Charismata Vs. Group-Think

GroupThink

In the early 1970’s my family attended a Christian camp in Georgia named CFO. The major attractions were famous non-denominational Bible Teachers. One of them was a very well educated Englishman named Derek Prince. He was a World War II veteran, a world traveler and a captivating speaker. His English accent only added to his credibility as a teacher. He had two major themes to his ministry, one was intercessory prayer and the other was demonic deliverance.

On one occasion I heard him give a long biblical exposition on casting out devils and then he called the congregation to prayer and he began naming and casting out spirits. The entire room broke into chaos. People were screaming and coughing and some had to be physically restrained. I remained for some time in prayer but I recall leaving the meeting confused. I did not understand how that many committed Christians could be filled with demons, but filled they must have been because Derek called them out by the scores. It did not make theological sense to me that Christians can be at the same time a temple of the Holy Spirit and demon possessed, and certainly not that many and all in the same place. Perhaps a few could be harassed and maybe even controlled, but that many possessed? I harbored doubts.

Adding to my doubts, I was studying psychology at the time and had seen films on the power of group-think. I learned of positive examples like the high the crowd gets at a rock concert and negative examples as evidenced in the hypnotic speeches of Hitler and Mussolini, captivating crowds for hours.

In group-think the critical thinking skills of an individual are suspended, resulting in the greater unity of the group and giving the individual a transcendent experience as they become united with the group. It is the high a fan feels leaving a sporting event, particularly if his team wins. The unity experienced is so great that the fan will share in the victory of the team even though his feet never touched the field.

The danger of exchanging critical thinking for a transcendent experience is that the actions of the group could be wrong but not recognized as such by the group. It is the lynch mob mentality. As a group they are convinced that they are doing the right thing but if you remove individuals from the group it is much easier to convince the individual that such actions are unjust. It is the herd mentality you see when the televangelist waves his jacket and entire section of the crowd falls over or the trance like state Hare Krishna worshippers experience through their repetitive chants.

Looking back on my experiences at CFO I believe that much of it was attributable to group-think. Through intense worship together and being captivated by a gifted speaker many experienced group-think, suspended individual critical thinking and had a transcendent experience. The emotions experienced were genuine, but because it was a religious setting the emotions were attributed to the Holy Spirit. They would not have done so if they had these feelings at a sporting event or a political rally.

I certainly do believe that the gifts of the Spirit operate today. I also believe that spiritual warfare is real and that there is a role for exorcism but it is all too easy to overemphasize both the gifts and the warfare. Once I was at a clergy conference and passed by two clerics in prayer. One was laying hands the other and casting a “spirit of hangover” out of the other. I thought to myself, “He doesn’t need deliverance from a spirit, he needs to repent of drunkenness.”

I have also witnessed “gifts” used to control others through what claimed to be prophecies and words of knowledge. On another occasion I was invited to hear a “prophet” who after preaching had a personal word for everyone who wanted it. I sat up front so I could hear what he claimed to be prophecies. In the end every word he gave was positive and uplifting and there was not one time he rebuked someone for their sins. Unlike the prophets of the Bible he seemed simply to be a spiritual cheerleader. Just as I doubted there were that many demon possessed Christians at Camp CFO, I also doubted that there were that many saints at the prophet’s meeting.

Group-think can also dominate healing ministries. It is why it is so often accompanied by music both before and even during in order to create a vulnerable mood or atmosphere. When you add to that someone in authority claiming to sense a need in the room then group-think begins. As an Anglican priest I believe in healing. Unction is one of the Sacraments of the Church. But healing should be ministered in a sacramental manner and not in the context of group-think with manipulative music in the background.

When you read the healing ministries of the Apostles they frequently did so in the context of preaching that Jesus is the Christ. Then in His Name they lay on hands and prayed for healing. Never do you read of them saying, “Someone has a tumor somewhere in their body.” While some claim such an approach is operating in a word of knowledge, it is doubtful. Why would the Lord, if He were about to heal someone, be so vague? It comes across as a parlor game and is uncomfortably close to the charlatan’s technique, “Does the name George mean anything to you.” As Anglicans we anoint with consecrated oil, lay hands, pray and leave the results to the Lord. A rite for this is provided in The Book of Common Prayer.

If you watch the televangelists or see clips of movements like the “Toronto Blessing” it becomes obvious how easy it is to confuse the work of the Holy Spirit with group-think. Such confusion not only misrepresents God but can be spiritually, psychologically and even physically dangerous. For example if you quit taking your medicine because it has been prophesied that you are healed then it could have dire consequences. Such abuses also can be a stumbling block to the unbeliever. It is why St. Paul ended up writing two letters to the Corinthian church to bring them back into order.

Because of its power and its danger, it is important that we resist group-think from invading Anglicanism. But how do we avoid group-think and yet make room for the Holy Spirit to do His bidding? The answer across the ages, and across the world, has been in the liturgy. Liturgy brings order to the Church and prevents her from being misled and controlled by charismatic leaders. Because the liturgy points us to God and because the Rites of the Church as so heavily infused with Holy Scripture, there is plenty of room for the Holy Spirit to operate.

Jesus said that we are to worship God in Spirit and in truth. Liturgy points us to the truth and protects us from chasing feelings and drowning in a sea of subjectivity. I tell folks, only half jokingly, that in the Jesus Movement days if the worship was going flat, all we had to do was play something in D minor to make it sound Jewish and people would be convinced that the Holy Spirit just showed up. Liturgy protects the people from this kind of manipulation.

Liturgy is also a great unifier in the Church. In my experience, one thing done right in The Episcopal Church, was when we gathered at Convention we gathered around basic prayer book and hymnal worship. No doubt Charismatics left wishing the worship had been more spirited, Anglo Catholics missed their smells and bells, and Evangelicals longed for more expository preaching. But we all knew the same prayer book and we all knew the same hymns and that brought us together even during times of great differences.

As Anglicans we have such a rich liturgical heritage to offer the Body of Christ. In fact no one else has what we have to offer. The prayers of the prayer book set the bar so high that we could spend the rest of our lives making them become prayers that we incarnate. Therefore we should jealously guard our heritage and keep it from being diluted or hijacked by other traditions that are completely foreign to our beliefs and ethos. We need to uphold common worship through Common Prayer and the accepted Rites of the Church. I had a chance to experience this in a powerful way.

We were vacationing in Switzerland and Beth became ill. So I hopped on a train and went to Bern for Mass. The day before we had discovered an Old Catholic Church that had broken from Rome in the 19th C and with which we were in full communion. I do not speak one word of German but because they were following the liturgy of the Church I knew exactly where we were in the service and was able to worship along with them. Anglicans should have the same opportunity in ACNA. We should be able to travel from the deep South to California, and apart from the typical parochial idiosyncrasies, be able to know were we are in the liturgy, and absent of group-think, worship our Lord in Spirit and truth.

“Take My Yoke”

Yoke

Text: Matthew 11:25-30

“Hear what comfortable words our Savior Christ saith unto all who truly turn to Him. ‘Come unto me all ye that travail and are heavy laden and I will refresh you.’”

We hear these beautiful words each week after the Confession and Absolution. They give us assurance of forgiveness and invite us to draw closer to Christ as we receive His Body and Blood in Holy Communion. But as you well know, hearing these words and living them is not always the same thing. Even though we have His promise of being refreshed how many of us still frequently find ourselves in travail and heavy laden, or as more modern texts put it, “weary and burdened”? But before we consider how it is that the Lord refreshes us let’s consider why it is that we are weary and burdened in the first place.

I think we get a clue on why Jesus’ original hearers were burdened when we go into the next few verses past our reading today. In chapter 12 of St. Matthew we see Jesus get into it with the Pharisees because they observed his disciples, who were hungry, picking the heads off of grain and eating them, as they walked through the grain fields. The reason that the Pharisees objected to this behavior was because it was the Sabbath and according to their rules, picking the heads off of grain and eating was classified as work and you are not supposed to work on the Sabbath. Jesus responded by reminding them of David and his companions entering the house of God and eating the consecrated bread and He ends the discussion by saying in other words, “Oh by the way, I’m the Lord of the Sabbath.” Mic drop.

Can you imagine living under a religious system where everything you do, including snacking, is put under the microscope of laws and traditions? No wonder the people in Jesus’ time were weary and burdened. Thank the Lord that doesn’t exist in Christianity! Oh but it does.

Adam grew up in an ultra fundamentalist household and he can talk to you about the rules. I have a friend of many years ago who was a part of a very conservative Presbyterian group doing his doctrinal dissertation on the meaning of the Sabbath. One of his sources told him that if he went out on a Sunday afternoon, after going to church mind you, and tossed the football with his son, he would be violating the Sabbath. He finished his dissertation and became an Anglican.

I suggest that it would be helpful to take an inventory of our own lives and see if we have had any legalism sneak into our relationship with God. But note that there is a difference between tradition and legalism. Godly traditions are like train tracks that take you where you want to go while there is no progress in legalism. Legalism makes you stuck and makes you weary and burdened. If you find it in your life get rid of it without any guilt. It’s not from God. The Scripture tells us that where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.

What other things make us weary and burdened? Self-righteousness, the kissing cousin of legalism, makes us weary and burdened. Often when we think of self-righteousness we think of the prideful Pharisees but it can be subtler than that and even come from a well-meaning heart.

Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk before he became the famous renegade priest. He was desperate to know and to please God so he not only obeyed all of the rules; he went above and beyond, trying to make Himself acceptable to God. He had a confessor named Von Staupitz whom he nearly drove crazy. He would go to confession and later remember another sin that he forgot to confess and then go back to Von Staupitz. He did this so often that eventually Von Staupitz talked him into leaving the monastery. Luther said, “If ever a monk could have be saved through monkery it was I.”

As well meaning as it can be, trying to make ourselves acceptable to God, trying to make ourselves righteous, is like trying to dig ourselves out of a hole. We end up just being in a deeper hole and we become weary and burdened. “For by grace are you saved…it is not a result of works.” I believe that self-righteousness is a major reason that people become dechurched. They think that church that is not working for them when all the while, in their attempts at making themselves acceptable to God, they only succeed in burning themselves out.

Guilt and unforgiveness are also towards the top of the list of things that make us weary and burdened. They are so damaging that they can end up somatizing, that is being manifested as bodily illnesses.

I was very moved by a scene in the movie named The Mission. The character played by Robert Dinero had killed his brother in a fight over a woman. As an act of penance he joined a religious order. Knowing that he was caring an unbearable amount of guilt and unable to accept forgiveness they had him carry a backpack full of rocks. Dinero did not make the connection until they were scaling a cliff that was almost vertical. While Dinero was struggling and failing to climb it, a brother cut the pack off of his back. As the backpack tumbled away Dinero let his guild tumble with it and he wept like a slave who had just been made free. It made me wonder what bag of rocks I have been carrying around. How about you?

You can probably identify many more things that make us weary and burdened but let me mention one more. Fear or worry about the future is a great burden that wears us out. If you are young you worry about paying tomorrow’s bills, how your kids are going to turn out, if your marriage will survive. As you grow older you ask how long am I going to live? From what will I die? Am I going to be put in a nursing home? Will I run out of money in retirement?

To get your mind off of your worries you turn on the TV only to hear that the Russians allegedly interfered with the elections, North Korea has an intercontinental nuclear weapon and climate change is going to kill us all in ten years. But don’t worry. Be happy. If you just drink the right soft drink you will be okay!

Two questions then are 1. How Jesus gets us from being weary and burdened to finding rest for our souls, and 2. What would that rest look like?

First how does Jesus get us from weary to rest? I believe the key is found in verse 29 and the most important word in that sentence is the word “my.” Jesus does not say, “Follow these rules.” He does not give us the 5 pillars of Islam. He does not point us to the way of enlightenment. He says take My yoke and learn of Me.

I did not grow up in the country so I had to do some research about yokes. All I knew was that it was the yellow part of the egg. Ends up I was wrong. I discovered a document on line named Tiller’s Advanced Training Techniques for Oxen by a professor at the University of New Hampshire. And let me tell you it was a real page-turner. In it he says this. “Using a well broke animal to calm and train a smaller animal works well, especially if there is no chance of the untrained animal challenging the well broke ox…. yoking an untrained animal with a trained ox can be a very successful technique. The advantages of this may be due to imitative learning, as over time the young animal learns what it should do in the yoke by following the trained ox.”

Jesus said, “Take my yoke and learn from Me.” Do you see what Jesus is offering us? He is inviting us to become yoked to Him so that, just as the young animal learns from the older animal, we learn from Him and that is how we find rest. It is not only a beautiful image but it takes a tremendous burden from us. We don’t have to figure it out on our own. We are not alone. We don’t have to search the Scripture for hidden codes. We are not alone. We don’t have to try to make ourselves acceptable to God or gin up our feelings in search of a religious experience. We are not alone. We simply yoke ourselves next to Him and whatever He is doing we do it with Him. And let me tell you there is a vast difference between trying to do things FOR Him and doing things WITH Him. I have tried it both ways and it is almost like having two separate religions.

What does the rest that He promised look like? Let’s go back to the things that make us weary and burdened and see.

We find rest when Jesus frees us from legalism. As mentioned in our collect for the day He boils it all down to loving God and loving our neighbor. That’s covers it all. You don’t have to fret that you are violating the Sabbath when you toss the football with your son on a Sunday afternoon.

We find rest when Jesus frees us from self-righteousness by showering us with the mercy of God. There is a story of a mother approaching Napoleon on behalf of her son. The young soldier had committed the same violation twice and was sentenced to death. The mother asked Napoleon for mercy and Napoleon said that the boy had done nothing to deserve mercy. The mother replied, “I’m not asking for mercy because he deserves it, I am asking for mercy because I am asking for it.” Napoleon set the soldier free. We need to keep at the front of our minds that we receive God’s mercy not because we deserve it but simply because we ask for it. Yoked with Christ the Father’s love flows to us both. The Psalmist said, “The Lord is loving to everyone and His compassion is over all His works.”

What about guilt and unforgiveness? We find rest from them as we heard in the lesson from Romans because there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. He is the Lamb of God who has taken away the sins of the world. When He was nailed to that cross our guilt was nailed there with Him. As the prophet put it, though our sins are as scarlet we will be washed whiter than snow.

In terms of unforgiveness, we find rest from it because God loosing us from out debts frees us to loose those who are indebted to us. I think Fr. BE is right when he says that forgiveness is the most basic act of a Christian. We forgive as we have been forgiven. We forgive because we have been forgiven.

Lastly what about fear anxiety over the future? Jesus addressed that directly in the Sermon on the Mount and tells us how to find rest here. “Consider the lilies…Look at the birds of the air…are you not much more valuable than they?” Then Jesus ends the analogies with two great zingers. “Which of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?…Therefore do not worry about tomorrow for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Worry about the future serves absolutely no purpose but only manages to bring tomorrow’s trouble into today. How do we not worry about tomorrow? Yoked to Christ we trust Whom He trusted. He had absolute confidence in His heavenly Father and this too we can learn from Him.

Ex NFL player Tim Tibow was being interviewed by the Gainesville Sun about his future now that he is no longer playing football. He said, “I’ve said this a few times, I don’t know what the future holds, but I do trust who holds my future.” Three things about that line. First, I don’t think that Tim Tibow originated that saying. Second, if I am quoting a football player it is proof that these are the last days. And third, it is a great line and worthy of being repeated often. “I don’t know what the future holds, but I do trust who holds my future.”

So Jesus is not offering us just any yoke. He is offering us HIS yoke. He is inviting us into a relationship with Him. We are not in this alone. The stole of a priest is to symbolize that the priest is yoked with Christ, but that is merely a model for you and not the sole right of a priest. You too can be yoked with Him and learn from Him and you too can find rest for your souls. Amen.

 

July 4th

America, Bless God

It is only fitting that we as Anglicans gather to give thanks for our independence and to pray for our nation. I say it is only fitting given how Anglicans played key roles in our struggle for independence. Let me name but a few. Anglican Patrick Henry gave his famous speech, “Give me liberty or give me death” in St. John’s, Richmond. Anglican Richard Henry Lee first proposed that a Declaration of Independence be written. Anglican James Madison was the father of the Constitution. Anglican John Paul Jones was the father of the American Navy. It was in an Anglican church that Paul Revere hung the famous lantern to warn of the British arrival. And of course the father of our nation, George Washington, served on the Vestry of his parish. I tried diligently to find famous founders who were Church of Christ, but alas to no avail. So next time you greet a brother and sister in the Church of Christ, say to them, “You are welcome.”

Notice in your bulletin that just before the war broke out the Continental Congress called the colonies to a day of prayer and fasting, calling on God “to forgive our iniquities, to remove our present calamities, to avert those desolating judgments, with which we are threatened…” and they end the call by saying “And it is recommended to Christians, of all denominations, to assemble for public worship, and to abstain from servile labour and recreation on said day.” Think of that. The Congress called on Christians to fast and pray and to stop work and assemble for public worship. Either those poor guys didn’t get the concept of the separation of church and state or we have grossly misunderstood it in our day. But that is a topic for another day. We need more leadership like that today.

As our society grows not only even more secular, but also more hostile to Christianity, many are wondering which way to turn. I read that there was a lot of talk about the Benedict Option and monastic communities at the ACNA Assembly last week. If you haven’t heard of the Benedict Option let read you an excerpt from an article on the topic.

“The question…to talk about (is) whether America is headed the way of the Roman empire. Bureaucratic decay, massive public debt, an overstretched military, a political system seemingly incapable of responding to challenges—the late Roman empire suffered these maladies, and so, some fear, does contemporary America…Rising hedonism, waning religious observance, ongoing break-up of the family, and a general loss of cultural coherence—to traditionalists, these are signs of a possible Dark Age ahead.

Christians have been here before. Around the year 500, a generation after barbarians deposed the last Roman emperor, a young Umbrian man known to history only as Benedict was sent to Rome by his wealthy parents to complete his education. Disgusted by the city’s decadence, Benedict fled to the forest to pray as a hermit.

Benedict gained a reputation for holiness and gathered other monks around him. Before dying circa 547, he personally founded a dozen monastic communities, and wrote his famous Rule, the guidebook for scores of monasteries that spread across Europe in the tumultuous centuries to follow….Benedictine monasteries emerged as islands of sanity and serenity. These were the bases from which European civilization gradually re-emerged.”

It is an interesting concept and is one that has worked before. Some may be called to it but I am not convinced that is the way for us to go for a couple of reasons.

First I’m not convinced that we need to move physically into Christian communities. That is the calling for some, but not for all of Christ’s Body because that was not the pattern of our Lord. He didn’t retreat from the culture, He embraced it with His love. He came like a Physician to a leper colony. To the offense of the religious folk, He ate with sinners and tax collectors. He traveled throughout their towns and villages and stayed in their homes. He was so much among them that His enemies labeled Him a drunkard and a glutton. I understand that this call of the Benedict Option is not to be completely cloistered from the world but I believe that human nature will head in that direction once the communities come together. It is difficult enough in a parish not to become insular let alone when everyone is living together.

But where I do think Benedict’s example has something to offer us in post Christian America is in how we view ourselves. The monks saw themselves as taken out of the world in order to serve in the world. Jesus prayed for His disciples who were in the world but not of the world. Romans 12 says that we are not to conform to the patterns of this world but we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. So we do not need to physically remove ourselves from the world but we do need to spiritually and mentally detach ourselves and live as citizens of another kingdom.

To be honest we have not done a good job of this as Anglicans. Years ago, even when the Episcopal Church was solid in its orthodoxy, it was known as the “country club in prayer.” It was not uncommon to find folks who were good and faithful churchmen but had no clue about what they really believed nor had lives that manifested the fruits of the Spirit. To this day Episcopalians would rather be called “heretic” than “tacky.”

As Anglicans we need change this. We need to be even more intentional about seeing ourselves as IN the world but not OF the world. We need to think of ourselves as missionaries to America and strategize and discern ways to serve those who are products of a post Christian America. What we must remember is that while many celebrate the breakdown of our society, that breakdown will eventually impact everyone, and the Church needs to be ready to help them find their way back home.

A second reason that I am not convinced that the Benedict Option is the answer is because of Jesus’ commission to us. He said, “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” It’s difficult for men to see our good works if we are cloistered up in a Christian community.

Years ago I visited a convent in Spain where the nuns weren’t even allowed to see you. So when I went to buy something from them, I put the money in a tiny turnstile in the window. The nun on the other side spun it around, took my money, and spun around my purchase. This did not make me want to glorify my Father in heaven. It was actually kind of creepy. I made me feel like I was on an episode of the Adam’s family and had just done business with Thing.

But again, where Benedict can be helpful to us in an increasingly post Christian America is to take seriously his rule. He had three core rules.

First is obedience. Benedict had a saying, “Prefer nothing to Christ.” Our first obedience must be to Christ. And we also need to be clear when it comes to preferring nothing to Christ, that there must not be a close second. That is what Jesus was saying when He called on His followers to love Him even more than their own families. He wasn’t calling on them to break the 5th Commandment, rather He was calling on them to place Hi above all, vastly above all.

On this day in particular we need to be careful to not allow love of nation to be on par with our love for God. Christians in the past have demonstrated that while a Christian can be patriotic they should avoid nationalism. A patriot loves his country but nationalism says, “My country is always right.” We cannot take that approach because there are times that God calls upon Christians to stand up to their nation, point out its sin, and call it to repentance.

Next in Benedict’s rule is stability. Just as the monks were committed to remain in their communities for the rest of their lives and not bounce from monastery to monastery every time they got upset or their feelings were hurt, so we need to remain committed to the community in which the Lord places us.

It is tempting, with all of the insanity in our country, to want to move to a quiet beach in another part of the world. But Jonah is a great reminder that we cannot run away from the Lord. If He wants us in Ninivah, is makes no difference if we want to go there are not.

The vow of stability is especially important when things get tough. People find all kinds of convenient reasons to quit but if you bale out on Good Friday, you never get to experience Easter. Our job as Christians is not to escape discomfort. Our job is to be a witness to the Lord even if and especially when the ship is sinking.

The third vow is conversion of life. To me this is ingenious. If you only had obedience and stability then your life would be in a rut, and as you have heard before, a rut is just a grave with both ends knocked out. Obedience and stability keep you committed, but conversion of life brings about change while you are staying put. As we offer our souls and bodies to the Lord to be living sacrifices, He molds us and shapes us and changes us to ever be more effective for His kingdom. Change can be difficult but it is what life is about. The good news for those in Christ is, that according to the Scriptures, our change is about going from glory to glory. We need to see ourselves as disciples, always learning and growing and changing.

If you look at the signs of the times, the signs are not good. America may not be the Titanic but she is taking on water. It is another reason that it is so important that we take some time on this day of celebration to pray for her. I believe that as Anglicans we are called to discover a via media in our response as Christian citizens. We need to find a place somewhere between being Pollyanna on one extreme and Chicken Little on the other. This is a great nation but it is not perfect. There are ills and injustices that must be addressed but it doesn’t mean that every time we see something wrong that the sky is falling.

As citizens of heaven we can and should work to make this a more just and righteous nation and I don’t believe that we can do that by retreating into Christian communities. At the same time we must constantly be reminded that our hopes are not fixed here. First and foremost our citizenship is in heaven. The motto of our nation may change every time we get a new President. But the message of the Church remains the same to every nation. “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.” Amen.

 

 

God Is Calling. It’s For You.

God Calling

Exodus 19:2-8 St. Matthew 9:35-10:18.

Someone was talking to me about a former pastor and he used the expression, “I think that he was momma called.” At first I didn’t understand what he meant by that but as he went on to tell more of the story I realized that what he meant was, that in his opinion, his pastor was not truly called by God but instead was convinced by his momma to enter the ministry.

While there can be no doubt that folks get through our ordination process in the Anglican Church who are more momma called than they are God called, it is a rigorous process that involves a lot of discernment. The first step is to speak to your priest. Then you meet for a season with a discernment team that the priest has appointed. Their job is to either confirm your internal sense of call or to refute it. The thinking here is that you need a witness to your call. Your inward call needs to confirmed by the outward call of the Church.

If they confirm your call then it is put to a vote by the Vestry. Their recommendation is passed on to the Canon to the Ordinary and meetings are set up with the Bishop. Ultimately the Bishop is the one who invites you into the process and as you get your education you move from aspirant to postulant to candidate to ordinand. You also have to go through a pretty thorough psychological examination. I think that they require this because it helps if you are just a little bit crazy to be a priest. It’s not a perfect system but it is vastly superior to the momma called approach where anyone with a suit and a Bible can start a church.

As you can tell by today’s Gospel lesson the ordination process was much more streamlined with the Apostles. Step one, Jesus calls; step two, they answer. They didn’t need a discernment committee or a Canon or even a Bishop to help them with the process because there was absolutely no doubt whatsoever that they were not being momma called. How is that so? Because when God in the flesh tells you to put down your nets and follow Him that is exactly what you do. And in spite of the fact that this calling of the Apostles is unique, there are still some important lessons for us today. There is a pattern here that we need to observe and even apply.

What is the pattern? First, Jesus sees a need. Second, He raises up people to meet that need. Third He gives them authority to do what He has called them to do.

First Jesus sees a need. As He traveled throughout Israel He saw a common theme. It did not matter if they were city folks or country folks, rich or poor, educated or illiterate. He saw folks everywhere that were harassed and helpless and He had compassion on them. They were under Roman occupation. They were being ruled by evil leaders like Herod. Their religious leaders, rather than pointing them to the goodness and grace of God, only added burdens on their backs with their manmade laws and traditions. The hope of a restored Davidic kingdom seemed now like a cruel joke and so folks were wandering through life as aimless as sheep without a shepherd. But rather than being vexed by this problem Jesus saw it as a wonderful opportunity. He proclaimed, “The harvest is plentiful….”

What was His answer? How would He demonstrate His compassion for all of the sheep who were without a shepherd? First He called on the disciples to pray. They were to pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into the harvest.

This call to pray for workers for the harvest makes me think of the shows where a commander is asking the troops lined up to volunteer for a dangerous mission by taking a step forward. When he is not paying attention the line takes a step back leaving one guy looking like he had just volunteered. So right after Jesus tells the disciples to pray for volunteers, Jesus volunteers them.

There is a third step in the pattern. Jesus sees a great need, He calls His disciples to meet that need and then He empowers them to do so. The text says, “And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and infirmity.” And to deepen their trust in the Lord they were not allowed to take any provisions with them.

Did this pattern work? You know that it did. As we follow the ministry of the Apostles we see the band of 12 spread the Gospel from Egypt to India. As the Roman Empire crumbled around her ears the Bride of Christ grew and spread to every family, language, people and nation. And this from 12 guys that we read about a few weeks ago who were locked in the upper room for fear of the Jewish leaders.

As I said earlier, this calling of the disciples who would become the 12 Apostles is unique. They will form the foundations of the Church and all subsequent work builds upon that foundation. So none of us need to wonder if we are going to be called to be an Apostle. I have met men over the years who claim to be but they don’t pass the smell test. Usually their title of “Apostle” is more a reflection of their egos than of a true calling.

But that said, let’s look again at the pattern. First Jesus saw a great need. How about today? Does Jesus see any needs among the people today? Do we have our acts together or are we just like the people of His day, harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd?

We have the largest prison population of any first world country. I learned recently that our immediate area has a serious problem with sex trafficking because of the convergence of several interstates. Additionally there is an increasing lack of civility on all sides and I doubt that our nation has been as divided as we are now since the Civil War. And I am describing just the tip of the iceberg!

I cannot tell you how many times I have heard folks attribute our personal and societal problems to our increasing rejection of God as a nation. And I agree with them. The more we move God out of our personal lives, the more we move away from civility. People have infinite worth because they are created in the image of God but when you remove God you remove worth and so we treat one another as worthless. As we saw last week, you show up to a practice game and start shooting people with whom you disagree politically.

And let’s be clear. There are no political solutions to the problems we face as a nation. Only a King can heal our problems and that King is Jesus. Even though we are not Apostles still we can carry their message that the kingdom of God is at hand and we can become healers and reconcilers and point the lost sheep to the Good Shepherd. Methodist Bishop Bill McAliliy said, “To be a disciple is not just to be apprenticed to Jesus, but SENT by Jesus. People with a missional mindset think like missionaries. They make the lost more important than the found.” But how do we do that? I don’t think that it is a great mystery.

In his book Ask Me To Dance, Bruce Larson tells of a woman named Maria who came to his church from West Africa. He described her as one of those souls who has an infectious joy. Maria attended a conference on evangelism and throughout the day they spoke of ways to appropriately distribute evangelistic literature ( I assume no Chick Tracts). Toward the end of the day they asked how they went about doing evangelism in Maria’s country. Maria apologetically said that they did not have the money to distribute books and pamplets. She said, “We just sent one or two Christian families to live in a village. And when people see what Christians are like they want to be Christians themselves.” I’ll pause right here for a moment while we all come under the conviction of the Holy Spirit.

Our entire faith is built around the Incarnation; that God became flesh and dwelt among us. So it only makes sense that the best way to spread our faith is through flesh and blood people. We are to be the kingdom of priests that Moses spoke about in Exodus. We are His Body on earth and it is our calling to bring others into His Body. Again, we may not have the authority of the 12 Apostles, but we can expect Jesus to back us up and to bless our efforts as we are sent out in His Name.

Most of you know that my wife Beth works for the State of Tennessee. She has changed jobs within her department in the last year but when she worked downtown Nashville she had the responsibility of overseeing 400 people in 12 counties. Having this kind of authority meant that she had to be very careful about mixing church and state. But when she needed to speak out as a Christian she did so and God backed her up. He gave her a lot of favor with her coworkers and they would come to her for spiritual as well as professional advice. She influenced them to read their Bibles, to pray and even to tithe. None of them became Anglicans that I am aware of but that was not the point. We are to proclaim that the kingdom, not Anglicanism, is at hand. What really tickled me was that on occasion I would get a call and be put on speakerphone to answer the theological questions of her coworkers. They didn’t know me from Adam but because they trusted Beth they trusted me. That is the kind of favor the Lord granted her.

I truly believe that if we will step out in faith and become a worker in the harvest that God will give us the same kind of favor that Beth experienced. Will we experience rejection? Did Jesus? As He says a few verses later than we read today, “A disciple is not above his teacher nor a servant above his master.” So just as they did with Jesus and just as they did with the Apostles, some will accept you and some will reject you as a bearer of the good news. Don’t let that stop you. If they reject you move on to the next “city.” You may have planted some seeds, you may have watered what is already planted there but you can rest in the promise that the Word of God never returns void but always accomplishes that for which the Lord intended.

The healthiest churches are the ones where everyone sees themselves as ambassadors for Christ. Where members are willing to take risks, even the risk of rejection, to see someone find the grace and forgiveness of God. The offertory sentence in the 1928 liturgy is such a great reminder of our calling. “Let your light so shine before men that they might see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” When you hear those words you are not being momma called, you are being God called. The question before each of us is; will we answer His call? Amen.

Why the Ascension?

Ascension

The Church teaches us that there are 7 Principal Feast Days that we are to observe. As instructed in the Prayer Book, they are to take precedence over any other day or observance. Can you guess what they are? They are Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Pentecost, Trinity, and All Saints’. I have left one out. It is Ascension. May 25th was a Principal Feast Day but who knew it? How many observed it? Sadly the Prayer Book assumes that not many will do so and so it gives us a second shot on the following Sunday.

I suppose it is not all bad that this is a little known Holy Day. We don’t have to put up with advertisements of jolly elves drinking a coke while flying reindeer around the world. We go to pay for our gas only to be confronted with display of Cadbury Eggs. Nor do we have to fight with the ALCU who would want to change the name from “Ascension” to “Cloud Day” as to not offend the atheists. But it is unfortunate that this Holy Day is so little recognized because the Church has not made it a Principal Feast for no reason. In fact it is significant for a number of reasons.

But before we look at why it is so important, let’s clear up a bit of biblical cosmology. When the space race began, the Russians were the first ones to send a man into space. His name was Yuri Gagarin. After returning to earth he said, “There is no God; I’ve been up there, and I didn’t see him.” I don’t know if Yuri was looking for an old bearded guy sitting on a cloud but it is a misunderstanding of Scripture to think that when Scripture speaks of Jesus being taken up into the clouds that we are to understand that heaven is physically located directly above us. This is called phenomenological language. We use it too when we talk about “sunrise” and “sunset” even though we know that it doesn’t. It is descriptive not literal. C.S. Lewis said that heaven is not a distant place above but rather a “wholly new life.” That is where Jesus went. And unless Yuri repented of his atheism he won’t see Him there either.

Let’s go back to the significance of this Day of Ascension. Most significant for us, His ascension to the Father completes our redemption. That sounds like a bold claim but lets think through the redemption story.

Under the Old Covenant, on the day of the Atonement, animals would be sacrificed and their blood would be captured. But the death of the animal was only one part of the ritual. Next the High Priest would take the blood of the animals and enter into the Holy of Holies and pour the blood over the top of the altar, symbolically covering the sins of the people. This is how he made atonement for the sins of the people. So to complete a sacrifice there had to be both the shedding of blood AND the presentation of that blood to God.

In Hebrews we are told that when Jesus ascended on high, He entered a heavenly temple and as our High Priest He presented there not the blood of bulls and goats but His own blood as an atonement for our sins. Here is how it reads in Hebrews 9. For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own….But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.” So Jesus fulfilled both the shedding of His blood AND the presentation of that sacrifice to God and that is why I say that that the Ascension completed His sacrifice. As we just heard from Hebrews, He ascended to “appear for us in God’s presence.” That alone would make this the most significant of events but there is more.

In John’s Gospel we see Jesus praying for His disciples but His prayers did not stop at His ascension. We learn this also from Hebrews. “Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood.  Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. Such a high priest truly meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens.” 

Because I am on the Standing Committee of the Diocese I get to see the Archbishop every other month or so. As a consequence I am frequently asked how he is doing. I always respond that he is doing remarkably well. If you have kept up with him then you know that he has a schedule that would kill ten normal men and yet I have seen him become more joyful and lighthearted and even more pleasant to be around. When I have asked him about it he attributes it to all the prayers that people offer for him and I truly believe it. Also I have heard from some of you that there are times when you can almost feel the prayers of others. I believe that too.

So if we believe that prayer works, then how much more can we believe that Jesus’ prayers work. And that should give us confidence. When you are having one of those days when you are irritable and uncharitable and downright hateful and you wonder if you are even truly a Christian, remember that Jesus is praying for you. And as a consequence of His prayers, as the writer of Hebrews says, “he is able to save completely those who come to God through him…” You are going to make it not because you are good enough or smart enough or because people just like you. You are going to make it because Jesus is praying for you.

A third reason that the Ascension is so important is because it changes humanity’s position with God. Jesus being fully man and fully God also ascended as fully man and fully God and so when He was exalted on high, so were we. One of our hymns puts it this way. “Ascending to the Father’s throne, thou claims’t the kingdom as thine own, and angels wonder when they see, how changed is our humanity.”

This understanding is supported by Ephesians. “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.”

It is a little difficult to try to wrap our minds around the fact that we are at the same time exalted with Christ in heavenly places and struggling to pay our mortgage here in the world. The tendency for many is to chose one or the other. Either they become so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good or they are so like the citizens of the world that their Christianity makes no perceptible difference. Allow me to offer an alternative.

As most of you know my family lived in Scotland. We were the only American family in our town and so we became totally immersed in the culture. I went to a Scottish Academy and played on the rugby team. My mother shopped in local markets and we ate Scottish food. We heated our home with a coal fireplace. It was my daily chore to fill up the coal bucket and get the fire going in the morning because that is also how we got hot water. It was a wonderful experience and I loved most things about the Scottish people….but I didn’t try to become Scottish. Unlike Madonna I didn’t get an accent after two weeks or even two years. I didn’t wear a kilt and while I made some great friends I didn’t get too attached because I knew that we would not be there forever. I was fully aware that I was an American and I was even proud of that fact. (Although I must admit that a couple of times, when I was around some very strong anti American sentiments, I claimed to be Canadian so I wouldn’t get beaten up.) I was a stranger in a strange land and I didn’t try to be any other.

I suggest to you that because of the Ascension we must work to strike a similar balance in our lives. Yes we are seated with Christ in heavenly places but we are also His Body on earth with work to do. We are not called to build a Christian bunker and wait for the Second Coming. Nor are we called to become so immersed in the world that we live just like they do. What is so wrong with living like the world? Let me give you a visual. The number one rated show last week in America was Keeping Up With the Kardashians. These are the ones who spent over $10 million dollars on a wedding and the marriage lasted 72 days and they are offered as icons of our society. Jesus calls us to nobler more abundant lives. The Scripture says that we are to be a peculiar people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. We are to continually remember that we are citizens of heaven and act like it as lights in the world. What would that look like? Recall the prayer of St. Francis.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offense, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.
O Master, let me not seek as much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that one receives,
it is in self-forgetting that one finds,
it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,
it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life.

There are even more important consequences of the Ascension but let me touch on one more and we will see it fulfilled next Sunday. Jesus ascended to the Father in order to send us the Holy Spirit and in this way He fulfills His promise to be with us always, even to the end of the ages. When He was with us in the flesh His presence was localized. If the Scripture says that He was in Nazareth, obviously it meant that He was NOT in Jerusalem. But because of the Ascension that has changed. We are told in Ephesians, “He who descended is the one who also ascended far above the heavens that he might fill all things.” Now His presence, glory, power and prerogatives are no longer localized. He will be present today at every Mass that will be said all across the globe. From magnificent gothic cathedrals to dirt floor homes the Ascended One will come as the bread of heaven to feed His people.

It also means that He is with us in joyous celebrations like a wedding or the birth of a child and He is with us in terrible times when the doctor brings us bad news or when our hopes and dreams have been shattered. He is with us in the midst of our worship and He is still with us even when it feels that God is a million miles away. Because of the Ascension we are never alone and this means that we are always, always, always immersed in God’s love. And St. Paul reminds us in Romans that nothing can separate us from that love.

I hope that this helps us understand why the Church has made Ascension one of the Principal Feasts of the year. It always falls 40 days after Easter and so it always falls on a Thursday. Next year it will be on May 10th, so mark your calendars and join us for Mass. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

The 4th Stream of Anglicanism

4 Streams

It is commonly held that Anglicanism has three Streams that make up one River. They are catholic, evangelical and charismatic. While this view is not without it’s criticisms, I would argue against it from the point of view that there is a perceptible 4th Stream which I will call non-denominational Anglicanism. While that sounds like a contradiction in terms it is nevertheless a reality in our day. First I will give examples of it, second I will ask what we can learn from it and third I will offer some suggestions for moving forward.

The 4th Stream Defined

Non-denominational Anglicanism is made up of those who are new to the Anglican way or who were not properly trained. As a result they have created a hybrid that is neither true to their previous traditions nor true to traditional Anglicanism. Hence the term non-denominational Anglicans. The following are only a few examples I have witnessed or been informed from first hand witnesses.

  • A worship booklet containing over a page of the priest’s “corrections” to the Book of Common Prayer to make worship “more in line with Scripture.” Evidently no on told him that a priest does not have the authority to change the worship of the Church. Priests are officiants, not editors.
  • Practical rejection of the doctrine of Real Presence by removing the tabernacle, refusing to pray the epiclesis (calling on the Holy Spirit to consecrate the Bread and Wine) and even offering life savors to children at Communion. That priest declared, “After all the real presence of Christ is with the congregation.” It is a different tradition entirely that teaches that Christ is only subjectively present in the Sacrament.
  • Exchanging the great hymns of the Church for mind numbingly repetitious and theologically vacuous songs. Adding insult to injury many of those songs are written as solos that makes congregational singing more difficult even if the song is familiar. Music is not chosen to manipulate the emotions of the worshipers; it is chosen to offer high and holy praise to a High and Holy God. Secondarily our hymnody teaches and supports our theology.
  • Replacing choirs with praise bands and turning the sanctuary into a stage. As one young couple so perfectly put it to me, “We live in Nashville. We are in the entertainment business. So we don’t want to be entertained at Church.” Also calling the lead musician a “worship leader” or “worship pastor” is a misnomer. In Anglicanism it is the priest who leads worship supported by other ministers, choirmasters, choirs and musicians.
  • Rejection of or improper use of vestments. Clergy do not vest or refuse to vest in order to express their individualism. They vest to veil the man. They vest to represent the Church to Christ and Christ to the Church. They vest in the order of their office. Clergy should not be interested in dressing to gain street cred but rather in upholding the dignity of their calling and recognizing Who it is that they serve.
  • Pretending that there is no true distinction between clergy and laity. This results in what one past bishop used to call “the creeping gangrene of participatory democracy.” I attended a meeting where a 4th Stream bishop attempted to make this argument by demeaning clergy and flattering laity. I realized later that in the end that is only real way to make such an argument. When you are wrong you go ad hominem.
  • Rejecting the Sacraments of the Church. While there is a major difference between the 2 Dominical Sacraments (those ordained by Christ) and the 5 Sacraments of the Church, the later 5 are still Sacraments. The former are necessary for spiritual life while the later are for the up building of the Church. They too have an outward and visible sign that signifies an inward and spiritual grace. Hands laid upon the head of the repentant sinner signifies Christ’s absolution. Hands laid upon the head of a confirmand with anointing with oil, signifies the reception of the Holy Spirit. Hands laid upon a couple imparts to their marriage the blessing of Christ and His Church. Hands laid upon a candidate sets him apart for holy orders. Hands laid upon the sick with the anointing of oil, represents the presence of the Holy Spirit to make them whole. In short, these are not empty symbols rather they are conveyers of grace.
  • Creative ceremonial and ignoring rubrics. This list could go on for pages and pages. While it could sound petty to argue for learning proper ceremonial and following the rubrics of the Prayer Book, it is not. It is through ceremony and symbol that we retell the story. When we change or ignore the ceremony and symbol we are in danger of telling the wrong story. For example we use one cup and one paten for the consecration because it is a sign that we are one Body in Christ. What we may not do is fill the altar with chalices nor consecrate tiny individual cups for distribution. The latter would be particularly egregious since the symbol would shift from “one cup, one Body” to “it’s just me and Jesus.” Is that the story the Church wants to tell? Just as priests are not editors, neither are they choreographers. They must learn to dance the dance properly and then teach it to others.

Learning from the 4th Stream

4th Stream Anglicans are looking at Anglicanism through fresh eyes and that can be very helpful. There is a vast difference between keeping tradition and doing things simply because we have always done it that way. The questions that come from the 4th Stream force us to look again at why we are doing what we are doing and perhaps trim the fat. The danger of tradition is that it can create such a protective shell that it does not allow room for life and growth. There was a song we used to sing at my High School in Scotland. “O McTavish is dead and his brother don’t know it, his brother is dead and McTavish don’t know it, and both of them dead, and in the same bed, and neither knows that the other is dead.” I have witnessed more than once when tradition and a parish have become the McTavish brothers.

How do we move forward?

First we need to return to humility. I heard a 4th Stream bishop say, “I’m going to give the Prayer Book 5 years and then I am going to start changing things.” I thought to myself, “We have given it 500 years in its various forms and we like it just fine like it is.” There is a mentality afoot that this is THE enlightened generation and so we do not need to learn from our past. As Job said sarcastically to his critics, “Doubtless you are the only people who matter, and wisdom will die with you!” 4th Streamers need to ask their questions but they need to do so with a teachable spirit. And they certainly should not come to an historic faith with the goal of changing it. If in the end they find themselves incompatible with our beliefs and traditions then there is no shame in moving on to seek another tradition.

Those of the other 3 Streams also need to exercise humility. Each of us are doing the best that we know to do, otherwise we would be doing things differently. But there is a difference between doing things at my very best and saying that my way is the very best. The genius of Anglicanism is its breadth and so while one approach may not be your cup of tea, it does not necessarily make it wrong. It may just be that it is different. We need to frequently remind ourselves of Jesus words’ about the beam in our own eyes before we worry about the speck in our brother’s.

Second we should pray for the intervention of the Holy Spirit. Surely it is His will that we all grow into a greater unity. We have seen concrete examples of this in our lifetime. The REC has had its own version of an Oxford Movement and as a consequence has moved from being self described “Presbyterians with the Prayer Book” to being Broad Church Anglicans. I have participated in Benediction in a REC Cathedral and I have attended an REC ordination that was cope and mitre, smells and bells. These were reflective of their evolution to a more Anglican view of the Church as a divine institution.

Third, listen to each other’s stories. Those of us who served in The Episcopal Church learned some valuable lessons, much of which is what NOT to do. There is absolutely no need to repeat the mistakes of the past, particularly the mistakes that destroyed a once great Church. We are fools if we think that it can never happen to us. Additionally the 4th Streamers have important stories to tell and others would be wise to learn what put them on this journey. Often they have very creative ways of engaging their communities and we insular and introverted Anglicans have much to learn from them.

It is my sincere hope that one day the 4th Stream would find a home in one of the other 3 Streams and move from being non-denominational Anglican to simply being Anglican. Learning our rites and ceremonies, following the rubrics of the Prayer Book and embracing our theology will not destroy their healthy uniqueness. Rather their presence within the 3 Streams will serve to enrich the whole Church.

Abundant Life?

Stoning of Stephen

I created this meme not to be clever or funny. I have simply put together two of our lessons today in one picture to highlight a serious conundrum for us as Christians. In the first lesson from Acts we read about the stoning of Stephen. Then in the Gospel we hear Jesus say that He came to give us abundant life. What? How do we reconcile those two thoughts? How do we reconcile believing in an all good and all powerful God and yet see bad things happen to good people. How do we look to Jesus as our Shepherd to protects us and make sense of a Muslim terrorist walking into a Christian Church in Egypt on Palm Sunday and blowing it up?

First a disclaimer. This problem of reconciling a good God with the reality of evil is called theodicy. It has been the subject of countless volumes of theology and countless Phd dissertations. So I am not going to settle it in a Sunday sermon. In fact I watched a lecture of Christian philosopher Ravi Zacharias on this topic. He spoke for nearly two hours and still did not give a satisfactory response, at least not for me.

So I want to address this conundrum as a priest rather than as a theologian and try to help us understand Peter’s pastoral response to the persecuted Church of his day. If you are in the midst of pain I hope that you find this helpful. If you are not then this may even be more helpful because the best time to embrace a theology of suffering is before you are in it. It’s hard to think clearly when the townspeople show up with torches and pitchforks.

Peter gives us the key in his letter. He says, “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in His steps.” So the Cross becomes the lens through which we look at and interpret life, especially when life becomes painful and unjust. What does the Cross tell us about life and about suffering?

First the Cross tells us that sin and evil are real. Sin is so real that God became flesh to break its power and evil is so real that it killed Him. Evil is not just the absence of good, nor an imbalance of power, nor the opposite of an abstract set of moral absolutes. Sin and evil are real. The Scripture says that Satan entered Judas’ heart and that is why he betrayed his Lord. There are dark forces that drive this world and enslave the souls and minds of men. How else would the most educated nation at the time, follow a madman into World War II, that would cost millions of lives? So if you are being persecuted for your faith or if you feel like your life is under attack then the Cross reminds you that it is not in your head. It is real. Peter’s caveat here is to be sure if you are suffering that it is for righteous reasons and not because you are being a knucklehead.

Second the Cross tells us that good triumphs over evil. The forces of darkness played its best game that week. They moved folks around like pieces on a chessboard working towards checkmate. They moved the crowds from “Hosanna” to “Crucify Him” in just a few days. They got one of His own to betray him. They used the courts to falsely accuse and condemn Him. They worked through cowardly Pilate to look the other way and wash his hands of the matter. They used the Roman soldiers to drive the spikes through His hands and feet believing, that they were only doing their job and following orders.

But when Jesus came busting out of the tomb on the third day the forces of darkness had to have known that they had overplayed their hand. The very evil that they intended had been turned around by an all good and all powerful God to be the very redemption of the world. The Cross tells us that whatever we are going through or whatever we may go through, God will work to our good and ultimately good will triumph over evil.

Let me give you an example of how I have seen this work. A few years ago I met with a young woman of our parish as she was looking at colleges. She wanted to use me as a reference. She is incredibly bright and it looked like the sky was the limit. She was accepted at Sewanee and loved it there. She made friends quickly and was thriving. At one point she made an error on a term paper, forgetting to give the source in her bibliography of a footnote in her manuscript. Before she knew it this error was blown entirely out of proportion, she was charged with plagiarism, academically put on trial and kicked out of school. Over one stupid error, her life blew up and she could not see a future.

She tried another school but it did not work out and things got bleak. She moved back home and started work at Publix. This was not the future that she had dreamed.

During this time I tried to encourage her that while it seemed that her life was falling apart, God was still on the throne and He would work it all to the good. I encouraged her to trust His promise. To her credit she didn’t call me a name or slap me but I’m sure that she wanted to because it did seem like such a trite thing to say in the midst of her pain. But it was true and it was my job as her priest to remind her of what she already knew!

Some time later a young handsome Anglican moved from California to Tennessee to open a factory for his family business. We met his mother and his mother gave Beth the job of being his Tennessee mom and finding him a wife. Beth got on her J.O.B., a light bulb came on, and she introduced him the young woman. Their wedding is next week. It is interesting to think that if she had not been kicked out of school and returned home they may have never met or developed a relationship.

This leads me to a third thing that we learn from the Cross. God has a plan. In point of fact God had a plan before the foundation of the world of how He would go about redeeming us and renewing creation.

Ravi Zacharias told of a British atheist philosopher who claims that there is no design, nor purpose in life. He says that there is only DNA. He does not believe in moral absolutes. He says that DNA is neither good nor evil it just is and we all dance to its music.

At an international cricket match in England, the man at bat was clearly out and everyone saw that fact but the umpire. But because the umpire did not call him out, he remained at bat. He was able to score some more runs and as a result England won the match. The atheist philosopher was outraged. He tweeted that he was ashamed to be an Englishman after this batter won the game under such false pretenses. The philosopher was not prepared for the responses. He received a deluge of tweets that the batter was simply dancing to his DNA. They mocked him for having moral outrage while denying moral absolutes.

Of course there are moral absolutes. There are divine laws because there is a Divine Lawgiver and that Divine Lawgiver has a plan. Evil can play into His plan, evil can work against His plan but evil can never defeat it. After the Muslim terrorist blew up the Church in Egypt the Pope of the Coptic Church prayed in public, thanking God that the Lord found those victims worthy to receive the martyrs’ crown. Isis meant to punish them, but according to the Pope, Isis gave them a promotion. God has a plan that cannot be stopped.

The fourth thing that we learn from the Cross is that it is a mystery, not a problem. A mystery is a truth that is too great for our minds to understand. A problem is something, that given enough time and effort, can be solved.

If God had a plan for our redemption, even before the foundations of the world, then why did He allow sin in the first place that would lead to our need for redemption? That idea, like the question of why bad things happen to good people, has been plaguing man since the beginning. Let me save you some time and some brain cells. It cannot be answered. It is not a problem that we can solve. It is a mystery to be embraced. That is the point of the Book of Job. At the end of the book God confronts Job with His greatness and Job realizes that He would not understand the answer even if God were to give it to him. So Job repents in ashes. Job embraces the mystery and worships.

Is there a way to reconcile God being all good and all powerful with the reality of evil? Yes. God knows but He is not telling. We would not understand it if He did and sophomoric answers like the need for freewill or the order decrees in the mind of God only present more questions. We instead are called to humble ourselves and embrace the mystery. What is the alternative? The only real alternative is to either deny that God is all good and all powerful or to deny that evil is real. Give that a try for a while and tell me how that works out for you. Actually DON’T! Just live with the mystery. Is that too much to ask?

If you have been a parent and taken your young child in for a shot or a medical procedure, then you have been on the other side of this mystery. As the doctor is hurting them they look up into your eyes wondering why you are not stopping their pain. Their eyes ask, “Do you not love me? Do you mean to do me harm?” But because they would not understand the need for the shot or the medical procedure, all you can do it hurt along with them and hope that they know how much you love them and want what is best for them. A young child can’t wrap their mind around what you are doing but they can trust you and believe in your love. That is what the Father asks of us.

This takes me to my last point about the Cross. The example that Jesus taught us through the Cross is to trust our Father no matter what. As you know He wrestled with God in the garden Maundy Thursday night. He asked if there was any other way. But in the end He put His full trust in God and said, “Nevertheless not My will but Thine be done.” Then on the Cross He cried out in ultimate trust, “Into Thy hands I commend My Spirit.”

So we are to follow Jesus’ example of complete trust. I encourage you to picture trust as a room and then enter it and lock the door behind you. Make it a conviction.

But how does this understanding of suffering fit with Jesus’ statement about giving us an abundant life? Several points here.

First it tells us that what Jesus meant by the abundant life is not what Joel Osteen means by the abundant life. To Joel the abundant life is a $12 million dollar mansion and a private jet. And yet Jesus had no place to lay His head and He had to borrow a donkey to make his triumphal entry. Still Jesus’ life was abundant because of His relationship with His Father. He and the Father were one. Jesus was secure in His Father’s love. He understood His purpose in life. He knew that as a result of His obedience glorified for all eternity.

Jesus offers us that abundant life by inviting us to join Him in His relationship with His Father. He invites us to share in their unity, their love. He invites us to share in His riches and to be glorified with Him.

Second, when understood properly, suffering has a place in the abundant life that Jesus promises because God works all things to our good. The stoning of Stephen gave him the martyr’s crown and the following persecution resulted in the Church scattering to the nations and as a result the gospel was spread abroad. Also don’t forget that the Saul who was present at the stoning became St. Paul. No doubt that experience was one of the seeds that God planted in his heart that led to his conversion. And who but God could calculate the good that has come from Paul’s conversion?

Third there is a great Southern expression,“It’s gonna feel so good when it stops hurting.” When we understand that God uses suffering not to punish but to refine then while it is not pleasant at the time we can kiss the scars. Many of you have been through things that you would not wish on your worst enemy but because God brought you through it you are better for it today.

In the end therefore I would argue that this meme that I have made is not contradictory. It speaks the truth that even in the midst of suffering Jesus offers us an abundant life. And when we remember that this abundant life that He offers will go throughout eternity it becomes, in the immortal words of the Godfather, an offer we cannot refuse. Amen.