid these kinds of teachings so they don't "weaken your love" (IPhil 6). Instead, cling to the unity of the church.

Ignatius works for unity in the church, because, he tells us, that's the kind of church that God lives in and where forgiveness reigns. So the Philadelphians need to avoid the teaching of factions and instead cling to the teachings of Christ. Ignatius seems to have come across some people when he was in town who told him they couldn't believe any teaching unless it was explicitly written in the "ancient records", the Hebrew Scriptures. They were using the prophets as the measure of the apostolic teaching, and where they didn't find clear precedent for a doctrine in the scriptures they refused to believe it. Ignatius counters:

But for my part, my records are Jesus Christ; for me the sacrosanct records are his cross and death and resurrection, and the faith that comes through him. (IPhil 8)

For Ignatius, that is his justification, that is his proof text, that is his Scripture: the narrative of Jesus, especially his death and resurrection, and the faith - the life of the ecclesia, the church - that springs forth from that Christ event.

Early Christians slowly and organically developed what was called the regula fidei, or rule of faith, which they used as the guideline for interpretation and the development of doctrine. Think of it as an early edition of the Apostles' Creed. But for Ignatius, Christ is the rule of faith. The narrative of Christ is the essential condition of Christian faith and teaching. While Judiazing Christians insist that all belief and practice pass through the litmus test of the Law and the Prophets and the Writings, for Ignatius Christ takes priority as the only litmus test needed. This represents not just a high understanding of the person of Christ, but a profound Christocentrism. The good bishop understood the story of Jesus to be the story through which all other stories are illuminated.

UMC Candidacy Questions: My Beliefs

As a part of the candidacy process for ordination in the United Methodist Church one is required to type up and submit answers to a number of different questions and prompts. As I approach my meeting with the District Committee on Ordained Ministry on Thursday, February 23, I will be posting a few of my responses here. The third of these responses (and the last one I intend to post on this blog) follows, below.  ¶ 311.2.a.iii Write about your beliefs as a Christian.

I believe that the God who created all things took on flesh and walked the earth in the person of Jesus Christ. I believe that Jesus is the Word of God, the fulfillment of the Old Testament’s history of Israel, the full enactment of God’s faithfulness to the promises he made to his people, the assertion of God’s Reign on earth. I believe that Jesus displays the power and the wisdom of God in the weakness and foolishness of his death on the cross. I believe that Jesus’ innocence, his faithful obedience, was affirmed when he rose from the dead. I believe that in Jesus’ death and resurrection sin was defeated and death itself died. I believe that God has poured out his Holy Spirit on the whole world to bear witness to this Good News about what God has done in Jesus.

I believe that God has called-out the church to be witnesses of these things —- to partner with him in the sharing of this News and in the performance of this Reign through the power of the Holy Spirit. I believe that to bear witness to Jesus as Lord means to renounce all other lords as ultimately false and to follow after his pattern of Lordship by feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, showing hospitality to strangers, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and imprisoned. I believe that living life towards this God who has come to love us his enemies in the person of Jesus means to live by a similarly radical kind of love toward God, toward neighbor, and toward our own enemies. I believe that holiness is becoming consumed by this kind of love, overwhelmed by its fulness and completeness, and graciously perfected and overcome by its practice. I believe that the Holy Spirit works on us through certain ‘means of grace’, central among them being the practice of baptism, whereby the church welcomes one into its covenant community of worship and witness, and holy communion, whereby the church takes up particular discrete acts of Jesus, gives thanks to God through them, breaks bread to remember what Christ has done for us and to rehearse for the Wedding Supper of the Lamb, and shares a common table as an act of holy hospitality and as spiritual food to empower our ongoing worship and witness. I believe that to follow after this Jesus, to walk on his way, is the only good and true and beautiful way to live, the only genuinely, fully and originally human way to be.

I believe that the same Jesus will one day bring his Reign into its fulness, at which point we will answer for our sins, but he will wipe away our tears, make all things new, and come to dwell fully and completely with humankind in a New Earth. I believe that whatever this looks like, however God freely determines to wrap this whole drama up, it will be Good, and Holy, and Righteous, and True. And I believe that living our lives together and with the fellowship of the Holy Spirit between the resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of all things that his own resurrection foretells is what gives us the courage to live counterintuitive lives of faithfully hopeful love as described above.

Ash Wednesday

I love that the thing that we'll do with the ashes tonight at church is called the 'imposition of ashes.' Tonight we'll go forward to have ashes smeared on our foreheads in the shape of a cross, a reminder that we are dust, and to dust we will return. A reminder of our mortality, and of our dependence on God's loving mercy, preeminently displayed on Good Friday, toward which we are now moving. We need to have these things imposed on us from time to time. We need them imposed upon us because we'd like to think we're invincible, and we'd like to think we've got it together on our own, we'd arrogantly like to think that the beginning and end of all that matters is us, humanity. Thank God for this imposition.

William Cannon "Grandaddy" Matthews

Grandaddy,  June 12, 1927-September 14, 2009 (  obituary  )

Grandaddy, June 12, 1927-September 14, 2009 (obituary)

I wrote this short reflection for The New Olympian, the newsletter for Olympic View Community Church of the Brethren in Seattle, WA.

My dad’s mom, known to me as Granny, walked down the aisle at First United Methodist Church of Pineville, Louisiana, accompanied arm-in-arm by her older brother James, the same brother that led her down the aisle at her wedding fifty-six years ago. Behind her followed her three sons, known to me as Uncle Bill, Uncle Al and Dad, her ten grandchildren (including myself) and various daughters-in-law, nieces and nephews and other relations. The congregation stood as we passed by, accompanied by a solo piano playing Great is Thy Faithfulness.

And that’s when it really hit me, fully, that he was gone.

Of course I teared up a little a few weeks ago when I visited him and he reached for my hand and held it, weakly, but warmly and affectionately. He didn’t say much of anything to me, but he did look at me, eye to eye, for an extended period of time, and I think he knew who I was. As I remember it he even smiled ever so slightly without breaking his gaze, that old sly smile of his.

I’d also been to the visitation the day before the funeral, and lightly wept as I stared into his face and tenderly touched that same hand, now cold and stiff, with my own warmer, fleshier one.

We had also all cried together as an extended family as, over and over again, we watched a video made in his honor by his employer for the celebration of his retirement many years ago, a photo slideshow set to music, featuring pictures of him the way I’ll always remember him: with all his humor and wit, his playfulness, tenderness and strength. And that smile. His face in those pictures was so full of vitality and energy.

But in spite of these things, it still seemed as though my coming to grips with his passing did not yet seem complete. As special as he was to me, as much love as he poured out on me throughout my whole life, in light of all the gratitude I have for who he was as a grandfather and as a man I had expected from myself a much stronger reaction. (I wasn’t by any means preoccupied or self-conscious about this, but it was just something I had noticed.)

As a whole, it was a beautiful funeral. The pastor summarized the obituary that was penned by my dad and his brothers; my Uncle Bill and some friends told stories about him – of which there are many good ones; I had the privilege of reading the 23rd Psalm and parts of John 14, and the pastor talked about Jesus at his friend Lazarus’ funeral, among other things.

But the most memorable moment for me was walking down the aisle in that caravan of Matthewses and McCabes. We were there to remember, mourn and celebrate the life, death and resurrection of William Cannon Matthews, known to me as Grandaddy, and my ability finally to fully remember, properly mourn and adequately celebrate was only realized as the piano melody to Great is Thy Faithfulness rushed into my ears. I sang quietly to myself:

Great is Thy faithfulness! Great is Thy faithfulness! Morning by morning new mercies I see. All I have needed Thy hand hath provided; Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!

Now that that family caravan is spread back across the United States, and I’m here sitting at my desk in Houston, it almost seems like a strange song for a funeral. But it isn’t. That lonely piano preached to me a sermon that I needed to hear. It turned out that on that day, it was only in the context of remembering God’s own faithful love and mercy that I was able finally to situate my grief at Grandaddy’s death, as well as the fullness of the joy I have for having been a part of his life.

Grandaddy used to tell us grandkids, usually in connection with a lively embrace, “I love you so good.” It was such a unique way of expressing that sentiment, and he said it so often, that it became his signature expression. His great and persistent, generous and extravagant love for me, his grandson, is to me like a parable of God’s love for us.

I’ve said it before: Christianity is basically all about death and resurrection. In Christ the crude physical reality of death has been overcome and the life and love of the Kingdom of God now reigns. Because of the great faithfulness of God, I can affirm that the cold, dead, stiffness of Grandaddy’s hand won’t have the last word. The Christ who suffered so brutally on the cross before being raised up and shown to be Lord of all has taken up the collective suffering of Grandaddy’s life into his arms, and with his own pierced hands finally restores and makes new Grandaddy’s hands, restoring warmth and life greater than any previously imaginable.

And the same Christ in his faithfulness and mercy takes my grief at the loss of Grandaddy, and not just that but all the grief and suffering of the entire universe, into his arms as well. That same Christ promises to wipe away tears from every eye, and to destroy death for forever. And that same Christ promises to make, not just Grandaddy, but all things, new. Great is his faithfulness.