Friday, March 27, 2015

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Fifth Sunday in Lent, Passion Sunday

Hebrews 9:11-15 * John 8:46-59

“Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I AM.”

For once the enemies of our Lord were right about something, frankly, about something that many nominal Christians are wrong about. His enemies understood exactly what he meant by his words, “Before Abraham was, I AM.” And, we call this day Passion Sunday because we see the reason, ultimately, that his enemies wanted him dead, and the reason they were unrelenting in pursuit of his execution. They understood him rightly, and because they reacted in the only logical way they could, they picked up stones in order to kill him.
          In one of his most famous passages in all his works, C.S. Lewis addressed this very thing that today’s Gospel is about, in Mere Christianity:

"I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: 'I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept his claim to be God.' That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a good moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic-on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg-or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great moral teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to." 1

Recall the words from the Gospel two weeks ago: “He that is not with me is against me: and he that gathereth not with me scattereth.” He called his followers to be ready to die rather than to deny him before men.  There was nothing innocuous about the commitment he called for, because that commitment was personal.
          Some men have called people to die for ideas and ideals, causes both good and bad. These causes were always bigger than any individual, whether leaders and thinkers were advocating something harmful, or something truly heroic and principled. But, Jesus called people to die as martyrs out of personal commitment to Him, faithfulness to Him as an individual. He allowed people to worship Him, even Jews who knew that there is only one God, and who were forbidden to worship any other god in the presence, that covers all of heaven and earth, of the One True God. What kind of man would assume the place of God, and use that sacred Name, I AM, as his own? What kind of man would claim the right to such loyalty as leads his followers to persecution and death? What kind of man, if he has any compassion in him, would knowingly demand total commitment, even unto death?
          A word I use sparingly is the word “loyalty.” That is because loyalty is not always virtuous. I remember a young man saying to me, many years ago, that Albert Speer had been loyal to Hitler. He said this in the context of having just heard, in a rather pathetic sermon by somebody, that loyalty is a virtue, and that it always pleases God. So, the young man was praising Speer for his loyalty to something very close to evil incarnate. Loyalty can be pleasing to God, or it can be a sin. Loyalty to Hitler, or to any evil cause, man or movement, is not virtuous, but abominable. That kind of loyalty is the worship of a false god. It is one way, in any age of history, to bear the mark of the Beast, to make a radical decision against Jesus Christ.
          But, Jesus dares to call his followers to complete loyalty to Himself, even to the point of dying rather than to deny Him. What kind of a man is He then? C.S. Lewis was right: He is either God or He is mad or worse. Jesus deserved at that moment to be stoned for blasphemy, unless He truly is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, the Word made Flesh. Yes, His enemies understood Him.  He did, in fact, declare Himself equal to God. Either He is the One who gave the Law to Moses, or, by that Law, he must die.
          It would have been bad enough, by their standard, to say only the opening of today’s Gospel. “Which of you convinceth me of sin?” That is, which of you accuses or convicts me of sin? The same chapter begins with the story about the woman taken in adultery, brought to Jesus by enemies who wanted to trap him into either of two snares: denying the commandments in the Torah (though the commandment was to execute both the man and the woman who commit adultery- which presents quite a mystery in that story), or defying the Romans who allowed no one to execute anybody in their empire except through Roman law.  We all remember what Jesus said: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” All of these men, enemies of Jesus, had at least the honesty to drop their stones and leave.  Were they men of greater integrity than Jesus, who now turns around and says, in effect, “I am without sin- who can accuse me of anything?”
          Either He gave the Law to Moses, or He had broken it, and deserved to die. Listen to the writer to the Hebrews in today’s Epistle: “For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” Jesus, alone out of all mankind, could go to the cross and there make “by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.” While having his vision on the isle of Patmos, the Apostle John wept because no one in all heaven and earth was worthy to open the book and break its seven seals, that is until the man came forth who was both Lion of the tribe of Judah, and also the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, indeed a lion who appeared as a lamb that had been slain. He was worthy, and He alone of all mankind. 
The writer to the Hebrews uses the temple, and its typology regarding the New Covenant that Christ would establish in His own blood, foretold by the prophet Jeremiah. The High Priest once a year, on Yom Kippor, brought the blood of the sin offering into the Holy of Holies, and sprinkled it on the mercy seat. That was the type. The priest who offered any sacrifice had to be a perfect physical specimen of a man, having no deformity or loss of limb or any member. The animal sacrificed for sin had to be a perfect specimen, without even spot or blemish. This is because both the priest and the animal to be offered had to be pictures of Jesus Christ, and their physical perfection had to be a picture of his spiritual perfection as the only human being free from all stain of sin.
Our Gospel text is just right for leading us into Passiontide. In declaring His own sinlessness, Christ reveals that every priest and every sacrifice were only types and shadows of the Real priest and sacrifice, Himself, the only man worthy to take the book and open the seals thereof. Declaring His own freedom from sin and death, as contrasted to all the rest of us, sets the stage for the sorrows of the cross that were to follow. “They that trust in their wealth, and boast themselves in the multitude of their riches; None of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him: For the redemption of their soul is precious, and it ceaseth for ever,” 2 says the Psalmist. Isaiah adds this: “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all… he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth. Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.” 3
Declaring oneself free from sin would be madness and delusion for you and me, but for Jesus it was another step closer to the cross. On that cross he would establish the New Covenant in his blood, the Covenant that alone frees us from sin and death, and that stretched back in time as well to those who before had hoped for the coming of Christ. He bore the sins of all the world, the perfect and sinless Son of God. After the victory of His death and passion, He rose the third day, and appeared to witnesses. He spent forty days with those witnesses before ascending into the presence of God the Father to make intercession for us by means of his own blood, the fulfillment of that image we see in the Biblical Yom Kippor, where the High Priest, alive after making atonement, took the blood of the sacrifice into the Holy of Holies and sprinkled the mercy seat- the image of God’s throne.
When Jesus tells us He is without sin, He tells of his love for us; for on the cross he offered that ransom for each of us that no rich man can give for his brother. He said that He is the One, and He dared to declare as His own the Name I AM. So, He reminds us of his love as well, since this declaration also took Him closer to the cross. So, when He calls you to the radical commitment that may even cost you your life, as it does cost Christians in other lands who suffer persecution and martyrdom even to this day, know that he already died for you. Know, as I say often, that when you look up and see Him on the cross, and behold sorrow and love flow mingled down, the shedding of his blood and pouring out of his soul unto death, that you can and must take this love personally. Either reject him completely, if you can, or fall down and worship him as your Lord and your God.



1.                                       1. Page 56
2.                                        2.Psalm 49: 6-8
3.                                         3. from Isaiah 53


Friday, March 13, 2015

Fourth Sunday in Lent

Gal   Galatians 4:21-31 * John 6:1-14
The Epistle and Gospel appointed for this Sunday teach us about the wide gulf between God's grace, and the weakness and hopelessness of man's highest aspirations apart from that grace. The Epistle is a blend of doctrine and St. Paul's autobiographical reminiscences that demonstrate the truth of that doctrine. The occasion for the writing of the Epistle was a heresy that is described in the 15th chapter of the Book of Acts. "And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved." This so troubled the Church that the first Council was called, the proto-Council of Jerusalem. This new and troubling doctrine contradicted what all the Apostles had taught ever since the day that St. Peter entered the house of Cornelius, and Gentiles had become part of the Church. 

This heresy is called the Judaizer heresy, and it has very much in common with a later heresy of the fourth century. Pelagius in the fourth century taught that man does not need the grace of God to become righteous, but can achieve perfection by the power of the flesh. What the Judaizers did not understand, and what later the Pelagians did not understand, is expressed perfectly by St. Paul in another Epistle, the Epistle to the Church in Rome: "For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh."1 The Law cannot save us, because the flesh is weak. The Law, rather, serves the purpose of diagnosing our genuine condition, that we are subject to sin and death, and that we need the Savior. In this context Paul opens the whole Epistle by contrasting the limited and weak state of man against the unlimited power and wisdom of God.

The Gospel tells of a miracle that Jesus used for the purpose of teaching that he alone is the food and drink of eternal life, that he imparts grace and salvation as we partake of him, the true Bread from heaven. He not only wrought our salvation: He himself is our salvation.

The Epistle

The only way to understand the Epistle is to know your Old Testament. The story from Genesis about Hagar, and her son, is the story about two sons of Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac. Both of them are the sons of Abraham, but Paul tells us that one, Ishmael, was born after the flesh, the other, Isaac, after the spirit. St. Paul considers his own life, and presents himself as an example of both of these, inasmuch as before his conversion he was very much the son of Abraham, but only after the flesh. Look at these words that were read today from the text we have heard: "But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now." In the overall context of the Epistle, this follows the autobiographical confession of St. Paul near its beginning, where he wrote:

"For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews' religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it: And profited in the Jews' religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers." 2

And, this gives an autobiographical flavor to what comes near the end of this Epistle:

"As many as desire to make a fair shew in the flesh, they constrain you to be circumcised; only lest they should suffer persecution for the cross of Christ. For neither they themselves who are circumcised keep the law; but desire to have you circumcised, that they may glory in your flesh. But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature." 3

And, so also an earlier passage:

"Even as Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness. Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham." 4

Saul of Tarsus had been that son of Abraham born only after the flesh, for he had yet to become a full son of Abraham by faith in the Messiah. Born after the flesh a son of Abraham, but not a son with the faith of Abraham, he persecuted the Church, those who were born after the spirit, those born according to the promise which was by faith. In those days he imagined that he was keeping the Law: "Imagined" I say, because he described his own self-deception in no uncertain terms, in yet another of his Epistles, and then describes the light of truth that shined on him:

"Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more: Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; Concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith."5

What Saul learned, on the day that Jesus Christ appeared to him, was that his greatest crowning act of righteousness, persecuting the Church, was a filthy rag,6 the sin of persecuting the Messiah himself. "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?" But he also learned that righteousness is accounted to us only through faith.


This was not simply any faith. The old question of faith and works can be very misleading if we see these as mere principles. What matters is not some thing called faith versus some thing called works, but specifically faith in Jesus Christ Himself. Only that faith can save us, because only Jesus Christ can do what the Law, the good, holy and death-dealing Law that condemns us all, cannot do. What the Law cannot do is not because it is weak, but because we are weak due to the Fall of man into sin and death.

Saul, on the road to Damascus, lying in the dust of death, now revealed by his own most righteous and zealous act to be a miserable offender in desperate need of God's mercy, rises to become Saint Paul the Apostle. No longer with self-deception that he had some righteousness of his own, but instead having the righteousness of faith in the Messiah, Jesus, he is forgiven, justified, and called to true service in the Kingdom of God.

So, when St. Paul contrasts faith in Jesus Christ against the works of the Law, he speaks from his own life. When he speaks of the good works to which Christians are called (in full agreement with St. James), he speaks even of these as part of the life of faith, something that charity itself, by the Holy Spirit, produces in us because of our faith; not something that we can manufacture by our own strength. So, he wrote to the Church in Ephesus:

"For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them."7

St. Paul had been the son of the bondwoman, and he so cast out the son of the bondwoman from his own heart and life, that he became the son of the free woman; that is, in place of Saul the persecutor was Paul the Apostle; he was born again, born of the spirit,8 a child of Abraham by faith. Now he receives persecution rather than dishing it out. And, that share of persecution was part of knowing Christ, fellowship with his sufferings in light of the hope of the resurrection.

The Gospel

The very next verse, directly following the selection we have heard today from the Gospel of John, says, "When Jesus therefore perceived that they would come and take him by force, to make him a king, he departed again into a mountain himself alone." Later, as recorded in the very same chapter, it was this that prompted Jesus to say to the crowds that sought for him, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Ye seek me, not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled." 9

The crowd was interested in having the problems of this world solved. The aspiration to have a king who would break the tyranny of a foreign empire, Rome, was understandable, as was the desire for a king who could employ his miraculous power to feed the nation. But, like those who later would teach salvation by some fleshly power, the worldly focus of the crowd fell short of God's grace as He was revealing it through His Son. 

This miracle revealed that Jesus Christ places in the hands of his Apostles miraculous food for all the people, and he does so in a desert place where no one can keep himself alive. Where there is no means of feeding, and where there is no power from human strength to bring forth bread from the earth, Jesus Christ provides all that is needed. He sustains life, feeding the bodies of the crowd to teach them that it is he who gives the only true bread, the food and drink of eternal life. For, we are in the desert place, unable to keep ourselves alive, unable to avoid the universal sentence for all human sin, namely, death. No matter how long we hang on in this desert, we do not have in ourselves the power to survive forever. Sooner or later, this applies to each one of us: "Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return."10

It is from this miracle that the Lord begins to teach them, to lift the vision of those who will see, and to speak the word to those who may hear: 

"Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world. Then said they unto him, Lord, evermore give us this bread. And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst."11

He went on: 

"Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me hath everlasting life. I am that bread of life. Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world. The Jews therefore strove among themselves, saying, How can this man give us his flesh to eat? Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me. This is that bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eateth of this bread shall live for ever."12

Not until "the night in which He was betrayed," when he broke the bread and took the cup, did they know how to eat His Body and drink His Blood. Those who continued to follow Him trusted Him enough to expect the revelation that would explain his words. "Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life," said Peter. And, later, in that night of the Last Supper they were not disappointed. 

Jesus Christ places into the hands of the ministers in His Church the means of eternal life, this Sacrament "generally necessary to salvation." But, remember that this sacrament is a means of grace only to those who believe in Jesus Christ. As St. Paul tells us in the 11th chapter of his First Epistle to the Church in Corinth, those who presume to eat and drink without faith, add sin to sin and incur judgment. They do not receive the grace of the sacrament. Therefore, our Book of Common Prayer only bids those who come with "hearty repentance and true faith." To approach the sacrament without "hearty repentance and true faith" is dangerous, profiting nothing, incurring judgment. Therefore, as we have heard, Jesus prefaced his teaching by saying, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me hath everlasting life. I am that bread of life."

When our Anglican Fathers wrote the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549, under the direction of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, they emphasized the need to eat and drink the sacrament rather than merely to attend Mass. They gave the service we are having this day a new and somewhat long name: "The Supper of the Lorde and the Holy Communion, commonly called the Masse." Since then, to emphasize the words of Christ ("take, eat...drink, ye all, of this...") Anglicans have called the Mass by this Biblical name, full of meaning: "Holy Communion." "Holy Communion" actually means something; and what it means is very important. It takes us to the words of Jesus Christ about Himself, and how He gives himself that we may partakers of Him: "I AM the Bread of life." The Name of God, "I AM" is contained in these words. The grace of God is revealed in these words. He is our salvation.

When you approach the altar rail, know this is the gift of Christ to you, and you are feeding on Him as he gives Himself. Come forward with hearty repentance and true faith, or not at all; because, we are not trying to keep ourselves alive by the efforts of our own flesh, weak as it is through sin. We put our trust in Jesus Christ, and not without that faith that makes us children of Abraham, born after the spirit because we were buried and risen with Christ in baptism, partaking of him by that same faith as we receive Him in this sacrament today. 

Even the best aspirations of mankind, of hopes for this world and confidence in our own ability, are nothing worth, compared to the grace of God revealed in his Son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

And now, unto God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost, be ascribed as is most justly due, all might, majesty, dominion, power and glory, henceforth, world without end. Amen.

1. Rom. 8:3
2. Gal.1:13,14
3. Gal. 6:12-15
4. Gal. 3:6,7
5. Phil. 3:4-9
6. Isaiah 64:6
7. Eph. 2:8-10
8. John 3:1-17, Rom. 6:1f
9. verse 26
10 Gen 1:19
11. John 6:32-35
12. John 6:47-58

Friday, March 06, 2015

Third Sunday in Lent

 Spiritual Warfare
(Deut. 6:1-9, 20-25, Psalm 25, Eph. 5:1-14, Luke 11:14-28)
The Scriptures and the Collect for this Sunday draw our attention to the fact of spiritual warfare, a very important theme all year long, not only in Lent. The essence of spiritual warfare, and of the greatest need of every human being, is summed up in the words of Jesus that we have heard already as the Gospel According to Luke was read: “He that is not with me is against me: and he that gathereth not with me scattereth.” The real question for every individual is this: Who is your king? Is Jesus Christ your king, or do you obey the prince of this world? 
When I was learning Hebrew at the Baltimore Hebrew College (now the Baltimore Hebrew University), and learning it the way that Jewish people are taught it (Sephardic Hebrew in fact), I found that a verse from the Book of Isaiah is used in basic instruction as an important tool because of how it rhymes. (I will stick to the Jewish tradition of using Adonai whenever the original contains the Name, YHVH.)
Kee Adonai Shophtenu

Adonai Makakenu
Adonai Malkenu
Hu Yeshienu

“For the LORD is our judge, the LORD is our lawgiver, the LORD is our king; he is our Salvation.” Isaiah 33:22

This is the essence of what Jesus said in today’s Gospel. We need him as our only Salvation; so we must acknowledge him to be our Judge, our Lawgiver and our King. In the word for our Salvation, do you see his name? Yeshienu, the plural possessive of Yeshua-or Jesus. He is our Judge, he is our Lawgiver, He is our King, and therefore, he is our Salvation. We gather with him, our only Salvation, or we scatter, lost forever. 
The collect today speaks of God as “the defence against our enemies”. What is meant by the use of the word enemies? Classically, Christians have known there are three enemies: The world, the flesh and the devil. 
The image we are given in the Gospel reading is that of the strong man being overcome by One even stronger than he. The devil has dominated the world, and subjected mankind to his will since the Fall. But, when Christ came into the world, He overcame the strong man and spoiled his goods. However, we have yet to see our complete liberation, which will be at Christ’s second coming. At that time even death itself will be destroyed. What we are told is that we who belong to Christ have been set free from the domination of Satan, but that for now our freedom must be completed by enduring a battle. This battle is a defensive fight against the world, the flesh and the devil.        
There is also an offensive fight, one in which the Church attacks, and Satan is forced to be on the defensive. That is another subject, the subject of mission, of evangelism.     
To answer one obvious and confusing question, what is the world; that is in the sense in which it is an enemy? St. John tells us to love not the world, nor to love the things in it: Those things are the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life (I John 2:15f). The world, in this sense, is defined in the first chapter of the Gospel of John, which we hear often. Speaking of Christ, it says : “He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not.” That verse tells of a great tragedy, namely the Fall of Man into sin and death, the state from which Christ redeems us. Because Man is the head of this created order, the fall is the Fall of the whole world. And the definition of “the world” as an enemy, a force that opposes us as Christians if we try to live a holy life, is found in these words: “the world knew Him not.” The world does not know Christ.
To attack us, the world makes use of our flesh, assaulting us with desires of the flesh, and of the eyes, and with that deadly sin of pride, whereby we place ourselves upon the throne of God. Imagining ourselves upon His throne, in our conceits, we demand and expect a life to which we are not entitled; we think it an injustice when life is not kind to us. We forget that if justice were served, we would be in hell; that what evils befall us are less than we deserve. We forget to be thankful, and instead complain against God. We refuse, indeed despise, the cross.         
This is what the world, acting as our enemy, does to us through our senses and through our conceits. It is to this that St. Paul speaks in the Epistle reading. And he does so with direct words about the dangers that surround us, as well as those that come from within our own hearts. Yet all the while he does so with words that give us hope. That hope is because of the fact that we ourselves, though once a part of the very darkness of sin and death itself, are now part of the light of life, because we are in Christ
And, we are given practical help in the Old Testament commandment from Deuteronomy, to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. This commandment contains the most revered statement in Jewish liturgy, the Sh’mai: Sh’mai Israel, Adonai Elehenu, Adonai echod.  “Hear O’ Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.”  
Sh’mai is a very important word in Hebrew. It means two things when translated into English. Depending upon how it is used, it translates as “hear” or as “obey.” The first thing to obey is the great commandment itself. “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.”  
This is very practical. Consider this simple fact. None of us here will be sinless, that is free of the full dangers and lures of sin and temptation, until we are made perfect either after death or at Christ’s coming again- whichever happens first. We remain in need of God’s grace all the time. We will not achieve sinless perfection in this life. But, we can, nonetheless, practice obedience. And obedience, though it includes saying “no" to worldly desires, that is that it has its "no" (because of God’s commandments that use the phrase “thou shalt not”), has, as well, its “yes”. Obedience says both “no” and “yes”. No, to the world, no to the flesh, no to the devil. But, all of these “nos” amount to a far greater and single “yes” to God. And that “yes” is a yes to many things. To charity with its demands and inconveniences, to prayer, to fasting and repentance, and also to the taking up of the cross. Yes to taking up your cross is itself the big “No” to the world, the flesh and the devil. It is the great “Yes” of love to God.      
Jesus did not carry the cross only upon one Friday. He carried it every day, living always to do the Father’s will rather than His own. We say no to the world and yes to God when we give our time to Him, when we give our strength to Him, instead of wasting it upon many pleasure and cares. The world will drain all of our strength, if we give ourselves to every fruitless activity that comes along; or if we destroy our bodies (which belong to God) through drugs, alcohol or immorality, or even through seemingly innocent things. Some people are inordinate about, for example, shopping (we have heard the phrase “shop till you drop”). Our strength must be yielded to God in love, not wasted and spent foolishly.  
What does it mean to love God with all thy mind? For example, in the Grocery stores, I cannot cease to be amazed at how much paper and ink are wasted by tabloids that report news, or perhaps create fiction, or perhaps a combination of the two, about the private lives of celebrities, or something equally meaningless. Remember the slogan of the United Negro College Fund: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”      
We owe God the love of giving Him our minds. When some people use the word “theology” as if it were a dirty word, it tells me that they are afraid to love God with their minds, and in fact that they despise those who try to so love Him. Remember a collect from Advent. Love God and give your mind to Him as you “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” the scriptures.    
And, the Lesson from Deuteronomy (at Morning Prayer) commands us to teach our children, to inform their minds in the truth of God’s word. Those who want their children to decide it all for themselves, to come to their own conclusions about religion, sin by neglecting the religious education of children entrusted to their care by God. The scriptures do not give parents the right to neglect the spiritual formation and education of their children. The modern idea that the children should figure it all out for themselves is not an enlightened idea. Failure to teach them the true Faith is a sin. They must be taught God’s word and raised in the Church; for having had them baptized, Christian parents have brought them out of Satan’s bondage into Christ’s kingdom; they do not belong to their parents, nor to themselves. They are God’s children, and parents are entrusted (as stewards) with their care and their godly upbringing. Furthermore, it is not enough that they are taught in just any old church (or new); but that what they are taught is the truth of God’s word.      
We must, with God’s grace by His Holy Spirit, withstand these three enemies: The world, the flesh and the devil, because we belong, body, soul and strength, to God.     
The word that fits here is the word “asceticism.” This is a Lenten theme too. Now, if we want to be good modern people, we must react negatively to this word. We must conjure up images of sleeping on desert sands, fasting until we look like skeletons, perhaps of sleeping like Hindus upon a bed of nails. The negative reaction must include a bigoted rejection of the whole monastic life.        

But, as followers of the Catholic Tradition, especially the English Catholic Tradition, the word “asceticism” must be understood in a practical way. We say “no” to those things that inhibit prayer and the growth of the virtues, not simply to obvious and gross sin. For example, we should not fit the normal American pattern of watching six hours of T.V. a day every day. I hope that our “yes” to God’s call upon our time for prayer, upon our mind in learning His word, and to serving Him in whatever good works He prepares for us to walk in, simply does not leave us with enough time for inordinate and intemperate, though seemingly innocent, misuse of time.        
This practical saying of “yes” to God, and taking up the cross of Christ, dying to our desires, withstanding the world, the flesh and the devil, is true Christian asceticism. It is also to love God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and strength. We ought to clutter our lives with the presence of the Holy Spirit so fully that the evil one can have no place in us to call home. These are practical ways to live as people who gather with Christ, and therefore are not scattered.
Let us learn it in Lent. Let us live it always.


Friday, February 27, 2015

Second Sunday in Lent

I Thessalonians 4:1-8 * Matthew 15:21-28

The will of God, St. Paul tells us in today’s Epistle, is your sanctification. He repeats this, saying it a second time this way: “For God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness.” The will of God is treated by many like a problem, like a mathematical problem so complex in nature that it requires endless work and a thousand chalk boards. Others treat the will of God as a matter that requires special revelation about their own futures, a kind of direction either from his very mouth, or by dreams and visions or by signs. Often this causes sincere Christians to be behave much too much like unbelievers who commit the sin of going to fortune tellers (strictly forbidden in scripture), being obsessed with answers about the future, and very much for selfish motives. Still others treat the will of God as a matter to be neglected by its very nature, a complete mystery not to be solved. This last category is not unlike the common misreading of the prophet Isaiah, where a famous passage is often taken to mean the very opposite of what it truly says:

“Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the LORD, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater: So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.”1

In that text the prophet contrasts the ways and thoughts of the unrighteous and wicked against the ways and thoughts of God, too high for the wicked and unrighteous man to grasp. But, God’s ways and thoughts come down from heaven like the rain and snow, coming down in the revelation of his word. Therefore, the wicked and unrighteous man can repent, and can learn to renew his mind.2 The ways and thoughts of God that are revealed speak to the mind of man.   So said the prophet Moses to the whole people of Israel: “The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.”3 It may be comforting to treat the will of God only as those secret things of Providence, hidden mysteries beyond human thought. Indeed, more of God’s wisdom remains hidden to human view than what is seen. But, the will of God does not belong exclusively in these categories: It is not a problem to work on endlessly, nor is it likely that most individuals will be guided in every decision of life by signs and dreams, nor is the will of God too lofty a subject for our consideration. For, as Moses and Isaiah spoke long ago, it is the task of the believer to pay heed to what God has, in fact, revealed. And why? As Moses said, to do what God has commanded, and as Isaiah said, to repent, to abandon all wicked ways and unrighteous thoughts, so to learn God’s ways and thoughts.
Therefore, in that light we repeat what St. Paul wrote: “This is the will of God, even your sanctification…For God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness.” I want to quote two other passages by the Apostle that help clarify this even more. In the first chapter of his Epistle to the Romans he addressed the Christians there as “all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints.”4 He opened another Epistle in similar fashion: “Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours.” Whatever else the will of God may mean in your own life, this is clear: You are called to be a saint. That is what is meant by the words: “For I am the LORD that bringeth you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: ye shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.”6
The word “holy” is related to the words “sanctify,” “sanctification,” “santos” and “saint.” Since the will of God is your sanctification, the will of God is your sainthood. Some people are sure that saints are not ordinary people at all, but special people like the comic book superheroes. They can leap tall buildings at a single bound: They came from Krypton, or were bitten by a radioactive spider. They have an advantage over regular people. Only a fool, they figure, thinks he can become a saint. Others, especially among Evangelicals, assume that Paul says that the Christians are all called saints because we have already arrived. But, the word “called” does not mean labeled, as in tagged and designated. A nominal sainthood, a merely titular sanctification, or even one somehow completely imputed by grace alone, is not his meaning. Rather, the word “called” appears, as in all those who are “called saints,” to speak of a calling. Whatever you do in life, all Christians have a common vocation to become saints. Some of us have been called to the ordained ministry, and others have been called to various ministries in the Church as laity. But, all of us who are baptized into Christ have been called to become saints.
Most of us began like the Gentile woman in today’s story.  That is, most of us were born as Gentiles, which means that in addition to being born in sin we were also, in the words of St. Paul, “in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands; That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world.” 7 I do not see how the human condition can get any worse this side of Hell. If you believe that Paul was rough on the Gentiles, remember that in today’s Gospel, the Lord, that is, Jesus the Lover of mankind, “all compassion, holy unbounded love” himself, referred to Gentiles by the flattering title, “the dogs.” We need to pay attention carefully in order to learn the point that Jesus was making, and to understand we must learn some Biblical theology. So, we proceed.

Father Abraham
The story of this Gentile woman is related very much to the Epistle today, for in it we heard, “that every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour; not in the lust of concupiscence, even as the Gentiles which know not God.” St. Paul makes the same distinction here that he made elsewhere when addressing converts to Christianity from among the Gentiles. “Ye know that ye were Gentiles, carried away unto these dumb idols, even as ye were led,”8 he writes to the Corinthians.   In the passage I quoted earlier he began with the words, “remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles.” Note the past tense in these words. “You were Gentiles…In time past Gentiles.” What is he teaching these people, but that, as he goes on to say in the Epistle to the Ephesians, “But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ…Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God; And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit.” 9
Whatever ethnic pride you may have from whatever background, in Christ you are part of Israel. When my Celtic ancestors were painting themselves blue and offering human sacrifice, the Jews were worshiping the living God in his temple at Jerusalem. But, I do not say these things only to condemn anti-Semitism (though I do point out that to hate the Jews is to hate Jesus Christ, because it is a Jewish Man we worship as God the Son).  I say these things to make you aware of how your sanctification begins. In the Gospel today we do not see the woman become angry or offended. Why not? She was just called, along with all her people, a dog.           She came for help because of what her daughter needed, and here this Jewish holy man ignores her, and when pressed seems to respond with an insult. But, she continued to press for his help, and in her persistence faith took the form of humility. Indeed, as all the virtues are related and finally summed up in charity, this woman’s faith was expressed by humility in that she continued to plead for his help. “And she said. Truth Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table.” At this point the Lord turns to face her, and in so doing reveals his will for all the nations of mankind whom he had come to save from sin and death.

The Amen of Abraham 
“Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt.” This is why we need the Biblical theology I mentioned. What does faith, as mentioned by our Lord, indicate for us? Again, we turn to St. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles.10 In the fourth chapter of his Epistle to the Church in Rome, he builds on the meaning of a very significant part of the Book of Genesis. The Apostle made a very important point about the faith of Abraham. First, that faith was counted to him for righteousness.11 This was important to Paul, for in his conversion he learned that it is by faith that we receive salvation; that grace is something we cannot receive by the Law. The importance of this faith is the essence both of his Epistle to the Romans and his Epistle to the Galatians. Indeed, he tells the Ephesians, “For by grace are ye saved through faith.”12 Now, in the fourth chapter of Romans, as I mentioned, Paul develops this teaching about faith, and reminds us that at the time that Abraham’s faith was counted to him, or to Abram as he was still named (God would change his name later to Abraham), he was not yet circumcised. The meaning of this is that the same faith that was counted to Abram for righteousness is the faith that also is counted as righteousness to all those who were in time past called Gentiles.

And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also: And the father of circumcision to them who are not of the circumcision only, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which he had being yet uncircumcised.”13

We are taught by Paul that the uncircumcised Abram, that is Abraham, is the father of all believers, even those who were Gentiles. When our Lord tells the woman that “great is her faith,” he welcomes her into the family of Abraham, which is the household of God. So too, he welcomes you.

“He therefore that ministereth to you the Spirit, and worketh miracles among you, doeth he it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Even as Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness. Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed. So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham.”14

And, what is the faith that Abraham had? Look at the actual revelation he received from God:

And, behold, the word of the LORD came unto him, saying, This (i.e. his servant) shall not be thine heir; but he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir. And he brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be. And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness.”15

If we look at this in light of all that would follow, we can say that Abraham believed the Gospel. How so? Because the promises made to Abraham were about the land his people would have, and about his seed. Immediately, that promise about his seed makes us think of Isaac. But, once again it is Paul who takes it to its end: “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ.”16 The history that unfolded takes us from Isaac the son of Abraham to Mary the Virgin, centuries later. In all its history, God would neither scatter Israel nor allow them to be lost in idolatry. He did not allow them to be destroyed like so many other nations who were taken captive by powerful kings, but he let them suffer when they needed to be purified. “Salvation is of the Jews,”17 said our Lord. So, the revelation given to Abraham was about more than simply the son that Sarah would bear.
The revelation given to Abraham was to unfold among the people of Israel in coming centuries, as it would be clarified by prophets, such as Jeremiah who told of the New Covenant that Christ spoke of, on the night in which he was betrayed, as the new Covenant in his own blood. It would be clarified by Isaiah who spoke of the Servant of the Lord, especially the Suffering Servant who would take away the sins of the whole world: “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.”18 The prophets foretold all, and so it came to pass. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us,19 and he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil,20 until the day came that he was crucified as the one true sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. And the words of the prophets were fulfilled again when he rose the third day from the dead, that is, the third day before any corruption could begin.21
The faith that Abraham had was belief that what God had revealed is true. The word “believed” as it appears in the original in that verse, where we see that Abram believed, is a very interesting Hebrew word. You say that word quite often, usually at the end of prayers. People tell us it means, “so be it.” But, it really means, very simply, “true.” That word is “amen.” The word amen is from the word emet, which means truth. What is the faith of Abraham; that faith that makes you a child of God, and that you need in order to begin to become a saint?
The extent to which Abraham would see is a mystery to us, and it is only partly unfolded by what Jesus said. “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad.”22 We know this, however: Abraham believed the truth fully to the extent that God revealed it to him. We see, on this side of salvation history, that God has revealed to the Church the fullness of the Gospel. It is given to us to know the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven.23 We have been given the revelation that Jesus Christ is God of God, light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made. We know that he is fully God and fully man, born of a Virgin. We know that he died to take away our sins and give us his righteousness, and rose to give us his own immortality. We were taught by the Risen Christ the true Name of God: “The Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
We said the words of that great Creed of the Church, and we affirmed our belief in everything that God has revealed. Each of you said, “I believe.” In that Creed you spoke of the God who has called you to be holy as he is holy, and you have spoken of the great love he revealed in giving you salvation through his Son. You confessed your faith in the Son who is one with the Father as God, and one with us as a man begotten by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. You said, “I believe” about his atoning death and victorious resurrection. You said “I believe in the Holy Spirit,” God in our very midst who gives grace and makes us holy as we participate in the life he offers. You are a child of Abraham, and when you said “Amen” it was the faith of Abraham. On this side of God’s revelation, you said the “Amen” of your father Abraham.
·                     1. Isaiah 55:7-11

2. Romans 12:1,2

3. Deuteronomy 29:29
4. Romans 1:7
5. I Corinthians 1:2
6. Leviticus 11:45
7. Ephesians 2: 12
8. I Corinthians 12:2
9. Ephesians 2:13, 19, 20
10. Not only does Paul use this as a personal title, but it is the clear meaning of the words spoken to him by Jesus Christ: “for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee; Delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee, To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me.” Acts 26:16-18
11. Genesis 15:6
12. See Ephesians 2:8-12
13. Romans 4:11,12
14. Galatians 3:5-9
15. Genesis 15:4-6
16. Galatians 3:16
17. John 4:22
18. Isaiah 53:5,6
19. John 1:14
20. Acts 10:38
21. Psalm 16:10
22. John 8:56
23. Matthew 13:11