Monday, March 24, 2008

Reclaiming the Baby From the Bathwater

The following thoughts are not theologically rigorous. They are more along the lines of sentiment. But I don't think they're baseless . . .

I think the Reformation was a necessary corrective to a church that had become wacked out and blatantly corrupt. I also think the Reformation was an over-corrective and we need to reclaim a few things.

In our aversion to legalism, we've made everything optional. Reformed churches, curiously, maintain the primacy of the Sabbath even while insisiting there is no sacred-secular divide in life. But aside from that exception, days, feasts, and observances are optional. So, too often, is discipleship to the Master Whom we profess.

The Passion week and Easter weekend that just passed have left me thinking that we could use a few "Holy Days of Obligation" in our evangelical churches.

No Christian holy day is more important than Easter. True, Christmas is essential, because if Jesus hadn't been born, then nothing that followed could have happened. But why was He born? He was born to die. And the Passion Week is our time to reflect more deeply on these truths and mourn our sin more fully and, on Sunday, rejoice more truly.

I was surprised this year at the number of friends I have - friends whose walk with God I respect - who treated Easter weekend as just another weekend. Concerts, dates, dinners, even skipping church(!).

I admit that I hardly spent the entire weekend, myself, in prayer, meditation, and fasting. I was on a plane returning from a business trip when my church held its Maundy Thursday service, I spent Good Friday working, and the omelette I cooked up on Saturday was absolutely incredible. But I did set aside time Friday night to attend a presentation (recitation) of the Gospel of John as a way to focus more intently on the person of Christ. At home and driving, I sought out music throughout the weekend that related to the Passion. And on Sunday morning I went to the Episcopal Cathedral for my high church fix before heading off to my own church to celebrate with my friends (surprisingly, the two services were much more congruent - the liturgy, the creed, even the sermons - than I would have expected from such different churches).

I say all this not to hold myself up as a paradigm. Rather, I'm simply trying to express my belief that this last week (my Catholic friends would say 40 days) is not just another week to be punctuated with better-than-usual music on Sunday. It is the ground of our existence, the sine qua non of our faith, and something deserving of intense focus.
"If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. . . . If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead" (1 Corinthians 15.17,19,20).
Isn't that worthy of some extra attention?


  1. arnold,

    i have to disagree. easter is not special because it is march 23, 2008. easter is special because of what happened. the gospel isn't "don't go on a date on march 21, 2008, and don't go to a concert that weekend." the gospel is that jesus came, died, and rose again. that is EVERY weekend. why should our lives change to reflect more on easter weekend...shouldn't they reflect the same amount year-round? every weekend, and weekday, for that matter, is deserving of this intense focus. easter weekend IS just another weekend...there's nothing special about march 23 (except maybe that it's far earlier than usual this year). there's nothing special about the date of maundy thursday or good friday. the meaning of easter, though, is every weekend, and shouldn't be silo-ed into a date on the calendar. neither should your extra reflection.

  2. Does that mean you'd eliminate all Easter and Easter-week services (and Christmas, too, perhaps) and have churches do the same thing year round without regard to seasonality or "holidays"?

  3. I had to work most of this week, missing Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services, which I missed dearly. I think that it was good that my church offered these opportunities to worship and reflect as a community on the Gospel message. But I don't feel guilty for not being there.

    I grew up Catholic, and the traditions and rituals of the obligations helped me. But as a grown up evangelical believer, I understand that these are man's traditions, not God's. But they aren't bad, unless they distract from instead of enhancing your relationship with God. Which can happen.

    So yes, of course the extra services are optional. But as believers, they are irresistably attractive. And so yes, they are seasonal. Because if we had them every week, the "special" factor would not be there.

    It's like being married. We love each other every ordinary day in the practical and sacrificial ways that mark us as a loving couple. But those anniversaries are special days that we take the time to celebrate what God has done. We don't feel obligated to do special things for our anniversary (some years are more special than others due to availability of time and money) but we look forward to them.

    However, we do think married couples who don't set aside time to celebrate their anniversaries or mark special milestones in their relationships and think such days are just like all the rest, are kind of peculiar. And maybe slightly boring. Maybe they have a great relationship, but geez louise, you wouldn't be able to tell that they are all that excited about it. C'mon, you have to have a party at least, for pete's sake.

    And so that is my non-theological idea about the whole thing.

    I did enjoy this year's Easter primarily because we took a Chinese girl to church with us, she just became a Christian the night before and this was her first visit to church. And we brought a non Christian Japanese couple to an Easter potluck party from our ESL class, and they got to know more people from our church and had a great time. I shared a little personal testimony about how God provided answers to my prayers over dessert, the Japanese husband was very joyful to hear about it, although his wife seemed skeptical. But she had an opportunity to hear about it.

    The best Easter I ever had.

  4. But, you know, I say this every year.

  5. i think you missed my point, arnold

    you insinuated that some are 'less holy' with this comment:

    "I was surprised this year at the number of friends I have - friends whose walk with God I respect - who treated Easter weekend as just another weekend. Concerts, dates, dinners, even skipping church(!)."

    who cares? what if I choose to reflect more on another weekend. am i more holy than you on that weekend? what if i go to church and you don't because it puts too much of a hole in your sunday? am i more holy? you went to 2 church services for easter...i went to one. are you more holy? no! no! and no!

    just because the church chooses to celebrate easter with extravagant services, better/more music, communion, massive amounts of liturgy, 40 days of 'lenting,' etc, doesn't mean the weekend of easter mandates a time of more reflection. the GOSPEL mandates reflection, not a church holiday.

    you paint a picture that "discipleship to the Master Whom we profess" means spending more time in reflection during the week (or 40 days) leading up to easter...and present the idea that those who chose not to "intense[ly] focus" (insinuating more intense focus than other times) on the resurrection have chosen the wrong path. these points are what i disagree with. i have no problem with the church highlighting the resurrection and birth of christ with special services.

    i don't appreciate the insinuation that because some of us did not celebrate easter in the same manner as you, we are not as intensely focused on the gospel. it's simply not true.

    jesus said to take up your cross daily (luke 9.23) - not just on easter. and not more intensely on easter either.

  6. Matt, you're yelling so loud I'm having trouble hearing what you're trying to say.

    I don't think I impugned anyone's holiness. I referred to the holiness of days, but not people. If I communicated that I was more holy because I did certain things that other people didn't do (and vice-versa), that wasn't my intention.

    My intention was to discuss the importance and value of taking the time to focus at a particular time of the year. That I think it's a good thing to do, and that I was genuinely surprised that some of my RESPECTED friends seemed to feel otherwise. Clearly, you're one of those who feels otherwise!

    I started the post by saying it wasn't theologically rigorous, and I stand by that claim . . . in other words, I don't claim to have thought all this through. There may be room for further thought on both sides, though: I still don't get the connection between your contention that all days require reflection and your endorsement of special celebrations (services) in the church.

    Thea, thanks for your thoughts. I agree with what you say, and I particularly like your anniversary comparison. It fits what I was trying to say.

  7. I don't think Arnold was meaning to offend. I wasn't offended. And I don't think it is offensive that he is trying to examine the lifestyle of the contemporary Christian. Perhaps he would have been wiser to leave friends out of it, but I think he's talking about people in general, not specific people he knows.

    Arnold is a busy guy, and I find it admirable that he took the time to join other believers in community to worship several times to focus on Easter. Because he found it rewarding, he wonders why others don't enjoy it as much as he does.

    Now he knows.

  8. Thanks, Arnold!

    I think that if God loves a cheerful giver, He probably loves a cheerful worshipper, too. It sort of ties in together, I think. Where we go to church, the giving part of the service is also considered worship as much as singing.

    Furthermore, I think you've come a long way since the old days when you didn't go to church regularly. Remember? It was for a few months at a stretch back when Den and I lived in Atlanta around the turn of the millienium.

    Have fun searching for balance!

  9. Hello Arnold:

    Thanks for this post.

    I have a couple of thoughts that might or might not be of interest

    Who decides?
    1. God decided that some days are more important than others. He established the Sabbath. Just as every time we worship we (in some sense) draw upon the triumph of Easter, every holy day is in some real sense an echo of the Sabbath. (There are those who would argue that the downfall of Israel began with their failure to honor the Sabbath.) The early Church (not individual Christians), under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, decided that the first day of the week should be held in honor and they decided that Easter (and Christmas) should be celebrated. It is not accidental that each Sunday is considered by the Church to be a little Easter.

    The liturgical year can be understood as a giant projection of salvation history and the process of conversion/sanctification. Some days and seasons are penitential ("Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!") while others celebrate the work that God has already accomplished and is bringing to completion. It, like the stained-glass windows of cathedrals, was part of the catechesis of the faithful.

    There is an “architecture of the Faith” in which our beliefs and practices are structured into a coherent whole. Clearly some things belong to the foundation while others belong to the windows and tracery.

    Why “either/or” rather than “both/and”?
    2. Part of the genius of the Great Tradition of Christianity is that it is more often both/and rather than either/or. Christ was both God and man, we are both spirit and body, etc. We do not have to choose between taking up our cross every day of the year and honoring other days as particularly special. One does not cancel out the other.

    Matt is being consistent
    3. I may be mistaken, but I believe that the Puritans and many of the Reformed churches rejected all aspects of the liturgical year. One might ask to what extend the PCA has drifted from its Reformation heritage in its celebration of selected parts of the liturgical year.

    Much more could be said from a theological and historical perspective, but I should probably stop here.

    Alleluia, Christ is risen!
    The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia! Alleluia!


  10. I never was the world's best Calvinist.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

  11. I spent Easter morning with my wife and boys reading Isaiah 53 and I Corinthians 15. Does that count for anything?


    P.S. I think my boys liked it a lot better than sitting through a long church service.

  12. Yes, it counts toward completion of the requirement found in Deut. 11.18-21.

    "Long" is in the mind of the beholder, of course, but I do think church services have something to offer, as well.

    You know me: "Mr. Balance"

  13. Ron,

    Thanks for chiming in. Could you say a bit about why you chose to celebrate Easter in the way that you did?


  14. Dear Bloggers;
    Boethius asked me to elaborate on our Easter celebration. For a little background, my sons haven't gone to a formal church service for several years. We are involved with what could best be described as a home church, comprised of architects I work with who are at various stages in their journey towards Jesus. This is really their only venue for entering into a dialog with the Bible. Some are reading it for the first time.
    I tell people who are concerned that we "home church-school" our kids. Our decision to celebrate Easter in this way was really only an extension of what might do on any typical sunday. We did put a large enphasis on the coming back from the dead part, though.

    As a point last I quote the words of a dear friend, Paul, who wrote a letter to a band of believing Colossian home churches:

    So don’t let anyone condemn you for what you eat or drink, or for not celebrating certain holy days or new moon ceremonies or Sabbaths. For these rules are only shadows of the reality yet to come. And Christ himself is that reality... For he holds the whole body together with its joints and ligaments, and it grows as God nourishes it.

  15. Hello Ron,

    Thanks for giving us some background on your Easter celebration. The passage you quoted from Colossians is certainly relevant to this discussion. One way of reading that passage--ahistorically and out of context--would suggest that observing Sunday as a special day of worship (or suggesting that it "should" be observed) is to be avoided.

    I know that this is not what you intended.

    The context of this passage makes clear that the false teachers at Colossae were substituting man-made traditions for "the substance [which] belongs to Christ." Paul is exhorting the Colossians to hold fast to the Christological he passed on to them (given in the preceding verses 9-11). In the passage you cited, he is contrasting this Christ-centered way of thinking with false teaching that gives the "shadow" precedence over substance. (This is a clear echo of Galatians in which the relations between the moral law of Israel, grace, and the ceremonial laws of Israel are considered.)

    We know from the earliest writings of the Church (including Justin Martyr d. 165 AD) that the earliest Christians did assemble weekly (sometimes traveling great distances) to listen to readings from scripture, listen to a sermon, and celebrate the Eucharist. Normative celebrations of Easter and Christmas followed in the years thereafter. Only by ignoring the earliest history of the Church can we construe the passage from Colossians as a suggestion that Sundays and other holy days are unimportant or optional.

    Christian Worship and Pre-Christians
    It sounds like your home-church is a very interesting place. The early Church also made room for pre-Christians who were interested in the faith. The first half of the service (the introductory prayers, the readings, and the sermon were open to non-Christians. At the half-way point, these catechumens were dismissed to receive further instruction as they prepared for baptism on Easter. At that point the Christians continued with the Eucharist and other prayers. Clearly the early church made room for the pre-Christian but did not allow them to determine the structure or content of their worship. Understood objectively, our Faith (and its liturgical celebration) is something we receive, not something we construct to fit the tastes and comforts of those we hope to bring to that Faith.

    Please do not misunderstand my comments as a condemnation. There is clearly much that is good and redemptive going on in your home church. Perhaps more than in many other, more institutionalized settings.

    I hope you will take a moment and read Justin Martyr's description of Chrisitan worship on a Sunday (sometime before 165):
    Had the Church become (to quote Arnold) already become "wacked out and blatantly corrupt" by the year 165?


  16. Thanks Boethius;
    I don't want to imply in any way that we shouldn't celebrate Easter communally or formally. When I expressed our family celebration it was in response to Arnold's article which seemed a tad bit legalistic. The early Christians in Acts celebrated the sabbath.

    I go no further than to say the NT gives no mandate about observing any particular holiday or day of rest. It seems to me we are free to celebrate and remember the work of Jesus in the manner that best connects us with HIM.