TRINITY VIII 2003
Psalm 119: 33-48
Rom. 8: 12-17
If I were of the sort to mince words the scriptures appointed for this day, appointed long ago by remarkable providence it seems, would not give me that option. So, if I had a word mincer I would have to keep it unplugged; but you may rest assured that the priests of this diocese, under the leadership of our bishop, have no such appliance. The Gospel reading from St. Matthew tells us to “beware of false prophets,” not simply to consider the possibility of their existence. They do exist, and we must be on our guard, so our Lord warns us.
“Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep’s clothing...” A con man with a dishonest face has no chance of success; neither does a wolf if he comes among sheep who possess reason, unless he looks as pleasant and harmless as they. Jesus has told us what to expect, of what to beware. The scriptures speak of false teachers, of doctrines of demons, of the spirit of Antichrist, and the spirit of error. But here the specific phrase is used, “false prophets.”
We must beware of those who claim a higher wisdom that teaches something different from what has been held everywhere, always and by all. To them the Tradition of the Church, what it has believed in every age and place, suffers from defects that require the better and higher way shown by some new prophet.
This is convenient for them, because a prophet is hearing the truth directly from God. Furthermore, a prophet can claim to be the one who enlightens with the new paradigm, God’s new epoch for all mankind. As such, he can claim that he is persecuted by the unenlightened bigots who hold to the past, and who act upon a need to remain secure within the old epoch.
He can claim that he follows the Lord and the apostles, as well as the Old Testament prophets, and that all criticism of his “new revelations” are in fact the cruelty and evil of those who persecute him. For so persecuted they the prophets that were before him. He is the messenger of that light that comes Once to Every Man and Nation: “New occasions teach new duties, and time makes ancient good uncouth.”
The use of this method allows him to appropriate Biblical phrases, adopt a Biblical persona, but completely reject the content of everything that the Bible actually teaches. He can contradict every true prophet, the apostles and the Lord, by denying everything for which every real martyr died; and then he can claim that his detractors are malicious. The fact that the Lord Jesus said that the ones who believed Moses and the prophets would be His own followers, and that we would recognize false prophets by the fruit of false teaching, does not make any difference to the apostate in prophetic disguise, in sheep’s clothing. He claims to be wearing the mantle of the same Elijah who would have had him beheaded at the brook Kishon.
What do we see in the scriptures appointed for this day, appointed long ago? (I say “long ago” because we use the lectionary of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, which was not new at the time.) From Sirach, in Ecclesiasticus, we learn that wisdom is essentially a moral attribute, as we learn in all the Wisdom literature of the Bible. It is not in sophistication, the rich man’s sophistry, but rather it is found in humility; it begins with the fear of God. The same lesson is taught to us in the 119th Psalm, adding the simple fact that this wisdom comes only to those who love the truth, and who seek it in the word of God- in fact those who hunger for that word. And from St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans we learn that we must become the servants of righteousness, and turn away from self-destructive lusts; that we must live in and by the Spirit.
The true prophetic spirit can speak in only the same way. The idea that what is new is prophetic, and what is old is not, is a lie. Indeed, the reverse is true. As Isaiah said, “To the Law and to the testimony, if they speak not according to this word, they have no light in them.” As Jesus said, “if they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.” “If you believed Moses’ words you would believe Me, for he wrote of Me.” Those who reject the Law and the prophets, yet claim to speak for Jesus, cannot be true prophets. Neither can those who reject the apostles, to whom He said, “He who receives you receives Me.”
The idea that the Holy Spirit is always leading us into some new thing hitherto unknown is a heresy, based upon a notion of a god who is using creation in order to grow and to fulfil his potential. But, our God, the Father of Jesus Christ, is perfect, complete and in need of nothing; He does not grow or change. He is not capricious; He does not adjust, or change with the times. He is the Ancient of Days, from Everlasting to everlasting He is God, Only Wise and blessed forever.
In the Incarnation of the Word, God entered time in the Person of Jesus Christ by taking His creation, the fulness of human nature, into His uncreated and eternal Person, by the Holy Ghost, of the Virgin Mary. There is nothing to add to His revelation of the Father, and certainly nothing to adjust. The truth was delivered once for all to the saints, and for it we must earnestly contend. The revelation of God is perfect in Jesus Christ.
Well, this brings me to the news of this past week- reluctantly I might add; for when I start speaking of the glorious Incarnation I hate to lower my sights to any other topic. I have been asked during the past week, as probably has every Anglican priest, to give my opinion. Simply put, you can change the rules of a country club, but not of the Church. I had a conversation with a young law student this past week, a sincere fellow who was telling me that we must take a view on this Gene Robinson issue somewhere “in the middle”- this is what we cannot do. I asked him the simple question: “Do you believe that your religion is revealed by God or fashioned by men?” He is a Lutheran, and answered “I believe the former.” Well, then, we cannot change it.
I look with sadness at the church in which I grew up, in which I was baptized into Christ in 1958, in which I was confirmed, in which all my children were baptized into Christ, and I see that many of them do not believe in God anymore; at least not in the eternal unchanging God Who has revealed Himself in Christ. I must conclude, based upon the words of Jesus which you have heard me quote, that those who will not hear Moses and the prophets, and who reject the apostles, do not believe Jesus Christ- they are not persuaded though One has risen from the dead.
I must digress a bit further. I heard some of the bishops who voted to allow the consecration of Gene Robinson as a bishop, on news programs. They showed their willingness to give Moses and the Law, to use a slang term from old gangster films, a “bum wrap.” They slung false accusations at the Torah. “After all, the Bible was used” they said “to justify slavery.” Was it now? That is fascinating, because Deuteronomy forbids the very idea of slavery, commanding that any servant fleeing from his master is not to be treated as property- he is not to be forcibly returned. There is no Hebrew word that means “slave”, despite some of the newer translations trying to squeeze such a word into the Old Testament where it does not fit. Or maybe they were referring to New Testament passages which treat the reality of slavery as a fact of life under the Pagan brutality of Rome, something the Christians had no power to change. Who knows which they meant? Either way they were wrong, and this was due to their eagerness to defame the Bible and the people who were involved in its writing.
And that was the point, grasping for straws to prove that ancient good is uncouth, that their god is realizing his potential, and that we are not as wise as they. They were presenting gnostic heresy, that is claiming a right to teach “secret knowledge” which only they, the sophisticated and initiated could possess. And they want us to know how much contempt we ought to have for the ancient scriptures; how much contempt they have for everyone who believes the scriptures.
Is charity, namely the love which comes from God and is the sign of His Spirit working in the human heart, served by affirming people in their sins? Did Jesus lack charity when He spoke the hard truth to the Pharisees, calling them a brood of vipers who would not escape the damnation of hell if they continued in their hardness of heart? Did St. Paul lack charity when he commanded the Corinthian Church to expel from its midst an immoral man, and then later commanded them to take him back because he had repented with genuine sorrow? All of this was the expression of charity, spoken in a kind of pain that very few are willing to understand.
To quote Dr. Mouneer Anis, the Bishop of Egypt:"We cannot comprehend a decision to elect as bishop a man who has forsaken his wife and the vows he made to her in order to live in a sexual relationship with another man outside the bonds of marriage." That is a good statement, for it makes the point that this man cannot, by his life, set forth the teaching of the Church about the sacrament of matrimony, which is vitally important.
Nonetheless, I must ask, is the real scandal simply the fact that Gene Robinson was, by this vote, approved to be made a bishop? No. Before this scandal there was another scandal, namely that he had no bishop who loved him as God loves; neither do the majority of bishops in his church have this love for him. As St. Paul describes it: “charity rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth”.
For true charity, the love of God, would have been expressed in calling him to repent of his sin, the sin of abandoning his wife and children. It would have extended whatever pastoral care is needed to help him recover and heal, instead of affirming a self-destructive, unnatural and immoral relationship. If necessary- meaning if still he would not repent- love, as God loves, would have brought about his unfrocking and even excommunication. How else can we make known the seriousness of eternal matters, of the value of a man’s soul, both to that man himself and to others under the Church’s pastoral care? The greatest harm done in this whole mess is not to the Anglican Communion, or to the Episcopal Church, but to the soul of an unrepentant sinner. And then, by extension, it is the harm done by telling others, by this example, that they need not repent of their sins either.
It is the harm done by those who, as enemies of the cross of Christ, are sending the message that to follow Christ means to feel good, and to affirm ourselves in this temporary and transitory life. It is done by those who encourage thirsty people to drink the seawater, so that their desire becomes intense, until they are dominated by insatiable cravings which are death to all who indulge them. It is, possibly, to blaspheme the Holy Ghost by calling good evil and evil good, until they cause not only themselves, but all their flock to perish. This is the great harm done by false prophets. Beware of them.
I can conclude only by promising you this: We, the clergy of the Anglican Diocese of the Chesapeake are committed to speaking the truth in love. We do not promise that we can affirm you or make you feel good. What comforts we can give we will give by the sacraments and by the Word of God. The challenges we may have to give in calling you to change, or to turn away from sin, will be in faithfulness to you and according to God’s word. We do not promise to be infallible or perfect; but, we do intend, by God’s grace, always to be faithful to the scriptures as understood by the Church in its Tradition. Jesus said that the Spirit of Truth would guide the Church into all truth; and we know also that the Spirit of Truth cannot contradict Himself, for truth is eternal and unchanging. We will endeavor always to hold to what has been held everywhere, always and by all.
And to this end we ask for your help, for your honesty if you believe we are failing you. And we ask above all for your prayers.
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, now and forever. Amen.