No Condemnation

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

Wouldn’t some good news be welcome right about now?  A therapeutic cure for COVID-19 or a vaccine for it or the dawning of true Kingdom of God justice for every family, language, people, and nation or maybe even the dawning of the Kingdom itself on the last, great day.  Can you imagine how it would feel to have a tsunami of grace break upon us and wash this tired, old world clean?  Can you imagine how it will feel when heaven and earth are joined, when the dwelling place of God is with man, when he will be our God and we will be his people?

Revelation 21:4 (ESV): He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” 

Wouldn’t some good news be welcome right about now?  Can you imagine how it would feel?

We don’t have to imagine.  We just have to listen to Paul.  We just have to believe that what he says, as incredible as it seems, is really true — really true about us:

Romans 8:1–4 (ESV): There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. 3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 

This is the tsunami of grace that Paul proclaims to the Christians in Rome and to all Christians everywhere:  no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, freedom from the law of sin and death, life in the Spirit.  Frankly, bad as they seem, the recent troubles are as nothing, just the tip of the iceberg, just symptoms of the decay and death at the heart of the human condition:

Ephesians 2:1–3 (ESV): And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.

How ironic that those who are dead in their trespasses and sins are afraid of a plague.  How ironic that those who cry for justice and those who pervert it are both alike the sons of disobedience.  How ironic that those who champion freedom are slaves of their own passions and are by nature the children of wrath.  And that is not just some of us, but all of us.

We stand in the dock guilty as hell awaiting the righteous judgment of God, and instead we hear:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Brothers and sisters, we could not have imagined this good news; we could not have dared hope for it.

Ephesians 2:4–10 (ESV): But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 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. 

We were dead in our trespasses; now we are alive in Christ.  We were consigned to the dustheap, to the dungeons; now we are seated with Christ in the heavenly places.  We were paupers; now we are heirs of immeasurable riches of grace.  We were disfigured image-bearers; now we are the very workmanship of God, created in Christ Jesus for good works.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Just let that wash over you for a minute.  Let it wash away your fear and anxiety, your pain and suffering, your doubt and despair:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Isn’t this the good news that we really need, the good news the world really needs?  If our scientists discovered a cure for COVID-19 tomorrow, that would not eliminate disease and death.  If our society ended racism tomorrow, that would not resolve the broken relationships among men.  If tomorrow we solved the climate crisis, eliminated third-world poverty, destroyed our nuclear arsenals, beat our swords into plowshares and made peace among rival nations, that would not keep this broken old world from coming apart at the seams.  Please, God, let us strive for all these good things and may God, in his mercy, bless the works of our hands.  But, none of this would be the good news.  This is the good news:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

And like the accused in the dock who has, against all reason and expectation, been declared not guilty, we find ourselves free:  free to set our minds on the Spirit, free to put to death the passions of the flesh, free to live righteously in the Spirit, free to cry out to God, “Abba!  Father!” because

Romans 8:16–17 (ESV): The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. 

Oh, it was tempting to leave off the last part of that last verse:  “provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”  It would have made this homily flow so much better.  But it would have been untrue and unfaithful to Scripture.  And, frankly, it would diminish the good news.  Though we are no longer condemned — if we are in Christ Jesus — though we are no longer condemned, we are nonetheless resident aliens in this fallen world.  And we will suffer.  We are suffering now in all the ways I mentioned earlier:  pandemic, anxiety, injustice, racial tension, and on and on it goes.  We suffer.  But how we suffer makes all the difference in this world and in the world to come.  With whom we suffer makes all the difference in this world and in the world to come.  We suffer with him — with Christ — in order that we may also be glorified with him.  We unite our suffering with his as our offering of obedience and love, praise and thanksgiving.  We suffer as he did:  not for unrighteousness, but for the sake of righteousness; not for injustice, but for the sake of justice; not with hatred and recrimination, but with love and forgiveness.  We suffer this way not on our own — who is able to do so? — but by the power of the Holy Spirit who bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God (Rom 8:16).  Oh, and if we suffer in this way — with him — we will surely be glorified with him.  And that truly is part of the great good news:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom 7:25a).  Amen.

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Feast of the Transfiguration: Not Only With Our Lips

     Have you ever heard this old saying?

Don’t let your mouth write checks that your body can’t cash.

I’ve cleaned it up a bit — we are in church, after all — but you may be familiar with the original, more colorful version.  What does it mean?  Well, talk is cheap.  What’s important is whether you can back up what you say with what you do.  We even have something like that in the General Thanksgiving in the Book of Common Prayer:

And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies,

     that with truly thankful hearts

     we may show forth your praise,

     not only with our lips, but in our lives,

     by giving up our selves to your service,

     and by walking before you

     in holiness and righteousness all our days (BCP 2019, p. 25).

The prayer calls us not to lip service only, but to life service.  There’s a difference, and sometimes it’s a big one.

If you’ve lived any length of time at all, you’ve probably lived the reality of the old saying; you’ve written checks with your mouth that your body couldn’t cash.  You’ve spoken rashly without weighing the consequences.  You’ve said yes when you really didn’t know what you were getting yourself into.  Surely, everyone who is or has been married knows this.  You stood before God and family and friends and said “Yes” and “I do” to promises that no one in his right mind would say yes to.  That was the easy part.  Living out those vows?  Well that’s more challenging, especially when better becomes worse, richer becomes poorer, and health becomes sickness.  That’s when you find out if your body can cash the check that your mouth wrote.

Wouldn’t it be nice to know — really know — what you were getting yourself into before you spoke, or, barring that, if you had the chance to change your mind before things got too difficult?  Imagine this — and many of us will have to go back in time to do so.  You tell a friend that you and your spouse have decided to start a family.  Right there, you’ve just written a big check, an enormous check.  Stay with me.  Imagine your friend — who is a parent — now paints a very vivid picture of what the first few months of parenthood look like:  new routines that are anything but routine, sleepless nights, confusion, worry, helplessness, diapers, expense, and crying; sometimes it’s even the baby who’s crying.  Would you change your mind?  If not, why not?  Hold those questions in mind.

The lectionary does us a bit of disservice today in telling only the end of a larger story that needs to be held together.  It is really a play in three acts, and we get only Act III.  So, let’s go back to the beginning, Act I:

Luke 9:18–20 (ESV): Now it happened that as he was praying alone, the disciples were with him. And he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” 19 And they answered, “John the Baptist. But others say, Elijah, and others, that one of the prophets of old has risen.” 20 Then he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered, “The Christ of God.” 

Here, Peter has just let his mouth write a big check, an enormous check, and he has no real idea what he’s gotten himself into.  Truly confessing Jesus as Christ with your lips also requires confessing Jesus as Christ with your life.  Remember the General Thanksgiving?

     …not only with our lips, but in our lives,

     by giving up our selves to your service,

     and by walking before you

     in holiness and righteousness all our days.

And now, like the friend painting the vivid picture of the first few months of parenthood, Jesus tells Peter, and all the Twelve, just what such a confession means, what it will look like.  Act II:

Luke 9:21–27 (ESV): 21 And he strictly charged and commanded them to tell this to no one, 22 saying, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” 

23 And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. 25 For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? 26 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. 27 But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God.” 

It’s easy, perhaps, to say that Jesus is Christ — an easy check to write with our mouths.  But cashing that check — by giving up ourselves to his service and by walking before him in holiness and righteousness all our days — well, that’s not always so easy.  It always involves self-denial, a very real and continual death to self.  It always involves the cross, a very real and unique suffering for the sake of Christ.  It may involve rejection and persecution.  It may involve death, not figuratively, but actual, painful, premature death.

The Service of Holy Baptism is a gracious moment in the life of an individual, a family, a Church community, and the Kingdom.  But — and please forgive me — I sometimes wonder if it’s a bit sanguine, a bit rosy in the face of real challenges to follow.  In saying the baptismal vows, our mouths write lots of checks:

Do you renounce the devil and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?

Do you renounce the empty promises and deadly deceits of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?

Do you renounce the sinful desires of the flesh that draw you from the love of God?

Do you turn to Jesus Christ and confess him as your Lord and Savior?

Do you joyfully receive the Christian Faith, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments?

Will you obediently keep God’s holy will and commandments, and walk in them all the days of your life?

We answer “I do” or “I will” to all these.  But I doubt most of us have any real idea what we’re getting ourselves into.  Far be it from me to revise the liturgy, but these words should appear somewhere, at least in our baptismal preparation:

23 And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. 25 For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? 26 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.

We should not write checks without counting the cost.  We should not be baptized without counting the cross.

Now, back to my earlier question about having children.  Once your friend painted the vivid picture of all the difficulties of parenthood, would you change your mind?  If not, why not?  My wife and I didn’t.  We have children running around the church — thanks be to God! — and that says their parents didn’t.  But, why not?  Why run headlong into the struggles and sacrifices of parenthood?  Because they are only part of the story.  The joys of parenthood far outweigh the sacrifices required.  Parents lay down their lives for their children and it doesn’t seem like a sacrifice at all, but a privilege.  This part of the story has to be told, as well.  Yes, we write checks with our mouths.  Yes, our bodies sometimes struggle to cash them.  But, in the best moments, the good that we acquire far surpasses every sacrifice we made.  And that brings us to Act III:

Luke 9:28–36 (ESV): 28 Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white. 30 And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, 31 who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, but when they became fully awake they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. 34 As he was saying these things, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. 35 And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” 36 And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen. 

Confess Jesus as Christ.  Take up your cross.  Lay down your life.  But that is not the whole story.  On the other side of all the sacrifices lies glory:  the glory of the voice of God, the glory of the light of Christ eclipsing all lesser things, the glory of the only begotten Son of God radiant and dazzling.  And Peter, who witnessed this as far as he was able tells us:

2 Peter 1:3–4a (ESV): His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, 4 by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature.

Partakers of the divine nature:  the glory that is Christ’s by nature, he shares with us by grace, so that we, too, may be transfigured into his likeness, from glory to glory.  That’s why we can say with our lips that Jesus is Christ.  That’s how we can take up our cross and lay down our lives.  That is how, by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, we can cash the check our mouth has written.  Keep the glory of Christ always before your eyes.  Amen.

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Good News and Bad News

352C0445-A9F3-430D-8B02-ADFA6A56FE35 In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

You know the jokes that begin, “I have good news, and I have bad news.”  

A teenage boy walks into the living room and says to his dad:  “Dad, I have good news and I have bad news.  The good news is that the airbags in the Volvo work beautifully.”

The Gospel is no joke, but it does contain both bad news and good news.  There is a problem — the bad news — to which the Gospel — the good news — is the answer.  Paul presents both, the bad and the good, in Romans 1.  

The bad news concerns the sin of man — all mankind:

Romans 1:18 (ESV): For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 

Ungodliness and unrighteousness:  in this dismal chapter, Paul chronicles the spiraling downward of all mankind into the grips and depths of ungodliness and unrighteousness.  They knew God — ignorance is literally no excuse — but, knowing him, they refused to honor him or thank him or worship him.  They chose, instead, to exalt themselves, to worship mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.  In consequence, God gave them up, left them to the devices and desires of their own hearts, and things quickly went from bad to worse:  dishonorable passions, distorted sexuality, debased minds, evil, covetousness, malice, envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness, slander, arrogance, disobedience, foolishness, faithlessness, ruthlessness — a litany of the fall, to which our only response should be “Lord have mercy upon us, Christ have mercy upon us, Lord have mercy upon us.”  But that was not the human response.

Romans 1:32 (ESV): Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. 

When Paul says they, when I say they, we both really mean we, because this is a description of the fallen human condition.  This is not a description of each individual, but of the family to which each of us belongs.  We all share that fallen DNA.  And though each of us has been affected by it differently, we are — none of us — immune from it.  We all share the family resemblance.  This is the bad news.

How does God respond?

Romans 1:18 (ESV): [For] the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 

I have good news and I have bad news.  Which kind of news is the wrath of God:  good news or bad news?  I know that in many Christian circles wrath has fallen out of favor; they have opted for a kinder, gentler God, a devoted, dottery, indulgent avuncular figure who, looking at the indiscretions of his young kinfolk, says, “Well, that’s all right, I guess, just as long as they’re happy.”  Or else they make a distinction between the brutal, tribal, wrathful, no-so-very-nice God of the Old Testament and gentle Jesus, meek and mild, of the New Testament.  The wrath of God:  good news or bad news?

Paul makes the case — and, for what it’s worth, I want to make the case also — that the wrath of God is good news, that it lies very near the heart of the Gospel.  Now, before I defend my claim, let’s get this straight:  God is love (1 John 4:7 ff).  God shows wrath, but God is love.  Love is of the very essence of God; love is integral to the nature of God and to the relationship among the persons of the Trinity.  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have always existed, and always will exist, in a relationship of mutual love, a love which overflows to include us.  This cannot be said about wrath.  God is not wrath.  Wrath is not integral to the nature of God.  Now, get this; if you get nothing else, get this:

Wrath is love’s proper response to ungodliness and unrighteousness:  to sin, to all that would separate man from God, to all that would oppose God and seek to destroy God’s good creation.  Wrath is love’s answer of “no” to sin.  Wrath is God’s implacable opposition to all that opposes his good and perfect will.  Wrath is God’s love in action to redeem and restore his fallen creation. 

And that is good news.  God will not let sin reign forever.  God will not let sin have the final word.  God will not leave us to wallow in and die in our sin.  God, in his love, shows his wrath against all manner of unrighteousness and ungodliness.  Any god that refuses to oppose the corruption of his creation and his people is not worthy to be called God.  Any god who fails to show wrath — resolute commitment to judge, redeem, and restore — is not worthy to be called God.  Any god who is just too darned nice to say “No!” is no god at all.  Thanks be to the Lord our God that he loves us enough to show his wrath against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.

What does the wrath of God look like?  Not like an angry, bearded, old man in robes with a finger poised over the SMITE button as he looks at the world.  Wrath is not an uncontrolled, passionate explosion of anger.  Wrath is a resolute commitment to good, to redemption, to restoration.  What does the wrath of God look like?  It looks like the cross.  The cross is love’s response to the sin and brokenness of the world.  The cross is the image of the wrath of God, the fullest expression of his self-sacrificing commitment to put to rights all that has gone wrong in the world and in his fallen image-bearers.  The cross is precisely how the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.  And that, beloved, is great good news.  That is gospel.  That is why Paul writes:

Romans 1:16–17 (ESV): For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” 

What is our proper response to the wrath of God?  Paul is clear:  faith.  The righteous shall live by faith.

One day, when the ungodliness and unrighteousness of men are old tales, long forgotten in the New Jerusalem, God’s wrath will be no more and his love will be all and in all.  On that great day when death and its sting of sin is swallowed up in victory, wrath will be swallowed up in love.  On that great day, there will be no bad news.  Until then, the righteous shall live by faith.

Amen.

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A Homily at the Burial of Louise Connor

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

If Louise Connor had her way this morning, I am certain she would tell me not to waste time talking about her, but instead to spend the time well talking about her Lord Jesus, whom she loved with her heart and with her soul and with her mind. I hope she’ll forgive me if I do some of each. To talk about Louise is to talk about Jesus, because Louise was an iconic figure in the true theological sense of the word iconic: someone whose life and faith made the image of Christ visible to us, tangible among us, as Father Laird says, “Jesus with skin on.” You look at an icon, of course, but you also look through it and beyond it to see Jesus Christ made manifest in a particular way in the particular life of a particular saint. And Louise was a saint: not in that mushy, sentimental way that people often mean when they say about someone, “Oh, she was a real saint.” No, Louise was a saint in the biblical sense; she was a great sinner — as are we all — saved by the even greater grace of God through Christ in the unity of the Holy Spirit — not perfect, but redeemed by the perfect sacrifice of Christ. She never got over that. She never forgot that. She never let you forget that either.

How many times, I wonder, did I hear this conversation in the narthex before or after service? “How are you today, Louise?” someone would ask her. “Oh, I’m pretty good for an old lady,” was her standard response. And then, after a shared laugh, she would most often get to the deeper truth, to the real answer. “How are you today, Louise?” “I’m blessed,” she would say, and then she would tell you about the faithfulness of her Lord. I read Psalm 1 and I smile when I think about that “old lady” who knew just how blessed she was:

1 Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
2  but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
3  He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers (Psalm 1:1-3, ESV throughout).

His delight is in the law of the Lord, the psalmist says. Her delight was in the law of the Lord. Her delight was in the Lord himself we might well say about Louise, and on his faithfulness she meditated day and night.

I once asked Louise this question: If you could pass on anything you’ve learned about the Lord to the next generation, what would it be? I said I was asking on behalf of the next generation, but I was really asking for myself; I covet the wisdom of the elders. Without missing a beat she answered along these lines, “How good the Lord is, and how faithful. He’s always been with me. He’s my friend and I love him and he loves me.” Do you remember Enoch, Methuselah’s father? This is all we know about him, and all we really need to know:

Genesis 5:21–24 (ESV): When Enoch had lived 65 years, he fathered Methuselah. 22 Enoch walked with God after he fathered Methuselah 300 years and had other sons and daughters. 23 Thus all the days of Enoch were 365 years. 24 Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him.

Without doing violence to this Scripture, I think we can say:

Louise lived ninety years and walked with God; and she was not, for God took her.

Louise fell asleep in the Lord Saturday morning. But death did not take her; God took her to be with him because they had walked together many years. “How good the Lord is, and how faithful. He’s always been with me. He’s my friend and I love him and he loves me.” This is how Louise described walking with the Lord.

For the past several months Louise had been in residential care. On those Sunday afternoons when I visited her, she always greeted me with a smile. I was happy to see her and she was happy to see me. But, she was really happy to see me when I brought Communion — the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ — to share with her. We turned the bedside table in her room into an altar: white linen cloth, silver paten and chalice. I wonder how many times in her decades on the Altar Guild she had done the same thing. We turned her room itself into a sanctuary. And it was very crowded and noisy there, because it was filled with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven singing:

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
Heaven and earth are full of your glory,
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

And Louise joined in the heavenly worship. I mean Louise really joined in the heavenly worship. I am a bit of a liturgical stickler: priests should read the words of the liturgy as written and follow the rubrics as given. And so should the people. Regular print “belongs” to the priest. Bold print “belongs” to the people. It all belonged to Louise. She would often read the whole service right along with me, because it mattered to her; every word of the liturgy mattered to her, every part of the story of God’s love for her in Christ mattered to her. That delighted my heart, and I can’t help but think it delighted the heart of God. After every Eucharist she would say, “You have no idea what this means to me.” But I think I did. It was there in her eyes. It was written on her face. It was clear in the devotion with which she received the bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ.

At each of our regular Eucharist services we hear the Summary of the Law:

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.

This summary presents as a paradox to an old math guy like me. If I give all my love to the Lord — all my heart, all my soul, all my mind — then what is there left over to give to my neighbor? But love has its own calculus and is not restricted by the rules of our arithmetic. The nearer we come to loving God completely, the more filled we are with his love for others. We do not diminish love by giving it away freely. We replenish the treasuries of love. So, it is no contradiction to say that Louise loved the Lord — deeply, whole-heartedly — and her family, her friends, her church. She often told me as much. And, she wrote it down in a journal entry.

I thank you Lord for your love and care. I have walked with you all my life. Thank you for Dunkin my dear dog. Thank you for all my family and dear ones. I am so blessed by you Lord.

I will leave it to you to decide why she mentioned her dear dog Dunkin before she mentioned her family and her friends. Dunkin was probably there by her side when she wrote that, just waiting for their morning or evening walk. You couldn’t be around Louise any time at all without hearing about Dunkin and her family. Von, Pat, Louise: she loved you deeply. And, I think past tense isn’t appropriate here; she loves you deeply, as she does her grandchildren, her great-grandchildren, and her extended family. When I visited her, she proudly showed me pictures and told me stories. Louise loved her Lord. She loved her family. She loved her church. She loved her dog Dunkin. The Lord was first. The order of the others…well, I’ll let you decide.

I haven’t spoken much about Louise’s personal life; that is a story whose details are more rightly told by others. I can say this: it was not always an easy life. Louise knew what it was to struggle, to work hard, to hurt. She was tough and resourceful and resolved — a strong daughter of the Depression. She was a devoted care-giver to those she loved and to some she lost. I imagine she was a fierce and loyal friend. If her children are any indication, she was a good mother. I know she was a faithful and dedicated member of the church.

The words of St. Paul to his young protégé Timothy seem a fitting epitaph for our dear Louise, and with them I close:

2 Timothy 4:7–8 (ESV): I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.

May her soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace and rise in glory. Alleluia. Amen.

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By Many Or By Few

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GAFCON Jerusalem 2018

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

Jonathan and his unnamed armor-bearer and their exploits against the Philistines: that’s the story for today — but, not just yet. First, a look backwards to the story of Gideon, a story we read recently in the office of Morning Prayer, and one that pairs nicely with that of Jonathan.

It was a dire time for Israel, caused by their own disobedience, of course, but a dire time nonetheless. Here is the description of those days from Judges 6:

Judges 6:1–6 (ESV): The people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord gave them into the hand of Midian seven years. 2 And the hand of Midian overpowered Israel, and because of Midian the people of Israel made for themselves the dens that are in the mountains and the caves and the strongholds. 3 For whenever the Israelites planted crops, the Midianites and the Amalekites and the people of the East would come up against them. 4 They would encamp against them and devour the produce of the land, as far as Gaza, and leave no sustenance in Israel and no sheep or ox or donkey. 5 For they would come up with their livestock and their tents; they would come like locusts in number—both they and their camels could not be counted—so that they laid waste the land as they came in. 6 And Israel was brought very low because of Midian. And the people of Israel cried out for help to the Lord.

Enter Gideon. God appears to Gideon and commands him to take a series of provocative actions against the gods of Midian and Amalek, rebellious actions designed to precipitate their retaliation against Israel. And so the Midianite and the Amalekite armies gather for war, a host like locusts in number. In response, Gideon assembles his own army, thirty-two thousand men, a large force but vastly outnumbered.

Enter the LORD. The Israelite army is too big, he tells Gideon.

Judges 7:2–3 (ESV): 2 The Lord said to Gideon, “The people with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel boast over me, saying, ‘My own hand has saved me.’ 3 Now therefore proclaim in the ears of the people, saying, ‘Whoever is fearful and trembling, let him return home and hurry away from Mount Gilead.’ ” Then 22,000 of the people returned, and 10,000 remained.

Still too many. Through a strange test of how the soldiers drink water, God has Gideon reduce the troops even further — from ten thousand to three hundred. Just right.

Judges 7:6–7 (ESV): And the number of those who lapped, putting their hands to their mouths, was 300 men, but all the rest of the people knelt down to drink water. 7 And the Lord said to Gideon, “With the 300 men who lapped I will save you and give the Midianites into your hand, and let all the others go every man to his home.”

From thirty-two thousand men, to ten thousand, to three hundred. And here is the question this poses: Just how many men did God really need to deliver Israel from the Midianites and the Amalekites? Suppose fifty of the three hundred soldiers had gone AWOL during the night, slipped back home under cover of darkness. Would Gideon have postponed the battle? Would the LORD have said, “Three hundred was the perfect number; I can’t do this two-fifty. You need to round up fifty more soldiers.” Just how many men did God really need to deliver Israel from the Midianites and the Amalekites? I think I know what you want to answer, but let’s not be hasty. It’s time to look at Jonathan.

The political and military situation is once again dire; this time the threat is not from the Midianites but from the Philistines.

1 Samuel 13:5–7 (ESV): And the Philistines mustered to fight with Israel, thirty thousand chariots and six thousand horsemen and troops like the sand on the seashore in multitude. They came up and encamped in Michmash, to the east of Beth-aven. 6 When the men of Israel saw that they were in trouble (for the people were hard pressed), the people hid themselves in caves and in holes and in rocks and in tombs and in cisterns, 7 and some Hebrews crossed the fords of the Jordan to the land of Gad and Gilead. Saul was still at Gilgal, and all the people followed him trembling.

Against this force, Saul could field an army of only six hundred men, none of whom had so much as a sword or a spear.

Enter Jonathan.

1 Samuel 14:6 (ESV): Jonathan said to the young man who carried his armor, “Come, let us go over to the garrison of these uncircumcised. It may be that the Lord will work for us, for nothing can hinder the Lord from saving by many or by few.”

Just how many men did God need to save Israel in Gideon’s day? Three hundred? No: many or few; it makes no difference. Just how many men did God need to save Israel in Jonathan’s day? Six hundred? No: many or few; it makes no difference. One prince and one armor bearer are quite sufficient. But again, I don’t want to be hasty in answering this question. I am tempted to say that God doesn’t need anyone in order to save his people; by his power alone he can deliver. And that is certainly true; it is sound theology based upon the teaching and examples of Scripture. But it is only part of the truth. While God needs nothing and no one, yet he most often chooses to work through his faithful people. Jonathan says the Lord will save by many or few; he doesn’t say God will save by no one. God wants a prince and an unnamed armor bearer to fight the enemies of God, to witness the wonders of God, to proclaim the victory of God.

Enter us — you and me. For some reason known to God alone, God has chosen to engage us as his fellow-workers in the redemption of the world. It is a great dignity and an awe-filled responsibility to be called alongside God, to be his hands and feet and voice in the world, to have a part to play in reconciliation and restoration. Sometimes it seems that the forces arrayed against us are legion: as numberless as the Midianites, as well-armed as the Philistines. No matter; God can save by many or by few. Your gifts may be many or few. No matter; God can save by many or by few. The years ahead of you may be many or few. No matter; God can save by many or by few. You sins may be many or few. No matter; God can save by many or by few. Some, like Gideon and Jonathan, God calls to bear arms. Some he calls to bear armor. Some he calls to bear witness. But, he calls all those in Christ Jesus to bear the cross, to lift high the cross, to proclaim the love of Christ, to sing a song of triumph to the Crucified, to be his cross-shaped fellow-workers in proclaiming redemption and reconciliation through Christ to a lost and broken world.

Many or few: it makes no difference. God can and will deliver by many or by few. And, he has called us to join him. In this reading, Jonathan calls us also:

Come, let us go over…It may be that the LORD will work for us, for nothing can hinder the LORD from saving by many or by few.

Amen.

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The Shema, The Great Commandment, and Lousy Sons

THE LAST CHAPTER BUT ONE  in The Rule of Saint Benedict closes with this admonition to monks:

Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life (The Rule of St. Benedict. Chapter 72).

Good words, sound words, words to live by:  prefer nothing to Christ.  Jesus himself gave us that instruction:

“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Mt. 10:37, ESV throughout).

Jesus expressed the same even more bluntly in the Gospel according to St. Luke:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:26).

But this principle goes back much further; it was the essence of the Law, the lifeblood of Israel:

4 “Hear, O Israel:  The LORD our God, the LORD is one.  5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.  6 And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.  7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Dt 6:4-7).

And so we come to our first reading this morning, 1 Samuel 8.  Samuel was among the greatest of Israel’s leaders:  seer, judge, prophet, priest, king-maker.  From his youth, he was a model of faithfulness:  one who preferred nothing to the LORD, one who loved the LORD with all his heart and with all this soul and with all his might — or so it seemed.  Perhaps it was old age, perhaps it was the desire to leave a legacy in Israel, perhaps it was an old man’s over-indulgent love.

1 When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel.  2 The name of his firstborn son was Joel, and the name of his second, Abijah; they were judges in Beersheba.  3 Yet his sons did not walk in his ways but turned aside after gain.  They took bribes and perverted justice (1 Sam 8:1-3).

Children:  what can we say?  Sometimes the best of parents produce the worst of children, and sometimes the worst of parents produce the best of children.  I suspect that Samuel was a lousy father who raised lousy sons.  I say that simply because there are so few models of good fathers in Scripture; if you want examples of good family values, you really have to look elsewhere.  It puzzles me a bit that God identifies himself as Father and then gives us so few good human examples of fatherhood.  So, again, I suspect that Samuel was a lousy father who raised lousy sons.  I suspect that he had not taught the Shema — Hear, O Israel — and the Great Commandment diligently to his children in any meaningful way.  Certainly, his sons had not embraced those principles.  It happens.  I suspect that all parents have regrets — things they would do differently if they had a second chance.

But now, Samuel has a real decision, a tough decision.  He’s old.  He’s about to retire.  Who will take his place?  Who will judge Israel?  He knows his sons are lousy; everyone knows his sons are lousy. I’ve seen similar parents in denial about their children, but they all really knew:  these kids are lousy.  And yet, Samuel appointed his sons as judges over Israel.

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.

In this moment, Samuel loved his sons more than he loved the LORD, more than he loved the LORD’s people Israel.  Or perhaps he loved himself or his name or his legacy more.  In this moment he did not love the LORD his God with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might.  In this moment, neither do I.  I want to, I think.  I’m afraid to, I know.  I want to want to, I believe.

When we don’t preferentially love the LORD, when we do prefer other things to Christ, nothing good comes of it.  Samuel’s preference for his sons over the LORD caused the people of Israel to sin a great sin, to reject the sovereign rule of God, to forsake their unique covenant with God to be like all the nations.

This is a sobering challenge and admonition to all the shepherds of God’s people, especially to bishops, priests, deacons, teachers, lay leaders of all sorts.  When we prefer something — anything — to Christ, when we fail to model preferential love for the LORD, then we lead people to reject the sovereign love, mercy, and rule of God.  And that thought should drive us to our knees, to pray with the Psalmist:

Let not those who trust in you, O Lord GOD of hosts,

be ashamed because of me;

     let not those who seek you be confounded through me,

     O God of Israel (Ps 69:6, BCP 2019).

But this is true not just for the shepherd leaders of God’s people.  It is equally true for all God’s representatives in the world, for all who bear the name of Christ and who bear public witness to him.  If we do not exhibit preferential love for the LORD, if we do not obey the Great Commandment and the second which is like it — not only with our lips but in our lives — if we prefer something — anything — to Christ, then we are living like the nations around us.  We are complicit in their rejection of the sovereign love, mercy, and rule of God.  Lord, have mercy upon us.  Christ, have mercy upon us.  Lord, have mercy upon us.

I find this text challenging and puzzling on many levels; God’s thoughts are not my thoughts, nor his ways my ways.  Why didn’t God rebuke Samuel for appointing his lousy sons as judges?  Why didn’t God strike down Joel and Abijah?  It seems like either of these actions might have headed off Israel’s foolish and unfaithful insistence on being like the nations around them, their hell-bent determination to have a king.  God did solemnly warn the people — in no uncertain terms — about the cost of having a king.  Here is what God said through Samuel about a king:

“These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you:  he will take…he will appoint…he will take…he will take…he will take…he will take…he will take.  And in that day you will cry out because of your King, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the LORD will not answer you in that day” (cf 1 Sam 8:10-18).

This is as true today as it was then, and I’m not talking specifically about political leaders.  No, I’m talking about anything we prefer to Christ.  Whatever it is, it will take, it will take, it will take, it will take, it will take until we cry out to the Lord for mercy.

But the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel.  And they said, “No!  But there shall be a king over us, that we also may be like the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Sam 8:20).

And so it was that God gave them what they wanted.  They preferred to be like the nations rather than to be the unique, holy people under the sovereign reign of God.  At least they preferred to be like the nations rather than to be judged by Samuel’s lousy sons.

What a dismal story.  It’s really hard to say, “Thanks be to God,” at the end of this reading.  I’ve heard it said that all stories have a happy ending if you just know when to stop reading; perhaps we should have stopped with 1 Samuel 7.  But the great narrative of Scripture isn’t like that.  It upends that notion.  In Scripture, dismal stories have good endings if we don’t stop reading too soon.  

Saul was appointed king and that was…well, if not a total disaster, then near enough to it.  But though the people had rejected God, God had not rejected his people.  He used the reign of Saul to prepare a king after his own heart, a king whom God called his son:  David.  And through David, God brought forth an everlasting kingdom, the kingdom of his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  It seems that even when we prefer something — anything — to the Lord, he nonetheless prefers nothing to us.  It seems that when we fail to love the Lord our GOD with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our might, he nonetheless loves us in that way.  That’s a good and very good ending to the story.  To that reading it is easy to say, “Thanks be to God.”  Amen.

 

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Idols and Demons

A Homily for ADOTS Morning Prayer:  10 July 2020

(1 Corinthians 10)

I must begin with a couple of disclaimers.  First, this homily is not an exegesis of 1 Corinthians 10; it is not the way I would teach this text in context.  Rather, it is a reflection on the text based on the events of recents days, weeks, and months.  Second, though I am a priest resident in the Anglican Diocese of the South, I do not speak for my diocese.  Though I am an assisting priest at Apostles Anglican Church, I do not speak for my parish.  These words are mine, though I pray I have listened well to the Spirit in preparing them.  I offer them this morning:

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

I came of age in the modern world, in a culture that naively embraced the promise of unlimited human potential and near certain progress toward Utopia — progress led by scientists and engineers, by philosopher-statesmen, by daring men and women.  That age had its successes, to be fair.  It gave us penicillin and Velcro, and it put a man on the moon.  It also gave us two world wars and countless minor ones, genocides too brutal to imagine, a nuclear stockpile sufficient to destroy the world, and air we often can’t breathe and water we can’t drink.  That world is mostly dead, though the current pandemic has revived it a bit as we look to medical researchers to discover a vaccine and put a stopper in death.

The world now is post-modern, post many things that we once trusted.  This is the age of deconstruction:  leery of any story but one’s personal story, wary of any authority but one’s own freedom, suspicious of any truth but one’s own perceptions.  I live in it, but I am not of it.

Paul’s world was pre-modern:  a spiritual world, a world of gods and goddesses who seemed to care little how people actually lived provided the people offered the proper sacrifices.  It was cultural religion:  go to the temple, offer the appointed sacrifice, feast with family and friends, and then get on about your business until next time.  The Corinthian Christians lived in this world.  Paul did not want them to be of it.

Idols abounded in Corinth.  Likely, many of the Christians there once worshipped idols; likely many among their friends and families still did.  And, that was a problem.  The culture, the age, drew the Christians back into idol worship, not as a matter of conviction, but of social norms.  Can we feast in the pagan temples?  Can we eat meat offered to idols?  These were real questions, important questions.  Can we engage with our society — with our age — on its own terms while holding our Christian faith privately?

Idols:  that’s the issue.  On one hand, Paul insists that idols are nothing at all.  Here he echoes Psalm 115:

4 Their idols are silver and gold, 

the work of human hands. 

5  They have mouths, but do not speak; 

eyes, but do not see. 

6  They have ears, but do not hear; 

noses, but do not smell. 

7  They have hands, but do not feel; 

feet, but do not walk; 

and they do not make a sound in their throat. 

8  Those who make them become like them; 

so do all who trust in them (Psalm 115:4-8, ESV throughout). 

Stone, wood, gold, silver:  these things can’t hurt you.  But, it’s not that simple.  The real world is not just material; it is spiritual.  And behind these material idols lie demons.  To share in the feast of idols is to lift the cup to demons.  And so Paul writes:

I do not want you to be participants with demons.  27 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons.  You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons (1 Cor 10:20b-21).

Every age has its idols, with demons lurking behind them all.  The modern age didn’t believe that, and the post-modern age doesn’t believe that now.  But, it’s true, and there are tell-tale signs, if you know what to look for.  Division.  Wherever you see division, be on the lookout for idols and demons.  It was that way in Corinth and it’s that way now.  That’s what demons do; they scatter, they divide, they promote discord and distrust and chaos.  And, we are not immune.

Some Christians say, “Black Lives Matter,” while others insist on saying “All Lives Matter.”  The demons care not one whit which you say as long as you also mutter “Marxist” or “racist” under your breath or virtue signal or shame a sister or brother on Facebook, because to the demons “No Lives Matter.”  One agenda is as useful as another if only the demons can use it to sow division.  They seek only to divide and destroy:  black lives, white lives, brown lives — all lives.  I do not want you to be participants with demons.

Some Christians tie ropes to monuments and statues and cry, “Pull them down,” while others lament the wanton destruction of history and culture.  “At least put them in museums,” they say.  The demons care not one whit which you do as long as you take your eyes off the cross, off the monument of the Father’s love for all the world, off the monument of the Son’s self-sacrifice for Yankees and Rebels, for slaves and masters, for all damned sinners, which is to say for all of us.  I do not want you to be participants with demons.

Some Christians wear masks to bed and in the shower while others would rather die than don a mask in a public place.  The demons care not one whit whether you breathe your own bad breath behind a mask or share the Covid virus with all those who ignore social distancing guidelines as long as they can veil the image of God in which you — and your brothers and sisters — were created and redeemed, as long as you can no longer see the image of Christ in the sister or brother who either does or does not wear a mask, unlike you.  I do not want you to be participants with demons.

Some Christians want to Make America Great Again — Again, while others insist that can’t happen unless Donald Trump becomes a one-term president.  The demons care not one whit whom you vote for as long as you are a staunch Republican-Christian or a yellow dog Democratic-Christian with Christian firmly in second place behind your party affiliation.  As long as they can convince you that only your party can and will usher in the Kingdom of God in these United States of America, the demons are delighted to pave the road to hell for Democrats and Republican alike — and, yes, even for Libertarians, Socialists, and Independents, too.  I do not want you to be participants with demons.

You see, Christians in this age and in every age are still forced to ask the same questions:

Can we feast in the pagan temples?  Can we eat meat offered to idols?  Can we engage with our society — with our age — on its own terms while holding our Christian faith privately?

And Paul’s answer is still the same:  I do not want you to be participants with demons.

Let’s be clear.  None of the things I mentioned are off limits for Christians:  the push for biblical justice, the right honoring of history and culture, the proper concern for one another in time of disease, the participation in politics and governance.  Each is a matter for Christian discernment.  But each of these also has the potential to become an idol, and, when it does, be clear that demons will use it to divide and destroy.  When you see signs of division, be alert.

How do we exorcise the demons?  Paul is clear about this, too.

14 Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. 15 I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. 16 The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? 17 Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread (1 Corinthians 10:14-17).

Flee from the table of demons and come to the Table of the Lord.  Flee from division and cling to unity.  There is one bread and we who are many are one body, because we all partake of the one bread:  black and white, Republicans and Democrats, iconoclasts and iconodules, mask wearers and mask haters — we are one body in Christ.  The demons divide.  The Spirit brings together.  I do not want you to be participants with demons.  Amen.

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Testing the Spirits

Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3, ESV throughout).

I am in the midst of lesson preparation and filming for a series on Romans.  I want to be about that work; I need to be about that work.  But, I find myself, like Jude, compelled to a different task at the moment — one that I consider necessary.  My attention was diverted toward it and away from Romans by several promptings, not least an important essay by ACNA Archbishop Foley Beach on “Neo-pagan Anglicanism” in the newly published book The Future of Orthodox Anglicanism (McDermott, Gerald, ed. Crossway, 2020.).

It was the Archbishop’s reflection on the Holy Spirit in his contribution that provided the impetus for my own thoughts.  I must quote a lengthy section of his essay.

The Holy Spirit, according to neo-pagan Anglicanism, is what feels right for the moment, not actually a distinct person of the Godhead who calls the believer to repentance from sin and transforms the believer into biblical holiness and righteousness.  I say “what feels right” because there seems to be no revealed boundaries for the Holy Spirit in neo-paganism.  For example, while the catechism in the 1979 BCP of the Episcopal Church clearly says that one recognizes truths taught by the Holy Spirit “when they are in accord with the Scriptures,” the Episcopal Church continues to embrace teachings and practices opposed to Scripture.  I remember hearing the Episcopal bishop of Atlanta explaining to his diocese why he voted to affirm the consecration of a bishop who had divorced his wife and was partnered with another man:  “I followed the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”  Apparently he had rejected the Anglican tradition’s insistence that the Holy Spirit does not contradict Scripture.  In contrast to that tradition, the neo-pagan Anglican believes that the purpose of the Holy Spirit is to motivate the people of God to love, accept, and welcome everybody without insisting, as the gospel does, on repentance from their sins (pp. 91-92).

It might have been enough simply to let that excerpt from Archbishop Beach’s essay stand alone, without my comments, had other promptings not been present.  

There is a spirit of error loose in this time masquerading as the Holy Spirit and leading even the faithful astray:  delusion presenting as truth.  It has ever been so:

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world….We are from God.  Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us.  By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error (1 John 4:1, 6).

So, this is the presenting question for me:  How do we test the spirits, whether they are from God?  When a brother or sister claims direction by the Holy Spirit, when we ourselves feel a “stirring of the spirit,” how do we know?  How do we avoid delusion?

Volumes can and have been written on this.  Entire spiritualities, e.g. the Exercises of St. Ignatius, have developed around this discernment of spirits.  I have nothing so grand in mind, but rather only a few practical suggestions for testing the spirits.

First, the Holy Spirit will never lead one to reject the ancient, consensual interpretation of Scripture.  Let me state that more explicitly:  If the one, holy, catholic and Apostolic Church in its various communions — Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican — historically agree on an interpretation of Scripture, that is because the Holy Spirit has revealed and sealed that interpretation.  The Holy Spirit will never lead one to reject that agreement.  Rather, the Holy Spirit will work with individuals to confirm the truth of the Church’s corporate understanding.  Anyone moving away from orthodox doctrine — the faith once for all delivered to the saints (cf Jude 3) — is not being guided by the Holy Spirit.  When in doubt, the Vincentian Canon provides a good check of orthodoxy.  It is a threefold test of catholicity and thus orthodoxy:  that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.    If a doctrine is geographically limited and not accepted throughout the churches, it fails the test.  If a doctrine is novel and in disagreement with the ancient tradition of the Church, it fails the test.  If a doctrine is accepted by only a small group within the Church, it fails the test.  The Vincentian Canon is not perfect or foolproof, but it has proven its validity and usefulness throughout the generations and is a good starting place in the testing of spirits.

Does that mean that the Holy Spirit can never do “a new thing”?  That the Holy Spirit is imprisoned by the past?  Certainly not.  But the “new thing” will not be a contradiction of what has gone before, but rather a fulfillment of it.  When accepting the Gentiles qua Gentiles as followers of Christ seemed to be a radically new and thus suspect thing, James insisted that is was instead the fulfillment of ancient promises only now fully understood by the revelation of the Holy Spirit (see Acts 15:1-21).  Moreover, there was conciliar agreement.  So, yes, the Holy Spirit may reveal a new fulfillment of Scripture in our day.  But, the Spirit will also lead the Church — the one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church — to conciliar agreement.  In the absence of such agreement, one cannot state with any confidence that the Spirit is leading.

Second, the Holy Spirit will never sow discord in the Body of Christ.  As St. Paul emphasizes to the Church at Ephesus:

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call — one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all (Eph 4:1-6).

Eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit:  Where discord is present in the Church, where unity is strained or broken, the Holy Spirit is not leading.  Not to reopen old wounds, but that is the testimony of our own recent history and ongoing struggles in the Anglican Communion.  Several provinces — the The Episcopal Church USA (TEC) chief among them — departed from the faith once delivered to the saints.  And what was the result?  A tear in the fabric of the Anglican Communion and discord in countless local parishes.  It is not possible for TEC to claim direction from the Holy Spirit when rejection of orthodoxy and disunity are the results of its actions.  What is true on a global level is just as true on a parish or personal level.

Then Paul continues by enumerating Christ’s gifts to the Church given through the Holy Spirit:

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes (Eph 4:11-14).

There is an order and a teaching authority in the Church that derives from the Holy Spirit for the building up of the Church.  Consequently, the Holy Spirit will never lead one to oppose those leaders exercising their authority on behalf of the Church and in keeping with the consensus faith of the Church.

Related to this, the Holy Spirit will never lead one to reject the rightful judgment and possible correction of the Church.  Even St. Paul submitted his apostolate, his vocation, and his gospel to the authorities in Jerusalem for discernment and validation.

Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me.  I went up because of a revelation and set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain (Gal 2:1-2).

This humility of submitting oneself to the judgment and authority of the Church is a hallmark of one led by the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit will never lead one to rejection of rightful authority or to the arrogance of refusing correction.

Lastly, and on a positive note, the leading of the Holy Spirit is evidenced by the absence of the works of the flesh and by the presence and increase of the fruit of the Spirit.

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.  For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desire of the Spirit are against the desires of the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.  But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.  Now the works of the flesh are evident:  sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things life these.  I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.  But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.  And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit (Gal 5:16-25).

There is nothing novel here; God forbid.  This is simply sound wisdom from Scripture for testing the spirits and for avoiding error and delusion.  It is not novel, but it is essential.

 

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Through the Lens of the Resurrection

A Homily for ADOTS Morning Prayer: 17 April 2020

(Mark 11:1-26)

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

With great and due respect to our bishops and the Liturgy Task Force who gave the church the holy gift of the Book of Common Prayer 2019, I still maintain there is no perfect lectionary: not the one we have been given, not its predecessors, not any that will follow it if the Lord tarries and the Prayer Book is revised. Perfect lectionary is a liturgical oxymoron.

So, I’m not overly surprised to be discombobulated by the Gospel lesson appointed for today; it is a quirk lying at the intersection of an imperfect lectionary and the church calendar. Here we are in Easter week — a week already made surpassingly strange by pandemic and isolation — and the lectionary plunges us headlong and backwards into the pre-Passion narratives of St. Mark: the Triumphal Entry, the cursing of the fig tree, and the final cleansing of the Temple. This retrograde motion presents us with a challenge and an opportunity bundled together: to read this narrative, and the entire Gospel of Mark, through the lens of the Resurrection. That’s likely what St. Mark intended all along; his abrupt ending is perfectly designed to compel the reader to re-read, to figure out what’s going on and to look for the clues that answer Mark’s central question: Just who is this man, Jesus?

As I read the Gospel, the Triumphal Entry has the feel of carefully staged and choreographed theater with just a thin veneer of improvisation. A donkey just happens to be in the right place at the right time. The stage hands and extras graciously allow the disciples to take the creature based solely on their word and promise, “The Lord has need of it and will send it back here immediately.” Many in the crowd following Jesus just happen to have cut palm branches in the fields on their way into town. As for the “spontaneous” shouting — well, somebody had to start it; someone had to give voice to what was playing out here, somebody in the know. The Triumphal Entry a spontaneous event? That stretches my credibility. This event happened in this way and at this time precisely because God wanted it to happen in this way and at this time. Nothing is left to chance; God has his way. And that is a Resurrection reading of these Holy Week events: God inexorably working out his will through stubborn and sinful humans each vying for his or her own self-interest, yet each — in the mystery of God — contributing perfectly to the panorama of God’s purpose.

The Triumphal Entry is an inaugural parade — a king coming in royal procession to take his throne in the royal city. So the crowds shout:

Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest (ref Mk 11:9)!

Hosanna: the crowds keep using that word, but I do not think it means what they think it means. Hosanna: “save us,” or “save, we pray.” Save us from what? From the Romans, of course. For the brutal oppression of occupation. From bone-crushing poverty and spirit-crushing taxation. From fear that God has abandoned his people, broken his covenant, or lost his power. Hosanna: save, we pray. Indeed.

Of course, there will be a battle; that’s what rival kings and kingdoms do: Jesus and his rag-tag band of followers against Pilate and Herod and the assembled might of Rome — a new Judas Maccabeus. Is that what the crowds expect — that Jesus will now use the power he previously reserved for opening blind eyes, making the deaf hear, raising up the crippled, cleansing lepers, and casting out demons — that same healing power to now destroy Israel’s enemies in clear contravention of his own words, “love your enemies and bless those who persecute you”? Is that really what the crowd expects? Probably. Maybe. Honestly, I doubt they have even thought that far or that deeply. This is an emotional, gut level response that so easily bypasses the brain.

When we read the Hosannas today, we do so through the lens of the Resurrection. Yes, there was a battle, the only truly epic, life-or-death battle ever waged from the foundations of the world: the Light of the World, the Life of Men versus the accuser, the father of lies, and his foot soldiers death and hell. The shouting crowds had no idea, but we do through the lens of the Resurrection. It was like no battle and no battle strategy they could have conceived: winning by losing, living by dying, reigning by submission — giving up all to gain all. This is reading the Triumphal Entry through the lens of the Resurrection.

And then there is the fig tree. I love trees and I’ve always felt a bit sorry for this one. Jesus looks for figs out of season; it is time for leaves, not ripe fruit. Who goes to the apple orchard in April and grows angry when there are no Granny Smiths on the trees? No wonder the disciples were a bit confused by it all. Jesus uses this as an enacted parable about faith and prayer and forgiveness. Do not doubt in your heart. Pray, believing and forgiving everyone with whom you hold a grudge, and even mountains can be rooted up and cast into the sea.

But, can we read even this strange little tale through the lens of the Resurrection? The Resurrection heralded the dawn of new creation — St. John is crystal clear about that in his Gospel — the dawn of new creation and the beginning of the end of the curse that has covered the old creation like a pall.

Cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you (ref Gen 3:17).

In a fallen and sin-infested creation, we expect trees without fruit: bitter figs, wormy apples. But in the new creation?

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him (Rev 22:1-3).

Forget barren trees in the new creation. This one tree produces twelve different kinds of fruit and is in perpetual abundance. Even its leaves have healing powers.

The real problem with the barren fig tree is simply that it failed to submit to its Creator, it failed to bear fruit for the Master Gardener, it failed to anticipate and participate in new creation. Where Jesus is — where the Resurrection is — there is no room for barrenness. This tree remained part of the fallen, sin-infected creation when it was invited into the glory of the Resurrection. And the Resurrection stood in judgment of it. Through the lens of the Resurrection, this barren tree gives us a glimpse of the judgment against all persistent barrenness and a glimpse of new creation abundance to come.

Well, time fails us now; the cleansing of the Temple is another tale for another homily. I close with a quote that has been attributed to so many different people — Leslie Newbigin and William Sloan Coffin among them — in one form or another. It is the essence of reading not only the Gospels, but our lives and our times — this time — through the lens of the Resurrection. When asked if he were optimistic about the state of the world, the reply came:

I  not optimistic, but I am hopeful. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, you know.

That is reading through the lens of the Resurrection. Amen.

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On This Day

On This Day
Fr. John A. Roop

ADOTS Good Friday Liturgy: 10 April 2020
(John 18:1 – 19:37)

Let us pray.

Both here and in all your churches throughout the whole world, we adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross, you have redeemed the world.  Amen.

I STAND BEFORE CALVARY and the cross today much as Abraham Lincoln stood before Gettysburg, only infinitely more so: called upon to speak but knowing full well that no words are adequate and perhaps none are necessary. “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence,” comes to mind. For no words can hallow the sacrifice of this one man — betrayed, denied, forsaken and crucified. It is his sacrifice that hallows all things, these feeble, frail, and foolish words of mine included. But, speak we must. The day, our hearts — and pray God, the Spirit — compel us.

On this day, Adam dies — Adam and all his sons and daughters — as the LORD God had commanded the man saying:

You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 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 (Gen 2:16-17, ESV throughout).

On this day Abel is slain at the hands of his brother, and his blood cries out to God from the ground.

On this day the fountains of the great deep burst forth and the windows of heaven open and the waters prevail and every living thing on the face of the ground is blotted out.

On this day sulfur and fire fall from heaven to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities of the plain.

On this day Isaac is bound on the altar and no angel stays Abraham’s hand as the knife falls and the son — the only son of the father — is slain.

On this day Joseph is betrayed and sold by his own brothers.

On this day there rises a new king over Egypt — one who does not know Joseph — one who sets harsh taskmasters over the children of Israel to afflict them with heavy burdens.

On this day the first, the last, and every Passover lamb is slaughtered, and yet the death angel comes: not to the firstborn sons of Egypt only, but to Israel and to the world.

On this day every death ever died, dies in the person of one man betrayed, denied, forsaken and crucified.

On this day every sin ever committed — every bending of the heart and knee before every idol, every act of hatred and murder, every lustful thought and secret adultery, every theft, every lie, every act of faithlessness and cowardice — every sin ever committed is borne in the person of one man betrayed, denied, forsaken and crucified.

On this day every prayer ever offered, every lament ever wailed, every hope ever held out against hope is heard and answered by one man betrayed, denied, forsaken and crucified.

On this day the history of the world reaches its climax and the fate of the world hangs in the balance as the righteousness, the covenant faithfulness of God, is revealed for all to see — in heaven and on earth and under the earth — in the person of one man betrayed, denied, forsaken and crucified.

On this day, the Lamb of God slain from the foundations of the world, spreads out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of his saving embrace: one man betrayed, denied, forsaken and crucified.

On this day God destroys the wisdom of the wise and the discernment of the discerning, for in the folly of the cross the wisdom and power of God are revealed: one man betrayed, denied, forsaken and crucified (cf 1 Cor 1:166 ff).

We are not ashamed of this Gospel — of the paradox and mystery of one man betrayed, denied, forsaken and crucified — for it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith” (cf Rom 1:16-17)

And so, on this day we proclaim Christ and him crucified — stumbling block and folly, yes — on this day and always we proclaim Christ and him crucified, for Calvary is the center of the world, the cross is the fulcrum of redemption, and Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world; who with the Father and the Holy Spirit is worshipped and glorified, one God, unto the ages of ages. Amen.

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