Holy Communion: James 1:17-21 * John 16:5-14
When that time would arrive, the Day of Pentecost, when they would be baptized with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5), they would begin to be the voice of God in the earth, the messengers by whom the Holy Spirit would convict the world of sin, and of righteousness and of judgment. They would know the truth and be able to teach it to all generations that have followed. This plan from eternity, the eternal counsel of God's will, has meaning for the us as the Church, and for each one of you as a member of the Body of Christ.
To begin with, based on the promise made here by the Lord Jesus Christ, you may believe the teaching that has been handed down throughout the centuries. "Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth," is not spoken to any of you as an individual. You cannot decide the truth, in this sense, for yourself.
The truth has been revealed; and so, from earliest times, the Church has heard the voice of the Lord above all in the books set apart as Holy Scripture, the New Testament books recognized very much as we have them in our Canon alongside the books of the Law, and of the Prophets and Sages of Israel who had spoken before of the coming of Christ, all quoted as having special authority by the earliest Christian writers. In spite of popular fiction to the contrary, the New Testament was recognized by the Church, it was a vox populi recognition, with a few questions raised about II Peter and Revelation, and a few people who believed in a book called The Shepherd of Hermes. But, the overwhelming consensus throughout the Church was that the voice of God was recognized clearly in the Twenty-Seven books of the New Testament, as it had been recognized in the Old Testament all along. No one imposed any of it, certainly not an emperor.
And, even with its human imperfections and sins, the Church has been what St. Paul called her, when writing to St. Timothy, "the house of God, which is the Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth." (I Tim. 3:15) What it means for you, as an individual, whether or not you are scholar, is that when people come literally knocking at your door with another gospel about another Christ, you may be certain that the Holy Spirit, in his role as the Spirit of Truth, guided the Apostles into all truth, and that the Church has received by revelation what it has passed on to you and your children with authority, especially as it is summarized in that great Creed we have said together this day.
The old phrase from what we call the Vincentian Canon is not true literally; but is true with poetic license. The phrase translates into English as "That which has been believed everywhere, always and by all." In fact, nothing has been "believed everywhere, always and by all," perhaps not even that two plus two equals four. But, using poetic license, it tells us that from earliest times the Church was guided by pastors and teachers who received the teaching of the Apostles and understood the Scriptures with a like mind. The poetic license by which we say "That which has been believed everywhere, always and by all," is, in fact, that they heard their Master's voice in words of the Apostles and preserved that same doctrine in the Scriptures, which they understood. What makes us catholic people is that we receive not only the books they believed in, but we receive those books as they understood them, not with some novel interpretation. As Anglicans, everyone of you is encouraged to read the Scriptures yourselves. We, among the clergy, do not teach the whims of human beings, the doctrines merely of men, hoping that we may rely on your ignorance, so as not to be discovered. We teach the plain meaning of Scripture relying on you, that reading it daily yourselves, you may glean the truth from what we say, however imperfectly we may express it.
Be like the noble Bereans, and search the Scriptures daily to see if what we say is so. (Acts 17:11) And, be guided by the wisdom of the Church from its earliest generations. Let me make this simple; if someone's teaching and preaching does not agree with that Creed we said, you may be confident that it does not agree with Scripture; and that means that it contradicts what the Spirit of Truth revealed to the Church. By the way, the Holy Spirit does not grow in His understanding, He does not learn new things, and He does not change His mind. His wisdom is perfect and eternal.
This brings us to the Epistle we heard, the words of St. James, that with God there is "no variableness, neither shadow of turning." In fact, we have two phrases from that Epistle that can cause problems to modern ears. This phrase, "no variableness, neither shadow of turning," sounds so grand and musical that we may fail to think about it. The other is, "superfluity of naughtiness," because it makes sin sound trivial. Today we think of "naughtiness" merely as childish misbehavior, and it suggests innocence. The Third Millennium Bible is almost word for word the King James, but with a few differences. It says "superfluity of wickedness." We need to understand both of these phrases, and to understand them in context.
First of all, however, notice that James affirms what I told you, that our salvation is God's gracious will in eternity. It was all his initiative. "Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth," says James. That means that everything that happened in Christ's coming, when the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14), was the plan of God in eternity, the one will of the Trinity. It was God's will to beget us again, that we could be born again unto eternal life, delivered from sin and death. Christ delivered us from sin and the consequences of sin by his cross.
This was not Jesus pacifying His angry Father, as some have accused us of teaching. This was God satisfying the just requirements of His own holiness, acting in His own love, and also healing the conscience of each person who repents. God saved us in that terrible way, by the cross, because our condition of sin was truly terrible, as St. Paul wrote: "To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus." (Rom. 3:26) God's love turned on His own holiness and perfect righteousness, and His own holiness and perfect righteousness turned on His love, so that God himself, in the Person of the Son, Jesus who is the Word incarnate, took the full weight of human sin on Himself and bore it unto death. This was the will of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, the eternal counsel of God's will. Therefore, God justifies sinners, and is also just in doing so; for on the cross He took away the sin of the world. This is the greatest love story of all.
He conquered death also, which is what this season of Easter is all about. His resurrection will be our resurrection when He comes again in glory; and as He cannot die again, (Rom. 6:9) we too will become immortal through Him, and live forever. Now, that is the Gospel, and never let anyone tell you another gospel; for there is no other Gospel in truth.
So, that phrase, that sounds so grand we may fail to hear its meaning, ought to comfort us greatly: "The Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning." The word for this in academic theology is "Impassibility." It means, simply, God does not change. He does not change His mind, He does not change His nature, He does not change His will, He does not change at all. In all eternity God is perfect in three Persons. He has no need of learning, He does not need to gain wisdom (certainly not from puny creatures), He does not need to mature, and nothing has ever created a change in God. He is perfect in all eternity. The cross and resurrection did not change God; they changed us.
The impassible God, the God who does not change, will not forget you.
"But Zion said, The LORD hath forsaken me, and my Lord hath forgotten me. Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee. Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are continually before me." (Isaiah 49:14-16)
In some religious circles it is popular to promise that everyone who has faith, that is real deep faith, will be healed of all earthly sickness, will be in perfect health, will be rich, and live in victory over all things all the time. By twisting the Scriptures (in a manner that should fool neither Berean nor Anglican Catholic) and wrenching Bible verses violently from their context, they present this burdensome, impossible, and dangerous doctrine, and often extract great sums of money from people looking to escape from desperate poverty by what actually constitutes a practice of attempted magic. But, these "faith and prosperity" preachers will get old themselves, and they will die the death of all men.
Real faith carries with it trust. If God seems to hear your prayers and grant you what you ask of him, it is because of His love and wisdom. But, if He seems never to hear a word you utter, and does not grant your prayers, and often seems as if He is far away, that too is because of His love and wisdom. He need not prove His love. He proved His love for you already on the cross, and calls you his friend from the cross. It is the same love and the same Fatherly wisdom from God who does not change. You may have faith enough, for a grain of mustard seed is enough, and yet have a share of suffering that seems impossible to bear. Another may hate God and seem to have all his heart's desire. What matters for you is that God knows what is best for each of His children, and so you may trust His love and wisdom, the love of the one who has the scars in His hands and feet, with the wound of the spear in His side. You may trust Him whether you have prosperity and healing, or whether you have a share of suffering for a time.
Only one thing can stand between you and the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, and it is not a created thing, that is, it is not a thing that God made (Rom. 8: 38,39): That one thing is unrepentant willful sin, or, as James calls it, "superfluity of wickedness." Remove all such barriers, if they are in your life, and you may trust that whatever comes is, ultimately, in the hands of the one you may trust absolutely.
Then we have only one thing left to do, and that is to give thanks. In the words of today's Psalm from Morning Prayer:
What reward shall I give unto the LORD * for all the benefits that he hath done unto me?
I will receive the cup of salvation, * and call upon the Name of the LORD.