Luke-Acts, Daniel and the Ascension

TODAY WE BEGIN reading the Acts of the Apostles in Morning Prayer. I hope these few reflections on today’s reading will provide a context for the readings to follow.

Luke 1:1–4 (ESV): 1 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, 2 just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, 3 it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.

So begins the Gospel according to St. Luke. John’s Gospel comes next in order in our New Testaments since it is the magisterial summary and interpretation of the synoptic Gospels gone before. Then we come to the Acts of the Apostles, which begins with these words:

Acts 1:1–5 (ESV): 1 In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, 2 until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3 He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.

4 And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

Far be it from me to question the hallowed arrangement of the books of the Bible, but clearly, the Gospel of John notwithstanding, Luke and Acts belong together; they comprise a two-volume set by the same author, to the same patron, with the same theme: the Kingdom of God — inaugurated by Jesus and proclaimed and enacted by his followers empowered by the Holy Spirit.

The central act in this story is the passion and victory of Christ — the crucifixion and resurrection — in which Jesus defeated all the powers and rival kingdoms that opposed the coming of God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. That is the central act in the story. But, in literary, historical, and theological senses, there is a pivotal act in the two-volume Luke-Acts narrative also. It appears twice; it closes the Gospel of Luke, and it opens the Acts of the Apostles. It is pivotal because it marks not only a point of continuity between the accounts, but also because it marks a point of transition. It is the ascension of our Lord Jesus.

The account in Luke is quite simple:

Luke 24:50–53 (ESV): 50 And he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. 51 While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, 53 and were continually in the temple blessing God.

The narrative in Acts adds some important details.

Acts 1:6–11 (ESV): 6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” 9 And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, 11 and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

There are many details here worth exploring: the promise of the Holy Spirit, the commissioning of the Apostles for their evangelistic mission, the presence of two men/angels linking this account to the resurrection narrative. But this ascension narrative begins with perhaps the most interesting and important detail of all as matter of context; the disciples were asking about the Kingdom of God. They wrongly assumed, as they most surely always had, that God’s Kingdom would be made manifest in and through Israel. Though wrong about this important detail, they were still right to be looking toward the Kingdom.

Acts 1:6 (ESV): 6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”

Jesus reorients their thinking, though it still will be a few days before they work it all out. He says: (1) God’s timing is his own and it is not given you to know it; (2) you will be empowered by the Holy Spirit to be Gospel witnesses not just to the Jews, but to the ends of the earth. What he means becomes clearer later: Jesus has already inaugurated the Kingdom of God, and the Spirit filled and empowered disciples will begin to realize and enact the Kingdom by their witness to the Gospel. This is the way the kingdom will be restored, starting just a few days hence and progressing along God’s timeframe.

It is in the context of this Kingdom discourse that Luke places the ascension here in Acts. Why is that important? Because you can’t very well have a Kingdom without a King. And the ascension is precisely the enthronement of Jesus as King of all things in heaven and on earth. Matthew’s Gospel ends with the Great Commission. It begins with these words: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been give to me” (Mt 28:18b). The ascension is the visible realization of that claim of authority. The problem is that we see it only from the earthly perspective, from the vantage point of Jesus’ departure. What we need is a view from the heavenly perspective, from the vantage point of Jesus’ arrival. And that is exactly what Daniel provides us.

The first of Daniel’s great visions is recorded in Daniel 7. It is a strange affair with a wind disturbing the sea, with four beasts rising from the waves, with successive beastly dominions over the earth, with a beastly horn with eyes and a mouth speaking boastful things. And then:

Daniel 7:9–12 (ESV): 9 “As I looked,

thrones were placed,

and the Ancient of Days took his seat;

his clothing was white as snow,

and the hair of his head like pure wool;

his throne was fiery flames;

its wheels were burning fire.

10  A stream of fire issued

and came out from before him;

a thousand thousands served him,

and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him;

the court sat in judgment,

and the books were opened.

11 “I looked then because of the sound of the great words that the horn was speaking. And as I looked, the beast was killed, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. 12 As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time.

Yes, the beasts — earthly powers and kingdoms backed by dark, spiritual powers — get to strut their few moments on the earthly stage pretending/presuming to be something, until God, the Ancient of Days, sits upon his throne and convenes his court for judgment. And in that judgment, the beasts are defeated — not totally destroyed, but defeated and shown to be impotent usurpers, trampled underfoot. May I suggest that we celebrate that reality at each Eucharist when the priest prays: By his resurrection he broke the bonds of death, trampling Hell and Satan under his feet. The resurrection is the great judgment of the beasts, of all the spiritual powers of Sin, Death, and Hell and of all their earthly representatives.

And after the resurrection? The ascension, which is why Daniel’s vision immediately continues:

Daniel 7:13–14 (ESV): 13 “I saw in the night visions,

and behold, with the clouds of heaven

there came one like a son of man,

and he came to the Ancient of Days

and was presented before him.

14  And to him was given dominion

and glory and a kingdom,

that all peoples, nations, and languages

should serve him;

his dominion is an everlasting dominion,

which shall not pass away,

and his kingdom one

that shall not be destroyed.

This is the ascension from the heavenly perspective. It is the return of the Son of Man to the Ancient of Days, to the courts of heaven. It is the enthronement of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is given an everlasting dominion — and glory and a kingdom — so that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.

Though they don’t know it, this is the larger and true context for the disciples’ questions about the coming of the Kingdom. Yes, it is coming. But first, the King must be crowned. And then the Kingdom will come to all peoples, nations, and languages as you, the Spirit filled and empowered heralds of the king, take your witness to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. It is not through force that the Kingdom will come, but through proclamation, and through weakness and suffering and love.

This is a pivotal moment in the Luke-Acts saga, not just from a literary standpoint, but from a theological standpoint. In Jesus death and through his blood, he purified a people for himself. Through his resurrection he defeated all the spiritual power who stood athwart God’s good purposes for creation. Through his ascension he received all authority and dominion over all creation. But the world is still a wasteland, still fouled by beasts and powers and by human co-conspirators. It is, in a sense, as it was in the beginning, formless and void, as it was when God gave Adam and Eve their marching orders:

Genesis 1:28 (ESV): 28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

God had created Eden a paradise. But the world outside was still a work in progress, a work for Adam and Eve. They were to take God’s divine presence into that world — they were his image bearers, remember — to fill that world with the knowledge of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea, to bring God’s righteous rule to bear over all the earth. And the wheels of this vocation came off and the whole project was derailed. Until now. Until the ascension. The rightful King has assumed the throne in the ascension. In just ten days, he will fully restore his image bearer by filling them with divine life, with the Holy Spirit. And then he will send them out as his image bearers to take God’s presence and God’s rule into a world that had been devastated by the enemy, to a world that was spiritually formless and voice. God’s creation project and his image bearers’ role in it has been put back on track at last.

So, when the disciples ask — right before the ascension — if it is time for the kingdom to be restored to Israel, the answer is yes and no, now and later. Yes, the king has been enthroned — is about to be enthroned from their standpoint, but no his rule will not be immediately recognized. It will spread bit by bit as the disciples themselves do the kingdom work of proclamation. And the kingdom won’t be restricted to or manifest solely through Israel. That’s too small a thing. It will be good news for all the people.

This is the way we should read the Acts of the Apostles over the next few days of Morning Prayer: the renewal of the human vocation to take the righteous rule of God — the Kingdom of God — to the whole earth under the authority of our King, crowned at his ascension. Amen.

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Holy Michael and All Angels

Holy Michael and All Angels

(Rev 12:7-12 / Pss 75, 76 / Matt 20:17-end)


Everlasting God, you have ordained and constituted in a wonderful order the ministries of angels and mortals: Mercifully grant that, as your holy angels always serve and worship you in heaven, so by your appointment they may help and defend us here on earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

IN HIS PREFACE to The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis wrote:

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.

Our culture falls into both errors related not just to demons but to all things spiritual. On the one hand, our culture is functionally materialistic, having reduced all reality to physical reality, all knowledge to scientific knowledge. Religion — the spiritual — is privatized, turned into a hobby like quilting or fly-fishing, harmless if kept in check, harmless if kept out of the public arena — schools, politics, business — where real education happens, where real decisions are made, where real stuff gets done. On the other hand, our culture is obsessed with spiritual and pseudo-spiritual matters. Folk religion — the people’s spirituality — is alive and well. Just visit any book store or peruse any podcast platform and you’ll find a smorgasbord of spiritual choices. Our culture is schizophrenic about things spiritual.

What C. S. Lewis wrote about demons applies just as well to angels:

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the [angels]. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.

Materialists disbelieve in the existence of angels. Some who identify as spiritual or spiritual-but-not-religious believe in angels and feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. And what about Christians? What about the Church? This is my observation, and it’s just my observation: in the Church, the spectrum runs not as much from disbelief to excessive interest as it does from disinterest to adoration, from rarely a thought of angels to daily engagement and dependence on them. I don’t intend to adjudicate that difference or to advocate for a particular point of view or a precise placement on the spectrum; that is largely a matter of personal piety. I would suggest, though, that avoiding either extreme is probably good practice.

Angels have a place in Anglican faith and practice. We do not disregard them. Nor do we obsess over them or speculate over much about them. Angels have a single annual feast day on the liturgical calendar: Holy Michael and All Angels — today, 29 September. The collect of the day is instructive:

Everlasting God, you have ordained and constituted in a wonderful order the ministries of angels and mortals: Mercifully grant that, as your holy angels always serve and worship you in heaven, so by your appointment they may help and defend us here on earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

What does this say? God has created two orders of beings to worship him and to serve as his ministers: angels and humans. It is the vocation of the angels to serve God and to worship in heaven and also to have some charge over the affairs of men — at God’s direction, to help and defend humans. Both aspects of the angelic vocation — worship and ministry to humans — appear in Anglican prayer and worship. In the Daily Office — typically Morning Prayer — we say or sing the canticle Benedicite, Omnia Opera Domini in which we call all creation, including the angels, to worship the Lord with us: “Glorify the Lord, you angels and all powers of the Lord.” We start the day with angels. In Evening Prayer we ask our dear Lord to give his “angels charge over those who sleep.” And at Compline, we end the day with angels as we pray for their presence with us and their protection over us:

Visit this place, O Lord, and drive far from it all snares of the enemy; let your holy angels dwell with us to preserve us in peace; and let your blessing be upon us always; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

In the Eucharist, we praise God, “joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven, who for ever sing” the Sanctus — Holy, Holy, Holy — to proclaim the glory of God’s Name.

So, daily (throughout the Prayer Book Offices), weekly (at the Eucharist), and annually (on this feast day) we acknowledge the angels in their vocations of worship and service.

What of Scripture? Do we find this dual vocation of angels — worship and ministry to humans — in Scripture?

Let’s start with an unlikely place, in the book of Job, specifically at the beginning of the Lord’s answer to Job:

Job 38:1–7 (ESV): 38 Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said:

2  “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?

3  Dress for action like a man;

I will question you, and you make it known to me.

4  “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?

Tell me, if you have understanding.

5  Who determined its measurements—surely you know!

Or who stretched the line upon it?

6  On what were its bases sunk,

or who laid its cornerstone,

7  when the morning stars sang together

and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

This is God’s own description of creation: details not found in Genesis. Witnessing the creation of the earth, “the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy.” Stars don’t sing — do they? — except perhaps figuratively and poetically. But, if we keep in mind the structure of Hebrew poetic expression — particularly parallelism — we can make sense of this. The morning stars singing parallel and correspond to the sons of God shouting for joy. These stars are spiritual beings — called sons of God — spiritual beings including angels, who are present at the moment of creation, worshipping God, singing and shouting his glory and their joy. The very first Scriptural account of angels is of them fulfilling their vocation to worship. And, in the last Scriptural account in Revelation, the angels are still worshiping — singing this time:

Revelation 15:3–4 (ESV): 3 And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying,

“Great and amazing are your deeds,

O Lord God the Almighty!

Just and true are your ways,

O King of the nations!

4  Who will not fear, O Lord,

and glorify your name?

For you alone are holy.

All nations will come

and worship you,

for your righteous acts have been revealed.”

It is no wonder that in the Eucharistic Prayer we claim to join our voices with Angels and Archangels as we sing the Sanctus — Holy, Holy, Holy; they have been singing the praises of God eternally and will continue to worship him throughout the ages of ages.

Angels appear not infrequently in the Old Testament: two angels destroy Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities of the plain, but rescue Lot and his daughters; angels appear to Jacob in his dream at Beth El, coming and going from heaven to earth doing God’s bidding; Michael contends with the devil over the body of Moses (cf Jude 9); the Commander of the Lord’s army appears to Joshua just before the fall of Jericho.

And there is the puzzling account of angels — the Archangels Gabriel and Michael — in the book of Daniel. While in exile in Babylon, Daniel offers a magnificent prayer of repentance on behalf of his people — a plea for God to forgive and deliver. Daniel interrupts the written record of his prayer to say:

Daniel 9:20–23 (ESV): 20 While I was speaking and praying, confessing my sin and the sin of my people Israel, and presenting my plea before the Lord my God for the holy hill of my God, 21 while I was speaking in prayer, the man Gabriel, whom I had seen in the vision at the first, came to me in swift flight at the time of the evening sacrifice. 22 He made me understand, speaking with me and saying, “O Daniel, I have now come out to give you insight and understanding. 23 At the beginning of your pleas for mercy a word went out, and I have come to tell it to you, for you are greatly loved. Therefore consider the word and understand the vision.

The “man” Gabriel — the Archangel Gabriel who stands in the presence of God — comes to give Daniel insight and understanding. He comes in response to Daniel’s prayer. And, this happens on another occasion in response to Daniel’s prayer and fasting. Gabriel speaks to Daniel:

Daniel 10:12–14 (ESV): “Fear not, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart to understand and humbled yourself before your God, your words have been heard, and I have come because of your words. 13 The prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days, but Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, for I was left there with the kings of Persia, 14 and came to make you understand what is to happen to your people in the latter days. For the vision is for days yet to come.”

And just a bit later, Gabriel continues:

Daniel 10:20–21 (ESV): But now I will return to fight against the prince of Persia; and when I go out, behold, the prince of Greece will come. 21 But I will tell you what is inscribed in the book of truth: there is none who contends by my side against these except Michael, your prince.

There is far more going on here than we can explore in these few minutes, and perhaps more than we could understand if we did take the time. But, this much seems clear: (1) God used an angel to respond to human prayer, and (2) angels are engaged in spiritual conflict on behalf of God’s people, a conflict that plays out in the material world and on the global stage.

Angels also appear on the pages of the New Testament, and we are perhaps more familiar with those accounts. Gabriel appears to Zechariah to announce the birth of John, the Forerunner of our Lord. Six months later, Gabriel appears to Mary:

Luke 1:30–33 (ESV): 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

An angel appears to Joseph in a dream to verify all that Mary has told him and to commission him in his role as husband and protector. Angels appear to the shepherds and sing the Gloria:

Luke 2:14 (ESV): 14  “Glory to God in the highest,

and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

An angel comes to tell Joseph to take his family to Egypt and then again to say it’s safe to return home.

Angels minister to Jesus at the beginning of his ministry — immediately following the temptation — and again near the end of his ministry during his agony in Gethsemane. Angels roll away the stone from his tomb and proclaim his victory to the women.

Angels release the apostles from prison on at least two occasions so they can continue to proclaim the Gospel with boldness.

And angels feature prominently in the Revelation: each of the seven churches has an angel; hosts of angels sing praises to God and to the Lamb; the angels enact God’s judgment upon the world, largely through disruption of the created order; the faithful angels battle against the dragon and his angels; and the armies of heaven — surely angelic armies — under the command of the rider on the white horse, the one called Faithful and True, defeat the beast and all the kings of this world.

So, I end where we started. We should not obsess over the angels, and —God forbid! — we must not worship them. But it is wrong to doubt them or dismiss them. They play a significant role in the great, sweeping narrative of creation, fall, and redemption. They are our fellow worshippers and our fellow servants, and they are God’s ministers on our behalf. As is so often the case, the collect for the day gets it quite right:

Everlasting God, you have ordained and constituted in a wonderful order the ministries of angels and mortals: Mercifully grant that, as your holy angels always serve and worship you in heaven, so by your appointment they may help and defend us here on earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage and Martyr

THE EPISTLE AND GOSPEL TEXTS appointed for this day are both quite challenging.

Hebrews 6:4–6 (ESV): 4 For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.

Matthew 12:31–32 (ESV): 31 Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

These verses seem to push the limits of human sin and God’s grace. What are we to make of them?

Instead of addressing these verses and the questions they raise head-on, I’m going to approach them obliquely through the life of the saint whose martyrdom we commemorate this day: St. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage. His life, his thought, his writings, his pastoral guidance dealt with just such issues and provided good direction for the church in the third century. It is still good direction in the twenty-first century.

Cyprian was born of wealthy pagan parents in 200 A.D. in North Africa, in the region of modern day Tunisia. He received a good education in rhetoric and law, and practiced law in Carthage before his conversion to Christianity in 246. Just two years after his conversion, Cyprian was consecrated Bishop of Carthage, a prominent city of the Roman Empire. The beginning of Cyprian’s episcopacy corresponded to the beginning of the reign of a new Roman emperor, Trajan Decius (reign 249-251). Decius intended to strengthen the Roman state by revitalizing the Roman cult, the practice of the religion of Rome including sacrifices to the gods. Part of this revitalization effort was persecution of Christians who refused to offer the required sacrifices. This persecution was particularly severe in Carthage where Cyprian served as bishop.

In such times of persecution, the bishop of a city was often a target since he was the spiritual leader of the church. The idea was simple: cut off the head (the bishop) and the body (the church) dies. That put Cyprian in the crosshairs. What do you suppose he did? In 250, he fled Carthage and went into hiding — a place of relative safety from which he provided continued guidance and support for the church through a series of letters. But, his absence meant that the persecution fell upon a church without the physical presence and support of its shepherd. In his absence, thousands of Christians apostasized. These fell roughly into two categories: the sacrificati, those who offered the required sacrifices to the Roman gods and the libellatici, those who purchased falsified certificates of sacrifice, who didn’t sacrifice but who presented documents saying they had done so.

Though the persecution was severe, it was short lived. Decius died in battle in 251, and the persecution diminished. Cyprian returned to Carthage and was readmitted to his bishopric by a council of bishops. He faced a major problem: what to do with the lapsii, those Christians who had lapsed/apostasized during the persecution. There were many difficult questions: Could they be forgiven for that sin? Could they be readmitted to the Church? Who spoke for the church in this matter?

The issue was hotly contested by two groups. The first group was led by Confessors, by Christians who had remained faithful during the persecution and had suffered for their faithfulness. Surprisingly — at least to me — they advocated leniency for the lapsii: forgiveness and readmission to the church with no serious repercussions for their apostasy. Further, due to their faithfulness through persecution, the Confessors claimed a special status for themselves as “friends of God” and claimed that they had the authority, by virtue of that status, to speak for the church in this matter. They pitted themselves against the bishops. A second group was led by Anti-Pope Novatian, a bishop of Rome consecrated in opposition to the rightful pope. He and his followers took a hard line: no forgiveness was possible for the lapsii.

And what of Cyprian? He charted a middle way through these two extremes. Forgiveness is possible through repentance and penance.

This was Cyprian’s via media, his middle way:

The sacrificati, those who had truly offered sacrifice to the Roman gods, might be forgiven and readmitted to the church, but only on their deathbeds. They could not live in the church, but they could die in it.

The libellatici, those who had presented falsified documents of sacrifice, might be readmitted to the church after a period of public penance: confession, repentance, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. The length of this period was determined individually by the presiding bishop.

Cyprian reached these positions in a council of bishops who then gave this guidance to the church. This established some principles of fundamental importance:

1. We may not excuse serious and notorious sin as if it doesn’t matter.

2. We may not exaggerate serious sins as if they are beyond the reach and power of God’s grace. Do you see how that relates to our texts today? The only sin that may not be forgiven is the sin of which one refuses to repent.

3. The bishops speak for the church. That is the ancient polity of the church and is normative for the ACNA; the bishops speak for the church.

In one sense, it is tempting to consider Cyprian’s flight from persecution as a failure, as an act of cowardice that spared him from hard decisions during persecution. But, in another sense, it is easy to see how God used that experience for the good of the church. Surely, his own experience led Cyprian to a deep sense of compassion for those who lapsed and a deeper understanding of God’s grace.

So, in Cyprian’s story it is now 251 A.D. Decius is dead. Cyprian is once again bishop of Carthage. The persecution has diminished and the issue of the lapsii is being addressed. You might think things have settled down, but no. A plague began in Ethiopia, encompassed Egypt, and spread to the rest of the Roman Empire, at its height killing some five thousand people per day in Rome alone. It is known as the Cyprian Plague because Cyprian witnessed it and wrote about it. It lasted nearly twenty years. This is the second reason I wanted to speak of Cyprian today. I’ve heard so many times in the past year and a half that we are in unprecedented times, uncharted waters, due to Covid. That is simply not true of the church; we, the church, have just forgotten our history. The church has navigated pandemics before, and has done so faithfully and well. That we have seemed so confused, so caught off guard, by Covid is to our shame.

The church historian Eusebius wrote about the Christian response to the Plague of Cyprian:

Most of our brethren showed love and loyalty in not sparing themselves while helping one another, tending to the sick with no thought of danger and gladly departing this life with them after becoming infected with their disease. Many who nursed others to health died themselves, thus transferring their death to themselves. The best of our own brothers lost their lives in this way — some presbyters, deacons, and laymen — a form of death based on strong faith and piety that seems in every way equal to martyrdom. They would also take up the bodies of the saints, close their eyes, shut their mouths, and carry them on their shoulders. They would embrace them, wash and dress them in burial clothes, and soon receive the same services themselves.

The heathen were the exact opposite. They pushed away those with the first signs of the disease and fled from their dearest. They even threw them half dead into the roads and treated unburied corpses like refuse in hope of avoiding the plague of death, which, for all their efforts, was difficult to escape.

And Cyprian himself wrote of the spiritual benefit of the plague, of the opportunity it offered Christians to reflect on and prepare for death. These excerpts are from his treatise “On Mortality”.

What a grandeur of spirit it is to struggle with all the powers of an unshaken mind against so many onsets of devastation and death! what sublimity, to stand erect amid the desolation of the human race, and not to lie prostrate with those who have no hope in God; but rather to rejoice, and to embrace the benefit of the occasion; that in thus bravely showing forth our faith, and by suffering endured, going forward to Christ by the narrow way that Christ trod, we may receive the reward of His life and faith according to His own judgment! Assuredly he may fear to die, who, not being regenerated of water and the Spirit, is delivered over to the fires of Gehenna; he may fear to die who is not enrolled in the cross and passion of Christ; he may fear to die, who from this death shall pass over to a second death; he may fear to die, whom on his departure from this world eternal flame shall torment with never-ending punishments; he may fear to die who has this advantage in a lengthened delay, that in the meanwhile his groanings and his anguish are being postponed (14).

And further, beloved brethren, what is it, what a great thing is it, how pertinent, how necessary, that that pestilence and plague which seems horrible and deadly, searches out the righteousness of each one, and examines the minds of the human race, to see whether they who are in health tend the sick; whether relations affectionately love their kindred; whether masters pity their languishing servants; whether physicians do not forsake the beseeching patients; whether the fierce suppress their violence; whether the rapacious can quench the ever insatiable ardour of their raging avarice even by the fear of death; whether the haughty bend their neck; whether the wicked soften their boldness; whether, when their dear ones perish, the rich, even then bestow anything, and give, when they are to die without heirs. Even although this mortality conferred nothing else, it has done this benefit to Christians and to God’s servants, that we begin gladly to desire martyrdom as we learn not to fear death. These are trainings for us, not deaths: they give the mind the glory of fortitude; by contempt of death they prepare for the crown (16).

This is the way the Church faced plague, and it is the way the Church should face pandemic.

With the plague still raging, at the accession of Valerian as Roman Emperor (reign 253-260), the persecution of Christians also resumed. Cyprian was arrested in 257 and was placed under what we might call house arrest until his final hearing before proconsul Galerius Maximus in 258.

The circumstances of Cyprian’s trial and subsequent martyrdom are recorded in the Proconsular Acts of the Martydom of St. Cyprian, as follows:

Galerius Maximus, proconsul: “You, Thascius Cyprian, have you regarded yourself as the father to these irreligious men?”

Cyprian, bishop: “I have.”

“The venerable emperors bid you sacrifice.”

“I shall not do it.”

“Reflect on your decision.”

“Do what you must. In so just a cause, no reflection is needed.”

Galerius consulted briefly with his council and then said reluctantly: “You have lived a long time as an impious man and have drawn many into your wicked conspiracy. You have been the enemy of the Roman gods and their sacred rites. The venerable Augusti, Valerian and Gallienus, and the noble Caesar, Valerian, have been unable to bring you back to the practice of their ceremonies. You have now been arrested as a chief criminal and leader, and shall be made an example of to your followers. Your teaching shall be sealed with your blood.” Then he read the decree: “Thascius Cyprian is to be executed by beheading.”

Cyprian’s answer was: “Thanks be to God.”

When they heard the sentence, the brothers and sisters standing by nearby cried out: “Behead us along with him!” and many of them followed him out.

Cyprian was led away in the company of his brother, and was executed.

Cyprian is a saint for our times, a saint for these days: a saint who recognized the seriousness of sin and the abundance of grace; a saint who insisted on the unity and order of the church under the authority of bishops; a saint who knew how to live Christianly without fear of death; a saint who knew that God could and would work all things together for the good of those love him, for those who are called according to his purpose. Amen.

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James 2: Love, Grace, Faith, Works

Let us pray.

O Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow after us, that we may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

IN JUST A FEW MINUTES — right at twenty if you’re looking at your watch — we will stand together and affirm our faith in the words of the Nicene Creed. “We believe,” we’ll say, or perhaps “I believe,” and then we will enumerate the non-negotiable essentials of our faith as we have received it from the Fathers of the Church: not everything that can be said, but certainly that which must be said to avoid ancient heresies and their modern incarnations.

Πιστεύομεν — we believe — the Greek Fathers said; Credo — I believe — the Latin Fathers said. “Believe,” we all say in whatever languages we speak. But, what did that mean in the fourth century when the Creed was formulated, and what does that mean in the twenty-first century as we stand and proclaim it: what does it mean to believe? Do we mean that corporately, “we,” and individually, “I,” have examined the evidence for each of the tenets in the Creed and are convinced that each is logically rigorous, historically accurate, verifiably factual? Probably not, though that would be a very good thing to do. Do we mean that we find the ancient witnesses credible and compelling and that we are certain — based not least on the quality of their lives and the example of their deaths — that their deposit of faith in the Creed is trustworthy? Probably so. Do we mean — as some accuse us — that in spite of a total lack of evidence we cling tenaciously to this story not based on knowledge but upon a blind leap of faith? Certainly not. Our belief is not less than rational, but more than rational, not irrational, but supra-rational; it incorporates the highest reason of which humans are capable and then transcends it in a relationship with the Divine.

So, when we say “we believe,” we are giving more than an affirmation of our mental assent to a set of ancient theological doctrines. Yes, we believe — I would go so far as to say we know — that the Creed is objectively true, but “we believe” means far more than that. “We believe” means not just that we have a capacity for faith, but that we have faith in, that we are pledging our allegiance to, God — the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit — who is the subject of the Creed; it means that we will be faithful to him. “We believe” means that we accept this story as the story, as the only story that tells the truth about, and that makes sense of, creation, and that we willingly take our place in that story. “We believe” means that we look to this God and this story as the only source of our salvation. Belief, faith/faithfulness, and salvation: these go together: “For by grace you have been saved through faith” (Eph 2:8a).

We must be clear about this relationship among belief, faith, and salvation, clear about the meaning of each. When Scripture speaks of salvation, it means far more — not less, but far more — than merely eternal destiny and spiritual geography — everlasting heaven or hell — as important as that is. Salvation also means freedom in this moment from all the ways hell manifests here and now in human life: freedom from captivity to demonic spiritual powers; freedom from slavery to sin; freedom from fear of death and from death itself; freedom from bondage to the passions; freedom from alienation from oneself, from one’s neighbors, from God; freedom from nihilism and despair; freedom from a meaningless, non-storied existence; freedom from a flattened out, materialistic world. Salvation means freedom from. But, salvation also means freedom to engage in this moment with all the opportunities and blessings heaven offers in human life: to live fully and confidently; to develop and exercise the virtues of righteousness; to reconcile with God and man and to turn outward away from the prison of the self; to find and embrace the deep meaning of existence told in the great story of Scripture; to live in the realm of things seen and unseen, to be surrounded by and in communion with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, to take our place in the communion of saints. In the fullest sense, salvation means both freedom from and freedom to; salvation is both a present reality and an eternal destiny.

When I was younger, it wasn’t unusual to be asked this question by street evangelists or by those who knocked on your door on Sunday afternoon, tracts in hand: Brother, are you saved? If you pressed them a bit on what they meant, they might come back with another question: Well, if you were to die tonight, do you know where you’d spend eternity? These were good, sincere folk, and I don’t mean to disparage them. But, their notion of salvation was too small. Repent of your sin, accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior — whatever that means — say some form of The Sinner’s Prayer, and you are saved; your place in heaven when you die is guaranteed. Really? That’s all there is to it? I understand why James presents a challenge to that way of understanding faith and salvation.

James 2:14–17 (ESV): 14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith — dare I say, what good is it if someone says he believes and has said The Sinner’s Prayer — but does not have works? Can that faith save him? For James, the question he poses is a rhetorical nonsense question on the order of How many corners does a circle have? or What color is yesterday? For James, salvation is both freedom from and freedom to, both an eternal destiny and life in the kingdom here and now. To reduce it to less than that is to miss the point. For James, true faith, saving faith, living faith always manifests in the present, in the works that salvation frees us to do. There is no space between James and Paul on this, though some, including Martin Luther, have supposed so. Listen to Paul to the Ephesians:

Ephesians 2:8–10 (ESV): 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Yes, yes, yes: let me say loudly and clearly with Paul; we are saved by grace through faith and human works play no part in obligating God to save us. But, we are saved for good works which God has prepared for us to do. That is salvation as freedom from and freedom to, just as James presents it. And if those good works for which we were saved are missing, there is something seriously amiss. James says that such faith is dead.

I know that in our Protestant milieu we are nervous speaking of works. But, Jesus wasn’t a Protestant, and he was not hesitant to speak of works. Hear him from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount:

Matthew 7:15–21 (ESV): 15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.

And in a parallel account from Luke:

46 “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you? 47 Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like: 48 he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built. 49 But the one who hears and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the stream broke against it, immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great.”

Last week, Fr. Jack beautifully presented James as New Testament wisdom literature. So is the Sermon on the Mount. In both James’ epistle and Jesus’ sermon, the way of wisdom, the way of true faith and salvation, lies not just in hearing the word, nor even in just believing what is heard, but in hearing and doing. James asks the rhetorical questions: “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” Jesus asks: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” They are the same questions.

What is the most fundamental work through which faith expresses itself? Simply this, according to James:

James 2:8–9 (ESV): 8 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 9 But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.

There it is; that is the work that proclaims our living faith and our salvation: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. That sounds familiar, doesn’t it? As we will proclaim our faith in just a few minutes, we also proclaimed our work — our vocation — just a few minutes past:

Jesus said:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets (Mt 22:37-40T).

What does love for neighbor look like? James doesn’t tell us directly; he tells us instead by the way of negation. Here’s what love of neighbor doesn’t look like.

James 2:2–4 (ESV): 2 For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, 3 and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” 4 have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

What a vivid picture James paints with just a few words: so many problems in such a short description. First, there is the man with the gold ring and the fine clothes who walks into — swaggers into? — the assembly. The word James uses for “assembly” is συναγωγὴν, synagogue, and it is a wonderfully ambiguous word. It might mean a place of study, prayer, and worship — a Christian assembly. It might mean the community center. It might mean a place of judgment, a people’s court; James hints at this a bit. And in walks the man with the gold ring and the fine clothes. The man himself is not criticized by James, but I wonder about his motivation. I can’t help thinking of the singer Jim Croce and his hit — yes, this will date me — Bad, Bad Leroy Brown:

Now Leroy he’s a gambler

And he likes his fancy clothes

And he likes to wave his diamond rings

In front of everybody’s nose

Maybe the man is not like that at all; maybe he is just oblivious to his fashion choices, which is another problem in itself.

Another man walks into the assembly, poor and in shabby clothes. Just as James didn’t critique the rich man, he doesn’t praise the poor man either. In a literary sense, both these men are just props, just a backdrop for the real drama. The presence of each, and the difference between them, provoke a response. The assembly pays deferential attention to the rich man — “You sit here in a good place.” — and shames the poor man: “You stand over there,” or “Sit down at my feet.” And there is the problem: not necessarily the presence of rich and poor together, not even the fact that there are poor in the assembly, but partiality. Instead of loving the poor neighbor, the assembly dishonors the poor neighbor. That is the opposite of the royal law.

Now, hear James again:

James 2:14–17 (ESV): 14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

Showing partiality to the rich, ignoring the needs of the poor, standing in judgment as if the royal law does not apply to you: these things put to lie one’s claim of faith in the Lord Jesus. While claiming faith, such a one has become again a transgressors of the law — of the full law. There is no fullness of salvation in that kind of faith, because the one who holds it has not yet been set free to do the works of faith that God has prepared beforehand that he should walk in them.

Do you know who holds that kind of faith, the kind of faith that believes the truth of every doctrine about Jesus Christ — the kind of faith that knows the Creed to be absolutely true — but who translates none of that belief into saving faith? The demons. Read the Gospels. The demons were the only ones who consistently recognized Jesus as the Christ and who fell down before him. James says as much:

James 2:18–20 (ESV): 18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?

James contrasts that foolishness with the wisdom of Abraham who, in faith, offered up his son Isaac on the altar. James contrasts that foolishness with the wisdom of Rahab the prostitute who, in faith, hid the spies in Jericho and led them out to safety. In this righteous old man and in this less than righteous young woman, faith was active along with their works, and faith was completed by their works. That’s the heart of James’ understanding of faith and works: the conviction that faith and works, works and faith, go together and cannot be separated in our salvation. Saving faith produces works which complete the faith that saves us. God’s grace — God’s prevenient grace — goes before all, giving birth to faith within us. And that faith, if it is living and active, flows outward into good works to the glory of God and the welfare of his people — good works that flow back to further strengthen and enliven the faith that produced them — a synergy of salvation.

If you want to see all this, follow the order of the liturgy; it gives us a wonderful theological roadmap through this mystery of faith and works and salvation. We hear the Great Commandment and the Royal Law, and we ask God to write them on our hearts. We proclaim our faith — our faithfulness — in the words of the Nicene Creed. We feast on the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ only by the grace of God. And then, having done all of this — having committed to love, having proclaimed faith, having experienced grace — then we pray:

And now, Father, send us out to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.

Love, faith, grace, work: this is our salvation, in this age and in the age to come. Amen.

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Apostles Anglican Church

Wednesday, 18 Aug, Week of the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

(2 Samuel 6, Psalm 119:1-24, Philippians 1:1-11)

Keep your Church, O Lord, by your perpetual mercy; and because without you the frailty of our nature causes us to fall, keep us from all things hurtful, and lead us to all things profitable for our salvation; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

In 1962, President John Kennedy spoke at Rice University. He described his vision of America and the goals of his administration. It was a momentous speech, largely remembered for this excerpt:

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

Not because they are easy, but because they are hard, and because hard things organize and measure the best of our energies and skills. I thought of these words and this principle as I began to prepare for today’s homily. There is no saint appointed in the Anglican calendar for this day, but we are between two great saints this week: The Blessed Virgin Mary on Sunday last and Bernard of Clairvaux on Friday, two days hence. To reflect on either would be of great benefit, and, dare I say, comparatively easy. And then there is the Daily Office readings for this day, particularly the Old Testament lesson from Morning Prayer: 1 Samuel 6, the unsuccessful attempt to return the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem and the death of Uzzah.

I choose Uzzah. I choose Uzzah not because that text is easy, but because it is hard, because that text will serve to measure and challenge our best understandings of God, because to ignore such texts is to refuse an aspect of God’s self-revelation, a refusal which is the beginning of heresy and which ends in idolatry. So, I choose Uzzah.

It will do us no good to begin with Uzzah though; there are too many preliminary questions to be addressed. No, we have to begin in the beginning, in the Garden with our first parents.

Genesis 2:8–9 (ESV): 8 And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9 And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Genesis 2:15–17 (ESV): 15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

We learn a bit more about this tree of the knowledge of good and evil when the serpent confronts Eve.

Genesis 3:1–3 (ESV): 3 Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made.

He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” 2 And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, 3 but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’ ”

Don’t touch and don’t eat, lest you die. Do these prohibitions raise questions in your minds? Why these restrictions? Why place such a dangerous and tempting tree in the Garden in the first place? Why not “human proof” the Garden as parents child-proof a house? Why the need for rules?

I don’t know: not really, not with certainty. I told you this was hard. But I do have some ideas about how rules — including those established by God — function.

First, rules define the limits of human flourishing and make human flourishing possible. God filled the Garden with everything Adam and Eve needed to flourish: companionship, good and fulfilling work to do, a congenial environment, abundant food. You may eat of all the trees in the garden…except this one. Within this boundary you will flourish; beyond it you will die. This is less a restriction than an assurance of safety. Here you will flourish; here you are safe. But not there; don’t go there. We are free — and feel free — to roam and explore and experiment and risk only in a context of safety. And for that, we need to know where the boundaries are. Rules define the limits of human flourishing and make human flourishing possible.

Second, rules reinforce the distinction between Creator and creature. If you want to see a dysfunctional home, look for one in which the children are treated as equals by their parents, where the children are given as much autonomy as the adults, where the tables are turned and the children — for all intents and purposes — make the rules. I encountered that again and again when teaching, and it was always disastrous. Children are not adults. And creatures are not the Creator. It is necessary to be reminded of that, to humble ourselves before our Creator, to acquiesce to his wisdom. Rules remind us of that. Rules reinforce the distinction between Creator and creature.

Third, rules give us a way to demonstrate to God our love and faithfulness. Unlike the pagan gods and idols, our God needs nothing from us. And, since he created all things, we have nothing of our own to offer him anyway, except for our love and faithfulness which we show, in part, through our willing obedience. How could Adam and Eve demonstrate their love for God, their faithfulness to him? By tending the Garden. By having children who would fill the earth and extend the garden. By enjoying the abundance God had provided, and by staying away from that one tree in the midst of the Garden. In short, Adam and Eve could demonstrate their love for God, their faithfulness to him, by their willing obedience to their vocation and to the limit God had placed on them. Rules give us a way to demonstrate to God our love and faithfulness.

Fourth, rules keep us from presuming upon a relationship with God; they keep us from transgressing the holy. Here’s an idea: just try to walk up and fist bump the President of the United States; he is, after all, your elected representative. I’ve been close to a president. I’ve looked into the eyes — or the sunglasses — of Secret Service agents and I’ve felt the cold chill emanating from them. And I had no doubt that had I taken one step too near the President, I would have found myself handcuffed and on the ground — once I had regained consciousness. I knew better than to presume upon that electoral relationship. How much more with God who is the Holy One, the one before whom angels veil their eyes, the one in whose presence the seraphim — the burning ones — burst into flame. Yes, God loves us. Yes, God welcomes us into his presence. But we do not presume to come trusting in our own righteousness; we do not come presumptuously. We come into the presence of the Holy One with holy humility. Rules keep us from presuming upon a relationship with God; they keep us from transgressing the holy.

So, we have to dispense with any idea that rules are somehow arbitrary restrictions meant somehow to diminish us. No: rules are intended to promote our flourishing, to remind us of our nature as creatures who are dependent upon our Creator, to give us a way to show our love and faithfulness to God, and to keep us from transgressing the holiness of God. Of course, these reasons aren’t exhaustive, but they will do for our purposes today.

Still, we are not quite ready for Uzzah. We must first speak of the ark of the covenant.

Details for the construction and transportation of the ark are given in Exodus 25:

Exodus 25:10–15 (ESV): 10 “They shall make an ark of acacia wood. Two cubits and a half shall be its length, a cubit and a half its breadth, and a cubit and a half its height. 11 You shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and outside shall you overlay it, and you shall make on it a molding of gold around it. 12 You shall cast four rings of gold for it and put them on its four feet, two rings on the one side of it, and two rings on the other side of it. 13 You shall make poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. 14 And you shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark to carry the ark by them. 15 The poles shall remain in the rings of the ark; they shall not be taken from it.

Notice how the ark is to be carried: on poles, lest anyone touch it. We get more detail in Numbers 4:

Numbers 4:1–6 (ESV): 4 The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, 2 “Take a census of the sons of Kohath from among the sons of Levi, by their clans and their fathers’ houses, 3 from thirty years old up to fifty years old, all who can come on duty, to do the work in the tent of meeting. 4 This is the service of the sons of Kohath in the tent of meeting: the most holy things. 5 When the camp is to set out, Aaron and his sons shall go in and take down the veil of the screen and cover the ark of the testimony with it. 6 Then they shall put on it a covering of goatskin and spread on top of that a cloth all of blue, and shall put in its poles.

This passage goes on to describe the covering of all the holy place furnishing in preparation for transport. Then we read:

Numbers 4:15 (ESV): 15 And when Aaron and his sons have finished covering the sanctuary and all the furnishings of the sanctuary, as the camp sets out, after that the sons of Kohath shall come to carry these, but they must not touch the holy things, lest they die. These are the things of the tent of meeting that the sons of Kohath are to carry.

Numbers 4:17–20 (ESV): 17 The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, 18 “Let not the tribe of the clans of the Kohathites be destroyed from among the Levites, 19 but deal thus with them, that they may live and not die when they come near to the most holy things: Aaron and his sons shall go in and appoint them each to his task and to his burden, 20 but they shall not go in to look on the holy things even for a moment, lest they die.”

Think of these Kohathite Levites not as sacrificing priests of the altar — they did not descend from Aaron — but rather as Israel’s altar guild, the only ones appointed to attend to the holy things of the sanctuary. Particularly, they were the only ones allowed to carry the ark — carry, but not touch. Kohathites assigned by the high priest were to carry the ark covered, on poles resting on their shoulders. Again, the rules for this were not arbitrary. They were intended to promote Israel’s flourishing, to remind Israel of their election by God and of the dependence upon him, to give Israel a way to show their love and faithfulness to God, and to keep Israel from transgressing the holiness of God.

Now, we are ready to speak of Uzzah. Some twenty years before the events of 2 Samuel 6, the ark had been captured by the Philistines. You can read the story in 1 Samuel 4 – 6. When the ark was returned to Israel, it was not taken to the tabernacle at Shiloh, but was housed with Abinadab in the region of Kiriath-Jearim. There it remained for some twenty years. During that time, David became king of all Israel and captured Jerusalem as his capital city. It is natural that he would want to consolidate both political power and ritual worship in the capital, and the latter required bringing the ark to rest in Jerusalem. That is the context for 2 Samuel 6.

2 Samuel 6:1–7 (ESV): David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 2 And David arose and went with all the people who were with him from Baale-judah to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord of hosts who sits enthroned on the cherubim. 3 And they carried the ark of God on a new cart and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. And Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart, 4 with the ark of God, and Ahio went before the ark.

5 And David and all the house of Israel were celebrating before the Lord, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals. 6 And when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. 7 And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah, and God struck him down there because of his error, and he died there beside the ark of God.

So, what is wrong with this picture? Well, let’s ask some questions.

1. Had God commanded that the ark be moved to Jerusalem? Or was that at David’s instigation?

2. Where was the high priest to cover the ark, prepare it for transport, and select those who would carry it?

3. Where were the Kohathites whose responsibility it was to transport the ark?

4. Why was the ark on a cart instead of being carried on poles as God had commanded?

Let’s get this straight. Uzzah was no innocent victim. He was complicit in disobeying God’s explicit rules on when, by whom, and how the ark was to be transported. As was David. As were all the cohort who participated in this fiasco. Whether this was all through ignorance or knowing disregard is impossible to say; but it resulted in Uzzah’s death. And, through Uzzah’s death, God said this, at least:

This is not the way for Israel to flourish.

This is not the way for creatures to acknowledge their Creator.

This is not the way to demonstrate love and faithfulness to God.

This is not the way to deal with holy things and with the Holy One of Israel.

Was this a costly lesson? Yes. But was it a necessary lesson if Israel were to flourish in covenant with the Holy God? Yes.

I wanted to talk about Uzzah today, in part, because our culture looks increasingly like this fiasco in 2 Samuel 6. We do not like God’s rules, so we are writing our own: on gender; marriage; sanctity of life; treatment of the least and most vulnerable among us; exploitation — sexualization and commercialization — of children; worship; and the like. We treat God’s rules as arbitrary, unduly restrictive. And yet, those very rules are there for our flourishing, for allowing us to relate as creatures to our Creator, for demonstrating love and faithfulness to our God, for approaching holy things and the Holy One with humility. To obey these rules is to prosper. To disregard them is to court disaster.

The first stanza of the psalm appointed for today, Psalm 119:1-8, is a nearly perfect summary of all this, and I close with it:


Beati immaculati

1 Blessed are those who are undefiled in their ways,*

and walk in the law of the Lord.

2 Blessed are those who keep his testimonies*

and seek him with their whole heart,

3 Even those who do no wickedness*

and perfectly walk in his ways.

4 You have ordered your precepts*

that we should diligently keep them.

5 O that my ways were made so direct*

that I might keep your statutes!

6 Then would I not be put to shame*

while I give heed unto all your commandments.

7 I will thank you with an upright heart,*

when I have learned your righteous judgments.

8 I will keep your statutes;*

O do not forsake me utterly.


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Materialist, Deist, or Christian

We have a choice to make, each of us. It’s not a one-and-done choice; we make it every day — sometimes hour by hour, sometime minute by minute. The choice is this: will we live as materialists, deists, or Christians? The question is not so much about who we are — our identity — but rather about how we live — our existence.

For the materialists, all that exists is the material/physical world. Reality is natural, but not supernatural, immanent, but not transcendent. Carl Sagan, astrophysicist and popularizer of science, spoke for materialists in the opening lines of his book Cosmos:

The Cosmos (by which he meant the material universe) is all that is or was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us…. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.

Sagan spoke macroscopically, on the largest, cosmological scale. Nobel laureate physicist Richard Feynman spoke for materialists microscopically, on the smallest, quantum scale:

If we were to name the most powerful assumption of all, which leads one on and on in an attempt to understand life, it is that all things are made of atoms, and that everything that living things do can be understood in terms of the jigglings and wigglings of atoms (The Feynman Lectures on Physics).

We are in all our hopes and dreams and loves, in all our struggles and victories and sacrifices, in all our greatest art and literature and music, just jiggling and wiggling atoms, because that is all that is or was or ever will be in the cosmos. It seems redundant to say so, but strict materialists live as if no transcendent realm exists; what you see is what there is.

Deists reject strict materialism; they acknowledge a god and a supernatural realm. But, they separate — absolutely — the material and spiritual realms. In his book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins describes deism:

A deist…believes in a supernatural intelligence, but one whose activities were confined to setting up the laws that govern the universe in the first place. The deist God never intervenes thereafter, and certainly has no specific interest in human affairs…does not answer prayers, is not interested in sins or confessions, does not read our thoughts and does not intervene with capricious miracles.

The Founding Fathers of the United States were heavily influenced by deism, and it is that philosophy we find enshrined in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

While a Creator endowed men with certain rights, it is our responsibility to secure those rights. We do that through the institution of Governments whose power is granted and justified by those who are governed. How do we know this? It is self-evident, not revealed. The Creator started the process and then absented himself from it, turning it over to us. This is not just separation of Church and State; it is absolute separation of spiritual and material. Fr. Stephen Freeman, an Orthodox priest from Oak Ridge, describes this as the two-storey universe in his book Everywhere Present. We live here on the ground floor of the universe in the physical world. There is a spiritual world — we think — on the second floor, but there are no stairs connecting the two. What God does upstairs is his business; he leaves us alone to tend to our business on the ground floor. In point of fact, there is little behavioral difference between materialists and deists. In both cases, we are on our own to make our way in the world.

But, Christians live in a different cosmos: not strictly material, and not two-storey with material and spiritual strictly segregated. We live in a cosmos in which the material and spiritual overlap or interpenetrate, where there is continual congress between the realms, where we ourselves are both physical and spiritual beings, where this Collect for the Feast of Holy Michael and All Angels makes sense:

Everlasting God, you have ordained and constituted in a wonderful order the ministries of angels and mortals: Mercifully grant that, as your holy angels always serve and worship you in heaven, so by your appointment they may help and defend us here on earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

So, how do you live — as a materialist, a deist, or a Christian? Here’s a quick test — just a rule of thumb. You fall seriously ill. What do you do?

If you are living fully into the Christian faith, your first and most powerful recourse is to pray, to ask others to pray with and for you, and to seek the healing ministry of the Church with oil and the laying on of hands.

If you are living between worlds — between Christianity and deism — your first recourse is to seek medical attention. You pray also, but secondarily; your primary hope is in the physician.

If you are a true deist or materialist, you do not pray at all. Any help there may be lies solely with medical science and practice.

Well, that is overly simplified — a quick test, remember. But it is helpful, I think, and cautionary. It is all too easy for Christians to be lulled into the diminished world view of contemporary culture, a view that either denies the reality of the spiritual realm or walls it off so that it has no actual effect on our living: acceptable in church, perhaps, but not in our homes, schools, businesses, entertainment, politics, shopping — you know, in all the real, material moment-by-moment affairs of life. The Biblical world view offers a far richer — and truer — cosmological understanding, with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven participating with us in our journey.

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Feast of St. Mary Magdalene (22 July)

Feast of St. Mary Magdalene (22 July)

(Judges 4:4-10 / Ps 42:1-7 / 2 Cor 5:14–20a / John 20:11-18)

Collect of Saint Mary Magdalene

Almighty God, whose blessed Son restored Mary Magdalene to health of body and of mind, and called her to be a witness of his resurrection: Mercifully grant that, by your grace, we may be healed from all our infirmities and know you in the power of his unending life; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Preface for All Saints’

For in the multitude of your saints, you have surrounded us with so great a cloud of witnesses that we, rejoicing in their fellowship, may run with patience the race that is set before us, and, together with them, may receive the unfolding crown of glory.

Imagine trying to tell the story of Israel with no mention of women: no strong and influential Matriarchs like Sarah and Rebekah, Rachel and Leah; no Miriam to lead Israel out of Egypt alongside Moses and Aaron; no Rahab to shelter and protect the spies at Jericho; no Deborah to judge and deliver Israel from Jabin and no Jael to drive a tent peg through Sisera’s skull; no Naomi and no Ruth to demonstrate familial faithfulness; no Hannah to pray for a son and then to devote that son to God; no Bathsheba to advocate for her son Solomon’s reign; no widow of Zarephath to tend Elijah and no Shunammite woman to show Elisha hospitality; no Esther to risk her own life to protect her people from genocide.

Imagine trying to tell the Gospel with no mention of women: no Elizabeth to birth the forerunner of our Lord and to prophetically greet our Lord’s mother; no Virgin Mary to offer up in her body our human nature for the incarnation of the Logos; no Martha of Bethany to cook for and serve Jesus and his disciples, to offer hospitality and a place for our Lord to lay his head; no Mary of Bethany to choose the better part and sit at our Lord’s feet; no woman with an issue of blood; no woman taken in adultery; no sinful women to anoint Jesus’ head and feet; no widow at Nain to witness resurrection — to receive her only son back from the dead; no woman at the well to introduce Jesus to the Samaritans; no Syro-Phoenician woman and no daughter.

Imagine trying to tell the story of the Church with no mention of women: no Sapphira to serve as cautionary tale along with her lying husband Ananias; no Hellenist widows to complain about an unfair distribution of food in the Jerusalem Church, complaint which led to the formation of the diaconate and to the first Christian martyrdom; no Lydia, the first Christian convert in Europe; no Priscilla to teach Apollos, to serve alongside Paul and to be his representative; no Lois and Eunice to raise a godly Timothy; no Phoebe to serve the Church; no Chloe to host a church and to report to Paul the problems in Corinth.

I’m neither proposing a uniquely feminist reading of Scripture nor promoting a feminist theology by pointing this out. I am merely noting that the story of humanity — God’s story of humanity — and the story of redemption are not exclusively patriarchal; they are the stories of men and women together.

From the very beginning it was so, male and female together:

Genesis 1:26–28 (ESV): 26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

27  So God created man in his own image,

in the image of God he created him;

male and female he created them.

28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

In the fall it was so, male and female together:

Genesis 3:6–7 (ESV): 6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. 7 Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.

In the calling of Israel — the beginning of redemption — it was so, male and female together:

Genesis 12:1–5 (ESV): 12 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

4 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. 5 And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan.

And so it goes throughout redemption history, throughout the Gospel, male and female together. So, it is not surprising that the entourage that surrounded Jesus, that traveled with him, that looked to him as rabbi and perhaps more, included women:

Luke 8:1–3 (ESV): 8 Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, 2 and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3 and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.

It is here that we encounter one of the most prominent women in the Gospels: Mary Magdalene. Mary, through no fault of her own, is a polarizing figure, alternately idolized by feminists and Gnostics and misunderstood and marginalized by traditionalists. The Gnostics — ancient and modern — portray Mary as the disciple whom Jesus loved, some going so far as to suggest — insist? — that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were actually married and had a child and that the Church has tried to suppress this history in some grand conspiracy. That notion lies at the heart of one of Dan Brown’s bestsellers, The DaVinci Code; it’s a popular myth and one that seems impossible to finally put to rest. After all, who doesn’t like a good conspiracy theory?

But, the traditionalists haven’t dealt much better with Mary, either. Following an exegetical error by Pope Gregory I in 591, many traditionalists identify Mary as the sinful woman in Luke 7 who washes Jesus’ feet with her tears, dries them with her hair, and anoints them with costly ointment. They typically portray her as a prostitute. That, too, has entered popular culture; it showed up in the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar when Mary Magdalene sang I Don’t Know How To Love Him, as she had so many men before. This, too, is a popular myth and one that is likely to linger. But there simply is no reason to believe, no scriptural evidence, that this sinful woman was Mary Magdalene.

So, what do we know with confidence about Mary? Her name indicates that she had a connection to the town of Magdala: Mary Magdalene, Mary of Magdala, though we don’t know precisely what that connection was — birthplace or adult residence? — or even exactly where the town was. We know that Mary had been demonized by seven demons and had been exorcised by Jesus. While we tend to associate demonic oppression or possession with personal evil — only evil people are demonized we think — that wasn’t necessarily the popular understanding in Jesus’ time; people — “innocent” people — were possessed through no fault of their own. Demons were seen as malign spirits who abused and tormented people. So, again, there is no reason to take Mary’s possession as evidence of a sinful life; it was simply a spiritual malady from which Jesus delivered her. Apparently, at least episodically, Mary, along with some other women of means whom Jesus had healed, accompanied Jesus and the Twelve and funded his ministry out of their means.

If this were all we knew about Mary Magdalene, she would have passed into history as a mere footnote to the Gospel. It is at the “end” of the story — at Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection — that Mary comes to the fore.

The Twelve do not shine in the crucifixion account; all deserted Jesus and hid except for John. It is the women who show exceptional faithfulness in this moment:

John 19:25 (ESV): 25 but standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.

And, after Jesus’ death, two of these women accompanied Joseph of Arimathea for the hasty burial of the body:

Mark 15:46–47 (ESV): 46 And Joseph bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud and laid him in a tomb that had been cut out of the rock. And he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. 47 Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was laid.

The details of what happened next are a bit muddled, though the general outline is clear. After the Sabbath had ended, the women returned to the tomb to conduct a proper burial. This is where Mary Magdalene comes to the fore.

She arrives before dawn only to discover that the stone is rolled away from the tomb and Jesus’ body is missing. She runs to tell this to Peter and John, apparently returns to the tomb with them, and remains there once they had left. And then it happens:

John 20:11–18 (ESV): 11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. 12 And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her.

Mary Magdalene is the first witness of the resurrection. Was that a reward for past faithfulness and love, or was it just a matter of being in the right place at the right time? I’m not sure the two reasons are entirely different; it was her faithfulness and love that put her in the right place at the right time. No matter that everyone else went his own way, Mary stayed close to Jesus, even in death. And she saw death conquered.

Mary has a unique — and well-deserved title — that comes from this account. The risen Lord tells her to go to his brothers — to the Twelve — and to announce his victory and his coming ascension to the Father. Jesus calls Mary to be the Apostle to the Apostles — that is her title in the Church — to be the very first person to bear the Gospel message.

After this, Mary slips into the shadows of history. Stories and theories abound, but I don’t want to give these any credence, not least because they detract and distract from the truth we are given.

So, what are we to make of Saint Mary Magdalene? As I said earlier, this is no feminist manifesto, but it is a challenge to the exclusively patriarchal telling of the Gospel we too often encounter, and it is a challenge to the Church. The truth is — a truth this story reminds us of — the truth is exactly what St. Paul wrote:

Galatians 3:27–29 (ESV): 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.

The Gospel cannot be told without male and female because the Gospel is for both male and female without distinction.

Here’s the simple but profound truth about Mary Magdalene. She was lost and hopeless and helpless before her encounter with Christ. He saved her. In gratitude she became devoted to him, followed him as his disciple, and gave of her resources to his ministry. She stood at the cross. She witnessed the resurrected Lord. And she bore the Gospel message: Alleluia! Christ is risen!

In that brief summary of her life, she is revealed as a paradigm, as an icon for all of us. We were lost — hopeless and helpless — before our encounter with Christ. He saved us. Like Mary, in our gratitude we should devote ourselves to him, follow him as his disciples, give our resources — our lives — to him. We must take our place at the cross and even bear the cross of Christ ourselves if we are to witness the resurrection of the Lord. And then, we are to take the good news to the world: Alleluia! Christ is risen! Amen.

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Ephesians: Lesson 1 Notes

Apostles Anglican Church

Fr. John A. Roop



The Lord be with you.

And with your spirit.

Let us pray.

Blessed Lord, who caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and the comfort of your Holy Word we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Sunday School vs Christian Formation

My generation called what we are doing here today Sunday School; we called it that here at Apostles, as well, while Dcn. David Sincerbox and I taught these classes together for several years. And then the name was changed to “Christian Formation.” It sounds a little pretentious, don’t you think? The name has changed but the thing has stayed the same. Not really: the name change implies a shift in how we think about what we’re doing, in what the purpose in our study is. Let me describe this as Fr. Guido Sarducci might. For those of you who don’t remember, Fr. Guido was a recurring character on SNL, a very off-beat priest persona created by comedian Don Novello. In one skit, Fr. Guido proposed a Five Minute University. It goes like this:

This isn’t really too far off. Much of my education — high school and college — was like that (not that it was the teachers’ fault): facts learned, facts repeated on a test, facts forgotten. I took two years of high school French — I was the president of the French Club — and I can’t even remember for sure how to ask you how you are or tell you I am fine.

But some classes were different; they formed me. They — and their teachers — had a lasting effect that helped determine the trajectory of my life. Sometimes it was the content that was most important, and sometimes it was the character and demeanor of the teacher. In the best of classes, it was both.

Formation is the true purpose of education: for us, it is specifically Christian formation that we are after. We don’t want a Guido Sarducci-like Five Minute Sunday School; no, as St. Benedict said in the Prologue to his Rule, we want a school for the Lord’s service, and that means formation — real and substantive change.

Here’s another way to think of this: the purpose of Christian formation is to enable us to anticipate the Kingdom of God. N. T. Wright describes this well in his book on Christian virtue, After You Believe. These two examples — with revision — come from him.

1. Suppose a local meteorologist — or an app on your phone — predicts rain in the next thirty minutes, even though the sky is relatively clear right now. If you trust the forecast, when you leave your house you might wear a raincoat or take an umbrella. It’s not raining yet, but you anticipate it will and you act in the present as if it is already raining.

2. Or, suppose you are planning a trip to Paris. You and your traveling companion begin to brush up on your high school French, and, in fact, you decide to speak only French to each other as you prepare for the trip. You are not yet in Paris, where French will be needed, but you anticipate being there and act as if you already are.

Anticipation is living in the present as if the future is here now — living in the present as you will live in the future.

Christian Formation is the discipline of anticipating the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven: of learning to think and pray and act in the present as if God’s future has already dawned. It is not just learning facts about the Kingdom; it is practice in living into the reality of the Kingdom here and now, even though the Kingdom is not yet fully present. Christian Formation is practice and training for living in anticipation. That’s what we want to do.

One central aspect of Christian Formation — there are many others — is immersion in God’s Word, what we are doing here as we come to “study” St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, to be formed by Scripture. It is that to which we now turn.


Travel agencies put together all sorts of tours of various places: England, Israel, the Caribbean, for example. Suppose a philosophically minded travel agency has put together a tour of human nature: a selection of locales that best illustrate who we are as a species. There are actually two tours; take your choice.

Tour 1

Slums of Mumbai and Kolkata

Auschwitz and Birkenau

Rwanda Genocide Museum

9/11 Memorial

Slave Market

Migrant Camp

Tour 2

Major City: NYC, London, Paris

Chartres Cathedral and the Louvre

Pyramids of Giza

Symphony and Ballet

Oxford University

Gardens of Versailles and Central Park

Question: Which tour gives a more accurate representation of human nature? (Discuss)

I might argue — depending on the day and my mood — that Tour 2 is actually more representative of human nature since humanity starts and ends on a positive/glorious note: original innocence in the Garden before original sin, and renewed innocence in the new heavens and new earth after original sin. It is only the middle, where we now live, that has gone wrong.


Versailles, Central Park


Slums, Slave Market, Auschwitz

New Jerusalem

Chartres, London, Paris

Starting in the middle, with the Fall, is not untrue, and it makes some sense given that is where/when we live. But it is, perhaps, unbalanced.

Now, suppose a Sunday School teacher — a Christian Formation teacher — is putting together a tour of Christian doctrine. Again, there are two packages available.

Tour 1

Romans; 1, 2 Corinthians; Galatians

Tour 2

Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians

Question: Which tour leads to a more accurate representation of Christian doctrine? (Discuss)

The Reformers took Tour 1 and developed a doctrine heavy on the Fall, original sin, and total depravity: not wrong, but sometimes lacking balance. What if they had taken Tour 2 instead, which focuses more on the glories of renewed human nature? I wonder how the historic presentation of Christian doctrine might have been different.

Both tours are needed; but, for those of us who have for years walked the “Roman Road,” Tour 2 — The Ephesians Way — is useful in providing doctrinal balance. While we still live in the ruins of the Fall — the slums of Mumbai or Kolkata — we still remember the Garden from which we came — Versailles — and we are walking toward and building for New Jerusalem. We need the vision of Ephesians to guide us and sustain us in this between time.


Greeting (Eph 1:1-2)

Ephesians 1:1–2 (ESV): Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,

To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus:

2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Many Bibles — including the English Standard Version (ESV) that I am using for this class —have section headings. In the ESV, these two verses are identified as “Greeting.” And that is true to the format of a typical first century letter; that is how, on the surface, these two verses function. But, there is far more here than stylistic conformity; there is the story of a people, of one particular person, and of the mystery of God, in just a few words.

First, we start with the author, with Paul.

Question: What do we know about St. Paul? (Discuss)

Paul (formerly known as Saul) gives us a brief bio and curriculum vitae in Acts 22:1-16.

There is a key term Paul uses in verse 3 that provides us insight into his self-understanding and purpose: ζηλωτης, zealous. This is not just a description of “being all in” for a cause; it is a code word for a particular way of life, and one that Paul’s Jewish readers would have understood. It takes us back to the Hebrew Scriptures, to the aftermath of Balaam’s unsuccessful attempt to curse Israel on the borders of Moab (Num 25).

Numbers 25:1–13 (NRSVCE): 25 While Israel was staying at Shittim, the people began to have sexual relations with the women of Moab. 2 These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. 3 Thus Israel yoked itself to the Baal of Peor, and the Lord’s anger was kindled against Israel. 4 The Lord said to Moses, “Take all the chiefs of the people, and impale them in the sun before the Lord, in order that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel.” 5 And Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Each of you shall kill any of your people who have yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor.”

6 Just then one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman into his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the Israelites, while they were weeping at the entrance of the tent of meeting. 7 When Phinehas son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he got up and left the congregation. Taking a spear in his hand, 8 he went after the Israelite man into the tent, and pierced the two of them, the Israelite and the woman, through the belly. So the plague was stopped among the people of Israel. 9 Nevertheless those that died by the plague were twenty-four thousand.

10 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 11 “Phinehas son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the Israelites by manifesting such zeal among them on my behalf that in my jealousy I did not consume the Israelites. 12 Therefore say, ‘I hereby grant him my covenant of peace. 13 It shall be for him and for his descendants after him a covenant of perpetual priesthood, because he was zealous for his God, and made atonement for the Israelites.’ ”

Did you catch the important word that links Paul and Phinehas? Phinehas was zealous for the Lord. By his zeal — a zeal exemplified in an act of religious execution — he turned back God’s wrath from the people — a wrath engendered not just by sexual immorality, but primarily by worship of false gods — and he was given a covenant of peace by and with God. This was Paul’s definition of zeal; this is how he viewed himself as zealous in relation to the Jesus cult. This new sect within Judaism was, to Saul, equivalent to Baal worship, and it threatened to kindle God’s anger against Israel. In persecuting Christians, Paul saw himself as a first century Phinehas averting national disaster by eliminating idolatrous sinners. That was Saul’s understanding of Israel’s story and of his place in it prior to his vision of Jesus. This is crucial for understanding Saul and later Paul. The vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus forced Saul to reinterpret the story of Israel and to place Jesus right in the center of it. It is an astounding reevaluation of all Saul has ever known, of his own life. It is hard to explain, unless the vision really happened. Afterwards, Paul was just as zealous as Saul had been — without the violence, of course — but zealous for the Gospel of Christ, and all by the will of God.

Paul’s experience on the Damascus Road gives a narrative definition of conversion. Conversion doesn’t always include a bright light, a voice from heaven, a vision of Jesus, and a blinding of physical sight. In all of that, Paul’s experience was unique. But, conversion does include a reorientation of life like Paul’s. We could describe conversion as a re-centering of one’s life around Jesus or a re-telling of one’s story with Jesus with at the center. Consider our own Anglican baptismal vows which are an expression of this total reorientation of life (cf BCP 2019, pp 164-165). That is the essence of the total reorientation that Paul experienced. That is a challenge to each of us. If you were to tell your life story — if I were to tell mine — could you tell it with Jesus on the margins, or would Jesus be in the center, the axis around which everything else revolves? Would others, observing our lives, see Jesus at the center?

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No Other Gospel: A Reflection on Galatians 1

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

TODAY, THE DAILY OFFICE lectionary directs us to Galatians 1. It is a short letter: we’ll complete it in only six mornings. It is short but it is also central to understanding Paul’s theology. Today, I would like to give you just a brief introduction to the major theme of the letter: why it was important to Paul and why it should still be important to the church today.

Let’s begin not with Paul but with Jesus; that’s always a good place to start.

Mark 2:1–12 (ESV): 2 And when [Jesus] returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. 2 And many were gathered together, so that there was no more room, not even at the door. And he was preaching the word to them. 3 And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. 4 And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay. 5 And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” 6 Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, 7 “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 8 And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question these things in your hearts? 9 Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’? 10 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— 11 “I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” 12 And he rose and immediately picked up his bed and went out before them all, so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!”

Jesus here makes what the scribes consider to be an unverifiable — and blasphemous — claim: to forgive sins. What visible, tangible proof can he offer to substantiate his claim to such authority? He heals the paralytic before their eyes. Is this firm proof of his authority to forgive sins? Not really, but the implication hangs in the air: if he can do something physical, something extraordinary — healing the paralytic — then perhaps he can do something spiritual, something extraordinary — forgiving the man’s sins. Jesus uses something seen, something physical, as evidence for something unseen, something spiritual.

This relationship between seen and unseen, between physical and spiritual shouldn’t catch us off guard; it’s the foundation of the Sacraments. Our catechism asks the question, What is a sacrament?, and answers:

A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. God gives us the sign as a means by which we receive that grace and as a tangible assurance that we do in fact receive it (To Be A Christian, Q121, pp. 55-56).

But how do I know I’ve been born again? Because you’ve been baptized. How do I know that Christ’s death and resurrection apply to me? Because you’ve fed on his body and blood in the Eucharist. How do I know that I’ve been forgiven? Because the priest has pronounced the words of absolution upon hearing your confession. In all these Sacraments, something seen, something physical is used as evidence for something unseen, something spiritual.

Now, let’s bring Paul into this discussion. Paul comes — wherever he comes — proclaiming good news, the ευαγγελιον — the Gospel — he calls it. And what is the Gospel? That the human story which went wrong in the Garden has been at last put to rights on Calvary, that the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth — the Son of God — has undone the sin of Adam, broken the chains of death and hell, and reconciled man to God. Paul insists that Jesus is the climax of the long and winding story of Israel, the people that God chose to be his instruments of salvation for the whole world. This is crucial. God made very specific promises to the Patriarchs — to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — to bless Israel. But, God also made promises to bless the whole world through Israel, so that ultimately the Gospel of Jesus Christ, given first to Israel, would be for all peoples. Further — and this is absolutely central to a right understanding of Paul — the Gospel must be for all people on equal terms; as it applies to Jews as Jews, so too must it apply to Gentiles as Gentiles. And if there is one and the same Gospel for both groups, that can only mean one thing for Paul: the Law upon which the Jews have always based their righteousness, can no longer be that basis. He says it this way:

Galatians 3:10–14 (ESV): 10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” 11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” 12 But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” 13 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”— 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

This is Paul’s conviction: it is not by law, but by faith that we are justified before God the Father through Jesus Christ — all of us, Jews and Gentiles alike.

That is a radical claim. It is not the way that Jews had envisioned the climax of their story. So, what is the evidence that Paul’s Gospel is true — that this telling of the story is true? That question brings us back to Jesus and the paralytic, back to the Church and the Sacraments, back to the notion of a visible, physical sign of an invisible, spiritual reality. How can we know that Paul’s presentation of the Gospel is true? By the incorporation of Jews and Gentiles into a single worshipping body. By circumcised Jews and uncircumcised Gentiles sitting down together around a table for a meal. By Jews who keep fasts and feasts and holy days and Gentiles who do not do such things gathering together on the Lord’s Day for Scripture and prayer and the breaking of bread. This is the visible sign of the spiritual effects of the Gospel. Paul writes about this essential unity in Ephesians:

Ephesians 2:11–16 (ESV): 11 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— 12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.

Once there were two groups — the Jews (the circumcised) and the Gentiles (the uncircumcised). These groups were separated by the Law that served not only as a badge of identity for the Jews but as a wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles. But — good news, Gospel — Jesus has broken down that wall by his death and resurrection and has brought the two groups together into a single body and reconciled them both together — in the same way, faith — to God.

For Paul, any division in the church along ethnic lines, any division based on the Law, any hint that the Gentiles are second class Christians or must convert to Judaism to become Christians is to strike at very heart of the visible symbol of the spiritual truth of the Gospel. Division is a denial of the Gospel. That is why a matter that seems so trivial to us — circumcision — is so essential to Paul. Any Gospel that requires a Gentile to be circumcised is a false Gospel. And that is exactly what’s happening in these churches in Galatia. In Paul’s absence, some rival group has infiltrated the churches and is insisting that Gentiles must obey the Law — symbolized by circumcision — to be truly Christian. And the churches have been led astray.

You can hear the exasperation in Paul’s voice when he writes:

Galatians 1:6–9 (ESV): 6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.

See how seriously Paul takes this matter. If you preach another Gospel — if you insist upon circumcision, upon faith and keeping the law — then you are anathema: accursed, an evil thing appointed for destruction, just as Jericho was appointed for destruction during the conquest. There really is no harsher judgement than this.

Paul spends the rest of his letter expounding this basic theme: there is only one Gospel, for all people, through faith in the one Lord Jesus Christ.

So, how does this ancient argument over circumcision relate to the church today? First, it’s important to see that circumcision was not really the issue; it was merely the presenting problem that revealed the fundament, underlying issues: the tip of the iceberg we see that warns us of the hidden danger out of sight. If I might couch the real problems in more modern language I would identify these two:

1. Jesus and

2. Divisions

First, Jesus and. For the Jews to claim that circumcision was required in addition to faith was to imply the insufficiency of the Gospel. It’s to say that Jesus alone is inadequate. Jesus and … is required, in their case, Jesus and circumcision — Jesus and the Law. And Paul would have none of that. The Gospel is about what God has accomplished on our behalf in and through Jesus Christ. No other sacrifice is required — or possible. No human work is required — or possible. Jesus and Jesus alone is both necessary and sufficient.

Our issues are not the same today as were the issues in the first century; we don’t debate circumcision and the Law. But we are no less tempted to say Jesus and than were the Galatian Christians. It’s just that our ands are different than theirs. Jesus and the right political party. Jesus and the right social justice movement. Jesus and the right position on immigration, gun control, the environment, fiscal policy and so on ad nauseum. Now, we don’t usually make these ands matters of salvation, though my wife was once told by a colleague that you could not be a Christian and a member of a certain political party; I’ll not mention which party. While we don’t usually make these issues matters of salvation, we do let them divide us, which was the second of Paul’s fundamental concerns.

We live in what is called — and increasingly is — a cancel culture. Don’t agree with someone? First, have nothing more to do with them and second, use every means at your disposal to discredit and destroy them — even if they are brothers or sisters in Christ. For goodness’ sake, don’t sit around the table and share a meal with them or confess your sins together or share in the Eucharist with them! I’m not talking about people who deny the faith or distort the Gospel — about people who are real dangers to the church. I’m talking about people we disagree with over secondary, non-essential matters. I’m talking about the easy path of division instead of the difficult way of reconciliation. But I’m also talking about divisions in the church along racial, economic, or political lines. As with marriage, so with the body of Christ: what God has joined, let no man put asunder.

These are two of the major themes to keep in mind when reading the rest of Galatians: the dangers of Jesus and and the threat of divisions in the church. There is one more dominant idea: the validity of Paul’s own apostolate — certainly as important now as then. But that’s another homily.

For now, I close with Pauls’ opening benediction:

Galatians 1:3–5 (ESV): 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5 to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

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Hope In Dark Days

Following is a homily for 13 June 2021 (3 Pentecost) for the residents of Manor House Assisted Living Facility.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

SAINT PAUL WROTE the words of Scripture we just heard (2 Cor 5:1-10) as he was beginning to come out of the darkest period of his life and ministry. It was likely a time of physical exhaustion, psychological depression, mental confusion, and perhaps even spiritual desolation. All the details need not concern us, but these few will paint the picture. Paul had been rejected and dismissed by a church he had founded in Corinth, one he had served for a year and a half — an enormous investment of time and energy on his part. He was experiencing serious opposition in his current work in Ephesus; economic, religious, political, and spiritual powers were aligned against him and were on the attack. It is thought by many scholars that he had just been released from a Roman prison in Ephesus, having been deserted by many of his trusted companions. Those were dark days for the Apostle, and you can hear it in his own words:

2 Corinthians 1:8–11 (ESV): 8 For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. 9 Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. 10 He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. 11 You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.

2 Corinthians 4:8–10 (ESV): 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.

Afflicted, utterly burdened beyond his strength, despairing of life itself, at least metaphorically under a death sentence, crushed, perplexed, persecuted, struck down: that is how St. Paul describes those dark days. He’s feeling a bit better — believe it or not! — as he writes this, and he’s able now to see God’s providence at work: everything that happened had forced him to rely on God who raises the dead. Paul has, in some sense, experienced his own resurrection now.

So, what got St. Paul through those dark days? Well, he mentions prayer — the prayer of others on his behalf. It’s possible sometimes to be so burdened that we can’t even pray for ourselves; then the prayers of others are essential. He also mentions hope, specifically the hope of being delivered by God in the present as he had been in the past and expects to be in the future, if necessary.

In our reading today though, Paul points toward another source of hope that had been crucial to him in surviving and coming out of the darkness. Listen again to a portion of that reading:

2 Corinthians 5:1–5 (ESV): 5 For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, 3 if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. 4 For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.

This was Paul’s ultimate hope. But what does he mean with all this talk of tents and houses, of being naked or clothed? It’s metaphorical language for a simple notion: if Paul doesn’t survive, if he’s killed here, then something better is awaiting him in heaven. His death would not be a loss for him, but a gain.

Paul speaks of his earthly body as a tent. A tent, even if it’s a fine one, is a temporary shelter, a place of sojourn, but not a permanent home. But, in heaven, there is a body waiting for him that is not another tent, but a house. This heavenly house, this heavenly body, is not made by human craftsmen, but by God himself. This heavenly house, this heavenly body, is not temporary, but permanent. Here we live in a one-man pup tent; in heaven we move into a mansion. Which is better? For Paul, the answer is obvious: a home in heaven.

Now, Paul changes metaphors from tents to clothes; he speaks of our bodies as clothes. I’ll offer a paraphrase. Have you ever had the very common dream that you are either naked or walking around in your underwear? You’re looking everywhere for clothes — real clothes — but you can’t find any. This is something like what Paul has in mind. Living in our present bodies is like walking around in our underwear. We’re not really happy about it; we groan and grumble. Dying doesn’t make matters worse; we don’t go from underwear to our birthday suit. No: we go from underwear to tuxedos or ball gowns. The difference between our earthly bodies and our heavenly bodies is the difference between boxer shorts and bespoke suits or designer gowns — better in every way.

It is this truth — this exchange of earthly tent for heavenly house, of underwear for formal wear — that gave Paul the hope he needed to hang on through the dark days and finally to come out of them. He says it this way:

2 Corinthians 5:6–9 (ESV): 6 So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.

“We would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord,” Paul says. That is a powerful and profound statement. Paul’s dark days had nothing to do with the fear of dying, but with the pressure and anxiety of living: with fear of failure, feelings of betrayal, worries over the faithfulness of the churches. Paul knows that something better awaits him. But he also knows that living and dying are both in God’s hands. The choice wasn’t his and it isn’t ours. The timing wasn’t his and it isn’t ours. Paul wasn’t suicidal; he had not given up on life. It is simply that death held no fear for him. He knew something better was waiting. And he held on to that hope to make it through the dark days.

Why do I mention all this? The choice of Scripture for today wasn’t entirely mine. It is one of three appointed for this day in the Book of Common Prayer: an Old Testament lesson, a New Testament lesson, and a Gospel lesson. But I did choose this one out of the three because I think it speaks to our recent and current conditions. With the Covid-19 pandemic, the world has been in dark days, and it has impacted every facet of our lives. I watched as our world shut down; you did, too. I watched as our churches shut down and tried desperately to find ways to do and to be church safely. I watched a world in the grips of fear trying to figure out where to place its hope. And where did the world place its hope? In isolation, in social distancing, in masks, in vaccines, in scientists, and in politicians. I don’t want to disparage any of those things: I stayed at home more than ever before myself; I maintained social distance in public if not in private; I wore a mask; I drove many miles to receive the vaccine as soon as it was available; I am thankful for God’s gift of medical research and pharmaceutical production; I’m thankful — and amazed — that the politicians mostly put partisan bickering aside long enough to mount a successful vaccination program.

But, in the midst of our global and personal fear, in the midst of struggling to find hope, what the world most needed, and what I fear it failed to hear loudly and consistently enough, was the church proclaiming the same hope that Paul proclaimed: hope in the God who delivers, hope in the future and eternal reward awaiting the faithful in heaven. Frankly, the church — and by that I mean not just the organization, not just its leaders, but many of us who claim the name of Christ — seemed just as scared as the rest of the world: afraid of getting sick, afraid of dying — as if we didn’t trust the God who has already defeated death for us, as if we thought this life is better than the life to come. Let me be clear. I’m not talking about the demonstrably false notion that if we just have faith enough God will keep us from getting sick and dying. No. I’m talking about the biblical proclamation that if we do get sick and die, something better than this life, some glorious awaits us in heaven.

I don’t want this to be heard as a critical message of judgment on anyone or anything, but rather as a hopeful message of encouragement to everyone who bears the name of Christ. We have a hope that the world doesn’t have. We have a God who rescues his people in life and in death. We have a body awaiting us in heaven that is beyond our imaginations: immortal, incorruptible — a mansion, not a tent, royal apparel and not underwear. We have a reward kept in store for us there, because we are sons and daughters of God and fellow heirs with Christ Jesus. What, then, are we afraid of? To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, and to quote songwriter Sara Groves: from what I know of Him, that must be very good.

Paul doesn’t call us to be foolish or irresponsible. It is not Christian to court danger or hasten death. But it is also not Christian to live in fear of death, as if we have no great hope. Dark days come and dark days go. But our hope remains eternal: hope in the God who raises the dead, hope of a new and perfected body awaiting us in heaven. Hope and not fear is our way. Amen.

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