Category Archives: Obedience

Ambrose and Sainthood

Thursday, First Week of Advent

Memorial of St. Ambrose, Bishop and Doctor of the Church


St. Ambrose is notable in church history. His influence is felt to today. When we say, “When in Rome, do as the Romans,” we quote him. The context was his discussion of liturgical and devotional practices, which were quite varied in his time.

Reading without moving one’s lips was also first recorded in history, by St. Augustine in his Confessions, as something Ambrose did. At the time and for centuries following, people read out loud even when alone.

Like any good bishop, Ambrose sought to uphold and teach the faith in the face of heresy and apathy. He wrote influential works. He baptized people, including St. Augustine in Milan.

But we remember St. Ambrose primarily because he has “saint” in front of his name. A saint is someone whom the Church has recognized as having outstanding virtue and faith. Someone worthy of emulation. There have been plenty of bishops who have not been so honored. There have been other great teachers who have not been so honored. St. Ambrose is part of an elite group. Currently, there are only 36 Doctors of the Church. All of them saints.

It is unlikely any of us will ever be listed among the Doctors of the Church. We, statistically speaking, will also never be declared saints by the Church. However, we are given a clear path to sainthood by our Lord.

To be a doctor, you must be brilliant. To be a bishop, you have to fulfill certain requirements. To be a saint, all you have to do is follow Jesus’ advice in the Gospel reading.

To slightly paraphrase our Lord, “If you want to enter the Kingdom of heaven, do the will of my Father in heaven.”

We don’t act without faith. We have to believe that our Father has a will for us and that it is worth doing. Then we must act on it. Then, and only then, can we expect to be granted admittance into God’s presence.

As we look at the lives of the saints throughout history, we see that same pattern. Faith leading to action, leading to approval by God. From Abraham to Ambrose to Aquinas and beyond, there is no exception to this pattern. They all were given different challenges and different tasks. But by having the faith to act, they prevailed and were acclaimed as saints.

But how do I know the will of God? That is a good question and there are two answers, because God has a general will for all of us as well as a specific will for each of us as individuals. If we don’t obey the general, we don’t stand much chance of  figuring out the specific.

God’s general will is this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” If we seriously pursue that, his specific will has a way of becoming evident.


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Do What She Does

It is May, which, among other indications of spring, includes commencement exercises. At my daughter’s college commencement this past weekend, one speaker told of how he was taught basic dinner etiquette when an undergrad many decades ago. The faculty member he dined with told him to watch her and do what she did. Through this imitation he learned how to eat with fork and knife, and not just his spoon.

This lesson served him well soon afterward when he found himself the guest of a well-to-do family while traveling with a small group of fellow students. At dinner, a vast number of cutlery and dishes were on the table. None of the students were used to such finery and they quickly huddled to figure out how to not bring discredit upon themselves. The one who had recently learned how to use more than just a spoon knew what to do. He told the other to watch the hostess and do what she does. They did, and received praise for their fine manners at the end of the evening.

My mind took this image and ran, uncovering a true guide to life.

The WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) craze inspired by In His Steps was at its height several years ago. While motivated by a desire to follow Christ, it failed to be a solid tool for most people because of two main problems. First, none of us are first-century itinerant Jewish rabbis. Our context is so different from Christ’s that trying to pattern our life so directly after his is difficult. Second, Jesus did and said a lot. We have four Gospels full of things he did and said, many of which we may not be able to do.

We can benefit from a simple, concrete example that is no less profound, but may seem more attainable. It is not easier to do completely, but it is less complicated to understand.

Do what Mary did.

Mary’s recorded words and actions in Scripture are few and attainable for all of us. In fact we can sum them up in two phrases. First, when the angel Gabriel came to her to announce what the Father intended to do through her, she replied, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38) Second, at the wedding in Cana, her one instruction to others, “Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:5)

In these two statements, we find the whole of the Christian life. Submit to God as a willing servant and guide others to do the same. May we watch Mary and imitate her life — quiet, faithful and devout — that we may receive her reward.

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Presumption vs. Effort

We are well into Advent, and the lectionary turns our thoughts to John the Baptist and his preparation for the ministry of our Lord. John is an interesting character. We admire his candor and focus, but I dare say we are glad he isn’t hanging out in the back of our church. He came preaching a message of repentance. “Straighten up for the Messiah is coming,” is the main emphasis of his teaching. He had no great regard for the religious leaders of his day; he called them a bunch of snakes and challenged them to repent as well.

Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.

Matthew 3:8-9 (ESV)

Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. Do things that are congruent with pursuing holiness and turning from sin. Actively seek to root out pride, gluttony, lust, greed, sloth, envy, and wrath from your life. Love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. Love your neighbor as yourself. Don’t be presumptuous.

“We’re children of Abraham. We are God’s chosen race.” One would think that 70 years of exile in Babylon would have tempered that a bit, but they were short-sighted and stiff-necked, as are we. We always seem to hope for assurance but don’t want it to require much from us.

Jesus, once he eclipses John and begins his ministry, reinforces John’s message.

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.

Matthew 7:21 (ESV)

If you skim the preceding chapters of Matthew, it seems like Jesus’ idea of “doing his Father’s will” is more than just “giving him your heart.” Matthew 7:21 and its implications unsettle those of the “eternal security” camp, as it should. There is something to be said for not constantly worrying about “losing” your salvation, but then again, this seems to have a long lineage in history. Most of the saints were concerned about pleasing God through their actions. They sought God with devotion and effort.

To some degree it comes back to Gnosticism. If we think that because “I know I’m saved,” then “I’m good,” we are proclaiming that we have knowledge (the meaning of gnosis) and by that knowledge we are saved. This idea that “we don’t have to do anything, just believe,” has become so entrenched in American evangelicalism that suggesting we must do something is viewed with shock and horror. John the Baptist would be scoffed as a legalist.

But what is Scripture? Is it not a lot of teaching on how we are to act? Perhaps we should quit worrying about vainly trying to earn our salvation and focus a bit on being cast into hell for not being obedient. Not very popular these days, I know. But Scripture hasn’t changed.

We are on dangerous ground we when presume to be “good.” Scripture’s default assumption concerning every one of us is that we are sinners worthy of judgement. We can do nothing to earn salvation — because we have already irretrievably blown it. God’s grace is truly the only thing that can save us, not because he’s so nice and wants to make it easy on us. He desires us to be holy as he is holy.

We should be working double-time to try to appease the wrath of God. We should cling to Jesus like a man dangling from a cliff clinging to a rope. Not presumptuously swinging about and enjoying the view, but doing everything we can to get back up onto the straight, narrow, and high way of the Lord.

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Mystery ≠ Secret

Gnosticism is a heresy, or a group of heresies, that has been around since the beginnings of the church. That is because the ideas that motivate gnosticism predate the church. Gnosticism, if you are unfamiliar with the term, is the idea that there is a division between mind and body and the only thing that really matters is the mind. This is then coupled with the idea that this knowledge is only available to the initiated or those smart enough to figure it out.

Unfortunately, gnostic thinking has never fully been driven out of the church. This is true in part because there are Scriptures that can give rise to a gnostic interpretation. Paul writes about “the flesh” at times in what can be seen as gnostic terms. But he also writes against such thoughts in other places. His emphasis on bodily resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 is one powerful example.

All of that is background to get to my point. We must be careful in our worship to not conflate mystery with secret. Part of the beauty of orthodox liturgical worship is its transcendence. We are reminded that there is more to life than merely the material world. We are ushered into the spiritual realm in worship, but through the use of the material. We employ bread, wine, music, incense, and vestments. We stand, sit, and kneel. It is a very sensory-rich experience because there is so much going on with material stuff.

We reach the transcendent — that is, we are given opportunity to reflect on and receive Christ — through the use of matter. This is not gnostic; it is sacramental. Sacramentalism stands in contrast to gnosticism in that it teaches that matter is important. Matter should be seen as a gift of God and as a means of his grace. While our bodies and their desires may cause us struggle, they are ultimately created by God and exist in order that we may have being.

With all of this in place, we must be careful not to take the mysteries of the faith, such as the Eucharist and baptism, and make them into secrets. Yes, they are sacraments, but in any sacrament there is an element of mystery. We don’t completely understand the how. God chose to use wine, bread, and water to aid in our sanctification. Much thought and argument has gone into trying to figure out exactly how it works. It works because God makes it so. It is a mystery, because we don’t fully “get it.”

This is not because we are stupid or because God is being evasive. It is by design. Only by being a multifaceted mystery can the sacraments be a source of inspiration, contemplation, and instruction for our whole lives.

Once you learned the trick behind how your uncle seemingly pulled a penny out of your ear as a child, you quit contemplating how he did it. Not so with the sacraments. We come to some understanding, but that tends to lead to more questions. Secrets push us out, while mystery draws us in.

We should seek to understand. We must also seek to believe. There will always be more for us to learn, more to contemplate, more to reflect on. But there is also much for us to do. Our goal as Christians is not to know everything about God, but to be obedient to what we do know.

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Cataclysmic Risk

Yesterday we considered the greatest secret in all creation. Today I want to look at why it was kept secret even from Christ. First we need to understand a little about risk analysis. The general practice is to look at two axis: impact (or consequences) and likelihood.


What is the risk of my coffee cup springing a leak on my desk? Pretty unlikely and the consequences would be pretty negligible as well, so low overall risk. Unlikely negligible scenarios don’t require much, if any, planning or mitigation.

Driving home last night, there was a higher probability I could have been involved in a collision. The impact could have been pretty severe, so I mitigated this possibility. I wore my seat belt and I own a car with air bags and other safety features. If I knew I was going to be in an accident, I wouldn’t drive home. Given the probability, I felt I took reasonable precautions.

Now let us consider the incarnation. We don’t know what the likelihood of failure was, but we can assume the impact of failure would have been catastrophic. We really aren’t given any clues from Scripture what the consequences would have been.

There are, though, two times in the Gospels that give us an indication that failure was an option. The first is the temptation in the wilderness. It can’t be a temptation if there isn’t potential to carry out the action one is tempted to. I’m not tempted to jump out my window and fly around, because I can’t. I’m tempted to lie, cheat, and steal.

If Jesus had succumbed, he would not have been sinless; he would have been just like the rest of us and would not have been a perfect sacrifice. Not only that, but it seems possible that the Trinity may have been ruptured. God does not tolerate uncleanliness or sin in his presence. If Christ had become a sinner, what would have happened?

The other time we are given a hint that failure was possible is in Christ’s words we considered yesterday:

But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven,
nor the Son, but the Father only.

Matthew 24:36 (ESV)

Jesus had to face his temptation, but here, we see evidence of mitigation. Jesus does not posses the information, therefore he cannot divulge it. I’m not sure how he may have been tempted to divulge it, but it was not a risk the Father was willing to take. Perhaps Jesus needed to not know in order to carry out his earthly ministry with proper focus?

Failure on either one of these points is a disturbing proposition. It is not fruitful to speculate on what failure may have led to other than to be grateful that we don’t know what would have happened because it didn’t go that way. Thanks be to God that Jesus fulfilled his mission in the incarnation so that we might be cleansed from our sins and given the opportunity to be in the presence of the Father.

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The Anglican Church in North America has their own Sunday Lectionary now. I had been using the Revised Common Lectionary for the past several years, but decided I should probably get in line and use the one prescribed by my church. There is a lot of overlap, as there is in most post-Vatican II lectionaries.

There are also some differences. Some I discovered as I compared the two when the ACNA lectionary was first published, such as less diversity in the Psalms read. Others, I am discovering along the way. I don’t mind some passages being moved to other dates, but I can never be pleased about a passage dropping out of the lectionary.

To be fair, the passage I have in mind was hardly even in the RCL. It occurred as part of the Gospel reading for the Ninth Sunday of Epiphany and the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary time of Year B.  Due to the movement of Lent-Easter-Pentecost on the calendar, these Sundays don’t occur very often.¹

I read an article this week that made reference to the healing of the man with the withered hand. I thought it was meaningful so, as is my custom, I printed it off and went to file it on its appropriate Sunday. I checked my scripture index for the ACNA lectionary and found nothing even though the story occurs three times in the Synoptic Gospels.

Curious, I checked my index for the RCL and finally found it. Sure enough, the ACNA Sunday Lectionary shortened the Gospel reading for those Sundays and the story of the man with the withered hand was gone. Here’s Mark’s account of the healing, which is the one in the RCL:

Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come here.” And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

Mark 3:1-6 (ESV)

I’m not even sure I know what it means to have a withered hand. Crushed, deformed, broken, and paralyzed are all I have a frame of reference for. When I read withered, I think: dried up, shriveled, like much of the leaves and flowers in early November. The idea is pretty clear, however, that this man’s hand was useless.

We are apt to miss what is going on with this man for all the tension in the room with the Pharisees. Set that aside for a moment, though, and just consider the man standing in front of Jesus and the congregation with a hand that does not work.

“Stretch out your hand.”

Two miracles occur here. The first, that we often miss, is the man doesn’t reply, “I can’t.” We have the idea that this may have been a lifelong deformity. He hadn’t been sitting on his hand in Synagogue and it fell asleep and was temporarily unresponsive. That requires no healing, only time to awake. It was obvious to all that this hand was not mission capable.

“Stretch out your hand.”

He does, and it is restored. Through his faith, he attempted to do what his experience in life up to that very moment had taught him was impossible. Through this faith, he was healed. Faith takes action on the command of our Lord.

¹ In the next 20 years from 2017-2036, there is no Ninth Sunday of Epiphany. Only the four latest possible dates for Easter allow for this many Sundays in Epiphany. The Fourth Sunday in Ordinary time fares a little better, occurring 6 times in the next 20 years, but only half of those (2018, 2024, and 2027) fall on Year B.

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But It’s Not an Excuse

Yesterday we looked at accepting the way God made us. Today I want to balance that idea with a look at the way God pushes and pulls us to growth. Just because God made us a certain way (male, female, introvert, extrovert, feeling, thinking,…) doesn’t mean we can rest on our heels refusing to grow. Yes, God gifts us differently, but he gifts us to use those gifts, and sometimes that requires stepping out of our comfort zones. We have to be willing to risk failure. We may have undeveloped areas in our lives that God would like to use to bless others through us.

I came to pastoral ministry somewhat reluctantly. I had long enjoyed reading and writing, but like many people, public speaking was not something I enjoyed. Nevertheless, after one year of seminary, I found myself in a pulpit looking at a church of about 50 people staring back at me. I was filling the pulpit for a church in north-central Ohio and my first sermon last all of about 8 minutes. I’m not sure I took a breath. I know I didn’t let go of the pulpit. Being people of grace and mercy, they had me back and I later served as their part-time pastor for a while.

God used my enjoyment of reading and writing to give me a platform from which to build my preaching skills. Over the course of many years, I hope I have improved a bit. I certainly feel more comfortable stepping behind a pulpit. In fact, when I don’t have opportunity to do it regularly, I miss it. I’ve learned that God sometimes pushes us to grow so that our faith in him will develop. He desires us to throw ourselves into his grace. To use Dallas Willard’s metaphor, we should burn grace like a 747 burns jet fuel on take off.

We must be willing to take risks in faith. Not for our own glory, but to serve God and to serve others. I’m not a supporter of the “do big things for God” idea, but I am a supporter of doing something for God. For some, the challenge may be to faithfully maintain prayer and Bible reading each day. For others, maybe it’s reigning in our appetite for food, drink, or something else. For others, it may be to attend worship faithfully. For others, it might be the willingness to speak up when topics of faith are raised.

Living things grow, just as we are called to grow. Even when our bodies start to fail, our faith can continue to grow. We may have reasons why growing is hard, but we have no excuse for not making the effort.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.

Hebrews 12:1-4 (ESV)

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Filed under Dallas Willard, Discipline, Grace, Growth, Obedience, Progress, Sanctification, Success