Faith not Fear

Fear

Text Heb 11:1-16

“And without faith it is impossible to please God.” Heb 11:6

“If you had more faith your child would have not been born with Downs syndrome.” “If you had more faith your church would be larger.” “If you had more faith you wouldn’t have these money problems.” “If you had more faith your husband wouldn’t have left you.”

These and many more like these are the kinds of comments about faith that I have heard over the years. They reveal an appalling misunderstanding of faith and given how important faith is to God, it is a misunderstanding that we cannot afford to have. So let’s dig a little deeper into the topic of faith and ask the classic questions of “what?” “why?” and “how?”

In answering the “what” of faith let’s first make a clarification. As the earlier comments “if you had more faith….” reveal, it is a common notion that faith is something that you quantify. If you have little of it then nothing happens but if you have more then things start to pop. My guess is that this notion comes from the expression in the Bible, “Oh ye of little faith.” Doesn’t it sounds like they needed to get some more?

The problem with this view of faith is that it opens the door to all kinds of false narratives about God. Faith becomes quarters and God becomes a slot machine and if we just put in enough quarters then God will pay out eventually. Or instead of being coworkers with God, this falty view of faith puts it all on our shoulders. God would like to bless us but He can’t because we haven’t yet piled up enough faith to tip the scales in our direction. So God wanted to heal me but since I didn’t have enough faith then He couldn’t. Question. How much faith did Lazarus have right before Jesus raised Him from the dead?

Faith is not about quantity. Jesus said all we need is faith the size of a mustard seed to move mountains. Sure faith grows and matures but all we need is the faith of a child to enter the kingdom of God. So the real issue of faith is not how much you have but in what or in whom it is placed.

I was at the Outlet Mall in Lebanon and while in the restroom observed two Muslims washing up for prayers. I followed them out and they went to their car and pulled out some cardboard to use as prayer rugs. They figured out which way Mecca was and they knelt and said their prayers right there in the parking lot. While I admire such faith and devotion and admit that this is more faith and devotion than many Christians exhibit, nevertheless it is my understanding of Scripture that Mohammed will not get them to the kingdom of God. So again, it’s not the amount of faith but in what or in whom it is placed.

Our lesson from Hebrews gives us the definition of faith. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The New Living Translation make is clearer to me. Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see.”

So faith is confidence that gives assurance. We exercise faith every day and we do it in pretty profound ways. Think of all the ways that we put our lives in danger without giving it a second thought. When we get into our cars, when we get on an elevator, when we board a plane we have confidence that the ones who build these things have done it correctly and so we assure ourselves that we will arrive safely. We do this even without having the first clue who these guys are that built these things.

A principle point of Jesus’ ministry was to reveal a God in whom we can place our faith. He is not an anonymous union worker up north putting parts together. He is a heavenly Father who like all fathers wants the best for His children. What an astonishing line in Luke’s Gospel. “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” I saw a great quote. “ ‘Do not be afraid’ is said 365 times in the Bible so it is a daily reminder that God wants us to live each day courageously.” But even more than that, not only does God not want us to be afraid, He wants us to understand that He has gladly determined to give us His kingdom. If we could embrace that thought we would have no difficulty placing our faith in this Lord.

Through parables and teachings and demonstrations of mercy Jesus showed us a God in whom we can trust. We place our confidence in Him because He has a character worthy of such trust and because He is the same yesterday, today and forever, we have assurance, we can rest in Him.

That is the “what” of faith. Let’s consider the “why” of it. Why is faith so important for us? One reason is because faith leads to obedience. The text in Hebrews says, “By faith Abraham obeyed God when he was called to set out…and he set out not knowing where he was going” (and because he was a man he refused to stop and ask for directions). Abraham did not know where he was going but he had faith that God did so he obeyed. Here we see the facet of faith that is trust.

Some of you may not know the story of George Mueller but you should because he is such a great example of a man who had father Abraham’s kind of trust in God. Muller pastored a church in England for 60 years in the 1800’s but he also began an orphanage that cared for more than 10,000 orphans. What was amazing about this was that he purposed to never ask for money nor could any of his coworkers. He believed that if it was God’s work then God would provide and over the years he prayed in millions of pounds. One day he was told that they had completely run out of food and there was nothing to serve for breakfast. Trusting in God to provide, Muller had the orphans assembled in the dining hall and he said grace. Hearing a loud crash they ran out of the orphanage to discover that a bread wagon had collided with a milk wagon and this became breakfast for the orphans. The important lesson for us is Muller’s motives that were combined with his faith. Muller wrote, “The first and primary object of the work was and still is that God might be magnified…..” He exercised his faith in order to give God an opportunity to demonstrate His power so that God would be glorified. This is very different than sending in money that you don’t have to the TV preacher so that you can get your miracle.

A second reason that faith is so important is because it focuses our lives. The reason that Abraham could leave his homeland is because by faith he could see a better one before him. The text says, “For he looked forward to the city that has foundations whose architect and builder is God.” The reason that the Apostles could sell their possessions and follow Christ was because they had just been told that it was the Father’s delight to give them the kingdom. It’s like meeting someone for lunch with a bologna sandwich in hand only to discover that they have prepared for you a steak dinner. By faith we can see that what the world offers us cannot compare with what God has in store so it is not really a burden to leave the world behind.

Lastly we need to ask the “how” of faith. How do we grow and mature in the faith? If faith has to do with convictions and assurances that are based in the character of God, where do we best learn about the character of God?

First we learn best about the character of God through the Scriptures. The Bible says, “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.” Some translations say “and hearing by the word of Christ.” To put it another way, we learn about God best by listening to what Jesus said about Him.

There are so many false narratives about God in the world and even at times in the Church that it is very easy to have a distorted image of Him. This in turn makes it difficult to place our faith in Him. It took me forever to rid myself of my childhood image of God as a big cop in the sky who was looking for an excuse to punish me. That He would delight to give me His kingdom never entered my imagination. It took years of study for that truth to replace the childish false narrative and sometimes it still is a battle. The point of the Scriptures is not so that we can debate about fine points of theology, the point of the Scriptures is so that God can reveal Himself to us so that we can place our faith in Him. Bottom line is that you will never grow and mature in faith if you are ignorant of God’s Word.

Second we learn best about the character of God through prayer. What has especially helped me has been using the Book of Common Prayer for decades. The prayers and liturgies of that book have taught me about God and His will for us. In the morning we pray, “O God who are the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom…..” What did we just learn? We learned that God loves peace and concord and so I better not put on Facebook my response to my commie pinko friend. I learned that knowing God gives us eternal life so it’s not the end of the world if I don’t know the difference between a cruet and a ciborium. I learned that rather than being a burden serving God it is how I find the freedom that I seek. If we can get all of that from one half of one prayer, imagine what is formed in us as we pray many of these prayers day after day and year after year.

A third way that we learn best about God is through His Church. Why is that? It is because the Church is the Body of Christ. One of the things I enjoy about Bible Study is when we get together we represent different parts of the Body of Christ. And these different parts will see in the Scriptures things that I would never see only coming from my perspective. So the other parts of Christ’ Body give me a more full picture of this God who is revealing Himself to us and it is why lone ranger Christianity does not work.

There is a dangerous sentiment on the rise that the Body of Christ is optional. It is becoming more and more popular for Churches to stream their services live so folks can stay home and watch it on the computer but they will soon discover that is a huge mistake. Not only can you not receive the Sacrament through a computer screen, you also cannot wash anyone’s feet. God so loved the world that He did not become a Facebook friend. A religion based on the incarnation of God Himself requires that we spend real time with real people in order to love and serve one another.

Strengthened by these first three ways, a fourth best way that we learn about the character of God and grow our faith is through patient suffering. You probably don’t want to hear that and I really did not want to have to say it but the Scriptures compel me to do so. The Bible says that if we are His children He will discipline us and although no discipline seems pleasant at the moment it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace (Heb 12). Like the guy who had seven theories and no children, and then had seven children and no theories, I have learned not to trust an authority who is not a wounded healer. Jesus was the suffering servant of Isaiah and so it follows that His followers will also be suffering servants. It is only as we are in the valley of the shadow of death that we truly learn that His rod and staff will comfort us. Up until then it is a nice verse on a plaque. As the saying goes, “mountain tops are wonderful but the fruit only grows in the valley.” It is when we are in the valley, in times of suffering, that we learn more deeply about who God is if we will turn to Him in those times.

“And without faith it is impossible to please God.” So the opposite must also be true. This means that our faith pleases God even faith the size of a mustard seed. Jesus asks us to place our faith in the One who delights to give us His kingdom even though we have not earned it nor do we even deserve it. So let’s be God pleasers and place our full trust in Him. Amen.

 

 

Lord, teach us to pray

Fish, Snake, Egg, Scorpion

Lessons : Gen 18:20-33; Col 2:6-15; Luke 11:1-13

Not one time, in all my years of ordained ministry, has someone said to me, Okay Ray Ive mastered that prayer thing, what’s next for me to learn? In fact I’m not certain that I have ever met someone that is even close to feeling that they are more than a novice when it comes to prayer, including myself.

Fr. BE brought it up in a recent sermon the quote from a past saint who said that the Lord loves it even when we pray poorly. That took a lot of guilt away from me because that is how I would describe my prayers most of the time. I was reading a blog from a priest about prayer and he said that he would start his morning and evening prayers with this brief confession, “What is about to happen will not go well, Lord. I’m sorry.”  

So if you don’t feel great about your prayer life I can guarantee that you are far from being alone. In fact you are in some pretty impressive company because the Apostles themselves felt that they needed improvement. That is why they went to the Master and asked to be taught. “Lord teach us to pray as John taught his disciples.”

And Jesus does and as you would expect it is genius. He gives them a model prayer that touches on 5 key areas and we can see in this prayer 5 characteristics that make will make their prayers effective. First let’s look at the 5 key areas.

He begins the prayer ascribing to the Lord the honor that He is due. “Father, hallowed by your name.” Psalms 29:2 and 98:8 command us to do just that. We can see this pattern all through the great collects of the Book of Common Prayer. Listen to the opening lines of several collects. “Almighty and everlasting God, who dost govern all things in heaven and earth…” “O God, the strength of all those who put their trust in thee…” “O most loving Father who willest us to give thanks for all things….” “Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made….” “O God whose glory is always to have mercy….”

Beginning our prayers by ascribing honor to God reminds us who it is that we are addressing. We are not dropping a coin in a vending machine and expecting an automatic response. We are not naming it and claiming it and demanding Him to deliver like God is our butler. We are not putting good thoughts into the Universe so that good karma will come back to us. We are children of the Most High coming to the Omnipotent Holy One with reverence, awe, love and devotion.

Next we pray for His kingdom to come. This is our first petition. Matthew adds to this petition that His will is done on earth as it is in heaven. We immediately see through this petition whose agenda we are on when we pray. My agenda in prayer is not to be Ray getting his will and his way. Rather it is to be the agenda of my prayer, and indeed for my entire life, for the Lord to have His will and His way. And that is a positive thing because what could be better for me or for my family or for my church or for my nation or for this entire planet than God’s will being accomplished?

I was asked by a parishioner last week what I thought was the greatest idol that we had in the Church today. I replied that it was seeking the middle class American life above the kingdom of God. And in my opinion what makes it such a dangerous idol is that there is so much good about the middle class American life. I know because I am living it.

There is nothing inherently wrong with getting an education, finding a good job, buying a home and raising a family. There is nothing wrong with Dave Ramsey’s goals of living like no one else so that you can live and give like no one else.

But where these things become wrong is when these good things are moved to the wrong place on our priority list. Jesus said that we are to seek first His kingdom and so it is a problem when we place before His kingdom our favorite teams our careers or even our families.

After we pray for His kingdom to come we enact it in our lives by placing all that we have before Him. His kingdom comes in our lives when He is Lord of our finances and Lord of our families and Lord of our careers and Lord of our very futures.

The second petition has us pray for our daily bread. I have heard it said that it is selfish to pray for ourselves and so we never should. We should pray for others but when it comes to our personal lives we should just pray, “Thy will be done.” That sounds quite spiritual but it does not match what Jesus teaches us here about prayer. In this second petition we pray for our needs…not our wants but our needs. We are praying for our daily bread not a Mercedes Benz. In fact it may be necessary to pray first to discern the difference between wants and needs so that we can pray effectively for our daily bread. And notice that this prayer anticipates our needs rather than waiting until the need arises.

Next we pray for forgiveness. This is how the prayers of the Book of Common Prayer are structured. We offer the Prayers of the People or Prayers for the Whole State of Christ’s Church before we seek forgiveness for our sins. This order also keeps us from making prayer all about ourselves.

In this version of the Lord’s Prayers Jesus uses the word “everyone.” He says,“For we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.Well do we? What about those who don’t ask for or deserve forgiveness? We are to forgive even those who don’t deserve it because God forgave us in Christ when we did not deserve it and before we could even ask for it. The Scripture says, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

It is helpful that Jesus also uses the word “indebted.” I take this to mean that I am canceling out their debt to me and that is an action and not a feeling. I simply picture myself ripping up their IOU. Sometimes I have to do it a number of times but I don’t have to wait until I feel like it, I don’t even have to want to be their buddy. I simply cancel their debt just as God has canceled mine.

The last petition is for protection. We pray to be delivered from a time of trial and Matthew adds “and rescue us from the evil one.” There is a vast difference between being disciplined by the stern hand of a loving Father and being assaulted by the evil one and it is the latter that we are to pray protection from. Let’s be clear. We are not praying that our life will be a bed of roses. Jesus in many times and many ways lets us know that if we are going to follow Him that it won’t be the Rose Parade. In this petition we are recognizing that we are in a spiritual battle and we are asking for the Lord’s protection.

Those are the 5 key areas for which to pray. Let’s next consider the 5 characteristics of this prayer. First note how short it is. Prayed slowly it is under 20 seconds.

This young priest was being mentored by an elderly one and when it came time to pray the young priest wanted to impress his mentor so as they knelt at the altar he prayed and he prayed and he prayed and he prayed. Finally the old man tapped him on the shoulder and said, “You know if you prayed more often you wouldn’t have to pray quite so long.”

In some circles it is a badge of honor to be someone who prays a long time. In fact for some it is a form of spiritual pride. (I think it is called “Phariseeism.”) But Jesus illustrates here that is not true that you have to pray long to pray effectively. I would argue that it is the frequency of your prayers and not the length of your prayers that is most important. I refer you back to the collects of the Book of Common Prayer. They are brief but many of them are so full of theological content that you could preach an entire sermon from them. So when you pray ignore the clock.

Second note how specific the petitions are, such as praying for daily bread. If we want specific answers to prayer then we need to pray specifically.

When I first went into full time ministry I did not have the money to purchase the clothes that I needed. One morning I was reading the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says that we are not to worry about what we are to wear because our heavenly Father knows what we need. I decided to respond to that promise and I asked the Lord for $500 to buy clothes. That very night after I preached a sermon a man walked up and handed me a check for $500. When I told him what I had prayed that morning he got misty eyed and said that he had wanted to give me the money for weeks but never felt that the time was right until this night. I think he was as blessed to know that he was being led by the Lord as I was to receive the money. So pray for your needs and pray specifically.

Third these prayers are offered daily, that is if we want our daily bread. We don’t wait until the cupboard is bear and then cry out to God. This prayer is meant to be daily contact and communion with our heavenly Father and not a one time cry from the belly of the whale. In fact even more than daily, this prayer invites us into an ongoing conversation with God, or as Brother Lawrence put it, to practice the presence of God.

Fourth, this prayer is to be persistent, as Jesus illustrated by telling the story of the guy banging on the door for bread. Jesus uses the words, “ask” “seek” “knock.” So we don’t pray once and then forget about it. We are invited to make a nuisance out of ourselves with our petitions. We see this in the Old Testament lesson that borders on being comical as Abraham strikes a deal with God about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

But why persistence in prayer? I think for a couple of reasons. First, as we pray persistently for something we may find ourselves altering our prayer. As mentioned earlier we may find that we are praying for a want and over time change it to praying for a need.

But second, as we pray persistently we are in a sense drawn into that prayer and it becomes a part of us. William Cary was an 18th century English cobbler. In his shop he had a map of the world and as he made shoes he would pray and weep over those who did not have the Gospel. Eventually he could not remain in his shop and he left all and went to India to share the love of Christ. He had such an impact that he is often referred to as “the father of modern missions.” It was his persistent prayer that molded his heart and developed his vision for India. Persistent prayer is how we get some skin in the game.

Lastly, effective prayer is offered in faith. But it is not faith in how much faith we have, rather it is faith in the character of God. Jesus says, Is there anyone among you who, if your child asked for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him? As we pray we keep the character of God before us. As we pray we remember that nothing is impossible with God. As we pray we remember that He is full of mercy and loving-kindness. As we pray we remember that His mercies are new every morning. So our faith is not in our faith, our faith is in His goodness.

It is said that the best way to learn how to pray is to pray. Jesus has given us the perfect prayer and if we begin there we have no reason to doubt that He will continue to teach us as He did His disciples. So let’s follow their example and ask the Master to teach us to pray. “Lord, teach us to pray.” Amen.

Called and Sent

Harevst Plentiful

Lesson: Luke 10:2-20

According to an article last year in Forbes Magazine 90% of all start up businesses fail. I knew that it was high but I didn’t expect it to be that high. So from a purely secular point of view the chances of the brand new Christian church surviving for even one generation was minimum at best. But the idea that Jesus’ startup would continue to expand 2,000 yrs later would be beyond anyone’s imagination. And yet here we are today, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets proclaiming the faith that has been once and for all delivered to the saints.

I submit to you that a major part of the success of the Church was due to the miraculous transformation of Jesus’ ragtag band into the Apostles that we so highly revere today. This Gospel lesson gives us insights into how the Lord did this transformation in their lives. Fr. BE preached recently about us having turning points with the Lord and it is my hope that as we look at their transformations that we may discover some turning points for ourselves.

The first thing that we can see Jesus doing to transform the disciples is to call them to prayer. I hope that I am not being irreverent in saying this but it seems to me that our Lord was being a wee bit sneaky here. He tells them that the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few so He calls on them to pray to the Lord of the Harvest to send out laborers into the fields. Question: who is it that will be sent out as laborers into the harvest as an answer to their prayers? The disciples, right? So He is really having them pray for themselves. Why should prayer come first?

Several years ago I was at a conference in Columbia Tennessee and attending with me were an Episcopal priest and a Presbyterian minister from the same small town. Over lunch I asked them what they were doing to grow their churches and they replied, “Nothing.” That surprised me and so I asked why not, and they replied that they sat down together and did the math. They said that statistically, in a town their size, only about one third of the people were going to church. And of that one third the vast majority were attending fundamentalist churches. By their calculations only about 3% of the 1/3rd would be interested in liturgical worship, and since they represented the only two liturgical churches in town, they concluded that they were competing over just a handful of people. They didn’t think that it was worth the effort and that is why they did not bother to try to grow their churches.

Did you catch the flaw with their logic? They were focusing on the 1/3rd and were forgetting the 2/3rds who are unchurched! What is sad and surprising it that those statistics are generally true throughout the US, even in the Bible belt. So Jesus words that the fields are white with harvest are as true today as when He first spoke them. That is why we must pray first before we do anything else. We pray so that we can get God’s perspective about the harvest. We pray so that we will have God’s heart about the harvest. We pray so that we will know our place as laborers in the harvest.

I had a friend who was a priest in Dayton Tennessee, where the Scopes trails were held. He called himself the Vicar of all Monkeytown. He did what he called Wal-Mart evangelism. He would hang out at the Wal-Mart and when someone would ask him about his clerical collar he would engage them in conversation and before they knew it they were attending his church. This priest regularly baptized more adults than he did infants. He used to say that evangelism is not difficult; all you need is a bucket of water and a pagan. It may not be quite that easy, but first we need to pray because we are not used car salesmen closing a deal. We are ambassadors who represent the King of Love bringing Good News to all people. We need to get our orders from the King.

After calling them to pray, Jesus gives them an assignment. He tells them that He is sending them out as lambs among the wolves and they are not to carry a purse or bag or sandals and they are to live from the benevolence of others.

In his wonderful book The Training of the Twelve, AB Bruce points out that the conditions Jesus placed upon this particular commissioning were not permanent. We are told at the end of Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus sends them out for the last time, Jesus says, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. Lk 22:36” Obviously by this point in their training they had learned to trust the Lord in such a way that they would not rely on their purses or bags or swords so it was safe for them to take those things along. But in this earlier commissioning they could not do so in order that the valuable lesson of trust would be learned.

When I was in college I met regularly with a man who was discipling me at a pivotal point in my life. I was wrestling with a whether or not I was called to ordained ministry and after praying about it for some time and getting no direction I became very frustrated. I complained to my spiritual director. It seemed to me that if I was willing to serve, the least the Lord could do is to make it plain whether or not it was His will. In a rebuking tone the spiritual director said to me, “No Ray you are not asking for discernment, you want a map to come out of heaven to show you how the rest of your life is going to go so that you don’t have to walk by faith.” His words stung and they made me a little angry but I also knew that he hit the nail on the head. I was looking for assurances. I wanted to know that if I went this route that it would be successful. I didn’t want to hear that I had to trust. I certainly didn’t want to hear that I was being sent out as a lamb among the wolves.

Please know that if you are not called to ordained ministry that you are still not exempt from also learning this important lesson of trust. If you want to be a transformed person, who makes a difference in this world for the sake of the kingdom, then you need to know that there are no shortcuts. Your every day lives are filled with opportunities to cultivate trust as opposed to self-reliance. When you start your day with prayer you are confessing your reliance upon the Lord. When you offer thanks throughout the day you are acknowledging that it is not by your might but by His Spirit that you go forward. When you bring your tithes and offerings you are proclaiming trust that it is all His anyway and you are only returning a portion of what is His. When you pray for your spouse, your family and friends you are entrusting them to the Lord who alone is their rock and their salvation. When you share with someone the Good News of God in Christ you are demonstrating your trust that His Spirit will use your words to penetrate their hearts. When you take a stand for the truth and refuse to be a part of lies, knowing full well that you will pay a price for that stand, you demonstrate your trust that His rod and His staff will comfort you. Genuine trust in the Lord is like the powder milk biscuits commercial. It “gives shy people the courage to get up and do what needs to be done and it’s pure mostly.”

The other thing that we see the Lord is doing in this transformational training of the disciples is that He focuses their message. He tells them to tell others that the kingdom of God has come near and He tells them further that if anyone rejects them they also reject Jesus and if they reject Jesus then they also are rejecting the One who sent Him. That is pretty blunt and there is nothing pc about it. It is another way of His saying. “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life, and no one comes to the Father except by Me.”

We need to key in on this focused message because much of the Church, if it still is the Church, is waffling badly. I saw an article by the top leader of a main line denomination called Pondering the Great Commission. Given this weeks lessons I was hoping to be given new insights. Instead it was the antithesis of Jesus’ clarity and focus. The author asked the question why we would seek to baptize other people and rather than saying, “because Jesus told us to in the Great Commission” the conclusion was that we should NOT seek to baptize others but rather “graciously recognize that God is at work in the world around us.” Last week another major mainline denomination opened their biannual General Assembly by praying to the Muslim god Allah. Jesus sent his disciples out like prophets to preach repentance for the kingdom of God is at hand and these folks go out to like Mr. Rogers to tell everyone that God loves them just like they are and that they don’t need to change.

The difference between these two messages could not be greater and as we might expect the results of these two messages are also very different. The mainline churches in the United States that preach this universalist message are in serious decline. Meanwhile the churches around the world that are preaching the focused message that Jesus gave to the Apostles are healthy. The Anglican Church of Nigeria, where the Gospel is preached without compromise, tripled under Archbishop Peter Akinola. What is even more amazing is that while the harvest fields in Africa include horrifying conflicts with Islam, according to aljeera.net, they are seeing 16,000 Muslims a day convert to Christianity. That is nearly 6 million per year! God says that His Word never returns to Him void but accomplishes the purpose for which He sent it. If we will send out a clear word then the Lord of the Harvest will be able to use it. If we water it down and make it pc then it will no longer be the Word of the Lord and therefore profitable for no one.

I came across an article that offered an interesting theory. About 30 years before our War for Independence Anglican priest George Whitefield traveled our land preaching the uncompromising Gospel of Jesus Christ. Traveling from New England to Georgia he preached over 18,000 sermons. Benjamin Franklin was fascinated by him and reported that on one occasion Whitfield preached to over 20,000 people on Boston Commons. People were converted and had their faith renewed by the tens of thousand and this article suggested that it was this spiritual awakening that paved the way for the American Revolution. Why? Because once people tasted spiritual freedom through Jesus Christ they longed for political freedom as well.

It is this life changing and nation changing and even world changing Gospel that Jesus called His Apostles to preach. But these calling narratives are not given to us in Holy Scripture to reminisce about the good old days. They are given to us instruct us about our own callings as well. While none of us are called to be Apostles with a capital “A” we are called to be small “a” apostles in our own worlds; with our families, with our friends, with our coworkers. An Apostle is simply one who is sent and Jesus continues to send out workers for the harvest. The harvest is still plentiful and the workers are still too few so lets add some more workers. Amen.

Hypocrite?

hypocrite

Texts 2 Samuel 11:26-12:10; Galatians 2:11-21; St. Luke 7:36-50

Fill in the blank. “No I don’t go to church, it’s filled with too many _______.

You guessed it, “hypocrites.” The response to that statement that I would like to give, but never have is, “Well if it is filled with too many hypocrites then one more won’t really matter will it?”

I believe that this is such a common excuse for two reasons. First is because they are partially right, there are indeed hypocrites in the church. But second they offer this excuse because they don’t really know what a hypocrite is. Let’s tackle the second reason first.

People outside the church think that we are hypocrites for coming to church, claiming to be followers of Christ, when the truth is that we sin all the time. They mistaking think that we think that we are perfect. How can a sinner claim to be a Christian? Doesn’t that by definition make you a hypocrite?

The short answer to that is “no it does not.” Our gospel lesson clarifies this for us. While he doesn’t use the word ‘hypocrite” that was the Pharisee’s attitude toward the woman who was anointing and kissing Jesus’ feet. She is referred to in the text as “a sinner” and you can fill in the blank what that meant. So the Pharisee believed that she has no right to be in Jesus presence. Given who she was it seems hypocritical for her to be worshipping Him.

We get the word “hypocrite” from the Greeks and they used it for someone who acts in a play. It is wearing a mask or pretending to be someone else. Was this woman wearing a mask or pretending to be someone else? No. She was so broken that she was bathing Jesus’ feet with her tears. She knew that she was drowning and so she came to the only One who could save her. Calling her a hypocrite for being a sinner who comes to the Savior is like calling someone with a deadly illness a hypocrite for going to the hospital. Where else are they supposed to go?

Instead of being offended by her the Pharisee should have been filled with admiration for her. Not for her sin of course but for her courage. She obviously came uninvited because Pharisees don’t invite sinful women into their homes. And without permission she touches this Rabbi. In the eyes of the Pharisee the touch of this morally unclean woman would have made Jesus ceremonially unclean. Then in incredible humility she wets His feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. This is an astonishingly intimate act between two strangers, particularly in that era and culture. But there is nothing hypocritical going on here. This is a prodigal daughter coming home; a prodigal daughter being forgiven much and loving much.

The example of hypocrisy that we do have before us is that of St. Peter in the lesson from Galatians. St. Peter came to visit Antioch, which was St. Paul’s base of operation. The church in Antioch was mixed with both Gentile and Jewish believers in Christ and so when they took meals together St. Peter would sit with the Gentiles as well as the Jews. But then an ultra conservative faction arrived from Jerusalem. These were called “the circumcision faction” because while they were believers in Christ, they continued to keep the law of Moses which included circumcision and laws of purity. The laws of purity included what you could and could not eat and with whom.

St. Peter for fear of his reputation rejected the Gentiles and St. Paul says, “And the other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.” St. Paul rightfully took great offense at this and publically rebuked St. Peter.

Was this the right thing to do? Yes it was for two reasons. First, because leaders incur a stricter judgment. The Scripture says that when a leader persists in sin he is to be rebuked in the presence of all so that the rest may stand in fear (I Tim 5:19,20). But secondly consider what St. Peter’s actions were conveying. By once again observing the purity laws St. Peter was in essence saying that he believed the he can be justified by the law. St. Paul objects, “if justification comes through the law then Christ died for nothing.” This is not a debate over using the 1979 verses the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. We are talking here about the essence of the gospel and so St. Paul was not only right to defend it, as an Apostle he was required to do so.

So as we can see by St. Peter’s example, the criticism that there are hypocrites in the church is a valid one. The question before each of us then is how we go about making the church have one less.

The first thing that we can do to avoid hypocrisy is to avoid being a man pleaser. A man pleaser puts on different masks and goes along to get along and that is the very definition of hypocrisy. It is only natural to want to have people like you otherwise you turn into Ebenezer Scrooge. But we need to have clear limits on that desire.

In today’s world it is all about not offending someone as if giving offense somehow has turned into a capital crime. An article in the New York Times last March reported that Universities are now creating what they call “safe spaces.” These are places that students can go to recover when they feel threatened by ideas and beliefs that differ from theirs.

As Christians we should err on the side of love and respect but if you make it your goal to never offend anyone, especially today, then you will fail as a disciple of Christ and turn into a man pleaser. Jesus told us flat out that they will hate us because they hated Him and they hated Him because they were offended by the truth that He proclaimed.

We need to get past the fear of being offensive. It’s not like anything happens to someone when they are offended. They don’t wake up the next day with a terminal disease. I saw a great post on Facebook of young men hitting the beaches of Normandy on D Day and the caption was “young men of college age leaving their safe spaces.” Here is a reality check. If my faith offends you then prepare to be perpetually offended because I am not going to hide my light under a bushel and I will not be bullied into calling evil good. This is the stand we must make as Christians.

How do we get past being a man pleaser? We do so by focusing on being a God pleaser. In the previous chapter in Galatians, St. Paul put it this way. “For am I now seeking the approval of man or of God. Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.”

The woman in the Gospel story did not care if the Pharisee would be offended or if his guests would be offended, she only cared about what Jesus thought. She is our model.

Closely related to ridding ourselves of man pleasing is to rid ourselves of our reputations. It was concern for his reputation that had Peter act so inconsistently. He was concerned what the Jewish brethren would think of him if they saw him eating with the Gentiles and so he acted contrary to the Gospel.

But what we see in Jesus is a refreshing lack of concern for His reputation. When people opposed or rejected Him He did not say, “Do you have any idea who I was before I took on flesh and became a man?” Instead He humbled Himself and became a servant and sought people and loved people in ways that totally offended the religious leaders. We see this Pharisee saying to himself, “If this guy had any idea who it was that is touching him….” and instead of defending His reputation, He defended her. Then with no concern for what others might think of Him He forgives her sins and leaves the people at the table saying, “Who does this guy think that he is forgiving people’s sins?” It was being free of defending His reputation that allowed Jesus to do the right thing for this woman.

So how do we get beyond defending our reputations? St. Paul shows us in this lesson. He says, “I have been crucified with Christ and it is not longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and delivered Himself up for me.”

If we have been crucified with Christ then it means that we have died. We have several saints buried back in our columbarium. How many of them do you think are worried today about their reputations? So we get beyond defending our reputation by being dead to self.

But we need to add that we are also called to be united to Christ and live by faith in Him who loved us and delivered Himself up for us. As we die to self and as we grow in our union with Christ, our chief concern becomes His reputation, His glory, His kingdom and concerns for our own reputations fade away.

A third way that we avoid hypocrisy is to avoid legalism. We don’t face the same purity laws that St. Peter did but over time the Church has filled herself with rules that only serve to force people into hypocrisy.

A couple of years ago I was on vacation and several clergy from another denomination invited me to join them for lunch. At first I wasn’t going to go because I was on vacation and didn’t want to feel like I was on a busman’s holiday. I reconsidered but I stayed in vacation mode. I was unshaved, dressed in very casual clothes and when it came time to order I ordered a beer. When it was delivered the other clergy looked longingly at it and started talking about their favorite drinks. But they added that they only drink when they are out of town lest any of their parishioners see them. ??????????? Now I understand someone having a conviction that a Christian should not drink but I don’t understand their line of thinking. It’s not much of a conviction if it doesn’t apply when you are out of town. That is just a legalistic rule or perhaps more man pleasing.

But worse than making you act hypocritically, as we saw with St. Peter, legalism is an assault on the Gospel. To paraphrase St. Paul, if we think that rules will make us acceptable to God then Christ has died for nothing.

What makes legalism such a trap is that Christians often get into it for the best of intentions. They want to live lives that honor God. They want to walk in the right path and so they conclude,“ just tell me what the rules are and I will follow them.” But that is how you end up becoming like the circumcision faction that came to Antioch. Their intentions to be pleasing to God were good but as one author said of them, “by struggling to appropriate God’s power to change them, they are not resting in God’s power to save them.”

Let me repeat that quote;“by struggling to appropriate God’s power to change them, they are not resting in God’s power to save them.” I found that quote extremely convicting. I cannot tell you, over the course of my life, how much time I have wasted struggling to appropriate God’s power to change me rather than resting in His power to save me. And while I know that God can even work that mistake for my good, I would be beyond thrilled if I could just save one of you from wasting the time that I have it wasted in various forms of legalism. Trust me when I say that it is a more joyful life to rest in the power of God to save you.

Truth is, as long as we have this battle going on between the Spirit and our flesh we are going to have our hypocritical moments. But we don’t have to remain in that condition. St. Peter didn’t. He accepted St. Paul’s rebuke. In Acts 15 we read of a council that gathered to deal with this conflict between the circumcision faction and the Gospel of grace being preached by St. Paul. After much discussion it was St. Peter himself who rose and said these words. “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

St. Peter’s words and the Gospel of grace won the day. A potentially disastrous schism in the church was avoided. The church could have split into two and then faded into history. But grace triumphed. It is this Gospel of grace that invites all of us today to rest in the power of God to save us. All are welcome. Sinful women, judgmental Pharisees, Apostles who temporarily stray from the truth and even we hypocrites. The One who loved us and delivered Himself up for us will in no wise turn us away. Amen.

Sacred Space

Holy Space

Text Psalm 96

“Oh the majesty and magnificence of His presence

Oh the power and the splendor of His sanctuary” Ps 96:6

One of the babies that Protestantism has thrown out with the bath water is the idea of sacred space. I have done weddings and funerals where the preponderance of those attending are not Anglicans. They will sit in consecrated space and gab and laugh aloud with one another like they were sitting in a bus station. You have to play music or make an announcement to have them find their seats and settle down. I have been to a church where they have a coffee bar set up in their narthex and folks bring coffee into the worship service like they were bringing soft drinks and popcorn into a movie.

It used to be that when you went to Europe it was a horse of a different color. When you walked into those sacred spaces, that have been places of worship and prayer for centuries, you were reminded to talk only in a whisper and to dress modestly. Sadly as Europe has become increasingly secular even those traditions are going by the wayside.

Is this really that big of a deal? I believe it is. A loss of the concept of sacred space adds to the leanness of our souls because it disconnects an important link between this world and the next. Sacred space is like a sign that points to a greater reality and when you ignore the sign then you lose site of that greater reality.

That is why the temple was so important to the Jews. It was a place where heaven and earth met. The physical sanctuary pointed the way to the heavenly sanctuary. Sacred space is so important to the Jews that to this day Orthodox Jews will face Jerusalem when they pray. Years ago I was flying out of Tel Aviv and as we were taking off an elderly man decided it was time to pray and he stood up and turned around to face Jerusalem. He ignored every appeal to take his seat and eventually three stewardesses had to sit on top of him and hold him down so that he would be safe during takeoff. That may be taking it a bit far but I admired his convictions.

Before you dismiss the idea of sacred space as a man-made tradition that no longer applies to us as Christians, I invite you to consider several things. First recall that it was not Moses or Aaron who dreamed up the tabernacle. The tabernacle was God’s plan and God’s design. In essence God told Moses, “This is how you will worship Me and this is where you will worship Me.” And by ordaining a sacred space to be set up in the very center of the tribes God revealed how greatly He longed to dwell with His people. He was not some far off god sitting atop Mount Olympus rather He was slap dab in the middle of them in their daily lives. Sacred space reminds us of that greater reality.

While God did not give the same instructions to Solomon, the temple that Solomon built was acceptable to God because it was essentially a permanent tabernacle. The tabernacle was portable because they were moving through the wilderness en route to the Promised Land. But once they were settled in the Promised Land, sacred space no longer needed to be portable. God honored what Solomon built. We read in the next chapter after today’s reading. When Solomon had finished building the temple of the Lord and the royal palace, and had achieved all he had desired to do, the Lord appeared to him a second time, as he had appeared to him at Gibeon. The Lord said to him: “I have heard the prayer and plea you have made before me; I have consecrated this temple, which you have built, by putting my Name there forever. My eyes and my heart will always be there.” Sacred space was God’s idea and therefore honored by God.

A second thing to consider is how our Lord honored sacred space. He was taken to the temple as an infant and again as a young boy. It was in the temple at 12 years old that He engaged the elders and told His parents that He was about His Father’s business. As a grown man He worshipped in the temple when He was in Jerusalem. What is very telling is His outrage over the money-changers in the temple. What did He say? Quoting Isaiah He said, “My house shall be called a house of prayer.” He called the temple His house. The money-changers and sellers of sacrificial animals had desecrated His house and Jesus was not going to have it. There would be no Starbuck’s in the temple!

A third thing to consider about sacred space is that it matches how God has made us. We are not some disembodied spirits floating in the Universe. We are material beings in a material world. And so it only makes sense that our worship would involve sight and sound and taste and touch and space. It borders on Gnostic dualism to think that our faith is only about ideas in our minds and that is all that we need.

When God ordained priests in the Old Testament to be vested and a laver full of water for cleansing and the burning of incense and the making of showbread and burning oil in the menorah, who was that for? He has no need for these things. It was all for us, so that we can engage with all of our being in worship. “Let all that is within me bless His holy Name.” Sacred space helps us do just that.

Look, we get it more than most churches that God can be worshipped anywhere because we worshipped in a school cafeteria for about 5 years. I was grateful we had a place to meet but I don’t miss it, not one bit. It is so much easier to enter into His courts with praise when you don’t have to spend half of your energy ignoring the coke machine that fires up every 10 minutes. So I believe when Jesus told the woman that it did not matter if you were in Jerusalem or on this mountain in Samaria to worship God that He was negating the need to be in a particular location to worship rather than negating our need for sacred space. In other words as an Anglican I don’t have to go to Canterbury to worship. Bethel can be right here in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, but still I need a Bethel.

God has given us tangible ways to connect with Him because He has made us tangible beings. People in the New Testament did not connect to God by offering a silent prayer and inviting Him into their hearts. Their faith was not just an intellectual exercise. They were washed in the waters of baptism and they ate His flesh and drank His blood. The early Christians continued to worship in the synagogues until they were put out. From the moment that Christianity was no longer illegal, sacred spaces were created all over the world, spaces dedicated to the worship of the Triune God. And because of what the psalmist calls “the beauty of holiness” they made them as beautiful as they could possibly afford. I found it very moving when I read in seminary of Anglo-Catholic priests in the 19th century that took parishes in the poorest sections of London and built some of the most beautiful churches so that at least once a week the poor could step out of their drab factory lives and be refreshed by a taste of heaven.

Let’s take this a step further. If sacred space is a sign that points to a greater reality, then what is that reality? Let me read you a wonderful story that I found on the Internet that explains it.

The gravel parking lot around St. John’s began to fill early that morning. The shadow from the steeple cast the image of a cross on the western side of the church. Families from miles around climbed out of Fords and Chevrolets to make their way into the sanctuary. The pastor stood by the front door to greet folks. He asked about Aunt Susan’s broken hip, the Reynold’s new horse, and how the football game turned out in Sunray the other night.

The man of God who shepherded this flock wasn’t much to look at. He had a bit of a gut. And he laughed too loud, especially at his corny jokes. But they loved the man. He had baptized their children, buried their grandparents, and even preached a decent sermon on occasion. 

By the time worship was ready to begin, it still hadn’t happened—that shocking influx of worshipers I spoke of. In fact, things looked as ordinary as ordinary could be.  

The Kirkpatricks, with their five children, squeezed into the next-to-last pew. The spinster organist, Ms. Schultz, played softly and hit, well, almost every note. Hymnals were opened to the page where the service would soon begin. 

At 10:30 sharp, Pastor Baker walked up front and spoke the same words he did at the start of every Sunday service, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” And the congregation responded with a hearty, “Amen!”

Then, without any warning, it happened. The floodgates opened. Worshipers streamed in. Before the congregation had finished saying, “Amen,” this rural Texas minichurch was transformed into the mega of megachurches.

Here’s how it all went down.

Through the stained glass windows and the steeply pitched roof, seraphim swooped down from heavenly perches. Each sported six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And around the sanctuary they chanted one to another, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” The foundations of St. John’s quaked at the sound of their voices. The whole church swam with the smoke of incense.

But that was only the beginning. Cherubim winged their way down from the heavenly city. Not the cute, chubby Precious Moments’ angels, but manly warriors who stationed themselves like sentinels around the sanctuary. They belted out the words to the hymns, added their Amens to the divine words read and preached that day.

But the angels were not alone. With them came saints innumerable. Men and women who had fought the good fight, finished the race, and gone on to glory. But here they were, back at St. John’s on this Lord’s day. They added their voices to the earthly choir of farmers and ranchers and coaches and teachers who still trod the pathway toward the heavenly Jerusalem.

The pews were packed. Standing room only in the aisles. Some perched on the rafters and peered down with serene gazes upon the altar. There, wonder of wonders, was a throne. And on that throne stood a Lamb, slain yet alive, sacrificed but resurrected. Every face of every worshiper, angelic and human, earthly and heavenly, was fixated upon his face. There they looked upon the countenance of the merciful Almighty.

With angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven, the people of St. John’s lauded and glorified the name of that Lamb, their Lord Jesus, that day. Sacred songs shook the building as the choirs wed their voices. The Lord’s Supper was a reunion meal. The folks on earth and the saints in heaven dined on the feast of feasts and the drink that slakes the deepest thirst.

It was a day to remember. A day to repeat. The following Sunday it would happen again. And then again. This tiny rural church would bulge at the seams with worshipers from realms seen and unseen, all mixed together in the adoration of the Lamb whose kingdom is without end.

 That’s how a small, country congregation became a megachurch overnight. Without even trying. They gathered around the word of Jesus, ate his meal, sang his songs. And Jesus showed up, every Sunday, with all of heaven along for the ride.

It is not an accident that Christians who have little regard for sacred space also have little regard for the communion of the saints. And it is no accident that the opposite is also true. Much of what is called worship today is instead the manipulation of people’s emotions through music or tickling their ears by telling them what they want to hear. It is also not an accident that Christians who have abandoned the sign have also forgotten where it is pointing. Worship is replaced with meeting my needs and how I feel and seeing if I get anything out of it. That is why so much of praise music is more about the singer than the One to whom they should be singing.

True worship is focusing on the Lord rather than on ourselves. It is blending our voices with angels and archangels and all of the company of heaven as we focus on the Lamb. True worship is where earth meets heaven and heaven meets earth and that has absolutely nothing with me getting my needs met. Inevitably they are but that is a consequence and not a goal.

The ultimate sacred space to which the earthly tabernacle and the temple and all sacred spaces point is the heavenly Jerusalem. But again this is no Mount Olympus. It descends to earth! This is what St. John writes, “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” 

Our hope as Christian is that one day all things will be made new and that all space will be sacred space. Our hope is that once and for all He will be our God and we will be His people. The meal that you are about to receive is a foretaste of that day. So come, eat and drink…….just don’t bring your coffee.

 

 

Made From Love For Love

Trinity and Love

Last year I followed the tradition of all wise rectors and I asked my assistant priest to preach on Trinity Sunday. But then Fr. Guill called and asked if I would supply for him so I ended up having to write a sermon on the Trinity nonetheless. Trust me it’s a daunting task. As our choirmaster put it in an email, “1+1+1 = 1, what’s so hard to understand about that?”

         So this year I purposed to dodge that bullet and once again asked my assistant priest to preach on Trinity Sunday. Perfect. But then Fr. Guill called and asked if I could supply for him and before looking at the calendar I agreed. He got me again! I’m beginning to feel like Elmer Fudd being out smarted by that Wascally Wabbit, Fr. Guill.

         But to be honest it is as much of an honor as it is daunting to speak on this great Truth because this truth is the core of our faith. You were baptized in the Name of the Trinity, you spend your life worshipping the Holy Trinity and when you die the priest will say last rites over you with these words, “Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world; In the Name of God the Father who created you; In the Name of Jesus Christ who redeemed you; in the Name of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies you…” We are from cradle to grave Trinitarians. To paraphrase a passage of Scripture, it is in this Truth that we live and move and have our being. If we are wrong about this understanding of God then we are wrong about everything and so St. Athanasius is spot on when he said that we must keep this truth whole and undefiled or we will perish everlastingly. But the $64,000 question is how we go about keeping this Truth whole and undefiled when it is such a great mystery? How do we wrap our minds around 1+1+1 = 1?

         First we need to clarify some history. Cults and DaVinci Code type revisionists argue that the doctrine of the Trinity is an artificial doctrine that was imposed on the Church in the 4th century by Constantine and a council of Bishops. I once had a man sit in my office and argue that their actions introduced this heresy in the Church and it has been downhill ever since. That is of course until their cult leader or Dan Brown came along to make things right again.

         While it is true that a complete teaching of the Trinity evolved over several centuries in the life of the Church, but it is erroneous to state that it came about as a result of a conference or because some Grand Pubah said we should believe it. The truth is that the Church EXPERIENCED the Trinity way before she could articulate it.

Both Old and New Testaments are clear that there is only one God. Of that there can be no doubt. But at the very beginning we read in Genesis God saying, “let US make man in OUR own image.” The “us” does not refer to the angels because man is creature that is distinct from angels; and yet there is only one God. The very word for God in Hebrew, Elohim, is plural noun; but there is only one God. When God appears to Abraham at Mamre, He does so in the form of three angels; but there is only One God. The Father promises through the prophets to send the Son. And how does the Son come to us? The Son comes to us because the Spirit will overshadow a Virgin; but there is only one God. At Jesus’ baptism the Father speaks from heaven while the Spirit descends like a dove upon the Son; but there is only one God. Jesus says that He was before Abraham, therefore claiming to be God, and yet he speaks of doing the will of the Father and sending us the Spirit; but there is only one God. When Thomas touches Jesus wounds after Jesus is raised from the dead, Thomas worships Jesus and cries out “My Lord and my God”; but there is only one God. In the heavens the angels and archangels and all of the company of heaven cry out not “Holy” and not “Holy, Holy” but “Holy, Holy, Holy;” and yet there is only one God. Jesus has sent the Church into the world preaching and baptizing in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit; but there is only one God.

So you see the Church experienced the Trinity way before she could even articulate the truth of it. Is it a problem that we still can’t quite wrap our minds around this truth? No. We can’t wrap our minds around an Infinite God any more than an ant can comprehend mankind, and yet we still love, worship and obey Him. The doctrine of the Trinity is indeed a mystery but it is a mystery not to try to solve, rather it is a mystery to celebrate.

One of the many reasons to celebrate it is because it answers the universal question, “Why am I here?” I have heard various Sunday Schools teaching and sermons that attempt to answer that question. One very popular theory is that God created us for fellowship. Here God had made this perfect world in six days and He had no one to share it with so He made man and woman and put them in the garden to enjoy it along with Him.

That sounds lovely but the doctrine of the Trinity points out how very wrong that theory is. From a time before there was time, that is to say from eternity, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit have been in perfect communion with one another. For eternity the Father has delighted in the Son who has delighted in the Sprit who has delighted in the Father. So the image of God getting tired of going out to dinner alone so He created us should be dismissed. He did not create us out of some need for fellowship.

Some offer another suggestion. I have heard a couple of sermons about how God has a plan for His world but He can’t get it done without us, so we have been created to serve Him. The idea is that God is the coach and we are the team and so there is no victory without both God and man.

At first glance that may make us feel pretty important but upon further investigation it becomes a scary thought. What kind of God would He be if He is depending on me to accomplish His will?

Because God exists as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, He is perfect not only in His being but also in His ways. There is nothing God needs or lacks. As He almost sarcastically puts it in the Psalm 50, “I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens, for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills….If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it.” We don’t serve God because He has a need for our service. We serve God because we have a need to serve. God uses us, without a doubt, but there is a difference between God using us and God needing us. Jesus once told a crowd that they shouldn’t get too full of themselves in claiming to be God’s children, because God can make children out of stones. (Mt 3:9). No, God didn’t create us because He needed us.

So if God did not make us because He was lonely or because He needed us to serve Him, then why did He make us? Why am I here?

I believe that the answer comes as we look to the relationship of the Blessed Trinity. God, as the Scriptures tell us, is love. And He did not have to wait until He created something to start to love. Because there has always been Father, Son and Spirit, there has always been love. Creation is the natural expression of His love. Therefore we can say that we were created out of love for love. That is why we are here.

How do we test this theory? What did Jesus say was the summation of all of the law and all of the prophets? We are to love God and love our neighbor. What was the New Commandment that Jesus gave us? It is that we are to love one another. Or listen to this from Jesus, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love…I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” (Jn 15:9-12). Why are you here? You were created out of love for love.

Another reason to celebrate the mystery is that it gives us insights into ourselves. Since we have been created in the image of a Triune God, it should not surprise us that there is an interrelationship in us of mind and body and spirit. We are to cultivate all three because when we ignore any one of them we suffer.

If the spirit leaves the body it dies. If the body gets ill it affects the spirit. For example have you ever tried to be spiritual when you have the flu? If we ignore the spirit our minds become darkened. It is no coincidence that as our culture has moved further and further away from God that we descend into a national debate about transgendered bathrooms. Even five years ago who would have predicted that Bruce Jenner would be honored as “woman of the year” in spite of the fact that he hasn’t even had the surgery? Ignoring our spirits has darkened our minds and it is why we are falling apart as a nation. It is why the Millennials, who have abandoned the Church by the droves, are so enamored with socialism. They now look to the government instead of God to give them their daily bread. When we ignore our spirits are minds are darkened.

But armed with this insight of the interrelationship of body, mind and spirit we can see the importance of caring for all three. We can be whole and balanced people, a reflection of the Blessed Trinity. That is how we become salt and light to the world.

Celebrating the Trinity gives us insight into why friendship and community and family are so important. God Himself exists in community and so like it or not, as much as we might want to be John Wayne and ride off into the sunset, we need one another. That is not neurotic or codependent, it is just the way we were created. Friendship is a part of this. Family is part of this. The Church is a part of this. We may think that we are deeply spiritual when we are off by ourselves praying or meditating but the test of our spirituality comes when we interact with one another. Being a Christian means being baptized into Christ’s Body and being sent into God’s world, not going off to a cave to get holy.

In the end, even more important than understanding the theology of the Trinity is to actually know the Trinity. To know God the Father, as He is revealed to us in God the Son and to walk in the power of God the Holy Spirit. That is the point. And like all relationships, our relationship with the Blessed Trinity requires commitment and time. As we spend time in the Scriptures and in prayer and in worship, as we receive our Lord through the sacraments, our relationship with the Blessed Trinity grows and deepens. It is not an overnight thing rather it is a lifelong pursuit. In this Eucharist the Triune God invites us to come to Him now and pursue that relationship. Here this from God’s Word. “The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life”. So may we humble ourselves and come to Him, and may God be forever blessed, who has He revealed Himself to us; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Vision for Unity

Unity

Lessons – Acts 16:16-34; Psalm 47; Revelation 22:12-20; St. John 17:20-26

 

“That they may be completely one, as we are one…so that the world may know that you haven sent me and has loved them even as you have loved me.”

 

A young priest arrives at this first cure and on the desk are three sealed envelopes. Just as he wonders to himself what they are the phone rings. It is his predecessor who had just retired. The old wise priest said, “ I left you three envelopes. When things get difficult in the parish, and you feel that the parish’s unity is being challenged, open an envelope”. At first things went wonderfully but after the honeymoon wore off, division and backbiting set in and much of the anger was focused on the young priest. So he opened the first envelope. It said, “Go ahead and blame me for the problems. I am retired and gone and it will take the focus off of you.” The young priest followed the advice and the division ended and unity was restored. But before long the rancor returned with even more division and so the priest opened the second envelope. It said, “Blame the diocese. It is large and wealthy and makes an easy target. A common enemy will get you all pulling in the same direction.” This tactic worked even better than the first and it seemed like peace had finally set in for good. But to his dismay the infighting returned. Once more unity was shattered and so when he could take it no longer he opened the third envelope. Its advice was simple. It said, “Prepare three envelopes.”

While I would never be so Pollyannaish as to believe that the Church can exist without any problems, I do believe that Christians in general have accepted a standard for unity that is far below the standard given to us by the Head of the Church. While He is praying for our unity we cavalierly accept division. John Johnson once told me that he came from a church that not only would fight at the drop of a hat but they will even drop the hat. I do not believe that we have to accept that as the status quo.

Clearly from this Gospel lesson, Jesus wants His Church to be unified. The context of this prayer is this is the night before His death. So this beautiful prayer, often called the High Priestly prayer, is what is on the heart of our Savior as He prepares to die.

As we take a closer look at this prayer we can receive instruction about what it is that He seeks for us. I want to give credit where it is due. The bullet points for this sermon comes from an insightful bible scholar named Bruce Milne and his commentary on the Gospel of John.

The first point that we need to understand about the kind of unity for which Jesus prays is that is a supernatural unity. Not only is it supernatural in its application but it is supernatural in its origin. In fact the unity for which Jesus prays is a reflection of the unity of the Blessed Trinity. “As you, Father are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us…” Thus He is praying for a unity that only the Trinity can bring about.

That may at first sound discouraging. “Oh great, our divisions are so deep that it will take a miracle from heaven to bring about unity.” But we can look at it another way. It is good news that the Lord does not put the impetus for unity on us because whenever we try to do it in our own power we mess up royally. I have seen it from the World Council of Churches to diocesan committees, when we try to create unity it inevitably comes down to how much truth we have to jettison from the ship in order to find agreement. But that is not unity, that is compromise. When God brings about unity, rather than abandoning the truth, we unite under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, who is the Way and the Truth and the Life. This requires not compromise but submission to His Lordship.

Is unity just a biblical pipe dream? I don’t believe so. I believe God’s work for unity is all around us but we will only see it if we have hearts that hunger to see God at work. Let me give you three examples and let me add that none of them are without their problems, but they are God’s work nonetheless.

First is the charismatic movement. In the first half of the 20th Century, Pentecostalism was on the rise, but it existed mostly among the poor and less educated. By and large it was outside the mainline denominations. For Pentecostals, mainline denominations were the enemy and the worst of the worst was the Roman Catholic Church. But then in the late 1960’s Father Dennis Bennet spoke in tongues and Pentecostalism came to the Episcopal Church. I’m not sure how it was initiated in the other denominations but this movement ran rapidly across denominational lines. Before anyone realized it had even entered the Roman Catholic Church! To the shock of Pentecostals, rosary praying Catholics were loving Jesus, speaking in tongues, and still praying the rosary. No one saw that coming!

I attended a conference in Kansas City in the 1980’s to observe this phenomenon and it was remarkable. During the day we separated into our denominations but at night we would gather together for worship in a football stadium. The most moving event for me was a healing service. On the platform were leaders from every denomination and non-denomination and then out came the preacher for the night. He was in vestments because for him the healing service was a sacrament. His name was Fr. Francis McNutt, a Roman Catholic priest. He preached and ministered the sacrament of unction and that night every stripe of Protestant joined their prayers with Roman Catholics and a unity that only God could have created was in evidence.

The charismatic movement has had its share of difficulties but God has used it to cross man-made barriers and that has to be a good thing. Until that time no one could have imagined Pentecostal Protestants receiving the laying on of hands by a Roman priest. Only God could have pulled this off.

A second example is Promise Keepers. Like the charismatic movement it is not without its problems but I have witnessed the hand of God in that movement. I attended a meeting in Atlanta with over 60,000 men from every denomination that you can imagine. Let me tell you, to be a part of 60,000 men singing the great hymns of the church was worth the drive alone.

On the first night I heard the singularly most boring gospel sermon I had ever heard. It was dry and very poorly presented. In fact it was so bad that I was embarrassed for the preacher. Then I watched about a quarter of those 60,000 men come forward to confess Jesus as Lord. It was definitely not the preaching, and since it was only the first meeting in a 3 day event, there was not enough time for psychological manipulation. God was in that place creating a unity that only God could create and the fruit of it was made manifest. I’m not sure what is going on with Promise Keepers today, but God used it and perhaps has moved on from there. Remember Jesus told us that the Spirit is like the wind moving when and where He wills.

A third example of supernatural unity I believe is seen in the Alpha movement. It started in a tiny Anglican church that was about to fold in Brompton, England in 1977. It was a course explaining the basics of the Christian faith and the first class was with the Vicar and 13 people around his kitchen table. I have not seen an Alpha paper in some time but the last time I did, they were estimating that some 6 million people have taken the course. Nearly 30,000 courses are taught in 143 countries every year. When I attended a leadership training meeting in Nashville there were denominations represented that I knew nothing about. God has used Alpha to unite Christ’s Body in a way no man could have planned, certainly not that Anglican vicar in 1977.

My point is that we don’t have to feel helpless about seeking unity. Yes only God can do it, but if we will open our hearts and pray for unity as Jesus prayed for it, then we will also open our eyes and see it all around us. As you well know, unity is not found in resolutions from Conventions. It is found by watching for what God is doing and then being a part of it. It will not be perfect because when man gets his hands on it it becomes tainted. But that is still not a reason not to seek it. It is our Lord’s will. The unity for which Jesus prays is supernatural.

Second the unity Jesus holds before us is a tangible unity. It is not just a sentiment. It is a unity that the world is supposed to be able to see. “That they may become completely one, so that the world will know that you have sent me.”

When I was in college we used to get all sentimental and sing a song about how we are one in the Spirit but we knew in our hearts that while Jesus loved everyone He loved our group the best and so we kept to ourselves. It has been my experience that this kind of thinking makes a group insular and spiritually unhealthy. It is as we reach out to other parts of Christ’s Body that we and they are benefited.

I had a very humbling experience with this tangible unity. Years ago a Church of Christ minister had befriended me and came to an occasional mid week Mass. When he heard about us getting a church together in Chattanooga he asked if he could accompany me to the first Mass. Since Jesus had sent the boys out by twos he wanted to be there for support. While we were driving to Chattanooga he told me that if any of his board found out that he had attended an Anglican mass that he would be fired as pastor. I felt guilty for naively putting him at risk but at the same time I was awed with his example of putting it on the line for the sake of unity. That is the kind of tangible unity for which Jesus prayed.

Lastly because unity is so tangible that it can be seen, it is therefore evangelistic. Again Jesus prays, “that the world may know that you have sent me and loved them even as you loved me”

I met a priest from India who was doing PhD work in Scotland. He told me that in that part of the world Christians have discovered that they are much more effective in terms of missions if they downplay their differences and focus on the Gospel that unties them. They are not so much Baptist Christians and Anglican Christians as much as they are simply Christians. I have known a number of missionaries and they tell me that this is not unique to India. It is generally true in the mission field that Christians cooperate to a much greater degree with each other than we do in the States. Why? Because the people they are evangelizing do not understand why Christians would be divided. The nuances that separate us are lost on the non-Christian. The difference between believer’s baptism and infant baptism may seem like an important point of contention in the U.S. but not to some tribal guy in Sri Lanka. If a guy declares that he will not be a Christian unless he can bring his whole family with him, the missionary is too focused upon the family’s salvation to get into a debate about dunking versus sprinkling. The missionary who does not believe in infant baptism will find someone who did and together they would baptize the entire family. It is this kind of cooperation that has resulted in missionaries being so successful around the world and it is why 1/3rd of the world’s population is now Christian.

Imagine what would happen if rather than seeing that as a practical necessity on the mission field, we in the Church consider the U.S. a mission field and seek the same kind of unity with one another in order to win the more?

It may seem ironic that I am preaching on unity when our own Communion continues to divide. But perhaps there is a different way to look at it. Perhaps what we are experiencing is not so much a division as a pruning so that we can experience true unity. We are not the only part of the Body of Christ that is experiencing this pruning. Maybe we are all going through this so that we can be unified with the other pruned parts of the Vine so that we avoid compromising truth for unity’s sake.

I have no idea what the future holds except that it will contain a united Church. How do I know that? I know that because Jesus prayed for it to be so. Can you ever imagine Jesus offering a prayer that the Father will not answer? We may pray amiss but He never does. So in one way or another, even if it is very different from what we see today, Jesus’ Church will be one. Let’s pray with Jesus that this unity will become a reality and then let’s make ourselves available the Father to use us toward that end and to even make us the means for answering Jesus’ prayer. Amen.

Cheeseburgers and the Resurrection

Cheeseburger

Text  Colossians 3:1-4

What are the symbols or icons that come to mind when you think of Easter? Last week I typed the word “Easter” in Google images to find a picture for the bulletin cover only to find page after page after page of bunnies and eggs and baby chicks. I’ve never understood the connection but I do know Easter is coming when I go into the gas station and see a display of Cadbury eggs. For others it may be an Easter dress or Easter lilies. Well allow me to offer a suggestion for a new symbol or icon for Easter. It is the CHEESEBURGER. That’s right, the cheeseburger. Now why in the world would a cheeseburger become a symbol for Easter? I offer two reasons.

First because it is my favorite food and I always get hungry about this time in Church. But secondly, and more importantly, it has a theological significance. I came to this realization when listening to a TED talk by a rabbi. He was explaining why orthodox Jews do not have meat and dairy together in the same meal. This custom comes from an obscure law that is mentioned in both Exodus and Deuteronomy that reads, “Thou shalt not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” (Don’t worry children, we’re talking about goats here). While over the centuries scholars have debated about the meaning of that law, Orthodox Judaism has interpreted it to mean that you do not mix meat and dairy. The rabbi said it was because the meat represents death and the milk represents life and you do not mix death and life. Life is seen as so sacred that it is a taboo to speak of it in the context of death. So no cheeseburgers for an Orthodox Jew and lets not even begin talk about bacon cheeseburgers.

But as I was listening to the rabbi’s explanation it hit me that a subject that was taboo for him has been made a non-issue for us who believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. We can talk about life and death at the same time because when Jesus broke out of that tomb that first Easter death was swallowed up by life. Because of the resurrection death has been transformed from an eternal prison to a gate through which we pass into the larger life. Instead of solitary confinement forever death becomes a vehicle for uniting us with all who have gone before us for all eternity. Because of the resurrection Hades cannot hold our souls, death is not longer a punishment, it is a homecoming. As the Prayer Book puts it, “we fall asleep and wake up in His likeness,” so brother, bring on the cheeseburgers!

Beth has a theory that you can tell a good cheeseburger when as you eat it you have all the good stuff start dripping down your arms. The messier the better. Well let me tell you about all the good stuff that over flows to us because of the resurrection. But before I do that allow me to make a clarification.

It is a very common but very mistaken notion that salvation is something that happens for you. Because Jesus died on the cross for you, your sins are forgiven and that’s pretty much all there is until you die and go to heaven. Salvation is like a form of insurance. You get it, stick it in a drawer and forget about it. Life goes on.

The reason I say that is a mistaken notion is because the New Testament actually teaches us that salvation is not something that is done for us, it is something that is done to us and with us. There is nothing passive about our salvation all of which flows out of the resurrection of Jesus.

Look again at the New Testament reading from Colossians. Verse 3. “For you have died and your life is hid with Christ in God.” You are co dead with Christ. Have you ever thought of your salvation that way? Paul put it this way. “I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me and the life that I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and delivered himself up for me.”

But why is it good news to be co dead? It is good news because it frees me from the tyranny of ME. All of us know folks who think that the world revolves around them and isn’t it true that usually they are miserable? It does not matter how rich or how beautiful they are, nothing is ever right or enough. It is as we are dead in Christ that we learn the joy of serving, the joy of giving, the joy of preferring others. In short we learn the joy of not being a Kardashian.

Next look at verse 1. “If you have been raised with Christ seek the things that are above where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.” We are not only co dead with Christ we are co raised and co ascended with Him.

One of the highest ranking TV shows is The Walking Dead. I’m not really into zombies so I don’t watch it but I submit to you that it is not just the name of a show, it is a theological statement. The Bible says that we were dead in our transgressions. So before Christ we were the walking dead. But now raised and ascended with Him we are a new people and part of a new kingdom.

If you have been paying attention to social media you have seen how folks are having absolute meltdowns about the upcoming elections. And I suppose that would make sense if your hope is in the Republicans or the Democrats. But our citizenship is in heaven and praise the Lord there are no elections in heaven. Jesus is now and always will be king. Our job is to work and pray for His kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. And we don’t need to worry because His kingdom is not in trouble.

Move to verse 4. “When Christ who is our life appears, thny you also will appear with Him in glory.” We are co dead, co risen, co ascended with Christ and in addition we will co return and be co glorified. Why does He return? Is it to pick up all those who missed the Rapture? No! He returns, as Bishop NT Wright says, to put things to right. One author said it this way. “The return of Jesus is the promise of ultimate healing and justice. All the wrongs will be made right, all the pain will end, and our joy will be made complete when Jesus comes in final victory. That hope minds the Christian community together as we await the final consummation of this divine conspiracy.” And by divine conspiracy he means God’s plan to replace the kingdoms of this world with the kingdom of Christ.

I am kind of embarrassed to admit it but when I was a kid I did not look forward to going to heaven. It wasn’t so much being afraid of dying as the thought of one eternal church service with harps and clouds. Boring! It was not until I was in college that I realized that heaven was so much more. We will be given new bodies to live in a new heaven and a new earth. It will be a place of perfect peace. Even the species will be at peace because the prophet speaks of the lion lying down with the lamb and a child playing at a cobra’s den.

Even more unfathomable is that like the first man, we will be given dominion over this new earth. You may not think of yourself as a king or a queen but that was the picture from Scripture that CS Lewis was trying to get us to see in the Chronicles of Narnia. St. Paul wrote to Timothy, “If we endure we will reign with Him.” I’m not sure what that looks like but I will bet you it is better than the job that you have now. Even now, according to Peter’s epistles, we are to see ourselves as a kingdom of priests who serve our God. This is our destiny. And because we will be united to Christ, the last Adam, there will be no fall this time. The serpent will have already been cast into hell. Co dead, co raised, co ascended, co return, co glorified, co reign. How is that for some good stuff to come rolling down your arms?

No doubt you already have your Easter dinner plans, probably a ham or a turkey or even a lamb. But on Easter Monday or Easter Tuesday or sometime during this Easter season go out and order yourself a big fat juicy cheeseburger. And before you bite into it remember that death has been swallowed up by life. And your blessing for that meal is “Alleluia, Christ is Risen!”

 

 

Holy Saturday and Sabbath Rest

'Harrowing_of_Hell',_15th_century_English_alabaster_relief_with_traces_of_poychrome_and_gilding

Let me begin this sermon by offering an explanation of tonight’s service. Given that this is normally a 5pm Saturday Mass, it places us in a liturgical no man’s land. It is really too early in the evening to have an Easter celebration and it is even too early to do an Easter Vigil because that should be done either after dark on Saturday or very early on Sunday morning. And we are forbidden by the Church to celebrate a Mass on this day.

But this liturgical bind is really a blessing. I say that because it allows us to recognize Holy Saturday for what it is rather than jumping from Good Friday to Easter. It is a more ancient custom to allow this day to stand on its own. It is a day to focus on Christ in the tomb. It is a quiet time and this quiet time offers us several lessons.

First as we focus on Christ in the tomb we are quickly confronted by our own mortality. We just read from Job. “But man dies, and is laid low; man breathes his last and where is he?

 That is a difficult question but it is an important one to ask. When you breathe your last, where will you be? Foolish people live their lives avoiding that question. They live as if they will never die but I’ve done some extensive research and I have determined that none of us are going to get out of here alive. Years ago I had a friend say to me. “The doctors have told me that I am terminal” and I said to him, “Truth is we all are, so let’s get you ready.”

The Scripture says, “Teach me to number my days that I may present to you a heart of wisdom.” It is when we face our mortality and realize how short life really is, that we start living our lives in light of eternity. It is when we face our mortality that instead of letting life happen to us we live with it with purpose.

How often we hear of folks having a near death experience and coming out of it with a new appreciation for every day that they are alive. But it doesn’t have to take getting hit by a train to make us come to that realization. The Scriptures remind us all through that man is like the grass that is here today and gone tomorrow. Jesus in the tomb reminds us that one day it will be you and me in the grave so we live today in light of that fact and we make our lives count. Numbering our days make us better stewards of each day.

A second lesson from this day has to do with rest. On Friday when Jesus said, “It is finished” and it was indeed finished. He drank the cup that the Father had given Him to drink. There was nothing else for Him to do and so on Saturday He entered His Sabbath rest. That in turn has a direct impact upon us. The writer of Hebrews says, “So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.” (Heb 4:9,10).

The life we live as Christians is to be lived in the context of the Sabbath rest that Jesus gives us. We take off the burden of good works and we live in the context of grace. It doesn’t mean that there is not work for us to do. There is plenty for us to do as we work and pray for Christ’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. But the Sabbath rest means that we don’t work like our salvation depends on it, because it doesn’t.

When I was in college I went to a Christian conference where one of the speakers was trying to exhort us to be diligent for Christ. But he went too far and actually said that we are the hands and feet of Christ and we need to get out there and do our job because if we fail then God fails. My first reaction as a 19 year old kid was to feel the weight of the world come on my shoulders. It is up to me to keep God from failing? I can barely handle four classes and finish my term papers and I am also supposed to prop up God?

But as I thought it through I realized that he was simply wrong. God does not need us in order for God to be successful. As Jesus said if we refuse to obey He is capable of raising up the stones to do so.

Christ has already accomplished all that needed to be done for our salvation. This means that we work from a point of peace, knowing that Christ has already won the victory. We work as His coworkers, knowing that He who began a good work in us will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. We work with the knowledge that He is with us always even to the end of the ages. We work not to fulfill a need of God’s, we work because our cup runneth over. Beth and I recently sold a piece of property and as we were discussing what to do with the proceeds I said to her, “Now remember we have to tithe on this.” She said back to me, “No, we GET to tithe on this.” I was coming from a place of works and Beth was coming from a place of rest. Not only is this spiritually preferable it makes for better mental and emotional health. Our lives shift from obligation to celebration.

A third lesson from meditating on Jesus in the tomb has to do with trust. As Jesus was dying He said to the Father, “Into thy hands I commend my spirit.” In doing this He placed Himself entirely in His Father’s hands. Jesus accepted death with total trust that His Father would fulfill the words of the prophet and not allow His servant to see corruption.

Over the years I have seen many deaths. I have seen some go out kicking and screaming and I have seen some pass so peacefully that it becomes a holy moment. It feels like a sacrament where heaven is joined to earth and earth to heaven. The key difference between the two types of deaths, as far as I have been able to discern, is the matter of trust.

But that kind of trust does not come to us magically at the end of our lives. It is cultivated throughout our lives in how we live our day to day lives. Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount encourages us to have daily trust. He tells us not to be like the Gentiles who worry about food and clothing and shelter and yet how often we find ourselves worrying about those very things. He even reminds us that worrying accomplishes absolutely nothing and yet we still worry.

The antidote Jesus gives us is that of trust, realizing that our heavenly Father knows that we need these things and as surly as He provides for the birds of the air and the flowers in the field so He will provide for us. What we put on our coins in America should be the written on our foreheads.

A belief that I share with the Church Fathers about what transpired this day also deepens my trust. This theology comes from 1Peter 3:19–20 and 1 Peter 4:6 (Jesus) “went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built….For this reason the gospel was preached also to those who are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.” The Church Fathers interpreted these passages to mean that Jesus descended to the dead and on this day and preached the Gospel to those who had gone before Him. It is referred to as “the harrowing of hell.” Over the centuries wonderful artwork and iconography have been done on this topic. They depict the doors of hell being blown off of their hinges and Jesus coming through the doors a cross or with keys in one hand. These are the keys mentioned in the Revelation to John were Jesus says,“Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died and behold I am alive forever more, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. In Jesus’ other hand are Adam and Eve with a train of others behind them. The harrowing of hell is not a form of universal salvation where everyone is taken out of hell. Rather it is emptying death’s prison of all those redeemed by Christ.

The reason I say that this teaching increases my trust is because I see in it Jesus as the Good Shepherd going to the nth degree to rescue His lost sheep. I see in this teaching the mercy of God that knows no limits. I see in this teaching the words of the Psalmist, “Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. (Ps 139: 7,8). A God that loves us with such radical love can surly be trusted.

A fourth lesson from this day has to do with expectation. Remember being a little kid and trying to go to sleep on Christmas Eve but you found it nearly impossible because of the anticipation of what Christmas Day would bring? I can only imagine that multiplied exponentially as Jesus awaited His Resurrection. While His body lay in death His spirit was alive and He knew what was coming on Sunday. How could He not be filled with anything else but joyful expectation?

And as His disciples we too are to live lives of joyful expectation. This does not mean that we live in a Pollyannaish dream world. If you live long enough there will be plenty of pain and suffering to go around. As St. Paul said, we will mourn, but the key is that we do not mourn like those who have no hope. We know what Jesus knew, and that is that death does not have the final word. Life has the final word. We look to His coming again. We look to the resurrection of our bodies. We look to being reunited with those we have loved and lost. We look to a new heaven and a new earth. We look to all things being made new. We look to being with the Lord forever. It is the joyful expectation of all of these things that put the pain and suffering of this present life in its proper perspective. We live lives with full understanding that this is Saturday and it is bad. But we also live in joyful expectation that Sunday is coming.

On this day Jesus entered His Sabbath rest, which in turn allows us to enter ours. On this day He descended to the dead and ransomed the dead. So on this day we proclaim with St. Paul, “O death, where is your victory, O death, where is your sting?” We will save our “Alleluias” for tomorrow.

 

 

 

Belly god or Very God?

Belly god

Lessons:  Luke 13:22-35, Phil 3:17-4:1

One of the ways that a magician fools his audience is through distraction. While the beautiful assistant walks on stage and opens the front of the box to show that it is empty, the magician moves around back to release a trap door.

I believe that the enemy of our soul has used this trick of distraction to fool the culture and even much of the Church. While he had everyone debating and focusing on sexuality for the last few years, behind the scenes he opened the trap door of universalism and many, many have fallen through.

Universalism is the belief that all roads lead to God and as long as you are sincere in your belief then that is all that really matters. Universalism is an easy trap door to fall though because it seems to be a more loving and enlightened belief. It certainly is the dominate perspective of our culture and you can hear it everywhere from Oprah Winfrey to discussions at Starbucks. But if you take Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel seriously, then you will conclude that universalism is indeed a trap. It is a lie. The words of today’s Gospel are very sobering words and because of the seriousness of their implications we would be foolish to rush past them.

“Someone asked him, ‘Lord will only a few be saved?’ He said to them, ‘Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you will try to enter and will not be able.’”

The first thing that I want to point out is how Jesus turned the question around on the inquisitor. The person asking the question wanted to know about “them.” Are “they” going to be saved? When Jesus told him to strive to enter the narrow door, He was in essence turning the question around and telling the inquisitor that rather than worrying about “them” he had better be worried about himself. I like how Peterson paraphrased this section in The Message. “A bystander said, ‘Master will only a few be saved?’ He said, ‘Whether a few or many is none of your business. Put your mind on your life with God. The way to…God is vigorous and requires your total attention.’” (The Message, p.184).

This passage makes it clear that universalism is wrong. Jesus says. “Many, I tell you will try to enter and will not be able.” But saying that not everyone is going to make it is not the same as saying that you or I know who is and who is not. That, as Jesus told the bystander, is none of our business. Why is it none of our business? It is none of our business because we will not be the one judging between the living and the dead. That is Jesus’ job and His alone.

What I need to be focused upon therefore is where I am with God now. There is a great line in an old prayer book that I use before preaching. It captures so well this idea. It says, “And lest when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway, make me first to have pity on my own soul and to render it fit for thy service for what will it profit me to have gained the whole world and lost my soul?” (The Priest’s Book of Private Devotion, p.387).

We know from Jesus’ teaching in Matthew that while the door to salvation is narrow, the door to destruction is broad. St. Paul tells us why that door leads to destruction. It leads to destruction because it involves worshipping a different. St. Paul calls it the god of the belly.

This powerful image took me back to last week’s lessons on the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. The first temptation was, after fasting for 40 days, to turn stones into bread. Obviously there is nothing innately sinful about eating after a fast and unless you are on the Atkins diet there is nothing wrong with eating bread.

The real issue was rather Jesus was going to be led by His appetites or by the Word of God. Would His god be His belly or the One True God? And that same temptation faces us every day. Will we be led by our appetites or will we be led by the Word of God? Who will be in charge of my life today? Will it be the belly god or the Very God?

I have mentioned before that a Roman philosopher critiqued his society shortly after the time of Christ. As a society they had gone from caring about philosophy and culture and and arts and politics to only caring that the Senate continued to give them free food and keeep the games going in the arenas. He said that all the populous cared about was “bread and circus” and because of this they so deteriorated from within that the Empire became easy prey for their enemies without.

I mention this example again because if anything this mentality of bread and circus has grown worse. It seems to be a greater temptation today than it has ever been in our nation. The god of the belly promises to keep us full and to keep us entertained and with this so many are content. Some in our society only care about food stamps and football, while another part only wants to amass a nest egg large enough that their chief concern is how much food and how much play. The god of the belly makes the poor passive in their poverty and makes the rich oblivious in their contentment.

But Jesus does not call us to be passive or obliviously content. He does not call us to bread and circus, rather He calls us to seek first His kingdom. He calls us to a holy unrest when He calls on us to strive to enter the narrow door. Did you catch that word? Strive! Strive! Strive! That hardly paints a picture of resting on our laurels.

Influenced by the Protestant Reformation, we are clear that salvation is not by works but by grace through faith. That said, it is a foolish gamble to think that having expressed faith once, then we have arrived. I have a friend who travels all over the country and he regularly expresses concern to me that everywhere he goes he hears a cheap grace, easy-believism kind of Gospel, which is really no Gospel at all.

Just because you were baptized at two weeks old and are a cradle Anglican does not mean that you have arrived. I could have been confirmed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and served ten times as Senior Warden, but that does not necessarily tell where I am with my relationship with God today. Past familiarity is not equal to a present relationship. Let me say that again. Past familiarity is not equal to a present relationship. They is why when they objected,“But we ate and drank with you and you taught in our streets,” Jesus’ answer was “I don’t know where you come from.” His command to strive in the present and ongoing.

Our New Testament lesson is St. Paul to the Philippians. He definitely had an experience with Jesus that led to his conversion and calling to be an apostle to the Gentiles. No one can doubt that. But he did not rest on those past experience. Just a few verses before today’s lesson he says, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

If the Apostle Paul was not resting on his past experiences and accomplishments, then who are we to think that we may? Jesus said “Strive” and so strive we must. As Peterson put it, “‘The way to…God is vigorous and requires your total attention.’” (The Message, p.184) There should be evidence in our lives today, now, that the kingdom of God is our priority. This of course does not mean that we work our way to heaven but it does mean that if we really have a living faith then someone should better be able to find a pulse somewhere.

One last point about this text and about this we must be abundantly clear. We must be clear about this narrow door through which we are to strive to enter. Is the narrow door correct theology? No. Correct theology points us to the right door but it is not the door. Is it the Bible? No. The Bible paints for us a perfect picture of the door but it is not the door. Is it the right denomination? No. Last week I invited a minister from another denomination to join me in officiating an upcoming wedding and I go the “our-denomination-is-the-only-true-church” speech. He thinks his denomination is the door but he is wrong. There were no denominations when Jesus gave this command to enter through the narrow door, so He wasn’t pointing us to that guy’s church.

So what is the narrow door? Jesus tells us in John’s Gospel. He says, I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.” Jn 10:9. Jesus is the door to salvation and there is no other door. This truth is what theologians call “the scandal of particularity” and what the Apostles called “the foolishness of the Gospel.” But unlike most theologians the Apostles bet their lives that Jesus was the narrow door and took that message to the ends of the earth. As you know most paid for this belief with their lives. It would have been a foolish thing to do if Jesus was but one of many doors.

Let’s ask one last question if we dare. Why is it that Jesus alone is the door to salvation? We answer that question in the comfortable words given after the confession and absolution in the Rite One liturgy of the 1979 BCP. It is here that we quote 1 John 2:1,2. “If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, and he is the perfect offering for our sins, and not for our sins only but for the sins of the whole world.”

When I was in college I majored in psychology and minored in religion which equipped me to ask this important question. “Would you like to supersize that order?” One semester I took a fascinating class that combined both disciplines. It was a study of religion through the lens of Freudian psychology. And what made it even more fascinating was that it was taught by a Death-Of-God theologian who had lost all of his family in the Holocaust. He was one of the most brilliant and inspiring professors I had in college. He allowed us to freely express our views but he had a rule that if you attack another person’s religion that he would come to their defense.

Things went along smoothly for about half the semester until a student spoke a tirade about Christianity and crossed the line. At that point the professor, an avowed atheist, turned into the Apostle Paul and gave such a sterling defense of the Gospel that if he offered an altar call the class would have needed a mass baptism. I will never forget his defense. After stating that he was not a believer he said that he had to admit that of all the world religions, only Christianity has the answer for sin. Some religions deny sin, some try to outweigh sin with good works, others seek to move beyond sin through enlightenment. But, he said, none of them are the answer. Only Christianity admits that sin is a universal problem and only Jesus dealt with it through His death and resurrection. That is why He alone is the door. That is why the door is narrow. For a moment I thought that the professor was going to preach himself into salvation.

Back to Jesus’ words. It is not enough to know that He is the narrow door, we must strive to enter it. One of the best ways of doing this will be offered to you in a few minutes. It is one of the many reasons that I am an Anglican. If we will recognize that Jesus presents Himself to us through the consecrated bread and wine, and we receive it with the full intention of Him dwelling in us and we in Him, then surely we will enter through the door. I know that when I do I truly find pasture for my soul.

There are a lot of voices today that will tell you otherwise. But don’t be fooled by distraction. Listen rather to Jesus. Strive to enter through the narrow door. Amen.