Rood Dreams

The killing tree.

Roman crucifixion was a brutal and barbaric punishment reserved for slaves and thugs. And it is that cross, that holy instrument of torture that was set aside for Christ, for my salvation.

Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed” (1 Pet.2:24).

Around 750 A.D., an anonymous poet wrote a piece called The Dream of the Rood. “Rood” is the Old English word for “cross.” It’s a remarkable telling of the crucifixion from the point of view of the rood.

The author highlights the shame and the glory of that killing tree. Jewels and blood adorn it. It was tragedy and triumph all together. Today is what the Lutherans and Anglican call “Holy Cross Day.”

It is the tree of glory on which almighty God suffered for the many sins of mankind and for the old deeds of Adam. There he tasted death, but still the Lord rose again with his might power, to the benefit of men” (lines 68-70, para.10).

Enjoy.

The Exorcist

I remember when I finally saw the classic horror film, The Exorcist. It’s reputation preceded it. I’d seen clips and references for years. But at some point in college, it was on TV and I committed.

I remember laughing a lot. Maybe it was too late at night and I was tired, but I definitely smirked more than the director intended. It just seemed- what’s the word? Campy? Outdated? Hammy? Pea soup and levitating beds.

I was underwhelmed and moved on. But if the themes of that movie is true (the reality of aggressive evil, the vulnerability of humanity, and victory of good), perhaps the shtick of that movie does more than just fail to hold up. There’s a trivialization that comes with it. If all it costs to see a portrayal of spiritual realities is a movie ticket, they’re just another commodity to be consumed or ignored at my convenience.

The ancient Christian Church had an approach to exorcism that I find fascinating and instructive (if we can curb our “chronological snobbery”). The brilliant 2nd century theologian Origen tells a story of what happened once when he was preaching on the call of Hannah (1 Sam.2). A demon-possessed person in the congregation stands up and starts screaming. Origen calmly lead the church in repeating Hannah’s phrase, “My heart exults in the Lord,” until the spirit left this person. As a result, many of the people who had been skeptics were converted. (See Origen, Homilies on Samuel, 1.10.)

What?

What do I make of that in 2019? Is it campy and outdated? Well, certainly, the 2nd century didn’t seem to see spiritual realities as commodities to be bought for the price of admission. Origen knew that this sort of thing just happened. And when the power of God squashed the enemy so visibly, a lot of people were moved to conversion. Origen called them the “traces of that Holy Spirit who appeared in the form of a dove [that] are still preserved among Christians” (Origen, Contra Celsus, 1.46).

In 2nd century Gaul (modern France area), Irenaeus tells us that Christians “in Jesus’ name…drive out devils, so that those who have been thus cleansed from evil spirits frequently both believe and join themselves to the Church.” Tertullian knew this. When demons are exorcised through prayer, it “regularly makes Christians” (Apologies, 23.18). In the early 4th century, Lactantius, writing from the imperial capital of Trier, reported that when people struggling with demonic forces experience or taste the power of Christ, they discover that is more powerful than the evil that oppresses them. As a result, the church was able to “bring a great many people to God, in wonderful fashion” (Divine Institutes, 5.22.24).

I recently began reading Justin Martyr’s first and second apologies from the early 2nd century. He points out four specific sins that he thought he could trace directly to demonic oppression and enslavement: sexual compulsions, the magic arts, the desire to increase wealth/property, and hateful violence. But when Christians prayed for grace, Christ freed those who were enslaved. The pattern seems to hold. When evil was exorcised and the person was freed, they were able to believe the gospel and come to faith in Christ alone.

Exorcism took on an almost formal role in discipleship later on in the 4th and 5th centuries. Before a catechumen (a person who had been learning the faith) was baptized, the exorcist would come alongside this baby believer as the last step before getting triply dunked. And yes, churches had exorcists. Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian- these fathers all just assumed that any Christian could exorcise demons. By the middle third century (like most things), exorcism had become a specialized skill set in the Church.

On the day of baptism, the bishop himself would come and exorcise the baptismal candidate. This was important for Christians to know who they were renouncing, not just to whom they were pledging allegiance. The Apostolic Tradition (an Egyptian 3rd century book of church order) tells us that the weeks preceding baptism were this constant process of fighting through enslavement to sin and confessing sins in which Christ dominated the “stranger” in the Christian’s life (the Enemy) and the Christian went through a “detox” from the dominant culture (Apostolic Tradition, 20.4).

All that to say, I think we could benefit from seeing the Christian life as something of an exorcism. I’m not saying we fill up our SuperSoakers with holy water and run riot through the streets. But as our struggle is against spiritual wickedness (Eph. 6:12), we need to withhold all opportunities from the devil (Eph. 4:27). I’m suggesting that Christian sanctification could be seen as a gradual and lifelong form of exorcism.

The more we are filled with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:18) and resist the devil (James 4:7), the more we draw closer to God in obedience and faith. As we detoxify our souls from the surrounding world (Rom.12:1-2), the Spirit is transforming us more and more into Christ’s likeness. This need not be as visibly dramatic as it was in the early church (and still is in many parts of the Global South). But the daily grind of fighting your sin and mocking the devil is just as dramatic and awful.

It’s part of the greatest story ever told. I bought that ticket. And Christ will see me through past the end credits.

Life Support and Ligaments

“Which cannot be without thee.”

That’s a beautiful phrase that appears in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer. Today is the ninth Sunday after Trinity Sunday. When Thomas Cranmer was trying to decide how best to disciple an entire nation in which Roman Catholicism had been formative for almost a millennium, he went over the ancient sacramentaries (service books for how to have church services in the West) and pulled the prayers that shone forth the gospel clearest.

These prayers in the BCP are called collects (emphasis placed on the first syllable). Each collect has roughly the same structure. There’s an address (“Almighty and Everlasting Father”; “Lord from whom all good things do come”, etc.). A lot of times the address or invocation is a direct reference to God and the reason for the prayer. Next is the main body of the prayer- the petition. This is based on the readings for the given Sunday and are always first person plural because we pray as one holy, catholic, apostolic church. And then the prayer is concluded with a type of doxology, usually invoking the Trinity.

Thomas Cranmer composed a few prayers of his own (most notably, the Ash Wednesday collect and those used in Advent), but for today, I’m struck by the absolute dependence on God that Cranmer was trying to get the English church to see. It’s an older prayer (from the Gelasian Sacramentary) (traditionally dated to the 5th century). It goes as follows:

“Grant to us Lord we beseech thee, the spirit to think and do always such things as be rightful; that we, which cannot be without thee, may by thee be able to live according to thy will; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

This (like perhaps every prayer) is more than a tall order. It’s an impossible task. Grant that we might have the spirit to think and do always that which is rightful? Always? Can’t do it. My selfishness will trip me up. The world will allure me. Satan will buffet.

But it is “by thee” that was ask this. It is by his power that we are able to live according to his will. Sine te esse, “which cannot be (i.e., exist)” without thee. That’s dependence, is it not?

Lord, we cannot be without thee. I cannot be without thee. There’s no me if it weren’t for you. And there’s no obedience and rightfulness without your grace. Grant it to your Church this morning, Lord. Remind us of your grace.

Turning the Wheel

I am a Protestant through and through. This is why I love church history. To go back into church history is to become more and more Protestant. The Reformers were so helpful in their calling the Church to repent from her wanderings. But as an honest Protestant, I need to admit that there were some overcorrections that happened in the 16th century and we are still feeling their effects.

In a pre-Reformation church, the altar was the central focus and the “pulpit”, such as it was, was off to the side. Protestants flipped the architecture on its head. The pulpit became the magnet to which all eyes were drawn because of the centrality of the Scripture and that preached faithfully. There’s much to commend in rearranging the furniture in that way.

But I fear it may have simply caused an equal and opposite problem. This is why ecclesia semper reformanda est (“the Church must always be reformed). Not that we are constantly changing ourselves out of restlessness or chasing fads, but that we are constantly reforming ourselves to be more like Christ’s Bride.

The sermon is not the focus of a church service. The gospel is.

I say that as someone who, until quite recently, preached for the last six years as a minister of the gospel one to two times a week. I love preaching. I love creating sermons that are helpful and clear. It’s wonderful and humbling to see the Holy Spirit take a sermon and run with it. It’s like watching your little paper boat get blown across the lake at top speed.

But I would invite you to think of the liturgy as a wheel.

(Brief aside: liturgy means “work of the people.” Some traditions call it the order of service. It can be “high church” with incense and bells or “low church” with acoustic guitars and blue jeans. Even if your church service is simply announcements, a few songs, and a sermon, that is a liturgy. That’s how I’m using this word.)

So, think of the liturgy as a wheel. The hub at the center is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Out from that central hub are the spokes. Each spoke is a means of grace: prayer, Scripture reading, singing, giving, the Lord’s Supper, the sermon, baptism, confession, etc. That all lead to and draw from the cross of Christ at the center. And the rim around the hub, the tire, is fellowship. It is the communion of saints. The means of grace spin the wheel of fellowship around the hub of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

We move forward only when centered around the cross. Otherwise, the wheel doesn’t spin. Otherwise, we’re stuck in neutral, learning perhaps or praying mightily, but not really going anywhere as a church. The liturgy needs to be orbited around the good news of what Jesus has done for sinful people to bring them back to a holy God. And the sermon does that.

But so too does the Eucharist. That’s why I’m an advocate of weekly communion. Richard Barcellos has written a wonderful book from a Reformed Baptist perspective on how the Lord’s Supper functions as a means of grace. I recommend it. It’s a conduit to strengthen our faith in the gospel which is of first importance. But regardless of how often it is celebrated, my point is that it matters as a strengthening exercise for our faith in what Christ has done for us.

Confession, also, brings us back to the gospel. As do responsive readings of Scripture. Reciting the Creed strengthens our faith in Christ alone. These are all spokes on the wheel that make fellowship go forward, but only if that’s a centering around the gospel.

This understanding does not devalue the sermon or the word of God. On the contrary, it properly utilized them as channels of sanctifying grace from the Father that push us deeper into the Scriptures to find the truth of his gospel there. Likewise, this does not unequally elevate Communion or prayer above the other means of grace. The spokes on the wheel are the same length and of the same importance in making the wheel turn. The Church needs all the gifts that her Lord has bestowed upon her.

However a church orders its liturgy, whatever percentage of time is allocated to whichever means of grace, my point is this: that the gospel is centralized and focused in everything that happens, that it all be done “in the name of the Lord.” That’s how we ought to live anyway, right? It seems prudent that we ought to worship that way as well.

Adoration, not Speculation

I really enjoy church history. Without a grounding in the early church fathers, we’re a bit rudderless. They see with different eyes and I deeply appreciate their perspective. They help me glimpse Jesus a bit better.

I have especially loved Nick Needham’s devotional that takes the reader through twelve different church fathers. He takes a verse that a father wrote or preached on and then gives a few paragraphs worth of an excerpt from the father to expound the text.

Jerome pondering. And look at that beard!

While this month is Gregory of Nyssa, June was full of excerpts from St. Jerome (A.D. 347-420). I had always understood Jerome to be a bit of a jerk. From what I’ve read of him, he was irritable, very short with people, and had a biting tongue. But I also knew he was a brilliant scholar, the only Latin father to be fluent in biblical Hebrew, and was responsible for getting the Scriptures into the vulgar tongue of the Roman Empire (the Latin Vulgate).

Yet I had never read him. But in the first excerpt for the month of June, going off of Ecclesiastes 5:2 (Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter anything before God.), Jerome considers the majestic mysteries of the Trinity, the Incarnation, the atonement, hell, angelology, the soul, the doctrine of the resurrection, and then mocks the naive critic who hears one sermon and dismisses Christianity out of hand.

“When Paul encountered the mystery that was hidden from the past ages and generations, and the depth of the riches of God’s wisdom and knowledge, he didn’t so much discuss it as gaze in adoration.” Rather than putting the Trinity under the microscope, Jerome is content to lay down his telescope and wipe the tears from his eyes and worship.

Theological study and contemplation are wonderful and necessary in the life of a believer. But from Paul to Jerome to Calvin, “speculation” – the rash and hasty dissecting of what ought to be awe-inspiring- is seen as something that is ultimately mistaken. When we come across God’s wisdom or his grace, perhaps our first response should be simply “gaze in adoration.” A little adoration might just go a long way.