Rockwall

The Pity of Christ

THE SIXTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY

Exodus 3:1-15; Ephesians 3:13-21; Luke 7:11-17

In the many different conversations with people interested in the historic church, and Anglicanism, in particular, I find a universal attraction to the church calendar or the 'Liturgical Year.' There are different impulses involved, but from what I've experienced from speaking with people, their main desire is to find meaning. Meaning in life; meaning in what it means to live in this world at this time. Secular materialism is the illness that breeds such symptoms.

A world view which embraces materialism quickly loses any sense of enchantment. Reality is solely defined by what a man can measure: what we can see, touch, taste, hear, and smell. The material world becomes very small, even oppressive. Because, once the marrow of life has been sucked out, what then? Life becomes boring; apathy soon follows, leading to anxiety, depression, and in some cases, a living deadness. Convinced that nothing exists beyond what can be seen, in the end, we arrive at an alarming conclusion: there is nothing beyond ourselves.

Within this false construct of reality, things quickly lose their sense of value and purpose. The rising of the sun and the setting of the same doesn't mean anything, doesn't point to anything beyond itself. Science confidently explains away the mystery of natural and material phenomena. We moderns have conquered the natural world, and in doing so, we've stopped believing in magic. You see, materialism necessarily kills enchantment. A disenchanted world breeds disenchanted lives and souls. Bored with the world, people twist and turn to experience "life" to feel something real.

And this impulse works itself out in so many ways; some healthy some not so much. When the world doesn't reveal or impress any meaning upon the human experience, we turn to extreme adventures, lifestyle choices, and epic adventure to make sense of being. When external pursuits fail, we retreat into the world of emotion, "I feel; therefore, I am." Sadly, this, too, is a temporary fix. Tomorrow is just another day, no different than the day before. And, subsequently, time, for many people, is meaningless. The days, weeks, and years are devoid of meaning, with no higher purpose, with no final trajectory; time isn't going anywhere other than to an abrupt and uneventful conclusion.

In this secular age, we all, to various degrees, suffer from this. Christianity can find itself encased in materialism, as well. For many of our brothers and sisters, Sunday has lost its value and purpose; it's just another day. The seasons are no longer defined by the life of Christ but by secular holidays; with a little Christianity sprinkled on top. Time becomes meaningless and unimportant, just like every other created thing. Time is like swimming in a vast pool of mundanity.

But if we have courage, we will open our eyes to real reality and see that time has its origins in the Creator. Scripture reveals God to be the author and mover of history; it literally is His-Story. Ordaining morning and evening, he purposes six days for labor and one for rest. He orders the seasons, as well. The days shorten in the winter; the cold ground hardens, and seeds lie dormant. With spring comes the renewal of life! Rain breaks forth from the heavens. The hills are green with fertility; the trees, clothed with leaves; the earth gives her fruit bounteously. Awakened from winters sleep, animals abound, filling earth and sky. That which dies in winter is resurrected in the spring. Life matures and grows through the long sun-filled days of summer. If one opens their eyes, they shall see that the natural order of the world reveals the invisible hand of its Creator and speaks beyond its natural self.

Reflect upon the natural order of things and think of what it tells us about the human condition. We, too, have a spring, summer, and winter: for we are born, we grow, and we die. And yet, even this insight is insufficient to interpret real reality: Divine reality. The ultimate meaning of the natural phenomenon we experience, of time and all of human history, finds its true meaning in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Or, to put it another way, the material world ultimate finds its meaning in Jesus Christ. In fact, it points to Him. And herein lies, the allure of ordering one's life around the Christian liturgical calendar: it is a life ordered around and lived within the Divine presence. No longer separating the unseen from the seen. But, embracing a sacramental understanding of being; that God is imminently present. It is a life that participates in higher time: open and vulnerable to Divine action.

Every single day is a gift from God. Each morning we are 'born-again,' thankful to do what the Lord desires. The day ends with the night; a daily reminder of our mortality. We close our eyes and go to sleep, placing ourselves in God's hands; in a small way, we are learning to die with confidence and hope. Then, morning grace wakes us; practicing for that future day when we will be raised from the sleep of death and resurrected unto eternal life. The creation pattern of laboring six days increase longing for rest, to commune with our brothers and sisters in the presence of the Lord. Every seven days, we enter into the sabbath rest of God, refreshed, made new, recreated, and restored to our Creator, each other, and to ourselves. Six days we pray for daily bread, but on the seventh, we are fed with the heavenly mana, from the hand of God himself in the eucharistic feast; the height of the Christian week.

Sunday worship is the God-ordained means that transports us into higher time. We gather around this altar and mysteriously encounter the transcendent invisible God. He meets us, here, in Word and sacrament; just as he promised. With one heart and one voice, we lift our hearts to heaven, and God descends to meet us. Heaven and earth collide in a joyous celebration. The people of God laud and magnify the Lord in concert with angels and archangels, and all the saints in heaven. The unseen comes to the seen and transports us into the realm of enchantment. A liturgically ordered life is open to encountering higher time; Sundays, feast days, the liturgical seasons, all transport us into the divine life, where we participate in that which we cannot fully explain; the mysterious; the magical. And it is higher time, which finally makes sense of lower time. Winter is the glorious season when God the Father, sent his only Son, Jesus Christ, to redeem and give life to all who were dead in sin. The heavenly seed is cast into the dead cold earth. At the Christmas feast, we rejoice, "For there is born to us this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord!" (Luke 2:11).

Christmas gives way to the season of Epiphany, the manifestation of the Messiah to the gentiles. Epiphany shines its glorious light, like the Eastern Star, into the long days of winter. Lent reinterprets the continuing dark days of winter through the passion of the Lord Jesus Christ, gathering all of the darkness in Good Friday. And then, like the first bloom of spring, life bursts forth on Easter morning; Christ arises from the dead, and we are swept up in the resurrected life, into the eternal day to which the lengthening days of spring and summer resemble.

But most importantly, the liturgical calendar, day by day, preaches the Gospel to each and everyone one of us. From Advent to Easter, the liturgical seasons tells the story of the God who took pity upon us. Of a good and loving Father who, from a vast well of compassion, sent his Son to come and redeem us from death. You see, the God of Scripture is the attentive God. He hears the cries of his people. He sees their plight. Did not God hear the cries and see the suffering of Israel at Pharaoh's hand? "And the Lord said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows."

Not only does he see and hear our sorrow, but scripture also says, he knows our sorrow. In other words, he feels and experiences our grief; he participates in the suffering of his people. In fact, he moves well beyond empathy, he willingly enters into our affliction; shares in it. Listen to what he promises to Moses, "And I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey." Divine pity moves; it takes action; it comes down.

Who is this God that willingly leaves the heights of heaven? It is the God of pity, of compassion, of love. He sent Moses to deliver his people from bondage into freedom, from the fleshpots of slavery unto heavenly bread, from the wilderness into the promised land. Oh, the goodness and kindness of God! And here we understand the sending of the Son, the true Moses, who left the riches of heaven and entered into the Egypt of death to break that great taskmaster's hold upon sinful humanity. The Psalmist rejoices for, "[God] has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy" (Ps 72:13). The compassion of God, the love of God, the pity of God rescues and redeems the lost. And pity leads us through the wilderness and finally, brings us into the broad and pleasant land.

See how wonderful and restorative the pity of Christ is in today's Gospel. Place yourself as the dead Son being carried on a funeral bier among a procession of sorrow. For that dead man was being buried, and many friends were conducting him to his tomb. But there on the road of sorrow met him the Life and Resurrection, Jesus the Christ: the Destroyer of death and Reverser of corruption. St. Luke writes, "And Jesus came and touched the bier, and they that bare him stood still. And he said, Young man, I say unto thee, Arise. And he that was dead sat up and began to speak."

Jesus alone restores our fallen nature back to that which it originally was, and liberates our death-fraught flesh from the bonds of death. Friends, do you truly realize what Christ has done for you? For you who have responded to the Divine call, you who have been awakened from death. With St. Paul, I too pray that we having been made alive in Christ, raised with Christ in baptism, "being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fullness of God." The pity of Christ makes those who are spiritually dead alive again: this is the first resurrection of this story.

But there is a second resurrection as well. Jesus had mercy upon the woman, and that her tears might be stopped, He commanded, saying, "Weep not." And immediately the cause of her weeping was done away: how, or by what method? He touched the bier, and by the utterance of his holy word, made him who was lying thereon return again to life: for He said, "Young man, I say unto thee. Arise;" and immediately that which was commanded was done: the actual accomplishment attended upon the words, "And that dead man, it says, sat up, and began to speak, and He gave him to his mother." The Lord not only resurrected that which was dead but resurrected the joy of the sorrowful; for Christ is the Lord of resurrection, and he is making all things new. Friends, no matter how heavy the burden, or deep the sorrow, nothing is beyond Jesus' ability to resurrect it unto life.

St. Peter, in his first epistle, tells us to "cast all of our cares upon Jesus, for he cares for us." Remember, The Lord not only sees and hears but knows your sorrow, for Isaiah reminds us, "he [himself] was a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief" (Isa 53:3). The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and he knows firsthand what we go through. Remember the epistle to the Hebrews, "we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin."

And this perfect Savior will resurrect us on this earthly pilgrimage of sorrow. Perhaps not as expediently as we'd like, but always according to Divine time, to accomplish Divine purposes. Was this not the case with Lazarus, whom the Lord waited four days before coming upon that sorrowful gathering in front of the dead man's tomb? To whom, the Lord said, "This sickness is not to end in death, but for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it."

Beloved have faith. The same God who pitied Israel and the sorrowful widow has set his gaze of compassion upon you. He who resurrected you from death shall surely raise you on the last day. I exhort you, be comforted by the Lord Jesus Christ, "For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day." Amen+

St. Michael and All Angels

THE FIFTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY

Today, as we did last Sunday, we gather to celebrate another ecclesiastical feast day: the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels. I could see how someone new to Christianity who had visited these past two Sundays might be thinking, “geez, all these people do is feast and celebrate!” And they wouldn’t be too far off base. Much of the Christian life does in fact orbit around celebration which manifests itself in the form of a banquet or a feast.

On the Lord’s Day, we gather around a meal and celebrate the once-offered paschal sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ. You see, each Sunday Eucharistic feast is a participation in the feast of feasts: Easter. Or one could think of Sunday Holy Communion as a ‘mini-Easter’ (which is why many Anglicans fast on Sundays until they receive the bread and the wine, signifying a mini-lenten fast). So, if you’re new to St. Benedict’s or perhaps new to the Christian way, yes, we feast a lot, especially on Sundays!

Having inherited Israel’s liturgical calendar, the earliest Christians retained the pilgrimages and festivals, although doing so through a new paradigm: Jesus Christ who fulfilled and explained the true meaning of the feasts. Jewish festal observances were adopted by the Church from the earliest days, transformed and charged with new meaning. Easter and Pentecost became the two poles of one continuous fifty-day period celebrating God’s ultimate redemptive activity through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Oxford American Prayer Book, xlvi). Thus, fulfilling the true meaning of Passover and the Feast of Weeks.

But other than Easter and Pentecost, the only festivals of the early church were the annual commemorations of what they called ‘birthdays in eternity,’ the observance of the martyrs when they would have celebrated Holy Communion on the date and location of martyrdom. The oldest known celebration of a ‘saints day’ is that of St. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, martyred in AD 156. And in time, churches were erected on these martyr-sites, with their feast day observed year after year. 

Now, the fourth century saw the beginnings of setting feast days based upon the life of Christ (Christmas & Epiphany), St. Mary (The Feast of the Annunciation) and the Apostles (such as St. Matthew who we celebrated last Sunday). And if you look in the front of your Prayer Book on page roman numeral L (50), you will find “A Table of Feasts” which are comprised of events from the life of Christ, the Martyrs, Holy Mother Mary, and the Apostles. Which brings us to the appointed feast for this 29th day of September: the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels.

Of all the festivals that would have been observed in the medieval church, the Feast of St. Michael is the only feast of Angels the English Reformers retained, and, it was extremely popular in Medieval England. The Oxford American Book of Common Prayer tells us the institution of this unusual feast day “goes back to the fifth century when a basilica was dedicated to St. Michael on the Via Salaria, a little north of Rome – the first church in Italy named in honor of the archangel” (Shepherd, TOABC, p. 251). This feast is unlike any other prayer book feast in that it honors an Archangel, calling him a saint. And, also, directs us to commemorate and give thanks for all of the angels.

Now, what is this particular feast day all about? Well, to begin with, it is a celebration. A happy day of remembrance of that day when St. Michael the Archangel made war upon Satan and his host of wicked angels. In the fourteenth chapter of Isaiah, we read how an evil compulsion arose in Lucifer, who was the most beautiful and first among the Angelic hosts. His compulsion was pride and a desire to rule not only over the angels but over the God who had made him. Speaking of Lucifer Isaiah writes, “For you have said in your heart: ‘I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God; I will also sit on the mount of the congregation On the farthest sides of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will be like the Most High.” (Is 14:13-14)

Lucifer became so impressed with his own beauty, intelligence, power, and position that he desired for himself the honor and glory that belonged to God alone. It was Angelic pride which brought sin into the universe, the pretext from which Adam would fall at a later time. This wicked compulsion fueled a heavenly insurrection and, as we read in today’s Epistle, “war broke out in heaven.” The Archangel Michael would not and could not tolerate this arrogant blasphemer of God and in his impatience, made war upon the wicked angel and his cohort. “Michael and his angels fought against the Dragon,” writes the beloved Apostle, “and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not, neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent called the Devil and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world; he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.” Hallelujah! 

The son of the morning, Lucifer, fell from heaven; “he was cut down to the ground,” says Isaiah (Is 14:12). The righteous Michael prevailed in heaven, a victory witnessed by Christ himself who saw “Satan fall like lightning from heaven!” (Lk 10:18). The Lord grants St. John (and the church with him) this very same vision. John witnessed the triumph of righteousness over evil. He saw Michael and his angels defeat Satan, and, not only beat him but throw him from the heights of heaven to the earth beneath. But not only is he allowed to see but receives the meaning of this significant historical event.

Listen to what John hears next, “And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and power, and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night” (Rev 12:10). By his sword, St. Michael wielded the salvation and power of the kingdom of God. With the blessing of Divine Authority, he cast the accuser down, defeated him. In other words, evil has been beaten from the first day it reared its prideful, ugly head. Satan fell to earth as one already judged by God, condemned for his rebellion and wickedness. 

Jesus assures us, “the prince of this world is judged” (Jn 12:31). He is already condemned, sentenced, awaiting the final sentencing and incarceration. The day “when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy” as we read in Job (Job 38:7). And to us is given on this Feast Day, a reminder of Michael’s victory over Lucifer, whom we have overcome by the blood of the Lamb. 

On this Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, we remember that these heavenly servants have and will watch over the affairs of God’s children. They minister to us today, for though the enemy is defeated and judged, he still has some bite left. Therefore, St. Peter warns, “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pt 5:8). You see, the angels are given to protect and minister to us in the Christian battle against the Prince of the air, the deceiver, the robber and destroyer of all that is true, good, and beautiful. The Angels are ministers sent for us. Psalm ninety-one says, “For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways. They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone. Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet” (ps 91:12-13). In an age of material and reason, we lose sight of the unseen battle.

Angels have always attended to God’s people as found in the Books of the Kings by the prophet Elisha. When the Syrians came to capture the prophet, his servant and disciple, a young “son of the prophets” was afraid; so Elisha prayed that God would open his eyes to see the hills filled with chariots of fire and horsemen. “There are more that be with us than with them.” 

And, centuries later the prophet Daniel, after several days of fasting, saw the angel Gabriel who spoke to him those somewhat mysterious words, to the effect that he would have arrived sooner, but the PrincePrince of Persia withstood him. He then spoke of Michael as the PrincePrince who stands for the people of Israel. The implication is, all of the nations of fallen mankind are under the evil power Saint Paul calls “Principalities and powers,” but that Israel was under the protection of a holy angel, the warrior Michael.

The Church has always lived knowing that all around us are unseen beings of intelligence and power locked in a war, a war that seems to rage for mankind as the real battleground. Friends, in contemplating such heavenly beings, we are reminded that we are not spectators, but rather engaged in this war. Yet, we are not alone, for the angels and archangels protect and fight for us for we are in Christ. In fact, we are his body. As they protected him, so do they protect his body; the church. I ask you, how did the angels attend to our Lord when Lucifer attempted to wage war upon him in the desert? 

St. Mark tells us that Jesus was there for forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and the angels ministered to Him. (1:13) At any moment, the Lord could have called upon the Father, and once, twelve legions of angels would be at his disposal (Mt 26:53). And, in the hour of agony, as he prayed “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from Me. Yet not My will, but Yours be done.” St. Luke says, “Then an angel from heaven appeared to Him and strengthened Him.” At the height of temptation, the angels attended to him. In a moment’s notice, they would have appeared by his side. And, in the darkest hours of agony and bloody sweat, they came and strengthened him.

Friends, the writer of Hebrews asks, “Are not the angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation? (Hebrews 1:14). Yes! We who are made a little lower than the angels are the recipients of angelic protection, strength, and power. Yes, the battle rages, but these are the final manic contortions of a dying and condemned enemy; the battle in heaven was, but the opening salvo of the war waged and won at Golgotha. And beloved, Christ is the victor. And we, through faith in the victory of Christ’s death and resurrection, are overcoming the world, the flesh, and the Devil. Therefore, when we gather in the Lord’s house, we proclaim this divine victory over the dragon and the real finality of this heavenly drama. The triumph which is ours, to be consummated on the day of Christ’s return when he will set all that is wrong to right and cast the serpent into the eternal fire where he is destined to go.

Let us pray,

 O EVERLASTING God, who hast ordained and constituted the services of Angels and men in a wonderful order: Mercifully grant that, as thy holy Angels alway do thee service in heaven, so by thy appointment they may succor and defend us on earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen+

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+

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 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.

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.

Christ, Our Perfect Sacrifice

THE FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT, COMMONLY CALLED PASSION SUNDAY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Have No Power

SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continuing in verse six,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rend Your Hearts

ASH WEDNESDAY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fruit of Perfection

THE SUNDAY CALLED QUINQUAGESIMA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Run That You May Obtain

THE SUNDAY CALLED SEPTUAGESIMA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

The Manifestation of Mercy

THE FOURTH WEEK AFTER EPIPHANY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thou Art My Beloved Son

SECOND SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Have Seen His Star

THE FEAST OF THE EPIPHANY

“When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.  And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.” 

A very happy feast of the Epiphany to you! Today, the joy of Christmas morning continues to shine forth, the good news of a savior being born into history is furthered propelled into the mystery and beauty of the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. And so we enter into this season of Epiphany as a kind of continuance of Christmas, for we find ourselves yet in the presence of the Christ-child, the promised seed of Eve, the One who would eternally reign on David’s throne, the one to whom Moses and the prophets looked to: God has come. And so Epiphany- the appearing of God in the flesh- builds upon Christmas by further interpreting the incarnation as the self-revelation of God, the God who has chosen to make himself known (and not only to Israel), but mercifully he has manifested his Glory to the whole world.

The days and weeks of Epiphany-tide are filled with such incredible beauty. In fact the very word itself is beautiful: “epiphany”. The beauty of Epiphany fills the imagination with such wondrous images from the Gospel narratives, a gallery of masterful landscapes of simple yet mysterious eastern deserts brilliantly illuminated by heavenly starlight, or the splendor of foreign kings each dressed in majestic robes, carrying strange and wonderful gifts. Or the pious picture of the Holy family: Mary, Joseph, and the Christ-child. Not set in a palace or arrayed in riches, but rather, in a lowly manger. Not surrounded by a throng of courtiers but nearly alone save a few animals. Today’s Gospel provides another picture, a very familiar one, a picture of the gentiles being led by a star, the adoring of Christ by the Magi who came from afar to look upon the glory of God made manifest in a little child. This iconic is simple, its pure, unadulterated- one might say it’s perfect. Its simplicity and honesty is powerful and it is beautiful.

Beauty is such an inherent part of our worship. So much so that it can become part of the subconscious, like a man living on an island who after sometime forgets he’s surrounded by the splendor and mystery of the ocean. Just look this beautiful sanctuary, so richly adorned with these marvelous stained glass windows, the craftsmanship and care taken in producing these pews, the rail, and the altar; with its fine linens, and brass, and lively candles. We are fortunate to have inherited from the church of the ages and the foresight of the founders of this parish who valued not only truth and goodness, but valued beauty as well. One of the great contributions Christianity has given to the world is beauty and that’s because God is beauty, he in himself (Father, Son, and Spirit) is beautiful. And this truth has been manifested century after century by the Church through her beautiful works of art, through sculpture, in architecture, hymnody and literature.

Beauty abounds from the very pages of Holy Scripture. Just listen to one of Israel’s prophets, who foresaw the day when God, in his mercy, would make himself known to the nations, “Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the LORD is risen upon thee. For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the LORD shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.” Such powerful words, wrapped in mystery for sure, perhaps even a bit foreboding, and yet filled with such tangible hope, “the gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.”

For us, Christianity and beauty are almost inseparable and yet it took several generations for the advent of Christian artistry to emerge from the earliest Christian communities. In fact, historians generally agree that There is no surviving evidence to suggest that Christians used art to express the central tenets of their faith prior to the third century. During the third century, however, they did begin to experiment with visual images, decorating their tombs, churches, as well as household objects and personal items, with pictorial decoration. Stories from the Old and New Testaments served as important sources of inspiration in this process. It wasn’t until around the 4th century under Constantine when Christian art began to flourish. It has been said that Constantine’s conversion came both by word and sign: approaching Rome in his successful bid to seize the imperial throne, he apparently saw a cross in the sky and heard the injunction, “In this sig, conquer” Perhaps the importance of the visual stimulated his lifelong program of erecting beautiful places of worship and the creation of Christian art to adorn these magnificent edifices.

Now, the earliest art was catechetical in nature depicting prominent scenes and imagery from the life of Jesus Christ. Under Constantine the church grew and with the multitude of new converts came the need for Christian art to teach, to catechize and disciple, thus Christian narrative art was born, and this art was dominated by imagery depicting the infancy narrative or our Lord. What we find is the prominence of the Magi in the earliest Christian art, imagery and story that has fired the Christian imagination since the earliest times. In art, the adoration of the magi appeared earlier and far more frequently than any other scene of Jesus’ birth and infancy, including images of the babe in a manger. And, in reading the early Fathers we quickly find that the early church attributed great theological importance to the story of Jesus’ first visitors—an importance not overtly stated in this enigmatic gospel account of omens and dreams, of astrological signs and precious gifts, fear and flight, darkness and light.

“WHEN Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the East to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.” So opens the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, the only biblical account of this nocturnal visit. In vivid contrast to Luke’s gospel, Matthew omits any mention of Mary and Joseph’s trip to Bethlehem to be registered, a crowded inn, a sheltering manger, or watching shepherds startled by an angel’s announcement of the messiah’s birth. Instead, the first gospel focuses on the journey of these eastern emissaries, who see an unusual star rising, interpret it as an omen that they should investigate, and follow its path first to King Herod of Judea and then to Bethlehem, where it appears to stop above a house in which a child had recently been born. Entering the house, the men pay homage to the babe and offer him gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh.

By the giving of a sign, a brilliant star hung in the vast night sky, God began his salvific work of redeeming the Gentiles. For by a star he drew those who were afar and, using St. Paul’s term, living in darkness, into the radiance of his glory shining forth in the face of an heavenly child. But the time had come, for God to make known to the creation, the great mystery hidden in the previous dispensation, a mystery gracious revealed to St. Paul “...the mystery of Christ... which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy Apostles and Prophets by the Spirit; that the Gentiles should be fellow-heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ, by the Gospel. The hidden mystery, kept and guarded in the secrecy of the Holy Trinity, made known to Paul and then to the Apostles, first revealed by an Eastern star. The light which it radiated some 2000 years ago signified and fulfilled that which Isaiah had foretold, which is the very testimony of the beloved apostle John who testified to the True Light, who “in Him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in the darkness. The light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.”

Beloved The Light came into the world to save sinners. It was the mercy of God which placed that star in the heavens. A star so mysterious and profound that the Magi, even being led by their own wisdom, had to follow. For in giving such a brilliant sign, God, in his wisdom, knew they would come. And in coming, they would behold Divine Glory in the face of a child, the glory of God made manifest in the incarnation of His Son. Epiphany is the revelation of God’s mercy, his loving kindness, his great desire “To bring unto the gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ; to inaugurate the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord. Not the wisdom of this world, nor of the princes of this world, but the wisdom of God.” It was the love of God that not only saw the lowly plight of Israel, but the poor estate of men, women, and children from every nation on earth. Thus fulfilling his promise to Hosea, “I will call them my people, which were not my people; and her beloved, which was not beloved.” For by a sign, the nations represented in the Magi, have come, from which the Father is making a new people, a new priesthood, and by His Son, is calling those who are in darkness into His glorious light.

The epiphany of Christ is our Heavenly Father’s revelation of salvation: that the Gentiles should be fellow-heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ, by the Gospel. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. No sweeter or more beautiful words have ever been spoken. Friends, the dawning of a new day is here, the radiance of the glory of God shines bright in the person of Jesus the Christ. “It is full-time for us to awake from sleep… the night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us cast of the works of darkness and put on the armour of light.” Let us break free of the false reality of materialism, out of a world which elevates and seeks understanding in all that is ugly under the hood-wink of authenticity. The manifestation of the mystery of Christ beckons us to leave a life of earthly pursuits without comprehension of the world beyond what we can see, or touch, or taste. Epiphany should inspire sobriety and holy living, that having beheld by faith the Glory of the Lord, we might run our race with courage, pressing on to attain the beatific vision, a vision of the exalted Christ in all of his majesty, a vision at the end of the age that will far eclipse the Magi’s sight of Jesus in his lowliness.

Let us pray,

O God, who by the leading of a star didst manifest thy only-begotten Son to the Gentiles; Mercifully grant, that we, which know thee now by faith, may after this life have the fruition of thy glorious Godhead; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

The Feast of St. John

THE FEAST OF ST. JOHN

Christmas Day is followed by celebrating three consecutive feast days. Yesterday, we celebrated The Feast of St Stephen, deacon and first martyr, joining to the joyous birth of our Savior, the death of one who makes the ‘good confession’ before men and in doing so, forfeits his life. This juxtaposition of life and death invites us to enter more fully into the depth of the mystery of Christmas. The Savior born into the world on Christmas Day manifesting eternal life unto all men, is the only-begotten Son of God who will save humanity by willfully dying on the cross. We celebrate the life of the Savior always mindful of his redeeming death.

Tomorrow, The Holy Innocents are commemorated, and again, our attention is directed towards martyrdom, the many innocent children slain by Herod’s cruel hand. He slays those little ones because fear in his heart over the birth of Messiah is slaying him. Those babes could not yet talk, but like Stephen, wonderfully confessed Christ. Their death met with salvation, as they entered into the Joy of the Lord. In the words of Quodvultdeus, Bishop of Carthage, “Helpless in their battle, they still carried the palm of victory.”

So why, on this day, do we celebrate The Feast of St John the Apostle and Evangelist? Why is our attention drawn to St. John within the orbit of the Christmas octave, bookended by martyrdom? Now, I would never presume to say that I hold the answer to this question! Far wiser and learned men have contemplated and discerned all of the reasons why the Church, in her wisdom, celebrates the Feast of St. John on December 27th.

Well, perhaps part of the answer simply lies in the incarnation: Very Life itself appearing in human form. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of Life (for the life was manifested and we have seen it, and bear witness, and show unto you eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us).”

This is John’s testimony. This is his message. This he has declared unto us. God became man that we might have eternal life. The Eternal Son of the Father became flesh in order that he could be touched by human hands, gazed upon with human eyes. Incarnation. This is how the Life, proclaimed by the beloved Apostle, was made manifest. Not through a word, nor by idea, but by the marrying of the spiritual and material, deity and humanity, Jesus Christ, fully God and fully Man. Incarnation: the means of our salvation.

Hear St. Athanasius, “He [Jesus] became what we are, so that He might make us what He is.” This is the Gospel. This is the Apostolic faith. In holding to this doctrine we enjoy fellowship and union with St. John and all the Apostle’s. Through Apostolic fellowship we enter into the joy of the Father and the Son, for that which we believe about our Lord Jesus Christ is an Apostolic faith, this we believe for the salvation of our souls.

The incarnation of our Lord, this too is the message we proclaim, the basis of ‘the good confession’, the truth which pierces the hearts of men, clears the floor like the winnowing fork, a message which divides, “father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” And, as we are reminded during these Octave feast days, a message who’s messengers are met with stones and knives, their blood spilled as a witness to the Life which was made manifest on Christmas Day.

In Chapter 3 of his 1st Epistle, St. John writes that, “the Son of God was made manifest to take away our sins.” This is the Good News of the Gospel! And, this is why The Feast of St. John is so very important, it reminds us that our evangelistic proclamation is grounded in the incarnation of Christ: we proclaim to the world what St. John has proclaimed to us.

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the father, full of grace and truth.” The incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. Do you believe this? Then you are born of God. You are sons and daughters of God. And, you have overcome the world… Grace upon Grace! Beloved, with blessed assurance, come to the rail: look upon the mercy of God, hold it within your hands, take, eat, and receive by faith, the Word of Life made manifest for the salvation of the world. Amen.