Friday, September 19, 2008

Meditation on the Death of a Saint

I have been thinking about the funeral that our seminary had on Monday of Vivian Anastasia. It is difficult to numb oneself to the innocence of a child of six months. Prematurely born – and had to undergo multiple operations. She was so small in this miniature casket. To us who are dying this seems a horrible injustice yet the Lord has promised to work all things for the good of his church and to save and preserve his people. Vivian was baptized into Christ’s church and was daily nurtured in faith. The promises of eternal life, salvation, and communion with God in the company of Saints was given her through water, Word, and the invocation of the Divine Name. In baptism we participate in Jesus’ death and resurrection in which we receive all that is his. If we do not believe in baptism the Christian life is in vain. If we do not believe that God became flesh, dwelt among us, bore the sins of the world, saving us from sin, death, and the devil we ourselves are dead and live in vain.

Vivian sleeps with our Lord, not because her accomplishments, but through the promise of God in baptism. Likewise, we sinners are made saints through Holy Baptism, in which the old is washed clean and the new arises bodily in the risen Lord. We live in the baptismal life, through daily contrition and repentance, continually asking for mercy and continually receiving it. The church lives through baptism and the sacraments because Jesus gives himself to us with an imperative to baptize. God is gracious and good because he so dearly wants us comforted – and this is given through simple means, simple water, simple promise – simple bread, simple wine, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. The holy Christian church does not exist outside of baptism, outside of the alter, outside of the hearing of the Gospel preached.

If God is good and gracious enough to baptize us (which he has for us!) giving us all the riches of heaven – what are we confessing if we are not continually receiving the gifts in which he promises to sustain us? Luther called the communion rail the “pulpit of the laity.” We confess the faith and are made holy not based upon “moral values” and “being conservative, biblically based christians,” nor are we sanctified by our charitable deeds or virtuous life. Vivian did not have a litany of good deeds or moral values in which God might be pleased with her. She was tiny, innocent, helpless, utterly dependent upon others for her daily survival and needs. She had baptism, had Christ, had faith, and had life eternal based upon God’s promise. Confessing the faith and living as Christians is simply to be like Vivian, a helpless infant, helpless on our own merit before God, completely and utterly dependent on God’s promise of heaven, of Christ, and eternal riches. God does not want to know us through our personal life story, our accomplishments, our charity, our love for family or friends. It is severely flawed and not pleasing. He has made us personable to him through His person (God incarnate, born of Mary, crucified on a cross).

Becoming a Vivian, like a child, to God is not what we do. We reject the sacraments, are thankless for our baptism, and do not speak to him through prayer (though we have been invited!) because we are rebellious creatures and have made ourselves enemies to God. It is a real stumbling block if we continue at failing to recognize the depravity inherited in the human condition. It was not easy for me either. I was raised and educated by a boomer generation with an unprecedented religious creed of “self esteem” and “self worth.” I was not raised to consider sin, Satan, and solace of comfort in Holy Baptism because our church did not consider those things. We do not believe in free gifts, charity in abundance, and free grace. We believe in “independence,” “self sufficiency,” “self help,” and “positive thinking.” We have made imaginary universes for ourselves. We live in a post-modern age where we are encouraged to develop our own unique worldview according to our preferences. Pastors cater to this asking parishioners “what does this bible verse mean to you?” The word of God can be transmuted in such a way to apply to whatever fleeting considerations are on the persons mind. This age considers “reality” as a mere social construct which is alterable based upon own mental mechanizations. The post-modern thinking protestant churches are openly complicit in this by talking of vague notions of “hope” and “peace” which we can readily apply to our internal aspirations and desires. This is all a rebellion of the first commandment to make ourselves Gods. We would much like God to be a like a house pet, to name him as we like, to have him do tricks, entertain us, and to go on joyous and serene “faith walks.”

Yet before we consider Jesus as an exemplary model for holy living, he must first be an exemplary sacrifice. Before we erroneously consider what we should do for God we ought to receive him. Before we serve him we ought to be served, as this is the highest form of worship (the only form of worship). If this tiny child Vivian was not saved in Holy Baptism resurrected in Christ we ought to forsake the faith. If Jesus did not bear the sins of the world we should stay home on Sundays. If Christ did not defeat death, rising on the third day we ought to stick with Joel Olsteen. If he is not bodily present among us teaching, feeding, preaching, and preserving we ought to stay put in our protestant churches which deny Christ’s miracles which have so gloriously redeemed us.

Thinking of Vivian’s tiny body has heightened joy and prayerful consideration of the promises given in baptism – that it gives forgiveness of sins and entrance into Christ’s Holy Church. Furthermore this holy child, a holy body, a precious saint, redeemed in Christ’s body and blood is God’s very creation, in fact the crown of his creation. We ought to pray for the deluded souls who do not believe in baptism. This is an intolerable contradiction with the Christian faith. We ought to reflect Christ’s love for sinners, who are also helpless and utterly dependent upon him for grace and favor. We ought to mirror this love for the unborn who are likewise helpless and dependent upon our mercy – for life, care, food, and nourishment. We ought to be aware that we live in a cultural vortex of sin – indeed a culture of death. We are obsessed with death and celebrate it. We neglect the most helpless around us the elderly and unborn, while congratulating ourselves for the outpouring of charity to criminals of the worst stripe. We reward evil and punish the innocent. We call evil good and gooevil. We are so helpless, and dependent upon God’s mercy.

My systematic theology and admonitions cannot alter or change the way anyone thinks about the church, that is only the work of the Holy Spirit and the hearing of the Word. This is done in Christ’s Holy Church. We are not God’s Holy people apart from our baptisms, and we are not precious apart from his Gospel. If we have been graciously invited into Christ’s church we ought not to refuse the invitation. The invitation is not for private meditations, and devotionals but for receiving his gifts in which we find His meditation and devotion for us.

God who comes to us, continually – without ceasing. He comes to his church and gives to us. We merely receive and depart in peace to find joy in service to neighbor on account of Him only (for he first loved us in Creation). Given that we have been baptized into Christ’s body and His Holy church, I confidently urge you to remain steadfast in His mighty fortress.

Ceaseless talk of “moral values" and "virtues" is not especially helpful. This is a term rooted in Victorian language which has its roots in “pietism” (work righteousness, etc). Pietism arose from protestant churches who also denied the sacraments and believe in the “transformative power of Jesus Christ.” Please note Jesus never talks about “moral values.” The whole idea is unbiblical and is born out of a flawed optimism in the human condition. It is unhelpful for a proper understanding of the catholic faith, in which we ought to despair of our work, and “values.” The outward works of the Christian contain no worth or “value” in and of themselves. The service of the Chrisitan is only marked by the reception of Christ through the means promised in which he creates faith and looks toward his neighbor in love. Our Saint Paul says even our ‘righteous acts are as filthy rags’ because they are performed with a sinful heart, never in perfect love. If ‘moral values’ exist it is only through the sacraments in which we receive them. Righteousness is merely imputed. I must say I do not believe I have moral values. God’s revelation in the Holy Scriptures and through Jesus Christ does not support this. Jean Jacque Rossoue would agree with moral values. Yet, it presupposes that there is a meritorious creature from birth. We cannot approach the alter as “mature minded Christians,” who are “knowers,” “doers,” “movers,” and “shakers.” I cannot stop thinking of the tiny baptized body of Vivian. Tiny hands, tiny fingernails, utterly helpless. As God approached her in Holy Baptism we should assume a similar posture of passivity, complete dependence, childlike innocence and longing. Christ asks that we make children of ourselves that we might inherit the kingdom of God. This simply means that we cast off any remnant of self confidence and self-autonomy to become wholly dependent, wholly faithful to al that he promises. If baptism does not means all that Christ says it does I might as well pack my bags, come home, and choose another life path.

Thankfully God is not a liar. Baptism ushers saints into heaven and saves sinners from sin, death, and the devil. The rite and mystery of the performative word in baptism supercedes the ravenous human will and does what it promises. We ought to daily consider baptism and the daily newness of life it promises. In it is our very identity, life, and salvation. Those not receiving God’s gifts Sunday after Sunday ought to be reminded that they are baptized members of Christ and will greatly benefit from continually receiving the gifts. The Christian life is merely receiving.

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