17 October 2016

If you only knew what Eternity is.


Ecclesiasticus 4:20-5:7
Revelation 7:1-8
Luke 9:51-62

Do not say, "I sinned, and what happened to me?" for the Lord is slow to anger. Do not be so confident of atonement that you add sin to sin. Do not say, "His mercy is great, he will forgive the multitude of my sins," for both mercy and wrath are with him, and his anger rests on sinners. Do not delay to turn to the Lord, nor postpone it from day to day; for suddenly the wrath of the Lord will go forth, and at the time of punishment you will perish.

I had a class once in the Church Fathers. It was amazing to me to read the saints of the first four centuries and to hear, to my American ears, how much they sounded like modern, Protestant, liberal American religion. It was astounding. It was so astounding, in fact, that when the class was over, we asked the teacher to teach a second class. Instead of reading a textbook with selected quotes, we decided to read source material (in translation). So, for example, instead of reading snippets of Justin Martyr, we read the full text of both of his Apologies.  Instead of quotes from st Irenaeus of Lyons, we read his Against Heresies.  (Since his Apostolic Preaching had been referenced, I read that as well on my own.)

The difference was night and day.

As I pointed out in the discussions, “All the stuff we read last year is here, of course. But in context it tends to say the opposite of what we heard it say last year.”  Warm, fuzzy quotes about God’s all inclusive love (which are in the Church Fathers) are bracketed with stern warnings about his wrath. Prompts to right action are introduced and completed with prompts to right faith.  Advice to dance and sing before the Lord is predicated on most of life spent prostrate before him in humility.

God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s kindness, if you will, cannot be assumed, presumed, or taken advantage of. This is not a problem with God: but with us: Do not be so confident of atonement that you add sin to sin. God, who is kind, loving and merciful, has given us rules, commandments, and strictures, not because breaking those rules is bad, per se, but because if we don’t have rules we run amok. If all we have is mercy, then we presume on it, we take advantage of it. It’s not that God will take us in our sin and destroy us - but that sin is destructive in and of itself. We make our choice.

Imagine God is a warm, snuggly blanket on top of a comfy bed with lots of pillows by a nice fire, all on a winter’s night with snow falling outside and sleigh bells off in the distance.

But you’re sitting in another room where there is no fire and watching TV. You can whine all you want about the cold. You can complain that your teeth are chattering and your fingers getting frostbite. The TV hurts your eyes in the darkness and the wetness from your eyes is actually freezing on your face.  Do that all you want: you’re free to do so.  But unless you get up and walk into the other room all that kindness and coziness will be of no use to you. You can even get up and, instead, walk out into the cold and listen to the sleigh bells off in the distance: but that will just make your gradual chilliness get worse.  Eventually you will die, alone, in the darkness, with your TV.  All you have to do was come into the warmth.

There are some that will refuse to ever do that.

And, truth be told, coming out of all that cold into the warmth can even burn. It can feel like the roaring fire is angry. Like the blanket is just as cold as you are and nothing will ever warm you up again - you might even leave the room a couple of times. All you need to do is sit. Quiet. Wait.

The reality is there are a lot of people by the fire with you: but out in the cold, it’s just you and the TV.  By the fire you will never be alone. You’re free to leave anytime you wish but the only thing out there is the lonely TV. Some folks will want the lonely TV after the power is off and all things have frosted over and even the sleigh bells have stopped. Then the door will be shut and locked and the cozy fire forever out of reach or else, so warm and strong that to even come near the door - after so long at Absolute Zero - will be to shatter oneself into loss. So even a religious leader dedicated to mercy can be sad when someone walks out the door. The open door of God's mercy is both an entrance and an exit.

The Church Fathers are a conversation - as is, to the honest, the Bible. The teaching of the Church is an ongoing Rabbinic dialogue. Yes, there are those voices that are all about judgment and sin. Yes, there are those voices that are all about love and mercy. Jesus is about both, of course, and the conversation itself is about both. It's not a democratic voting process - whereby we can elect who we like. Nor is it an evolution whereby we can change things. God does not change. Mercy and wrath are both with him. It is us who must change to conform to him. The conversation is about how best to do that, and how best to keep in the middle, not straying to any excess that can lead people astray. But the time to enter that conversation, to commit yourself to be in the center is always now. Eternity is too late.

And yet we do pray for God's mercy on all souls - especially those most in need of him. Which includes me: so I ask your prayers that I not leave the fireside.