Church Write-Up: Forgiveness, Saints, Passions and the Divine

For church last Sunday, I attended the Missouri Synod Lutheran church, its Sunday School class on patristic interpretations of the Gospel of John, and the “Pen” church.

I will consider the Missouri Synod and “Pen” services together, since they overlapped in theme.

A.  The pastor at the Missouri Synod church was talking about unity, and how petty resentments hinder that.  He shared that he had been estranged from his younger brother for thirty years, and neither of them even remembered what the offense was.  He also talked about a man he met who was proud that he had not attended church in decades.  Why didn’t this man attend church?  Because the pastor at the church that he had attended was an umpire at his son’s baseball game and called the son “out” when the son was “safe.”

The pastor also mentioned the Olympics and how North and South Korea are uniting in their teams.  I thought that was beautiful.  My Mom was reading a novel about the yearning of people in the two Koreas to become one.  She said that President Trump does not understand that.

The pastor at the “Pen” church talked about having a drama free life.  The issue of forgiveness showed up in his sermon, too.  He discussed Paul’s Epistle to Philemon.  Philemon felt deprived after his slave Onesimus stole from him and ran away, but Paul tried to assure Philemon of two things.  First, Paul attempted to reassure Philemon that Philemon had far more than he had lost.  Paul in v. 6 mentions every good thing that is in Philemon in Christ Jesus.  Many of us have resentments, the pastor said, because we try to balance the scales ourselves, or to hold on to what we have, or to take what we want, rather than acknowledging that, because of God, the table is big for everyone.  Second, Paul sought to assure Philemon that Onesimus had truly changed and was not the same Onesimus who stole from Philemon and ran away.

The pastor shared a story about how he was mentoring a homeless addict.  The homeless addict got sober, and God was doing wonderful things in this man’s life.  The pastor spent a lot of time with him.  Then the homeless addict relapsed.  The pastor felt personally betrayed, as if he had wasted his time.  But God convicted the pastor, reminding the pastor of his own issues.  The homeless addict got sober again, and God used him to reach out to and to help other homeless addicts.

B.  At the Sunday school class about patristic interpretations of John, we got into a couple of issues.  First, there was the topic of sainthood.  According to Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Christianity in medieval times, there were some Christians who exemplified Christ-likeness above other people, including Christians.  There was a woman named Catherine, who ran into the plague to minister to the sick, when many were fleeing the plague.  These people, the teacher said, were believed to be especially filled with the Holy Spirit, whatever their imperfections.  That was why their relics were revered: they were deemed to be filled with God’s presence.

The teacher said that he has met a few such people in his life.  He acknowledged that he himself is often motivated by selfishness, by what’s in it for him.  When he reads the Prayer of Confession in the service, he can identify with what he is reading (as can I, many weeks).  But there are some people who do not have this motivation as much, for they are filled with love for God and neighbor.

Our biblical text was John 11.  In that chapter, Lazarus dies, and Jesus resurrects him.  Jesus weeps in that chapter, and his soul is troubled.  The church fathers struggled with this passage, for the ancient Greek concept of the divine that the fathers inherited held that the divine cannot be troubled: it was free of passions, or emotions.  Passions were considered bad because they could lead to sin.  Some fathers held that Jesus in his human nature was troubled by the reality of death, as humans naturally are, and that there is nothing wrong with that.  Some, however, had issues with such a view: some said that Jesus wept for joy; Augustine affirmed that Jesus had his passions under control.

People in the class were baffled by the patristic belief that God lacks emotions.  At the heart of many of their questions, I think, is this: if humans are made in God’s image, and humans have emotions, does that not imply that God has emotions?  But, if passions are sinful, would that not indicate that they are a product of the Fall?  In that case, did Jesus assume sinful, fallen flesh?  That is a thorny issue: my understanding is that Roman Catholicism answers “no” to that.

Another point that the teacher made: the teacher said that, in many icons of Jesus, Jesus is depicted as thin.  The message here, the teacher related, is that Jesus did not succumb to appetites.

I know that, in this post, I spent more time relaying things that I heard than offering my own thoughts.  So be it!  Some weeks will be like that.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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