On Behalf of the Ox

Today was a full day for me, with committee work in the morning, then preaching and mass, then a course planning meeting over lunch, then the NT II field trip to the library. I was a little stressed out about the sermon, as it falls into the category of “things I wish I had more time to work out,” but the service went fine.

Margaret left today (or rather, she’s waiting to take off at Midway as I type). A two-day visit doesn’t accomplish everything a longer stay might, but it beats another five weeks of separation.

Anderson Chapel of St. John the Divine

Wis 7:7-14/Ps 37:3-6, 32-33/Matt 13:47-52
Thomas Aquinas, January 29, 2006


Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.

In the name of God Almighty, the Holy Trinity on high — Amen.

Yes, but when this householder brings out the new and old things, what does she do with them? I trust that we heirs of the Anglican tradition can agree that the new and old were not ordained of Christ simply to be gazed upon or carried about, but that we should duly use them. (For the benefit of those who haven’t yet studied their Reformation church history, that’s the way that the Church of England’s Articles of Religion characterize the proper role of the sacraments.) We should duly use the new and the old, and the question of what counts as “duly using” can’t be resolved in advance by a particular rubric or canon, not by a text from Scripture or a codicil in the Seabury Customary (not even in Ritual Notes). Our manner of duly using new and old in our life together depends on the capacity to discern what befits our common life, what strengthens, what conserves, and what glorifies God.

It does us no good to try to suppress the new; newness, as the gospel stories remind us, is a gift from God and a defining characteristic of Jesus’ effective presence. He brings a new teaching, with authority; he offers new wine in new wineskins; he brings us into unity with God through a new covenant; and these number only a few of the new blessings made known to us in Jesus. Newness surprises the church, disrupts the church, infuses and invigorates the church, but newness never departs from the church. In that sense, the hymn text gets things quite wrong when it suggests that the church is beset by change, as though change were an unwelcome imposition upon Jesus’ disciples. Contrariwise, the church of God in every age embraces change, insofar as those changes bespeak the Spirit’s salutary activity.

We embrace the Spirit’s life-giving renewal of the church, as the gift of new life does not annihilate the old, nor annul it, but brings the old and familiar to us afresh. The householder brings out new things along with old; that which seems unnervingly daring today may look horribly staid a few years hence, and that which seemed unendurably ancient may have preserved for us vitally important resources for our adapting along with the church. When Thomas re-introduced Aristotelian philosophy to the church, rival theologians attacked him as a dangerous radical; this morning, he may seem to you more like a fusty old stick-in-the-mud. Neither of these perspectives pays fitting attention to the care with which Thomas interwove Scripture and doctrine, philosophy and spirituality, into a banner that boldly announces the glory of God, the integrity of creation, the Spirit’s wisdom and the saving grace of Jesus Christ our Lord.

That integration of old and new comes to visual expression in the image of the “Triumph of St. Thomas.” In a typical version of this image, Francesco Traini represents Thomas receiving messages from apostles and evangelists, from Plato and Aristotle, directly from Jesus! — and he reflects that wisdom from the pages of the book he displays in his lap, transmitting that to the multitudes who gather at his feet. And as a matter of interest, the text he displays reads is not (as in our window) the Summa Theologica, “Veritatem mediabitur guttur meum, et labia mea detestabuntur impium”: “My mouth will speak truth, and impiety is detestable to my lips” — he quotes from Proverbs 8:7.

In this illustration, the new is the old, the old is made new. That, sisters and brothers, is who Jesus is — Wisdom begotten, Truth proceeding from the Father, and the image of the invisible God. And here at the table, here in our classrooms, we grow into that image, deepening our capacity to receive from of old and to transmit what is new, receiving adoption as children of God while we grow up into the full stature of that Christ. Duly using old and new treasures, discerning the role of our inheritance and our innovation, we immerse ourselves in Wisdom’s radiance, welcoming God’s glory in our lives, and showing it forth transformed as particular intimations of the One True Wisdom.


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