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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Outside-Of-Us Stuff

If you are a Christian who has been faithfully engaging in the corporate worship of God, then hopefully, over the years, you have noticed that much of our religion, much of Christianity is external. The Spirit uses outside-of-us things to bring us into fellowship with Christ. Just think about the Gospel. It is a verbum ex auditu (an external word), that comes to us by another who is outside us, and it confronts and comforts us from the outside. As Paul says: “Faith comes by hearing; & hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10.17). Similarly, think of Baptism or the Lord’s Supper. They also are outside things that God pours out onto us as well.

None of this is a mistake, meaningless, or useless ritualistic rigmarole. God intentionally, purposefully establishes creaturely things to aid and guide His human creatures. To disdain the physical, creaturely rites for some form of “superior spirituality” is to slide, whether subtly or seriously, into the anti-cosmic, anti-creation, anti-historical, anti-human dualism of an escapist spirituality (For more on this, see my book, "Gnostic Trends in the Local Church"). But God, who made us, knows us better than we seem to know ourselves. We are, and will always be, grounded in the physical. Even when we die, our “bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves until the resurrection” (Westminster Shorter Catechism 37). So, physical religious rites are God’s gifts for our genuine good, if we will only receive them in faith with thanksgiving.

Nevertheless, these outside-of-us things are not meant to remain outside. Instead they are intended to get inside of us, as it were. They are “certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God’s good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken [enliven-MWP], but also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him” (“The Book of Common Prayer,” Articles of Religion, XXV). And so, by the “blessing of Christ, and the working of His Spirit in them that by faith receive them” (Westminster Shorter Catechism 91), they become instrumental in shaping and molding us from the inside-out, and become a God-intended part of the coordinates of our Map of Reality.

Therefore, as you reflect on what will happen once again this coming Sunday, recognize that all of that visual, audio, sensual stuff we call worship, is good for your soul, and is the way God normally works to beef up your sincerity and faith.



Greg Fields said...

Nicely said, Mike. I like the way the BCP and WCS state it. Yet, I do wonder if the language (i.e. invisibly) allows the kind of distance between the things and us, so that it's difficult to hear them outside of primarily inward categories. In other words, we still leap frog over the externals to get to the actually real stuff of the internal. Do we need more robust terms to keep from subordinating the externals in the wrong way?

Mike Philliber said...

Thanks Greg. Yes, I think you have a good point, and am a loss as to how to do that, other than saying these things within the experienced-context of Christian-communal worship. Any ideas????

Greg Fields said...

I'm thinking part of the answer may be found in locating the sense in which these external rites are means in a different place. One writer suggested that we talk about them sort of like sign posts directing us to something else. I would add that our talk also makes them sound like really weighty object lessons. If were, instead, to think of them in the same way we think of normal personal relations, we go in a different direction. We would never think of non-verbals (hand gestures, facial expressions, body movement) as externals that directed us to the soul of the person we are talking to. Nor would we consider sitting across from each other with eyes closed communicating via brainwaves as the ultimate goal in communcation. In an analagous way perhaps, we need to talk more about Word, water, bread and wine within the total context of worship as the non-verbal and verbal communication of the Triune God to His people.

Mike Philliber said...

I like the "verbal/non-verbal' idea. I think that just as holding hands with our kids or wives is a "signpost" of our love or enjoyment of them (relational, real, external-internal, et al), that's how we think of the sacraments - as well as the word read and preached. Funny how your comment made me just think of the hand-holding picture. I like it!

Greg Fields said...

Mike, you said holding hands was like a sign post. Actually, that is what I am arguing against. When you hold their hands, it is not directing you to a inward reality. Holding their hands IS the reality. The touch does not point to the "real" thing, the love you feel. It is YOU touching them and THEY touching you that is the thing itself. It is not a "sign post" but an expression of the personal reality. Eating at our Father's table is not a pointer to what He feels. That would mean sitting at the table but clsoing our eyes to go inside somewhere. We would be sitting but looking away somewhere else at the same time. What I'm wondering is this. Should we not sit at His table and know that this is His expression of love? He is really there embracing us in this meal, as much as you hold your wife's hand.

Mike Philliber said...

Greg, I put "sign post" in quotations, affirming your point.

Greg Fields said...

Oh, see . . . I knew that. I was just testing you. Man, I'm an idiot! I am, however, glad to hear you affirm it. I'm not always sure that I'm making sense with this.