Saturday, February 14, 2009

Sexagesima, or the second Sunday before Lent

II Cor. 11:19-31

Luke 8:4-15

The Gospel and the Epistle appointed for this day blend well together when we consider the patience of St. Paul. He endured all things that could come on anyone, and so brought forth fruit an hundredfold. When he began his walk he turned away from the cares and riches and pleasures of this life. In time of persecution he did not fall away; and in his case the time of persecution was lifelong until his death as a martyr. Instead of complaining that God was terribly unfair in leading him through fire and water, he gave thanks that he could suffer with Christ. Paul saw his own sufferings as leading to good, especially emphasizing how God used those very trials to further his evangelistic mission as an apostle. Through these sufferings Paul was able to reach people with the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and his salvation.

He said as much in another epistle, writing to the Church in Philipi these words: "But I would ye should understand, brethren, that the things which happened unto me have fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the gospel; So that my bonds in Christ are manifest in all the palace, and in all other places; And many of the brethren in the Lord, waxing confident by my bonds, are much more bold to speak the word without fear." (Philippians 1:12-14)

In today's epistle, the long list of things he endured was not written down for the sake of boasting, but to establish that he had credentials that his critics did not have, namely certain false apostles and teachers who were troubling the Church in Corinth. That is, he was not waxing rich or gaining status in the world, and was not living in luxury. To choose to continue with his life of persecution and danger, and great discomfort, instead of going back to Tarsus and profiting from his family's tent-making business (no doubt as suppliers to the imperial army), was a proof that his service was genuine. For that reason, and that reason alone, he wrote those words to the Christians in Corinth, that they would hear him and turn away from the false teachers who taught what the Apostle condemned in the strongest terms, in this part of the same chapter from which today's Epistle was taken:

But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. For if he that cometh preacheth another Jesus, whom we have not preached, or if ye receive another spirit, which ye have not received, or another gospel, which ye have not accepted, ye might well bear with him. (II Corinthians 11:3,4)

It does matter who you allow to serve as your spiritual leader, teacher and guide. Our own separation from the Episcopal Church was due to this very problem, a false gospel, another Jesus, and another spirit which we did not receive (that is, not the Holy Spirit, he that we received in our Confirmation). And our continued separation is due to the fact that their errors have remained uncorrected, and have gone from bad to worse. St. Paul is telling the Corinthian Christians that some ministers are called into their vocation by Satan, not by God.

For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works. (vs. 13-15)

In case anyone thinks this whole thing is all about what prayer Book we like better, or what kind of liturgy pleases us, let me make something very clear: The issues are of eternal consequence, not simply matters of taste. Furthermore, with eternity in mind, it is necessary to be in the Church where the true Gospel is taught, where the pure Word of God is preached and valid sacraments are duly administered, whether everything is to our taste or not. It is not about satisfying our emotions (which satisfaction may come or not come) but about eternal life with Christ as opposed to being forever lost.

It is in the context of St. Paul telling those ancient Christians in the city of Corinth that they needed to follow him, and reject the false ministers of a false Gospel, that he reminds them of his own sufferings and persecutions. I have quoted a few parts of the same chapter that lead to the Epistle appointed for this day. Let me remind you of a little bit of it:

Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep in journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? who is offended, and I burn not? If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is blessed for evermore, knoweth that I lie not.

So, once again I want to quote those words from another epistle, the Epistle to the Philippians. "But I would ye should understand, brethren, that the things which happened unto me have fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the gospel." As I must prepare to leave for North Carolina, trusting that God is calling me to ministry at St. Benedict's in Chapel Hill, I want to bring out from these words of scripture a very good and positive message for St. Andrew's. And, I know that you may with confidence continue to follow your bishop, the pastor who has been in apostolic ministry for many years in this town of Easton.

Yes, God has allowed us our portion of suffering. We had planned to move from our old rented space into this place for over three years before it finally happened. Some of you were with us on that early Spring day in 2002 when we were shown all three buildings of this campus. Delays took place as we waited for the Roman Catholics who were here to begin building the new Sts. Peter and Paul Church; and finally we moved in, after a vote taken by the whole congregation after a Sunday Holy Communion (which I remember as a unanimous vote) in 2005. The idea of an economic downturn three years later, simply did not seem at all likely.

So, in a few weeks St. Andrew's will be in a different location here in Easton, and the entire foreclosure has been an occasion of suffering for all of us. Here is how you should think about that: God will use this seemingly unhappy move to further the Gospel. If you will remain faithful, some day in the future you will all be able to look back at this time, and what will have followed, and say with St. Paul, " the things which happened unto us have fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the gospel." That phrase, "the furtherance of the gospel," speaks of the evangelistic mission of the Church. As I said a few weeks ago, this is a time to increase the level of your own commitment, not to be discouraged. Accept it as a challenge, take it as an opportunity, and embrace it as an adventure.

Some of you have never attended church in a converted building, and so the change may be good for you. I suppose also that none of us has ever attended church in a catacomb, sneaking there before sunrise to avoid being captured and executed by the authorities for the crime of being a Christian. And, in many lands, the persecution goes on. Anyone who needs a nice church building, a bell, an organ, and stained glass windows, in order to feel like they are in church, would have had quite a problem in the time of persecution, roughly 250 years between Nero and Constantine. Most of "Our fathers chained in prisons dark" did not, in time of persecution, fall away. But others did, of course, fall away. Those who fell away had not received the word in the good ground of a sincere heart.

By the standards of the world, we live in luxury. And, as far as suffering goes, ours has been light. But now, embrace the opportunity that lies ahead. Remain faithful, increase your own level of commitment, and let everybody out there know that St. Andrew's is alive and well, alive because Christ is risen from the dead: Well, because the Holy Spirit is with you in all his power. In the time that lies ahead, you will discover the gifts he has given you, gifts that some of you had not known before. You will know a joy that comes only by working together with God. And, the things that have happened to you will fall out to the furtherance of the Gospel.

1 comment:

poetreader said...

The able theologian as a compassionate pastor -- this sermon is a jewel and I believe St. Paul smiles at this use of his words.