For church Sunday morning, I attended the Missouri Synod Lutheran church, its class on patristic interpretations of the Gospel of John, and the “Pen” church.
Here are my write-ups about each.
A. The pastor at the Missouri Synod Lutheran church made three points that intrigued me. First, he was talking about why Isaiah 40 is a significant chapter for Epiphany. Isaiah 1-39 has a lot about God’s wrath in response to Judah’s sin, which included both idolatry and social injustice. Isaiah 40, by contrast, offers a tone of comfort and forgiveness, which is what Jesus brought. This interested me because it was a Christian explanation for how the sections of Isaiah fit together.
Second, the pastor said that many of us are like Martha in John 11:24: we believe that God will act in the end, but we may have difficulty believing that God is active now, or has a plan now, with all the fearsome things in the world (i.e., North Korea). I liked how he weaved that Scriptural allusion into his sermon, as if the story of the Scripture is a natural part of life, of explaining how we are.
Third, the pastor said that, after the Jews returned from exile, they tried to keep rules to impress God, so that they would not experience God’s wrath again. He stated that they forbade intermarriage with foreigners in an attempt to keep Israel pure (see Ezra 9:2). The pastor was portraying this as a wrong path. That intrigued me, because it is the path depicted in the Book of Ezra and, on some level, the Book of Nehemiah. That raises a question in my mind: Are Christians allowed to question what Ezra and Nehemiah did? I remember a seventh-day Sabbatarian pastor who edited a Sabbatarian magazine, and he was addressing the question of whether Christians are permitted to purchase things on the Sabbath. Of course, people who say “no” often point to Nehemiah’s policy in Nehemiah 13 of banning markets from Jerusalem on the Sabbath. This pastor, however, did not think that Nehemiah was necessarily right in doing this: Nehemiah may have been overzealous, in that case. By the way, eventually, this pastor ceased being a Sabbatarian. But his questioning of Nehemiah intrigued me.
B. The class on patristic interpretations of John got into a lot of issues. For one, the teacher discussed the views on women in that time. Women were deemed to be temptresses in Greco-Roman culture, whereas men were considered the people who exercised sexual restraint. In churches, there was a belief that the physical and the spiritual should be kept separate, so a number of monks (which many church fathers were) tried to suppress the physical: sex, eating, sleep, etc. That amplified misogyny. Still, there were Roman women who owned estates, which their husbands bequeathed to them in war, and, upon becoming Christians, several of them donated their estates to the church. That said, the church fathers were fascinated by the story of the woman at the well in John 4, for this was a person who was not expected to understand Jesus’ message, yet she did, whereas many of the Jews who had the oracles of God did not.
Second, the teacher talked about Christology. He said that most Christians today, were they to take a test on Christology, would probably turn out to be heretics—-they might say, for example, that Jesus’ mind was divine but his body was human, which was the Apollinarian heresy. Ultimately, he said, the church fathers chalked up the interrelationship between Christ’s divine and human natures to mystery, for those who tried to nail it down usually had to contend with Scriptural passages that suggest the opposite. Something that I thought: how many of the things in Scripture that are attributed to Jesus’ divine nature by Christians are actually due to Jesus’ divine nature? The teacher mentioned miracles or clairvoyance, but Jesus in the New Testament may have those abilities through the power of the Father or the Spirit (Matthew 12:28; John 5:31-38; 14:10; Acts 10:38), not inherently. In some cases, though, as when Jesus presents his resurrection as something that he himself performs (John 2:19), his power may be inherent.
I asked a question in class. We were reading a homily by Cyril of Alexandria, and Cyril seemed to be saying that Jesus was sealed by the Father with the Father’s likeness. Was Cyril saying that Jesus’ divine nature was imparted to him by the Father, as opposed to being inherent to Jesus? That would be unlike Cyril, who believed that Jesus had an inherently divine nature, mixed with his human nature. The teacher responded that Cyril believed that Jesus’ divine nature was inherent, but that Cyril was wrestling with the impact of the incarnation on Jesus’ humanity: that Jesus’ divine nature left an imprint on Jesus’ human nature. That is probably correct, as it is classic Cyril. Yet, Cyril says that the Father sealed Jesus with the Father’s likeness. Does that mean that Jesus as a human being was the full image of God, like Adam was, whereas other human beings are corrupted images of God? Could God the Father, in eternally generating Jesus, be the source, not only of Jesus’ existence, but of Jesus’ divine nature: the way that Jesus is?
Third, the teacher talked about the concept of human divinization in patristic Christianity. He referred to the classic statement that God became a man that man might become divine. The teacher said that this does not mean that humans in the afterlife will have inherent divinity, for they will have it by adoption. Even in the afterlife, they will be human. I doubt that humans will be on the same level as God in the afterlife, according to the church fathers, but I also think that they conceived of human divinization entailing humans coming to possess certain characteristics, including immortality and moral and spiritual perfection. Still, a question I would have is whether they would possess those characteristics inherently, or as they depend on God, even in the afterlife. I think of I Corinthians 15’s insistence that Christians in the resurrection will have spiritual bodies, which some scholars interpret to mean Spirit-renewed or Spirit-empowered bodies.
Fourth, the teacher was talking about the Hebrew term “mashiach,” which, of course, means “anointed.” In English, the term comes across as “Messiah.” The teacher noted that Saul’s shield in the Hebrew Bible was called “mashiach” (II Samuel 1:21), and that simply meant that it was consecrated to God’s use and purpose. In calling Jesus “Christos” (the Greek equivalent of “mashiach”), the same was being said about Jesus.
C. At the “Pen” church, the pastor finished up his series on rebounding from the blows of life. Some points:
First, the pastor talked about how many of us have failed and no longer want to try. I was thinking about that earlier this week. “If I were to go back to that situation, I wouldn’t even have shown up,” I thought to myself. But I had to try to convince myself that at least I tried, and that was better than not trying.
Second, the pastor was talking about some of the mistakes the church made in the past. It tried to set up a system in which Spanish-speakers would wear head-phones in church that translated everything into Spanish, but that went over like a lead-balloon. Instead, the church started a Spanish-speaking church plant, and that was successful. Another example: the pastor said that the church has tried Saturday evening services and has failed. Some of its plants have failed.
Third, the pastor told the story of Mark. Mark failed significantly in his ministry with Paul and Barnabas, such that Paul did not want Mark to accompany them on the next mission. Paul and Barnabas split over that, in Acts 11. Mark failed, but Barnabas assured him that God still had a plan for his life. Mark would travel with Barnabas rather than with the high-profile Paul. Similarly, the pastor said, maybe after a failure we should take a lower-profile, working more anonymously, since that would lack the pressure that being in the spotlight entails. The pastor astutely noted that, if we are not content working anonymously, we are not ready for the big lights. The pastor also observed that Paul and Mark eventually reconciled, as Colossians 4:10 and II Timothy 4:11 indicate.
Fourth, the pastor talked about Proverbs 2, which exhorts people to listen to wisdom, apply their heart to it, cry out for it, and treasure it. This may appear redundant, the pastor said, but it is not: we should not just listen to wisdom but go all out in desiring it. The pastor applied this to joining a small group, which I do not want to do. Still, I liked his insight on Proverbs 2.