Be Thou Opened

THE TWELFTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY

And they brought unto him one that was deaf, and had an impediment in his speech: and they beseech him to put his hand upon him. And he took him aside from the multitude and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue, and looking up to heaven, he sighed, and saith unto him, Ephphatha, that is, Be opened. (Mk 7:34)

Of all the senses which God endowed Adam and Eve (taste, smell, touch, sight, and sound) the eye was most prominent in the garden. Moses records in the Book of Genesis that God walked in the Garden face to face with humanity. Adam and Eve enjoyed unhindered and unmediated fellowship with their Maker. Man, in his pre-fallen state, beheld God in innocence and purity of the Spirit. But it was with the eye which the woman saw the fruit and found it desirable. "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" (Gen 3:6).

And having given in to the sensual desire of the eyes, Adam and Eve fell. And they hid their faces from God... they literally turned their eyes from him in shame. They were naked and did not want to see God for fear of being seen by Him. "Where are you?" God called out to the man. While the eye took prominence in paradise, the ear became prominent as a result of the fall of man. This is why the great commandment sh' ma Yisrial- The Shema- given unto Israel is first meant for the ear: "Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is One" (Dt 6:8). Hear O Israel! Because of their proclivity towards rebellion and sin, God's people were incapable of seeing Him face to face as Adam once had in the garden. You see, that which is fallen and corrupted simply cannot withstand the awesome holiness of God. The imperfect cannot look upon He who is complete perfection.

The Lord said to Moses, "you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live" (Ex 33:20). So the Lord graciously mediates his presence in a way in which he may still draw near to his people and they unto him. The Lord came to them hidden in a cloud, secluded on a mountain top. He met them under the outstretched wings of the cherubim which covered the bema seat in the tabernacle. Through the priesthood, he dealt with his people in the holy of holies, the place where God chose to reside with Israel. Sin rendered the eye impotent; men were no longer capable of beholding and gazing upon the being of salvation.

Not only are we incapable of seeing, but today's Gospel tells us that apart from Divine healing, neither can we hear nor speak. And let's carry this out a bit further: we struggle to reach out to God because we are impervious to the sensations of Divine Grace. The goodness of God is bitter to the taste of a sinful palate. In other words, every sensory gift is impaired: we are by sin closed towards the Divine reality. Is this not what St. Paul is getting at in speaking of the natural man? "The natural man," writes the Apostle, "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).

The communication of the Spirit is "foolishness" because, in every way, our capacity to perceive Him is closed. And it’s not just the sense organs from which this closure and isolation do not only depend. There is an inner closure that affects inmost self, which the Bible calls the “heart”. It is this that Jesus came to “open”, to liberate, so as to enable us to live to the full our relationship with God and with others. In one small word, the entirety of Christ’s mission can be summed up ephphatha — be thou opened.

 The deaf mute man in today's Gospel is a picture of the closed self. In his debilitated state he didn't seek healing let alone seek for Messiah. St. Mark says the man was brought to the Lord Jesus Christ. In him, we see a picture of every person who by sin is closed off to Divine grace; wholly incapable of perceiving the presence of salvation. Friends, hear what incredible mercy our Lord bestows upon this miserable man, "And Jesus took him aside from the multitude and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue, and looking up to heaven, he sighed, and saith unto him, Ephphatha, that is, Be opened."

Christ ‘put His fingers into his ears, spit and touched his tongue.' These are symbolic actions, which it is easy to see why He should have employed in the case of one afflicted as this man was;--almost all other avenues of communication, save those of sight and feeling, were of necessity closed. Christ by these signs would awake his faith, and stir up in him the lively expectation of a blessing. The fingers are put into the ears to bore them, to pierce through the obstacles which hindered sounds from reaching the seat of hearing.

This was the fount of evil. You see, the deaf man did not speak plainly because he could not hear; so Jesus first removes this defect. Then, as often through excessive dryness the tongue cleaves to the roof of the mouth, the Lord gives, in what He does next, the sign of the removal of this evil, of the unloosing of the tongue. And, at the same time, He shows the Divine virtue of healing to reside in His own body. You see, Jesus doesn't look for it from any other quarter; but with the moisture of His own mouth upon His finger touches the tongue, releasing the man from the bands which held it fast. It is not for its medicinal virtue that Jesus makes use of his own saliva, but as the Divine symbol of a power residing in, and going forth from His body. For the necessary and real healing of the closed self only comes from the broken body of the Lord Jesus Christ. Now the man hears. Therefore, he speaks the praises of God.

Therefore, salvation now comes by hearing. It is by listening that we are saved. And this we learn from the Apostle Paul who, in writing to the church in Rome, asks, "How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?" We are not saved by sight, for Jesus himself said, "If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.'" Our ears have been opened to the salvation of the soul; to us have been given ears to hear.

But it is the eye that beholds the totality of Christ, to the eyes that the Transcendent Christ is seen and apprehended in the fullest sense. Take the encounter the disciples had with the risen Christ on the Emmaus road. For hours the resurrected Christ walks and speaks with these two disciples who are confounded that he had no clue of the recent events that had taken place in Jerusalem and at Golgotha, "are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?" Cleopas asks. Jesus then goes on to interpret the Scriptures for them, telling them the things concerning himself. And yet, in hearing, they do not come to the revelation of who their traveling companion truly is.

Their eyes remained closed until the breaking of the bread. St. Luke writes, "When Jesus was at table with the, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him." The transcendent God was made known to closed-off human beings through bread: a material mediator. In the breaking of the bread, they saw Christ, beheld him in all of his glory; and then, Luke writes, "Jesus vanished." Our glimpses of Christ on this side of eternity are just that, glimpses, previews of that future happy day when we will be raised from the dead; made perfect; face to face with our Lord Jesus Christ. Our site restored to perpetually gaze upon all that is beautiful, good, and true: Transcendence in the flesh, Jesus, who will never leave us but will forever be united with us.

You see where Christ is, there we too shall be if we are a faithful and spotless bride. The reward of a life lived open to God is to finally obtain our beloved Bridegroom. Forever enjoying eternal happiness and blessing, the beatific life fully realized in eternity with Christ. With our speech no longer impaired we too shall sing the Song of Songs, "My beloved has gone down to his garden, to the beds of spices, to graze in the gardens and to gather lilies. I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine; he grazes among the lilies" (Song 6:2). A life open to Christ leads back to the garden. And there, we receive the kisses of his mouth.

Christ is not up there and we down here; he is with us, with his creation, in time and space, "Christ is all and in all" proclaims the Apostle! He is present through his Spirit, communicating his love and goodness through the mediation of his good creation. You see the creation and all that we hear, touch, smell, taste, and see are Divine gifts given to lead us into the holy presence of the transcendent God. And so the psalmist sings, "O taste and see that the Lord is Good." Christ is the totality of the beatific vision, and in some mysterious way, he is already present in our lives to the degree that we live in sync with the final end for which God has created us: to be in union with him: once again walking unhindered with him in the garden of blessing.

It is through the everyday interactions of life and particularly in sabbath worship and the sacrament of Holy Communion that the Holy Spirit is habituating us to see God in the here and now. And although we may conceive of the beatific vision as a future "end of this age" event, its reality must become present in our daily lives. Today, and tomorrow, and tomorrow... must not be shaped by the purely natural, that which is merely seen, or by some scientific scheme of cause and effect. Instead, the ultimate aim of the beatific vision must determine our immediate priorities and reform our desire unto holiness.

The earliest disciples of the Apostles, men like Polycarp, Irenaeus, Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine of Hippo, and many other saints saw transcendence in the created world, or rather, the created world revealed transcendence to them. And it was a longing to see Christ- the truly transcendent one- for whom their prayer, worship, and holy living, fueled a transcendent life lived in the present but always in the company of future hope. A future and eternal seventh-day happiness, an eternal sabbath lived face to face in the presence and rest of Christ. They lived as those to whom Jesus himself spoke Ephphatha: be thou opened.

And we who once could not hear let alone speak the praises of God, having been healed by Divine charity, must open every aspect of ourselves: every thought, word, and deed to the demands and duties of the Gospel. The greatest good is to live openly before the God of our salvation: at peace with He whom, we have seen (though dimly), whom we have held (though imperfectly). The Lord Jesus Christ. He comes to you today in the bread and the wine. Do not close your heart, your ears, your eyes, nor your mouth. See his goodness. Taste his mercy. Hear the wooing call of Christ who says, "feed on me that you may have life today and forever." And then, beloved, open your mouth and speak the praises of Him who loved you even to the point of death. Amen+

Have Mercy Upon Me

THE ELEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY

The longer I read the scriptures, the more Jesus' parables captivate me. Such simple stories. They are easy to listen to and follow, but their simplicity lures us into such incredible depths of wisdom and understanding, even into the nether regions of the unknowable… into the mysteries of God where the natural mind (no matter how brilliant or trained) falls well short of plumbing the depths of total understanding. I think of the parable of the Talents, where the Master entrusts a certain amount of resources to three slaves: the first receives five talents, the second two, and one talent given to the last. Now each slave does something with the talents, two multiplied what they had but the last buried it for safekeeping.

Now, this slave didn't lose his talent or squander it, but neither did he multiply it; instead, he preserved it in fear of not having at least the one talent to return to his Master. And yet, when the Master comes to assess what each slave had done with their talents, the last slave is declared worthless and wicked, his Master's reward… being "cast into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth." What did this last slave do that deserved such judgment? What motivated the slave to fear the Master? Why did he go into preservation mode? Now a lot is going on this parable, one which produces more questions than clear answers. Not that we are incapable of understanding, but certainly not without much study, reflection, and guidance from the Church's reading of Holy Scripture.

Other parables immediately pierce the heart with great clarity and force. The parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son are good examples, and, for most people, are two of the more memorable of Jesus' parables: because they hit so close to home, resonating with our human condition, easily placing us in the narrative. At some point in the Christian life, we've all identified with the Prodigal: at other times the older brother. Or the Priest, who upon seeing an injured man lying on the roadside, hurridly continues on to Jericho.

The parable of the Pharisee and the publican, which is today's Gospel reading, is (like the Prodigal Son) well known and definitely memorable. Perhaps when you first recognized the parable in today's reading of the Gospel began you thought, "Oh this is the parable about that self-righteous and wretched Pharisee filled with Pride and Vainglory: I can't stand this guy!" And you right, no one can stand this guy, for he is everything we hate about religious and puffed up people. He's ugly in the purest sense because he embodies the vice of all vices, the queen of the deadly sins: pride. And to make it even worse, self-righteousness and vainglory.

The sin of pride says, "I am better than God." This was the sin of Lucifer, the most awesome and beautiful of the Angels, believing himself to be better than his Creator. The crime of vainglory believes oneself to be better than everyone else, the fruit of this vice being wholesale disregard and malicious contempt for others. Today, the propers for the eleventh Sunday after Trinity intend to draw our attention to the sins of pride and vainglory, which is the seedbed of self-righteousness and disdain: absolute killers of the spiritual life.

But don't let the apparent straightforwardness of this parable fool you. Jesus isn't merely pointing out how gouache pride and self-righteousness are, nor is he shaming us into a superficial exercise in self-help moralism, calling us to pull up the old bootstraps and work at being a little less self-righteous. Neither is he preaching a three-point ‘How-To' sermon on humility. No, the issues at hand are far more profound than we might imagine. In this parable, Jesus holds up a mirror, pulls back the curtain on who we really are and our desperate need of grace. Through the power of parable, he wants us to see and apprehend the ultimate subject of this story: the mercy and grace of God the Father.

To begin, observe how Jesus has set the parable in the context of prayer, within the Temple, the unique and intimate place where God met with his people. The Pharisee and Publican have come up to the Temple to pray. They have come into the presence of God but have done so with stark contrast: vastly different thoughts and intentions. Through this parable, the Lord will expose their hearts by penetrating beyond externals. And in doing so, instructs us in how we are to approach our Father in prayer.

St. Luke writes, "Two men went up into the Temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week; I give tithes of all that I possess." Now the word Pharisee comes from a Hebrew root meaning ‘separate,' different, set apart from all others. So with high confidence, the Pharisee firmly and confidently stands to pray, taking his place beyond the court of the gentiles, beyond the court where women are allowed to pray. He has come into the men's court, the closest he can get to the holy of holies without being a priest. He has entered into God's house standing as near to the presence of God as the rules allow, and separated from everyone else.

"God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican." His invoking of God being nothing more than a formality, because the text says he "prayed about himself," with the connotation that he prayed out loud, for all to hear. For his prayer is really a review of his moral and religious résumé, directed both at advertising his own righteousness and exposing the perversion of the tax collector. "I fast twice in the week; I give tithes of all that I possess." The publican is undoubtedly a religious man, fervently so, fasting twice weekly, over and above the requirement of the Law, tithing on all that he possessed not merely on what was required: as Jesus would say "tithing even his cumin, mint, and herbs."

Now the publican, in the very deepest part of his soul, has to come to the Father, as the Prodigal Son, beset by sin and without a trace of dignity. "And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner." You can imagine this man standing as far away as possible perhaps in the court of the gentiles, the furthest point away from God's presence, identifying himself with the unclean, with the outsiders, separated by the wall of partition between the ‘clean' and the ‘unclean.' He is not worthy to enter into his Father's house, and so he stays as it were, "on the porch."

For humility is not only an internal disposition of the heart but also externalized in the body. There is a strong external element of humility. For one man stood near, the other stood afar. One looked up the other down. One loudly disparaged his neighbor, and the other softly cried to God for mercy. One prayed with lifted hands while the other beat his breast in shame. The ladder of humility has two sides, the body, and the soul, and both must seek the way of the lowly if one is to ascend unto God.

When the publican decides to return to his Father's house, to ask his Father for forgiveness and restoration- it is no longer by virtue of his right as a son of the covenant, neither by a sense of self-righteous accomplishment, but he comes as a beggar, motivated by the hunger and poverty he has fallen into; from a sense of profound loss: riddled with humiliation and shame. This is a man who has squandered his covenantal sonship, who has been brought low in the presence of God almighty, a man who dare not look up to heaven. The Publican is the portrait of humility, with full sobriety, he casts himself upon the mercy of God and quietly moans: "be merciful to me a sinner."

Contrast this with the prayer of the Pharisee. His is an impressive litany of religious and self-righteous accomplishments. A celebratory speech given to satisfy an audience of one himself. Heralded to win the adoration of anyone within earshot. A prayer that fell flat on the ground as soon as it left his lips. But the prayer of the lowly publican rises to heaven "piercing the clouds." And Jesus says, "this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted." The publican had reached the end of himself, and there, realized the innate inability to justify himself; to get clean. Wholly incapable of finding rest and absolution from sin. For beloved, no one is justified apart from the mercy and grace of God.

"But by the grace of God, I am who I am." These are the words of another Pharisee, the Apostle Paul. He, perhaps more than any other, understood the supernatural grace of God, the free and undeserved gift bestowed upon every sinner who casts himself into the arms of Divine mercy. "I am the least of the Apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the Church of God," parallels the Publican "God be merciful unto me a sinner:" and our Lord's declaration that the publican went down to his house justified because of his humility, is a parallel to the inspired words of the Apostle, "By the grace of God I am what I am...yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me." What Paul was and his service for the Lord Jesus Christ, was owed to the mercy and grace of God. In spite of his pharisaical past and despite the sins he committed as a Christian, God's mercy was immediate and graciously available. Hear St. Paul whose ver words could have been the Prodigal's or the Publican's, or perhaps even your own,

"I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a violent man; yet because I had acted in ignorance and unbelief, I was shown mercy. And the grace of our Lord overflowed to me, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. This is a trustworthy saying, worthy of full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst.…"

God's property is always to show mercy. This is the God we love and worship. He is merciful because he shows pity to the wretched. He is gracious because he is kind to the undeserving. Divine mercy is often the precursor to Divine grace but let us be cautious about setting up hard delineations or well defined sequencing of the actions and economy of God, because in a sense all of these things (mercy, grace, justice, love, pity) incohere, they overlap, but mercy is often the initiating movement of Divine love, and he does not delay: His mercy is immediate. As the publican's penitent plea for mercy left his lips, God's goodness and mercy were there. For our Father is rich in mercy and his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, is the abundant manifestation of Divine Mercy, the one who came in grace and truth. Hear again from St. Paul, "God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort…"

The Lord Jesus Christ is the manifestation of Divine Mercy, and in him, the almighty power of God is seen. For it is Jesus, who on the Cross, did not receive mercy from his persecutors, but was merciful to the undeserving, "Father forgive them for they know not what they do." And it is precisely in the sending of his Son to become one of us poor creatures, that God's mercy is on display; through the incarnation of the eternal Son, the God-Man Jesus Christ. In Christ, the invisible nature is made visible, incomparably more apparent than through all the other "things that have been made." The mercy of God is made visible through the words and actions of the incarnate Son, reaching its fullest revelation on the Cross.

Christ Himself, in a genuine sense, is mercy. To the person who sees it in Him - and finds it in Him - God the Father, who is rich in mercy becomes "visible" and tangible; the love of God made manifest to us miserable sinners: this is what the Bible calls mercy. Christ reveals the Father, who is rich in mercy; in Christ, the reality of forgiveness is made present to us. The redemption wrought by the suffering and torment of Christ, reveals the full extent of God's mercy, "For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him." By his stripes, we are healed.

At the Lord's table, in partaking of the Holy Communion, we come face to face with God's mercy, seeing and tasting the goodness of God towards us, the depth of God's mercy revealed in our salvation: "Christ our Passover lamb has been sacrificed for us." God's abounding grace and mercy come to us in the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our Father happily feeds us with the bread of heaven, the Divine remedy for the soul and body. We who are not worthy of the crumbs from His table feast on the restorative food of life. And perhaps here we begin to understand the meaning of today's collect in praying, "O God, who declarest thy almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity."

God's almighty power is chiefly or primarily declared and made known in his mercy. His power is shown in the willingness to see our miserable estate and come to us in love and goodness, to heal us, to save us, condescending and becoming a man who suffered as a criminal, tasting all that death had to offer, and then by the power of the Holy Spirit, arose from the dead; the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, the penultimate display of God's mercy, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, to the end that all who believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." Beloved, you are being called into the presence of the Lord. With eyes laid low, prepare your heart, do not stand afar. Come. Come humbly to the heavenly banquet and receive the mercy and love of God. Amen+

Jacob's Struggle

THE TENTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY

Mr. Jason VanBorssum, Postulant

In the Name of God: ✠ Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Amen.

This morning we continue our reading and preaching from the Book of Genesis. We have been reminded of the faithfulness of Abraham, the miraculous birth of a son to Sarah, the hospitality shown to three holy strangers (“entertain[ing] angels unawares”) the near sacrifice of Isaac on a stone altar, the scheming of Jacob to swindle his brother Esau out of his inheritance and birthright, and after twenty years in exile, Jacob’s encounter with God.

Genesis represents much more than the story of Creation, Noah’s ark, and the ancient history of a nomadic desert people. The overarching theme of Genesis is of relationship – holy relationship – in other words, COVENANT. An unbreakable and sacred relationship between God and humankind. In the First Book of the Torah, God reveals Himself as the absolute Sovereign of the Universe, the Creator and Father of all; His pure love for Creation is evident; His plan for humankind is proclaimed; and a foreshadowing of the doctrine of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer) is revealed. These covenantal themes illustrate the parent–child relationship between God and humankind and, more importantly therefore, the Divine charter of man’s mission. Created in the imago Dei, that is, in the image of God, human beings have a mission to bring about the fulfillment of Creation by carrying out the commandment of God. Adam and Eve failed, and were driven into exile. This state of exile (that is, sin) is the intrinsic, inherited state of man without covenantal relationship. We sin, but we can come back and be restored and redeemed. This is the linear underpinning of the whole of the Hebrew Bible, whose narrative reaches its zenith in the birth, life, rabbinate, ministry, passion, death, resurrection and ascension of the Divine Logos, made incarnate through the Holy Ghost and the Virgin Mary (the second Eve) as Jesus the Christ.

This morning’s lesson about Jacob wrestling with a messenger of God should reaffirm for us the reality of the human condition: life is a struggle. And our struggling is made more intense when we refuse to face our fears, refuse to acknowledge our shortcomings and our pride. Here, I should like to distinguish between human beings created in the “image of God” and what it means for us to bear the “likeness of God.” We might think at first that “image” and “likeness” are synonymous. And they may be, depending on the context. But in terms of our relationship with God, I would suggest that the imago Dei reflects our intrinsic state, whereas bearing the “likeness” of God requires effort on our part. What do I mean? Adam and Eve – that is, humankind – were created to have the form of God: intellect and reason. To reflect the likeness of God, we must reflect the content of God. Adam had the form of God but not the content of God. Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden because they were immature and rebellious – like children! – and needed to develop; i.e., they were expected to grow into the likeness of God, the content of God. To show love, compassion, empathy, and sorrow at levels that are vastly much greater than evolution requires. To move from our innate ability to discern right from wrong to actually living and doing in accordance with this God-given innate ability.

This is what St. Irenaeus called “soul making.” The development of humanity into a more perfect reflection of our Heavenly Father. At birth, we are instilled with the Divine spark of life, but are nothing more than the raw material for further stages of God’s creative work. Struggle and suffering are our reality. We dislike this reality, but struggle and suffering are a necessary part of God’s created universe. It is through struggle that human souls are made noble. We are honed and humbled, we learn, and we mature and grow, changing from merely human animals into “children of God.” Our potential for a higher level of moral perfection is tested by the choices we make in times of struggle and experience, as we choose God and the content of God rather than our baser instincts. God allows struggle and suffering for our benefit. Again, we dislike this. I know that I dislike it. I sometimes rage against it and wrestle with it. Like Jacob.

Like Jacob, we wrestle with God because facing the truth feels too painful. We don’t easily submit to God, and we may not even want to. In the West, and even in the Church, we honor and celebrate wealth, power, strength, prestige. We admire “winners” and we crave victory. We view weakness, failure, and doubt with disdain. Although we know intellectually that fear, anxiety, feelings of vulnerability, uncertainty, grief, and depression are part of life, we tend to view these as signs of failure or even as a lack of faith. However, as disciples of Christ we know that trappings of glamour and success are fleeting and that the accolades of the world are shallow and fickle, and are ingredients of a recipe for despair and discontentment. Sooner or later, the hard realities of life hit us squarely between the eyes. The story of Jacob pulls us back to God’s eternal reality.

Jacob’s story was one of constant struggles. Although God promised Jacob that through him would arise a great nation – the Jewish people – he was a man full of fear and anxiety. He was ruthless. He was a liar. A manipulator. A hustler. A con artist who deceived his father Isaac and who betrayed his brother Esau. As Fr. Michael explained last Sunday, the name “Jacob” (Yaakov) means “deceiver.” And it also means more literally, “grabber.” About to meet his brother after twenty years of exile, Jacob knows that the embittered Esau, seething with anger for twenty years, is at the head of a small army coming to serve up a cold dish of revenge à la mode. Alone in the desert, divested of all his worldly possessions, physically exhausted, and finally and at long last all aware that he is not in control of his fate, Jacob collapses on the banks of the Jabbok River. He was too spent to struggle any longer.

But only then did Jacob’s real struggle begin: a wrestling match with God Himself. That night, an angelic stranger visits Jacob; the two fight and wrestle throughout the long, cold night until daybreak, at which point the Messenger of the Most High God injures Jacob, dislocating his hip and crippling him for the rest of his life. It was only then that Jacob realized that his life of resisting and fighting, of scheming and guile, ended in submission to God: “I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” In other words, I have been spared. I have been saved. I have received the gift of salvation.

Before he could return from his exile of pride and sin and egotism, Jacob had to face his fears and his own past and struggle with God. The outcome of the struggle was a blessing, signified by a new name: Israel, which means “he who wrestles with God.” Isn’t that significant and powerful and beautiful? That the people chosen to be a “light unto the nations” would be named “wrestles with God?” Our human instincts struggle against growing up. As spiritual children, we rebel against our capital-P Parent. Instilled by God with intellect and reason, we question, we have doubts. The Body of Christ, the Church, is grafted onto the Tree of Israel. The people of the New Covenant are the branch of the people of the Old Covenant, the root. And we, too, wrestle with God because we are “in the world but not of it.” This is a daily wrestling match that comes with the territory of being set aside in covenantal relationship.

Jacob finally prevailed when his faith and trust overcame the pain of his past. Clinging on to the Angel like a terrier on a pant leg, Jacob’s real struggle was to wrestle with who Jacob thought he was and with the man God intended Jacob to be. This is what it looks like to go from bearing the “image of God” to reflecting the “likeness of God.” And note that Jacob’s struggle taught him an important lesson, and he was left with a permanent, physical reminder. For the rest of his life, Jacob was crippled and walked with a limp. The injuries and wounds we sustain through the struggles of life can be viewed as either a handicap, or, more rightly, I would suggest, as a badge of honor that serves as a reminder to us that, like Jacob, when we submit to God we will see Him “face to face” and our life is preserved.

In the Epistle appointed for this morning, the theme is affliction and consolation. Affliction and consolation. In his Letter to the Church in Corinth, St. Paul stresses that being in Christ is to endure the experience of Jacob: that weakness and suffering signal God’s empowering presence. Suffering and affliction of covenantal people are evidence of God’s love. St. Paul asserts that “we have this treasure in earthen vessels” – clay jars – that is, our human bodies, which are weak and impermanent and so cannot be the source of the power of the treasure found in knowledge of the Good News of Jesus Christ. The idea of the human body as an earthen vessel, which ultimately returns to the dust of the earth out of which Adam was created, depicts the Creator as the potter of humankind.

St. Paul goes on to say that “We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body. For we which live are always delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh.” The Stoics of the ancient world spoke about these afflictions to demonstrate their indifference to adversity. In contrast, Paul looks to the vulnerability and flaws and struggling of human beings – like Jacob – to make a theological point: adversity demonstrates our frailty and unworthiness, and the overcoming of adversity is proof of Divine power.

Again, Jacob’s struggle taught him an important lesson, and he was left with a permanent, physical reminder. For the rest of his life, Jacob was crippled and walked with a limp. The injuries and wounds we sustain through the struggles of life can be viewed as either a handicap or as a badge of honor that serves as a reminder to us that, like Jacob, when we submit to God we will see Him “face to face” and our life is preserved. In this morning’s Epistle reading, Paul teaches that in struggle and adversity, we carry in our bodies the death of Jesus. In other words, Jesus’s suffering and death are replicated in the suffering of the Church – and sometimes in the very physical bodily sufferings Christians endure. Thereby the life of Jesus becomes visible. Struggle, suffering, and affliction are counterparts to the suffering which Jesus endured for the sake of redeeming the world. As covenantal people, the world will cause us pain and suffering. That’s reality. Coptic Christians in Egypt and the Orthodox Church in Syria are proof of that. These our sisters and brothers have literally been nailed to the Cross of Christ. And so, as St. Paul explains, the suffering of Jesus is made manifest in the very flesh of Christians through our struggle.

Through his exhausting struggle and his crippling injury, Jacob prevailed and submitted to God, seeing Him “face to face.” In the Eucharist, we encounter the Real Presence of Christ in His blessed Body and Blood. We come “face to face” with God only after we have made the confession of Jacob: “Forgive us all that is past, and grant that we may ever hereafter serve and please Thee in newness of life, to the honour and glory of Thy Name.” But we are no longer Jacob; we are Israel, one who struggles with God and nonetheless receives the full covenantal promise of undeserved grace. Grace given to us through the God-Man who wrestles with us until we fall to our knees and acknowledge, “We do not presume to come to this Thy Table, o merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness but in Thy manifold and great mercies.”

Through Christ, and with Christ, and in Christ, each one of us must be renamed from Jacob to Israel, from being a self-serving manipulator to a child of God who surrenders to God’s power and receives blessing. Just as Jacob finally prevailed when the power of faith in God defeated his rebellion, so we can be freed from our own exile by proclaiming “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” Note the order of this morning’s Lesson: it is only when we tell God our name (i.e., who we really are) that God meets us “face to face.” Jacob’s wrestling with God reminds of this hopeful truth: though we may struggle mightily against God and His will for us through the loneliness of the dark night, by daybreak, through Christ, His blessing will come. Amen.

And Behold I Am With You

THE NINTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1) and thus begins the unveiling of God in the canon of Holy Scripture, starting with the first book of Moses commonly called Genesis. Our summer exploration of the book of Genesis has led to many discoveries about the God of Heaven and Earth, the One, True and Holy God of Israel: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost.

We read Scripture, and there, from the pages of Divine Revelation, we come face to face with the living God. And, we have found him not merely in an abstract sense (words speaking about God), but His actual divine presence in the Old Testament. We have found Christ, the second person of the Trinity: promised in the garden of Eden, typified in the Ark of salvation, and the sacrificial ram offered up for the life of Isaac. 

“The word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Heb 4:12) And why? Because it is in His word, present, actively accomplishing the Divine work. God says,  "[the word] goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa 55:11). God works in and through the revelation of the word because he is present.

Now, when we read Scripture, we also come face to face with ourselves and what we find is that Scripture actually reads us. We read ourselves into the Old and New Testament stories. With Adam and Eve, we find the burden of sin and the reality of our delicate natures to be intolerable. With Noah, we can identify with a man who in the face of public scrutiny and mocking still resolves to trust in God, who “builds the Ark” though it has never rained. Or perhaps like Sarah, we’ve laughed in unbelief in the face of God’s promises, “how can this be, as my husband and I are old and beyond the age of children!” Their stories are our stories. Their faults alive in us as well, as is their capacity to please God and trust in him, even in the face of life’s most significant challenges. Or, when God asks of us the impossible as he did Abraham.

You see, one cannot encounter the presence of God in Scripture and remain utterly unaware of self. The presence of holiness simply will not allow it. For the holiness of God draws out the stark and brutal reality of who we really are. With Isiah, we too cry out to heavenly hosts “Woe is me! For I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (Isa 6:5). And with Peter, we too fall on our knees in brokenness and confess, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” (Lk 5:8). In the lives of the saints, we come face to face with our human condition (what it means to be fallen). A confrontation with the Divine always exposes what it means to live Coram Deo: before the face of God.

Scripture speaks. Yet, it speaks not only about but to us because the gracious and merciful Lord desires to bring us to the end of ourselves. And there, at the end of self, is where He begins the recreative and reforming work of actualizing his great desire for us: that we would be conformed into the image of his Son Jesus Christ. But there’s another important aspect of coming face to face with God in the Bible: finding once again the reality of his covenant faithfulness and real presence with us. Friends, the Lord is with us. 

From Garden to Garden, from Eden to the glorious garden beheld in St. John's revelation, “Lo, I am with you, always.”  As God was faithful to redeem all that went wrong in the garden, so he is faithful to redeem us. The God who delivered Noah upon the surety of dry ground is the God of our deliverance. He makes the most outlandish and impossible promises and keeps them, as he did for Sarah. In every temptation, every single testing, and dicey predicament, God is with us. Just as He was with Noah, Abraham, and Isaac, so he is with all who put their trust in the strong name of the Lord. And as importantly, maybe even more so, God is with us even when we fail, when we doubt, when we are beset by fear... even when we are fleeing from whatever it is: on the run as fugitives.

“And Jacob went out from Beersheba and went toward Haran" (Gen 28:10). So begins today’s Old Testament reading, which tells the story of the revelation of God which came to Jacob in a dream as he lay asleep in the dark of the night. Now, this opening sentence may seem inconsequential, but without knowing why Jacob is on the move, we’ll miss the fullness of what God would say to us this morning.

From birth, Jacob's was a life of struggle and contention, even wrestling with his older brother Esau in the womb! He took advantage of his brother and cheated him out his birthright in exchange for a bowl of red stew. While in the Philistine town of Gerar, he craftily tried to protect his wife Rebekah with a lie, telling king Abimelech and the men "she is my sister." And in addition to all of this, he deceitfully stole the blessing of his father, Isaac. Esau's response is heartbreaking, listen, 

"And when Esau heard the words of his father, he cried with a great and exceeding bitter cry, and said unto his father, Bless me, even me also, O my father. And he said, Thy brother came with subtlety, and hath taken away thy blessing. And he said, Is not he rightly named Jacob? For he hath supplanted me these two times: he took away my birthright; and, behold, now he hath taken away my blessing" (Gen 27:34-36). Jacob has most certainly lived up to his name: he is a cheat; he is a deceiver.

And now, he is a fugitive running from the repercussions of sin. He is fleeing from his brother Esau. A troubled son in search of his place in life. A shrewd shepherd in exile journeying out from the land of promise. He is getting as far away from the contention and strife as he possibly can. This is the man upon whom scripture records, the sun has set. "And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep."  Jacob is utterly alone. In the dark. Vulnerable. One can only imagine the anxiety, wondering if he is being followed. Fear is his companion as he places a stone under his head and falls asleep under the covering of the sky.

Verse twelve, "And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the LORD stood above it, and said, I am the LORD God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac." Now there is so much we could explore both theologically and biblically about Jacob's Ladder. But we have set out these many weeks to find the faithfulness of God in the Old Testament, in particular, the faithfulness of God in Christ. And this is precisely what God reveals to Jacob in this mysterious dream; by divine image and divine word.

Now there are a million ways in which God could have dealt with Jacob. He could have disciplined him. Could have given him over to the wrath of his brother Esau. And, the Lord could have done absolutely nothing; remaining silent and hidden from this fugitive. And imagine what is going through Jacob's mind... "I have stolen the blessing. Is it truly mine?" Yes, his father Isaac confirmed the blessing but if he genuinely is heir, then why is he bolting from the land of promise?  "I have lied to family and neighbors alike. My own brother wants to take my life." Will God's blessing be his as it was with Abraham and Isaac before him? Doubt. Fear. Anxiety. And, guilt. But the God of Abraham and Isaac is faithful in spite of the failings of his people. In a dream, God will ease the doubting son and give him confidence for the future.

The Lord shows Jacob a ladder reaching from the heights of heaven connecting to the earth. First, we should think of the tower of Babel which we encountered several weeks ago. A tower by which the men of the earth attempted to reach into the courts of heaven, not to reach God, but to reign over the earth as gods. Man cannot, by his sin, build any ladder by which he will ascend to the Lord. Here, a ladder is built down from heaven to earth. The Divine presence is the first-mover, taking the initiative to build a bridge down to man by which heaven kisses the earth; the angels and heavenly hosts descending down to do the bidding of their Master and taking the concerns of men heavenward. 

The descending and ascending angels suggest their presence on earth, an expression of the intercourse which, though invisible to the natural eye, is nevertheless ever taking place between heaven and earth. Remember, the prophet Elisha whose eyes God opened to the heavenly reality in his great time of fear, "Then the LORD opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw. And behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha" (2 Kings 6:17). As angels rush up and down, to and fro, God is communicating his great care and concern for the man. The hosts of angels are with him, guarding, rescuing, and protecting from every peril and danger. 

The Divine bidding of heaven will continuously be worked out in Jacob's life through the service of the angels. And here is a foreshadowing of the faithfulness of God in Christ, to whom God promised and fulfilled, "For it is written, He shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee: And in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone" (Lk 4:10-11). Dearly beloved, as it was with Jacob and Jesus, so it is with us. The angels stand before God on our behalf, as Christ said, "See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven continually see the face of My Father who is in heaven" (Mt 18:10). 

“And, behold, the LORD stood above it, and said, I am the LORD God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac." Now we have come upon the central feature of the vision: the Lord, who is standing over the stairway. Jacob sees the LORD (Jehovah, the true and only God). The Divine Lord shows himself in all of his glory standing atop the ladder as the Ruler over all of creation, sovereign over the angels, men, women, and all the affairs of heaven and earth. This means the God of Jacob's fathers is sovereign over every aspect of his life. Sovereign over each and every relational conflict, sovereign over whether or not he will take the next breath, even sovereign over this fugitives sin: for God is free to judge, open to condemn, or free to show grace and mercy.

Through this awesome image given in a dream, God assured Jacob, "I am with you." Jacob must now know that Jehovah is with him as his God; that the God of Abraham—his ancestor in faith—and the God of Isaac, will henceforth also prove himself to be the God of Jacob, from this day forth forevermore. And we who may be fleeing as fugitives, or beset by fear need to be reminded of this today. The God of Scripture is not only in heaven but on earth. He stands atop and beside the ladder which joins the transcendent and material; that which is seen and unseen, the magical and rational. Jacob needed to be reminded of this, and not merely by words, but through presence: the Divine presence above, below, beside... in every place and in every circumstance, the light of his countenance shines upon Jacob, and beloved, the glorious light of Christ shines upon us. 

Let us rejoice with the psalmist who sings, "Thou hast beset me behind and before, and laid thine hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it. Whither shall I go from thy spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me. If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me" (Ps 139:5-11). The assuring presence of God shone upon Jacob as a light in the deep, dark night. The covenant-keeping God is the God of protection because He and all the legions of heaven are with us.

God knew that Jacob not only needed to see but to hear that he had not lost the Divine blessing and accompanying promises. For Jacob had most certainly (by his own volition) put them at risk. So, because the Lord "is gracious, and full of compassion; slow to anger, and of great mercy"... he speaks. He speaks to Jacob because, as the psalmist declares, "The Lord is good to all: and his tender mercies are over all his works" (Ps 145:8-9). To Jacob would be given the land as promised. 

Through Jacob, God will fulfill the Abrahamic promise to make a nation as vast as the dust of the earth, extending to every corner of creation. And, through Jacob's seed, he and all the families of the earth would be blessed. What God covenanted to do as Abraham slept deeply, he swears to do for a sleeping exile who fears he has lost the privilege of God's covenant blessing. And here we encounter, once again, the Divine pattern of rebellion, restoration, and promise of fulfillment.

"And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of." How great is the love of God which descends from heaven! He will keep the man no matter where he goes... the protection, blessing, and promises go with him. "He will not leave" until He has done every last word he has spoken. If you have ears to hear, then let the grace of covenant wash over you, "Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who keeps His covenant of loving devotion for a thousand generations of those who love Him and keep His commandments." The Divine promise of protection given to Jacob is most surely ours who are in Christ. He will not leave us as orphans. Beloved "be strong and of good courage, fear not, nor be afraid: for the LORD thy God, he it is that doth go with thee; he will not fail thee, nor forsake thee" (Dt 31:6).

The faithfulness of God and every covenant blessing has been given to you in the Lord Jesus Christ. By faith, you have entered into the family of God, that blessed nation comprised of every family on earth. And like Jacob, you have made a baptismal vow to worship and obey the God of salvation and protection, the God of presence. And today, we come to the altar, a stone raised in the house of God, anointed with the presence of the Holy Spirit, the place where heaven and earth collide, the gate of heaven, where we climb up on the ladder which is Christ; He who bridges the gap between man and the God of heaven. Let us, therefore, arise from the slumber of sin and fear and climb into the arms of mercy and love given in the body and blood of this most holy eucharist. And be of good cheer, for the Lord is with you.

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. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it" (1 Ths 5:23). Amen+

The Mount of Revelation

THE TRANSFIGURATION OF CHRIST

"And it came to pass about an eight days after these sayings, he took Peter and John and James, and went up into a mountain to pray. And as he prayed, the fashion of his countenance was altered, and his raiment was white and glistering. And, behold, there talked with him two men, which were Moses and Elias: Who appeared in glory, and spake of his decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem" (Luke 9:28-31).

Now there are many places in Scripture, geographic locations, where the most interesting and significant events occur. Like the sea, which the Almighty Lord parted and delivered his people from the tyranny of Egypt. The sea, which Christ calmed with a word and walked upon as if it were dry ground. The God of Heaven and Earth used the sea as a means of revelation, the place where he made himself known as master over creation.

The wilderness seems to be another place of biblical importance. Think of the forty years the children of Israel spent in the desert. It was in the barren wastelands that the Israelites came to a greater knowledge of the One who had redeemed them from the hand of Pharaoh. There, in the heat and rugged landscape, God manifested himself as their protector and provider. He went before and behind as a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. In the desert, the Lord God revealed himself as Israel's provider, raining manna from heaven and bringing water from a rock.

The desert was also the place where Jesus Christ overcame forty days and forty nights of being tempted by the devil. Revealing to Satan a strength and fortitude far greater than Adam's. In the desert, Jesus revealed himself to be the second Adam, the faithful Israelite, the promised seed born to crush the serpent's head. The sea and the desert: places of Divine revelation. And yet, it is upon mountains that we find the most powerful and glorious revelations of who God is.

Mountains are all over the pages of Scripture. The Lord brought the Ark to rest upon the top of a mountain from which Noah and his family stepped out onto the safety of the dry ground. And upon that mountain, Noah sacrificed and offered burnt offerings to the God who had shown himself as the great deliverer. It was upon a mountain that Abraham's knife was stayed by the hand of God who delivered Isaac by providing a sacrificial ram caught in a thicket. Abraham came face to face with the God who provides.

It was upon a mountain where four hundred priests of Baal were gloriously defeated. The Almighty God, the One and only true God, heard Elijah's prayers and revealed himself to be THE God in Israel, in fact, THE God of the world: for there is no other. Moses ascended the mountain accompanied by three men- Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu- and there, at the top, scripture records "they saw the God of Israel" (Ex 22:9). Moses encountered God on the mountain, saw something of his presence, and spoke with him. And there, on that holy mount, God revealed the divine law written in two tablets, given unto Israel that they might walk in perfect union with their God all the days of their lives.

The mountain is God's special dwelling place. It is where he chooses to meet with men, it is the place where he speaks with them, communes with them (again, in Exodus chapter 22 see God eat with Moses, his three companions, and the seventy elders). The mountain is the closet place to God's presence and where he divinely chooses to manifest his glory. Sinai, Horeb, Moriah... all of these are mountains of divine revelation and Mt. Tabor, the mount of the Transfiguration of our Lord is no exception. For at the apex of the ascent is a greater revelation of who Jesus Christ is.

St. Luke writes, "And it came to pass about an eight days after these sayings, he took Peter and John and James, and went up into a mountain to pray." Jesus took Peter, John, and James up into a mountain to pray. We are ascending into a profound mystery because at the top of the mountain, we encounter the manifestation and revelation of Christ's Glory, the shekinah glory of God. "And as he prayed, the fashion of his countenance was altered, and his raiment was white and glistering." The revelation of Christ's divinity is shown in the Transfiguration of his earthly body: the mystery of the incarnation on full display- magnificent, radiant, and powerful. Let us then consider some implications found in the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ.

First, the Transfiguration signifies the long-awaited return of God's glory to Israel- to his creation- which is fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. The Transfiguration marks the most critical stage in the unfolding revelation of God's redemptive plan for a lost and sinful world. Israel longed for her Messiah, he of whom the Law and the Prophets spoke, Son of God and Son of man, who would come to redeem Israel from the hand of her enemies. The divine presence would once again dwell in Israel; the divine glory would shine again.

St. John tells us that Christ's life was a manifestation of the divine glory, "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."  You see, on the mountain, the Divine and royal presence has come in all of its glory and power. The Kingdom of God is manifested in Jesus, the Messiah who shines as brightly as the sun. Jesus is not a god from of "cunningly devised fables" but Light of Light and very God of very God. "This is my beloved Son, hear him." In Jesus, God has fulfilled his covenant promises, he bore the sins of the world, he has won our salvation. And he is with us, as he promised, by sending the Holy Spirit. In Christ, God has come and is near to us. The Divine Glory with and within you. He has not abandoned nor forgotten you, as he promised, to neither leave nor forsake you.

Second, the Transfiguration directs our worship. "And, behold, there talked with him two men, which were Moses and Elias..." We see Moses and Elijah glorified on the mountain speaking with Christ, a clear picture of the Law and the Prophets agreeing in the Son, both converging in the embodiment of the Son. You see, what the Law and Prophets have said is now understood in the person and work of the Son of God, Jesus Christ; he is the fullest and brightest revelation of the Father's will to gather a people to himself. A people who will love their Lord with everything they are, who will love Him above all gods. No longer worshipping on a mountain or temple but in spirit and truth. A bride who worships in the name and person of Jesus Christ, the bridegroom. To worship in spirit in truth is to worship in Christ. And this is exactly where the Transfiguration places the worship of the Church: in Christ. Participating in his love and goodness through word and sacrament. Living lives which please him as our acceptable sacrifice unto him; walking in holiness and righteousness, fulfilling the Commandments of God by the Spirit AND NOT by the letter.

Third, the Transfiguration is our hope. The glorification of Christ's body on Mt. Tabor not only reveals the truth about who Jesus is but what every faithful Christian will one day become. We too will one day become as he is. We also will be transfigured, as the Lord Himself was transfigured, when our redemption is complete in the Resurrection of the Body. Then, we will forever be with Him in the new heaven and the new earth: in a transformed creation. This is a glorious truth! This promised hope, pictured in the Transfiguration, is our sure reassurance of what will be inherited at the end of the age AND the consummation of all things.

Finally, if we desire to see Christ's glory, we must do as the Disciples. They went up into a high mountain to pray. We also must try and get above this world, distanced from the troubles and cares of life. The soul which yearns for and seeks union with glorified Christ must ASCEND THE MOUNTAIN abiding in the kingdom of God as a heavenly citizen and earthly sojourner: desiring to one day be where He now is. So we arise and ascend to the Lord's table, we come up to him and enter into his presence as he is with us in the bread and the wine. We eat with him, of him, and come face to face with the Bread of Presence, the God of our salvation.

And yet, in time, we too must DESCEND, come down from the mountain like Moses and the Apostles did. But, friends, we come down different, somehow changed... transformed by the Eucharistic presence of divine glory. Transformed by the body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. We descend from the table forgiven, made clean, strengthened in body and spirit, at peace with God and neighbor. Filled with Life. Filled with hope. When we leave this place, and once again descend down into the everyday valleys and shadows of this life remember... we do so as beloved sons and daughters. As children of light-filled with eternal hope. Hear, the beloved Apostle, "Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is" (1 Jn 3:2).

Let us pray,

O God, who on the holy mount didst reveal to chosen witnesses thy well-beloved Son wonderfully transfigured: Mercifully grant unto us such a vision of his divine majesty, that we, being purified and strengthened by thy grace, may be transformed into his likeness from glory to glory; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen+

The Sacrifice of Isaac

THE SEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY

In exploring the book of Genesis, we are learning a great deal about the God of the Bible. Through the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the Tower of Babel and Noah, we have encountered the covenant faithfulness of God, who is the God of promise and fulfillment. He is the great Restorer and the hope of the world. By delving further and further into the fertile soil of scripture- moving beyond the letter to the spirit of the text- we are discovering Christ’s presence in the Old Testament: the great treasure hidden in the field. He who was present at creation is the seed promised to Eve. He is the acceptable sacrifice offered by the shepherd Abel. The Ark of salvation for Noah and his family. The child of promise brought forth from Sarah’s barren womb from whom will come a nation to vast to number. And, in Him, all the nations of the earth are blessed. In the heat of the day, he is the mysterious guest who visits Abraham by an oak tree at Mamre. We are standing amid a great mystery of which St. Paul writes: “Christ is all and in all” (Col 3:11). Now, if we dig deep into this story of the sacrifice of Isaac, and the Lord God grants his assistance, perhaps we’ll find the pearl of great price.

Over these past few weeks, we have tracked the story of Abraham. The entire arc of the Abrahamic narrative- how God called and covenanted with the great patriarch- has been straining toward the point when Isaac, the child of promise, will be born. Abraham and his aged wife longed for a son, but more than that, a legacy, a family who would, generation by generation, make the name of Abraham great. In Isaac, every longing, hope, and dream is fulfilled. He is the dearly beloved son of Father Abraham. The grand denouement of God’s covenantal action. I want to share something if you permit me. Preparing for this sermon has been a struggle. There are fewer passages in Holy Scripture I find more challenging and difficult to grasp. The sacrifice of Isaac, if I’m honest, challenges my understanding of God at a profound level. It applies maximum pressure to my conception of who God is and why he does what he chooses. Scripture plainly shows that sacrifice is a means by which man relates to God. We see this with Cain, Abel, Noah, Seth, and Abraham; they all sacrificed to the Lord of Heaven and Earth. God is the God of sacrifice.

But how is it that He commands Abraham to sacrifice his son? Who is this God and why such an incomprehensible demand? Is this the sacrifice he desires? Having turned these questions over and over in my heart, I have come face to face with the limitation of understanding; the inability to comprehend the deep things of God. The prophet speaks: “His thoughts are not our thoughts, and His ways are not our ways. So does the Apostle: “the wisdom of God is foolishness to man.” And therefore, we must at all times approach the revelation of God with humility; as feeble unlearned children in need of divine wisdom for any understanding. Perhaps, by his great mercy and goodness, we will arrive at a better understanding of what it means to offer sacrifice to God.

“And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.”

Once again, God calls his friend Abraham who was one hundred years old when the Lord determined to test the integrity and courage of his faith. See how gracious the Lord is in allowing his friend to grow in grace and faith, trial by trial, through various difficulties and struggles. Now Abraham, after so many years of walking with God, who time and time again demonstrated his faithfulness and trustworthiness, is to be tested on a mountain. “Get thee into the land of Moriah, and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.” The testing of his faith will be as an upward climb; he will journey to the mountain, ascending to God in worship. His will be an ascent of transformation; his faith increasing has he climbs higher and higher towards God. But he is to carry a heavy burden on the journey to Mt. Moriah. Notice how God chose to command the sacrifice of his son right upfront, fully disclosing his demand. He doesn’t say “head to Mt. Moriah, and when you and the boy arrive, I’ll give further instruction.” God has asked for the life of Abraham’s son, his only beloved son Isaac. He is immediately laden with the enormous burden of what lies ahead; he cannot escape it. And we mustn’t lose sight of how precious the son is to the Father. In just a handful of verses, God refers three times to Isaac as Abraham’s only son (vv. 2, 12, 16). He is the all-surpassing possession of his heart, which he cherishes more than anything. Surely every mother and Father knows the depth and nature of the love of which I speak.

“Get thee into the land of Moriah, and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.” God has commanded Abraham to offer Isaac on the top of Mt. Moriah as a burnt sacrifice. In Hebrew, a Korban (sacrifice) Olah (meaning that which ascends; it ascends to the Father. Furthermore, a burnt offering is a complete and perfect sacrifice; the flames consume it; every bit of the sacrifice given to God. And herein lies the gravity of the Divine test: the Lord is demanding from Abraham his ‘everything’... his ‘all.’ Give unto me that which is most beloved and dear to you, not some, not part, but every bit of what you hold dear. Isaac is Abraham’s everything.

God demands from us the very best of what he has given. Was he not pleased with the fine calf Abel offered and displeased with the common produce Cain put set upon the altar? Abel gave God of his very best, the first-fruits, the most valuable, and, most importantly, costly of gifts. Was not the widow’s mite more pleasing than the rich man’s tithe? God is pleased when we offer that which we hold dearest to our hearts, that which we love and cherish, and require a high price. The sacrificial gift communicates a lot about the giver. That which we offer upon the altar signifies the disposition of the soul and its orientation to the Lord. Let us make a vow as David did at the threshing floor, “I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing” (2 Sam 24:24).

“And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.”

As far as the matter of obedience is concerned, the conflict is over; Abraham’s purpose is fixed. He does not consult with flesh and blood but instantly obeys God. Overcoming, for three long days, the great conflict within; never waivers nor turns away, but ascends the mount of sacrifice by faith. A pleasing sacrifice to God is offered by willful obedience to the divine command. What obedience Father Abraham models for us! He hears God’s command, knows his voice, and responds in obedience, “Here I am.” Without delay. Without reluctance. Samuel asks, “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams” (1 Sam 15:22). And why is the obedient sacrifice pleasing to God? Because a willingness to obey God- especially a desire to obey commands which make no sense, or seem impossible to attain, or even harmful- demonstrates the depth of love we have for Him, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” We express our love of God through sacrificial obedience: love your neighbor; love your enemies; turn the other cheek; do not return evil for evil; forgive as you have been forgiven; sell everything to the poor and follow me.

The pleasing sacrifice is the obedient and willful offering of all that we hold dear. It is gladly given no matter the cost. And here we arrive at the very nature and purpose of sacrifice: our transformation. For the call to sacrifice is an invitation to be transformed through union with God, reordered to him through divine love. Sacrificing possessions, desires, whatever the Lord demands placed upon the altar. The sacrificial life is a life open to God, receptive to him in every way. The call to sacrifice is a call to death, death to self, and all selfishness. We sacrifice our bodies on the altar of purity when we chasten its disordered desires by temperance. We sacrifice unholy thoughts when we open ourselves to the mind of Christ. In other words, we offer ourselves, make ourselves open to God, to be united to Him through Christ Jesus. A sacrificial life strives to honor God through the perfective transformation of one’s life, a life so reordered by grace, like a sweet-smelling aroma that arises from the flames. Let us hold fast to the Apostles words,

“Therefore I exhort you, brothers and sisters by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a sacrifice—alive, holy, and pleasing to God—which is your reasonable service. Do not be conformed to this present world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may test and approve what the will of God—what is good and well-pleasing and perfect is” (Rom 12:1).

Sacrifice is the divine invitation to be transformed.

“And Abraham stretched forth his hand and took the knife to slay his son. And the angel of the LORD called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I. And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.”

At the very moment when Abraham would act in faith, the angel of the Lord stays his hand. What grace displayed in the divine interruption! Does God demand child sacrifice? Is this who God is? I mean, is this not the crux of the matter? Well, let’s turn to the text for the answer. And, God said, “Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou anything to him.” The Lord did not allow Abraham to kill his son. Period. He loves everything he creates and bears tremendous concern for his children. And his great love for us is demonstrated through the most costly and precious sacrifice ever offered in the history of the cosmos. God sent a ram to bear the sins of the whole world, a son who carried the wood of a cross up a hill and willingly laid upon it. “He who knew no sin became sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor 5:21). Oh, the great exchange brought about by the willful, obedient, and costly sacrifice of the only beloved son of the Father; the true Isaac; the true Ram; Jesus Christ the righteous. His sacrifice is transforming you even now. “Therefore, [let us] be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” Amen+

The Visitation of Abraham

THE SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY

In studying the book of Genesis, we are in search of the faithfulness of God, in particular, the faithfulness of God in Jesus Christ. To put it this way, we are searching for Christ in the Old Testament, looking for ‘the treasure hid in the field.’ And this endeavor has afforded new opportunities to introduce patristic approaches to reading the Old Testament with the hope of learning from these ‘faithful guides’ how to better “rightly handle the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15).  You see, when we read and study the Bible, we are to do so in conversation with the catholic church, the church who, in every place and every generation, has studied and understood Scripture for thousands of years. I’m most likely in good company when I say we all desire to increase our ability to understand and follow the Holy Scriptures. And this we will accomplish by standing on the shoulders of the theological giants who have gone before us.

Last Sunday, we took a cue from the second-century theologian Origen of Alexandria and discovered in the book of Genesis a divine and heavenly pattern; a redemptive cycle of creation, blessing, restoration, promise, and fulfillment woven within the narratives of Adam, Noah, and Abraham (in truth this runs through the entirety of Scripture). From this pattern is found profound knowledge about the nature of God. God blesses what he creates, restores what is lost, and keeps every promise he makes. The story of Abraham continues on this sixth Sunday after Trinity where Abraham encounters God by the oak trees of Mamre. And this morning, I pray for the grace of the Holy Spirit to reveal even more knowledge of God; the God of visitation. In the first verse of the eighteenth chapter of the book of Genesis we read, “And the Lord appeared unto him in the plains of Mamre: and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day; And he lift up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him: and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself toward the ground.” Abraham saw God. This is what Moses records. He didn’t hear God; he didn’t encounter him in a vision or dream; He saw God.

“And the Lord appeared unto Abraham in the plains of Mamre.” Now this story is saturated in magic and mystery. Filled with wonder and transcendence. To begin with, we mustn’t rush past the most critical and wonder-filled point of this entire story: The Lord of heaven and earth chose to visit Abraham. The presence of heaven reached down to earth: this is a day of visitation. “And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo three men stood by him.” God has mysteriously appeared in the coming of three men. That God appears in three should set your theological brain a buzzing with all kinds of Trinitarian, Christological, and historical connections. Not to mention we read that he has appeared “in the heat of the day” which any farmer or almanac will inform you is three o’clock in the afternoon, the hottest time of the day.  And in response to the arrival of these three guests, Sarah will hastily make bread from “three measures of fine meal.” The Septuagint translates the Hebrew word used here for bread into the greek word engkruphias meaning hidden or secret, like the hidden mystery of God’s desire for the Gospel to be preached to the Gentiles which St. Paul speaks of. Sarah is making mysterious bread from three measures of meal for three strange guests… There’s a lot going on here under the surface of the letter. The field is beginning to reveal is jewels and precious stones! And yet mystery doesn’t necessarily involve complexity or incomprehensibility. God has chosen to visit Abraham and does so by means of what is familiar. He has drawn near to Abraham through the presence of three men. 

Now, how are we to understand this? First, let’s not confuse the ways in which God manifests his presence in the Old Testament with the New Testament incarnation of God in the birth of the divine-person Jesus Christ. There are essential differences in both their character and intention. In the former, God manifested his presence through created things: the burning bush, the angel of the Lord, and in this case, in the three men. The most Holy God did this from a desire to draw as near as he possibly could to unclean sinners. You see, by various Theophanies, or Christophanies, the Divine One accommodated himself to humanity: he visited and dwelt with men in history and in the midst of human experience in a way that would preserve their lives, for as he graciously told Moses, “Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live” (Ex 33:20). But in the incarnation, God not only manifested his presence among men, but he also became a man! By the incarnation, God was forever united to his creation by clothing Divinity in humanity, the second person of the Trinity wedding himself to the creature and every measure of what it means to be human save for sin. “God became flesh and dwelt among us” is how the beloved Apostle describes it. God visited Abraham in a visible, intelligible, and familiar way. Because the God of visitation is a hospitable God.

Divine hospitality vastly exceeds any concept of human hospitality, even Christian hospitality. In truth, we can only speak analogously of divine hospitality as what we understand as human hospitality. In studying the church fathers, you will find they employed two different words in speaking of God’s hospitality and man’s. In writing of human hospitality, they used the word philoxenia: philo (love) of a stranger (xenia) the opposite of xenophobia; the idea behind this Greek word from which we get hospitality is the turning of strangers into friends. We turn strangers into friends by opening up our homes, our lives, sharing everything we have; showing hospitality to bring people into a closer relationship. Abraham is a great example of philoxenia as he runs to greet these three mysterious strangers, washes their feet and serves them a bountiful meal, thereby turning strangers into friends.

Now in contrast to human hospitality, the Fathers used the greek word syn-kata-basis in speaking of Divine hospitality. This term is a conglomeration of three separate words syn (together), kata (down), and basis (going), literally translated as going down together. Or to render it in the Latin and more familiar term condescension. God condescends himself, he comes down, he makes himself low, adapts, or accommodates himself to whom he will visit. We think of the Christ song of Philippians chapter two, 

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: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross (Phil 2:5-8).

So for the likes of Origen, Chrysostom, and many other church Fathers, Divine hospitality is not merely philoxenia, as if God’s hospitality is just like ours. Oh no, it is far more wonderful, mysterious, and compassionate: divine synkatabasis condescends, it reaches out and adapts to human creatureliness and weakness. It is the way by which the Divine transcendence relates to the limitations of human sin. You see, he comes to us in ways we can actually experience his hospitality: his goodness, mercy, and love. God is the first-mover extending hospitality to us weak and sinful creatures. And our philoxenia or hospitality is simply a response to the Divine accommodation. “We love him because he first loved us.” Our hospitality towards God and neighbor is wholly contingent upon his proactive hospitality towards us.

“The Lord appeared to Abraham on the plains of Mamre. And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo three men stood by him.” Now in the preceding chapters of Genesis, we read that God had spoken to Abraham, and we read of God somehow appearing to the man in lasts week reading through the spoken word. But here at Mamre, Abraham sees God for the first time. He runs to meet the three men and addresses them in the singular: “my Lord; if now I have found favor in thy sight, pass not away.” In fact, throughout these verses, Moses will identify one of the three men who speak with Abraham and his wife as YHWH, the covenant God. And so we must ask, how was it that Abraham was given the ability to immediately see God, to recognize YHWH in this visitation? 

Well, the key to unlocking this question is found in Abraham’s response to God having restated his covenant promise to bless the world through his seed from which would come a nation more numerous than the stars. God’s promise came with a sign, circumcision, a sign given by God to Abraham by which the promises would be ratified. Abraham believed the promise of God, and in response, obeyed God’s command to be circumcised, God said: “This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised… and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you” (Gen 17:10-11).  Abraham trusted God to purify his heart by the outward sign of circumcision. Then, and only then would God visibly appear to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre, only after his eyes were pure enough to see Him.

At the top of a Galilean mount, the Lord Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Mt 5:8). The pure of heart see God when he visits them. Those who have been 

“circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead” (Col 2:11-12). 

To the soul washed clean in the waters of baptism are given the spiritual eyes of purity. And it is to the pure in heart who live after holiness that the hospitality of God comes. The wise person makes room in the soul to receive the Lord by decluttering and detangling his life from sin. And this he does solely by the grace of God and the enabling presence of the Holy Spirit; working out our salvation as God works in us (Phil 2:12-13).

In other words, we have to love God more than we love our sin, disabusing ourselves of vice and unholy desires which only impede our ability to see Him, obstructing the work of the Holy Spirit who by divine illumination makes God known. Nothing can be allowed to stand between us and the knowledge of God. If we desire to see and to be seen, we cannot bow down and serve the idols of self and created things “for they are vanity, and the work of errors: in the time of their visitation they shall perish” says the prophet, Isaiah. Instead, let us embrace the baptized life in pursuit of a pure heart knowing that the power of sin in our life has been put to death because “we have been raised up” writes St. Paul “from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in the newness of life” (Romans 6:6). To walk in the newness of life is to walk in holiness and righteousness, thereby seeing God; though even on our best day we do so imperfectly. Hear the Apostle once more, “our old man is crucified with [Christ], that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin” (v.8). The right response to God’s hospitality is to live a holy life as a testimony to the love and grace he has lavishly bestowed upon us. Beloved, God became low that we might be lifted up on high.

A life in pursuit of purity and holiness is one at peace, not free from trouble, but at peace. It neither fears God nor death because it welcomes grace, is assured by grace, assisted by grace, and astounded by grace. In faith, it prays the Prayer for God’s Protection through Night as found in the Book of Common prayer, doing so with quiet confidence and a profound sense of need, praying, 

Lord, defend us from all dangers and mischiefs, and from the fear of them; that we may enjoy such refreshing sleep as may fit us for the duties of the coming day. And grant us grace always to live in such a state that we may never be afraid to die; so that, living and dying, we may be thine, through the merits and satisfaction of thy Son Christ Jesus, in whose Name we offer up these our imperfect prayers (BCP, 591). 

We should live in such a state that we are never afraid to die. Friends, be assured, we will all fall asleep in the Lord; we will die. And, every person will stand before the Lord on the coming day of his visitation. And so I ask you what the prophet asked the people of Israel so many centuries ago, “And what will ye do in the day of visitation, and in the desolation which shall come from far? To whom will ye flee for help? And where will ye leave your glory? (Isa 10:3). 

I ask you, to whom will ye flee for help? Will you, as Adam and Eve, hide your shame in the day of the Lord’s visitation? Or like father Abraham hastily run to meet God Almighty who is our help and salvation? Abraham saw God at the oaks of Mamre. The Hebrew word Mamre means a place of clarity and vision. One cannot attain that which he cannot see. We must not allow the eyes of our hearts to become blinded by sin that we lose sight of what we’re after. Rather, let us walk by sight and by faith in the ways of the Lord. Hear the wisdom of St. Peter who writes, 

“Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit; let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil” (1 Pt 3:10-12).

Offer yourself every single day be as a pleasing sacrifice unto the Lord and may we not fear the future day of his visitation. When we will know and be known. Love and be loved. See and be seen. Let us pray, 

“O GOD, who hast prepared for those who love thee such good things as pass man’s understanding; Pour into our hearts such love toward thee, that we, loving thee above all things, may obtain thy promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord”, Amen+

I Will Be Their God

THE FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY

Most of us, I assume, would love to learn how to read and study Holy Scripture better: I know I would. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a guide? Someone a bit more learned, wise, and knowledgeable than we are to walk us through the biblical text, to point out and explain all the wonder and mystery that lie within? Wouldn’t it be great if in wrestling with the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah St. Phillip would appear as he did to the Ethiopian? One equipped to reveal the true meaning of the Scriptures. 

I submit that God has generously provided these guides in the writings of the Apostolic Fathers of the Church. Polycarp, Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Rome, Origen, Cyprian, Tertullian, Chrysostom, Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, Athanasius, Jerome, Ambrose... the list goes on and on. I encourage you to not merely read these Fathers, but learn from them; study not only what they say about Holy Scripture, but discover how they read the Bible to arrive at such wisdom. In fact, the main objective for this Summer’s sermon series is to learn how to read the scriptures sacramentally, or spiritually through the lens of Jesus Christ as the one who unlocks the meaning of the Old Testament; looking to discover Christ who is the treasure hidden in the field of the Old Testament.

The Church fathers made no distinction between visible and invisible things. They held to a worldview and metaphysic that allowed for both realities to co-exist, and more importantly, to co-inhere: the one participating in the other. In other words, they weren’t secularists. They had no conception of a reality in which the transcendent and unseen are entirely separated from the material and seen. In fact, the second-century theologian Origen of Alexandria maintained that “the earthly scene contains certain patterns of heavenly things.” What he meant is that natural phenomenon, the seen and experienced, is that by which one comes to contemplate heavenly things. For instance, take the rising of the sun... does it not bring to mind a daily reminder of the resurrection of Christ and the remembrance of our future bodily resurrection into glory? 

You see, Origen, along with the consensus of the early church, found (as they did in natural revelation) Divine and heavenly patterns revealed in the Old Testament as they paid close attention to the text. Origen believed that one could move from the letter of Scripture to the spirit of the text, discovering within the letter, heavenly patterns that bring forth the fullest meaning of Biblical revelation. Through these heavenly patterns found in Scripture, one moves beyond the seen to the unseen, and there, in the spiritual understanding of the Bible one discovers a more excellent knowledge of God (not merely an accounting of his historical acts) but a more profound revelation of the divine nature and character.

Consider the book of Genesis which we have been contemplating over these first several weeks of Trinity-tide. In Genesis, right from the very start, we see the divine pattern creation, blessing, rebellion, judgment, and restoration. “In the beginning…” writes Moses, “God created the heavens and earth.” From nothing, the Lord brought forth everything. Next, we see God on the seventh day of creation blessing everything he has made, “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it” (Gen 1:28). Creation and blessing. Though having been blessed God’s children rebel, willfully disobeying God and in doing so, fall from grace. This results in bringing judgment upon themselves: Creation, blessing, rebellion, and judgment. But the divine pattern always includes restoration: salvation, redemption, and life. 

This heavenly pattern is perceived in the very first chapters of the Old Testament. Instead of destroying Adam and Eve (which God was justified to do) he removes them from further harm by expelling them from the Garden, clothes their shame with animal skins, and proclaims a promise to reverse the curse brought upon them and their posterity. Amid divine judgment, God pronounces a restorative promise saying to the wicked serpent “I will put enmity between you and the woman, between his seed and her seed. He will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen 3:17). In other words, from the seed of a woman, a man will be born who will crush the head of the serpent with one mighty blow. Creation, blessing, rebellion, judgment, restoration, and promise.

The story of Noah follows the same pattern. Through Adam and Eve, God created a multitude of people who multiply and fill the earth. But once again, humanity rebels. God looks upon the human family and sees that their wickedness is great in the earth and that every imagination of the thoughts of their hearts is evil continually and it deeply grieves his heart (Gen 6:5-6). And in keeping with the divine pattern, their rebellion brings flood-waters of judgment, baptizing creation and washing clean the face of the world. Creation, blessing, rebellion, and judgment. But the Lord wills to restore the human family, to recreate a new people for himself, a human family who will love and worship him with one voice and one heart. 

By the Ark, Noah and his family are saved from judgment and brought forth upon the dry ground. And there, standing upon the new creation, God blessed Noah and his sons, saying, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth” (Gen 9:1). The Adamic command of God will be accomplished through Noah. And to Noah, God promised to never again destroy the earth by flood and seals this covenant promise with the sign of the rainbow; forever reminding Noah that the peace of God will always accompany his obedience. Creation, blessing, rebellion, judgment, restoration, and promise.

Last Sunday’s Old Testament reading introduced a new story with the calling of Abraham in Genesis chapter twelve, which must not be detached from the biblical events of chapter eleven and the story of the Tower of Babel. Once again, humanity rebels against God and the Adamic-Noahic command to go forth, multiply, and fill the earth. Instead, the human family consolidates in the land of Shinar and builds a magnificent tower as a monument of human achievement and as you can already guess, bring judgment upon themselves in the form of confusion and separation; God comes down and fractures their common language into a million different tongues. This confusion of language creates misunderstanding; misunderstanding leads to division, and division leads to scattering. Creation, blessing, rebellion, and judgment. 

But then we turn the page and immediately read in the opening verses of chapter twelve, “Now the Lord had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee: And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great, and thou shalt be a blessing... in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed” (Gen 12:1-3). Restoration. God will remake a people for himself through Abraham: “I will make of thee a great nation.” Restoration is always accompanied by the promise of God. “And in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.” Restoration and promise.

The divine, heavenly pattern reveals the God of the Bible as the God who creates. He speaks things into existence as he did at the dawn of creation, his very breath animating dust from whence came man. The pattern also reveals him to be the one who blesses everything he creates because he loves what he makes. He blesses Adam, Noah, and Abraham, and by this shows his great love and concern. The same God is God of judgment but also the God of restoration: he produces good from evil, hope from despair, and life from death. 

You see, He is the one who determines to fix that which man breaks, to reverse misfortune, and restore that which is lost. We see this time and time again in the lives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, Solomon, and many more. He is the restorer because he is love, the divine Initiator of every good, and the author of salvation. “We love because He first loved us,” writes the beloved Apostle. In mercy, God sets and determines the Divine pattern of redemption. And he seals this pattern with a promise, not an ordinary promise, or an aspirational one, but by covenant: he seals redemptive promises with the surety of divine covenant. As it was with Adam and Noah, so it is with Abraham.

From today’s Old Testament lesson we read, “And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the Lord appeared to Abram and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me and be thou perfect. And I will make my covenant between me and thee and will multiply thee exceedingly. And Abram fell on his face: and God talked with him, saying… I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee. And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God (Gen 17:1-8).”

First, notice that the covenantal promise of God came to the righteous Abraham when he was ninety-nine years old. Now, think back to chapter fifteen, when the Lord first pronounced this covenant promise of a child from which the nations of the earth would be blessed, at that time, Abraham was eighty-seven years old, and his wife Sarai was barren. How on earth would God fulfill such an outlandish promise? Well, Abraham and his wife took things into their own hands, they didn’t trust God’s ability to deliver. So Sarai gave Hagar to her husband, and she conceived a son named Ishmael. 

Fast forward… “Abraham was ninety-nine years old when the Lord appeared to Abram and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect. And I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly.” Abraham didn’t trust God, and so the divine promise was delayed thirteen long years. But God didn’t abandon his commitment, he came back to Abraham. Friends, let us not despair and lose heart when the promises of God delay. Instead, let us trust Him even more, and await with joyful expectation for promise-keeping God to act.

Now, we mustn’t overlook a significant difference between God’s restating of the covenant promise here in chapter seventeen and its first pronouncement in chapter fifteen. Here in chapter seventeen, God says, “I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.” I will establish an everlasting covenant; an eternal promise. This is new. This is different. God says, what I promise today I will seal by my oath forever. I will not rescind it, neither will anything ever erase this promise I make with thee Abraham and your descendants. Who can bind or loose eternally? Who can claim such incredible promises? None other but the Lord Almighty.

“And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the Lord appeared to Abram and said unto him, I am the Almighty God.” El Shaddai, the name that discloses Him to be the almighty and all-powerful God. It is not by happenstance or coincidence that the first time we encounter this name for God in Scripture is found here in Genesis seventeen at the ratification of the Abrahamic covenant. For it is the Almighty One (El Shaddai) who will achieve the promise. The All-powerful God is the only one who can and will bring forth from Sarah’s barren womb the child of promise. “And I will bless her, and give thee a son also of her: yea, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of people shall be of her.” Divine power, El Shaddai, will bring forth the promised seed and in him, all the nations of the earth shall be blessed. Restoration and promise.

And here, right here in the seventeenth chapter of Genesis, in the explicit promise of God, we discover Christ. He is the child of promise. The promised seed in Genesis chapter three, the One born of a woman to crush satan under his heel. Christ is the very reason why God commanded Adam, and Noah, and Abraham to multiply and fill the earth, that from their posterity, a son would be born in the obscure little town of Bethlehem. “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Is 7:14). The seed of promise, born not of man, but by Divine will, like Isaac before him, Jesus the promised seed was born by the almighty power of El Shaddai, the Lord God Almighty. 

In Jesus Christ, God’s promises to Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David are kept and fulfilled. Because Jesus lived in complete and perfect faithfulness to the covenant. He never wavered from the will of God, nor did he transgress his commands. He was the perfect man, is the perfect man, the faithful Israelite, the faithful son. And how do we know this? Because the Father vindicated him. He did not leave his son in the lower depths of Hades, forever strangled by death’s grip. On the third day, the Almighty and Powerful God raise his beloved son from the grave immortal an uncorrupted. 

The perfect, holy life of Christ received its due reward: resurrection and eternal life. He crushed Satan’s head. And in Him are all the nations of the earth blessed. He is the progenitor of an ever-increasing family as countless as the stars, made of every tongue, tribe, and nation. He is the fulfillment of the promise El Shaddai made to Abraham all those many, many years ago.  And we, beloved, are living proof of God’s promise-keeping faithfulness. For who are the children of Abraham? Hear the words of St. Paul, “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the Gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith”” (Gal 3:7-9).  

God swore to Abraham, “I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee... And I will be their God.” Beloved, hear the clarion call of the Gospel from the Old Testament: the covenant-keeping God of Abraham is our God as well. This God promises, by covenant, to be our God. He, his very self, is the great covenantal prize. Not what he does, not what he says, but Himself. 

This God has revealed himself to us in Christ by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit: he is not merely with us but in us his church. His almighty and powerful presence, the same spirit says St. Paul, ““which raised Christ from the dead, the same spirit that brought us from death to life (Rom 8:11). El Shaddai has raised you. El Shaddai is with you. This is the God who makes and keeps promises, the God in whom we can entrust all our sorrows and difficulties of this present life and the God of a sure and future hope: friends, we will not die, but will be raised on the last day. We will not be a godless people, for God will finally and completely be our God. 

To St. John, the almighty God, gave this glimpse of assurance, that we too might be assured in the storms of this life, listen “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.” Restoration, promise, and fulfillment. He is and will be our God. Amen+

I Set My Bow In The Cloud

THE THIRD SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY

Today we embark on our Summer Sermon Series which we are taking from the Old Testament Sunday readings appointed for Morning Prayer throughout Trinity-tide, which include the Pentateuch, or the first five books of the Old Testament authored by Moses, and concludes with Joshua. The Trinity-tide season is organized around the narrative of beginnings and becoming the books ofGenesis through Joshua telling the grand story of God creating a people for himself and preparing them to inherit the land he promised to give them. But ultimately, the overarching theme in these Old Testament books is God’s covenant faithfulness and love. And this is our summer enterprise: to discover anew, in the Old Testament, the covenant faithfulness of God in Christ.

What I’m suggesting is a different approach to reading and comprehending the Old Testament Scriptures, not simply as an accounting of history (which it certainly is) nor as individual morality tales given to make us less intolerable, more polite, and good citizens. Now to be clear, neither of these approaches to studying the Old Testament is necessarily wrong; they’re not. But they are woefully incomplete and inadequate for the task of discovering the rich fabric of redemptive history woven in and through the entirety of the Old Testament. They simply will not lead the student into the actual presence and reality of God. 

My hope is that over the course of these many Sundays we learn to read the Scriptures sacramentally, or to put it another way, Christologically. Now the Prayer Book catechism teaches that a sacrament is an outward sign of an invisible reality. So if the letter of the Old Testament writings is the outward sign, then what is the inward, or hidden reality? Well, I submit to you that it is Christ. He is the hidden treasure in the field of the Old Testament: its narrative, poetry, wisdom literature, and prophets collectively allude to, typify, and point to Christ: Jesus of Nazareth.  St. Augustine astutely observed, “the New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New.” You see, Christ is the reality veiled in the Old Testament shadows.

Let’s quickly look at three Biblical examples where Christ is discovered in the Old Testament. First, consider the account of Phillip and the Ethiopian Eunuch in the New Testament book of Acts where Phillip interprets and reveals from Scripture Jesus Christ to be the ‘Suffering Servant’ spoken of in the fifty-third chapter of the book of the Prophet Isaiah. Upon understanding Jesus as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, the Eunuch is baptized in the Triune name of the living God. 

Second. On the day of Pentecost St. Peter preaches on God’s promise of resurrection by quoting verse ten of Psalm sixteen listen: “For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption” (Ps 16:10). Now, listen to how Peter unlocks the true meaning of this passage with the Key of Jesus Christ, “Men and brethren, let me freely speak unto you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulcher is with us unto this day. Therefore, being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him, that of the fruit of his loins, according to the flesh, he would raise up Christ to sit on his throne; He seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption. This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses” (Acts 2:29-32). According to St. Peter, Jesus is the resurrected man of Psalm sixteen, he whom Hades could not hold. And three thousand were baptized that day for the forgiveness of sins. 

Last but not least, let’s examine Jesus’ own understanding of the Old Testament. After the resurrection, St. Luke records a meeting between the risen Christ and two disciples walking with Jesus on the road to Emmaus and invite him to dinner. And there, at the table, not knowing who was in their company, Luke states that “beginning at Moses and all the prophets, [Jesus] expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Lk 24:27). Jesus unveiled the reality of his presence in the Old Testament and having encountered Christ, Luke writes, “their hearts burned within them.”

To read Holy Scripture sacramentally is to apprehend the reality of Christ’s presence in the narrative, poetry, and prophecy of the Old Testament: he is there. Christ is the hidden treasure in the field of redemptive history, from beginning to end, the ribbon of salvation which runs from Genesis to Revelation. He is the expressed hope of Scripture: hope for today and our sure hope for the future. Love. Assurance. Hope. This is what the story of Noah found in today’s Old Testament reading is all about.

And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth.

Put yourself in Noah’s place. God has brought unimaginable judgment upon the wickedness of men by flooding the whole earth, from which Noah, his family, and a remnant of animals were saved in the Ark. For an entire year, Noah and his boat bound companions have survived within the dark confinement of the Ark. And now, God brings them out safely onto dry ground. By grace, God afforded the means of their salvation and by faith, Noah trusted Him by building and entering into the boat as God commanded. But what now? Will the Lord once again bring judgment? Will Noah and the whole human family live forever in fear of a God who has proven to hate sin and wickedness? Just imagine the anxiety and trepidation that would flood Noah’s heart at the next forming of the storm clouds on the horizon. What conclusion would you come to as the first drop of rain hit your brow?

And yet, what Genesis chapter nine reveals is that the God of judgment is the covenant-making God. He is the initiator of peace. Moses writes, that God established a covenant with Noah; not a bi-lateral covenant dependent on the faithfulness of the man but wholly with Himself; a covenant of peace with Noah that covered not only the righteous man but his family and every living creature upon the earth. And by this gracious covenantal act, God sets Noah’s heart at peace. “I establish My covenant with you: Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.” By this God communicates a very important aspect of his character: He loves and values his creation; God hates nothing that he has made for God is love.

God knew that Noah needed to be reassured, to know that judgment (as the prophet Isaiah tells us) “is God’s alien or strange work.” By this Divine covenant, God promises no new destruction, never again to end the world by a flood. Friends, behold the breadth of God’s love in this promise made not just to Noah and his family, but to humankind and every kind of animal even the forests, hills, and deserts. This covenantal promise given to Noah is the beginning of God’s merciful forbearing of Divine judgment by a flood. And to bring further assurance to Noah’s heart, lest in the midst of the next great storm he should cower in fear, God graciously gives a sign, a heavenly covenant sign in the form of a rainbow. 

Think about this… what are the conditions that accompany the formation of a rainbow? It is produced from the sun shining in and upon mists and rainwaters, in other words, rainbows are necessarily accompanied by rainstorms, they emerge from ominous rainclouds, it breaks forth as a sign of God’s promise of peace in the midst of the storm. God gives this sign of assurance whether men obey his laws or not, in spite of non-compliance with his revealed will. It is a heavenly promise to withhold (for a time) Divine judgment upon the wicked and a pledge of protection to the godly. God has put up his “war-bow” which is the meaning of the Hebrew word form which rainbow comes from. He has hung up the instrument of destruction, in fact, if we picture the rainbow as a “war-bow”, which way is the point of the arrow pointing? Not towards creation but up into the heavens, his judgment is pointed towards himself.

The rainbow is a sure sign given to all that God takes and has no pleasure in destruction, that he does not give way to moods, nor suffers from the capriciousness of the Greek gods. Friends, he does not always chide but promises that if weeping may endure for a night Joy is sure to follow. How generous and gracious he is! If anyone is under a cloud leading to a joyless and heartless life, if anyone believes that God has given him or her up to catastrophe, this covenant sign assures us, that without the storm cloud breaking into heavy sweeping rains there cannot be the bow and that no cloud of Gods sending is permanent but will one day give way to unclouded joy. Clouds will fill the skies of this life, but clouds fade and the promises of covenant keeping God stand firm.

Now the unregenerate man, though he thrives, sees a rainbow as a beautiful phenomenon of nature because he is incapable apart from the Holy Spirit, to see beyond the bow. He looks up and is fascinated by its beauty, happy the storm has ended. But the sign doesn’t lead him to its Author, the God of Heaven. The rainbow is a cosmic and universal sign of God’s grace given to all of humankind but for the unenlightened, it is just another rainbow. Oh, how wide and expansive is the love of God!

Do we not see the unrighteous flourish? Do we not see even the wicked have bread? For the Lord makes it rain on the righteous and the unrighteous because he is love and desires life and flourishing for everything he makes, so that every man, woman, and child might abound to the praise of his glorious grace. The rainbow is as a balm of gladness stretching across the sky which soothes even the hearts of unbelievers. Now, if God is so gracious to those who do not yet believe then how great must his love towards those who do; whose vision extends beyond the heavenly sign and to the good and merciful God. Yes, the rainbow is a natural phenomenon, the material glory of the earthly heaven, but it is ultimately given to point beyond itself (up higher) to Him who is glorious and most radiant: the God of heaven the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. 

God always gives a sign to accompany his covenants to remind, explain, and assure. And so the rainbow is a sign to all that God is graciously and patiently withholding judgment until the end of this age. But, friends, judgment will come because scriptures tell us. Divine judgment will come first upon the household of God and then upon all men: both the quick and the dead. The second flood of judgment will come upon the earth, not by water, but fire, and not merely with earthly but eternal consequences.

But God has given another sign, which too, he lifted into the sky: his Son, Jesus Christ raised up on a cross. God has lifted him up as a sure sign of his great love. And, by this sign, salvation is offered to all who would look up and believe that by faith in Christ they will be saved on that future day of judgment. Jesus said, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me… He that believeth on me, believeth not on me, but on him that sent me. And he that seeth me seeth him that sent me. I am come a light into the world, that whosoever believeth on me should not abide in darkness. And if any man hear my words, and believe not, I judge him not: for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.  He that rejecteth me, and receiveth, not my words, hath one that judgeth him: the word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day” (Jn 12). Jesus is the Divine rainbow, the sure means by which all who believe find peace: everlasting peace. His resurrection and ascension is the sure sign and hope of our being raised from the dead, to go where Christ has already gone, to basque in his glory. Forever liberated from danger and injury. 

By grace, St. John was given a revelation, a to peek into the heavenly realm and this is what he saw, “Immediately I was in the Spirit, and a throne was standing in heaven with someone seated on it! And the one seated on it was like jasper and carnelian in appearance, and a rainbow looking like it was made of emerald encircled the throne” (Rev 10:1). The pledge of God’s peace rests squarely upon the risen Christ, in him are all the covenantal promises realized and enjoyed. 

Though we may not be allowed to gaze into the heavenly throne room, God has given a sign to his church: the Holy Eucharist. The bread and cup we lift at the altar as our proper act of praise and thanksgiving… these are the sure and effectual signs of God’s love and mercy. They are tangible pledges given by God to assure us of his great love towards us. For in the breaking of the bread and pouring of the cup God reminds us that we are very members of his family, beloved, protected, and heaven bound. For the peace of Christ abides in all who by faith, eat his flesh and drink his blood to the betterment of the soul. Therefore, prepare your hearts to fix your eyes upon the risen Christ. “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.” Amen+

Upon This Rock

THE FEAST OF ST. PETER

“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.”

If you were to visit Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, you would encounter an imposing statue of Saint Peter on your left as you approached the main entrance of this magnificent edifice. Giuseppe De Fabris’ statue reaches some twenty feet high, depicting St. Peter standing with a scroll in his left hand, and a large, golden key in his right. Of course, this image of the Apostle comes directly from the Gospel reading appointed for this Feast of St. Peter, where we encounter Jesus and the twelve resting from their travels on the beautiful and refreshing seacoast of Caesarea Philippi. And there, he turns to his companions and asks, “Whom do men say that I, the Son of man, am?” Now, this is an interesting question: What he’s asking is for an explanation: how people are explaining the appearance of the ‘Son of Man’? 

Now, let’s understand the term “Son of Man” for in scripture we find it used in these ways: (1) as a poetic synonym for “man” or “human,” as in Ps. 8:4 “what is man that you are mindful of him? And the son of man, that thou visitest him?” (2) We see God regularly address the prophet Ezekiel by the title “son of man” (2:1, 3; 3:1, 3). And (3) in Dan. 7  “The Son of Man” is identified as the glorious man whom the prophet sees coming with the clouds of heaven to approach the Ancient of Days. “The Son of Man” is a frequent designation of Christ found in the NT. And, you will find that it is Jesus’ favorite designation of himself. When speaking of himself as ‘the son of man’ he is implying both his messianic mission and his full humanity.

So again, Jesus wants to know how the people are explaining this seemingly Messianic event happening in the life and ministry of Jesus: who is this rabbi who calls himself  “the Son of man?” “Well”, reply the Apostles, “some say you’re John the Baptist, some say Isaiah, or Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” Now by this we know that the masses believed Jesus to be a ‘man of God’ a prophet sent to Israel like so many before him. But more importantly, what this response tells us is that the people did not yet understand who Jesus was which is why they did not recognize Him as the Messiah foretold of in Israel’s scriptures; they saw the man but did not recognize God himself; the second person of the Holy Trinity- incarnate: Jesus, Son of Man and Son of God.

Now here comes the big question, perhaps the most pivotal question in all of human history. Jesus asks of his disciples, “but who do you say that I am?” And why do I apply such weighty importance to this question? Well, this was THE decisive moment in which the separation of the New Testament ἐκκλησία (the church) from the Old Testament theocracy was to be made. The hour had come for the utterance of a distinct Christian confession. “And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” In other words, you, Jesus are the Son not only of man but of God: “very man of very man, very God of very God.” Peter’s reply on behalf of his fellow Apostles is more than an answer: it is a confession of Jesus Christ, which is the center and heart of the whole Christian system. It is a confession of Jesus Christ as a true man (Thou, Jesus), as the promised Messiah (are the Christ), and as the eternal Son of God (the Son—not A son—of the living God). It is thus a confession of the mystery of the Incarnation in the widest sense, the great central mystery of godliness, “God manifest in the flesh.” “Who do you say that I am?” You, Jesus, are the God-Man and Savior of the world.

In reply, our Lord reveals to Peter the mission that he intends to assign to him, that of being the “rock”, the visible foundation on which the entire spiritual edifice of the Church is built: “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.” But what is “the rock” upon which Christ will (is) building his church? We could say that Peter’s spirit-given confession of Jesus as Messiah is ‘the rock’, his confession. For it is the confession of the new Pentecost-people of God, upon which the church is built. Or to put it more succinctly, Jesus is saying, Upon this rock, I will build the faith you have just confessed. 

Upon your words, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” I will build my Church; because you are Peter.” But there is more going here because the confession is that of a man, with flesh and blood, a man who gives breath by divine enlightenment to the confession upon which the church of Jesus Christ shall be built. We cannot separate the words from the man, or the confession from the one who makes it. The church is a people… the people of God. And it is a confessing people, who hold in unity, one common profession of faith, and with this men, women, and children are brought into the Divine family of God, into Christ’s church. 

Hear the Apostle Paul, “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” And it is the Apostolic confession of Peter which we profess together each week marking us out as a peculiar people, a royal priesthood, Sons and daughters of the kingdom, “I believe in One God, and in One Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God…” This we have come to believe, not through flesh and blood, but the gracious initiative of God the Father and by the illumination of the Spirit. Peter is the rock, the man who professes Jesus to be the Son of God, and upon the Apostles and all who by grace believe and say the same, is the church being built up, day by day, and in every part of the world.

“Thou art Peter, and upon this rock, I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Now, what we find recorded in Holy Scripture is a strong analogy between the events of Peter’s life and the Church. Think of today’s Epistle reading from Acts. Christ has ascended and persecution is reigning down on the church in Jerusalem under the cruel hand of Herod, who martyrs James the brother of John by the blade of the sword. His next target? Peter, who Herod arrests and throws into prison (which is very pleasing to the unbelieving Jews to whom Herod plans to bring Peter before. Now don’t miss this detail, Matthew says that this happened at the time of Easter. A righteous man is wrongly arrested and imprisoned. This occurs at Easter (which we know is during the time of the Passover). And the plan is to place the fate of this man in the hands of the Jewish people. 

Is this sounding familiar? It’s as if the very same thing that happened to Jesus is recapitulating itself in the life of Peter. The way of Christ is to be the way of Peter: there is a correspondence between Christ and him upon whom he will build his church. Which tells us, that the way of the Church is and will always be the way of Christ. “If the world hates you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you. Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept my saying, they will keep yours also.” 

And here we begin to touch upon the great mystery of Christ and his church, the sacramental reality of Christ in us and we in him. We are called to share in the Lord’s sufferings and to bear the same reproaches of men. St. Peter clearly understood this, for he too suffered at the hands of Israel as our Lord did as well. Peter’s mission was as the prophet Ezekiel as heard in today’s Old Testament Lesson, “And God said unto Ezekiel, Son of man, I send thee to the children of Israel, to a rebellious nation that hath rebelled against me: they and their fathers have transgressed against me, even unto this very day. For they are impudent children and stiff hearted.”

Peter is imprisoned and facing dire consequences: beatings, floggings, perhaps even death at the hands of his brethren. But the Lord is with Peter, in Peter. For this story about Peter doesn’t end in death but in deliverance. Listen to this, “And when Herod would have brought him forth [before the people], the same night Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains: and the keepers before the door kept the prison. And, behold, the angel of the Lord came upon him, and a light shined in the prison: and he smote Peter on the side, and raised him up, saying, Arise up quickly. And his chains fell off from his hands.” Overshadowed by the harrowing gates of Hell, Peter is delivered. 

“The chains fell off.” They could not hold him and friend, neither can the gates of Hades contain the church of Jesus Christ. The hostile fortress of Hades looms over and against what appears to be a defenseless and feeble church, but the Lord has proclaimed to Peter and to us indestructible life: ‘The gates of Hell shall not prevail against it!” Why? Because Christ is building his church; Christ is with and in his church as he was in a Roman jail cell with Peter. In truth, the promise that Jesus makes to Peter is even greater than those made to the prophets of old: they, indeed, were threatened only by human enemies, whereas Peter will have to be defended from the “gates of the underworld,” from the destructive power of evil. What wonderful and comforting words spoken on a beach to Peter concerning the future of the Church, the new community founded by Jesus Christ, which extends to all of history, far beyond the personal existence of Peter himself. It extends to you and to me, and to all the faithful confessors of Jesus the Son of God. Persecution is and always will be followed by Divine deliverance. 

Towards the end of his Bishopric St. Peter wrote “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial that has come upon you, as though something strange was happening to you. But rejoice that you share in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed at the revelation of His glory. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. Indeed, none of you should suffer as a murderer or thief or wrongdoer, or even as a meddler. But if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but glorify God that you bear that name.” Church, don’t be surprised when suffering comes upon you. And when it does, bear the name of Christ, no matter the consequences. 

In fact, we should pray that should the day of persecution come, we would have the faith and love of St. Peter. In his history of the Church, St. Hegesippus records the following, “Then Nero, sought matter against Peter to put him to death. Which, when the people perceived, they entreated Peter with much ado that he would fly the city. Peter, through their importunity at length, persuaded, prepared himself to avoid. But coming to the gate, he saw the Lord Christ come to meet him, to whom Peter, worshipping, said, Lord, whither dost thou go? To whom Jesus answered and said, I am come again to be crucified. By this Peter, perceiving his suffering to be understood, returned back into the city again, and so was he crucified” upside down on a cross in the public streets of Rome. Friends, the cock of impending death crowed, and this time, Peter did not deny the Lord. Rather, he gladly followed him back into the city where he bared the name of Christ unto death.

Hade’s wielding the sword of death shall not prevail against Christ’s church, for Christ has promised joy from sorrow, and triumph from suffering. This paradox is most vividly given to us in the bread broken and the wine poured out, both images of suffering and death. And yet, both transformed into the very means of life. As you come to this Holy Communion, be strengthened in body and soul and reassured: Christ, as with Peter, is with us his church. A chain cannot hold nor any man destroy the people of God. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.” Beloved, let us embrace the words of St. Peter, whose very life and example speak to us today: “So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should entrust their souls to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.” Amen+

With One Accord

THE DAY OF PENTECOST

In the first verse of the eleventh Chapter of the book called Genesis Moses records the story of the Tower of Babel and begins with this statement: “And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech” (Genesis 11:1). This he writes as a postlude to chapters seven through nine recounting a time long, long ago, when the Lord filled the earth with a great flood of waters, for the people and the world which he had lovingly created had become spoiled: the wickedness of men was great before God and the imagination of every heart was only evil continually (6:5). Moses sadly records that “God looked upon the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth” (6:12). And so, the Lord baptized creation through the waters of the flood: washing it clean of every sinful thing putting rebellion and evil to death.

But humanity wasn’t completely eradicated by the flood. God saved Noah and his family by placing them in the Ark and from them humanity would once again fulfill the Divine command to multiply and flourish; to fill the earth and subdue it; extending the reign and goodness of God across the face of the whole earth. In the flood, humanity had been baptized, reborn, and unified. God’s graceful judgment upon humanity brought men together as Moses signifies, writing in verse one of chapter eleven, at that time, “the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.” One humanity reconstituted after the flood, united in language and therefore united in understanding.

And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar, and they dwelt (or settled) there. And they said to one another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth (Genesis 11:1-2).

Their error was not in building a city and a grandiose tower, their error was in settling in the valley of Shinar and attempting to unite and dwell in one single solitary place, willfully disregarding God’s commandment to fill the earth. This was their error an error birthed by hubris and pride. They unified in the plains of Shinar NOT to obey God, NOR to make his name famous, nor to worship him either. “Let us make a name for ourselves lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” Their goal was to build a tower so great that it would preserve their identity and their unholy unity. They did not love God and they did not desire to worship him.

Moses continues in verse six, “

And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.  And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech (11:6-7).

Unified and unfettered pride is the great danger from which the Lord spared the human race when he confounded and confused their language. God looked down upon the “valley of the world” (which is the name the Talmud gives to the plains of Shinar) and He came down.

So, the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore, is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth (11:8-9).

God brought an end to their tower building. He didn’t destroy the monument of their sin— the tower— He destroyed the means of their transgression: their ability to understand one another by confusing and confounding language. The result of human pride and its many sins was the shattering of humanity into a million different languages, dialects, beliefs, and tribes. Creating suspicion, distrust, misapprehension, and hard drawn divisions between the peoples and nations of the earth. The human family was divided one against the other and against its Heavenly Father. The scattering of the human family at Babel is the context from which to understand the calling of Abraham and God promising that from him a family of such a great multitude would come; a people gathered and reconstituted according to promise (Genesis 17). In fact, the entire glorious arch of redemptive history- God acting through the Patriarchs, his election of Israel, and the preaching of her prophets- is the story of the Lord reversing the curse of Babel.

Through Israel the Lord intended to draw the nations of the earth unto himself, declaring to Isaiah, It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, That my salvation may reach to the end of the earth (Isa 49:6). But Israel was an unfaithful wife, lusting after lesser gods and forsaking the marriage covenant. In their failure to love the Lord their God and him only, Israel abandoned its Divine calling to be a” light to the nations” for they failed to love their neighbor as well. They remained a people (yes, God’s people) but a people without a Shepherd, a scattered people— literally and spirituality— and so the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, I have come for the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matthew 15:24). But the failings of God’s people would not thwart God’s intentions, for the prophet Joel prophesied a time of restoring Israel; a time when the Lord would be in the midst of his people, To Joel the Lord declared I will pour out My Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions (Joel 2:28). God promised that at a future time He, by his Spirit, would again be with his people. But not only Israel… God would gather the nations as well, thus fulfilling the promise declared unto Abraham in whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed. For everyone says the Lord who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be deliverance, as the LORD promised, among the remnant called by the LORD (Joel 2:32). Reversing the curse of Babel through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Fitting the pieces of the human family back together. Listen to what the Lord says to Zephaniah, then will I turn to the people a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the Lord, to serve him with one consent (Zephaniah 2:9). Pointing to the day when with one heart and one voice a people would call upon his name. The human family gathered and restored to worship the ever-living God in spirit and in truth.

On this great day of Pentecost we remember and give thanks for the sending of the gift of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and upon a number of other disciples who as St. Luke records, were all with one accord in one place gathered in a house on the day in which the church was born (Acts 2:1). And historically speaking this is absolutely correct. But the implications of this day are far greater when viewed in the context of Babel. At Babel, the Lord came down and confounded language and the understanding of men. Shattering their common bond into a multiplicity of languages. And on Pentecost the Holy Spirit came down and restored understanding, removed confusion, for those who gathered at the strange sound of the wind were amazed records Luke, and marveled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galileans? And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? (Acts 2:7).

On the day of Pentecost, God the Holy Spirit began the reconstitution of the people of God, the redemptive work of gathering the fractured pieces of the human family into one new unified man. For the great ministry of the Holy Spirit is the undoing of man’s disunity. He is the great Unifier gathering the wayward and bringing true unity between God and man and between man and neighbor. The gracious movement of the Holy Spirit leads us from the Valley of the World into union with the Divine Trinitarian Life. Jesus said, when the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself (John 16:3). The Holy Spirit illumines and reveals the truth of God the Father and his beloved Son for he speaks not of himself but rather, manifests the Trinitarian God who in himself is a community of perfect union.

In disunity we existed as the counter-image of God, literally defaced by sin, the identity badly marred. But the grace of the Holy Spirit leads sinners to see the vanity of their tower-building; the folly of self-mastery and laboring solely to amass and consume the commodities of the world. He leads to repentance and to the restorative waters of baptism. Just as the world was baptized, the Holy Spirit in baptism washes us clean of original sin, of guilt and shame. Beloved hear the Psalmist sing, he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake (Psalm 23:2). In baptism we renounce the world, the flesh and the devil and declare an end to making a name for ourselves and all of our empire building. Our allegiance is placed in God, and we climb into the heights of heaven, not by the towers of our own making, but upon Christ who is Jacob’s ladder man’s gateway to heaven in which heaven and earth is united. In Baptism we are born again into the family of God; no longer strangers but friends; no longer orphaned but adopted; known and love by God. And we rejoice! For the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us (Romans 5:5). So, with the Apostle we say Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places (Ephesians 1:11): the Blessings and promises of God sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise!

Though the spirit is given individually (as signified in a tongue appearing over each of the disciples) the Holy Spirit is given and resides in a people: the Church. The church is that blessed spirit-filled community in which the image of the Trinity is restored to the human family. It is the Holy Spirit who overcomes the misery of an atomized existence and turns “I” and “Thou” into “We”. And not the “We” of Asiatic religions which seek to dissolve the ego, dissolving distinction, where the soul becomes as one little drop subsumed in the deep chasm of the ocean. This desire to destroy human distinction is anti-life; anti-human; anti-love. Unfortunately, some view difference, variation, and distinction as unhelpful roadblocks to human fulfillment and the attainment of a societal utopia. But the destruction of distinction is at its core the attempt to undo the Divine order of creation. And, it is the very antithesis of the Divine Triune life: Three distinct Persons and yet One God: an eternal dance of never-ending love and beatitude; moving in and out and through the other but never losing distinction; One and many. But in the family of God the human person becomes more human not less; ever growing to the full stature of what he or she was distinctly created to be by the holy spirit who restores the anti-image back into the image of the Divine; refashioning the human family into the Divine Image; the perfect Man who is Christ Jesus.

The glorious transfiguration of man is solely accomplished in Christ’s church not apart from the Church. The church is not an idea or a tool set apart from the Spirit. Not at all! The Church is the Spirit and the Spirit is the Church: it is this Holy workshop in which man’s becoming is accomplished. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all (Ephesians 4:4-6). We are each as the many grains which make up the one loaf; bread on the altar of presence in the temple of God. Unity begins in God and is found in Him. Only when we are one with him can we be at one with each other. The curse of Babel makes strangers of us all and yet we long to be loved. The chasm between the “I” and “Thou” is so vast… we see but don’t see; hear but don’t understand; touch but don’t feel. We long to be closer to the “other” but how? Drawing nearer and nearer to “other” only happens by the work of the Spirit who manifests the love of God by drawing us deeper into the Divine Life of love. “We love” writes St. John, because God first loved us (1 John 4:16). God loves us selflessly with no regard to self. Only this love can overcome the “I” and radically transcend self-love into Divine love. This love obliterates the wall between “I” and “Thou” and “We” is born. Marriage is a beautiful picture of God’s miracle in creating a ‘third-thing’: not me and not you but something new, something joined, no longer two but one “we”. And this is the church is it not?

St. Luke writes that on the day of Pentecost the disciples were all with one accord and in one place (Acts 2:1). They were unified in proximity and intention. But listen to the Apostle’s description of them after their reception of the Holy Spirit writing in Chapter four verse thirty-two: Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common (Acts 4:32). One heart and one mind. Unity. No one acting from his own will or ingenuity, as the tower-builders did, rather, acting, speaking, and willing as a communion of “we” as the family of God participates in the inter-communal life of the Trinity. To be a Christian is to be taken up into Christ’s church, enveloped in the new human family, allowing oneself to be loved and nurtured by Mother Church; trained in righteousness and humility. Speaking with the people of God, with one voice and one mind, the wonderful works of God!

“Whoever is near to me is near to the fire.” St. Chrysostom is said to have attributed these words to Jesus himself in describing the relationship between himself his church and the Holy Spirit. Through the One Spirit we can be reconciled one to another, converse and enter into deep intimacy with the “other”: our unity maintained and strengthened in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic church. If… we stay near to the Fire. Because Fire burns, it refines and transforms. It turns coals into diamonds. The Fire of the Holy Spirit melts away the dross of inhumanity and refashions the false self into the true: more real; more substantial. No longer “I” but “We”. The human family united in the Divine Union and living the unified life within the Community of the Saints. But, we must pray for, defend, and strive to maintain Christian unity: that we might remain in the One family of God. Because the further we remove ourselves form the flame the greater alienated we become. First, from Christ then from self. Then from husband or wife, child, parent, and friend… and sadly, from our true family, of whom Jesus defines as those who gladly do the will of God: these are my brothers and sisters and mother (Mark 3:35). Therefore beloved, let us pray for the fire to burn bright in our day and in our midst that Divine love my burn hot within our hearts, a love which is made known through unity with God and one another. The Psalmist sings,

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! It is like the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, even Aaron's beard: that went down to the skirts of his garments; As the dew of Hermon, and as the dew that descended upon the mountains of Zion: for there the Lord commanded the blessing, even life for evermore (Psalm 133)

Beloved it is a good and pleasant thing for God’s people to dwell together in unity. Now, may the blessing of God flow down like dew from the highest mountain and flood the valley as the waters over the sea. And may the unifying love of the Holy Spirit cover you as precious ointment from head to toe. Amen+

The End of All Things

THE SUNDAY AFTER THE ASCENSION

“The end of all things is at hand” (1 Peter 4:7). This past Thursday evening, we celebrated The Feast of the Ascension, with all of its beauty, triumph and import. We fixed our eyes upon heaven to worship the risen and ascended Lord, the King of Glory who has entered into the gates of the Heavenly Jerusalem. And we also celebrated the beginning of the end of the world. Perhaps this is the first time you’ve ever thought about this aspect of the Lord’s Ascension and enthronement. And, if you have, it was most probably a distant thought and most certainly infrequent. The inauguration of the last days, or ‘the end of days’, is a vital and important component of any proper Ascension theology, for when we give voice to the faith through the Creeds of Holy Mother church we confess that on the third day [Christ] rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father. And, he will come again to judge both the quick and the dead. The received faith of the Apostle’s confesses that Jesus was lifted up, in his body, and received into the cloud, the shekinah glory of the Father. He could not be held by depths of death and he could not be withheld from the heights of heaven: seated at His rightful place with the Father. His ascension into heaven, taking his rightful place of authority and dominion, is the climax and completion of His Resurrection, the fulfillment of Psalm 110, “The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool.”

In the Creed we profess that On the third day Jesus rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father. Now, I want to pause and reflect on these two beautiful truths about the Ascension of our Lord. First, Christ’s Ascension is a promise to all the faithful... that they will one day follow him where fallen and unredeemed man has no right to go. The Crucified-Risen One is alive and in him God's gates, the gates of eternal life, have been opened wide to humanity forever. Understand dear friends, that where he is, so too will the faithful one day go: perfected humanity entering into glory. Second, the enthroned Christ is ruling all things, wielding his authority and dominion according to his good pleasure AND he is doing so with Divine wisdom that sometimes we frankly do not understand for these are the things of eternal wisdom: the wisdom that has forever existed within the Triune God which that wisdom and as described by Solomon which was present when the world was made. The wise and good King, the True Solomon reigns. The almighty is capable of subduing even the raging seas, for the Lord who dwelleth on high, is mightier then any created thing. The Creed continues… and, from [heaven], he shall come again to judge the quick and the dead. Christ’s Ascension also promises the faithful that he will return just as he had left, in glory to judge the living and the dead. The one who departed on the cloud will return in the same way, for on that day they “shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds with great power and glory. And this Divine power will set every injustice of this world, which appear now to go uncorrected, he will set every one of them right on the Last Day.

Today, on this Sunday after the Ascension, nestled in between the Ascension of the Lord and the expectancy of Pentecost, with eyes looking to heaven, let us now contemplate the return of our Lord Jesus Christ, his second Advent. For according to the mind of Jesus, we his disciples are to consider His second coming as always close at hand, AND to be prepared for it. Preparation for the return of the King; this is what St. Peter desires to teach us this morning. The end of all things, says St. Peter, is at hand; be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer.  The Apostle’s words are very much to the same effect that our Lord Himself spoke in one of His last discourses saying, Watch ye therefore, and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to stand before the Son of Man.  Sober and watchful prayer is necessary for all who will one day stand face to face with the King of the universe. St. Peter’s expression, be sober and watch, seems best explained by our Lord’s words on the same occasion: Take heed lest your hearts be overcharged, and not merely by excesses and drunkenness, but by the cares of this life, and so that day come upon you unawares. Peter is choosing his verbs wisely, the words ‘sober’ and ‘watchful’ are nearly identical in the greek, but here are meant to convey two very distinct but complementary ideas.

To be ‘sober’ is to be fully within one’s mind, completely aware, dealing with reality as it is; not overly optimistic or too pessimistic; not distracted or inebriated with trivialities and earthly enticements.  ‘Watch’ means to be on duty, to be about the labor of prayer (on guard so to speak), with diligence and intentionality. Peter would have been well acquainted with the Christians need to be sober and watchful; vigilant and alert. If you remember, the Lord Jesus on the night in which he was betrayed, took Peter, James, and John with him to the Mount of Olives to pray, and when they had come to that place, Jesus told them to Pray, that ye enter not into temptation. And here we must connect both the Lord’s and Peter’s exhortations to sober and watchful prayer and those difficult times of temptation and trial.

You see, Jesus knowing that the hour had come for the forces of evil to have a momentary and short-lived triumph at Calgary, was keenly aware of the Enemies presence. In those last hours, the Devil was prowling around like a roaring lion ready to devour both the Lord Jesus and his followers. The hour of great temptation had come to the eternal Son of God in Gethsemane and at the height of human temptation, a tempting which no other person has or will ever experience: He prayed. He prayed with every fiber of his being, even to the point of sweating blood. But when Jesus returned… he found Peter and the others sleeping. Could you not watch with me one hour? And within hours, St. Peter would betray our Lord not once, but three times! A lesson, it would appear, the blessed Apostle Peter never forgot. Be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer. Today, the Apostle exhorts us the church that we should never forget the extreme importance of being a steadfast and prayerful people; most especially in these last days.

The discipline of daily prayer, the cultivating of the inner life- or the decluttering of the soul to make room for Jesus- and gathering in the Lord’s house every Sunday is the strong and sure foundation upon which the Christian life must be built. Upon these is a house of prayer built within the soul. The Liturgy we have inherited from our Fathers is a grace given to the Church. Think of The Book of Common Prayer, with its Daily Offices and Eucharistic Liturgy, as Scripture arranged for prayer. It is our ‘good guide’, informing devotion and guiding our common worship together ensuring that our service to God is as golden bowls of incense full of sweet aromas before His altar. And in our personal prayers, The Prayer Book provides language and thoughts which, over time, beautifully shapes the individual prayer life. And, on those occasions when we find our personal prayers wanting or bereft of words, familiarity with the Offices and the prayers of Holy Mother Church come to our aid: the set prayers of the church becoming the prayer of the heart as we ingest them; day by day; the Holy Spirit bringing to mind the Divine language of Liturgy.

Now there are many obstacles to a life of prayer, the greatest enemy of a disciplined prayer life being sloth. Discipline is hard. Order is often rejected as rigid and overbearing. We so readily shrug off the set prayers of the church as inauthentic, detached from emotion, and downright impersonal. And, if that weren’t enough, we are far too easily distracted by the things of this world. All of these struggles and temptations create a seedbed of fertile soil where weeds of dullness spring forth choking out Christian zeal. We become spiritually drowsy and fall asleep. But now, at the end of all things we must not slumber! The hour has come says St. Paul, for you to wake up from your slumber, for our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day has drawn near. For as history moves closer and closer to the imminent return of the Lord, the days will grow increasingly darker and darker; the battle gradually intensifying until the Great Day of the Lord, when Christ returns on the clouds to put everything to rights.

Beloved, we are fools if we do not believe the Enemy desires nothing but calamity and ill-will towards us. Even this little beautiful parish. Our daily and weekly proclamation of the Gospel, singing psalms and spiritual songs, the celebration of our Lord’s death and resurrection in the breaking of bread and partaking of the cup is not beyond his purview. He knows that the prayer of just one righteous man availeth much! And he will attack… In the least likely places and at the worst times. As the Lord warned the disciples of the future persecution and suffering they would face at the hands of the Jews, so let us hear St. Peter’s warning to us today and commend ourselves to sober and watchful prayer. We must always remember that our Lord foresaw the suffering of his church and prayed for us, saying I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are thine. And now I am no more in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to thee… and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil. As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world.

In these last days The Lord has sent us (His church) into the world, to be His physical and corporeal manifestation on earth; that through the Apostolic ministry of the Church the world would might be reconciled back to the Father. And this is why He sent the Holy Spirit, the promised Paraclete, whom on this Sunday, we wait for with holy expectation! The indwelling of the Holy Spirit is the power of our witness and he is the very presence of Christ promised to be with us through the end of the age. St. Paul tells us to pray in the Spirit at all times, with every kind of prayer and petition. To this end, stay alert with all perseverance in your prayers for all the saints. And there it is: the sober and watchful prayer of the church is prayed in the power of the Holy Spirit, guarding us from evil and advancing the kingdom of God.

Friends, today we are being put on watch; exhorted unto vigilance and soberness, to right preparation and readiness, fidelity in confession and a life of holiness. To walk in a manner worthy of our calling so that we might cast the bright beams which radiate from the approaching day of glory into those dark days and nights of suffering. Draw near to Christ through prayer and having found union with Him, run as fast as you can into His triumph over the sufferings of this present time. Now, as you come humbly to this altar, come with eyes open wide. Look steadfastly on Christ. Taste and see the goodness of the Lord. And when you have been strengthened by partaking of this most holy sacrament be reassured of his great love towards you. And as you bask in the love of the Lord, hold fast to the promise of the heavenly inheritance which awaits you. The end of all things is at hand. Amen+

Who Is This King Of Glory?

THE ASCENSION DAY

Lift your heads, eternal gates! Wide unfold the radiant scene; Take the King of Glory in! Alleluia!

What a grand hymn we just enjoyed. A wonderful gift given to the church form Charles Wesley. Lift your heads, eternal gates! Wide unfold the radiant scene. Take the King of Glory in! Alleluia! Who is this King of Glory? And that’s the question isn’t it? The Ascension Day puts this question to us, a most important question worthy of contemplation as we celebrate the risen Christ’s entering into the courts of the highest heaven and taking his rightful place of honor at the right hand of the Father. You see, the upward trajectory of Easter morning comes to its glorious climax as heaven takes in the King of Glory!

When we think of Jesus does the mind evoke a picture of the heavenly Ascended one? Or (and I suspect this may be closer to the truth) do we immediately think of the earthly Jesus, the accessible and familiar Jesus of the Gospels, who walked among and ministered the grace of God to so many in need? It certainly makes sense. As humans it’s only natural that we first think of the man Jesus, gravitating to his earthly life and ministry. Because we relate to him. There’s common ground and tangible points of human connection. We can easily relate to him as the dutiful son, the faithful loving friend, or the wise teacher. And on a more personal level, as one who also experienced the depths of sorrow, one unjustly maligned or betrayed as one who shed tears for wayward Israel.

For we’ve experienced similar things. We too have been abandoned by friends, wrongly accused, experienced hatred, or been misunderstood and so on... the very things which make up unhappy side of the human experience. And yet, Jesus isn’t a savior who only walked in our flesh, or merely the Son of God who was raised from the dead. No, he is much more! For His rising from the grave did not cease on earth: the Son of God ascended into heaven, being caught up in the cloud on the day of the Ascension, where he now sits in the place of prominence at the right hand of the Father: the living and reigning King of all. And yet, I suspect, the glorified ascended life of the Lord occupies very little of our everyday thought and attention.

In his wonderful book The Ascended Christ, Henry Barclay Swete, (which I commend to your reading) poignantly observes,

The human life of the incarnate Son, between the Nativity and the Return, divides itself into two unequal and dissimilar parts. The first is the short period during which the Lord lived on earth in the flesh; the second, the heavenly life, which according to our measure of time already approaches nineteen centuries… and yet so little study and contemplation is devoted to his Ascended life.

His point being, we tend to spend more time contemplating Jesus’ earthly life and far less on the greater and higher existence our Lord. On this Day of the Ascension, we rejoice and recognize Jesus as the Ascended One. And so, we let us ask, Who is this King of Glory? The Ascension answers: it is the risen and seated Christ, the Lord of heaven and earth, the Kingly-Priest actively ruling and mediating, presently gathering the nations to himself through the proclamation of the church and subduing his enemies under his feet. To him we lift our prayers, up to heaven, and it is there with him, as this evening’s Collect directs us, where we pray for God to give us the desire to ascend in heart and mind.

Lift your heads, eternal gates! Wide unfold the radiant scene; Take the King of Glory in! Alleluia!

This verse taken from Wesley’s hymn ought to sound familiar as it is taken from the twenty-fourth Psalm, todays appointed Psalm for Evening Prayer which the Apostles and earliest Christians understood by the ministry of the Holy Spirit to be speaking of Messiah, Jesus Christ. They interpreted this psalm, and all of the Old Testament, through the lens of Christ’s bodily resurrection and Ascension. Beginning in verse seven the Psalmist writes,

Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of Glory shall come in. Who is this King of glory? The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, O ye gates; even lift them up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in. Who is this King of glory? The Lord of Hosts, he is the King of glory (Ps. 24:7–10)

Here the psalmist commemorates the glorious day recorded in the Old Testament book of First Kings when the priests and Levites carried the ark of the Lord’s covenant from the house of Obed-Edom into its rightful place within Solomon’s Temple, identifying the King of glory as the only one worthy to enter this most holy place. The understood that the Temple was the abode of God, the place where Heaven and earth collide, the heavenly tabernacle on earth, the rightful place for the ark of the presence to reside; for there is only one King, one alone, worthy to enter heaven.

Just picture the grand hosts of priests arrayed in glorious vestments with the Levites carrying the Ark towards Solomon’s temple and as they come upon the gates, demand admission for the Ark of the Lord to come into its rightful place shouting: “Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors!” The temple attendants within, responding to the request “who this King of glory?” And they reply, “It is the Lord, strong and mighty: this is the King of Glory!”

Now, let this form and conceive a picture in the mind of Jesus’ heavenly coronation... attended by a host of ministering angels, who, on their arrival at the portals of heaven, demand admission for their Divine Master. The angels within inquire who such a man can be on whose behalf such a claim is made. Twice is the inquiry made, and twice the answer is returned; and on the entrance of the Lord into those heavenly mansions the whole celestial choir unite in one exulting acclamation, “The King of glory! the King of glory!”

Who is this King of Glory? It is Jesus, who alone won the victory over death and Satan. He, “is the Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle.” You see, Jesus is the only one who can rightfully claim heaven as his own. Who may ascend up to the house of the Lord? Jesus the righteous. For him and him alone do the gates of heaven lift up their everlasting doors. The eternal King is the only one who walks through eternal doors. Friends, before the world was made the Ascended King dwelt in glory with the Father. From heaven the Son descended. Casting off the riches of heaven, he came down and took humanity upon himself and “was found in fashion as a man.” He that was above joyfully became low. In love, he humbled himself and became a man to redeem you and me from the bondage of sin and the stronghold of Satan. By death he destroyed death, for the suffering and sorrow of the cross was his very means of victory: “through death he overcame him that had the power of death.”

At Golgotha he not only defeated the principalities and powers of hell but mocked them, “he put them to open shame by triumphing over them” by his death. A cosmic victory paradoxically won by what appeared to be defeat, his willful and obedient death: O’ the depths of the riches and wisdom of God! Christus Victor, the triumphal one who alone can rightfully claim the mansions of heaven, for his Father promised that he would not leave him in the place of the dead but would raise him to his rightful place by his side. And there, every enemy will be made a footstool for his Kingly feet to rest upon. With the victory won nothing remained to complete the glorious work but the installation of Messiah on his promised throne. Having overcome death Jesus was granted to sit at the father’s right hand, and, beloved, to those who overcome in Christ, is promised the hope of exaltation as well (Rev 4:21). For my friends His victory is our victory! We too will one day reign with him and judge the angels, even the whole world.

Who is this King of glory? It is Jesus, whose dominion is over heaven and earth. In a vision, the Prophet Daniel saw a Son of Man ascending into heaven after having defeated the enemies of God,

One like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed (Dan 7:13-14).

Jesus’ receiving of the Kingdom and Lordship over it is intrinsically connected with his Ascension. The heaven is his throne and the earth his footstool from where he presently rules the entire cosmos. With the royal coronation complete, there is nothing outside of his authority and dominion, and so with St. Paul we rejoice, “for of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory forever. Amen!” And though Jesus has sat down in heaven we must not think he has ceased to rule or extricated himself from the redemptive mission of gathering the praise of the nations through his Spirit enabled church, or disengaged from the cares and concerns of his people: you and me. Quite the opposite. In his Revelation, St. John sees the risen Jesus walking in and amidst the seven lamp stands which represent the church, exhorting and encouraging, a Kingly-Priest actively concerned for his Bride. He has not abandoned us as orphans, no! The seated, reigning Christ is our defender, our strength and protector, our advocate, the King of glory who reigns in heaven and in earth, the one who will come again to put every injustice to right, erase every sorrow, and wipe every tear.

Who is this King of Glory? It is Jesus our high priest. Having ascended into heaven, Jesus is the perfect sacrifice forever satisfying the Father, he alone is the continual propitiation ever present before God the Father. Having shed his blood on the cross, he ascended into heaven, executing the priestly office by carrying his perfect blood through the heavenly veil, and sprinkling it upon the Mercy-seat, offering the incense of continual intercession for you and for me. “By his own blood,” the Ascended one” has entered into the Holy Place, having obtained eternal redemption for us.” Having ridden the glory cloud into heaven, he now performs his eternal and permanent priesthood and thereby “is able to save completely those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to intercede for them.”

Let this wash over you like a wave of comfort and hope: the Ascended One lives to make intercession for us! Jesus is at this very moment pleading in his Father’s presence by his meritorious blood, which is not only sufficient for your sins, but for the sins of the whole world. Does our high priest hear our unworthy prayers, our petitions, our pleadings? Will the prayers of a sinner like me ever be accepted by the Father? Yes! Jesus, our Great High Priest secures by his own prevailing intercession our everlasting acceptance before God Almighty. “Therefore,” as the writer of Hebrews says “Let us come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in our time of need.”

Beloved, Jesus rules and reigns from heaven, there is nothing outside of his dominion: no unforeseen events, no circumstance to overwhelming or problem he is unaware of or unconcerned about. For, as the Apostle Paul rightly declares, “For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: And he is before all things, and by him all things consist. And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence” (Col 1:16-18). The Ascended Lord prays without ceasing, perfectly mediating between his church and the Father: the high priestly service founded upon his once-for-all, full and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. This Great High Priest is pleading for you and for me, for he lives to make intercession for us.

And although heaven is the place of his wonderful works, he is not far from us. The road of his salvific exodus has ended in the glory of the far country! But he is near. The ‘departed’ Jesus, the Ascended One, is not absent from us but very near in a new way: he is nearer to us through the giving of the Holy Spirit; revealed and made present to us in the Sacraments of the church. So, in reality, the ascended Jesus is closer to us than if he were still on earth because his Spirit resides in his people, comforting and guiding his church to walk in holiness and to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom to a weary world. And in this divine task we will prevail for Christ is risen from the grave and has overcome the world!

Through the grace given in the holy mysteries we share intimate communion with this King of Glory as we partake of the Holy Communion where the ascended Christ comes to us in common bread and wine, where Christ dwells in us and we in him, as we participate in the glory of heaven, and thereby “dwell with him there.” In this most eucharistic feast heaven meets earth. Therefore come. Ascend unto him who longs to feed, strengthen, and wash you clean. Who is this King of Glory? Who alone is worthy to enter the gates of heaven? It is Jesus. The King of King and Lord of Lords: The Ascended one who is worthy of our praise. May “All Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honor, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever. Amen.”

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.