Saturday, August 18, 2012

Eleventh Sunday after Trinity

The message for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity is always relevant to the needs of every individual. I had planned to compose a new sermon, but have felt that I am supposed to repeat this from my personal archives. 

I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you

1 Cor. 15: 1-11 * Luke 18:9-14

It is very fitting that St. Paul is the Apostle who wrote the Epistle from which we have heard this day, because of what we read this same day from the Gospel of Luke. St. Paul was, in his lifetime, both of the men in this parable. He was both the Pharisee who believed his own self-righteous delusion, and then, by God's grace, he became as the Publican who repented, confessed his sin, and was justified. Paul was, in his youth, just like the Pharisee about whom we read, thinking himself righteous and despising others. But, when coming close to Damascus in order to persecute those who were Jesus' disciples and believers, he saw the Risen Lord Jesus Christ, and at once came to see himself, Saul the Pharisee, as not only a sinner, but the chief of sinners. Instead of self-confidence before God, he acquired humility; instead of boasting he learned to confess. He confesses his sin with all humility in this very same Epistle text, as we heard:

For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 

I have no patience with many modern commenters who belittle Paul as if he continued to have the Pharisaical attitude all his life long, and who are deluded and arrogant enough to suppose that they see it in his Epistles. Any excuse will do, not to learn from the Apostle, any excuse to treat him as less than the holy martyr that he is, to speak of him as less than Jesus Christ's appointed messenger to bring the Gospel to the nations, Apostle to the Gentiles and writer of most of the New Testament. We have the witness of St. Peter that the Epistles of Paul were so revered that, even in his lifetime, the Church began regarding them as γραφή (i.e. Scriptures. See II Pet. 3:15,16).

Paul was joyful and grateful, even through all of his suffering and the persecution he endured for the rest of his earthly life. He had been set free from the worst kind of self-deception and delusion. He came to see that no man can make himself righteous, and that only by God's grace can we be forgiven and justified, and that only by the grace of God active in one's life, by the Holy Spirit who is given to us, can we become holy. The true heart of St. Paul comes across more clearly than ever a couple of chapters later, when writing about charity, the perfect and perfecting love of God for us, and within us by the Holy Spirit.

Comparing his old unconverted life to the new creation in Christ that he had become (II Cor. 5:17), the Apostle wrote us this autobiographical sketch:

“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.”- Phil. 3: 5-9

When the Lord appeared to Saul, and made him an eyewitness of the resurrection, many things changed in his understanding. His righteous act of persecuting the Church was revealed to have been the sin of persecuting the Messiah himself, his own self-attained righteousness was shown to be a delusion, and the curse that was evident in the manner of Jesus’ death was revealed to be atonement paid by the Righteous One for the many, the sinners, thus taking away the curse from those who deserved it (Gal. 3:13). Right away, at his conversion, Paul was granted the revelation that would become his bold teaching about faith in Jesus Christ and the grace that he gives, that Jesus Christ is himself our only Salvation.

Understand what Paul always means when he speaks of our salvation by grace through faith (and remember that phrase exactly, by grace through faith). He never speaks of "faith" simply as an attribute or attitude. He means faith in a very specific way: that is, specifically, faith in Jesus Christ. If we discuss faith and works, let us be clear: Faith means this faith  in Jesus. Furthermore, as he would warn these same Corinthian Christians in a later Epistle (II Cor. 11:1f), there are other gospels and there is another Jesus, indeed, gospels and christs as varied as the human imagination with demonic influence may create.

The Gospel defined
And, it matters because in this text from Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians, we see the details listed for us so that we may know what to present if we are to preach the Gospel (εὐαγγέλιον, Euaggelion). The true Gospel of the real Lord Jesus Christ is never complete, and is never really preached, without these four facts that are brought out in today's Epistle. As there are four books we call Gospels, there is one message of the Gospel that has four facts, the facts we have already heard this day. Someone in the blogosphere wanted to argue with me that there is only one Gospel, because I referred in passing to the four Gospels. In a sense he was right: There is only one message we call the Gospel. The four books we call the Gospels all preach this message, for in each of the four Gospel books we have these four facts, which are the Gospel. In sermons of either St. Peter or St. Paul, in the Book of Acts, you will find these four same four facts.

1. Christ died for our sins as the scriptures foretold.
2. He was buried.
3. He rose the third day as the scriptures foretold.
4. He appeared to witnesses.

We need to get this right, for our own salvation and for the purpose of communicating the message. Paul wrote of the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit that is present by proclaiming this simple message. He wrote, "I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth." (Rom.1:16) The word translated "power" is a special word that is used for the work of the Holy Spirit, a word that always means miraculous power. The word is δύναμις (dunamis), from which we get words like dynamic, and dynamite. So, Paul was saying that the Gospel is the miraculous and supernatural power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes; that the Holy Spirit is the One who gives the message this power to work the miracle of salvation in each believer (if you will receive it, this makes true evangelism genuinely sacramental). God places within this message the same power that has healed the blind, and that raises the dead.

So, let us be diligent to get it right.

First of all, we must be clear who we mean when we say  Christ. We do not mean simply a good man or great religious leader. We do not mean simply a prophet. We do not mean simply a man who died for a cause, or who was unjustly condemned. We mean, as Paul calls him later in this same chapter, "the Lord from heaven." (v.47) We mean the One who is himself with God, and is God, and is also with God in the unity of the Trinity, the Word made flesh (John 1:14). We mean the one who was born of a virgin, as St. Matthew and St. Luke teach clearly in their Gospels. So, this Person we call Jesus Christ is exactly who we have professed him to be in saying the Creed:

"God of God, Light of Light, Very God of very God, Begotten, not made, Being of one substance with the Father, By whom all things were made: Who for us men, and for our salvation came down from heaven, And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, And was made man, And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried, And the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures, And ascended into heaven, And sitteth on the right hand of the Father. And he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead: Whose kingdom shall have no end."

John warns that any spirit that will not confess that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is that spirit of Antichrist, also called the spirit of error (I John 4:1f) That is, it refuses to confess the Incarnation, either by denying that he is God, One with the Father and the Holy Spirit, or by denying that he has taken complete human nature into his uncreated and Divine Person.

So, again.Paul writes:

Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:5-11)

1. Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures.

Here, as in the Creed, the phrase “according to the scriptures” means “in fulfillment of the scriptures.” Look at the 22ndPsalm. Look at the Suffering Servant passage from the 53rd chapter of Isaiah (if you do not know this entire passage, then read it and learn it at home: Isaiah 52:13-53:12):

“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” 

Drawing from the Epistle to the Hebrews, our service of Holy Communion puts it this way:

"All glory be to thee, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for that thou, of thy tender mercy, didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the Cross for our redemption; who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world." 

2. He was buried.

That is, He died, really and truly in fact, He was dead. The one Man who ever lived and did not deserve the wages of sin, death, (Rom. 6:23) was dead and buried just like everyone else.

3. He rose the third day according to (again, in fulfillment of) the scriptures.

Throughout the book of Acts the most commonly used passage of the Old Testament for this is in the 16th Psalm:

“Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth: my flesh also shall rest in hope. For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.”

This is a real and material fact, that he rose in his body of flesh and bone, transforming it into a body that cannot die.

4. He appeared to witnesses.

This fourth fact is essential to the Gospel. Without these eyewitnesses, the resurrection of Christ would be a mere story. But, the resurrection of Christ is a fact of history, recorded with the blood of martyrs, men who saw Him alive again after His resurrection. While Saint Paul was writing this Epistle, many of these witnesses were yet alive, giving the Church that assurance and confidence that it needed to survive the earliest days of persecution. The Greek word translated "witness" throughout the New Testament is μάρτυς (martus). It became our English word martyr. Originally, it meant a witness, one who testifies. Eventually, this witness or martyrdom, testimony of seeing the risen Christ, cost the eyewitnesses their lives in this world; but having seen the resurrected Christ, they despised death; they feared the grave no longer.

Months from now, in the winter on January 25th, we will celebrate the Conversion of Saint Paul. On that day, we clergy wear white, and the altar is decorated with white. If the feast is about Saint Paul, then surely we ought to wear red, should we not? Red is the color of martyrs. But, the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul is not about Paul; it is about the last Easter appearance recorded in Scripture, a part of Easter “out of due time,” just as Saint Paul was called by seeing the Risen Christ “as one born out of due time.” His conversion came from being a witness of the resurrection of Christ, at which point he learned all of these things we meditate upon today. He learned that he was a sinner. He learned that he was forgiven. He learned that this forgiveness was given by the sacrifice of Christ on his behalf.

St. Paul has told us what the message is that we call the Gospel. There is no substitute for it, unless we choose to turn away from God, and preach an entirely false message. Then we have a great many choices to pick from, but all of them end in eternal death. Some of those messages are nice, warm and fuzzy, or inspirational. They enable people to avoid the cross, loving their own christ and hating the cross of the real Christ (Phil. 3:17-20). They avoid the bloody business about Christ's sacrifice, his offering up of himself for our sins. They avoid that crude material stuff about rising again in a body of flesh and bone, and teach a purely heavenly and spiritual salvation that has nothing to do with real life, and makes no demands. They have no Incarnation, no cross, and no resurrection. They require no repentance and offer no forgiveness. Turn away from these false gospels. Reject them in favor of the true Gospel that consists always of these four facts, these four facts that you must keep in your heart and have ready on your tongue:

1. Christ died for our sins as the scriptures foretold.
2. He was buried.
3. He rose the third day as the scriptures foretold.
4. He appeared to witnesses.

1 comment:

Jack Miller said...

Excellent sermon, not only explaining what the gospel is, but preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ who died to save sinners. Food for our faith in Him. Nourishment for those sojourning in the not yet, looking forward to that Resurrection Day when we shall see Him, and then be like Him.

Thank you.