“Across the Bridge” A Personal Reflection

We will come to the bridge in my title in due time, but it is a later piece of the story I want to tell tonight, so I will begin with an important book I read last summer while I was filling in as a guest preacher for my daughter during her maternity leave. Continue reading

“How then shall we speak of the atonement?” A Reflection for Good Friday

(This essay was first written in 1995 for my study of the atonement with Professor Richard Bauckham at St Andrews University in Scotland. It later appeared as a chapter in my book When I Survey the Wondrous Cross: Reflections on the Atonement. Some of the references, therefore, are dated.)

The Apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” The death of Jesus Christ was understood by the earliest church, not least by Paul himself, as a divine act of reconciliation between God and humanity. Which is to say that Christ’s death on the cross was understood from the beginning as an atoning death. Continue reading

“Unexpected Miracles” A Sermon on Isaiah 43: 16-21

Last spring, when your pastors Bruce and Barb invited me to come be with you I didn’t realize that I would be with you on a momentous day. For today is the 100th anniversary of the Armistice that ended The First World War on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. So before this service is over we will have reached that centenary. Continue reading

“The Community that Mercy Makes”

“Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” —1 Peter 2:10

The First Letter of Peter was written to encourage Christians in Asia Minor who were being persecuted for their faith. Most of them were Gentile converts to Christianity, and Peter reminds them that their inclusion in the church and in the promises of God was by an act of divine mercy made real by the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Continue reading

“Our Nation of Immigrants”

strangers“You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” —Deuteronomy 10:19

The various summaries of the law in the Bible include strangers as people to be especially cared for. Whether we call them sojourners, immigrants or aliens they need help because they are frequently socially powerless. Continue reading

My Top Ten Posts from 2016

cropped-winter-11Once again as the old year passes and the new year beckons, it is my custom to look back at my most popular posts of the year. Some years a theme emerges, and this year it is the passing of old friends and mentors. Three of my professors from seminary died within a few weeks of each other early in the year, and my tributes to and remembrances of them were among the most popular posts.

Here in order are the most visited new posts from 2016:

A Prayer for Christmas (and for our time) from Karl Barth

A Tribute to Meredith Brook “Jerry” Handspicker 1932-2016

“Of Fig Trees and Second Chances” A Sermon on Luke 13:6-9

Remembering William L. Holladay

Let us not treat this wound too lightly. Reconciliation requires repentance

Mike Maguire and Me: Recollections from Long Ago

“Rich in Things and Poor in Soul” A Sermon on Luke 12:13-21

A tribute to Max L. Stackhouse

“Holy Weeping’ A Sermon on Romans 12:19 and Revelation 21:1-4

“Known knowns, known unknowns,” and the New Testament

As in previous years certain posts have had real staying power. Many of these are sermons that desperate preachers found on search engines. For example, my sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent was the number one entry if you Googled “Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent.” Consequently, I saw extraordinary spikes in traffic the week before.

So here are my all-time top ten posts since I started “When I Survey . . .” in 2009:

Why did Jesus refer to Herod as “That fox” in Luke 13:32”?

“Rejoice! Rejoice!” A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent

“Prayer for a Retired Pastor“

God Gives the Growth,” A Retirement Sermon

“The Lord Will Provide:” A Sermon on Genesis 22

“There is nothing to be afraid of!” A Sermon on Psalm 27:1-2

An Ordination Sermon: The Secret Sauce of Ministry. A Recipe in Two Parts

“God With Us” A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

“Behind Locked Doors” A Sermon on John 20:24

“The Message of the Cross” A Sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:23-25

Another milestone for this blog is that it reached 100 followers this year. So I thank you all for your interest and support. Come back and visit now and again in 2017.

My Book on the Atonement

CoverThe Christian doctrine of Atonement has long been a theological preoccupation of mine, which may seem strange since I didn’t come out of an Evangelical background, where this is a central concern.

I was blessed to have sabbaticals from the pastorate at three iconic British universities, Oxford, St Andrews, and Cambridge, where I read and wrote about this subject.

Out of those experiences came a number of journal articles and this book of essays. I have been heavily influenced by the thought of the British theologian P.T. Forsyth, and many of the chapters in this book focus on his theology.

The book was published in 2000 by Pickwick Press, which later became part of Wipf and Stock Publishers, who re-issued the book in 201o, for which I am grateful.  It is a humble little book that traces my attempt to come to grips with this vexing doctrine. It has an extraordinary foreword  by the estimable Gabriel Fackre, which I think alone makes the book worth having.

Wipf and Stock is currently having a 40% off sale until May 1, so if you are interested in obtaining this book, now is the time. You can go to the link here.

“The God of the Far Off” Toward the Ministry of Inclusion

Prodigal sonWhat an extraordinary week this has been for our country! The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth liked to admonish the church that it must read both the Bible and the newspaper, because we Christians live in the world.

And what a week of news it was! There were two historic Supreme Court decisions that will change our national life in significant, and in my opinion, profoundly positive, ways.

On Thursday, by a 6-3 decision, the Court upheld the Affordable Care Act, which makes health care available to all Americans.

And on Friday, by a 5-4 decision, Marriage Equality became the law of the land.

The reason I am here before you instead of our pastor Brent Damrow is that he is in Cleveland at the General Synod of the United Church of Christ, representing the Massachusetts Conference. I am sure he will have stories to tell about the celebrations taking place there, as our national church has been a long and tireless advocate for equal rights for the LGBT community and a supporter  of marriage equality.

I believe that these two historic Supreme Court decisions share a common idea, and that is the idea of “inclusion.”

And a third extraordinary event in our national life also happened on Friday. President Obama climbed into the bully pulpit in Charleston, South Carolina to give the eulogy for the Honorable Reverend Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of the Emmanuel AME Church who, along with eight of his congregants, was murdered by a gunman while attending a Bible study at the church on June 17.

President Obama gave a stirring eulogy for Pastor Pinkney, but he was addressing not only those present, but also the nation. I’d like to share with you some excerpts of his eulogy:

The alleged killer could not imagine how the city of Charleston . . . .the state of South Carolina, how the United States of America would respond — not merely with revulsion at his evil act, but with big-hearted generosity and, more importantly, with a thoughtful introspection and self-examination that we so rarely see in public life.

Blinded by hatred, he (the alleged murderer) failed to comprehend what Reverend Pinckney so well understood — the power of God’s grace . . .

This whole week, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace . . .

According to the Christian tradition, grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It’s not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. Grace.

As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind. He has given us the chance, where we’ve been lost, to find our best selves. We may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor and complacency, and short-sightedness and fear of each other — but we got it all the same. He gave it to us anyway. He’s once more given us grace. But it is up to us now to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude, and to prove ourselves worthy of this gift.

Martha and I were driving to Onota Lake in Pittsfield for a walk on Friday when the President’s eulogy came on the radio. We got to the parking lot at the boat ramp, but we didn’t get out of the car. We sat in the car until it was over, and when it was over I had tears streaming from my eyes.

The President was addressing the painful facts of racial relations in today’s America. He mentioned that in response to the massacre at the church the Confederate flag had been taken down in the South Carolina capitol and elsewhere. That flag, he said, was a symbol of our nation’s “original sin,” slavery.

The president had both the Bible and the newspaper in mind as he gave this incandescent speech. I don’t know of such a theologically astute presidential address since Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural.

And once again I would argue that inclusion is the big idea that binds all these events together. Inclusion.

I believe in the power of ideas to shape societies, and, as my teacher, mentor and friend, Max Stackhouse taught me, to examine where they come from and what they mean. So I want to do a little bit of that with you today about the idea of inclusion. Continue reading

“The Message of the Cross” A Sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:23-25

Iona crossA minister friend and mentor of mine, Herb Davis, once told me that every preacher has only one sermon in him, or her. According to Herb, every Sunday the preacher serves up that one sermon in a variety of ways. It may look like a different sermon, but at the heart of it, there’s just the one!

When I was growing up my family always had some sort of a roast at Sunday dinner, which was usually served in the middle of the day after we came home from church. Then the remains of that roast would reappear in various guises throughout the week. For example, let’s say it was a pork roast. The roast might reappear on Monday night in a soup, and on Tuesday night as my Dad’s signature roast pork chop suey and so on. So is that really the way it is? Do the people of God get fed leftovers every Sunday?

I hope not. I think what Herb was saying is that every preacher’s one basic sermon provides the core convictions out of which that preacher delivers the Gospel. And if Herb is right about the one-sermon theory, than I suppose today’s epistle lesson would have to be the text for my one sermon. Let’s hear it again: Paul writes, “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger that human strength.” (I Corinthians 1: 23-25)

This is what Paul calls the message of the cross. Paul believed that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah and that God raised him from the dead. The cross on which Jesus had died became for him the symbol of that Good News of God’s vast unconditional love for all humankind. Paul believed that in Christ’s dying and rising two important new things had occurred. First, there was now a new age of God’ activity, and, secondly, there was now a new community, the church, made up of both Jews and Gentiles. Continue reading

Willis Elliott on Atonement vs. Reconciliation


My friend and Confessing Christ co-conspirator Willis Elliot, who is a polymath, Biblical language scholar, churchman, provocateur, nonagenarian, and a long-time interlocutor, is the guest poster today.

I asked, somewhat rhetorically, in an earlier post why so many in the church like the word reconciliation, but do not like the word atonement, even though they translate the same Greek word (Katallage)?  My answer was that reconciliation is something that we need to do, and atonement is something only God does, and that we tend to prefer the things we have control over rather over the work of God in Christ, not that they are in any way unrelated.

Willis’ response (on the Confessing Christ Open Discussion), as per usual, was thick with insightful word study, and is not for the faint of heart.  But you atonement scholars and fans who visit this blog, and you know who you are, will find his insights useful.
Willis writes:

“ON TARGET, man!  “Reconciliation is something that we need to do, and atonement is something only God does.”

Katallage – the word you mention as for both – had, as its street-meaning, money-exchange. No matter how high & wide a plant grows, it never loses the reality of its SOIL: no matter how diversified the meanings of a word (its “semantic domain”) become, it never loses its contact with the STREET (by which I mean its origin in common, earthly life).

Now, Rick, I’m probably about to tell you nothing you (an “atonement” scholar) don’t know. I’ll call it “How to access [enter into] a word.”

Back to the plant metaphor: first, I want to know the ROOT(s) of the word. Kat[a]-all-ag-e is the action (ag) of interchange (kata) with another (all-os). Second, I want to know the STREET meaning(s): (1) money-exchange, commerce, business; (2) the change from enmity to friendship; reconciliation, restoration. Finally, I want to know the CHURCH meaning(s) – “church” in the broad sense of special, particular.

The Greek general & Christian lexicons note a special Christian meaning of katallage: reconciliation with God through Christ, at the divine initiative (“by God alone,” & therefore “received” [*lamban-*] as a gift by believers – believing receivers). / But I found none using “atonement”: that technical word seems limited to Greek theological dictionaries. The Eng. wd. (says Mer.-Web. Online) – earliest, 1513 – meant “reconciliation” (now obsolete); means “the reconciliation of God and humankind through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ”; & (3rd meaning), “reparation, satisfaction.”

Synonomies expand from verbal “semantic domains” to conceptual domains answering the question What word-group relates the word-meanings to what “central truth” (the phrase on p271 of R.C.Trench’s Synonyms of the NT (1854; my copy, 1906). In article lxxvii, he’s discussing apolytrosis/katallage/hilasmos– “three grand circles [or ‘families’] of images” of the Cross’ verbally “inestimable benefits.” “Scripture . . . approach(es) the central truth from different quarters,” which “supply the deficiences of one another.”

The article is six pages, assumes a reading knowledge of Latin, & uses extensively the Greek & Latin Fathers. Here, I’ll only mention the first word (redeeming from captivity through payment of a ransom; cessation of bondage from sin as slavery) & the last (Christ as both “priest and sacrifice” propitiation: it’s “richer” than katallage – which states only THAT we enemies have become God’s friends: hilasmos explains HOW this came about [“satisfaction, propitiation, the Daysman, the Mediator, the High Priest”]). / Now for the middle word, KATALLAGE – reconciliation (“the making up of a foregoing enmity”); “atonement” in its original sense (but it has come to have the full meaning of hilasmos: propitiation). (For the meaning-change, Trench refers to Skeat’s Etymological Dictionary of the English Language.)  Rick, I’ve hit the high spots of Trench’s article, which uses Greek/Latin/German. A classic widely-deeply researched & profoundly thought through, written while carrying on his day-work as an Anglican archbishop!

Trench’s article fights those who want so to translate these words as to delete “the wrath of God.” Today, we have to fight what you well call a “bloodless theology.” Not just “God is love,” but (as a Methodist pastor, a niece of mine, wrote me a few days ago), “God is only love” (her description of the theology of the BOM [Board of Ordained Ministry] on which she serves). Said she to me, “when [against that narrowness] I mentioned obedience, sacrifice, and accountability,” there was “only silence.” “Few speak on behalf of the Scriptures, . . . honoring the Lord, who has so graciously given them [the Scriptures] to us.” / If God is “only love,” he’s not fully personal, with the full moral sense & full range of emotions. Note how Trench (156 years ago!) insists that without God’s wrath, theology trivializes sin, which is no longer an enmity against God setting God in enmity against sinners.

In katallage, God “laid aside his holy anger against our sins, and received us into favour, a reconciliation effected for us once for all by Christ upon his cross” (p273; the “secondary” meaning is that we are “daily,” “under the operation of the Holy Spirit,” to dispose of “the enmity of the old man [within us] toward God”: “‘Be ye reconciled with God‘ [2Cor.5.20]”). The anti-wrath-of-God crowd make the secondary meaning primary “to get rid of the reality of God’s anger against the sinner,” & “sin as a state of enmity (echthra) with God (Ro.8.7; Eph.2.15; Jam.4.4), and sinners as enemies to Him and alienated from Him (Ro.5.10; Col.1.21; which sets forth Christ on the cross as the Peace, and the maker of peace between God and man (Eph.2.14; Col.1.20).” On pp275-6, Trench goes into detail (with a flood of texts!) on the NT deleting of blood sacrifice for the appeasement of deity: “priest and sacrifice,” previously divided, were “united in Him, the sin-offering by and through whom the just anger of God against our sins was appeased, and God, without compromising his righteousness, enabled to show Himself propitious to us once more. All this the word hilasmos, used of Christ, declares.” (Hilasmos is sacral, its context sacrificial; katallage is only reconciliation-restoration, without the later sacral meaning of “atonement.”)

(Thank you Willis. Used by his permission.)