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Saturday, September 14, 2013

Temporal and Spiritual

The Thursday Bible Study group, a long standing institution at St. Andrews, has not studied the Bible in many years. We have instead wandered the Apocrypha and are currently reading the "Early Christian Writings" (Penguin Classics). From time to time someone or another reports back that there is grave concern "out there" and people wonder why we don't just read the Bible. Maccabees was an easier sell, the vast majority of Christians recognize it as Scripture. 2 Esdras has no such legs to stand on, though its first century roots allow it to serve as a helpful comparative to NT writings and it provides special insight into the literature of the time. Reading Ignatius of Antioch is much simpler for me. It is not Scripture, but it is someone who knew the Apostles' disciples which makes his knowledge of the faith significant to me.

Ignatius is most important to us because of  his writings on early church leadership. He saw the bishop as the visible sign of God on earth. For him, there was no room in the church for false teaching (especially Gnosticism) and a church must listen to the bishop even as the bishop must listen to God. The practice gets tricky, but the theological foundation of such an ecclesiology (nature, constitution, function of church) remains solid. Reading Ignatius one sees constant references to Paul (in style and content) as well as the entire Bible.

We began his letter to Polycarp of Smyrna Thursday. Polycarp, a holy man and bishop, had caught Ignatius' attention because of his respectable reputation (like Ignatius, he too ended up a great martyr for love of Jesus). Ignatius' exhortation to Polycarp was simple and pointed: You must do justice to your position, by showing the greatest diligence both in its temporal and spiritual duties. We read those words and forty minutes later the class came to an end. Did not get any farther. The conversation seemed to help many in the class so I wanted to share a couple points we made with my readers.

First of all, we live in a time when people are want to identify themselves as "spiritual." I do not doubt that this is true. I just reject it as a means of salvation (more on that Sunday). Many people reject the nomenclature of Christianity and opt for the more preferable term, "spiritual." That is honest. However, it is likely that this non-Christian, spirituality is also Gnostic. Ignatius makes a big deal of not being a Gnostic in his letters. [This is why they are so important, it demonstrates what the first Christians faced as the Scriptures replaced the Apostles as the primary witness.] One of the Gnostic tendencies is to deny the human life of Jesus and His flesh & blood experience.

This anti-Gnostic sense of things seems to underlie his concern here. Gnostics care about saving souls and negate 'this world' (see the article on heaven yesterday for another angle on that). The thought that bishops should be concerned about "temporal" things is a scandal to the Gnostic-minded (which shows how wide spread the ideas of Gnostics are!). Shouldn't a bishop be about spiritual things? Isn't the spiritual realm the one that concerns God and His church? Not the Biblical God.... Not by a long shot.

The mission and ministry of Jesus were very much concerned with both dimensions. He healed sick people, fed hungry people and confronted everyone on issues of (social) justice. He was temporal minded from an eternal perspective. So must we be.

The challenge is to be temporal without being seduced by this or that human political philosophy. So often right wing Christians (or left wing) end up sounding like Conservatives (or Liberals) with little reference to Jesus' teaching. It is hard to be temporal and faithful. On the other hand, the 'spiritual' can often slide into the land of "doesn't it sound nice" with little reference to the nitty-gritty details of real life. The dreamers and the poets bring beauty to life, but real-politick reminds us that the Hitler's of the world manipulate and then execute those who blindly & naively trust in the "good in all people."

The mission and ministry of the church is here and now, with an eye on forever. keeping that balance was tough in 115 AD in ancient Syria. It is just as hard today in modern Syria (and Collierville). No one has all the answers. No one does it completely right. But when the church abides by the will of those who would  have us "focus on spiritual things and remain silent of temporal matters" she fails in her God-given ministry and call. She fails to follow the concrete footsteps of her Incarnate Lord--Who was executed as a King and an enemy of the State and called His followers to take up their own cross.

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