The son of destruction

It is a term that appears only twice in the New Testament but has become one of several terms used by self-appointed “prophecy experts” to describe the ultimate end times villain. Synonymous with “the Antichrist,” “the Beast,” and “the man of lawlessness” is “the son of destruction” [or “perdition,” depending on your translation]. Based on the actual textual evidence, however, only the latter term, “the man of lawlessness,” is truly a synonym, for Paul uses the terms interchangeably in 2 Thessalonians 2:3. The only other reference to “the son of destruction” is John 17:12, a very obvious reference to Judas Iscariot, the Lord’s betrayer, during Jesus’ high priestly prayer. Paul’s reference seems much more obscure, leading many to create imaginative scenarios whereby an evil world dictator emerges and inflicts untold suffering on the world before finally being defeated by the returning Christ.

Kept in their proper context, however, both references to “the son of destruction” bear remarkable similarities. Jesus refers to Judas as “the son of destruction” in recognition of the fact that Judas will be the only one of the Twelve who is “lost” in order “that the Scripture might be fulfilled.” He will commit an act of rebellion, betraying Jesus into the hands of his enemies, setting in motion a series of events which culminate, after a period of suffering, in the vindication of Jesus and the undoing of his enemies.

The scenario John lays out in his Gospel, with Judas in the role of “the son of destruction,” is much the same as that laid out by Paul in 2 Thessalonians. Here, “the son of destruction,” also called “the man of lawlessness” and “the lawless one,” serves the same function as Judas. He commits an act of rebellion, setting in motion a series of events which culminate, after a period of suffering, in the vindication of “the Lord Jesus” who “will kill [the lawless one] with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming” (2:8).

In both instances, “the son of destruction” plays a pivotal role in setting in motion the classic biblical scenario of “the Day of the Lord,” a decisive moment in which God acts in the midst of human history, making plain the choice between good and evil, blessing and curse, life and death. It is the scenario that was first played out in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve committed an act of rebellion and set in motion the catastrophic series of events which could ultimately find resolution only in the coming of God’s Anointed One.

Both John and Paul were immersed in the apocalyptic worldview of first century Judaism. They were well acquainted with the numerous Old Testament references to “the Day of the Lord.” They were very intentional in connecting the events surrounding Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection with that promised decisive act of God in the midst of human history. God was, indeed, making all things new, reconciling the world to himself in Christ. But this glorious act of new creation was not yet complete. Paul is very careful to remind the Thessalonians of the tenuous time in which they were living. Just as he had with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and with Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane, “the son of destruction” would raise his ugly head yet again. Whenever, wherever, and however that happens, though, the victorious Son of God and Son of Man will, as he did at Calvary, decisively crush him.

Lent is about recovering the joy that we lost

“The source of false religion,” writes the late Orthodox priest Alexander Schmeman, “is the inability to rejoice, or, rather, the refusal of joy, whereas joy is absolutely essential because it is without any doubt the fruit of God’s presence. One cannot know that God exists and not rejoice. Only in relation to joy are the fear of God and humility correct, genuine, fruitful. Outside of joy, they become demonic, the deepest distortion of any religious experience. A religion of fear. Religion of pseudo-humility. Religion of guilt. They are all temptations, traps—very strong indeed, not only in the world, but inside the Church. Somehow ‘religious’ people often look on joy with suspicion.”

Fr. Schmeman continues, “The first, the main source of everything is ‘my soul rejoices in the Lord…’ The fear of sin does not save from sin. Joy in the Lord saves. A feeling of guilt or moralism does not liberate from the world and its temptations. Joy is the foundation of freedom, where we are called to stand. Where, how, when has this tonality of Christianity become distorted, dull—or rather, where, how, why have Christians become deaf to joy? How, when and why, instead of freeing suffering people, did the Church come to sadistically intimidate and frighten them?”

This may sound like an odd admonition as we approach the first Sunday in Lent, the beginning of that penitential season when we tone down some of the more joyful aspects of worship and focus more on those wrong attitudes and bad habits of which we need to repent and from which we need to turn away.

But it really shouldn’t sound so odd. For what is the purpose of all these Lenten disciplines, if not the restoration of true religion, which has, at its very center, the joy of the Lord?

There is a certain predictability about the first Sunday in Lent. We come to the Gospel reading and always know where we’re going to be.

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the  devil. (Matthew 4:1)

Jesus . . . in the wilderness . . . being tempted by the devil. Whether it’s Matthew, as is the case this year; or Mark, whose account is a little bit short; or Luke—if you are a good student of the church calendar, we know the story we are going to hear when we enter the Lord’s house tomorrow morning.

The First Sunday in Lent can also make us a little presumptuous. We may assume that the preacher will simply take those three temptations, make each one into a point, close with a cute little story and encourage everyone to gird up their loins and make the most of this Lenten season.

Lent, however, is not about girding up your loins and making the most of it. That is the joyless false religion Fr. Schmeman was writing about.

Lent is about recovering the joy that we lost.

Jesus faces the test in the wilderness because Adam failed the test in the garden.

The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:15-17)

A simple test. A simple command. One minor restriction in the midst of a haven of sheer freedom.

Adam is commanded to refrain from one seemingly innocuous action. “Don’t eat from that one tree.”

In the wilderness, Jesus is tempted to engage in certain actions.

“Turn these stones to bread.”

“Throw yourself from the pinnacle of the temple.”

“Bow down and worship me, and you’ll rule the world.”

They all sound varied and different, but they’re really all the same.

“Eat from that tree, and you’ll be like God.”

The lie with which Satan deceived Adam and Eve is the same lie he tried to pass off on Jesus.

“It’s all about you!”

You can be the master of the universe.

You can control your own destiny.

You can determine what is good and what is evil.

“Did God actually say . . . ?”

You don’t have to take his word for it.

You can decide for yourself what God actually said, or even if he actually said anything at all.

You can decide what God actually meant when he said what he didn’t actually say.

The source of false religion is the inability to rejoice, or, rather, the refusal of joy. . .

There is joy in knowing that God did say, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

There is joy in knowing that God did say, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”

There is joy in knowing that God did say, “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.”

When Adam and Eve ate from the tree, they refused the joy and embraced the lie.

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned . . . (Romans 5:12)

A very ugly picture: a wilderness instead of a garden.

But it is in that wilderness that the joy of the garden is restored.

Jesus would not embrace the lie. Jesus would reach for the joy that was set before, even though he knew it meant embracing the cross.

Therefore, as on e trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:18-19)

In the garden, surrounded by freedom, Adam lost. In the wilderness, on the cross, rejected as a slave, Jesus won!

Thanks be to  God!

Holy Innocents: The cycle Jesus came to break

Today we remember the Holy Innocents, the children of Bethlehem slaughtered by Herod in his brutal attempt to snuff out the newborn Messiah. Joseph, warned in a dream, escaped with Mary and the infant Jesus to Egypt just before the bloodshed began. The victims of Herod’s jealousy are regarded as “martyrs in fact though not in will.”

Children are precious in the sight of God. Jesus welcomed the little children and admonished his disciples that unless they became like them, they would not see the kingdom of heaven. Yet, the remembrance of these innocent children murdered by a tyrannical king, coming only a few days after we have celebrated the birth of the long-awaited Messiah as a baby in a manger, gives us pause. Why did such an act have to take place? Couldn’t God have prevented it? After all, he did warn the Holy Family in advance and get them safely out of town.

The slaughter of the Holy Innocents makes sense only in light of the whole story of redemption. The birth of Jesus pierced the darkness of an old order which had the world in the grip of its fallenness and corruption. But that old order was not going down without a fight. Herod, the representative of that old order, would make one last desperate attempt to hold onto power. But the real victim of this murderous rage would be Herod himself and the fallen order he represented. The slaughter of the Holy Innocents was merely another turn in the seemingly endless cycle of violence and bloodshed that had held sway since the Fall. It was this cycle that Jesus came to break.

Paul says that Christ is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” in whom “the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” It is at the cross that the senseless finally makes sense. Jesus becomes the ultimate Holy Innocent whose shed blood brings redemption to all the victims of all the Herods the fallen world has ever produced.

Almighty God, out of the mouths of children you manifest your truth, and by the death of the Holy Innocents at the hands of evil tyrants you show your strength in our weakness: We ask you to mortify all that is evil within us, and so strengthen us by your grace, that we may glorify your holy Name by the innocence of our lives and the constancy of our faith even unto death; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who died for us and now lives with you and the Holy Spirit, world without end.  Amen.

Is persecution a blessing?

In a recent article for Covenant, the blog site for The Living Church, Hannah King pleads for cooperation with The Episcopal Church (TEC), the heretical sect from which so many fled to form The Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). Alex Wilgus at The North American Anglican offers an excellent response, noting the pain, sadness, and outright abuse many faithful believers suffered at the hands of TEC before finding a safe harbor in ACNA. To Wilgus’s points, I would add that King’s article is not only naive, but also ill-timed. Currently serving a parish in Greenville, South Carolina, she should be well aware that the lower part of her state is Ground Zero for a theological and legal battle that is far from over. Only yesterday, the Anglican Diocese of South Carolina, where I am privileged to serve, was informed that the so-called “Episcopal Church in South Carolina” (TECSC) is filing yet another legal complaint. Unsatisfied with a previous outlandish court order that the diocese relinquish its historical name and marks, the Episcopal entity is now demanding removal of certain items from the diocesan website and yet another name change since the diocese has recently taken a name that is “confusingly similar” to its previous nomenclature.

This latest petition is nothing more than a vindictive exercise in self-flattery. The newly christened Anglican Diocese of South Carolina is nothing if not eager to disentangle itself from any lingering association with both the national and local Episcopal bodies. In fact, we would have willingly given over the old name and marks had our adversaries not (literally) made a federal case out of it.

Difficult as it is to be an Anglican in the lowcountry of South Carolina, however, perhaps we ought to rejoice in our continuing tribulation. Herman Sasse (1895 – 1976), citing the example of the Apostle John, observed that a church not wrestling with questions of truth and falsehood was “always in danger of dying.”

The Apostle of Love warns Christians: “Believe not every spirit, but prove the spirits whether they are of God; because many false prophets are gone out into the world.” Although John’s Gospel and Epistles constantly set forth the love of one’s fellow believers as the criterion for true faith and genuine Christianity, his criterion for erroneous faith and heresy is a dogmatic statement: “Every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus is come in the flesh, is not of God and this is the spirit of the Antichrist.” In other words, contrary to all expectation, the correct teaching of the Incarnation appears as the touchstone according to which true doctrine is distinguished from false, the church from heresy. It was so at the beginning of the church’s history; it shall continue so until the light of eternal truth shall enlighten us all. Of those times in which the life of the church was not very much disturbed by concern for pure teaching and by alarm concerning false teaching, it may be said that they do not belong to the great ages of the church. On the contrary, the church is always in danger of dying when it ceases to wrestle for truth and to pray that the Lord may guard it against the devil’s wiles and false teaching.

As it seeks to establish itself as the guardian of Anglican orthodoxy in the United States and Canada, the ACNA would do well to heed this Lutheran theologian’s wise counsel. Barely a decade since its inception, the siren voices are beckoning the young province to unlash itself from the mast and pursue the the dead end paths of compromise and theological innovation.

The Anglican Diocese of South Carolina, still engaged as we are in hand to hand combat with a determined and vindictive foe that perfectly fits the Apostle’s definition of “the spirit of Antichrist,” remains instilled with a holy resolve to resist the temptations to compromise and innovate. Twelve years ago, in the face of fierce opposition to his eventual election, Bishop Mark Lawrence wrote, “I have lashed myself to the mast of Christ and will ride out this storm wherever the ship of faith will take me.”

That storm has not subsided, but the ship of faith remains intact. In God’s time, we will land safely on the shore. When that day comes, we may very well realize this persistent persecution was, in fact, a blessing.

To contribute nothing new

C.S. Lewis, in his book Christian Apologetics, had little sympathy for, nor patience with, members of the clergy who, bound by their vows of ordination, failed to stay within the bounds of the faith they were bound to defend.

It is your duty to fix the lines (of doctrine) clearly in your minds: and if you wish to go beyond them you must change your profession. This is your duty not specially as Christians or as priests but as honest men. There is a danger here of the clergy developing a special professional conscience which obscures the very plain moral issue. Men who have passed beyond these boundary lines in either direction are apt to protest that they have come by their unorthodox opinions honestly. In defense of those opinions they are prepared to suffer obloquy and to forfeit professional advancement. They thus come to feel like martyrs. But this simply misses the point which so gravely scandalizes the layman. We never doubted that the unorthodox opinions were honestly held: what we complain of is your continuing in your ministry after you have come to hold them. We always knew that a man who makes his living as a paid agent of the Conservative Party may honestly change his views and honestly become a Communist. What we deny is that he can honestly continue to be a Conservative agent and to receive money from one party while he supports the policy of the other.

The late Thomas Oden, who experienced an awakening to the orthodox faith after immersing himself in the writings of the Church Fathers, wrote of a curious dream that gave him reason to hope that his life’s work would not be in vain.

I once had a curious dream. The scene was in the New Haven cemetery, where I accidentally stumbled upon my own tombstone, only to be confronted by this bemusing epitaph: “He made no new contribution to theology.”

I woke up feeling reassured, for I have been trying in my own way to follow the strict mandate of Irenaeus “not to invent new doctrine.” No concept was more deplored by the early ecumenical councils than the notion that theology’s task was to “innovate.” That implied some imagined creative addition to the apostolic teaching and thus something “other than” the received doctrine, “the baptism into which we have been baptized.”

What the ancient church teachers least wished for a theology was that it would be “fresh” or “self-expressive” or an embellishment of purely private inspirations, as if these might stand as some “decisive improvement” on the apostolic teaching.

I share with Oden the dream that I will be remembered for having “made no new contribution to theology.” As a priest, it is not my task to be an “innovator.” And if, someday, I did come to the conclusion, however “honestly,” that my opinions were some “decisive improvement” on the teaching of the Apostles, the only “honest” thing for me to do, as Lewis suggests, would be to find another line of work.

No one should, and no one can, take seriously a person who draws his livelihood from the Gospel while tearing down that Gospel with his every word, all the while bedecked in all the splendor of priestly garb.

Perhaps the most comic, yet tragic, figure in recent church history has been John Shelby Spong, the now (thankfully) retired bishop who has spent the better part of his adult life wearing a purple shirt with a gleaming gold cross while saying the Bible is little more than cute fairy tale.

The “good deposit” entrusted to us, as it was entrusted to Timothy—the faith that dwelt first in his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice, and that Paul, who was getting ready to give his life for that faith, was confident now dwelt in his young protégé (2 Timothy 1:5)—is not something that can be treated so carelessly. It is not something to be taken and bent to our own preferences and desires.

This “good deposit,” this Gospel of salvation, is a powerful thing. It is powerful, however, not in the way the world understands power. The power of God is not to be used to validate one’s own power. As Paul so adeptly explains in writing to Timothy, the power of God is understood best under circumstances of utter weakness, such as the uniquely powerless surroundings of the Roman prison from which he is writing—a most unpleasant reminder that the Gospel never promises you “your best life now.”

From the darkness of that prison, Paul issues a clarion call to Timothy, reminding him “to fan into flame the gift of God, which is yours through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:6-7)

Do not be timid, Paul says, in exercising the gift God has given you because God delights in exercising his power through the weak vessels of his faithful servants.

“Increase our faith!” was the cry of the apostles while they were still learning at the feet of Jesus (Luke 17:5)

Jesus told them, “What you need is not great faith. What you need is simply faith in a great God.”

God did not choose you because you had the most faith. He did not choose you because he thought you had more potential than anyone else.

God “saved us and called us to a holy calling,” Paul says, “not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began” (2 Timothy 1:9).

That is nothing new. That is nothing innovative. That is not an improvement on an old and antiquated teaching.

It is, simply, the Gospel—and it is always, and forever, true.