Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Sanctification of the Faithful (Strid)

by the Rev. Paul E. Strid

In their article Maturity in the Midst of Conflict, Tom Woodward, David Fly, and Lisa Fox joined with the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church in directing our focus toward relationship and reconciliation.

Arguing about who is right and who is wrong only embroils us in vicious cycles of accusation and self-justification, leaving us all more tightly wrapped in our own sinfulness and cut off from one another. The Episcopal Church, Woodward, Fly, and Fox seem to be inviting us all into a much-needed “time out” in which we may calm down and reconsider our behavior.

They also offer us a common ground in “new dedication to personal and corporate holiness in the church.” This framing teases out what may be the helpful kernel of “orthodox” concerns and speaks to an issue I hope we all share.

We have been losing sight of the reality that we are all concerned with, and called to: holiness. One of my core understandings of priesthood is that it is my task to serve the sanctification of the people of God. Sanctification, however, is far more profound, all-encompassing, and varied than issues of morality and purity codes. For us to be caught up in and conformed to the mystery and holiness of the triune God takes much more than a list of "thou shalts" and "thou shalt nots."

To be caught up in and conformed to God necessarily involves being caught up in and conformed to Love. Jesus reminds us that the sum of Torah is to love God and to love the other as oneself. He also gave us the New Commandment: to love as he loves.

How, then, can we possibly seek holiness without learning to love one another with greater depth, honesty, understanding, and compassion? We clearly delude ourselves if we think we can love God without loving each other. “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” (1 John 4:20, NRSV)

Ezra the priest encouraged racial and religious purity when the Jews returned to Jerusalem after the Exile (Ezra 7-10). His approach may be summed up in 2 Corinthians 6:17: “Therefore come out from among them, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch nothing unclean; then I will welcome you.” An entire strand of Scripture and tradition speaks to making distinctions and seeking purity through exclusion. We must acknowledge this portion of our heritage.

Other strands in Scripture and tradition approach holiness differently. 1 Timothy 4:4-5 addresses purity issues and concludes: “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by God’s word and by prayer.”

Sanctification by separation and exclusion versus sanctification by blessing and incorporation: both are within our faith and practice. If Christians, and specifically Anglicans, can agree that we all seek holiness, might we not then be permitted to have differing understandings of how holiness is achieved and allow each other to seek holiness in our own context? Words of encouragement may also include words of admonition, but words of accusation and condemnation are unlikely to build up the body of Christ. Indeed, accusation is the enemy’s work, for the “father of lies” is called the accuser (Revelation 12:10).

When Donatus and his fourth-century followers tried to uphold the purity of the church by rejecting the ministry of apostates, the Church decreed that the character of ministers in no way affects the validity of the sacraments, since Christ is the principal minister of every sacrament and it is Christ's holiness that counts. Though the controversy raged for over a century, Donatism was finally rejected – much to the relief of every human (and thus sinful) priest and bishop since then.

In spite of Ezra, the Donatists, and all their successors, I cannot see exclusion as the final or most effective path to holiness. Jesus’ openness to the sinful, the outcast, and the unclean signals a radical shift toward declaring all of God’s creation good. The shift from separation to inclusion was hinted at when Isaiah of Jerusalem declared that the most hated enemies were promised an equal share with Israel (Isaiah 19:24).

This does not mean our behavior is a matter of indifference. Quite the contrary. Every choice we make takes us deeper into God and closer to one another or throws all our relationships – with God and our neighbors – out of alignment and drives us further apart.

Choices and behavior matter. They matter a great deal! But even more, the core principle behind all morality – the core principle grounded in the sacred – is the mystery of divine love. What makes an act (or a failure to act) evil is the failure to love or a violation of love – "love" in God's own sense. Such a failure is the breaking or distortion of relationship. It harms that which God loves and which we are likewise called to cherish.

Choosing the lens of love for interpreting moral codes and their application is not wishy-washy. It is grounded in Jesus' proclamation of the Great and Second Commandments.

The Catechism speaks of being freed from sin and also of that for which we are set free: "The Messiah is one sent by God to free us from the power of sin, so that with the help of God we may live in harmony with God, within ourselves, with our neighbors, and with all creation." [Book of Common Prayer, p. 849]

Here we have a vision of holiness that is harmony, or right relationship, with God, with ourselves, with our neighbors, and with creation. Back in my Baptist seminary days I saw that same four-fold relationship as the key to my understanding of salvation – a dynamic relatedness that was life-giving, boundless, endless. Little did I know I was anticipating the teaching of the church to which I would one day belong.

I am therefore pleased to observe the Executive Council's affirmation: "It is our most earnest hope that we continue to walk with our Anglican brothers and sisters in the journey we share together in God's mission. We believe the Episcopal Church can only offer who we are, with openness, honesty, integrity, and faithfulness, and our commitment never to choose to walk apart."

In Maturity in the Midst of Conflict, the authors note: “Our history as a Church has been marked, over and over again, by our struggles to understand and respond to God’s continuing call to be 'a holy people.'"

I thank them for pointing us once more toward holiness, honesty, and dialogue. In so doing, they point us all toward a common way forward.

About the Author: The Rev. Paul E. Strid is a priest of the Diocese of California now residing in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He served from 1995 to 2006 as vicar of St. Cuthbert's, Oakland. Prior to that, he served in interim ministries and as a non-stipendiary associate around the San Francisco Bay area. Raised an American Baptist, Father Strid found his mystical, sacramental, and historical leanings met in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican ethos. His interests include gardening, writing icons, and dabbling in fiction, poetry, and photography. His personal blog is The Byzigenous Buddhapalian.

About the Image: Paul Strid wrote the icon shown at the top of this entry. It depicts
St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, patron of the church in Oakland, California, where the writer served and the icon now hangs. Paul took it with him on pilgrimage to Durham, where Cuthbert is buried, and to Lindisfarne. Based on a 13th-century mural in Durham Cathedral. © 1996 by Paul E. Strid. All rights reserved.

14 Comments:

Anonymous Michael M said...

Yes, Paul. Yes, Yes, Yes.

6/19/2007 11:48 AM  
Blogger Nigel J. Taber-Hamilton said...

Dear Paul,

A very comprehensive analysis.

I think, though, that an important piece is missing, namely Jesus' reflections on holiness. You mention his command to love, but for some reason you skip over his command regarding holiness.

Jesus rejects holiness as a goal, specifically replacing the Levitical Holiness Code with a Compassion Code (Luke 6 - frequently translated as "be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful").

It seems to me that there is a real danger in using the language of holiness: it requires significant explanation (witness your exegesis)! Too easily 'holiness' can be understood in terms of purity, of a 'stained glass' moralistic faith, rather than the direct and active exercise of compassion that Jesus speaks of himself.

Personally I believe that we should avoid the language of holiness and focus on the language of compassion and love that precede and define it.

Thanks for the thoughts,

Blessings

Nigel

6/19/2007 10:06 PM  
Blogger Paul said...

Nigel,

I agree that holiness language is tricky because it usually is reduced to moralism. Compassion is a more useful expression of our calling in today's context in that it captures the nature of Jesus' call to "perfection" (sharing the indiscriminate goodness of God) and communicates well with those of other faiths, or none at all.

My hope was to take something underlying the concerns of the Global South which the "Global North" might also share and find therein some common ground for discussion. Of course, that requires both "sides" to acknowledge that they share a concern and I am less sanguine about that.

I do want to reclaim the concept of the holy for moderates and progressives lest it seem to be a concern of or the "property" of conservative Christians only.

Thanks for your comments.
Paul

6/19/2007 11:07 PM  
Anonymous Tom B said...

I have to say that as a 'layman' I take a somewhat simpler view of things than you guys appear to... As a layman I have the choice of listening to God's chosen messenger (Paul, he was 'chosen' by Jesus, right?) and his words, or your words. Which should I believe? Your discussions of holiness seem to imply that you have a better feel for the message of our Lord than those who were closest to him, or chosen by him to relay his word to us. It's a struggle for all of us, but I can't help but believe that we cannot co-exist if our definitions of sinful behavior is so different. Regardless of our willingness or ability to love each other, I would be surprised if you could live with my choice of leaders who would refuse to acknowledge the 'holiness' of homosexual behavior, likewise I cannot live with your choice of leaders who (in my view) are living lives that are not holy in the eyes of God.

Sad situation. Made even sadder by the unwillingness of those who are currently 'in power' to acknowledge the rights of those who disagree with them, and unwilling to come to any 'loving' accomodation with us. Try to get them (and yourselves) to ACT loving when congregations (or Diocese) cannot accept their changed definition of sin.

6/25/2007 11:15 PM  
Blogger bls said...

Well, you're wrong on that account, tom b.

I most definitely have a hard time with your definition of what's "holy" in the eyes of God. I mean, you seem to remove love from the equation entirely, and you define "holiness" here solely in terms of sexual behavior. That, to me, is sad and wrong; Paul wrote that the very greatest of the Virtues was Love - and in the same letter, he acknowledged that he didn't know everything because his own vision was clouded.

But I can most definitely live with you in the same church, and receive Communion alongside you. You're certainly welcome to disagree with me as strenuously as I do with you.

6/26/2007 10:28 AM  
Anonymous Tom B. said...

Yep, bls, exactly my point. So 'love is all we need'? Guess the Mormons were right, then, huh? A loving multi-spouse relationship is perfectly holy if it has Love? So the complaints of TEC about the polygamous Global South are wrong because they ignore the love in the relationship? See, what you are saying is 'sexual'. My point was the definition of sin, not the definition of Love. Based on your point, a multi-spousal relationship based on Love is perfectly valid.

And I agree that we could certainly take communion together. But the problem is not you and me. The problem is what we would teach the children in our parishes. I would teach them that the bible defines certain behavior as sinful, I interpret your post to mean that you would teach them that Love is the over-riding factor and mitigates sin from certain behaviors. That Paul didn't really know what he was talking about when he indicated that certain behaviors were not good in the sight of God. We in the enlightened 21st century MUST know more than Paul, Jesus' chosen messenger for his work, about the human condition. Love is certainly an important aspect of our faith and life, but so is leaving your sin behind when you come to the faith. Can you ask your 'GLBT' brothers and sisters to 'go forth and sin no more'? I think not, I think that your definition of sin no longer includes the things that Paul specifically indicated were actions that were not good in the sight of God. Fess up, you're trying to change the rules of the game.

6/26/2007 10:35 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

TomB, I think I disagree with you and maybe bls too.

No, I do not buy into the cheap '70s/'80s tripe of "love is all ya need." I bet BLS doesn't either. We're not talking about cheap hippie love, but about the agape love which can only come from God and can only be sustained by the Holy Spirit. Not the cheap attraction of genitals – but the deep self-sacrificing agape that can only come from God. I don't know whether you are in a marriage; but if you are, you know that real love is much deeper and more demanding than any stupid "love is all ya need" slogan and certainly much, much deeper than any genital expression of "love." Real love demands all that you have and all that you are, as God enables you to exercise it.

I'm no theologian or deep thinker, TomB, but I can't imagine how that kind of agape love can be manifest in a polygamous relationship. Maybe that's my attention-deficit-disorder talking, but I just cannot imagine that one can invest in multiple partners the kind of love Christ has for the Church. And I think that kind of focused, all-consuming, self-sacrificing love is what we are meant to mirror in our intimate relationships. Many people have seen that kind of love manifest in gay men and lesbians' relationships, and it has transformed their perceptions.

I don't mean to be flippant, but it seems to me that when folks can't drag Spong into the argument, they drag in polygamy. I am weary – and beyond weary – of those red herrings. I certainly am not defending either of those, nor – I think – are the vast majority of Episcopalians. We recognize the "lunatic fringe" when we see it. So please refrain from that silly straw-man argument. That's not what we are talking about. Nobody is encouraging polygamy here.

TomB, I agree that we need to focus on "What is sin?" Look again at the article we published here, on which you are ostensibly commenting. It calls us all to focus on sanctification – on holiness. Certainly, Paul in Romans urged people not to indulge in idol worship and the kind of sicko sexual frenzy that I deplore. But that has nothing to do with the relationships of gay and lesbian people who are seeking and serving Christ in their intimate relationships.

I agree we must teach all people – and not just children (as you suggested) – to abjure sin. We must teach them that a silly notion of "love is all ya need" is not the biblical standard. God's call to holiness requires much more of us! Neither must we teach them a silly notion of fundamentalism that neither the Hebrew Scriptures nor the New Testament support.

TomB, you asked: Can you ask your 'GLBT' brothers and sisters to 'go forth and sin no more'? I think not, I think that your definition of sin no longer includes the things that Paul specifically indicated were actions that were not good in the sight of God.
Au contraire! I am certain most of us do encourage all people to eschew sin. The difference is in what we understand sin to be. We are trying to be faithful to the Word of God as we understand it. Anyone who says we faithful Christian are encouraging licentiousness is simply lying. And I hope that's not what you're doing. We are grappling with what holiness is and with what God is calling us to be and do in our holy and faithful relationships.

6/26/2007 11:14 PM  
Blogger bls said...

Read 1 Corinthians 13, tom b, for Paul's own definition of what "love" is. That's the one I'm talking about.

6/27/2007 7:58 AM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Thanks, BLS. Yeah, that's what I mean, too. If I'd thought to quote it, I could have saved a lot of keystrokes, eh? ;-)

6/27/2007 8:05 AM  
Blogger bls said...

Yep, Paul was quite to-the-point. ;-)

Anyway, tom b, this isn't something I'm making up; centuries of theologians and mystics have written on the three Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is still love. (Read St. John of the Cross on the topic, and enjoy his exposition on the three garments - white, green, and red - that he uses as illustration of these virtues.)

My point is that while we hear a lot about sex these days - which is a topic Jesus spoke about I think a total of six times - we hear almost nothing about love. This is really missing the boat, IMO. Where is any talk of the Virtues at all in this discussion?

6/27/2007 11:04 AM  
Anonymous Tom B said...

Well, I think we are talking about two different things.

Do you believe that Love supercedes sin? I believe we are talking about Sin, not Love. We both believe that Love is critical, that we are called to love, but you seem to be ignoring the part of Paul's teachings that indicate what is and is not sinful (ie: not Godly behavior). How can you quote one part of Paul's teachings, while ignoring others? I think that we area called to leave our sinful behavior behind when we become Christians, and that there are clear examples in the bible on the things that we should be leaving behind. Again, I think that you are trying to 'revise' the definitions that the historical church has followed. As you say, centuries of theologians have followed some specific beliefs based on biblical teachings, including good vs bad behavior, and no amount of love can make the bad behavior good.... Nor can any amount of love make sinful behavior righteous and holy. When we are 'transformed
by Jesus love, we should leave the sinful behavior behind us (or try to leave it behind us, as best we can).

I absolutely believe in the 'love the sinner hate the sin' philosophy, and hope we can actually transform our sinful brethren with the Love of Jesus. Unfortunately, The Episcopal Church is dead set on changing the definition of sinful behavior. You keep talking about Love and Sex, I'm talking about Sinful versus Righteous behavior.

So, if Love is the all encompassing factor, then a loving Priest, in a loving Polygamous relationship, should be equally as welcome in TEC as one in a Homosexual relationship?

6/27/2007 9:58 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

TomB, I really must ask you these two questions.

First, how come you are so hung up on polygamy? Do you want to have a polygamous relationship? I sure don't! Do you know anyone in the Episcopal Church who wants to have one? I sure don't! So ... unless your parish is being overrun by apologists for polygamy, would you please drop this red herring? I asked you this before. Soon, my patience as moderator of this blog may come to an end, and you may find your comments not being approved for posting here.

Second, I asked you this earlier: Would you please look at the essay we posted here? It is about sanctification -- pursuing holiness. You are not responding to the substantive issue we are trying to raise. I think it's an important one. I think all of us in the mainstream of the Episcopal Church are pursuing holiness. You seem to be ignoring our essay, and chasing after straw men of your own imagining. Could we get back to the topic that The Episcopal Majority is trying to raise here?

6/27/2007 10:12 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

TomB, I'm not sure whether your questions were directed to me or to BLS, but let me address some of your comments.

You asked/said: "Do you believe that Love supercedes [sic] sin? I believe we are talking about Sin, not Love." Well, duh! How can you separate them? God calls us to holiness, and God calls us to love. You're not going to force me into choosing one part of the Gospel over another. I'm fully committed to both!

You said: "… you seem to be ignoring the part of Paul's teachings that indicate what is and is not sinful (ie: not Godly behavior)." Wrong! I don't ignore them. I take them very seriously, and I strive to conform my behavior to them. On the other hand, I don't read them as a fundamentalist. I no longer believe that women must cover their heads and keep silent in church. Do you? I take Paul's writings seriously, and I strive to discern the context in which he wrote them. And I try to live in the light of what the entire Gospel and the Spirit say to us.

You asked: "How can you quote one part of Paul's teachings, while ignoring others?" I ask you the same question, TomB. How do you decide which parts to take literally and which to view as a product of his time? Do the women in your parish cover their heads and keep silent? Are divorced people cast out of your church? If not, why not? If you want to follow the Law, these must be profound and difficult questions for you. Or are you following the slippery slope of Biblical exegesis, which forces you to confront the grey areas in Scripture?

You said: "I think that we area [sic] called to leave our sinful behavior behind when we become Christians . . . ." So do I, Tom! I strive daily to do so, trusting in the living Christ to help me do so.

You said: "I absolutely believe in the 'love the sinner hate the sin' philosophy . . . ." I differ from you, in that I don't believe my Lord has called me to "hate" anyone. He calls me to holiness, and he warned us throughout the Gospels of setting ourselves up as judges of who were the saved and who were the damned. I follow his lead in this.

You said: "The Episcopal Church is dead set on changing the definition of sinful behavior." That is simply a lie, which is often repeated by the "Network" neo-Puritan folks. I challenge you to back it up with a specific example. And please give me an example from the official actions and statements of the Episcopal Church – not just the meanderings from one of our wackos on the left.

You said: "You keep talking about Love and Sex, I'm talking about Sinful versus Righteous behavior." No, TomB. We are not talking about love and sex; that's what the Network gang has chosen to focus upon. We Episcopalians are trying to talk about holiness … as you will see if you will (and please do!) read the essay we published here. The challenge for all of us is to be conformed to the holiness that God calls us to.

6/27/2007 10:47 PM  
Blogger bls said...

What "sinful behavior," tom b? What, exactly, is the "sinful behavior" you're talking about?

Please name it. Is it "sinful behavior" to be joined to one person - not two or ten - and to promise to care for them and be faithful to them "till death do us part"? How is this sinful? Isn't this exactly what the Church teaches about marriage? This is the church's position on same-sex unions; this is the behavior expected of a same-sex couple.

And how does that compare to what Paul says, BTW? He spoke about people who did not love God, didn't he? He talked about "God giving people up" to "vile affections." He spoke about "men burning with lust for one another," didn't he?

How are these two things comparable in any way? This is what I mean above; you are talking about "sex" and we're talking about "love." What we are saying is absolutely compatible with the entirety of the Biblical message from start to finish, which is "faithfulness."

6/28/2007 10:37 AM  

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