Every Good and Perfect Gift

THE FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER EASTER

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. (James 1:17)

Christianity is movement. First and foremost, a Divine movement of mercy, grace, and love. We find this illustrated in the season of Eastertide, and more completely when we add the prelude of Holy Week": which recapitulates the passion of the Lord Jesus Christ. Together, they reveal the grace-filled movement of the Triune God. The eternal Son willfully and joyfully exits heaven and comes down to His creation. On Good Friday, he is momentarily lifted up on a cross, signaling a greater upward movement to come. But first, in death, Jesus continues His descent into the depths of Hades; into the realm of the dead. And, after three days His descent turns upward. For from the grip of death the Son arises, bursting forth from the tomb as the sun bursts forth at the dawning of a new day. And after a fifty day sojourn on earth, completes his glorious exodus by ascending up into the heights of heaven, where he sits in the place of honor at the right hand of His Father. But the movement of God doesn’t end with the Ascension and seating of the Son. Divine Love moves again. For from Heaven, the Lord Jesus sends the Holy Spirit down on the day of Pentecost to birth a new people, and to be present with his Church through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit comes down that we, the Temple of God, might be filled with the Divine presence. The condescension of the Son; His descent into hell; the resurrection; Ascension and sending the Holy Spirit… Divine movement is always a movement of Love.

Not only will you find in Eastertide the pattern of Divine movement, you will also discover an inherent reason and logic. Week by week, the lessons and propers, the readings appointed for the Sundays leading up to Pentecost, are all about gaining a deeper understanding of how it is that in the Cross- in the death burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ and in his ascension into heaven- God has fully displayed his love towards us. The first Sunday after Easter, presents Jesus as the Overcomer of the world and bringer of peace. By his victory over death He has made peace between God and man, thereby, killing the hostility in his body. Peace with God and peace with neighbor is realized in Him. Next comes the Good Shepherd who nurtures and protects the sheep, leaving the ninety-nine to rescue that one lost and vulnerable sheep. This Shepherd promises to bring every one of the flock into the rich and fertile fields of blessing and beatitude. Last week we found the Good Shepherd to also be the bringer of joy: the One who, through the sending of the Holy Spirit, turns the sorrows of this world into occasions for joy; who promises a day when we will see him face to face; that happy day of perfect union with our Lord. And today, the Epistle and Gospel reveal Jesus to be the giver of every good and perfect gift from heaven.

Similar to last week’s Gospel we once again hear of Jesus’ departing. “Jesus said unto his disciples, Now I go my way to him that sent me, and none of you asketh me, Whither goest thou?” (Jn 16:5) Yes, the Lord has left, (for a time), his bodily presence is absent from the Church. But we must not misunderstand his intentions. Christ’s exodus is not malicious or done out of self-interest, rather, it is an important aspect of his great love towards us; for by his exit comes the sending of the gift of the Holy Spirit, “Nevertheless I tell you the truth; it is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you” (v. 17). The Holy Spirit is given out of love. The presence of the Paraclete is more than adequate compensation for the temporary loss of the Lord’s visible presence. And furthermore, the giving of his Spirit equips the church with every divine resource needed for every disciple to walk in the new way of the resurrected life.  is the good and perfect gift of the Father given by the risen Christ. And in this we understand what St. Paul had in mind when writing to the church at Ephesus, “When he (Jesus Christ) ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men” (Eph4:8). The upward movement of Christ in the ascension results in the downward giving of the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church. Love comes down from on high: the Spirit which regenerates sinners is also the One who daily guides us into the way of Christ. And there is much to say this morning about the blessing of God’s people in the giving of the Spirit. But, first, let us not overlook the breadth of God’s love in sending the Holy Spirit. For the Holy Spirit is not only given to the church but as a ministry to an unbelieving world.

The sending of the Holy Spirit is a gift of God’s love to unbelievers as well. What do I mean? Well, Jesus says, when the Spirit comes “He will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment.” How can exposing the sin of error be loving? To the godless the Holy Spirit acts as ‘counsel for the prosecution’: He exposes error, refuting false claims made by the world, convicting and convincing sinners of unbelief. This is the gracious ministry of the Holy Spirit that leads to repentance. Hear the Apostle Paul,

do you disregard the riches of His kindness, tolerance, and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you to repentance? (Rom 2:4).

Divine kindness is the impotence for the Spirit’s ministry to the world: it is a ministry of revelation; in particular the revelation of error. The gift of the very presence of the Spirit demonstrates to a world which condemned Jesus that Messiah was in the right and they were in the wrong! And thereby, the presence and witness of the Spirit serves as an indictment of those who close their minds to the Gospel, hardening their hearts towards Jesus Christ who is the only way unto salvation. Through the worship and witness of the church the Spirit proclaims to the world that which our Lord preached so many years ago, “I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture” (Jn 10:9). “He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not” (Jn 1:10). In the final analysis: the world still doesn’t know Him. It is this great sin of the world of which the Spirit convicts: they “have not believed in the One who has been sent.” The world rejected, unjustly condemned and put Jesus to death; this refusal of the Savior is summed up as ‘unbelief’ and unbelief is exposed by the Holy Spirit to be sin.

Not only does the Spirit prove the world to have misjudged the God-Man Jesus, but confirms the great defeat of the world and the dominion of evil. For the gift of the Holy Spirit given is a validation of Christ’s victory over Satan, over the Ruler of this world, the Adversary in chief. This we may be assured of by the presence of the Holy Spirit which is given as a token of Christ’s victory: judgment in the highest and most supreme court has been given for the Son of Man and against the world; and the world’s Ruler, who in consequence of this adverse judgment, has been deposed and conquered. Our great foe has been baffled by the Divine wisdom and love of God. The verdict is in: the world was and is wrong, for the sending of the Paraclete validates Christ’s resurrection and ascension into the heights of Glory: Jesus is the living Messiah who showers humanity (even the entire cosmos) with the good and perfect gift of the Holy Spirit. And by this God’s love is given to an unbelieving world by convicting it of its supreme error. And this is nothing other than the merciful and loving movement of God that all might repent and believe, “for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” (Mt 5:45).

Jesus says, “Howbeit, when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will show you things to come.” The Father through the Son has given an “Advocate” to the church: the Paraclete. Parakletos, meaning one who "advocates", "intercedes", "teaches”, "helps" and "comforts." This is the ministry of the Holy Spirit being worked in the lives of the faithful. First, the Comforter was immediately given to the disciples after Jesus had withdrawn His visible presence from them, inaugurating the promise to be with them “even until the end of the age.” In the same way, the Holy Spirit is given to us in baptism. In baptism, an exorcism takes place in renouncing the world, the flesh, and the devil; Satan is ‘kicked out’ to make room for Christ to enter through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. And thereby, the Lord is always near to us, abiding in and with the sons and daughters of God who have been incorporated into his body the church through the sacrament of Holy Baptism.

You see, baptism is more than going public with your faith; more than a mere profession of belief. Baptism is our entrance into the living body of Christ, our incorporation into Him, our “putting on Christ” as St. Paul says (Gal 3:27), employing artful imagery evoking the idea of being inside the clothing… we are underneath or in Christ who is the baptismal garment adorned in the font. Baptism is the mystical door into union with Christ; our abiding with him as a child reborn into the family of God; engrafted into the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church on earth. And it is in “The School of the Lord’s Service”, in the church, where we receive the ministry of the Holy Spirit. The church guides and nurtures us in truth. Here, the Spirit brings to bear inwardly on the soul the teaching externally given by Christ. Here, in the church, we are equipped to stand as witnesses to the doctrine and work of our Savior. The truth of Christ has been revealed and deposited to the Church, and it as at her table of understanding that we are fed. God feeds us in the church because God is hospitable. And He always reveals himself in understandable ways: through words; in deeds; manifesting himself through signs and in common created things.

This is the hospitality of God; engaging us in understandable ways. Think of the worship and sacrifices He gave for the people of Israel; that they might understand his nature, his character, his intentions, purposes and love towards them: given so they could worship and commune with their God; given as visible and tangible signs of His forgiveness. Circumcision, worship, sacrifice, wisdom, commandments, all given in love. All intelligible and tangible. And He is no less hospitable to the Church. Through the incarnation, Christ intelligibly manifested to the world the fullness of the Father. He became familiar…. one of us...as we are... that we might see and know God. And yet, his earthly ministry was but for a short time. And this is why the promised Spirit was sent: to continue Jesus’ ministry of revealing God’s love to the world after his departure. For The Holy Spirit is given as the ‘discloser’ of truth, “Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come” (Jn 16:13).

But what Truth does he guide into? Modernity is infatuated with data, information, and content: all of this open to various interpretations which are mostly determined and finally held based upon an experience, or worse yet, determined to be true simply because “I say it is.” We live in a time mired in a prevailing philosophy of  “truths” plural. Where I have my truth and you have yours. The underlying problem is abstraction: truth has been abstracted and severed from reality. Abstracted truths float in this philosophical milieu of fractured pluralism, disembodied from Truth itself. What is truth? is the wrong question. The right question is Who is Truth? Truth is not found in the pseudo-enlightened path of the gnostics, nor in the land of hypothesis and theorem. Jesus himself is the very embodiment of Truth: true Truth. “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (Jn 14:6).

The truth disclosed by the ministry of the Holy Spirit is not truth additional to the truth that is in Jesus Christ himself; a sound warning in these times! As St Paul reminded the Ephesians: the truth is in Jesus (Eph 4:21). The truth is in Jesus because Jesus himself is the truth, revealed and disclosed through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the continual unfolding of truth which has already been made known by the incarnation. It is this truth which the Holy Spirit leads Christ’s church further and further into: further into Jesus Christ. Friends, Christ has been revealed and you have believed. The Father has hospitably introduced us into the way of truth by Jesus, and given the gift of the Holy Spirit to guide us further along this path. It is not a journey into new and innovative revelation, for Jesus says of the Holy Spirit, when he comes, “he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak” (Jn 16;13). The Spirit reveals and speaks of the truth revealed in the Son of God. Beloved, The Love of God is beautifully demonstrated in the Giving of the Spirit because the Spirit leads us into the Divine life of God, into union with Christ who is Truth. The Spirit enables an ascent of the mind, will, and soul up to God: into deeper and deeper participation in the Divine life of the Triune God. And He does this through intelligible means, chiefly by the Scriptures, Liturgies, and preaching of the church. By these we lift our hearts up to God we ascend unto him in the singing of hymns and psalms; in our common prayer; in the reading and hearing of his Holy Word. It is in the church that we worship in Spirit and in Truth and offer ourselves as a pleasing sacrifice unto God.

The Holy Spirit leads us into the Divine life by unintelligible means as well. Mainly, through the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Though creatures of Bread and wine, both intelligible to us, we somehow experience an indescribable union with God. That which occurs in the mind, in the soul and in the body in the reception of the Eucharist is beyond words: it is mystical, transcendent, far surpassing reasonableness and comprehension. The love experienced in the gift of the Holy Eucharist, is beyond our finite understanding, as indescribable as the deep passionate love experienced between a husband and wife; between a mother and her child. Words, in the end, escape even the most discerning and perceptive of the poets. The Lord’s Supper is both the intelligible and unintelligible means by which God, by the Holy Spirit, engulfs us in his loving presence. In this sacred meal we enter into Christ and he enters into us: it is the closest possible intimacy imperfect and corruptible beings can enjoy in this world. In the Holy Communion God fills us with grace and heavenly benediction. We are somehow made one body with him, that he may dwell in us and we in him.

It is the good gift because the very goodness of God is given to our whole being: “our sinful bodies are made clean by his body and our souls washed through his most precious blood.” The sacrament of Holy Communion is not merely a sign or memory of God’s love... but is his active and present love towards us; the goodness of God given to all who eat the bread of life and drink the cup of salvation. It is the perfect gift because as it is the perfect Savior himself we feast upon, from whom comes every perfect blessing in this life and the promise of our future resurrection and ascension into his eternal presence. The Perfect Lord gives perfect food for the perfecting of the soul so that we may one day enter into the fullness of joy. All of this- these many gifts given to the people of God- are made present and effectual by the ministry of the Holy Spirit. He draws the bride to her Heavenly Groom that she may enjoy every true, good, and perfect blessing of the marriage covenant. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above and cometh down from the Father of lights with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning” (Js 1:17). Praise be to the Father who is the giver of gifts, and to the Son given for the life of the world, and to the Holy Ghost who reveals and make effectual the grace and love of God! Amen.

I Go to the Father

THE THIRD SUNDAY AFTER EASTER

A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see me, because I go to the Father (John 16:16).

A happy blessed Eastertide to you! You do know that the awaited celebration of Easter we longed for during the forty long days of Lent didn’t end at midnight on the Monday after Easter Sunday? Just think… how utterly disappointing would celebration of Easter be if after forty days of prayer, fasting and self-denial- embracing the rigor and emotion of Holy week- how disappointed we be if the feast of feasts only lasted one day? But it doesn’t. The Paschal celebration of our risen Lord goes on... not ten days, not thirty, not forty... the highest feast of the Christian year, the party of all parties, goes on for fifty days! Now that’s a party!

These Eastertide festivities commence with the glorious rising of the Lord, and are further illuminated by the reality of Easter; day by day unveiling and manifesting to us a deeper understanding of the meaning and implications of Christ’s resurrection. "O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!” (Rom 8:33). What a great salvation we have received in Christ Jesus! “Christ our passover has been sacrificed for us; therefore, let us keep the feast” (1 Cor 5:8). And which of you, in a single day, can search its depths, or contemplate the wonder of it all? Take ten days… take the fifty days of Eastertide… in fact, take fifty thousand years and still, you will never fully apprehend how great is the love of God in Christ towards us sinners.

And so the church in her wisdom, doesn’t cut the party short, but carries it forward for fifty days until the feast of Pentecost; the giving of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church. Fifty days to reorient ourselves to Jesus as the resurrected savior of the world, the One "whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it” (Acts 2:24). Is this not the glorious euangelion? The Good News resounding from the empty tomb? Christ the Lord is risen, Alleluia! Alleluia! God in Christ has brought salvation to his people, all peoples, from every tribe, tongue and nation, and with the Psalmist we rejoice, "O be joyful in God, all ye lands; sing praises unto the honour of his Name, make his praise to be glorious” (Ps 66:1). Jubilate Deo! Rejoice in God! Enjoin a celebration of gladness and exult in the the Lord! Joy has come into the hearts of the redeemed; those who by grace have put their trust in the God of salvation. Today, on Jubilate Sunday, or Rejoicing Sunday, the Lord who is the bringer of peace and the Good Shepherd, is revealed to us as the God of Joy.

One might think the Gospel appointed for this third Sunday after Easter misplaced… it seems like it would fit much better during Holy Week rather than Eastertide. “Ye shall weep and lament” says Jesus. “You now therefore have sorrow.” Certainly, sorrow and suffering adorned Good Friday, but what sorrow can there possibly be in Easter? Jesus tells his disciples, much to their confusion, “A little while, and ye shall not see me; and again a little while, and ye shall see me, because I go to the Father.” Jesus is leaving them. There is to be a painful separation between the Apostles and their Master. Weeping, lamentation, sorrow, separation… themes which- without a doubt- color this Jubilate Sunday: the Sunday of Joy! An Eastertide Sunday where we are confronted with a paradox. How can the Joy-bearer also bring sorrow?

In Jesus is both joy and sorrow: a seeming contradiction, and yet, both are as real for us as they were for Peter, James, John and the Apostles. You see, the resurrected Christian life is as a cup filled with jubilation and yet mixed with tears of lament. This seeming paradox remains but not for the reality of the historic, bodily resurrection of the Lord Jesus. For in the risen Christ paradox and seeming contradictions are resolved… perhaps not yet fully understood… but what appear as paradox and contradiction do find harmony and unification in him: sorrow and joy in the Lord Jesus Christ. Let us then contemplate the words of our Lord in today’s Gospel, that by grace, we may gain understanding and draw ever nearer to Joy, who is the living Son of the Father.

A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see me, because I go to the Father. Then said some of his disciples among themselves, What is this that he saith unto us, A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see me: and, Because I go to the Father? (John 16:16-17)

Jesus has just told his disciples that he is leaving. He is speaking to them on the night in which they have partaken of the Passover, the night in which is to be betrayed, arrested and handed over to the religious authorities. “A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again, in a little while, an ye shall see me, because I go to the Father.” This perplexed his Apostles, they didn’t understand, they had no idea of what he was speaking. But to us is given the gift of history and recollection which we bring to the Holy Scriptures and thereby gain understanding. They would not see him for a “little while” because he was going to be crucified and taste death. But he said, in a little while they would see him because he goes to the Father. What was he talking about? Well, the ‘seeing him again’ began to be fulfilled at his resurrection and would receive its main fulfillment on the day of Pentecost in the coming of the Holy Spirit. And this is why the painful separation of the Lord’s departing was so very necessary: that the Holy Spirit might be sent. Just a few verses earlier in this same Chapter, Jesus said, "I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you” (16:5-7). And here we find our answer to when and how the Apostles would see him again: by the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is clearly distinguishing his presence with them from the future presence of the Holy Ghost, that by Him, Christ would be present and near to them. And not only to them, but to each and every disciple of the Lord through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, thus fulfilling his promise to “be with them always even until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20).

The sorrow of parting comes with promise. Though he would be gone in body he would somehow still remain with them because, as he said, “I go to the Father” because the Lord ascended into the realm of life he can mysteriously manifest himself again. We catch a glimpse of this resurrected reality in the Gospel appointed for the first Sunday after Easter… when Jesus miraculously appears standing in the midst of his frightened disciples and says, “Peace be with you” (Jn 20:26). The resurrection promise of Christ, though ascended to the right hand of the Father, is that he is not gone… or to give voice to what we really fear… has actually abandoned us. What he promised was that in a little while you shall continually be seeing me, again, and again, and again. In fact, more thoroughly than when he walked the earth, for now he is seen with the eyes of the Spirit of truth and with a living knowledge of the risen Christ who has gone to his father in the kingdom of life.

The Spirit has covered the earth as the waters over the sea and therefore Christ is seen and beheld by millions and millions of believers in every corner of the world. It is by the Holy Spirit that Christ comes to us in the Word, for "the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor 2:14). By the Spirit we discover and behold the face of Christ in the Holy Scriptures. Regeneration and entrance into Christ’s family comes through the power of the Holy Spirit in the waters of baptism and by the Spirit we enjoy intimate communion with the Lord in partaking of the Eucharist. It is in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that we realize the closest relational proximity to Christ in this imperfect world.

By the Holy Spirit we have been brought back from the death of sin, as St. Paul says,

if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you.” You see, the parting of Christ- his bodily ascension from this world- is directly tied to our salvation. By death he propitiated sin and by the Holy Spirit we receive new life. Hear St. Paul again, "God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us (Rom 5:5).

The great work of salvation wrought by the passion of the Lord is made effectual, becomes our reality through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit: and by this we possess joy. True joy comes only from God, from the God who left heaven to invade our sorrow, who has conquered our sinful wills and liberated us from eternal death and sadness. And by no means am I speaking of our having obtained happiness. Joy far surpasses happiness because it is a quality and not simply an emotion, its very  basis and grounding upon the Triune God himself and wholly derived from him and is found in him. The Psalmists witness to this in proclaiming, "Thou wilt shew me the path of life: In thy presence is fullness of joy; At thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore” (Ps 16:11), and again,"my soul shall be joyful in the Lord: It shall rejoice in his salvation” (Ps 35:9). Hear the prophets, "The meek shall increase their joy in the Lord, And the poor among men shall rejoice in the Holy One of Israel” (Isa 29:19) and again, "I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation” (Hab 3:18). St. Paul says "Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice” (Phil 4:4) ,and for the Church at Rome he prays, "Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost” (Rom 15:13).

The joy of knowing the Love of God in the sacrifice of his son is that which is to characterize and thoroughly mark our lives to the extent that words fail to describe our joy! St. Peter writes, Jesus "Whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, hough now ye see him not, yet believing, we rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory” (1 Pet 1:8). Your life should scream out to the world the unspeakable joy we have received by the Spirit in Christ Jesus. Happiness falls short of Joy because it is fleeting and temporal. It is fleeting because it emanates from within. Joy remains because it comes from without and from that which is eternal. Christ is our source of Joy which comes to us by the ministry of the Holy Spirit and given to every believer; it is a real and tangible possession.

“Because I go to the Father” is so very important to understanding the difference between joy and happiness. “Because I go to the Father” means that the our source of joy is divine not human; incorruptible not corruptible; eternal not temporal. A joy that never ceases nor fades away; there is no variance but true and unchanging joy: always and forever because Christ is our Joy! With the words “Because I go to the Father” comes consolation because by this Jesus declares that death was not his end but a translation into eternal life: the Lord, though absent from us now, still lives. In him joy is secure; it is stable; it is abiding. And therefore we who have been incorporated into Christ have hope in this life, for Jesus who is our very life, has gone ahead to secure the joy awaiting all who sorrow in this topsy-turvy  life. And here the seeming paradox begins to make sense: the parting of the Lord is such sweet sorrow... for though presently he is not fully with us, we have this great confidence and hope knowing that one day he will return and take us where he now is; back into the garden whose fruit thereof... on the tree of life… feeds eternally. Beloved, presently we sorrow in hope, for the Spirit has given us eyes to see beyond this world, to discern and believe the Scriptures which promises that just on the other side of death beautiful mansions await all those who die in the faith and fear of the Lord. Yes, one day, the bride will rejoice in the bridegroom. St. John was given this revelation writing,

And a voice came out of the throne, saying, Praise our God, all ye his servants, and ye that fear him, both small and great. And I heard as it were the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings, saying, Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honour to him: for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife hath made herself ready (Rev 19:7).

The Lord promises, “Ye shall weep and lament, but your sorrow shall be turned to joy” (Jn 16:20). In a real sense the church is as a widow, lamenting the loss of her husband. He has gone (and yes the Spirit is with us) but oh how we long to be with Jesus: to see him; to behold him in perfect union. Now we are as the woman in travail groaning as it were under the pangs of childbirth until the glorious day of his re-appearing; awaiting the bodily resurrection and new birth unto immortality. For as St. Paul says, "... we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body” (Rom 8:22-23).

We travail now but then shall cast off the grave clothes and forever be glorified in Christ! Friends, our sorrow shall be turned to joy. Sorrow is but for a season. And, in light of eternity, a short season at that: “Behold a little while.” These words are so very true "weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning” (Ps 30:5).  As strangers and pilgrims, "a little while" is written on the whole of our earthly life.  The whole history of the world, human life at its longest, human effort at its strongest, is all for a little while.  May we have grace to never fall into the error of thinking that to be permanent which is truly transient. Therefore, let us- with the Apostle- "reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Rom 8:18).

Friends, the joy of Easter is the joy of faith, a faith which sees beyond circumstances; beyond the natural and inevitable. It sees beyond the grave and rejoices in hope and in love making all things new. And this joy, "no man taketh from you” (Jn 16:22). Our joy no man taketh away because our joy is Jesus himself. In Christ alone sorrow and suffering find mercy. In the risen Christ sadness, disappointments, betrayals, and the wickedness of men can be redeemed and become occasions for joy. This is true because our deepest sorrow has indeed been turned into joy by the crucified and risen King of the world. So then, let us now prepare our hearts to come to his most holy altar, to approach with joy and gladness into his loving presence. Amen.

The Shepherd and Bishop of Your Soul

THE 2ND SUNDAY AFTER EASTER

I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep… I am the good shepherd; and know my sheep, and am known of mine, even as the Father knoweth me, and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep (Jn 10:14-15)

In the twenty-sixth verse of the first chapter in the book of Genesis we learn that “God made the beasts of the earth after his kind, and the cattle after their kind, and every that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good” (Gen 1:26). On the sixth day God created all kinds of animals including sheep. We know this because the man and woman brought forth two sons, “Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the Lord. And she again bare his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground” (4:1-2). To the second son of Adam was given the vocation of shepherd; called to feed, defend and protect his flock from torrential weather and fiercer creatures seeking to feed on weak and vulnerable sheep. If any strayed he would go- no matter the danger- and retrieve those who had fallen away from the herd.

We may assume that Abel was a good and dutiful shepherd who faithfully cared for the flock. For if God was pleased with Abel’s religion (his sacrificial offering) then God was most likely pleased with his vocational labor as well: for religion acceptable to God is always accompanied by an acceptable life. Scripture records that “Abel brought the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering” (Gen 4:4). Abel brought a firstling… a young sheep, to the altar of the Lord; giving his first and finest fruits to God; an acceptable and pleasing sacrifice which—we should note—  led to his death: unjustly murdered at the envious and wrathful hand of his older brother Caine. And yet, Abel—the very first shepherd— made an acceptable sacrifice unto God.

Having fled Egypt for his very life, Moses settled in the plains of Midian where he tended his father in laws sheep in the shadow of Mt. Horeb. From a flaming bush he was called to shepherd the children of God who’s cries for salvation had reached the heights of Heaven! Thus, the Lord spoke,

I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry… for I know their sorrows… I will send thee unto Pharoah, that thou mayest bring forth my people the children of Israel out of Egypt (Ex 3:4, 10).

And, with God’s power, this Shepherd confronted Pharaoh and his pantheon of Egyptian gods. In a single night, the Lord devastated Egypt, taking every firstborn son, even the firstling of the livestock… the hand of death did not pass over the house of Pharaoh but, for every house whose doorpost was marked with the blood of a slaughtered lamb, death passed over all who dwelt within. By the blood of a lamb, the children of Israel escaped Yahweh’s vengeance. This first Passover saw the release of God’s people, freed from the tyranny of Egypt. No longer slaves, they marched out of Egypt and even plundered their former taskmasters: “And the Lord gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they lent unto them such things as they required. And they spoiled the Egyptians” (Ex 12:36). God chose Moses a shepherd to redeem the children of Israel from the bondage of Egypt and to lead them into a land of promise and blessing.

Samuel the priest was sent by God to anoint a new King, one who would rule faithfully unlike Saul, a king chosen by the people, who greatly disappointed the Lord. God chose a ruddy and handsome shepherd named David to rule and protect his people who was a proven defender of Israel. With a single stone he brought down Goliath, the great Philistine champion. And with one swift blow took the giants head by his own sword. Time and time again, David and his mighty men defeated the enemies of God’s people. In fact, during his reign, this Shepherd King conquered nearly all of the neighboring nations. David would prove to be a shepherd who gathered God’s people into one flock, for God used him to end a seven-year long civil war between the people of Judah and the people of Israel. In the fifth chapter of the second book of Samuel we read how,

all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron and said, “Behold, we are your bone and flesh.  In times past, when Saul was king over us, it was you who led out and brought in Israel. And the Lord said to you, 'You shall be shepherd of my people Israel, and you shall be prince over Israel.’ ” So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron, and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel (2 Sam 5:1-3).

David, a shepherd, was chosen of God, given to unify and reconstitute the children of Israel into one new man. Sadly, after David’s death, God’s people often found the wicked crozier of unfaithful shepherds around their necks: ruled by sinful kings and neglectful priests; proving to be the very antithesis of Moses and David. And, tt was God himself who finally indicted these unworthy shepherds, promising through the prophet Ezekiel to end their wicked ways,

Woe to the shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves! Should not shepherds feed the flock?  You have not strengthened the weak, healed the sick, bandaged the injured, brought back the strays, or sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled over them. They were scattered because they had no shepherd… over the entire face of the earth with no one looking or searching for them (Ezk 34:2-6).

But God promised through the prophet Ezekiel to send a greater Shepherd, One who in future days would feed his sheep as David had, “the Lord said: I will appoint over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will feed them. He will feed them and be their shepherd.” To Israel was promised One like the shepherd spoken of by Amos who would rescue his sheep from the mouth of the lion, who would not surrender a single calf to God’s enemies. The Old Testament prophets and Scriptures foretold of a Shepherd who would come and offer a more perfect sacrifice than Abel’s; who would redeem God’s people from a tyranny far surpassing that of Pharaoh; A great Shepherd who would heal and unify not only the people of Israel but reconcile Jew and Gentile to one another.

If today you were to venture into one of the earliest Christian catacombs, say from the first or second century, there upon the walls or perhaps on the sarcophagus itself would most likely be found three prominent images depicting Jesus. You would find an image called the Orans, depicting a man standing with hands uplifted to heaven, which for the earliest Christians brought to mind the mysterious man standing upon the river whom Daniel the prophet recorded encountering in the tenth chapter writing, “And I heard the man clothed in linen, (writes Daniel) which was upon the waters of the river, when he held up his right hand and his left hand unto heaven, and swore by him that liveth for ever that it shall be for a time, times, and an half…” Of course, the early Christians understood this man to be a kind of pre-incarnate Christ or Theophany: Jesus is the praying man of heaven.

Next you would find images portraying Jesus as the Philosopher. Hellenized Christians (both Jewish and Pagan converts) would in light of the resurrection, understand Jesus as very wisdom itself; the full embodiment of Wisdom incarnated in the God-man himself. Jesus is the true Philosopher. Finally, you would see an image of a Shepherd carrying a sheep across his shoulders. It is the image of Jesus the Good Shepherd, for the earliest Christians knew that the miracle of Easter morning proved Jesus’ claim to be true: “I am the good Shepherd.” They saw that Moses and David— every faithful Shepherd of Israel— every prophecy… was fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

Jesus said, “I am the good Shepherd” and by these very words identifies himself as the promised Shepherd of Ezekiel chapter thirty-four, he who truly cares for, protects, and seeks out his sheep; for God himself promised to Shepherd his people,

For thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I, even I, will both search my sheep, and seek them out [and] bring them to their own land, and feed them upon the mountains of Israel by the rivers… I will seek that which was lost, and bring again that which was driven away, and will bind up that which was broken, and will strengthen that which was sick (Ezk 34:11).

“I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.” And here our Lord identifies himself as the suffering Servant as prophesied in the fifty-third chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah; foretelling of the Shepherd who would give his life for his straying sheep,

Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted… brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers (Isa 53:4-7).

The Good Shepherd offered himself for the salvation of his people. This is the glorious news of the Gospel! Friends, Jesus died in our place; taking upon himself the full weight and punishment for our sins; he was the willing substitute, the scapegoat upon which the sins of the whole world were placed. Therefore St. Peter rejoices in writing, “Jesus… suffered for us… who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes we were healed.” The wholly innocent Shepherd of Israel endured for us every kind of suffering. He acted on behalf of and for the benefit of his sheep (for you and me). According to St. Paul Jesus was the substitute who made atonement for sin,

Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith (Gal 3:3-5).

Perhaps the idea of substitutionary atonement (God dying for the sins of his people) challenges modern sensibilities. But exegetical attempts to explain away the idea of substitution and the Old Testament system of sacrifice closely connected with it, is an exercise in futility. As in the Old Testament, the expressions, “to carry one’s sin,” or, “to bear one’s iniquity,” are equivalent to “suffer the punishment and guilt of one’s sin,” (Lev. 20:17, 19; 24:15; Ezek. 23:35), so “to carry another’s sin,” denotes “to suffer the punishment and guilt of another,” or “to suffer vicariously,” (Lev. 3:19, 17; Numb. 14:33; Lam. 5:7; Ezek. 18:19, 20). Can this be done in any other way than by the imputation of the guilt and sin of others, as was the case in the sin and guilt-offerings? No. Therefore, the Baptist in seeing our Lord on the banks of the Jordan rightly declares, “Behold, the Lamb of God, which takes away the sins of the world.”

Like Abel before him, Jesus made an acceptable sacrifice; the perfect sacrifice of his precious body and blood, and thereby by propitiated the wrath of God, bringing peace and reconciliation. But Jesus is a far greater Shepherd than Abel, for Jesus willing gave his life, it was not taken from him. “Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again.  No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father” (Jn 10:17-18). Beloved, he was not a victim at the hands of murderers, but offered himself for the life of the world.

Jesus is a greater Shepherd than Moses, for the Divine Shepherd redeemed the whole world, not merely from an earthly power, but from the bondage of sin and death. For by his death the Shepherd conquered death and by his resurrection has liberated all who trust in him by faith,

Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him. For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God. Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom 6:8-11).

The greater Abel is also the greater Moses, the Shepherd who broke the shackles of sin leading captivity captive into the promised blessing of the Father, he that “hath made us accepted in the beloved. In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace” (Eph 1:6-7). Jesus as both Shepherd and Lamb has by his perfect substitutionary sacrifice redeemed the children of God. Jesus is the greater David for by his obedient death and expiation of sin, he tore down the dividing wall, not just the divisions within Israel, but that which separated Jew from Gentile, For [Jesus the greater Shepherd] is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us… to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace; And that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross…” (Eph 2:12-16). Jesus as both Shepherd and Lamb has by his perfect substitutionary sacrifice redeemed the children of God making one new man; the people of God without separation or division.

In today’s Epistle, St. Peter says we have been brought back to the great Shepherd. "But ye are now brought back to the shepherd and bishop of your souls." Now, there are two ways one can understand what he is getting at. If we take this passage in the passive voice, then he means to say that Christ, our great Shepherd has, by his great sacrifice of love, gone after and returned us unto himself. Remember the words of our Lord,

If a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray? And if so be that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more of that sheep, than of the ninety and nine which went not astray (Mt 18:12-13).

The Good shepherd is not like the “heirling whose own sheep are not, seeth a wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, because the heirling careth not for the sheep.” The Good Shepherd seeks, finds, and returns the stray to safety. Now, if we read being “brought back” in the middle voice, then St. Peter is rejoicing in the sheep who having heard the voice of their Shepherd turn back to (or return) to their Shepherd. Of these Jesus said,

the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out.  And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice… I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine (Jn 10:3-4).

Let every wayward daughter and every wayward son hear and rejoice: "the Shepherd and Bishop of your soul" is calling you unto himself: come! Let the wayward sheep who have strayed onto rocky and perilous terrain return to the safety and protection of their Shepherd. If today, you recognize the Shepherds voice, come for the salvation of your soul. He longs to lead you into greener pastures. Eat, drink, and be filled with the assurance of his great love towards you. Feast on him and be strengthened in both body and soul. For he does not bar you from His table, but rather, says, return unto me, the Shepherd and Bishop of your soul; enter and rejoice in my presence! Amen.

We Overcome by Faith

THE FIRST SUNDAY AFTER EASTER

The first Sunday after Easter has traditionally been called “Low Sunday” as it comes after the high and glorious feast of Easter Sunday, the pinnacle of the Christian year, the climax of God’s redemptive story to redeem fallen men, even the whole world. “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us: therefore, let us keep the feast.” And the church has kept the feast throughout this Easter Octave, contemplating, absorbing, and rejoicing in the good news of Easter,

“Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him. For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God. Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Let these words soak in for just a moment… “Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death has no more dominion over him.” This is the miracle of Easter! Death no longer has dominion neither does it hold humanity in its suffocating grip. Sin is dead to us: to all who are in Christ. This is reality, this is true truth

“Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” This is joyous refrain of Easter: We are alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Christ is victor and in Christ we too are victorious.

The empty tomb declares to the entire cosmos that Christ has overcome the world.  His resurrection bears witness which was first made known to the three Mary’s and then to the Apostles and other followers who, scared for their very lives, were hiding behind locked doors for fear of the Jews; we read how Jesus miraculously entered the room appearing before them: “Peace be with you.” They could not, in that moment, comprehend the magnitude of the resurrection or its implications. Christ had overcome the world! And in time, they would come to understand that in Christ, they too had overcome the world. On the night of his betrayal, Jesus told his disciples to “be of good cheer” for “I have overcome the world.” And this morning we say yes: Christ is risen, he has slain the Great Dragon, broken the bonds of death, conquered the depths of hell, and burst forth from the tomb! The whole world has been turned upside down by the Resurrection of Christ, old realities have been smashed, a new reality has come to all who believe. To this St. John testifies,

“Whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.  Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5:4-5)

Christ has overcome the world and so to have the children of God. But, what exactly does it mean that Christ has overcome the world? By the world, the Apostle John means all that is opposed to keeping the commandments of God, or everything in this world which draws us away from God. The world opposes God. Jesus told his disciples not to “marvel if the world hates you.” Satan and the world rail against the Kingdom of God, crafty terrorists out to derail God’s redemptive mission. The things of this world allure us into their death spiral, taking us far from God.  “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father but of the world.” This world is a False Prophet, the spirit of antiChrist, promising what it cannot fulfill; for in the words of the beloved apostle, “the world is fading away.” And yet, the world acts upon corrupt flesh and so many are led captive by it. The stronghold of Satan, the Prince of the Air, and all things opposed to God had to be conquered releasing the children of God, even the whole creation, from death’s bondage: redeemed; freed from the evils of this world. Jesus “overcame the world” so that we might participate with him in overcoming the world. He is the first to overcome, not only before us, but for us, so that we might be able to do the same, to live in the same victory. Praise Christ whose awesome victory secures all subsequent victories!

So, with great confidence, St John writes that “Whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world.” To be born again of God, regenerated in Christ, is to be victorious over all that opposes God. How magnanimous, what compassion, how wide is the mercy and love of God that whatsoever is born of God has overcome the world, is overcoming the world, will overcome in the end. Male, female, old and young, every person throughout history, from every tongue, tribe, and nation “which is born of God, overcometh the world,” a victory not obtained of themselves, it is the gift of God; not by their power, but through a new birth, whereby, faith, love, and grace from God, glorify Him, wielding a power not of themselves, to overcome the world. This is what God has done in Christ for all who believe. How great is the love of the Father towards all who love Him, for as the Psalmist declares

“He hath not dealt with us after our sins; nor rewarded us according to our wickedness. For look how high the heaven is in comparison of the earth; so great is his mercy also toward them that fear him. Look how wide also the east is from the west; so far hath he set our sins from us” (Psalm 103:10-12).

Sin and all of its corresponding guilt, that which enslaved us has been cast away in the death of Christ, He alone has satisfied the demands of the covenant in his body and by his obedient will. That which the prophet Micah foresaw- the vindication of God’s people through the vindication of Messiah- is the happy portion for all who believe, for all who love the Father and his commandments. For through Micah God declared a future day of forgiveness and restoration for his people,

“Who is a God like unto thee, that pardoneth iniquity, and passeth by the transgression of the remnant of his heritage? He retainith not his anger for ever, because he delighteth in mercy. He will turn again, he will have compassion upon us; he will subdue our iniquities; and thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:18-19).

Friends, the Lord has turned towards us in his Son Jesus Christ. By the cross he has cast away sin- made us clean- because he is merciful; he is compassionate. And, he is faithful. The empty tomb forever bears witness to God’s undying and everlasting love. “Who is a God like unto thee?” There is no other. “Whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.” Our overcoming the world is contingent on two very important things: (1) Christ had to first overcome the world, and (2) faith is necessary for the children of God to conquer as well. For without faith one has neither Christ, nor God the Father, nor the Holy Spirit, nor the eternal life; consequently, without faith there is no justification, no forgiveness of sins, no sanctification, and no salvation. “He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life.” And, apart from the new life attained by faith which arises from the baptismal waters, there is no victory: no faith; no Christ; no overcoming of the world.

And, St. John is not merely speaking of some past historic event, recounting that day when the battle was won and the Christian overcame the world. No, by faith we are overcoming the world, presently, right now, moment by moment. In a real sense, we understand victory as having already been achieved, but this past victory is a present reality, actuated and sustained by faith. Pause, and take a quick inventory of life’s present circumstances… are you winning the battle, are you conquering the world, vanquishing sin, mastering inordinate desires? Remaining unscathed by external threats and painful circumstances? Perhaps not, and yet, we fight as victors, as overcomers, those who will not be frustrated, crushed, overpowered, routed or ruined by the world. In the darkest hour, when all seems lost, by faith we will overcome. We may have casualties, lose ground, face temporary setbacks; and yet St. John would remind us of Jesus’ own words, words I’m sure John held very close to his heart, “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”

Now, imagine living in a world in which Christ had not overcome. Behold this thought in your mind… what would life be like if the world had not been conquered by the love of God, with fallen humanity left in its sins, with no means of salvation and no real hope to cling to. Despair hanging on like the flu, never quite being able to shake off a sense of impending death. No certainty in anything. The shifting shadows of the world supplying whatever temporal and frivolous enjoyments it can. Mere citizens of the world. No relief in suffering, no justice in death. Metaphorically speaking, we would be like the apostles and disciples who believing that Jesus was stone cold dead in the grave, assembled together behind locked doors full of dread, fear, and anxiety. Everything they believed in, hoped for, lay wrapped up in a rich man’s tomb. But this is not our reality. This is not our lot, for Christ has risen from the grave: he has overcome the world. Just as he appeared to the disciples on the Sunday morning, he comes to us, “Peace be with you.” Peace has come because Christ has overcome the world. Peace in this life comes from faith in Christ, in him entrust our very souls and bodies, in him, we have overcome the world, the flesh, and the devil. We are more than conquerors in Christ… as sons and daughters of the living God we are inheritors of the kingdom and all of its blessings. True, lasting, and eternal peace comes solely by faith in He who is our peace, who made peace between us miserable sinners and the most Holy God.

As overcomers, we can- by grace and the Spirit- learn to love the world as God does. For the world is subdued, below us, who were once under the boot heel of the world. For only One is above us now, God the Father, who made the world and us.  God is above us and the world is below us. The world itself, and all which is in the world, is for our use, subject to us, as we are to God. The dominion given unto Adam is once again restored. The beautiful things we see, sweet to taste, blissful in sound, pleasant to smell, and thrilling to touch, all these are ours and given for our enjoyment when used in accordance with God’s decrees. For the world was made for us, not we for it; all the wonderful things of the world are given to serve us, not we to be enslaved to them. Faith shows us Him who is above all things, but also in all things. Having overcome the world by faith, we can love the created world for all its beauty and goodness and fulfill the new commandment to “love others as Christ has loved us.” The love which has overcome the world now dwells in the hearts of all those who by faith are born of God. Those who overcome by faith are at peace in the world. Even amidst tribulation from persecution without and distress from within, we have peace. Having entered into the Divine life we discover the rest of God, contentment, and true happiness of heart.  This is the possession of all who by faith in Christ attain victory on the battlefield of life, as we face difficulties derived from our own sinfulness and from an ungodly world. Yet through life’s battles, peace reigns, no matter how much the surface of the ocean of life may be agitated by wind and storm, for we also possess hope.

We are hopeful because we have a future. By faith, we know that our lives will not end in the dirt. To overcome the world is to obtain the sure promise and security of an eternity with God! The promise to one day go where Christ has gone, to be with him where he is, to see him as he truly is: resplendent beauty, glory, and magnificence. And this is why Easter is so much more than Good News. The Good News of Christ having overcome the world is not simply informative but performative as well: this Good News is transformative: our redemption in Christ and the hope it expresses should continually change your life. Jesus came and subdued the world, bringing peace and hope, to be apprehended and enjoyed today, by all who trust in Him. We find peace and hope in this turbulent world because we know that Christ our Lord has already won the battle: his victory over the world, the flesh, and the devil is our victory. Our present hope is also a future hope. It’s not merely an individualistic hope of getting to heaven one day, an idea that historically has served to be a good incentive for people to live by faith in obedience to Christ. Rather, our future hope is much, much grander than any individual idea of obtaining heaven.

Our future hope is the redemption and renewal of the entire cosmos. It is the reversing of Babel, bringing all of mankind together in a chorus of praise and thanksgiving, humanity reconciled one to another and to their Creator. It is the hope of glory, the future glorification of all who love the Lord Jesus Christ and persevere through the trials and tribulations of this life by faith. While this happy vision of beatitude lie beyond this present world... it will come; it will happen. It is the blessed end for those who by faith overcome the world. Beloved, may the sure and faithful words of Jesus both strengthen and encourage you today: “He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels” (Rev 3:5). Amen.

Chrysostom’s Paschal Sermon

EASTER SUNDAY

Saint John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople (400AD)

If any man be devout and love God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast. If any man be a wise servant, let him rejoicing enter into the joy of his Lord. If any have labored long in fasting, let him now receive his recompense. If any have wrought from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward. If any have come at the third hour, let him with thankfulness keep the feast. If any have arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings; because he shall in nowise be deprived thereof. If any have delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near, fearing nothing. If any have tarried even until the eleventh hour, let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness; for the Lord, who is jealous of his honor, will accept the last even as the first; he gives rest unto him who comes at the eleventh hour, even as unto him who has wrought from the first hour.

And he shows mercy upon the last, and cares for the first; and to the one he gives, and upon the other he bestows gifts. And he both accepts the deeds, and welcomes the intention, and honors the acts and praises the offering. Wherefore, enter you all into the joy of your Lord; and receive your reward, both the first, and likewise the second. You rich and poor together, hold high festival. You sober and you heedless, honor the day. Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast. The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously. The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away. Enjoy ye all the feast of faith: Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness. let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free. He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it. By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh.

And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hell, said he, was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. It was embittered, for it was abolished. It was embittered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embittered, for it was overthrown. It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen. O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.

Into Thy Hands

GOOD FRIDAY MEDITATION (Luke 23:46)

St. Luke is the only Gospel writer, who in his account, records these final words of Jesus. Having finished all he was sent to do; he now speaks one last time. “Into thy hands, I commend my spirit.” In the Lucan account, this is the last of three prayers our Lord prays from the agony of the Cross in the waning moments of life. The first, asking forgiveness for his executioners, “for they knew not what they were doing.” Then, our Lord prays for a convicted thief hanging next to him, for this sinner to be with Him in Paradise. And finally, Jesus prays on behalf of himself, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit."

From the Cross; from the intensity of suffering and sorrow, he prays first for others and then, lastly, for himself. In three short prayers is given to us the great example of Divine Charity; of self-less and self-denying love. Only after he has prayed for the sake and goodness of others does he bring himself before the Father in prayer. Thus, our Lord shows us, even at the very end of his life, the divine pattern: others first… self: last.  "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me."

“Into thy hands, I commend my spirit.” The one who lived by the Word now dies in the Word. How fitting that the Logos— the Eternal Word of God who exited heaven for the salvation of men— should now return to his Father in the confidence and comfort of praying Holy Scripture; the very words penned by the hand of David found in the thirtieth psalm, listen to this prayer,

In thee, O Lord, do I put my trust; let me never be ashamed: deliver me in thy righteousness. Bow down thine ear to me; deliver me speedily: be thou my strong rock, for an house of defence to save me. For thou art my rock and my fortress; therefore for thy name's sake lead me, and guide me. Pull me out of the net that they have laid privily for me: for thou art my strength. Into thine hand I commit my spirit: thou hast redeemed me, O Lord God of truth. (Ps 30:1-5)

What David wrote and experienced is now, on the Cross, fully and completely embodied in the Lord Jesus Christ, here, in the final moments of life. For Psalm thirty is the plea of the innocent and righteous sufferer, the one who in the face of injustice and impending doom, puts his full trust and confidence in God the Father. “In thee O, Lord do I put my trust…” In the weakness of the suffering Son the Father’s strength is made perfect, “Bow down thine ear to me; deliver me speedily: be thou my strong rock, for an house of defence to save me.” This is the prayer of belief, of one who trusts; it is the prayer of faith.

For Jesus Christ is the faithful man. His entire life was marked by faith. In faith, he resigned his will to the Father’s— glad to drink the cup of suffering— and with his last dying breath entrusts his spirit, his very life and death into the hands of the Father. He commended ahis life, meaning, he entrusted the care and protection of his soul and body to God. The salvific mission of the Son which began and was sustained by faith, is now completed in confidence: “thy hand will pull me out of the net laid privily for me; for thou art my strength.” He trusted in the strong hand of his Father, right up to the very end.

It was the hand of love which released the Son into the world and it is into those same loving hands to which Christ knows, with all confidence, that he will return. He would not go into the dark night of death alone neither would he be vulnerable to its sting, for the strong hand of the Father was with him, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” He was not abandoned in life and he was not abandoned in death. With a faith greater than Abraham he trusted: from the nether regions of hell he would arise; the mighty hand of God would bring him forth from the grave. Through suffering, shame, and sorrow— even in death— the sure hand of the Father would bring him home… where he now sits.

Jesus was faithful unto the very end. His final act of will was to believe.  "Into thy hands I commend my spirit” is the penultimate prayer of a life lived in faith. It is the prayer of the resigned will, of one wholly abandoned to the will of the Father, because it trusts and believes in Him. It is the prayer of all those who put their faith in Christ. But we are not saved by faith, by a faith which is of ourselves, but (as St. Paul writes) we are saved “by the faith of Jesus Christ, we who have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ.” Saved by faith in the faith of Jesus Christ. Beloved, in times of distress and in times of suffering, especially when we suffer unjustly for the cause of Christ, may we in every cross-filled trial of life, exercise faith… just as our Lord entrusted himself to the Father: “Into thy hands I commend my spirit.”

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Friends, He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it. Amen.

To the Uttermost

MAUNDY THURSDAY

Christianity is not built on fable and myths. Biblical faith does not recount stories as symbols of meta-historical truths; rather, the Christian faith establishes itself upon history. Divine history which unfolds upon earth, in time. On Palm Sunday, we participated (through the recollection of liturgy) in the historical event of our Lord’s triumphal entrance into the Holy City of Jerusalem, the day marking the beginning of the passion of our Lord, each day moving closer and closer to the suffering, death, and ultimately, the triumph of the Lord on Easter Sunday. And here, on Maundy Thursday, the Gospel reading draws us into the company of Messiah, in the upper room, where he sits with his disciples at table for one last meal. But this is no ordinary meal, neither is it merely occasioned by the coming Passover.

On this night, the Lord will pronounce the inauguration of a new covenant by institution of the Holy Communion; a covenant of restoration and redemption; a covenant ratified in his willful death. Through the words of institution, Jesus gives the sign of his covenantal promise; forever connecting the holy mysteries of bread and wine with his sacrificial death, recalling the immensity of his great love towards us and providing the church its primary means of proclaiming his death until he comes again. The death of Christ is the proclamation of the redeemed and the hope of the world, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.” For it is solely by participation in his death (by faith) that we obtain the blessed promise of eternal life.

I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live forever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.

Maundy Thursday centers on the Last Supper and the institution of the Holy Eucharist. But here, in the fourth Gospel, John records the washing of the feet as an example given to the disciples, and its connection to the mandatum novum, the new commandment given by Christ, “to love one another as I have loved you” hence, ‘Maundy Thursday’. But before considering the foot washing, we must first see it as a dramatic commentary on Jesus’ death. For John’s gospel account is not simply a narrative recounting Jesus’ humility and service (it is certainly that!) but foreshadows the death of Jesus and the ultimate act of love. For in contemplating His servanthood, we can begin to understand the extent of humility and Divine love.

Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God; He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself…

With the Last Supper, Jesus’ hour had arrived, his telos, the goal to which his earthly ministry had been directed from the very beginning: to reconcile the world to the Father through suffering and death, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.” To accomplish this, God the Son embraced humility, even from the foundations of the world, leaving the riches of heaven to be born of a virgin, taking upon himself the frailty, susceptibility, and weakness of human flesh.

In the words of St. Augustine, “he laid not down what he had, but put on what he had not before.” You see, nothing was lost in the incarnation, rather, in leaving heaven, by willingly becoming low, the eternal Son set aside his pre-existent glory and gladly condescended himself; for

he did not consider equality with God something to be grasped (to hold tightly); rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!

The Bread of Heaven had first to take on the form of a servant and then be broken for the life of the world; for eternal life is not obtained merely by death, but through humility as well. With no regard to himself he loved to the uttermost, undeserving and rebellious sinners. In humility, he set his face to restore the injustice of sin, “to restore that which he did not steal.”

He [rose] from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself…

In preparing to wash the feet of his disciples, to make them clean, he laid aside his garments, the mark of a servant's position, embracing the work of a servant. You see, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The laying aside of his garments is a vivid picture of Christ’s humility, the deep humility suffered at the hands of executioners, who violently stripped our Lord at the pillar, hanging him naked upon the cross. Jesus willfully embraced shame and humility at the hands of the very sinners he had come to save.

He was wounded for our transgressions; he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.

For love, Jesus suffered the humility of the Cross, and if we desire to emulate the Divine pattern, we too must humble ourselves before God and men, for it is impossible to love as our Lord commands apart from humility.

After that he poureth water into a bason, and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded.

Jesus loves willingly and humbly, the greater serving the lesser and without regard to self. He loves impartiality for he not only washed the feet of Peter, a denier, but those of Judas, knowing full well the heart of his betrayer. Divine love is impartial, “the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.” Listen to the Apostle Paul and rejoice, “God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” The Divine pattern is to love the unlovable. Yes, it is the difficult path, but it is the way of Christ to which we have been called for “if ye love them which love you, what thank have ye? For sinners also love those that love them. But love your enemies, do good to them to hate you.” Like Jesus, we are to wash the feet of the unlovable with the same self-denying and self-sacrificing love.

 Having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end.

Jesus knows it is the time of his departure (His exit) and he knows to whom he is returning, he is going to the Father. “Having loved his own which were in the world, he loved the unto the end.” Jesus loved them unto the end… or to put it another way, he loved to the uttermost: without fail, completely; perfectly; to the end. To the end of what, His earthly life? Certainly not, for if death could have ended Christ’s love, then he would have come into the world in vain with a love that could have been thwarted by death.

“To the end” means that Jesus loved until the point of death. He loved them with the total fullness of love. He loved them to the uttermost. This is the innate nature of Divine love, which Jesus showed over and over again. In love, he called his disciples to himself, taught, and nurtured them. Even in his rebukes he loved them perfectly. From the cross, in the last moments of life, he perfectly loved an undeserving thief and also ensured the care of his mother. He looked upon his executioners and condemners, asking his Father to forgive them “for they know not what they do.”

It is in Christ’s death, in servants work, where the fullness of Divine love is exemplified, for “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” Beloved, Christ loves utterly, absolutely, totally, completely, selflessly, and to the fullest extent. This is the pattern of Divine love. And, having loved to the uttermost he uttered with his last dying breath, telestai: “It is finished.” Paid in full. In the words of institution given by Christ, we remember the death of our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave his disciples bread and wine as his body and blood. The full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, satisfaction for the sins of the world. Our Eucharistic celebration is not empty, being built upon stories and myths, but is full and weighty, built upon a broken body, upon spilt blood, upon the actual death of Christ. It is no mere fiction, but the culmination of salvation history, the very reality at the center of our communion with God and with each other.

After he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you?

Of course, in that moment, the disciples were incapable of understanding the full significance of their feet being washed by the Lord. But we do; we understand. For us he made himself low. He came to serve, not to be served. By his all sufficient death he has washed us and made us clean. For neither the blood of bulls nor goats can make us pure. It is no longer by purification rites and cultic action that man is made clean; not only the body but the inner man. Cleanness of heart comes solely by faith in the cleansing blood of the Paschal Lamb: faith cleanses the heart. Purification is the result of Divine action, of Love which came down from heaven; Love which took the form of a servant and clothed itself in humility- the towel of submission and obedience. And what is that God requires? Has the Lord himself not shown us what is good?: “to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.” Faith believes and love responds.

And here, at his most holy table a banquet is set, a feast for those who believe. Tonight, as he did so many years ago in an upper room, he feeds us with the Bread of heaven, his very own body and blood: his love never ending, never partial, and without limitation. He loves you to the uttermost, and if you have ears to hear, the Lord is calling his church to the same: “A new commandment I have given you, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Amen.

The Exaltation of Humility

PALM SUNDAY

Perhaps you find it odd that neither the Gospel nor the Epistle appointed for Palm Sunday recount the triumphal entry of our Lord into Jerusalem. Curiously, the Palm Sunday gospel narrative is actually read on the very first Sunday of the Liturgical year: on the First Sunday in Advent. But as it pertains to today: why is this the case? One answer is found in better understanding the main purpose of the Sunday propers. The Sunday readings appointed for each Liturgical season are in part chosen to help better exegete, or explain and bring to light more clearly the meaning of a given season: a deeper understanding of the Advent of Christ or His Epiphany to the Gentiles. Or the season of Lent which explicates the suffering and passion of Christ and thereby giving Easter its fullest meaning. In other words, the Sunday readings are chosen to lead us into a deeper understanding of salvation history as it is retold throughout the cycle of the Liturgical year: the redemptive purpose of God accomplished in the person and work of Jesus Christ: the eternal Son of God given for the salvation of the world.

Now, history is important. Christianity is an historical faith; the story of redemption is played out in time and progressively unfolds by the hand of God; the highpoint of history being, of course, the incarnation: the birth of Christ; his life; passion; death; resurrection and ascension. Salvation is historical. The gift of memory recounts the wondrous works of God in time, the grand redemptive story and our own story of salvation with its baptismal beginning, our conversion from the world and into the family of God. We understand the consummation of salvation historically as well, tied to a future event when Christ will return in history to judge the living and the dead; the perfecting of all things, even our bodies and souls as we behold the face of Jesus and gaze forever upon Beauty in the eternal city: no longer betrothed but consummated and united with our beloved.

Salvation then is historical, with all its accompanying data, artifacts and events. But salvation isn’t merely historical, its personal. We are not saved by history… we are saved by the God of history who entered into time; being born of a virgin. Jesus: fully God and fully man. History, all of history points to Him and it is in Him that all of history is finally explained and understood.  Palm Sunday commemorates and retells the historic (actual day) that Jesus of Nazareth entered into Jerusalem to observe his final Passover. Now St. John, in his Gospel peaks of three Passover feasts celebrated by Jesus. The first return to Jerusalem for Passover, found in chapter two, links Jesus’ entry with the cleansing of the Temple (2:13-25). His second journey to observe the passover is connected to the multiplication of the loaves and fishes in John chapter six, which begins,

"After these things Jesus went over the sea of Galilee, which is the sea of Tiberias. And a great multitude followed him, because they saw his miracles which he did on them that were diseased. And Jesus went up into a mountain, and there he sat with his disciples. And the passover, a feast of the Jews, was nigh. When Jesus then lifted up his eyes, and saw a great company come unto him, he saith unto Philip, Whence shall we buy bread, that these may eat? (Jn 6:1-6).

And, of course, Jesus’ third and final entrance into Jerusalem on ‘Palm Sunday’, recounts the Passover of his death and resurrection, which has become for us the very basis for the Christian celebration of Easter. With St. Paul we will in a weeks time rejoice: “Christ our sacrifice has been sacrificed for us, therefore let us keep the feast!” (1 Cor 5:7-8). Here St. Paul exegetes history, both the history of Israel and the Gospel Christologically- through lens of Christ- and in doing so attains a fuller knowledge of Passover, of the death of Christ and his resurrection. Likewise, John the Baptist, in one succinct statement summarizes the meaning and purpose of the incarnation: "Behold the Lamb of God which takes away the sins of the world.”  Christ, then, is the hermeneutical key unlocking not only Holy Scripture but history as well; history and all its data is ultimately interpreted  through the lens of Christ.

In a similar way, the readings appointed for this Sunday are the hermeneutical key given to uncover and explain what the history of Palm Sunday- Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem- is all about. Let us begin with the epistle, which is taken from the second chapter of St. Paul’s epistle to the Philippians. It is possibly one of the better known Pauline texts, which speaks of the kenosis, or the emptying and abasement of the eternal Son of God, who by the incarnation, became as we are. Describing the condescension of our Lord St. Paul writes,

"Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men…” (2:5-9).

Paul says, Jesus “made himself of no reputation” which is also translated as “emptied himself”. Here, the Apostle reveals the mystery of the Gospel in the history of Christ’s humiliation: or the mind of Christ. And what was the ‘mind of Christ’? Humility; neither grasping or tightly holding onto his pre-existent form of God and all of its glory, but rather, to take upon his person the form of man, with all its weaknesses, frailties, and vulnerabilities. He did not deem His equality to God a prize to be seized, but emptied Himself. In other words, He did not insist on His own eternal prerogatives, but, on the contrary, humbled Himself to the condition and sufferings of mortal man.  He gladly released (emptied) of his heavenly status and embraced humility and being made low, willfully enduring pain and death on a Roman cross.

Paul continues, “And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross." Now, it is not by accident that the the humility of which St. Paul speaks of is most vividly and viscerally illustrated in today’s appointed Gospel, the Narrative of our Lord’s Passion. You see, the ‘Mind of Christ’ must also have the ‘body of Christ’. The humility which the eternal mind willingly embraced is evidenced and fully demonstrated in his body: by his very words and by his very actions.

He was falsely accused and brought before Pontius Pilate, and our Lord "answered Him to never a word."  He maintained a dignified silence except when truth demanded words.  False accusers brought their many false accusations against Him, but it was as if He heard them not. Our Lord was patient when a robber and a murderer was preferred by the people to Himself, and when falsely condemned for blasphemy and treason, the highest offences against the powers of heaven and the powers of earth, he remained silent in humility: for indignation is human, silence is divine. He never once uttered a word of defense or begged for mercy from the religious leaders and people calling for his crucifixion. Not a finger did he lift in retaliation against those who whipped, scourged, and beat his body.

“And when they were come unto a place called Golgotha, that is to say, a place of a skull, they gave him vinegar to drink mingled with gall: and when he had tasted thereof, he would not drink. And they crucified him.”

Humility in pain, refusing the cup of partial relief: under the abuse of the thieves, the cruel indifference of the passers-by, the bitter taunts of the priests, the felt desertion even of God.  He suffered in every way: emotionally, psychologically, and physically… Meek, lowly, humble unto the point of death.

The Son had no regard for Himself in retaining the glories of the Godhead; but He looked to the regard of others, and therefore descended to humanity and death. His heart was not so set upon holding onto pre-existent glory, for there was something which he coveted more—the redemption of a fallen world by His self-abasement and death. Having “this mind,” he descended and appeared not as a God in glory, but clothed in flesh; not in royal robes, but in common dress; not as Deity in fire, but a man in tears; not in a palace, but in a manger. … And in doing so has given us an example of self-denying humility and godly love.

"Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble (lowly) and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

He who comes in humility enters into Jerusalem to die for the sins of the world. Lowly and in peace will he gladly ascend unto the cross of suffering and shame. He comes gently; not on a horse of war but meekly on a foal, for he is the prince of Peace and the author of salvation; salvation won not by the sword but self-denying love and humility: these are Messiah’s weapons. By his obedient death Christ has conquered death and removed its sting. We find then, that Palm Sunday is about the grace and mercy of Divine humility which St. Paul and St. Matthew’s writings evidence by retelling and reexamining the willful, historical death of our Lord. But humility is finally justified by exaltation.

“And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.  Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name; that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that JESUS CHRIST IS LORD, to the glory of God the Father.”

Friends, Humility was restored and exalted to the highest place of preeminence and glory. For He who was made a little lower than the angels; has been crowned with glory and honor… all things have been put in subjection under his feet. Thus was the humble, self-denying love of the Son rewarded for His exaltation was grounded upon His humiliation, and His mediatorial crown was the reward of His Cross. This we see forever enshrined in the name of Jesus. It is this name (Jesus), His human name, the token of His Humility and of His Passion, which is to be His name forever. He to whom worship has always been as the Son of God, now receives worship as the Son of Man, and it is specifically "at the name of Jesus that every knee should bow.” For peace and salvation has come through Him whom "God hath made both Lord and Christ, even this Jesus whom ye crucified." In Jesus, God's highest glory is not His divine power, but the power of His humble and self-denying love.

Christ is not only our savior but our example as well. St. Paul says, “Let this mind be in you…” In other words, be as Christ Jesus. Have the mind of Christ which is the way of humility; the way of dying to self; the way of the Cross. No one is exalted except by the Cross: humility, obedience, and love. To be in Christ is to be as Christ and if we are in Christ then we too shall be as he is, in fact, St. Paul says that even now we are, in some sense, exalted with our Lord,

“But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;) And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: That in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus”

And how will God show the riches of his grace and kindness in the ages to come: in future ages beyond this age? Perhaps St. John was given a glimpse into the grace and kindness which awaits the humble. In the Revelation St. John writes,

"After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands." To one day obtain and behold the Lamb of God. Surely this is the grace and kindness of God that we will one day experience in the ages beyond this age. Amen.

Christ, Our Perfect Sacrifice

THE FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT, COMMONLY CALLED PASSION SUNDAY

This fifth Sunday in Lent begins the intensity of Passiontide. On this Passion Sunday, the Sunday before Holy Week begins, the Scripture readings help to understand the meaning of Christ's death on the Cross: the Passion of the Lord Jesus Christ.  We need to know something of the "why" of the Passion if we want to respond to it as we should. Passion Sunday, as this day is commonly called, prepares and leads us into the sorrow of death, calling us to begin contemplating the horrible death of Christ; the climactic passion event in the drama of Good Friday.

Today we enter into a season of mourning our divine Bridegroom, putting on as it were sackcloth and ashes. The color red adorns the church, her altar, and ministers. The crosses are draped and veiled as a widow mourning her beloved; they will remain veiled as an outward sign of our inward sorrow. We veil the brilliant gold processional cross which has no corpus christi, recalling for us the death sentence under which Jesus lived until it was executed upon him so terribly at Calvary. And so our preparations begin for the coming days when the bridegroom will be taken away. Passion Sunday begins a lament, the gradual cessation of joy and an imminent confrontation with our Lord’s death. For the very idea and reality of what our Lord suffered, which is recapitulated during Holy Week, is nothing short of a mental melee and emotional assault. Passion Sunday anticipates Christ’s suffering and mysteriously draws us into it. Like a wise trail guide, points out the final destination which lay just over the next ridge, and thereby encourages his companions to keep on and finish the quest. You see, Good Friday is exactly where our Lenten journey as been headed all along. For Christ’s journey which began in a desert terminated on a Cross.

Today we are being put on notice: the suffering of our Lord is near, and as his disciples, we will suffer with him. Mother church is affording us a preview, a glimpse into what lies ahead; into Holy Week which begins one week from today on Palm Sunday as we re-enact the Messiah’s triumphal entry into the Holy City of Jerusalem, thus fulfilling Zechariah's prophecy, "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.” But the praise and adulations of Palm Sunday will quickly morph into evil machinations, betrayal, and finally, the horrors of Good Friday. But today, we are graciously permitted to peer into what lies ahead. It's as if we’re eavesdropping in the garden of gethsemane, overhearing the agonizing prayer and discourse between a dutiful Son and his Loving Father, and made aware of the bitter cup from which our Lord will willingly drink on Good Friday, the very mission of the Son which again was foretold by the prophets of old,

"He [was] despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isa 53:3-6)

We find even the most fleeting thought of Good Friday uncomfortable. It stirs in the belly a concoction mixed of sorrow and bewilderment; shame and guilt. The remembrance of it affects us in a profound way because, first, we again become acutely aware of just how terrible a thing that fateful Friday afternoon was, and second, (if we’re honest), we know (in the depths of the heart) that we are complicit in the thing: would we have been the nobler Roman? Or the believing Israelite? Or the vow keeping Apostle? “Lord, I will lay down my life for you”, “Though I should die with thee, yet will I not deny thee.” Surely we too would have cowered away in tears at the sounding of the crow. And even now, as those who have been graciously forgiven by the boundless mercy of God, the memory of Good Friday haunts the corridors of the soul and disturbs the conscience.

In our day, much of popular piety proceeds to review Holy Week historically; it pictures with great fidelity the various scenes of the "bitter passion," it dissects all the feelings and thoughts of our suffering Savior, it analyzes the virtues displayed by the Lord at every step. "How shall I imitate Him… what can I learn from Him?" are its most important questions. We find in the Suffering Servant, the Lord Jesus, a great motive for personal amendment: "He died on the Cross for me, and I have offended Him so deeply." Thus, there is a tendency for Paschal Mystery spirituality to devolve into seeking its end in self. The ancient Christians followed a different course. Of course, it also put Christ’s suffering up front but it was aiming too at the purpose of the Passion. It ascends to the contemplation of Christ first, and in doing so, revels in the realities afforded to us: in other words, “what He’s done”, not, “what I could do differently or better.” By His suffering, Christ redeemed and made us children of God. And, on approaching the most tragic day of the whole year, on Good Friday, the early Christians were not so eager to speak of the bitter passion but of the beata passio, the happy or blessed passion.

For Mother Church has declared the dark climax of our Lord’s Passion to be good: Good Friday. On that good day, the great Sacrifice of the High Priest was offered as a once-for-all atoning offering for the sins of the whole world. In the midst of sorrow and death, the Great High Priest showed himself to be both perfect Sacrifice and the perfect Sacrificer! All of the sacrifices for sin in the Old Testament had a single purpose: to point to Jesus Christ on the cross, whose one sacrifice of himself, once offered, he took into the holiest place of all—the presence of his Father in heaven. Jesus Christ on the cross is not only a sacrificial victim, he is the one and only High Priest who, raised from the dead, was able to offer the sacrifice of his own Body and Blood for our redemption. His one sacrifice of himself, offered for the remission of the sins of the whole world, means that there is no more need for sin offerings. The sacrificial ordinances of the Old Testament regarding animal sacrifices for sin are done away because their purpose is accomplished. The one, true, all-sufficient sacrifice has been offered forever, and so the author of Hebrews can put this question before us:

"For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Hebrews 9:13-14).

The answer, of course, is that the Blood of Christ can do (and for the faithful has done) what no animal sacrifice could—cleanse us forever from our sins and give us a new and eternal life in God’s fellowship and service. By his obedient death he has become our great high priest, passing through the heavenly tabernacle, taking his own blood into the most holy place, into the very presence of the Father having made atonement once and for all for our sins. What the blood of bulls and goats spilt over and over on the day of atonement could not do, he has done, for he is both the perfect Sacrificer and perfect Sacrifice.

Friends, only the Sacrifice of Christ’s precious body and blood can make the inner man clean, not merely ritually clean, but the body and the soul, our very consciences which all too often condemn, too often dredge up voices of discouragement and despair which lead to despondency, detachment, and the tyranny of the self. For the unclean conscience is infested with dead works. And let us understand what the preacher of Hebrews means by dead works. He doesn’t intend for us to recall the works of the Old Testament Law, under some legalism vs. grace construct (which is a tendency in much of present day evangelicalism). Rather, by dead works he means sins which defile and pollute the conscience. And these are in direct opposition to ‘good works’ which every Christian is called to perform. The Hebrews preacher writes,

“And having an high priest over the house of God; Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised; And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.”

To put it succinctly; the ‘good work’ is the opposite of sinning, it’s a life in pursuit of purity in heart. The ‘good work’ is necessary to fulfill the divine command to love. Love and Good Works are two sides of the same coin. Love is the good work and without the good work one cannot love. The rich soil from whence the fruit of love springs forth is faith. Not an abstract faith, an intellectual assent unto an idea or theory, neither is it stern adherence to an ethical code or social contract… it is fida Christus, faith in the Person and work of Christ. It seeks and desires an ever increasing knowledge of and trust in Him, who IS LOVE. We love because He first loved us” confesses the Apostle loved by our Lord. knowing God and being known by God is to be loved and is our capacity to love as well. But first, faith must seek and be found by Him, and having found Him, it compels us to know him, and in the knowledge of Him our Love burns and increases more and more. Hear the beloved Apostle from his first Epistle, “And we have known and believed the love that God hath to us. God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.”

Now, contrast this with the religious leaders from today’s Gospel who were blinded to Truth, who simply refused to believe to exercise faith in the Son of God, "Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan, and hast a devil?” To which our Lord responds, “I have not a devil; but I honour my Father, and ye do dishonour me.  And I seek not mine own glory; there is one that seeketh and judgeth. Verily, verily, I say unto you, If a man keep my saying, he shall never see death.” The eternal Son of God offers eternal life, and yet they cannot believe: ""Before Abraham was, I am," he claims for himself the "I AM" of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He declares that he is the God of the burning bush and of the commandments who by the incarnation has been made man. Jesus of Nazareth is God, the Eternal Son of the Father in heaven, and because he is the Christ, the promised Messiah come to save the world. On the day that our Lord declared himself to be the God of Abraham, his enemies simply would not believe and thereby refused to love. They sought to kill him by stoning, declaring his Truth a blasphemy. “If I say the truth, why do ye not believe me?” Unbelief kills. Faith loves. Without faith, without covenant trust, love cannot abide and certainly cannot grow. Love trusts and is trustworthy. Know it is in whom you believe. Let go of fear, cast aside any and all trepidation in loving Christ… he will not reject nor ridicule, belittle or devalue, for he loves you with an unending and perfect love. Good Friday is all the proof needed to know that this is true.

A proper understanding of Good Friday tells us that the final word on the Lord’s blessed passion isn’t DEATH; far from it! The final word is LOVE. For at Calvary Christ "suffered for sins, the just for the unjust…" Yes, our Lord endured unspeakable pain and sorrow. But St. Peter continues... "that he might bring us to God…” And hear St. Paul... “by the cross, we have been "reconciled in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before the Father holy and blameless and beyond reproach.” And again, by the will of the Father, "we have been sanctified through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” The eternal Son of heaven made man gladly obeyed the Father’s will. The Son believed and trusted the Father who had sent him, who sent Him to die for the sins of the world, and not to simply taste death naturally as all men do, but to die a death on Roman Cross. “And having been obedient unto death, he has become a greater and more perfect High Priest.” Jesus passed through the heavenly tabernacle carrying not the blood of bulls and goats, but his own perfect and precious blood. He alone has redeemed you from death by death. His body broken for you, his blood poured out for you. It is glorious. It is lovely. It is good.

Beloved, the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ is a journey into sorrow but it is the way that leads to life today, right now, right here because the blood of Christ can purge your consciences of shame and guilt. It is the gateway unto presently living the abundant life: a life that is not your own but as a gift given back to the Giver; life which we completely owe to God; a life that demands our love, our fidelity. It is the means to a life that is filled with promise, a promise of an eternal inheritance in the unshakable kingdom of God, that happy place awaiting all who remain faithful to the Bridegroom, who in chastity and fidelity forsake all else. Therefore, when we contemplate the death of Jesus Christ during this Passiontide, we are also contemplating our life. The more of Christ’s Passion that we share with him, the more life that will be in us. And the best possible use of the next two weeks is that we should become so full of the death of Jesus Christ that each of us will also find ourselves overflowing with the new life that he gives by this one, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice of Himself.

In the coming sorrows of Good Friday and the encroaching hopelessness of Holy Saturday, let us hold fast to this truth: Christ is not gone we are not abandoned. Rather, He has entered into the presence of the Father in the holy of holies. And we have entered by faith as well into the place of God’s dwelling, into the joy and certainty of the Divine Life. In the dark days and times of discouragement let us hold fast to the words of our Lord Jesus Christ who says,

"Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.” Amen.

Be Our Defense

THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT

The Pre-Lenten ‘Gesima Sundays’ wisely draw our attention to the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity (love), in doing so, the church in her wisdom prepares her children for spiritual battle: warring against the world, the flesh and the devil. For though our Lenten devotion of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving draws us deeper towards the grace and mercy of Christ, we also become more and more vulnerable to the schemes of the Devil, and quite often experience a greater susceptibility to sin. The appointed Gospels for the first three weeks of Lent make this clear. Each Gospel is about the great conflict between Jesus the Son of God and the powers of darkness, namely Satan and his evil cohorts! It is not by chance that Satan, the devil himself and his minions, are the central antagonists in each of these Gospel lessons.  

On the first Sunday, Jesus confronts the Devil in the Judaean wilderness. Satan, with his insidious plans, tempts Jesus (of course he waits until the 40th day: the very apex of Christ’s hunger and thirst… That wicked serpent!), “If you’re hungry, turn these stones to bread: feed yourself!” And, “Prove to me who you are, throw yourself off the top of this tower, didn’t your Father say his angels will protect you?” And finally, “Do you desire the worship of the nations? Then simply bow down and worship me, and I’ll give you the praise and glory of men!” But Jesus stands his ground never giving an inch. Jesus Christ, the second Adam, overcomes the very Tempter himself.

Last Sunday, Jesus cast out a demon from a young girl, the daughter of a Canaanite woman. In faith, the woman called out to Jesus to heal her daughter, “O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil” and in turn Jesus exerted his divine power, and from a distance, bound and cast the demon far from the girl, healing her, making her whole again.

And today, our Gospel reading from St. Luke records Jesus exorcising a rather nasty demon from a deaf-mute man. Yet, some of the bystanders wrongly see the power of Satan at work in Jesus’ miracle. Suffering from an acute case of spiritual farsightedness, they cannot see God at work in and through Jesus! Amazed they say, “He casteth out devils through Beelzebub the chief of the devils.”  Others in the crowd tempt him, demanding he perform some sign from heaven to prove his authority is truly of God: now where have we seen that tactic before!

But Jesus rebukes them, “But if I with the finger of God cast out devils, no doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you!” They didn’t have the spiritual vision graced to Peter enabling him to recognize Jesus for who he really was. Jesus asked the Apostle, “But who do you say that I am? And Peter answered, “You are the Christ.” And yet, within minutes, Christ rebukes him, “get behind me Satan. You [Peter] are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but on man’s.” Now, of course Jesus wasn’t saying that Peter is Satan. But, Peter’s rebuking of Jesus for openly talking about his forthcoming crucifixion and death, attempting to impede what Christ came to earth to accomplish is exactly what Satan lives to do. In that moment, Peter is an accomplice to evil, the devil’s tool, put in play to upend Jesus’ divine mission. Three Sundays and three confrontations with the Devil and his demonic hosts.

In the words of the reformer Martin Luther, we “dwell in a fallen world, where the prince is an evil spirit and has the hearts of men in his power, doing what he will.” We would be well served this morning to heed St Peter’s warning to, “Be sober-minded; [to] be watchful. [For our] adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour…” The Enemy is cunning. He is deceitful. He is wicked. Has he has purposed himself to destroy us. We, who at our baptism were released from the bondage of sin, renounced the Devil and his works. We, who vowed to keep God’s holy will and commandments, and walk in the same all the days of our lives. Yes, the Devil, our Enemy, desires to devour the children of God. Thus by this ancient Collect appointed for this 3rd Sunday of Lent we pray for God to “stretch forth the right hand of thy Majesty, to be our defense against all our enemies!” Enemy number one: the Devil himself.

Now, today’s Collect would have been prayed in the 3rd and 4th centuries by candidates preparing for Easter vigil baptism; those coming into the Christian community commonly called catechumens. At the beginning of Lent, the baptismal Candidates would be brought before the Bishop to be examined prior to their enrollment. If given a good report from neighbors, and with no objections from others, the Bishop would personally write their name in a book listing all those approved to begin preparing for baptism over the 40 days of lent. Having been approved and their names written in the Bishop’s book, they would then be ‘exorcised’, their souls being “swept clean” if you will, cleansed of any influence of the devil, freeing their hearts and minds, to begin preparing for the indwelling grace of God given in Holy Baptism.

And so, having been exorcised of Satan’s hold, the first several weeks of a catechumens Lenten preparation were seen as entering into conflict with Satan, like Christ in the desert who confronted the tempter and overcame. The conflict culminating at Easter Eve baptisms where the baptized would renounce the world, the flesh, and the devil, and by faith pledge their allegiance to Christ, entering into His death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins: born again into the household of God.

We can see how the epistles and Gospels appointed for these first three weeks of Lent would have kept these baptismal candidates on their toes: sober, watchful, anticipating and engaging in 40 days of battle with the Devil. And I submit that our Lenten journey is no less perilous: the battle no less real. Lent is a battle. It is an intensified battle to defeat sin and cultivate virtue. The casting out of sin, and the acquisition of virtue… This is what we strive for through our Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.  

The spiritual battle rages. And especially during lent. We find ourselves struggling with old sins, with new sins, with unforeseen temptations… the thought-life so easily gravitating towards what it should not. Perhaps the words of St. Paul are hitting very close to home these days, “the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me” (Rom 7:190-21). As CS Lewis said, “the main thing we learn from any serious attempt to practice the Christian virtues is that we fail.”

Yes, our battle is against the world, the flesh and the devil, but our principal enemy is the devil. He is the primary foe who is reinforced by two powerful allies: the world and the flesh. Don’t you find that he works through both of these? The enticements of the world: “worship me and I will give you the glory of the nations!” And he works weakness of the flesh: “If you’re hungry, turn these stones to bread…” he’s saying “go ahead, satisfy your desire, eat.” He knows our vulnerabilities, he knows the flesh is weak.

Satan, ‘the prince of the air’, diffuses his power most often through the moral atmosphere. His enticements and temptations seizing on the weakness of the flesh, our unholy desires producing sin manifested in wrong choices and shameful actions: the sins of the body. And this is why in this morning's epistle St Paul exhorts us not to participate in the sins of the flesh, to not even discuss them, “But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting… Be not partakers with them. For ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord: walk as children of the light.”

Keep in mind, desire in itself is not sin, but even good desires which emanate from within the heart and the will all too often produce unfruitful works of darkness, the very works St. Paul warns against. In baptism, original sin, guilt, and culpability are destroyed: but an innate weakness still remains. There is an imbalance in us, a desire to do good but a base nature that is still in process; being perfected. St Augustine calls this disharmony concupiscence: or, an irrational propensity towards unholy desires which manifest in sin. Because of concupiscence we reason wrongly and our wills chase after less desirable things. This is our struggle.

The Christian desires the good life and yet sins in the very pursuit of it! Our nature, though being sanctified by the Holy Spirit, has lost its ability to see clearly. And this is why carnal desires so easily overthrow reason, because concupiscence has caused the mind to lose its ability to see true happiness. Evil institutes itself into the imaginative mind, where our concupiscent soul takes pleasure in the evil thought, and in our weakness, the flesh succumbs to the thing. And the Devil takes every advantage of our vulnerability. With St Paul we cry out, “unhappy man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death!”

What we need is reformation. We are constantly in need of a personal reforming of the soul, reordering- by grace- what concupiscence has disordered. You see, to be cleansed of sin at baptism simply isn’t enough. A soul swept-clean by the power of Christ must not remain empty but filled with goodness, righteousness, and holiness. This is what today’s Gospel teaches us: even where Satan has been once cast out, if the soul remain empty, he will return again “taking with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself.”

A soul swept clean must not remain empty. Lent is a special time to strip away the peripherals from our lives, remove all the clutter. We remove during lent but will also put back! The soul must not remain empty but filled with virtue. It must cultivate holy desires that produce fruit becoming of the Children of the light. Virtue comes from rightly ordered love’s, where we behold and love Christ, the Supreme Good, and in doing so learn how to rightly love all the other lesser goods, created by God, which he has so freely and generously given. Loving Christ teaches us how to rightly love everything. Sin springs forth from the empty soul that neglects to love God, the Supreme Good. This is the heart of evil: the heart that prefers the lesser over the Supreme.

The soul filled with Christ is that which produces virtue, fruit in keeping with the Children of light: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance. Learning to love God above all else is a continual work of grace: for we cannot reorder our own souls. With St. Augustine we pray, “Lord give me the grace to do as you command, and command me to do what you will!” In other words, God if you want me to love, then give me by grace the will to love what is lovely! We cannot of our own strength reorder what concupiscence disorders, neither can we defend ourselves from Satan. What we desperately need is God’s Grace to do God’s will; to “walk as children of the light”; we need the grace of God obtained through prayer.

How often the Book of Common Prayer leads us to pray for God to give us grace! With humility and that same desperate faith of the Canaanite woman we too must cry out for almighty God to “look upon the hearty desires of thy humble servants, and stretch forth the right hand of thy Majesty, to be our defense against all our enemies!” Praying with desires as hearty as the Canaanite woman, with a humility as profound and genuine as hers… how can our Lord not answer the sincere prayers of our hearts? Have we not heard this promise ring from the words of the Psalmist? “The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a contrite heart and will save such as be of an humble spirit. Great are the troubles of the righteous; but the Lord delivereth him out of all.”

From God’s right of hand of Majesty comes both power and sympathy. Sympathy because Jesus took upon himself all the weaknesses of our flesh and was tempted in every conceivable way and is now seated on the right hand of the Majesty on high: Jesus understands your frailty and empathizes with your struggles. Be comforted today. From the glorified right hand of the Majesty on high flows waves of compassion and unending mercy: His property is always to have mercy.

Power, because Christ was raised from the grave, he is the ascended and exalted savior who overcame the temptation of the flesh and defeated Satan for us, slaying that evil Goliath through his sacrificial death, destroying Satan who had the power of death. The Lord of all, has dominion over all, he is our strong tower, our defense against the evil one. Be confident in this. Beloved, may grace reorder our souls, may our souls be filled with virtue, and may God protect us from the Evil one. Let us pray,

WE beseech thee, Almighty God, look upon the hearty desires of thy humble servants, and stretch forth the right hand of thy Majesty, to be our defense against all our enemies; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

We Have No Power

SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT

People desire power. And power, is a force that needs an object: to have power, a person has to have it over something, or someone. This is the common understanding of why power is so appealing to us— to be able to control things, to change them to fit into our vision of reality. The more power, the more influence. The more influence, the more others conform to our desires. But I would like to propose an equally strong motivation for why we desire power. Yes, we desire power to control… but not necessarily to control others…  what we are truly looking to control is ourselves. The allure of self-mastery and self-rule, to “the master of my fate and the captain of my soul.” Within the  desire for power lay a desire to perfect ourselves, overcome moral trials, and justify self by our own means and for our own glory.

But, personal history most likely presents a ton of evidence which testifies  to our absolute incompetence and utter inability; but we honestly come by this weakness. Think of the Garden of Eden. The serpent put forth a proposition to the woman that she simply could not resist (and neither could her husband), And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die; for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof [of the tree of knowledge], then you eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

You will be as gods, with all their knowledge and power. You will be a god unto yourself. This inward desire resided in a physical object, a tangible created thing: fruit. The temptation of the promise of power which the woman and the man inwardly desired was visibly attractive as well, And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat. The temptation to transgress God’s commandment and willfully sin came through the physical sense of sight, it was pleasant to the eyes and so very desirable. The deceiver stirred the internal thought life which could not control the appetite of the flesh. he took the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.

At a minimum, Adam and Eve desired equality with God; perhaps, even desired to rule as god (the history of humanity certainly makes a strong case!) The first ‘power struggle’ between humanity and their creator in recorded history. But as important, Genesis chapter three records the first power struggle within the self, between flesh and the spirit, between the lust of the eyes and desires of the heart. The result: alienation and autonomy… a deadly autonomy. They were separated from God; separated from each other; from the animals and from the very creation itself. The man alone. The woman alone. Naked in the world, vulnerable to the dangers of external threats, and inwardly, suffering from guilt and shame.

We moderns live in the age of ‘psychology’ which is quick to assign  moral struggles and personal battles naively to the inward land of the psyche; or the heart. Our confused meta-physic has either disregarded or ignored the real dangers associated with the senses, from created things that catch the eye, or please the palate. Perhaps latent gnosticism renders the physical, the sensual, the allures of the flesh to the land of inconsequence. But Christianity understands the senses to be the windows and doors by which unholy desire and concupiscence within the soul bears the fruit of vice. We don’t simply have ‘bad hearts’, we also have a body, with its own insatiable desires and needs. We are susceptible, says our Prayer Book to temptations from the Devil, the world AND the flesh. St. Paul was a man who clearly understood this, For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would (Gal 5:17).

And so the Apostle in his epistle today exhorts us with a solemn warning against the sins of the flesh, a frequent warning he gives in almost everyone of his New Testament epistles. “We exhort you, brethren, and exhort you by the Lord Jesus, that as ye have received of us how ye ought to walk and to please God, so ye would abound more and more.” What loving earnestness we find in his opening words--he beseeches, he exhorts as speaking in the Name and by the authority of the Lord Jesus who calls his disciples unto holiness and purity of life. In fact, Jesus himself teaches us to do so with everything we have and at whatever the cost,

And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell (Mt 5:28-29).

Now, Jesus isn’t literally telling us to disfigure ourselves but he is making a strong statement on just how serious and the measures we should be willing to take in the battle against the flesh. For the world is full of good created things which in our fallen state we can so easily abuse, “"For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world” (1 Jn 2:16). In other words, created things in and of themselves aren’t necessarily the problem, it is the worldly residue of lust which lurks in the hearts of those being perfected. Therefore, we must never rest in the pursuit of holiness, but "abound more and more."

For to those who have received such a great salvation comes the command to walk (both in body and soul) in a manner which pleases the One who is the author of salvation: having been taught of Christ to pursue holiness we must never be put aside what we have learned. Now, from St. Paul’s epistle I would like to point out two important consequences from sensual sins. Turning again to our Epistle, verse two,

For ye know what commandments we gave you by the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication: That every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour; Not in the lust of concupiscence, even as the Gentiles which know not God...

Friends, our heavenly Father desires for His children to attain unto holiness:  as the Apostle says, “this is the will of God.” He lovingly desires to bring many sons and daughters into his heavenly abode, to dwell in the eternal mansion and feast at his table forever and ever. He will, therefore, give us the help we need to carry out His commands. As image-bearers, humanity reflects their creator as embodied souls, the soul inseparably dwelling in the form and beauty of the physical body, and this is not our own but is the property and artistry of its maker.

Therefore, each individual Christian is entrusted by God with his or her body as a "vessel" or instrument to be used for the Giver, and every individual must, therefore, learn how to "possess" or acquire mastery over that instrument, to keep it clean, to regard it with honour, and not debase it as Gentiles might who had never learned the intention of their Creator.  Sensual sins, in the first place, cause us to sin against our bodies is to sin against ourselves. This is the first consequence of sinning in the flesh, whereby stirring a tempest of guilt, shame, and self-loathing within the soul.

Continuing in verse six,

That no man go beyond and defraud his brother in any matter: because that the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also have forewarned you and testified. For God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness. He therefore that despiseth, despiseth not man, but God, who hath also given unto us his holy Spirit.

First let us understand to what the Apostle is referring to when he write when we read “That no man go beyond and defraud his brother in any matter.”  “he matter," (not “in any manner”) but ‘the manner’ of which he is speaking. S. Paul is not exhorting us against dishonesty, but showing that dishonesty is impurity. And he’s specifically talking about impure family relations, about being dishonest with brothers and sisters in the church. Dishonesty in the Christian oikos is a fraud on family life, a robbery of the peace and life of homes, and especially of Christian homes.  Our Lord and Master will avenge such dishonour done to the life of the family and of the Church. “It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones” (Luke 17:2).

And let us remember our Lord’s warning, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me” (Mt 25:45). Sensual sins--all the sins of the flesh, in thought, word, and deed--are the worst form of selfishness.  Hence our Divine Lord takes such earthly sins into His own hands. Here the words of the prophet Isaiah, “I will punish the world for their evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; and I will cause the arrogance of the proud to cease, and will lay low the haughtiness of the ruthless” (Isa 13:11). Sensual sins then, are not only sins against ourselves, but grievous sins unto others. We do not sin in a vacuum.

If we’re honest, we all too often try to live out the Christian life autonomously and independent; a law unto ourselves. This drift into autonomy, the movement away from God to self, is often accompanied by an acute case of delirium brought upon by the chief of all vices:  pride. Blinded by pride we are fooled, convinced that our power is all-sufficient… sufficient enough to live in this fallen world in perfect obedience to God. Pride says “I can love God with my whole self, yes, I can love others as Christ would have me, walk in righteousness and holiness, fend off the temptations of the flesh.” We fool ourselves into thinking, “yes, I can do all this apart from the power and protection of God.” Like swine wallowing in pearls, rejecting the word of the Lord who declares, you will not succeed by might, nor by your power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.

Beloved, here is the truth: we simply do not innately possess the power necessary to protect our bodies and souls from the ravages and temptations of the eyes and the enticements of the senses. As we revel in self-reliance and autonomy (and I’m speaking of the Christian) we are as vulnerable as Eve and susceptible as Adam. The fool says in his heart, there is no God. He also is a fool who doesn’t acknowledge the reality of our Adversary, the Devil, who desires to destroy us. In the words of Martin Luther, we dwell in a fallen world, where the prince is an evil spirit and has the hearts of men in his power, doing what he will. The deceiver often begins his wicked work through God’s good creations, tantalizing our desires and appetites.

Lent calls us to a new level of sobriety. We simply do not have any power of ourselves to help ourselves. This is what we just admitted to God and to one another a few minutes ago in praying the Collect appointed for this 2nd Sunday in Lent. it is a sobering prayer, and to varying degrees, if we’re honest, it’s devastating; flying in the face of secular optimism and the triumphalism of modernity. Are we really to believe that We have no power to help ourselves??? No. We do not. We have no natural or innate power of our own to fend off the assaults of sensual temptation. We have no power to “keep ourselves unharmed both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls.”

Left to our own strength we are overrun by any and all external adversities and all to often will succumb to “evil thoughts that assault and hurt” the soul. In a one-on-one power struggle with the flesh... friends, we lose. And this is why we plead, by prayer and supplication, for Jesus Christ to exert his mighty power and defend us from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul. Our very weakness and defenselessness is our plea.  We have "no power of ourselves to help ourselves," but Christ, who knows us so very intimately, knows our weakness, sees and not only prays continually at the heavenly altar for the church, but is our sure and powerful defense in times of trial. Do not discount the power of prayer for he to whom we plead is greater than the world and all its temptations.

Apart from the power and protection of Christ, our ability to prevail against such assaults without the aid of Him by Whom the Tempter was, and is overcome is fools game. We are utterly incapable of fending off the assaults of the world, the flesh, and the devil and therefore desperately need God to see and protect us. Like the Canaanite woman found in today’s Gospel reading who pleaded with Christ to be allowed to partake of the ‘children’s bread, but begged for the crumbs on the table, let us, with great humility, submit ourselves, our souls and bodies, under the mighty protection of Christ, who himself was tempted in the wilderness, and yet came out of His temptation without sin.

Only He can help us overcome the temptations of the flesh. Our hope is not in our own power but in Christ. Therefore, prepare yourselves, your souls and bodies to come to His table and strengthened in the inner man. Come to Him who is able to save to the uttermost all those who come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for us. Beloved come and enter into the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, for He alone is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

Almighty God, who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our souls; that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen..

Rend Your Hearts

ASH WEDNESDAY

This evening begins, with the liturgy of Ash Wednesday, a 40-day Lenten journey that intends to lead us into the paschal mystery of the Easter triduum: Holy Week where we memorialize our Lord's passion, death, and resurrection. Ash Wednesday is the door through which we enter into the very heart of the mystery of salvation, a salvation which springs forth from the grips of death on Easter morning. But friends, night comes before the dawning of the morn; sorrow precedes joy; and death precedes life.

The lenten journey is one marked by death and dying, a six week exodus into the wilderness of the soul, forty days of sobriety, humility, and exercise of spiritual discipline: all with the intent of putting sin, vice, and uncleanness to death. “Remember that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.” In just a moment, you will hear these words as the sign of the cross is made with ashes upon your forehead. Now we must realize that the outward sign of placing ashes upon the forehead is not simply a tradition of the church but is an ancient sign given to God’s people which has its roots in Holy Scripture. In the third chapter of Genesis God said to Adam “in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Gen 3:19).

Death came after the fall, the dust which God breathed His spirit into was not meant to return to dust, but live. The ashes then remind us of our mortality, our frailty, and this life of suffering. Thus the ashes represent our mortality and death as the result of sin; death from which no one shall escape.

From the book of Job we see that ashes not only represent mortality but also repentance. Having come face to face with his Creator and humbled before him, Job the priest of God cries “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear; but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself and repent in dust and ashes.” With dust and ashes he repents; an outward sign signifying the penitent and repentant disposition of his heart. Mortality and repentance.

I would like to add one more important aspect to the significance of the ashes: prayerful intercession. In the book of Daniel we see that ashes signify not only mortality and repentance but also the state of one who has entered into deep and sincere prayer for others. In the ninth chapter of the book of the prophet Daniel we find a repentant man sickened with concern not only for himself but for his fellow countrymen,

And I set my face unto the Lord God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes: And I prayed unto the LORD my God, and made my confession, and said… We have sinned, and have committed iniquity, and have done wickedly, and have rebelled, even by departing from thy precepts and from thy judgments…

And in verse fifteen he pleads for God to be merciful unto Israel, “O Lord, according to all thy righteousness, I beseech thee, let thine anger and thy fury be turned away from thy city Jerusalem, thy holy mountain: because for our sins, and for the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and thy people are become a reproach to all that are about us.”

He bows his ashen head and intercedes for the sins of God’s people. Likewise, by the imposition of ashes upon the forehead head, we are reminded of mortality, the need of repentance for sins, and of interceding for others. It tells us that the lenten journey is an intense uniting of prayer, fasting and supplication unto God. It is a journey of drawing closer to God by detaching ourselves from the pleasures of this world, in particular food, drink, and pleasures of the flesh. Unholy acts are displaced by classic Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

And although, by the imposition of ashes, mother Church calls us to an outward sign, ultimately what does she want inwardly? What does she desire? She wants not just the external sign, but the interior reality of penitence. “Rend your hearts, not your garments” cries the prophet! This doesn’t mean that God doesn’t want us to do the external sign, we’ve seen from scripture that he commands us to fasting, sackcloth, ashes and mourning. But what it does mean is that in addition to the external sign what God really wants is for us to tear open our hearts. To open our hearts in repentance from sin, to turn away from all that is defiling and unclean, and to return back to him. To not only return, but to love him with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our strength.

Friends, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of returning unto our Lord. The call to repent and be healed has sounded to all who would hear. To every prodigal who has journeyed off into that far country, and there, squandered their father’s inheritance on the fleeting pleasures of this world.  Mother church in her wisdom is calling each and everyone of us to a solemn Lenten fast which begins today on Ash Wednesday.

Now, will you over this season of Lent, perform the spiritual disciplines perfectly? Will the committing of sins and wrestling with temptations cease? Well, we all know the answer: absolutely not. We will struggle along the Lenten road. It will challenge us. It will be fraught with perils and dangers of all kinds both from without and within. We will be as imperfection seeking perfection. Through these forty days in the wilderness will suffer failures and lapses in spiritual exercise (willful fasting and obedient prayer will not go unchallenged!).

This scheming world will do everything within its power to attract and lure us with bright shiny objects: we may long to once again eat from the swine trough of sin, may even go so far as to fill our bellies on the husks of vice. Some days will feel bone dry, parched, days of spiritual aridity which can and will come upon the soul.

Sanctification, particularly in the spiritual labors of Lent, is not a perfect process: putting sin to death, mastering the appetites and re-ordering our loves is neither easy nor comfortable. But it is the process by which we draw nearer and nearer to the Lord. It is the means by which we are made more and more like Christ. It is the way of the cross through which we enter into eternal life. But friends, let us not grow weary in doing good and let not the stumbles and frustrations from sin and human weakness harden the heart.

But let us trust the Lord in the desert, remembering that in the wilderness He shapes and prepares his people; makes them ready his to enter into that good land which lies just beyond the Jordan. And in our Lenten desert he will do the deep and mysterious work of preparing us to enter into the life, joy, and blessings of Easter.

And when he came to himself, he said I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants. And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.

The road to Easter begins tonight with repentance. And, it ends in the loving, compassionate and merciful arms of our God. Therefore humble yourselves before Him. Rend your heart and not your garments. Always trusting in the mercy of our Father who “hates nothing he has made, and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent.” Let us return to the God of all mercies whose very property is to be merciful. Amen.

The Fruit of Perfection

THE SUNDAY CALLED QUINQUAGESIMA

THEN Jesus took unto him the twelve, and said unto them, Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man shall be accomplished (Luke 18:31-33).

The time has come for the Lord to set his face towards Jerusalem. In his determination to journey to the cross every theme, metaphor, and emphasis of this pre-lenten season come together (coalesces). The journey to Jerusalem is a march towards sorrow and suffering; towards mocking and derision; a strenuous one beset by challenges of all sorts; internal and external opponents set upon defeating the Son of Man.

The time has come for the Lord to see his face towards Jerusalem. The place where he will drink the dregs of death "For he shall be delivered unto the Gentiles, and shall be mocked, and spitefully entreated, and spitted on: and they shall scourge him, and put him to death…” The One who calls his laborers into the vineyard will prove to be the perfect servant who obediently follows the master’s call to work. Not grumbling but with joy he gladly toils in the vineyard of sorrow called Golgotha.

He, the Sower of the Seed, is also the good soil, and in him an innumerable bounty of fruit is perfected through suffering; the cursed ground beneath his feet wetted with blood and water as it pours from his side. His broken body is laid into the earth, the heavenly grain of wheat, which goes into the ground and from it, springs the tree of life. "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (John 12:24).

We should understand the Lenten Journey as following Jesus up to Jerusalem, for the time has come for us to die as well. Death to self; death to sin. But sin is not so easily overcome, and this we know. Joshua faced a great many battles, challenges, and se backs as he led Israel’s campaign to obliterate the seven wicked nations of whom God said,

When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess, and He drives out before you many nations—seven nations larger and stronger than you— and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you to defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. Make no treaty with them and show them no mercy (Deuteronomy 7:1-2).

Through their actions these seven nations brought judgment upon themselves, and, God knew they would be a snare to his people, wicked agents who would cause Israel to stumble into vice and sin. Therefore, God’s people were to devote themselves to their merciless destruction. What needs to be destroyed in us is sin, impurity, and corruption. This is our Journey to Jerusalem, the Lenten labor we have often spoken of these past two weeks. Like the seven wicked nations embedded in the good land, the seven deadly sins of pride, covetousness, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, and sloth must be destroyed. We are to ’sweep clean’ the house of the soul and not leave it barren, but fill it with the virtues of humility, charity, chastity, gratitude, temperance, patience, and diligence. Again, we are to fill the soul with good things for as Jesus warns,

When an unclean spirit comes out of a man, it passes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ On its return, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and dwell there. And the final plight of that man is worse than the first (Matthew 12:43-45).

The picture I’m desiring to paint is this: Like Christ, it is time for us to follow him into the suffering and pain that awaits him in Jerusalem. Companions willingly to enter into suffering over sin, to submit pride to humility, and seek wholeness of the soul. For we know the way of Jerusalem is ultimately the way of the Cross, up to the Tree of death. And there, on the cross, we encounter both death and life, suffering and salvation, despair and hope. It is upon that wicked tree where Jesus puts sin to death, removes it sting, taking away the curse.

For “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”” (Galatians 3:13). Suffering precedes death and death precedes life. The glory and eternal hope of Easter morning rises only after the horrors of Friday. And what great wisdom the church in all her glory guides her children with; we leave the wonder and celebratory nature of Christmas and Epiphany-tide seasons of rejoicing in the great salvation that has come, and turn our gaze towards the reality of living out this salvation in a fallen world with all of its enticements and as unfinished works of grace who, in our imperfectness, strive by the guiding of the Holy Spirit, to become more and more like the Lord Jesus Christ, our sanctification unto perfectness.

For the way of the Cross is the way of perfection. On the tree of death died not only our Lord, but the sins of the whole world; yours and mine. And on that tree hung the very embodiment of love; the fruit of perfection. Friends, the fruit of perfection is love, there is nothing greater or surpassing, the only thing eternal. The writer of Hebrews tells us that it was through suffering that the Son was perfected. On that cursed tree hung perfect love for the whole world to see. And love is the fruit which is yielded from the good soil, from all honest and good hearts who with patience bring forth fruit with patience. We are sorely misguided if we believe our perfection will not come without soberly embracing dying: dying to self, dying to sin. If we desire to become the very love of Christ, then we too must embrace the way of the Cross with faith and hope.

Faith must be immersed in the knowledge of the great love with which our heavenly Father has loved us in Christ, the Father who,

hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, To the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved. In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace (Ephesians 1:3-9).

Praised be to God! We must believe that we are loved, and in this find confidence and the assurance of hope. For,

If God be for us, who can be against us? “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?... Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:29-31)

To us is given the charisms of faith, hope, and love, and it is by loving in this world that we escape the coming judgment of the world. “God is love; whoever abides in love abides in God, and God in him. In this way,” writes St. John, “love has been perfected among us, so that we may confidence on the day of judgment; for in this world we are just like him” (1 John 4:16-17). And how are we in this world just like him? Love.

We might be thinking of Lent as hard, cold, and unattractive, entering into it without any special object, thinking of it as merely an inconvenient season of increased formalities and superficial exercise.  All this emphasis of the church upon sobriety, penitence, and humility is off-putting to the calloused and prideful soul. Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving for the purification of the soul appear overly rigorous and unnecessary. If we’re not clear on where the journey to Jerusalem ends then one will wander without purpose over these next four weeks, or in more hardened cases, exit the road all together. But the church teaches that Lent is a season into which love should be the entrance, of which love should be the spirit, and in which the increase of love should be our great object. Thus, will the season be one which God shall most certainly bless, being Himself the God of Love, for the object of Lent is the object of life realized in the risen Christ, even so to possess and be possessed by love as to be fitted for a share in the glorification of love when God shall be all and in all.

If love be not the impetus compelling us unto Jerusalem, then Lent will profit us nothing. In fact, without love we are nothing. Your religion apart from love is nothing. All the spiritual gifts given unto you profiteth nothing. Your knowledge, even your great measure of faith itself is nothing. All the selflessness, sacrificial acts, and giving to the poor have no eternal benefit without love. Even in martyrdom you are nothing if and have not love. All mortification is nothing if we not be love. In other words, love is the chief produce of our Lenten labor.

Love is the sure evidence of our sanctification. According to St. Paul love is greater than faith and hope, for the more richly love dwells in a man, the better the man in whom it dwells. For when we ask whether someone is a good man, we are not asking what he believes, or hopes, but what he loves. St. Augustine says that,

he who loves aright believes and hopes rightly. Likewise, he who does not love believes in vain, even if what he believes is true; he hopes in vain, even if what he hopes for is generally agreed to pertain to true happiness, unless he believes and hopes for this: that he may through prayer obtain the gift of love- St. Augustine

Through prayer, through fasting, through the disciplines and the putting away of sin we grow in charity, edging closer and closer to true happiness. Because the exercise of love brings us closer and closer to love himself, Jesus Christ. Let us therefore remember what we have heard, it is the thorns and thistles of this world which choke out love, the pursuit of lesser loves which displace the God of Love. We become what we love and thereby must order the loves rightly. To enter into the spirituality of Lent without love as its object will profiteth us nothing if our true and burning desire is to attain union with Christ himself; to love and to be loved.

Beloved, the labor of love, the ups and downs, the twists and turns are not without their reward, for St Paul says to those who pursue love as the chief goal of the Christian life, "now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Friends the lover will be known by the beloved. Yes, love brings to us the full knowledge of God. But more importantly, love will be known by God. To be fully known, fully uncovered, unashamedly naked before our creator and not rejected, not laughed at or disregarded, but known and loved as a child loved by a mother, or a wayward son who seeing his father runs into his merciful and loving arms. Finally, home, finally loved, finally complete.

Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and everyone that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another (1 John 4:7-11).

The journey up to Jerusalem begins and ends in love: the great love of God towards us displayed in the death of his Son upon a cross. There, the tree of death becomes the tree of life. Let us then pursue love, setting our sights firmly on He who first loved us for. Christ is why we love, how we love, and the reward of all our labor. “Now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three: but the greatest of these is love.” Amen.

The Good Soil

THE SUNDAY CALLED SEXAGESIMA

We rejoice this morning as those who have been called by God to labor in his vineyard, to do good works befitting of heavenly citizens. The church in her wisdom has provided these three pre-lenten ‘gesima’ Sundays to prepare us for the rigor of Lent. Our fight is spiritual, fought against the world, the flesh, and the devil. It is a battle to defeat sin and vice, to take the high ground of holiness and virtue.

Last Sunday, St. Paul explained this battle in athletic terms, likening the Christian struggle for holiness to a marathon. The prize: an incorruptible crown which is eternal life, that great salvation accomplished by Jesus Christ, the prodigious prize awarded to all who cross the finish line. The Apostle tells us that self-mastery and self-discipline along with the virtue of temperance must be the steady diet and routine for any serious and qualified competitor,  “But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway” (2 Cor 9:27).

But Jesus himself provides the prevailing metaphor of laboring in his vineyard, where in we understand the Christian as the one who has heard the Gospel call to labor unto holiness, “Be ye therefore perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect”. The free grace of salvation is not without its enjoined call into the Master’s vineyard to do the good works which he has prepared for us to walk in.

On this Quinquagesima Sunday we laborers are being called to bear fruit in this world amidst its temptations and challenges. With patient fortitude we are to bring forth a bountiful yield. And what fruit does the master of the field desire? Is it not ultimately charity? Is not love the fruit of the kingdom? Love of God and love of neighbor… is this not the final goal of all spiritual striving and self-mastery? “For the fruit of the spirit is love…” Says St. Paul. There is no greater calling, no surpassing vocation, then to love as Christ loves; the fruit of perfection is love; it is the goal of all Christian piety.

It is the good soil which brings forth fruit. This Jesus teaches once again, through a parable, perhaps one of the most well known of his parables: the Parable of the Sower. One might be tempted to rename it ‘the parable of the soils’. For his great concern is that the good seed of the gospel finds the good ground, fertile soil where it can take root and bring fruit to perfection, yielding some thirty, some sixty, and some hundred-fold!

Jesus is, as we sang, “the Sower who has come from afar”, who generously casts seed throughout the field of the world. The One who has called us into his vineyard is also the Sower of the seed which is the good news of the Gospel, the salvific word spoken in these last days. The seed represents the revelation of God in Christ, the incarnate logos who was manifested to Jew and Gentile alike, the promised Messiah who came to save all men: those called in the morning and at the eleventh hour. He was no stranger, but came as the true light and life, he of whom the Apostles heard, and saw, whom they looked upon and handled with their hands (1 John 1.1). This blessed sower generously casts the seed of the Gospel upon every type of soil without regard or scrutiny, “Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4).

Now, the various soils in which the seed lands illustrate the effect the seed has on the various hearts and minds of those who receive it. The parable is frighteningly explicit in that the seed often has little or no lasting effect. For of the four soils in the parable, three are bad, and only one is good.  Non will inherit the Kingdom of God, unless they be the good ground. But the Sower is generous. Our Lord and Savior still sows His seed, and still gives the opportunity to a man to accept Him and to follow His commandments.

First, there is the soil on the Wayside. These are bystanders who overhear the word but are not directly engaged in its reception. This seed, Jesus says, “is trampled down, and the birds of the air devour it.” Next is the Rocky Soil. This is shallow soil in which no lasting roots can be established. Without moisture the germinating seed withers and dies. Jesus speaks of the third one as the Thorny Soil.  This seed takes root but is finally overcome by the thorns and thistles, it is choked out and dies.

“But some fell on Good Ground, sprang up, and yielded a crop a hundredfold.” The good ground, Jesus explains, “are those who, having heard the word with a noble and good heart, keep it and bear fruit with patience.”  The good soil is that which having received the seed, nurtures it to do what it is meant to do: to abundantly yield fruit. The Sower desires success, he wants the seed of the Gospel to bring forth the fruit of righteousness, or put another way, his laborers are not to work in vain: they shall produce.

Productive soil is of an honest and good heart. It is of a moral quality and integrity that consciously chooses the way of Christ. And here we come face to face with the importance of self-mastery, of temperance, of putting sin and the vice of concupiscence to death: to walk according to the calling we have received, in righteousness and holiness all the days of our lives. No longer under the enslavement of sin but as slaves of righteousness,

“Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.”

This is why we strive to bring the body under subjection and every thought captive, actively and willingly being conformed to Christ that we might one day be with him, “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.” The Good ground is tilled and carefully cultivated, clods of dirt have been broken up, and it has been finely sifted, watered, and hedged roundabout to keep the pests out.  It is guarded so nothing can steal the fruits it will produce. There is effort involved in preparing good ground. It doesn’t just "happen" on its own. Fruitful seed growing takes attention, care, and concern.

Next, Jesus says that the good ground is that which holds fast to the word. The seed remains in the good soil, it is neither trampled, nor does it wither, or choked out by thorns and thistles, but it remains, it abides, its roots run deep, “like a tree planted by the water-side, that will bring forth its fruit in due season.” The good soil ‘clings to the word’ forever wedded to the power and promise of the Gospel. Good and beautiful are the souls that take deeply into themselves the seeds of the Word, and keep them, and tend them with care. They are rich and fruitful soil who yield fruit an hundredfold.

Friends, the word must live in us and us in it. We must abide in Christ who is the very true word, the word of life to all who believe, the very water which brings forth the fruit of the kingdom, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me.” Christ alone is good and in him we participate in divine goodness, bear perfect fruit, and inherit the kingdom heaven. So says the Lord, “every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Lastly, in describing the good soil, Jesus says that it “brings forth fruit with patience.” Note the obvious: good soil actually produces fruit; it is productive. But more importantly, it does so “with patience.” Within the good soil is the grace of fortitude, with patience it bears fruit. Here St. Luke uses the greek word, ὑπομονή, patience, which is more fully understood as, endurance, fortitude, steadfastness, perseverance, or patient endurance. The Lord calls his laborers to embrace the virtue of fortitude, which is the capacity to hold out or bear up in the face of difficulty. Not only are we to ‘cling’ and ‘hold fast’ to the seed but we are to bear up under the allure and enticements of the devil, the world, and the flesh. And our Lord Jesus, in explaining this very parable, forewarns us as he explains why the others soils fail to produce.

Those on the wayside are they that hear; but then comes the devil (the birds of the air come and pluck the seed), He takes away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved. The Devil snatches the seed of the good news of Jesus Christ from the heart. Craftily he does he work, often disguising himself as an angel of light, through attractive and shiny things, but always with lies, “for he is the father of lies” and in him resides not life, but death. His sole purpose “to kill, steal, and destroy.” Listen to one who was very aware of the Devil’s schemes,

“Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time: Casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you. Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: Whom resist steadfast in the faith…”

Let us pray for the grace of fortitude, that by humility, sobriety, and vigilance, we may resist the malicious schemes of the enemy.

Not only the Devil but the temptations and trials of the world can wither and kill our fruit bearing. They on the rock are they which, when they hear, receive the word with joy, says Jesus,  and these have no root, which for a while believe, and in time of temptation fall away. Shallow soil is so very susceptible to times of trial and hardship, whether from within or from without. When persecution of all kinds come upon the Rocky soil, it is incapable of enduring and holding fast because the roots of faith are not deep, like the house built on sand it crumbles in the face of the storm. St. Paul was a man familiar with persecution which he suffered at the hand of his fellow countrymen, bore the pain of the Roman cane, was robbed as he traveled, and stoned by mobs.

He suffered at the cruel hand of nature, shipwrecked, spending days lost at sea, overcome by floods and all sorts of natural calamities. He was not only tormented by men and nature but within his very soul, suffering daily for the church,  writing “besides those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches” Just imagine the incredible burden of concerns and worries he carried for every single church, for every single believer. “Who is weak, and I am not weak? who is offended, and I burn not? He’s in anguish, burning for every weak believer who is or has been led astray, sharing in their stumbling as their faithful shepherd.

Speaking as the fool speaks, Paul boasts to the Corinthians of his many trials. And why? Is he boasting to show how brave and wonderful he is? No! And this is the key to patient endurance, Paul is not boasting in himself (as the false Apostles were doing in Corinth), but of how great and wonderful the grace of God is that sustains him in his weakness! Patience, fortitude, humility, every virtue is a work of grace, it is in Christ that we are strong, in Christ (or in clinging to him) we endure.

“If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities.” Fellow laborers, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” When by the grace of God you overcome and endure give thanks to God: “Of such a one will I boast” says the Apostle, “yet of myself I will not boast, but in my weaknesses.”

Finally, we must resist the temptations of the flesh. “And that which fell among thorns are they which, when they have heard, go forth, and are choked with cares, and riches, and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to perfection.” If we are going to bring forth the fruit of perfection we must not give into worldly temptations of busyness and material possession, nor be overcome by their concerns: for these choke the seed to death. Ease, comfort, gain, possession, accomplishment, more and more… all good things in moderation and in the context of their temporal value.

But when the desire for attainment eclipses the desire for Christ, the very vine which feeds and nourishes the branches of the tree are choked. We must endure under the never-ending attraction and allure of this world and what it offers, keeping created things in their rightful place subordinated under Christ from whom all good things come. Let us not confuse the gifts with the giver and Lord, let us not be as him who gains the whole world but loses his soul.

Christ is in the good soil and the good soil is in Christ, the seed embedded in the earthly soil of the heart where, when cultivated, guarded, and nourished produces the perfect fruit of righteousness: a yield which comes by patient fortitude. St. James says, “patience hath a perfect work; that you may be perfect and entire, failing in nothing.” (James 1:4).

Our growth in holiness is nothing more (or less) than the exercise of patience under adversity for the love of God. Virtue is tested by people and by the daily circumstances of life. When, for the love of God, we meet these challenges and adversities with patience and meekness, we grow in holiness. The motivation of the good soil, that which is the desire of the honest and good heart, is the love of God, and, also, the love of neighbor. It is this “purity of intention,” which most evidences the supernatural grace of God, the grace of the Gospel,  which infuses the soil of the heart. For it is grace that takes the cursed ground of disobedience and restore it to Eden, the place of our participation in the life of God through Jesus Christ.

Let us therefore without ceasing hold fast by our hope and by the earnest of our righteousness, which is Jesus Christ who “took up our sins in His own body upon the tree, who did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth,” but for our sakes He endured all things, that we might live in Him. Let us therefore become imitators of His endurance; and if we should suffer for His name’s sake, let us glorify Him. For He gave this example to us in His own person, and this we believe: Christ is our strength, let us boast in him. Amen.

Run That You May Obtain

THE SUNDAY CALLED SEPTUAGESIMA

There is absolutely nothing static about the Christian life and this is because the Lord of time, the author of existence, has chosen to set history in motion with a beginning, a present, and a future. Time is not abstracted reality but grounded in the Logos, in the Divine wisdom and reason of God, therefore, time has intention and purpose. Every passing moment is filled with meaning and significance. The Lord of time ordains, sustains, and speaks through each moment.

He has gifted his image bearers (those who experience time) with memory, an ability to recollect moments gone by. At any given time the mind can return to the past, inhabiting and reliving a god-painted sunrise, a lovers embrace, a time of sorrow, or past joys. In the same way, we inhabit the future, projecting ourselves into an idealized vision of an occasion that will but has not yet occurred. God has given the capacity (although limited) to simultaneously exist in the past, present, and the future.

We find security in memories because they are historical events, things that actually happened. Even when time begins to erode the facts just a bit, we are assured that what we are remembering did actually happen. But the future operates differently.  projections of the imagination fall under the categories of desire and hope for’s I can see in the mind’s eye a future moment: my wife and I are well into our years, the Thanksgiving table surrounded by grandchildren, their parents trying to keep their little hands out of the mashed potatoes or from stealing another dinner roll… something which hasn’t yet occurred seem so real...

Future hopes and dreams come without any guarantee of ever coming to fruition; they are the deepest longings of the heart but time bears out all things. And yet, not every future event of the imagination is a mere pipe dream. For to the Christian has been given a vision of future hope, a sure and promised hope of eternal life, forever united with Christ who is the eternal light which lights up the cosmos, the tree which forever feeds and nourishes the nations. The hope of Christian salvation is a future reality awaiting every faithful person. It is the incorruptible prize awarded to those who “fight  a good fight, who finish their course, who keep the faith” (2 Tim 4:7). This is no dream nor mere fantasy, but a sure and future reality for all who persevere in faithfulness: for as the writer of Hebrews proclaims, “he that has promised is faithful” (Heb 10:23).

In this mornings Gospel the householder calls his servants to “go into his vineyard” for it is time to labor in the kingdom. We are compelled by the salvific grace of Epiphany to take up our Lenten labor. The disciplines and spiritual work of Lent, our ‘striving’, is to take hold of that which has taken hold of us by putting sin to death, the sin which besets and impedes the path to Christ. Epiphany grace will now be evidenced by good works: by producing the fruit of kingdom; fruit in keeping with repentance which is the fruit of righteousness born of self-denial and self-discipline. With great resolve, let us determine to master the moral life.

The moral life should be of great concern to every Christian who longs for the beatific vision, for “blessed is the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” The pursuit of holiness the prime directive for every child who desires to please his father, “if you love me keep my commandments.” Therefore we strive (to use the Apostles term), we work for holiness. Now some may recoil at the idea of “work” in relation to anything pertaining to the Christian life. But let us not be deceived, with baptism comes duties and responsibilities. With the gospel call comes the works of the kingdom.

Beloved, let us not be fooled by any who make much of the free grace of the Gospel but deny that any work is enjoined to it! Yes, we must have grace BEFORE work in order TO work! But as surely as grace is conferred on us, so surely is a work enjoined by our Lord. I refer you to the beautiful sermon he preached on the Mount of Beatitude by first blessing/gracing his hearers before giving them commands: “blessed are those, blessed are you…” Only after blessing does he then command them to, o and reconcile with your brother before going to worship; do not commit adultery, in fact, don’t even lust after another in your heart… when you fast do this, and when you pray, pray in this way, etc… Grace always precedes the work of the kingdom.

These peddlers of falsity teach that works were only required under the Law, and grace comes instead under the Gospel: but the true account of the matter is this, that yes, the Law enjoined works, but the grace of the Gospel fulfills them; the Law commanded, but gave no power; the Gospel bestows the power. Thus the Gospel is the counterpart of the Law. Christ says, "I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill." The Gospel does not abrogate works, but provides for them. "Man goeth forth unto his work and to his labour" from the morning of the world to its evening. From Adam in paradise, Noah in the morning, Abraham at the third hour, chosen Israel at the sixth and ninth, and us Christians at the eleventh—all, so far as the duty of work, we share in one common religion.

And thus, says St. Paul, "Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid! Yea, we establish the law" (Rm 3.31). Again, he the Apostle tells  us, "that as sin hath reigned unto death, even so" grace reigns "through righteousness," not without righteousness, "unto eternal life." And again, "The righteousness of the law is fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit." And to the Ephesians, "We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works" (Eph. 2. 10). And to the Philippians, "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God which worketh in you, both to will and to do, of His good pleasure" (Phil. ii. 12, 13).

Do we by our works earn salvation? Do we earn any merit or favor with God? No! The grace of God appeared in Jesus Christ and by grace we are saved through faith; in Him we rejoice! But a view of grace that is received without any response or duty on our part is incomplete and unscriptural. Faith is evidenced by its works, manifested through a life in pursuit of holiness, goodness, and faithfulness; the necessary and preparatory work for all who will receive the risen Lord of Easter.

And, at the same time, a holy life serves as a witness to a corrupt and dying world the sure hope of redemption to all who believe and follow the commandments of God. Therefore let us listen to the Apostle Paul who victoriously ran that ‘heaven-ward’ race, persuaded on to works of penitence and holy mortification that we may obtaining an everlasting crown.

Through a metaphor, Paul likens the Christian life to that of a race, with a beginning and end; a race that will have victors and losers; some will finish and some will not; either from lack of endurance or by disqualification. And what we see is his holy intention to win the prize which is an ‘incorruptible crown’. Now this incorruptible crown spoken of by the blessed apostle is none other than eternal life, the great prize awarded to faithfulness, fidelity, and perseverance.

St. Paul writes, “Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize?” We must ‘run’ as though only one will obtain the prize. In other words, we are to compete at the highest possible level, give it our all, run with the intention of winning. For the crown of everlasting life is obtainable by all who would run. And this we learn from the Parable of the Vineyard: whether called at the first or the eleventh hour, every laborer receives an equal wage. “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.” There is equality in Christ. And this is a most important point of emphasis: God esteems not the diversity or duration of our labor, but he does have respect unto faith. St Augustine says,

a poor man which doth his business in faith, is as acceptable unto God, and has as good a right to the death and merits of Christ, as the greatest man in the world. So go through all estates: whosoever applieth his business with faith, considering that God willeth him so to do, surely the same is most beloved of God.

In that hire then shall we all be equal, and the first as the last, and the last as the first; because that denarius is life eternal, and in the life eternal all will be equal. For although through diversity of attainments the saints will shine, some more, some less; yet as to this respect, the gift of eternal life, it will be equal to all. Or in the word of St. Paul “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). However, mere running on the course does not ensure the prize, simply being in the company of those striving for the crown does not ensure its attainment. And so let us “Run, that we may obtain.”

Friends, if we are to compete well for the faith then we need to cultivate virtue of temperance. “And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things.”  For if all of the virtues ultimately serve humility, than temperance is the much needed governor of vice. Temperance brings ease to self-mastery and joy in leading the morally good life. It enables the virtuous man to freely practice the good. The mastery over sin, concupiscence, and vice will not occur without temperance.

This moral virtue moderates our unholy attractions and godless pleasures and helps balance our use of God’s created goods. It ensures the will's mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable, right, and good. By it we maintain a healthy discretion. We should heed the exhortation of St. Paul to the young Bishop Titus: that we should "live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world” (Titus 2:12).

“So fight I, not as one that beateth the air: but I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection.” Whoever would run the race of holiness must practice self-control and continence in all things; far from sensual indulgences; eating and drinking in a manner conducive to the prize in view; mindful to not become so engulfed by the business and pursuits of this life but rather, exercising himself, at all times, for the one end to which he is devoted: through prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and service.

Well, perhaps all of this ‘work’ sounds unbearable or even unattainable. It is unbearable apart from love and removed from grace. But when we contemplate the great love with which Christ has loved us, our Christian duty not only becomes bearable but joyful, a work we happily face at the rising of the sun and rejoice over at the setting of the same. Consider the implications of being called into the vineyard! Would you rather be standing idle in the hopelessness of your sins?

What grace, what love we have received from the householder who has called us out of darkness and into his marvelous light- praise be to God! And what does he ask of us? To live a life in accordance with the calling we have received, to walk in holiness and righteousness all our days, so that at the last, we might obtain that incorruptible crown, that sure and promised hope. For we do not “run our race with uncertainty.” Our labor is not in vain but promises to be rewarded with an heavenly prize. So let us run to win and having won may our words be those of the blessed Apostle,

I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:7-8).

Amen.

Did Christ Institute A Ministerial Priesthood?

The underlying question for many Evangelical’s is: did Christ institute a ministerial priesthood for His church?

Many object, and in aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, did reject the idea of an ecclesial order of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, citing 1 Peter 2:5 as justification for jettisoning the three-fold office saying “we are all priests.” While Anglicans and other catholic churches certainly affirm a common, universal priesthood of every believer, this doesn’t exclude Christ having instituted a ministerial priesthood, or new covenant priesthood.

THE PRIESTHOOD OF THE BELIEVER

First, the new testament ministerial priesthood finds its origins or pattern in the Old Testament priesthood instituted by God, who set apart the sons of Aaron and the Levites to specifically perform cultic or priestly functions on behalf of Israel. In fact, we see continuity in St. Peter calling the Christian faithful “a royal priesthood” (1 Pt 2.9) which echoes Exodus 19:6 where the Lord calls his chosen people, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Peter sees continuity between the Israel of God and the Christian church. St. Paul himself identifies Christians as “the Israel of God” (Gal 6:16), not that God has abandoned physical Israel, but that covenantal relationship with the Father is now determined by union with Christ and no longer by ethnic relationship with Abraham: Jesus is the inaugurator a better covenant: “but now hath he [Jesus] hath ordained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which is established upon better promises (Heb 8:6). The comparison between the Israel of God in the Old Covenant and the Israel of God in the New is important for showing the reasonableness of the existence of a ministerial priesthood within the new testament church.

Even though in the Old Testament all the Israelites were considered priests, there existed a specific ministerial priesthood. For example, just a few verses after the Israelites are called a “kingdom of priests,” one discovers a distinct order of men who are considered priests apart from the people: “And also let the priests who come near to the Lord consecrate themselves, lest the Lord break out upon them” (Ex. 19:22).

In verse 24 we find the following: “And the Lord said to him: go down, and come up bringing Aaron with you; but do not let the priests and the people break through to come up to the Lord.” What priesthood might this be? It is the firstborn priesthood whose priestly office would be given over to the Levites in Exodus 32 after the golden calf incident. The Lord says to Moses, “Behold, I have taken the Levites from among the people of Israel instead of every firstborn that opens the womb among the people of Israel” (Num. 3:12).

Clearly, the Israel of God in the Old Covenant had two priesthoods: the universal and the ministerial. Continuity of the Testaments would argue for two priesthoods in the New Testament church as well: a general priestly designation upon all faithful Christians and those men called out to perform the priestly cultic functions in the church.

THREE-FOLD OFFICE OF MINISTERS

Another way of seeing the reasonableness of a ministerial priesthood is by looking at the New Testament against the backdrop of the threefold structure of the priesthood after Israel becomes a nation under the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Aaron is constituted as the single high priest according to Exodus 31:30—the top level. His sons Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar minister with him as priests according to Exodus 28:21—the middle level. Finally, as mentioned before, all the Israelites were universal priests according to Exodus 19:6—the bottom level.

When we compare this structure to the New Testament, we can see clearly the top level, which is occupied by a single high priest, Jesus. Hebrews 3:1 reads, “Therefore, holy brethren, who share in a heavenly call, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession.” Peter, an apostle, understands Jesus to be the Bishop, the high priest of the New Testament church, "For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls” (1 Pt 2:5). We see Jesus institute twelve apostles (each representing a tribe of Israel) as priests, giving to them the authority to bind and release sins on earth, "And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (Mt 19:18-19)” Hereby giving to men the priestly authority to forgive sins on behalf of Christ in his absence. Not that they had an innate power but were entrusted with Divine authority as ambassadors of Christ on earth. To the Apostles he gave the words of institution, how they as priests would observe and continue the weekly offering of Holy Communion, which is the central act of worship Christ instituted in his church. St. Paul received from the Lord the very words (rite) by which his church was to worship and offer its sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving unto the Lord,

"For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, this cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord's death till he come. Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord” (1 For 2:27-29).

To the apostles Christ gave these ordinances that they might maintain and perform on behalf of the church that worship Christ instituted in the New Covenant. Note that weekly holy communion isn't a 're-sacrificing' of Christ, but a commemoration, a remembering, a celebrating of Christ's once for all, sufficient sacrifice which the church re-enacts in praise and thanksgiving for the completed work of Christ.

Next we see in Acts, the Apostles ordaining deacons which assisted the Apostles in the ministry and worship of the New Testament church. So we see Christ as the Bishop, the Apostles ordained by Christ into priestly service, and Deacons ordained by the Apostles (who functioned as priests but also served as Bishops as they ordained men like Timothy, Titus, Clement, etc). The three-fold office of bishop, priest, and deacons in the new testament are the reality to which the High priests, priests, and levites pointed towards (a better priesthood of a better covenant).

I would add that one must see continuity from the OT to the New in Holy Communion being the central act of worship at an altar (which would infer a priest or presbyter), which is why the historic churches and Reformation churches (Anglican, Lutheran, etc) have altars in their sanctuaries. The Apostle Paul (or whomever wrote Hebrews) says of Christians, "We have an altar, whereof they [the Jews] have no right to eat which serve the tabernacle" (Heb 13:10). And lest we desire to overly spiritualize the centrality of Holy Communion as the act of Christian worship, remember that the same apostle spoke of the priestly act of blessing the cup and bread in worship, "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?" (1 For 10:16). Surely the Apostle has in mind an actual cup and actual bread (note that he understands these to be the body and blood of Christ).

So from the New Testament we see Christ institute (continue the pattern of God's people of the first covenant) earthly ministerial offices which the Apostles and the earliest churches continue right to this day. One must see continuity in the covenant worship and structures which God has ordained. One must also see that Christ himself gave ministerial authority and the way in which Bishops, Priests, and Deacons are to perform these duties: again, to his disciples he gave the order and words for holy baptism and holy communion, the two ordinances given by Christ for salvation and participation in the new covenant.

Finally, is this the only way in which churches should order its ministers? Obviously not as we see so many variations in the different branches of Christ church. However, it would be difficult to argue for why churches would choose to order its ministers differently. The three-fold office of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons is not the only way, but certainly has the weight of scripture, tradition, and history. God sets men apart as shepherds, bishops, priests, deacons, to steward His people as the cultic leaders of the Christian church which is a '"royal priesthood a holy nation."

Let Them Grow Together

THE FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

"My people, hear my teaching; listen to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth with a parable; I will utter hidden things, things from of old" (Psalm 78:1–2)

So wrote a Psalmist of Israel who foresaw a teacher of great knowledge, one who would bring understanding to ancient and hidden wisdom. In the Gospel appointed for this fifth Sunday after Epiphany we learn that Jesus is the One of whom the Psalmist wrote, the One who teaches hidden truths through parables. In the words of our Lord, “he who has ears to hear, let him hear.” We must always remember that divine truths can only be apprehended by the spiritual, as the Apostle Paul reminds us, “the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor 2:14).

Perhaps you are familiar with St. Anselm’s maxim: “Faith seeks understanding.” By this saying, Anselm didn’t intend to replace faith with understanding, rather, he understood faith as the necessary volitional disposition: understanding that love for God is the prime motive to act as God wills. Ultimately, Anselm hoped for the salvation of those who did not believe, his proofs for the God of scripture were given not only to strengthen those of faith, but to convince unbelievers as well. Jesus also desires the salvation of every man, woman and child. “Therefore,” Jesus said, “speak I to them in parables, because seeing they see not, and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.” Here is the merciful motive of our Savior who presented truth in parables, in a form accessible to the senses, which would at the same time serve both to conceal and to reveal truth, according to the state of the hearers; that they might understand and believe. But again, spiritual truths are only discerned by the spirit. This morning, through the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, Jesus teaches important truths about the Kingdom of Heaven as it pertains to the administration and government of his Church. For the church in which we live out the Christian life is comprised of both wheat and tares. But, it is also a church under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, the Good Sower.

St. Matthew begins,

ANOTHER parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field. But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way.  But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also.

Christ’s church is a mixed church. Now, what we learn is that the mixed character of the Church is not due to Christ, Who sowed in His field the good seed of His life and example, of holy teachings and ordinances, watering it with the blood of His Cross and the dew of His Spirit.  But in spite of all He taught, did, and suffered, there is, as He Himself foretold, evil in the Church, for as we learn in this parable, there is also an enemy sowing his own children. Now in St. John’s Gospel, Jesus describes the devil as a father of lies, and tells those who are opposing him that they’re not truly children of Abraham, our father in faith, because his word had no room among them. Rather Jesus said,

you belong to your father the devil and you willingly carry out your father’s desires. He was a manslayer from the beginning and does not stand in truth because there’s no truth in him. When he tells a lie, he speaks in character, because he is a liar and the father of lies.

But the lies the evil one sows at night, in a darkness that hates the light, are not so outlandish that they can be easily spotted. In fact, they seem like truth, they seem like good seed. The weeds Jesus is describing in this parable initially look very much like wheat. As they sprout from the soil and begin to grow it’s almost impossible, even for farmers, to distinguish them from the wheat. It’s only later, when they’ve grown sufficiently, that you can tell the difference, but by that point their roots are so intertwined with the roots of the wheat that you can’t uproot the weeds without destroying the wheat, so farmers need to let them grow until harvest time and then go through the laborious process of separating the wheat from the weeds by hand.

Similarly, at the beginning, many of the lies of the devil seem credible. We see this in the garden with Adam and Eve. We see this in so many of the temptations we face in faith. The devil is a crafty sower. Outright lies and deceits plainly seen as evil loses power over hearts that are made to seek the good. But oftentimes it’s very difficult to tell the difference between the seeds of good and evil, the tares which grow in such a way that their roots become firm in us and it’s very hard to get rid of them. And, as we look out across the field of this world, there seems to be more weeds than wheat. Like farmers we are tempted to lose hope for a successful harvest, or, we brace at the sheer amount of work it’s going to take to separate the wheat from chaff.

But Jesus doesn’t seem to share our same fears. When the servants ask him, “Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up?  The Master replies, “Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest.” The servants were so worried and obsessed about the weeds. The Master was not. He wants the attention of the good servants away from the tares and redirected on bearing fruit, on doing good, rather than on the eradication of evil. This is a very important lesson for us. Too often we obsess on the problems of others’ not practicing the faith, on challenges which arise from a mixed field, about the vast multiplication of tares in our part of the vineyard or in other parts of the field that we can fail to bear fruit. These weeds, in many respects, become like the thorns in Jesus’ parable of the Sower and the Seed, where the thorns eventually choked the growth of the good seed. Jesus is saying “focus on doing good and let me worry about the field.”

He tells us this because we can’t see all that he sees. The parable indicates to us that in the early days, we can’t tell who the good seed is and who is bad; who are truly children of the kingdom and who are children of the evil one; who is living according to the truth and who is living according to half-truths. Most of us, if we’re honest, have a Christian hubris that presumes we are the children of the kingdom, that we’re the true wheat, and that others are the tares, but our eyes are incapable of truly seeing that. If we had started our deracinating work too early, just think, we would have lost St. Peter, whose first words were that he was a sinner. We would have lost the Apostle Paul, who’s previous occupation was tormenting Christians. We would have lost a young and lustful St. Augustine.

We ourselves, at so many times in our life, likewise, would have been uprooted and thrown away. But as the Lord said to Moses I am a “merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity.” You see, the mercy of God extends for a thousand generations, far greater than the three to four generations that our sins can damage. Therefore, I urge each and every one of us to be patient; wait to see the true growth, to see what happens in the seedbed of the Lord’s mercy. When we focus too much on eliminating weeds it becomes easier for them to envelop us. Our first and primary task is to allow the seed of the Word of God to grow in us, to allow that fallen grain of divine grace to develop in the soil of our hearts so that we may become fruit-bearing wheat. To be that good seed which the Sower can plant in the midst of the world, scattered amidst the soil of others hearts so that they in turn, may grow up to be true wheat as well. God wants the children of the kingdom to shine like the sun in the midst of a dark night, so that those walking in darkness may see the children of light and follow them into the radiance of the day: a day that will know no sunset. Let us leave to the Lord the sifting that will be necessary to do later and focus on the fields of the world which are ripe with harvest.

The Lord Jesus Christ is that divine and heavenly seed which has been implanted in our hearts for the purpose of bearing fruit, the fruit which grows from loving and faithful union with him. The fruit which serves as a testimony to the Good Sower who saved us from our sins, must first grow and multiply at home; evidenced in the way we treat one another; how we love each other:

PUT on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, mercy and compassion, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, long-suffering; forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a complaint against any; even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye.  And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness.  And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to the which also ye are called in one body; and be ye thankful.  Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.  And whatsoever ye do, in word or deed, do all in the Name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father through him.

Mercy, compassion, kindness, humility, patience, forgiveness… In other words, let “Christ dwell in you richly…” Nurture and preserve the word which was implanted in your soul. Let it conform every fiber of your being. Let it your mind become as the mind of Christ, your speech unto godliness, and your wills directed toward all that is good and lovely.  And above all, says the Apostle, “put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness.” By such as these are the wheat known. Beloved, let us love one another in the church (even if that means we may love a tare or two) as Christ loves us. Let us be directed onto charity and good works; not judging too quickly, but patient, long suffering, and full of grace. And by our love for others, may the world come to know our savior Jesus Christ: the sower of good seed. Amen

The Manifestation of Mercy

THE FOURTH WEEK AFTER EPIPHANY

The season of Epiphany is one of continual revelation. Week after week the Sunday readings unfold, disclosing God’s redemptive plan to rescue humanity even the whole created world from the catastrophic effects of the fall; that unhappy day when our first parents, Adam and Eve, willfully disobeyed their Creator. It’s an age-old tragedy par excellence. You see, the allure for transcendent knowledge signified in the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, tempted their desires, and, being beguiled by the Serpent, the man and woman succumb to unholy partook of that forbidden fruit and so fell from a state of innocence. Adam and Eve had enjoyed the company of God, walking with him in the Garden. They beheld clearly—face to face— in perfect union with The Lord God; uninhibited and unafraid.

Sin ended man’s ability to see the face of God, to look upon his face. To Moses God said, “You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!” (Exodus 33:20). for no unclean thing can come into the presence of Holiness and live. But God, who desired to be with his creation, graciously went to great extents to protect his fallen children from his Divine presence. Think of Adam, whom before bringing froth the woman from his flesh, God put into a deep sleep to protect him from the presence of divine activity. God graciously did the same to Abraham, putting him also into a deep slumber before ratifying his covenantal promise to the patriarch. As the sun set the Divine presence mysteriously appearing as a smoking furnace and a burning lamp passing between the two pieces of the sacrifice which God had torn asunder.

Even Moses, whom God invited into his presence on the mountain, was not permitted to see God’s face but his back only; for no man could withstand the tiniest glimpse of his glory and live. Great care was taken by God to protect his chosen people from his holy presence commanding Moses to

Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments and be ready for the third day. For on the third day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. And you shall set limits for the people all around, saying, ‘Take care not to go up into the mountain or touch the edge of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death. No hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned or shot; whether beast or man, he shall not live.’ When the trumpet sounds a long blast, they shall come up to the mountain (Ex 19:10–13).

It was the mercy of God which compelled him to protect and safeguard sinful humanity from his presence. In fact, I find it totally incomprehensible and incredible, that the creator of the universe who lovingly made all things would, in the face of rejection, disobedience, and infidelity, choose to remain present; to stay intimately concerned with the plight and poor estate of such miserable sinners. “The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy” (Ps 103:8) declares the psalmist. He most certainly is plenteous in mercy.

In times past God showed great mercy to his unfaithful bride Israel, the people of the covenant with God, a covenant they broke many, many times: for infidelity was the great sin of Israel. The infidelity of her Judges and Kings illustrated their incapacity for covenant loyalty. Like Hosea’s bride the people of Israel and their leaders acted the harlot worshipping other gods under oaks and poplars and elms. They tore down altars and propped up Ashtoreth poles in the high places. They defiled the tabernacle with pagan idols and all sorts of unclean things, even sacrificed their very own children in Moloch’s fires.

When infidelity ruled the hearts of Israel her prophets cried out “Woe is me!” appealing to God’s mercy! “Woe is me!” cried Micah “we will bear thy indignation, for we have sinned against you!” (Micah 7:18). Unto Isaiah the Lord laid out his charge against Israel, “Ah sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evildoers, children that are corrupters: they have forsaken the Lord, they have provoked the Holy One of Israel unto anger, they are gone away backward” (Is 1:4). But in his wrath God declared to be merciful to his people,

For a small moment have I forsaken thee; but with great mercies will I gather thee. In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment; but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the Lord thy Redeemer.

In the preaching of Micah, Isaiah and the prophets we must not overlook the unbreakable link between God’s mercy- which they often cried out for because of the people's sins- with the incisive image of love on God's part. The Lord loves Israel with the love of a special choosing, much like the love of a spouse, and for this reason He (out of his love and great mercy) pardons their sins, even forgiving their infidelities and betrayals. When the Lord God finds repentance and true conversion, He brings His people back to grace.

If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land (2 Chr 7:14).

In God’s mercy is signified a special power of love, a love that prevails over the sin and infidelity of his chosen people. In his love “Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (Ps 85:10). The Holy One of Israel, our Father who are in heaven, is a merciful God. As we confess in the liturgy his property is always to have mercy. This morning on the fourth Sunday in Epiphany the church in her wisdom would have us contemplate the mercy of God, which has been manifested in the appearing of His Son, through the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ: God with us; God to save us. For the epiphany of Christ is the revelation of mercy given for the world to reverse the horrible effects of the Fall. He who knew know sin has come in the fullness of our humanity for the redemption of sins.

We innately love mercy do we not? The very idea of it, even the most basic understanding and conceptualization of mercy evokes relief, refreshment, and happiness. Which are perfectly normal responses because misery isn’t some abstract concept. No, misery is real. This life is not without its sorrows with so many days filled with anguish and consternation. Hear the wisdom of Sirach,

Great travail is created for every man, and an heavy yoke is upon the sons of Adam, from the day that they go out of their mother’s womb, till the day that they return to the mother of all things… Wrath, and envy, trouble, and unquietness, fear of death, and anger, and strife, and in the time of rest upon his bed his night sleep, do change his knowledge. A little or nothing is his rest… (Sirach 40:1-6).

We suffer misery at the hands of wicked men and deceivers, from mockers, slanderers and the unjust; from all sorts of external things. The world is filled with all kinds of miseries that continually land on our doorstep. But misery also comes from within, from ideas and actions which flow from a fallen nature and its proclivity unto sin.

The misery of sin is never alone but always in the company of shame, guilt, and sorrows: misery loves company! What anguish King David must have suffered from sin. How he longed for God to merciful unto him,

Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me. Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight… Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me…  Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice. Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit.

“Make me to hear joy and gladness…” Like his father Adam, David had no means within himself to end his torment. Though absolutely capable of creating misery, he could not escape it. You see, misery when pushed beyond its limits will cry out for mercy; for the mercy of God which alone can wash away the filth of sin (Create in me a clean heart, O God!). Only that which God mercifully cleans can be brought back into the love and goodness of God: able to once again stand face to face with the Lord of Mercy.

In Matthew’s account of the Leper and Centurion found in today’s Gospel, he provides a two-fold picture of misery and God’s restorative mercy; in one we see a picture of salvation, in the other, we are given an example of the one who receives mercy. First, the leper is a picture of our salvation, where the sickness of leprosy represents a person riddled with sin, his external state a metaphor for the sickness of fallen hearts: the external state pointing to an inward reality. For we too were diseased, suffering corruption brought about by sinful lusts and inordinate passions. Such is the state of every natural person as heirs of the fall. It’s a hard truth I know. We want to think the best about ourselves; we are eternal optimists. But let us also be realists. Man is born sinful, a transgressor, a disobedient child. Is this not our confession? That we too were once dead in trespasses and sins?  Hear the Apostle Paul,

in times past ye walked according the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience, among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath (Eph 2:1-3).

In a very real sense, men are lepers who have not felt the healing touch of Jesus Christ. In the same sad and sorry estate as this poor leper, who longs to be released from his misery “Lord if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.” And here we perceive in him not a question of Jesus’ ability but rather his willingness to heal. “If you will…” to which our Lord lovingly answers: “I will, be cleansed.” He “came down from the mountain” records St. Mathew, with full intent to enter into the suffering and misery of this poor diseased leper. “I will.” In that gesture and tin hose words of Christ is the whole history of salvation, in two simple words the merciful will of God to heal us is embodied there; his great desire to heal, to cleanse us from the evil of sin which disfigures and dehumanizes us.

With a touch Jesus restores in body and soul all that was lost or broken in the man, removing every impurity, making him clean: sinful flesh made clean by Divine flesh. For the incarnation was necessary to redeem fallen humanity, to redeem man in the totality of his body, soul and spirit, Christ had to assume all the elements of human nature, otherwise man would not have been saved. In the words of Gregory of Nazianzus “What has not been assumed has not been healed.” To the Leper, Christ Jesus became that which shows the love of God to be stronger than any evil, even of the most contagious and horrible disease. On the cross, the perfect One without spot or blemish took upon himself our infirmities, became the ‘leper’ so that we might be purified.

The loving mercy of Christ is a reconciling mercy. It restores sinners back to the Father, brings us into the light with no need to hide in shame as our first parents did. Having received the compassionate touch of Christ we, with the Leper, are free to gaze into the eyes of Mercy, beholding the face of our salvation without fear of destruction, no longer in the shadows. The True Light of heaven has been manifested to the world, and he has called us into that glorious light. For God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made His light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6). Let these words like a joyous song resound in your hearts: salvation has come through the manifestation of God’s Mercy.

And who is the one who receives mercy? Let us consider for a moment the Centurion who sought out Jesus in Capernaum, beseeching him and saying “Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented.” The Centurion is a man tormented by the misery of another and because he longs for his servant to obtain mercy he seeks out the Lord. Who is the one who receives mercy? First, it is the merciful. The merciful master whose “slave was dear unto him” received mercy. As our Lord himself says “blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Mt 5:7).  So, mercy is shown to the merciful.

Next, mercy is shown to the humble who confess their need. “Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldst come under my roof but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed.” This man, one of authority and in the opinion of the Jewish religious leaders believed him to be worthy of Jesus’ help (we see this recorded in Luke’s account). And yet, the great Centurion is even greater in humility, “I am not worthy that thou shouldst come under my roof!” Having laid aside pride and self-importance he beseeches the Lord to have mercy, to have compassion and heal his dying servant. Humility is met with mercy, for, humility is the hallmark of true Mercy. The interlocking aspect of mercy and humility is pictured in our Lord’s stooping to wash the feet of his disciples. Of his humiliation the 17th century English cleric Jeremy Taylor writes, “Thus God lays everything aside, that he may serve his servants; heaven stoops to earth, and one abyss calls upon another; and the miseries of man, which were next to infinite, are excelled by a mercy equal to the immensity of God.”

Finally, mercy responds to faith. Like the leper, the Centurion also believed that Jesus could make things right, “But only speak the word, and my servant shall be healed.” What wonderful faith! It was so astounding that Jesus ‘wondered’ or ‘marveled’ at it. Faith in Christ anticipates mercy. We must believe God to be merciful and we must believe he will hear our cry and respond to our misery, that he is  not only capable, but trust that he is willing to do so. Friends, if we have few Epiphanies of mercy, then we may have few Epiphanies of faith. For saving faith is not of our own but is a gift from God, a faith that trusts with every fiber of its being in the faithfulness and character of God. He is merciful. He will have mercy upon all who truly turn unto him with a penitent and lowly heart, trusting in his righteousness for the forgiveness of sins.

God is merciful because he is love. And this we know because mercy didn’t stay in the heavens but came down to earth; it was revealed and fully disclosed in the God-Man Jesus Christ. The Lord knows our every infirmity, has keenly diagnosed our sickness of heart. The great physician is near and he is merciful unto all who call upon him. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulations.” Beloved let us prepare our hearts to approach Christ at his table, to come face to face with mercy. And let us with faith “come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4:16). Amen.

The Manifestation of Glory

THIRD SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

All Men Desire Communion With Divinity

C.S. Lewis once wrote, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” Every person yearns for the transcendent, for that which is beyond himself. The quest to enter into transcendence is innately connected to the souls never ending pursuit of happiness: to attain the happy life, a good life. Once we realize how bereft of these things we are in and of ourselves, we turn our search outward: seeking happiness and goodness in relationships, in occupations, in material possessions (like big cars and overpriced steak), in created things (seeking spiritual experiences on a mountain hike or scuba diving in the ocean). Man attempts to attain the transcendent through so many created and material means, he is trying to touch divinity, to find and be near something that embodies ‘god-ness’.

Throughout all of human history, man’s god-quest has taken on various forms of prayer, sought to touch the divine through mediums diviners and oracles, performed rituals, offered all sorts of sacrifices, employed any and all manner of spiritual and cultic exercises. We humans are hard-wired with a desire to commune with divinity to grasp the transcendent. And this is so because the Christian God has written it into the fabric of the human heart: we are created by Him, and, for Him. So, in reality, this universal human endeavor to find the divine is actually the souls desire to return to its Creator. St. Augustine beautifully articulates this truth writing “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”

But not all who seek divinity find the True God. So was the state of the Athenian philosophers with their pantheon of fakes who had not found the Holy God of Scripture. Desiring they should find Truth, St. Paul described to them the God who,

“made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: For in him we live, and move, and have our being for we are also his offspring” (Acts 17:26-28).

And today, the Athenians still search. Humanity is still trying to attain that which is True, Good, and Beautiful. Man working to draw near to divinity: this is the story of humanity. God drawing near to man: this is the story of Christianity. The One, True God, Creator of heaven and earth, the God of Holy Scripture: this God has drawn near to us and has made himself known. If Advent is about God drawing near to men by the incarnation of the Eternal Son, then Epiphany is the necessary continuation of the incarnation, the "manifestation" of God in the flesh, the revealing of the Lord Jesus Christ the God-Man made manifest for the salvation of the world.

Epiphany is Shrouded in Mystery and Miracle

The Epiphany season is bedazzled by mystery and centers on three main appearing’s of Christ: First, in the visit of the Magi to the Infant Jesus in which the salvific plan of God is revealed to the Gentiles. Second, in the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan when he manifested himself as the Messiah, the Only-Begotten Son of God, consecrated by the Holy Spirit as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. And third, this evenings Gospel reading invites us to a Wedding Feast at Cana where Jesus miraculously transforms water into wine and by the miraculous, manifests his glory.

Epiphany is a season not only filled with beauty, but shrouded in mystery and miracle. On the Feast Day, you might recall, we read in Matthew’s Gospel of a moving star which leads the gentile Magi to the infant Jesus by coming to a stop directly over his home. We learn of woman, a virgin, who miraculously gives birth to a son, and, of the Magi who escape the cruelty of Herod by receiving a warning from God himself in a dream. Not to mention, at a dove which somehow descends directly over Jesus and the audible affirmation from his Father in heaven. Miracles and mystery.

The Miracle at Cana reveals Jesus to be the Christ

Jesus’ miracle at Cana, where he transforms water into wine, is unlike any previous miracles we encounter in Matthew’s infancy narratives. Because the miracle at Cana is performed solely by the hand of Christ. In Matthew’s Gospel we read of miracles performed FOR Christ… (The star, the dreams, etc.) In contrast, St. John records a miracle performed BY Christ. And in his first recorded miracle a divine convergence occurs, the convergence of the mystery and the ministry of Christ. And by this divine convergence the glory of Christ is revealed. The miracle at Cana reveals Jesus to be the Christ sent by the Father to re-create and transform the world. This is the ministry of Christ.

The Mystery Of Christ

I want to first talk about the mystery of Christ. Because without the mystery there is no ministry. Out of love God created the visible world, the heavens and the earth, and he created man, male and female, to enter into and enjoy sacramental union with him and each other. But temptation gave way to sin and they disobeyed God, forever disrupting the good order of all things. Crushed by the weight of original sin, the man and woman fell far from grace, forever destined for death, alienated from God and disinherited from the eternal riches of His Kingdom. But God was determined to make all things new again. Through Abraham God promised to bless the nations of the world. He promised to raise up a new prophet like Moses from among his people who would speak the very words of God (Dt 18:18). He would raise up a shepherd who would feed his people with knowledge and understanding (Jer 3:15) A virgin would give birth to one named Immanuel signifying that God would come into the midst of his people.

Alluded to in the Old Testament

The Prophet Zechariah saw a day when God would come to his own,

Thus saith the Lord; I am returned unto Zion, and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem: and Jerusalem shall be called a city of truth; and the mountain of the Lord of hosts the holy mountain. Thus saith the Lord of hosts; There shall yet old men and old women dwell in the streets of Jerusalem, and every man with his staff in his hand for very age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in the streets thereof (Zech 8:2-4).

God in the midst of his people: young and old, men and women dwelling with their God, the streets resonating with the wonderful sound of happy, healthy children. But don’t miss this: the return of God to his people would also bring in the praise of the nations, Zechariah continues,

Yea, many people and strong nations shall come to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem, and to pray before the Lord. Thus saith the Lord of hosts; In those days it shall come to pass, that ten men shall take hold out of all languages of the nations, even shall take hold of the skirt of him that is a Jew, saying, We will go with you: for we have heard that God is with you (vv. 22-23). For God’s people, His returning was synonymous with salvation, their goodness and happiness. They knew that His appearing would usher in the day of restoration and salvation. The Creator would come and recreate all that was broken. He would begin his divine work of making all things new.

The Mystery Revealed In Miracle

And here is the mystery: God would return to save his people but not only Israel, but the gentiles as well. This is the Great Mystery of Christ: the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father) full of grace and truth. A mystery which from the beginning had been hid in God, the divine wisdom sought of the prophets and longed for by angels. God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself. A mystery revealed to the Apostle Paul that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel. This great mystery is revealed in the miracle of transforming water into wine, where Jesus wields the recreative power of God to transform a created thing and thus manifests himself to the world as the God who draws near to save.

The Collects Point to our Present Need of Christ’s Ministry

At Cana the veil is pulled back permitting us to see the recreative work of Christ. By divine power he transforms water into wine. Now this isn’t a creative act in the strict sense as when he created the world ex nihilo (from nothing). Jesus doesn’t create water from nothing and then from water create wine. Rather, He recreates that which already exists, transfiguring and transforming that which is created into something brand new: Behold I am making all things new.

This is exactly what Christ came to do; to do a new thing; to usher in a new covenant with his creation; to turn hearts of stone into hearts of flesh; to put broken hearts back together again; to turn sorrow to joy and suffering to laughter; to recreate and transform humanity into his very own likeness, thereby graciously making us sons and daughters of God by faith. This great recreative ministry Christ first revealed in helping a wedding party desperately in need of more wine.

Friends, the True Light has shined into the darkness, God has revealed himself in the person and work of Jesus Christ. But the darkness lingers, and in the darkness lurk the horrors of this life. Wedding joys can so quickly turn to desperation, need, anxiousness, and deep, deep sorrow. How we long to drink the good, restorative, wine of Christ; to know that the manifested Christ is near. He is not the far away God because he has descended right into the depths of the earth, right into the midst of our trials and suffering. He is no longer merely a God up there, but surrounds us from above, from below, and from within: he is all and in all. And he is in our midst, even as I speak, wielding his recreative power, not only for the transformation of your soul, but the transformation of life’s circumstances. He is making all things new because Jesus is the true giver of joys, the awakener of life, the reliever of cares. He is near to you. He is near to me.

He Saves the Best Wine Till the Last

But let us remember, Jesus saves the best wine until the end. He gives according to His own time, not according to our ideas. We may experience days, weeks, years, perhaps the better part of a lifetime before our lips taste the better wine. Hear the wisdom of St. John Chrysostom,

Christ made not wine simply, but the best wine.—God keeps the best drink for His children for the most part for the last, many a time even for heaven. We must not allow ourselves to be discouraged, if the help delays. Take heart. We are promised to drink, we will taste the incomprehensible goodness, mercy, and love of Christ at the celebration of the Lamb.

He keeps His best till last, and this is Christ’s prerogative, his rule to enforce when he desires, which all who would be happy must submit to. He will certainly have us bear chastening, imperfection, doubt, and all manner of distress, in this life, that we may, by His mercy, come at last to be satisfied with the plenteousness of His house, and to drink of His pleasures, as out of the river (Ps 34:8).  Thus, the Lord's waiting with His good wine until the end of the feast must encourage us to embrace patient expectation, teaching us to bear with hope, faith, and love, that which cannot be helped. But be assured beloved, the manifested Christ is near and is at work. The glory of the Lord has been revealed from heaven and the radiance of his goodness shines upon us in the face of our Lord Jesus Christ the chief Bishop and Shepherd our souls. Amen.

Thou Art My Beloved Son

SECOND SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

‘And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan. And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him: and there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’

This past December we were so very blessed to hold our first baptism here at St. Benedict’s. A very special and happy day for me personally, my family, and I hope, for all who were there. On that special Sunday evening, we were given the privilege of welcoming a beautiful child into God’s covenant family through the sacred rite of Holy Baptism, when we gathered around the baptismal font just back there, where it stands as a reminder of both the dignity of Christian baptism as a Gospel Sacrament, and the means of our own entry into the Church, when we were first received into the church, the family of God.

This evening, Mark’s Gospel calls us to consider the baptism of Jesus, baptized as he was by his cousin John in the River Jordan.  Now John's baptism itself is a bit of a puzzle. While there were a number of differing purification rites and ceremonies in Judaism and within the sects springing from it, like the Essenes, it is hard to find a direct precedent. What we do know is that, as the Jews looked forward to the coming of Messiah, there was a sense that the messianic age would come with God's purifying judgment; when promises such as  the one in Ezekiel, I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness would be fulfilled.

And certainly John the Baptist stands in the line of the prophets.  He is the one Crying in the wilderness prepare ye the way of the Lord for the messianic age is about to dawn. Come and be washed, come and repent, come and be forgiven. Prepare your hearts and amend your lives for the Day of God's visitation is at hand. John, the prophet in the wilderness, administers a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins and so drives a sledge-hammer through the Jerusalem cult, for it was only in the Temple, through priesthood and sacrifice, that atonement could be made.  

Moreover, to tell those within the covenant that they were dirty and needed washing struck at the root of all that the cult stood for.  It was the Gentiles who were dirty; tax collectors and sinners were dirty; but not the people of the Temple and the Law, no, they were clean!  But not so, says John, as if he knew that a New Temple was about to appear, a temple of flesh and blood, where the divine Presence would be seen and where forgiveness would be mediated: Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.  This is strong stuff indeed.

But we have to be clear,  John's baptism was limited: It was preparatory. It was concerned solely with cleansing and forgiveness.  It was pointing forward. It was as if John with Moses had climbed the mountain and had seen the Promised Land from afar- but a fulfillment was still to come. That is why John's baptism is not Christian baptism.  Why in the Acts of the Apostles, we read that John's disciples had also to be baptized into the name of Jesus. For even if Jesus' own baptism by John was seen to be a prototype of Christian baptism, note how in the accounts of Jesus' baptism, the concept is broadened.   For Jesus submits to this baptism of repentance as a sign of his Messianic vocation to bring reconciliation between God and humanity, the whole reason of Epiphany (the salvation of the world manifested incarnationally). In His baptism, Jesus identifies himself with us in our sinfulness, in our need, though he himself was without sin. But, in addition, we read in Mark’s Gospel of the descent of the Holy Spirit and the voice proclaiming divine Sonship: This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.

The forgiveness of sins; the gift of the Spirit, the bestowing of a dignity as a beloved Son of God… all of these come to us through Christian baptism. At the font we are washed, filled with the Spirit, and God says to each of us “because of my One and only Son… therefore you are my beloved son. You are my beloved daughter.” And this is the most wonderful and beautiful thing in the whole world is it not? This is the good news: the glory of the Gospel made present tonight right here in our midst.

But reflection on Christian baptism in the New Testament should not end there, for mage upon image is associated with it. For example; being born again; the new spiritual birth from above; being brought from darkness into light as the illumination of soul and mind. The image of our being clothed with Christ and even more radically in the writings of St. Paul, our being united with Christ: united in such a mystical way that his death becomes our death; his burial our burial; his rising again our rising again. In other words, Christ's story becomes our story, so much so, that in Him we are re-created and joined to him (both our bodies and our souls) by faith in baptism, betrothed and wedded to Christ, the font of eternal salvation.

Now this is strong imagery indeed. Forgiveness, the Holy Spirit, a magnificent dignity as sons and daughters of God, new birth, our transference from darkness to light, and finally, union with Christ in His death and resurrection. You see, if John's baptism pointed forward to the in-breaking of the kingdom- the messianic age- then Christian baptism celebrates our incorporation into that new age, into the new world being reformed and re-fashioned back to its original state of beauty and tranquility.

The old age is passing away an age characterized by death and corruption; an age that points to all that must die if the Kingdom is to come in righteousness and joy.  The new age is about what happens when the Lord is King, when Christ reigns, when all the ugly stuff gets sorted out. In Jesus Christ, the Kingdom of heaven is manifested on earth, the beauty of heaven comes and the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the good news of the Gospel resound in the ears of the poor.

The problem is, we live in a time when the old age which is passing away and the new age which is being brought to birth run in parallel.  So baptism for Paul, and the consciousness of being baptized, means that we are provoked - daily - to live as those who belong to the new age - Shall we continue in sin? God forbid! In baptism you died to sin - so that as Christ was raised from the dead, so you too should walk in newness of life. Using another Pauline metaphor: the old age is as the night - a night which is far spent - but nevertheless is still night, still dark; whereas we are called to live as children of the day, as children of light confounding the darkness.

The bustle and distraction of this modern world is all too often detrimental to the soul. In the demands and day-to-day barrage of life we lose sight of the faith we professed at our baptism, the duties we vowed to uphold, our promise to denounce and reject all that is wicked and evil. Which is why the Gospel of our Lord’s baptism serves as a much needed occasion to return to our own.. To the font of eternal life where our life as children of God began. There we were crucified with Christ, putting to death and sin and uncleanness were put to death, and from there, we rose in the newness of life, we ‘put on Christ’ dressed in a heavenly garment.

So on Sundays, when you come into the Lord’s house make a deliberate act of walking past or around the font a part of your regular spirituality. Let it, in all its imagery and emotion, provoke you to walk in newness of life, remembering that in the water you received the Spirit of holiness. Let it assure you that those true words spoken to Jesus himself at the River Jordan are also true for you: You are my beloved son.. You are my beloved daughter.  In contemplating your great Baptismal Exodus from death to life, be inspired, ‘press on’ to work and pray for the Kingdom of God. And my the font be a sign of joy, a reminder of hope, a celebration of life that in Christ the old age is passing away, the new age, the new world is here and we have been enlisted and commissioned in our baptism to be Ambassadors of Christ in it until the Kingdom of God comes in the fullness of its glory and Christ is all and in all, world without end.  Amen.