As the sweater began to unravel…

February 4, 2017 Leave a comment

CS Lewis and Chesterton wrote in a time when modernism and the Enlightenment Prohect began to unravel.  I say this because the seeds of post-Modernity were already sewn by Nietzsche and would hit teenage maturity at Woodstock.  

“But the Nietzschean ethic can be accepted only if we are ready to scrap traditional morals as a mere error and then to put ourselves in a position where we can find no ground for any value judgments at all. It is the difference between a man who says to us, ‘you like your vegetables moderately fresh; why not grow your own and have them perfectly fresh?’ And a man who says, ‘Throw away that loaf and try eating bricks and centipedes instead.'” 

C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man

My Last New Years’ Sermon

Rev. Joseph Johnson | New Year’s Day: 1-1-12 | Rock Presbyterian Church

St. Luke 2:15-21: A New Name

 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” [16] And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. [17] And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. [18] And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. [19] But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. [20] And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. [21] And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.


Prayer of Illumination:

MOST GRACIOUS GOD, our heavenly Father, in whom alone dwells all the fullness of light and wisdom; illumine our minds by your Holy Spirit in the true understanding of your Word; may He perform that mysterious work of conversion, conviction and calling– give us grace to receive the Word of Christ with reverence and humility that we be not just forgetful hearers but doers of the work it requires. For the grass withers and the flower fades, but the Word of our God shall stand forever; my heart I offer to you Lord, promptly and sincerely, Amen

I want to draw our attention today to the fact that while it is New year’s day, it is also the historic commemoration of the naming of Jesus by his parents, when he was circumcised at the Temple in accordance with Jewish Law and tradition. So the Christian church remembers this event today.

 The coming of Jesus into human history, the incarnation of God as a man in the womb of his Virgin Mother has been the central event in our historical self-consciousness and our historical record. The Christ event changed the western calendar forever and altered the way we in the West have understood history.

Our text today has several themes that I want to touch on—obedience of the shepherds, angels, Jesus’ mother and adopted father; the faithfulness and humility of Mary; the changed lives of the shepherds and their unfettered open praise to God for his faithful keep of his promise.

 Luke you may remember is writing this Gospel to the Romans to demonstrate that the movement surrounding Jesus is not simply another Jewish sect nor is it a political threat to Rome—as such.   

Indeed, the Christians proclaimed a King, but a King whose Kingdom is not of this world and as we said last week, his politics are vastly different from that of the nations.  One conquers the world by serving it—and hence the known world was conquered by Christ by the 4th century, as the Roman Empire eventually became the Holy Roman Empire.

Luke records, When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”

 Luke tells us in the previous verses: And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. [9] And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. [10] And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. (Luke 2:8-10)

 The angel Gabriel came to Joseph and Mary by the will of God announcing strange events that were to take place in ancient Palestine. They were obedient to deliver the message in answer to the prayers prayed by God’s people for centuries to send them a deliverer, like young Daniel the prophet interceding for God’s people when the angel Gabriel comes to bring the answer to his prayer.

 Over 483 prophecies in the Hebrew Bible alone to prepare God’s people for the arrival of the moshiach, God’s Messiah and who should hear the grand announcement from the royal descent? Poor people. Shepherds, the lowliest on the kosher totem pole. Getting their livelihood from tending dirty animals. Indeed, the politics of God to give to the poor the news that makes them richer than the wealthiest man.

 So they make haste as fast as shepherds can, not to mention bringing their livelihood and all the smells with them. They hear the message of the angel and immediately want to see their king.  

 [16] And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. [17] And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. [18] And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. [19] But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. [20] And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

 There it is; prophecy enfleshed; almighty power wrapped in helpless humanity; the creator of all things created in the womb of his Virgin Mother.

 It’s all true! They see the baby and his parents. So they cannot keep it inside—they tell them all of what they had heard from the angels and Mary and Joseph relay the strange news that they have heard and unveil the baby that parted the red sea for Moses and gave him the 10 commandments.

 And what did his mother do? She took notes in her mental scrapbook…she would have stories to tell as Jesus grew up. Hers was always a posture of resignation to the will of God. What our lives could be like if we were quick to believe and less to question.

 So the Shepherds were changed; good news had been preached to the poor; they carried with them more wealth than the oiliest sheik in Saudi Arabia. How would they do business? How would they treat their enemies? How would they respond to the trials and tests of faith in their lives now that they had seen with their own eyes the Word of God enfleshed? They were no longer mere shepherds, they were converts to a new era of history; citizens of a far country and now messengers of a heavenly story.

 [21] And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

 His parents were obedient to God and presented him in the Temple to the priest to be named and circumcised according to the tradition and law of Moses. This is why it is often asked of parents who present their children for baptism, what is the Christian name of their child. The assumption like Mary and Joseph is that we too as the people of God will present our children to the Lord; to be marked by him and set apart form other children, as 1 Cor. 7 indicates. Not simply a dedication though that is part of it.

 The Churches of the Reformation maintained the Christian practice of baptizing infants as the visible Gospel; that helpless little one washed in transforming grace; helpless and lost in sin and in need of a savior and in no condition apart from God’s grace to save to obtain or possess any merit on their own.

 Let it suffice to say that our confession mirroring Holy Scripture assumes that adult converts who have not been baptized will indeed do so of their own will, but the Westminster Confession teaches that the children of believers are holy – as Paul writes in 1 Cor. 7; hence, they should receive the sign of conversion—namely baptism, as they are part of the new covenant and heirs of the promises of God to Christian families.

 As Jesus was set apart and named, so we do the same with our own children and present them to God to be marked and sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism. And in that act, they cross from Adam to Christ; from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light, for as heirs to the promise of eternal life they become joint heirs with Jesus Christ as they have union with him in the visible church.

 As 1 Peter 3.21 indicates, Baptism, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, or as we say every Sabbath for our assurance of pardon from Romans 6, Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? [4] We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

 Calvin observed the normal means by which God builds the church is in the baptizing of infants, whose election as much as your own is known only to God; for we distinguish between those nominal members of the visible church and the elect of God, known by God and only by God; we however can know a Christian only nominally by their profession or confession; by their belief or their baptism.

 Those of us that know Christ today, have been given new names, inscribed as David wrote in the palm of God’s hand. Our lives have been altered and changed. We do not view history the same; we do not view life with the same banal cynicism of unbelievers. God has converted us and sealed us in baptism—we are marked by him in a world that scorns him.

 As we have entered 2012, God can transform you too. Like the shepherds who saw Jesus, we too have been given a promise by Jesus who said the one who believes without having seen him is more blessed. Your past year or years may have been filled with challenges or setbacks, but God can redeem the times and often does when we are unaware of it.

 Re-claim your baptism; remember to what and tow whom it points—namely Jesus Christ your namesake, for you are called Christian, a Greek term of derision, for they thought the Jesus followers were ignorant. A Christian, a little Christ—do people know you as such? Or would they be shocked to find out?


 ALMIGHTY GOD, FATHER SON AND HOLY SPIRIT, as we have embarked on a new calendar year in our country, we may have regrets or memories we would just as soon forget from 2011. May we turn our eyes heavenward to get a glimpse of that glorious sight—the babe born in the manger has been exalted to the right hand of God. And if we know him, we shall share in such a glorious treasure, to be united with Christ forever, where nothing can separate us from your presence. Remind us O Lord that we are yours and we have been given a lifetime of second chances, for Christ has come and done for us what we bound in the fetters of our sins could not do, through Jesus Christ our Lord who lives and reigns in the unity of the Godhead, world without end, amen.

Categories: Holidays, Rock Church, Sermons

The Ol Troubadour 

December 23, 2016 Leave a comment

Ok, so I’m being reflective.  It’s the eve of Christmas Eve, or like a friend said earlier, it must be Christmas Adam.  My wife and I were reminiscing about a song (“Troubadour” by George Strait) by a dear friend – Hack Bartley, who described it as the story of his life.  I miss Hack.  His voice, talent, laugh, smokes, songs, music – especially saxophone – fish fries and hospitality.  Hack and I were sitting around the fire at Hobby Horse farms.  Folk had gone inside Jake and Lainee’s to get some eats.  Hack dragged his Marlboro, sipped a bud light and looked at me.  

We had been talkin religion and his wife Libby will tell anyone he was not one to jaw on about theology. I was no longer Rev. Johnson, a Presbyterian minister, but I was not a convinced Catholic either.  Hack said quite candidly after watching the flames dance around, “You ought to seriously consider becoming Catholic; it was the best decision I ever made.”  Silence insued and he walked inside.  Like the song says, Hack has made a name and his influence on so many lingers and, as a Catholic knows well, he’s not gone…
“I was a young troubador, When I wrote in on a song. And I’ll be an old troubador when I’m gone…”

Categories: Catholicism, Uncategorized

Luther: the Real Ubermensche?

October 12, 2016 Leave a comment

The crazy thing is anyone familiar with the development, history and genealogy of ideas or knowledge to borrow from Foucault, knows well the hostility of the liberalism/ humanism of post- scholasticism. Of Dewey’s and Mann’s disdain of Catholicism and the humanist agenda to rid public education of its influence… in the 1930s, when pragmatism was born. It is not new, it’s just now on capital hill and in every major palace of influence. Pragmatism isolates religion to the mythological and demands it’s privatization, for there is only one god and it is Caesar; the divine state has more power than Nietzsche’s autonomous ubermensche. Chesterton accused Luther of being the progenitor of modernity. Ironically, the major philosophical turns in the spiral of western civilization to oblivion have all been Lutheran: Kant, Kierkegaard, Hegel, Nietzsche and Foucault (a Lutheran sympathizer). What next?

Categories: Uncategorized

Islam According to Aquinas

October 10, 2016 Leave a comment

“He (Mohammed) seduced the people by promises of carnal pleasure to which the concupiscence of the flesh urges us. His teaching also contained precepts that were in conformity with his promises, and he gave free rein to carnal pleasure. In all this, as is not unexpected; he was obeyed by carnal men. As for proofs of the truth of his doctrine, he brought forward only such as could be grasped by the natural ability of anyone with a very modest wisdom. Indeed, the truths that he taught he mingled with many fables and with doctrines of the greatest falsity.

He did not bring forth any signs produced in a supernatural way, which alone fittingly gives witness to divine inspiration; for a visible action that can be only divine reveals an invisibly inspired teacher of truth. On the Contrary, Mohammed said that he was sent in the power of his arms – which are signs not lacking even to robbers and tyrants. What is more, no wise men, men trained in things divine and human, believed in him from the beginning (1). Those who believed in him were brutal men and desert wanderers, utterly ignorant of all divine teaching, through whose numbers Mohammed forced others to become his follower’s by the violence of his arms. Nor do divine pronouncements on part of preceding prophets offer him any witness. On the contrary, he perverts almost all the testimony of the Old and the New Testaments by making them into a fabrication of his own, as can be seen by anyone who examines his law. It was, therefore, a shrewd decision on his part to forbid his followers to read the Old and New Testaments, lest these books convict him of falsity. It is thus clear that those who place faith in his words believe foolishly.” – 

Summa Contra Gentiles, Book 1, Chapter 16, Art. 4. Footnote: 1. Sura 21:5, Sura 44:14; Sura 16:103, Sura 37:36

Categories: Uncategorized

The Experiment has Failed

Being principled is hard.  It stinks in fact.  It leads to the most miserable disappointments in yourself and others.  Link it to an idealism of sorts that often crashes in self sacrifice at the feet of utilitarianism, having been shackled by the most practical and pathetic of reasons.

Being principled brings perpetual misunderstanding and disappointment to yourself by those who just can’t see why you won’t “get on board.”

Idealists are those who are wild-eyed enough, starry-eyed enough and passionate enough to self-sacrifice or self-destruct for what is right; who just can’t understand those that cave for the practical.  If it is right: do it.  If it is just and few be there that see it, so what.  I could go on.  Revolutions are started by the willful idealists; societal structures are changed and mores altered by philosophers who pursue the ends because they are right.  Which brings me to my last point.

In the wake of the enlightenment, when truth, morals and religion become hazy and indiscernible in the subjective opinions of the individual, doing and believing the “right” is difficult.  And that is another topic.  

In my era, an era of gross compromise with pragmatism, the words of Chesterton ring true, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”  Jesus said, “Obedience is better than sacrifice” and “Narrow is the way that leads to life and few be they that find it.”

The American Experiment has failed miserably.

Evangelical Catholicism

     The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe (Romans 1.16), and the Church’s mission to the nations begins with Christ’s clarion call to conversion: “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Gospel.” (Mark 1.15)

     By our Baptism we are called to receive the Gospel as a complete, coherent, comprehensive Way of Life; in other words, we are called to be disciples, or students, of the Lord Jesus. And to live as true disciples of Christ, everything about us must be measured and guided by the Gospel: our thoughts, words, deeds, relationships, spending habits, political convictions, religious beliefs, leisure activities, lifestyle choices, business decisions … in sum, everything. But this total surrender to Christ is not a restriction of our freedom; rather, this is the evangelical freedom of the children of God — not the license to do whatever we want but the liberty to do everything we should. As the Lord Jesus teaches, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8.32)
     Since the end of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, four popes have summoned the entire Church to the work of the New Evangelization. Blessed Paul VI, Saint John Paul the Great, Benedict XVI, and Francis have all called us to announce the Gospel with new ardor, new methods, and new conviction, and another way of expressing our dedication to the work of the New Evangelization is to say that we must become Evangelical Catholics, which in turn means that we must let go of all false catholicisms (e.g. cafeteria, casual and cultural catholicism) by accepting the liberating truth of the Word of God and living by grace through faith in the Son of God. Being Evangelical Catholics requires that we know the Gospel, believe the Gospel, live the Gospel, and share the Gospel with others, and this begins and ends for us in the sacred liturgy, the source and summit of the Church’s life. Then what begins in prayer finds expression in our service of those in need and our witness in the public square to the liberating truth of the Word of God. Right worship, right belief, and right living are the most compelling testimony we can offer to the world that the Son of Mary is the Son of God, and we can grow stronger in that public witness by following these Eight Principles of Evangelical Catholicism which lead us to radical conversion, deep fidelity, joyful discipleship and courageous evangelism.

1. The Lord Jesus is the crucified and risen Savior of all mankind, and no human person can fully understand his life or find his dignity and destiny apart from an authentic friendship with the Lord Jesus. It is not enough to know who Jesus is; we must know Jesus.

2. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is divine revelation, not human wisdom, and the Gospel is given to us in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition which together constitute a single divine deposit of faith transmitted authentically and authoritatively by the Bishops in full communion with the Bishop of Rome. We must surrender our private judgments in all matters of faith and morals to the magisterium or sacred teaching office of the Church if we are to receive the whole Gospel.

3. The seven Sacraments of the New Covenant are divinely instituted instruments of grace given to the Church as the ordinary means of sanctification for believers. Receiving the Sacraments regularly and worthily is essential to the life of grace, and for this reason, faithful attendance at Sunday Mass every week (serious illness and necessary work aside) and regular Confession of sins are absolutely required for a life of authentic discipleship.

4. Through Word and Sacrament we are drawn by grace into a transforming union with the Lord Jesus, and having been justified by faith we are called to sanctification and equipped by the Holy Spirit for the good works of the new creation. We must, therefore, learn to live as faithful disciples and to reject whatever is contrary to the Gospel, which is the Good News of the Father’s mercy and love revealed in the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

5. The sacred liturgy, through which the seven Sacraments are celebrated and the Hours of praise are prayed, makes present to us the saving mysteries of the Lord Jesus. The liturgy must therefore be celebrated in such a way that the truth of the Gospel, the beauty of sacred music, the dignity of ritual form, the solemnity of divine worship, and the fellowship of the baptized assembled to pray are kept together in organic unity.

6. Receiving the Sacraments without receiving the Gospel leads to superstition rather than living faith, and the Church must therefore take great care to ensure that those who receive the Sacraments also receive the Gospel in its integrity and entirety. Consequently, before Baptism, Confirmation, the Holy Eucharist, and Marriage are administered, there must be in those who request these Sacraments clear evidence of knowledge of the Gospel and a serious intention to lead the Christian life.

7. Being a follower of Christ requires moving from being a Church member by convention to a Christian disciple by conviction. This transformation demands that we consciously accept the Gospel as the measure of our entire lives, rather than attempting to measure the Gospel by our experience. Personal knowledge of and devotion to Sacred Scripture is necessary for this transformation to occur through the obedience of faith, and there is no substitute for personal knowledge of the Bible. Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.

8. All the baptized are sent in the Great Commission to be witnesses of Christ to others and must be equipped by the Church to teach the Gospel in word and deed. An essential dimension of true discipleship is the willingness to invite others to follow the Lord Jesus and the readiness to explain his Gospel.

For a deeper exploration of these ideas, please read George Weigel’s excellent book Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st Century Church.

Father Jay Scott Newman
Pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church (Greenville, SC)