Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sermon Notes for Trinity 24 and last week, Christ the King

[B]e filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding: that ye might walk worthy of the Lord, … being fruitful in every good work”.+

Today's Epistle (Colossians 1:3-12) is rich in beauty of language and theology. In the first few verses St Paul, while explaining his and his companions' devotion to praying for the Colossian Christians, lists the three “theological virtues” as they are called: faith, hope and love. He is thankful for their faith in Christ, their love for each other, and their heavenly hope.

Note that he is not merely thankful because they have hope, subjectively, in their minds. No, he speaks of that hope as an objective treasure “laid up for” them “in heaven”. In other words, it is fundamentally not something they have laid up, for then it would have been laid up “by” them. Instead it is stored and accumulated there “for” them (cp. 1 Peter 1:4). Now, it is true that Jesus tells us to lay up treasure in heaven through good works (Luke 12:31-34), as does St Paul elsewhere (1 Timothy 6:18-19). However, Jesus also teaches that there is in fact one great treasure, the kingdom of God itself, which is “found” rather than earned (Matthew 13:44-46). Indeed, he compares it to a “pearl of great price” for which a merchant should sell all that he had, in order to buy it. So, in this mixture of metaphors, what do we discover? The treasure is not of our making. Yet it costs us everything, for it costs our old life (cp. Luke 14:26), as we take up the cross and devote ourselves to God as living sacrifices. Nevertheless, we gain even more, much more, in return, God and eternal life. We lay up the treasure through good works, yet it has already been laid up for us, its security being guaranteed by God's grace. It is the undeserved granting of the Kingdom to us before it becomes the reward for obedience. It is this grace, the grace of the Gospel, to which St Paul immediately ascribes the bringing forth of fruit, the “increase”. [Re-read verses 5b, 6.]

St Paul then goes on to say something very interesting about his prayers for the Colossians. He prays that they will be filled with the knowledge of God's will in all spiritual wisdom in order that they will, not only increase in the knowledge of God, but also do those good works that please God and make their “walk”, their way of life, worthy of Him. After this he mentions the strengthening from God necessary for them to do his will. But here he seems to be speaking not so much about the strength to do good works pro-actively, but to endure trials with patience and joy: “unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness”.

The reason this is interesting is that it means that what we need first and foremost to do and to be good for Christ, after receiving grace, is wisdom. To know what God wants, to understand what virtue and holiness really mean, these are the great challenges. I do not think that St Paul is talking here primarily of detailed instructions about particular activities or a daily to-do list. The phrases “be filled with the knowledge of his will” and “in all wisdom and spiritual understanding” imply something deeper than that. What we need from God is not so much a pre-written diary of events or specific commands on which breakfast cereal to have as well as how much money to give to which charity. No, what we need is clearer vision of ourselves and everything around us from God's perspective, and the knowledge that loving sympathy combined with forthright honesty brings. What we need is to remember the simple but profound truths as we make decisions and form our desires. For wisdom is often not a matter of complexity but purity, and incisively delving to the core concerns. Of course, wisdom also involves prudence and not allowing undirected zeal to lead us to undermining our own good intent (cp. Romans 10:2).

The challenging truth in all of this is that while God does judge fairly, according to people's knowledge (cp. Luke 12:47-48, Romans 2:11-16), goodness is not compatible with certain kinds of ignorance. There are three reasons for this.

The first is that ignorance can be culpable, that is blameworthy, and not merely a by-product of circumstance. St Paul talks of those in Romans, chapter 1, who “did not like to retain God in their knowledge” after noting that “that which may be known of God in them is manifest”. Their punishment is to be given over to a “reprobate mind”. In other words, suppression of the truth leads to inability to know the truth. St Peter talks of the “wilfully ignorant”. Ignorance can be a surreptitious and self-deceiving choice.

The second reason that ignorance can be incompatible with goodness is what I hinted at before. There is an understanding of reality, and of what makes righteousness righteous and wickedness wicked, that is essential to virtue. But there is also the need for understanding of self and of the sin within. For without this knowledge, there is no repentance and no progress toward God.

The third reason that ignorance can be blameworthy is actually part of the good news in the Good News. The fundamental knowledge that is necessary to us and dispels the deadly ignorance is the knowledge of God in Christ. But this knowledge does not ultimately depend on IQ or a lifetime of theological reading. It is personal and experiential, and not just cognitive. The reason this is good news is that it means the wisdom we need to obey God is available to all who would seek Him and choose to follow Him, regardless of academic ability or native cleverness. (But this also means that, while IQ is not a barrier, not seeking and knowing Christ is.) Wisdom is available to all who, like St Paul, would pray for it and do so in the freedom of obedience, the obedience of faith, hope and love. As we seek to know and get to know God more and more, the wisdom of living will be granted to us. That is the “life-coaching” we all most desperately need. +

Christ the King Sermon, 2010 (Epistle: Col. 1:12-20)

All things were created by him and for him ... [f]or it pleased the Father that in him should all the fulness dwell.+

All is for Him. The Father not only created everything through Jesus, but for Jesus. The creation, and loving dominion over it, is a gift from God the Father to God the Son. But it is a gift to Him as a man too. The association of the Holy Spirit with this gift, this act of Creation, is also asserted from the very beginning of the Scriptures: “And the Spirit of God moved”, Genesis 1:2.

Since we are part of that gift, we also should do all for Jesus. We are a part of the “all things”, so we already exist for his sake. It is astonishing to think that the Creation itself was an expression of the love between the members of the Trinity, but it is true. The fact that we do not exist merely for our own sake (though it is also for love of us that Creation occurred) should not trouble us at all. Instead, it elevates the significance of Cosmos that it is not extraneous to the Divine Life, but rather a mutual act of blessing within it.

It is this that makes the nature of sin, the significance of the primal rebellions against God, whether the earlier angelic or the later human ones, so horrific and so tragic. Creation is, from the beginning, a gift of love, love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and love for the creatures themselves. But some of the creatures have turned the reflection of his glory into a dark place, even the gate of hell, and so a false image. They have taken this expression of God's love and turned it into a habitation of cruelty (Psalm 74:20). It is as if they have tried to make God a liar by sullying and twisting his Creation-word. Rebellion against the Kingship of God is not just rebellion against an arbitrary authority, it is a rejection of light and life, of truth, beauty and goodness. It is not just a defiling of self but an attempt to defile God. Thus is the vileness and malice of sin revealed.

What is the King doing about this unholy Revolution? He is not and has not been idle. But he acts partly through his army, for He is the Lord of hosts. Christ is King of the Cosmos, not just of the Church. However, we are the vanguard of his retaking of the Kingdom. We do this, not as fighters using worldly weapons against human foes, but as soldiers of the Cross, through prayer and lives which shine forth the gospel light. (While the holy angels are our fellow soldiers in this army, fellow servants of the King and not our masters, it cannot but increase our joy to know that we fight alongside and in conjunction with such glorious creatures, however hidden this military cooperation.) As well as prayer and good works, we must be willing to testify to our faith, to explain why we follow the King (cp. 1 Peter 3:15) when opportunity arises. For while everything already belongs to Jesus and, through Him, to the Father (cp. 1 Corinthians 15:28), not every being acknowledges Him as Lord or obeys Him yet. Because He is infinitely merciful, God would win the rebels back through an astonishing love, through divine self-sacrifice. The King of Kings has willingly died at the hands of his disobedient, hateful subjects in order to save them! Not only this, he continues to act mightily on behalf of his faithful people, whether through miraculous intervention, the power of the Word of God in human hearts, or through his over-arching providence arranging the “natural” march of events.

Through meditating on truths such as this, we can get a real sense of who Jesus is, the grandeur and universality of his Lordship, in order to help us toward reverent, grateful and hope-filled obedience. Reverent, because we worship his majesty. Grateful, because we give thanks for his mercy. Hope-filled, because we know whose side we are on! This is what will help us do all for Jesus, as I said earlier. We are given to him to be loyal subjects.

The paradox is that we are to share in Christ's reign and in his fulness, and thus the gift of all creation, especially the “new heavens and earth” to come, is also a gift to us. For the Scriptures tell us that we reign with Him (1 Timothy 2:12, Revelation 20:6), and that the Church is itself “the fulness of Him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:23). It is not just we that are given to the King, but He that has been given to us. “My beloved is mine and I am His” (Song of Solomon 2:16) says the nuptial song of the Old Testament mystically representing the relationship between Christ and the Church. Think of it. Creation is not just a gift to the Son, but a wedding gift to the Son and his Bride, the Church. Shall we not rejoice at this overwhelming truth?

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