Saturday, April 28, 2012

FYI

On Palm Sunday I was diagnosed with pneumonia, and so my work has been enough to take all my strength these last few weeks. Also, this coming week both Fr. Wells and I will be busy, as his parish is hosting our diocesan synod. After this week we will be able to post our next installment of the Laymen's Guide to the Thirty-Nine Articles, as well as other things for your information and edification.

Third Sunday after Easter


1 St. Pet. ii. 11-17  *  St. John xvi. 16-22
A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see me, because I go to the Father.

These words must be taken quite literally, for they were fulfilled literally.

For a brief while they did not see him, and then they saw him. We must hear in these words their blunt, literal, objective meaning. They are echoed in words we say every morning and evening: He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried. The third day he rose again from the dead.
          In my younger days I was among people who wanted to be very spiritual, and some who wanted to appear to be very spiritual. The words I have quoted above were treated all too mystically by some people. They wanted to interpret them in terms of spiritual or religious experience. I want to be careful not to rob anyone of the significance of real experience of that kind, nor of a spiritual sense in which these words describe it for them:

A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see me, because I go to the Father.

However, I recall the words of G.K. Chesterton writing about the thirteenth century, and the prevailing mysticism of that era. In his biographical sketch of St. Thomas Aquinas, Chesterton wrote: “When Religion would have maddened men, theology kept them sane.”1 So, these words of Jesus, “A little while, and ye shall not see me; and again, a little, and ye shall see me,” must be treated first and foremost by the “Queen of the Sciences” – by which I do mean theology. It is a science, based on facts, facts that amount to revelation. And, if I may intrude upon the religious nature of a church service with the science of theology, let me encourage everyone here to examine the facts.

The scientific approach
Within a few days after the Lord spoke these words, the situation was this: Their Lord was dead. Several times He told them how it would be. He said several times that He would be handed over to the Gentiles and be crucified, and die; and that He would rise again the third day. But their minds blocked out what He told them until they went through the worst of it. That is understandable. Their hope was shattered. They mourned and wept while the world rejoiced.     
But, after three days He appeared to them alive again. He had not conquered Rome; He had, instead, conquered the real enemy. He had overcome sin and death. He had been the Suffering Servant spoken of by Isaiah the prophet; now He was the man who died as “an offering for sin,” and then rose again to “prolong His days” as the one in whose hand the will of the Lord would prevail (all just as the prophet had said).
          Those are the facts, as witnessed by His disciples. That is theology as science, based on facts of revelation. And, indeed, Jesus encouraged the scientific approach:

Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.”2

Then saith he to Thomas, “reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.” And Thomas answered and said unto him, “My Lord and my God.”3

The Lord encouraged faith too; but He also made known His will that they should accept the proofs He showed them, that He was alive. As I said on Easter, this was not about some mystery called “the empty tomb.” It was about the facts declared by eyewitnesses; and not just any eyewitnesses, but those witnesses who gave the word martyr (witness) its new meaning. They stared down death as the only people in the world who could now laugh at the terror of the grave – or, rather, the former terror; for they feared death no longer.
The other thing we may be moved to do with these words of Jesus is to apply them to our own emotional ups and downs, or to our own fears and the comforts that come by God’s grace in this life. That is fair enough, as long as we see all that as a mere shadow of their true meaning. And, when we consider the implications of the resurrection of Christ for us, the literal meaning of His words is far greater for us.
          Because He rose again from the dead the third day, your hope is not in this world only, but in the world to come when God makes everything new. St. Paul wrote to the Church in Rome,

But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you.4

We do not believe merely in a symbolic resurrection, something to help us feel good about worldly things, about transient emotional turmoil or desires. Our hope is not about this world that passes away, or the things of this world that so easily draw away our love from God to carnal affections. Besides, it is not always the will of God to deliver us from our perceived problems or to give us what we think we want for ourselves. Frankly, some of our desires are petty, some are sinful and selfish, and some are simply irrelevant to the things that God would have us pay attention to.       

Easter past and future
          Easter is a fact of history; but it is also the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to come. The resurrection is a fact that was accomplished on the Third Day, and a promise that will be fulfilled on the Last Day. “Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.”5
For "we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is," wrote St. John. 6 St. Paul, writing to the Church in Corinth, says:

But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ's at his coming.7

The imagery is from the harvest. In spring we have the firstfruits, that first growth of the field; it is a foretaste of what comes later in the harvest. It fulfilled the meaning of the feast of the firstfruits in the Book of Leviticus.8 The feast of the firstfruits was directly after the first Sabbath that followed the Passover. No coincidence that.
After the Sabbath they were to present the firstfruits, just as Christ would rise and appear to witnesses after the Sabbath, on the first (and eighth) day of the week. The firstfruits are a pledge of the future, a promise of what is to come. As Christ rose from the dead in the Springtime of the world, He will come again at the time of harvest. As He rose from the dead never to die again, so also shall those who love God and look for his appearing rise again at his coming, and enter into His Easter life, His resurrected and eternal life, His immortality, never to die again. St. Paul in his Epistle to the Church in Rome, writes:


Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him. For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God.9  

You see, "when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is." Easter is history and future. It happened and will happen. The third day, the day after the Sabbath, was Christ's Easter. The day when He comes again shall be our Easter; and like Him, all who have looked for His appearing again, all who love God, will enter into His immortality. Though we will have died, we will die no more; Death shall have no more dominion over us; for it has no more dominion over Him. This is our future if we remain In Christ.
Paul also wrote, "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable."10 Modern religion all too often is about feeling good in this life, or being successful in this world, or even about health and prosperity; all of which things, though, they may be good for a time, are ultimately worthless; for this life ends. "Here we have no abiding place." These words that Jesus spoke mean so much more. They mean everything.
Without this hope of the Gospel, the Epistle reading we heard today would come across as moral platitudes. But, in the context of Christianity, of the Gospel and our Risen Living Lord, they take on lively and powerful meaning:
Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul; having your conversation honest among the Gentiles… For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: as free, and not using your liberty for a cloak of maliciousness, but as the servants of God. 
          In the context of eternal life, every commandment takes on new meaning. That meaning is,
Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another… We love him, because he first loved us.11
          For a brief while they did not see him, and then they saw him.

A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see me, because I go to the Father.
____________________
1. Chesterton, G.K., Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox, 1933, London
2. Luke 24:39
3. John 20:27,28
4. Rom. 8:11
5. John 6:54
6. I John 3:2
7. I Cor. 15:20-23
8. Lev. 23:15-17
9. Rom. 6:9, 10
10. I Cor. 15:19
11. I John 4:10,11,19

Saturday, April 21, 2012

SECOND SUNDAY AFTER EASTER

II Peter 2:19-25 * John 10:11-16

The Epistle we read today is drawn, as I hope many of you have noticed, from that very famous Suffering Servant passage in the book of Isaiah, specifically chapters 52:13-53:12. I have said before that the Suffering Servant passage goes beyond Christ’s atoning death, predicting as well his resurrection by telling us that he would, after death, “prolong his days” as the agent of God’s will. It predicts the day of Pentecost by telling us that Christ would “divide the spoil with the strong.” This echoes words from Psalm 68: 18: “Thou hast ascended on high, thou hast led captivity captive: thou hast received gifts for men.” But, as the chapter draws to a close, the prophet takes us back to the cross, because that was the main thrust of this particular passage. In this way the Holy Spirit reminds us, through the prophetic oracle, that all of the grace, and, indeed every gift, that God gives to us has come by way of the cross of Christ. St. Anselm taught that Christ did all the work, and after earning a great reward for his labor, gives all of the benefits of his work away. He gives all of the earning, profit and reward to us. For, he is God the Son, and has need of nothing.

The emphasis of that passage is what Jesus did for us, and very importantly, what he did as the One for the Many. And, I can think of no better summary of that prophetic passage about the sacrifice Jesus offered of his own life, than the words of St. Paul from the fifth chapter of Romans:

"For if by one man's offence death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ. Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous."

So, we get that message, that Jesus died for our sins just as scripture foretold. St. Peter puts it to us with great force: “who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree.” That’s the first message. Christ offered himself as the Lover of mankind, in fact, as the one who loves you. He is the sacrifice not just for the whole world, but for you; dying as much foreach as for all.      This is why I tell you so often; when you look up at the crucifix where he pours out his soul unto death, and you see his love there, take it personally.

When we prayed the Collect today, we asked for understanding and for grace to see in his death two very important things that go together. This is what we prayed: “Almighty God, who hast given thine only Son to be unto us both a sacrifice for sin, and also an ensample of godly life; Give us grace that we may always most thankfully receive that his inestimable benefit, and also daily endeavor ourselves to follow the blessed steps of his most holy life; through the same, thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” This Collect is drawn from the Epistle we read.

"For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps: who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not: but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously: who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed. For ye were as sheep going astray: but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls."

This follows an exhortation to be patient when suffering wrongfully.   “If, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God.” Peter tells us that when we follow Christ our Lord, we may expect to find the cross awaiting us. When we find it, and find no way around it, we may embrace it as the will of God, just as Jesus did.

The Lord spoke clearly of the difference between a true shepherd and a mere hireling, “whose own the sheep are not.” The Church has had its fill of hirelings. We know that the Church must tend to business in this world. Indeed, every family must conduct business. We all must have a place to live, food on the table, and utilities. So, the Church, like every family, must engage in a certain amount of practical business. Jesus sent his disciples to buy the things needed for the Passover; every family must conduct these practical matters of business.

But, though the Church must take care of a certain amount of necessary practical matters of business, the Church is not business. We are not here to earn a profit (and thank God, because we would be failures if we had to be judged by the criteria of the marketplace).   And, the work of the clergy is to serve as shepherds, and so carry on the work of Jesus himself.        It is to care for God’s people, not to devour them, and not to abandon them in the face of danger, like the hireling who sees the wolf coming, and flees.

Some men receive Holy Orders and become hirelings; and, if they are not hirelings for money, they may be hirelings for something else.  I see, sometimes, young men who were ordained much too early, and who imagine that the priesthood will give them status and prestige. They love the title, they love the vestments, and, they remind me all too often of the words of Jesus, about the Pharisees who loved greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called of men, Rabbi. 1 Well, if they stick long enough, they find the cross that they cannot get around. That is when they find out if they were ordained for the right reason.

Look at the closing words of today’s Gospel: “And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one flock, and one shepherd.” I have no doubt that this speaks mainly about the inclusion of the Gentiles, the grafting in of non-Jews to the cultivated olive tree of Israel. These words only started to be fulfilled when St. Peter went to the House of Cornelius to see Pentecost repeated and the Holy Spirit poured out on Gentiles. It is also right for us to see that, even today, there remain yet other sheep, not of this fold, who need to be brought in. The work is far from over, and each of you may have a share of that work. Because “you are the Body of Christ and members in particular 2,” each endowed with special gifts for ministry by the Holy Spirit, you are called to share the work of bringing those other sheep in. And, that is a win-win proposition. It is good for the parish, and good for them, indeed, a lifeline sent out to them.

If we are to work in God’s field with all the mess sheep bring, and the dangers presented by the wolf, we need not worry about finding the cross. It always finds us if we are faithful to Christ. It will be there; that I can promise each of you. The cross, in some form or other, is all that the fallen sinful world has for true servants of Jesus Christ. Not honor, respect or esteem; the cross. So, you don’t need to go looking for the cross, because the world is quite aggressive in providing it. Like the Son of God, who endured the cross, and thought nothing of the shame of the cross, for the joy set before him3, may each of you have grace to endure, to hope, and to follow in his footsteps. The suffering is but for a moment; the joy is eternal.

On his cross, the Good shepherd died for us; and by his cross he showed to us how to follow him on the path of life.

1. Matt. 23:7
2. I Cor. 12:27
3. Heb. 12:2

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The current state of the Ordinariates in North America - no surprises

Fr. Victor Novak, Rector of  HOLY CROSS ANGLICAN CHURCH sent the following in an email addressed to several recipients:


This is a tempest in a teapot just as I said it would be. When the Bishop of Rome issued Anglicanorum Coetibus it was said that 400,000 continuing Anglicans plus many more from the Church of England and the Anglican Communion would be rushing for the bridges of the Tiber. On Sunday, the Roman authorities held "ceremonies across the country" to receive Anglicans in Canada wanting to join the new Anglican Ordinariate of the Roman Catholic Church. Only around 100 confused Anglicans in all of Canada accepted the Roman bishop's "generous offer." Still, Rome is hoping for "dozens" more in upcoming weeks! 

Only about 1,400 Anglicans out of 27 million have joined the new Ordinariate in Great Britain,  and about 1,000 more are said to be on the Roman road in the United States - and that number may be wishful thinking as well. Despite the hype, the wishful thinking on the part of Rome, and the "generous offer" of the Roman bishop, Anglicans are not going to leave their Church to submit to an unreformed papacy. It is just not going to happen. Yes, we have got problems; but I would not trade our problems for their deeply rooted doctrinal errors, nominal Christianity, and moral scandals. 

Sunday, April 15th, was the day that Anglicans from all over Canada were to be received into the Roman Church. The attached article will tell you about the lonely 100. I feel bad for them. My heart is captive to the Word of God. Here I stand. I can do no other. May God bless the ongoing New Reformation in the Anglican Communion. We have lived through a long Good Friday, but Easter morning always follow Good Friday. A new Springtime is coming. I can already smell the first flowers of Spring. Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! The best is yet to come!!!

Saturday, April 14, 2012

First Sunday after Easter

Picture: Valerio BelliChrist Appearing to the Apostles,

 I John 5:4-12
John 20:19-23

"Then were the disciples glad when they saw the Lord."

This is one of the most important lines in all of Scripture. Our faith is not based on religious concepts and ideas, but on solid fact. They were glad, and that means they saw and believed. When St. Paul summarized the Gospel for the Church in Corinth (Cor. 15:1f), he recited four facts: 1. Christ died for our sins, 2) He was buried, 3) He rose the third day, and 4) He appeared to witnesses. These facts of the Gospel were "according to the Scriptures," meaning, these facts fulfilled the Scriptural foretelling of the prophets that Messiah would come the first time as priest and sacrifice, and that after his death he would rise again:

"Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand." (Isaiah 53:10)

He had died as the sin offering, and now he was alive again, a man once dead, but who prolongs his days as the one in whose hand the will of God prospers forever. For a dead man to prolong his days, he must rise again. And, what is the will of God that prospers in his hand? Our collect for today provides part of the answer: "Almighty Father, who hast given thine only Son to die for our sins, and to rise again for our justification..." These words were drawn from St. Paul's Epistle to the Church in Rome:

"And therefore it [faith] was imputed to him [Abraham] for righteousness. Now it was not written for his sake alone, that it was imputed to him; But for us also, to whom it shall be imputed, if we believe on him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead; Who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification." (Rom. 4:22-25)

On Good Friday we had a very mournful service, for that was the day in which Christ fulfilled the Scriptures of the prophets, that he would die as the offering for sin, fulfilling as well the entire symbolic system of sacrifice in the Law of Moses. On that day we saw him as Passover Lamb and as the Atonement slain on Yom Kippor. We saw his soul sorrowful unto death the night before in the garden, and we were with him at the cross. On Sunday, that is on Easter, we were suddenly glad, sharing the joy of those who first witnessed the sight of the risen Christ. "And when he had so said, he shewed unto them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad when they saw the Lord. "

Our faith is based on fact. They saw him risen again, and they witnessed this sight together as a group. Their testimony was a shared testimony, something that by its nature cannot be dismissed as a delusion. His death was a fact, and his resurrection was a fact. But, now we must see not only these facts, but the meaning of these facts. His resurrection showed that He had been, all along, exactly who he claimed to be. He was vindicated. Indeed, before Abraham, He had been and always was I AM. He was, and throughout eternity had always been, One with the Father. And, yet though he was the one vindicated, that is whose words were proved true, it is we who are justified freely by His grace.

His vindication was made into our justification; for now Christ Jesus the Lord had taken away sin and had defeated death. If we hold fast and believe, we will spend eternity not only as forgiven sinners, whose Lord died to bring that forgiveness to his people; for even beyond having been forgiven, if we hold fast and believe, we will spend eternity as the children of God through the grace of the risen Lord, fully justified as if we had never sinned at all. We are forgiven because he died, and we are justified because he rose again and ever lives to make intercession for us. That means we have been made righteous, as if we had never sinned at all, in the sight of God. Forgiveness is made richer because of Divine forgetfulness, as the Bible also states plainly: He forgets our sins. So, in the eyes of God, because Christ rose again from the dead, we are restored fully and given the inheritance that our first father lost.

We have been allowed to start all over again, and to become God's own children through Christ. This has everything to do with that little two word phrase that St. Paul repeats throughout his epistles: "In Christ." It is a small phrase, and thus easily overlooked. And, yet, it is our identity in the eyes of God; it is your identity, and has been ever since the day you were baptized into Christ. If you are "in Christ" and if you abide and dwell in Christ, God sees you in the Person of His only begotten Son. He sees you in His Son, the one Beloved of the Father in all eternity.

"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ: According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, To the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved." (Eph. 1:3-6)

That God sees you in the Person of His only begotten Son means that, even beyond forgiveness, you have been justified as if you had never been born in sin, and had never sinned yourself. That is justification; that is adoption as a child of God, that is what it means to be "in Christ."

This is why it is so very tragic when any child of God chooses to live as merely a son of this fallen world ("For as in Adam all die : even so in Christ shall all be made alive"). You do not belong to this world of sin and death, and have no business living as if you did. Because we are justified freely in the Risen Christ, we are called to sanctification, that process whereby we become saints.

A saint is, simply, a holy person. In an objective sense you have been made holy by having been separated from the world of sin and death, and set apart unto God. This was done in your baptism. But, in terms of the life you live here on earth, as we also have seen in the epistles of St. Paul, you have the vocation, that is the calling, to become holy, to be a saint, conformed to the image of Christ in this world. Growing in the grace of God and acquiring holy virtues, above all charity, is the vocation every child of God has in common. This we cannot do if we choose to live in the darkness of carnality and selfishness.

The disciples were glad when they saw the Lord, though as yet they did not fully comprehend all that it meant. But, they could quickly comprehend that Christ's resurrection demonstrated the goodwill, the love and saving intention, of God. Somehow, it meant that everything he had suffered was part of the plan; it demonstrated that he had been in control all along; it meant that the fear and suffering of Friday was not a defeat, but rather the very plan, just as their Master had foretold several times. For example, hear these words from the Gospel of Mark:

"And they were in the way going up to Jerusalem; and Jesus went before them: and they were amazed; and as they followed, they were afraid. And he took again the twelve, and began to tell them what things should happen unto him, Saying, Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man shall be delivered unto the chief priests, and unto the scribes; and they shall condemn him to death, and shall deliver him to the Gentiles: And they shall mock him, and shall scourge him, and shall spit upon him, and shall kill him: and the third day he shall rise again." (Mark 10:32-34)

The resurrection demonstrated that Christ had come to bring salvation, that God had come in peace rather than as an enemy. "For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved." (John 3:17)

"Then were the disciples glad when they saw the Lord."

Now, it was time for the Lord to send them out.

"Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you."

This means that the Apostles were, and therefore the Apostolic Church is, in the world as the Body of Christ, the extension of His Incarnation. It means the Apostolic Church, including you and me, is here to assist and work with God in the service and ministry of reconciliation, calling all men everywhere to repent, filling the world with the Good News that Jesus Christ has taken away sin and conquered death. It means the Apostolic Church, of which you are a part, is to go into the highways and hedges and compel people to come in that His house may be filled. It means that you are here on a mission of peace, to help your neighbor obtain peace with God through Jesus Christ.

"And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost: whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained."

This too speaks of the Church as the Body of Christ. Of course, it speaks directly of a sacrament that belongs to the Apostolic ministry of Christ's own priesthood though ordained men. And, I have challenged those who reject our belief in the sacrament of Absolution, in these words: "If your church has no one in it who believes that he has the authority to forgive sins, how can you say that you are in the same Church founded by the Risen Lord Jesus Christ through his Apostles?"

More largely, it speaks of God's purpose that forgiveness of sins be spread far and wide. Yes, forgiveness is conditional. Indeed, after the General Confession (for example) you hear conditions in the Absolution that follows, namely, "hearty repentance and true faith." "Hearty" means simply, from the heart, or, sincere. Repentance must be sincere; not necessarily emotional (though that can be a very good sign), but always sincere. And, "true faith" may be as small as a grain of mustard seed, for even that little is enough. More largely, the Good News is that the risen Christ has commissioned the Church of His Apostles to be His instrument of forgiveness, not of condemnation.

In all of history, no line has been more important than this:"Then were the disciples glad when they saw the Lord." His resurrection was a fact they could see, hear and touch. To this fact they have borne witness by preaching the Gospel, their own eyewitness testimony courageously declared, unrelentingly declared even to the shedding of their blood as His faithful martyrs. For, above all else, the message of his resurrection from the dead on the third day is the message of God's love, that his Son came into the world to bring salvation, peace and reconciliation with God.

This is the message Christ has commissioned to be proclaimed by His Apostolic Church. Therefore, we too must believe He has risen, and be glad.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Peter and the Risen Christ

A Study in Penance


Bible illustration by Gustave Dore'
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." He said to him, "Feed my lambs." A second time he said to him, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." He said to him, "Tend my sheep."  He said to him the third time, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, "Do you love me?" And he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep."  John 21:7, 14-17 (RSV)


Peter defied the expectations of any person in the ancient world of Paganism who, upon hearing this story for the first time, might have expected him to run away from the God he had offended. Instead, Peter is eager to get into the presence of Jesus, leaping into the water to try to swim ahead of the others. Peter knew he had denied the Lord three times, and no longer was able to boast of his own unfailing love. No longer does he presume to say, "Lord, I am ready to go with thee, both into prison, and to death." Indeed, no longer able to boast of his readiness, he would instead come to obtain a Divine gift, to rely on grace rather than on his own power.


Because he knew the reality of his sin and failure, Peter ran toChrist rather than away from him. When God called to Adam in the garden, asking, "Adam, where art thou?" (Gen.3:9) he showed that his intention was to restore sinners by his grace to his favor as elect and beloved. For this reason Christ died, and to justify us he rose again (Rom.4:25). He stood on the shore and welcomed the approach of not only Peter, but of all of these men who had forsaken him and fled; for only John had come to the foot of the cross.

Why did Jesus give Peter three opportunities to speak of his love? What was this love of Peter's now but a sincere intention to love? Unable to rise to the highest love (ἀγαπάω) by human strength, Peter was humble enough to answer in terms of his intention to be a friend (φιλέω) of God; and Jesus met him at that point of sincere intention. Jesus gave Peter these three opportunities because he had denied the Lord exactly that many times, three times before the cock crowed on that Friday morning. This was not necessary for Peter to be forgiven; rather, it was a necessary aid to Peter for what would lie ahead.

Penance is not atonement; the only atonement for our sins was accomplished when Christ paid in full for our sins (John 20:30 τελέω). Penance does not earn forgiveness; in fact, it is done after Absolution has been given, never before. This story as John tells it, where Jesus gives Peter three opportunities to speak of his love, however imperfect that love may have been, teaches us what penance is about. It redirects the soul to God, indeed, the redeemed and forgiven soul.

Forgiveness is about the past. Penance is about the future. In penance we say to Jesus, "Lord you know everything; You know I love you." So, Jesus, who formerly said, "When thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren," (Luke22:32) now says, "Feed my sheep." He knew we would fail; he knew we would be converted. After forgiveness, after we are converted and restored, he gives us penance to redirect our souls in love and worship as holy, elect and beloved of the Father. Then he calls us, everyone of us, to a life of service.

How sad that this wonderful gift of penance has been twisted into an attempt to do the impossible, that is to atone. How sad that it is often mistaken as some price we pay for sin, as if we could pay such a price with anything less than an eternity in Hell (which is not the will of God at all). "Say three Our Fathers and two Hail Marys." I have required this as penance: "I will leave you here alone before the altar; read-rather pray-the words of Psalm 51." I have seen a grown man come to me afterward with tears in his eyes, happy tears because he learned there and then that Jesus loved him, as if he had only now learned it for the first time. "Now you know the love of Christ for you," I said.

This is what penance is, and what it is for: It meets our need to say, "Lord you know everything; You know I love you"
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(Previously posted Jan. 28 2010)

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Easter

John 20:1F

One of the great themes we discover on that first Easter is the theme of disbelief. I am not talking about the honest skepticism of Thomas, but about the general disbelief of everybody who was told that Jesus had risen from the dead. The Book of proverbs tells us not to sing songs to a heavy heart, because people who are in the deep valley of bitter disappointment will tend to resent the sound of cheer as hollow and meaningless.

Today’s Gospel reading from John corrects a common misstatement of the facts. It is commonly stated that the women were quick to believe, and the hard-hearted men weren’t; but, contrary to popular imagination, when we compare the various accounts, we learn from Matthew and Luke that the first witnesses of the resurrection were “Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and other women that were with them.” They saw the Lord as they went back to tell the Apostles what the angel had said.
 Comparing John’s account to these other accounts, we learn that Mary Magdalene somehow became separated from the other women, and did not see the risen Lord along with them. After Peter and John went to see the empty tomb, at Mary Magdalene’s urging and with her accompanying them, they left, but Mary stayed behind-to weep. Did Mary believe? Listen to her words, as we look a little further at this 20th chapter of John’s Gospel. When two angels asked “Woman, why weepest thou?” She answered: “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him.” 
No, she did not believe either. No one believed on the basis of an empty tomb, and no one even believed the word of angels. It was not enough; it was little better than songs sung to a heavy heart. In fact, the empty tomb proved nothing. How could it? Mary easily explained away the empty tomb: “Jesus saith unto her, ‘Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou?’ She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, ‘Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away (v.15).’”
 There you have it. If the Apostles had preached merely an empty tomb (and they would not have bothered-but if they had) we would not be here. History would have been completely different. If people in such a world knew of the Apostles at all, they would take time from the worship of their gods, perhaps from human sacrifices, to laugh about some silly ancient Jewish fishermen who got nowhere, doing nothing. There is no gospel of an empty tomb. That is not our message. The gardener, the gardener, of course! That gardener did it! He took the body somewhere else.

“Jesus saith unto her, ‘Mary.’ She turned herself, and saith unto him, ‘Rabboni;’ which is to say, ‘Master (v.16).’” Now we’re getting somewhere.
It is part of the Gospel, indeed an absolutely necessary part of the Gospel, that the Risen Lord Jesus Christ appeared to witnesses. If evangelists do not preach that the Risen Lord was seen, and identified, they fail to preach the Gospel accurately and fully. If the eyewitness accounts of His post resurrection appearances are omitted, the message is not compelling, not convincing, and ultimately just plain boring. An empty tomb-so what? A Risen Christ? Now that is compelling.
“Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. And when he had so said, he showed unto them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord.” (vs. 19, 20)
We need to know that they saw Him. He bid them to look closely and to touch His wounds. “Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.” (Luke 24:39)
  And, a week later:
“Then saith he to Thomas, ‘reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.’ And Thomas answered and said unto him, ‘My Lord and my God.’” (John 20:27,28)

St. Paul told the Christians in Corinth that the Gospel had four essential points.

“Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time. 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 Cor. 15:1-9)

We see four essential points: 1.Christ died for our sins, and 2, was buried. 3. He rose the third day and 4. appeared to witnesses. Paul said that this was “according to the Scriptures,” that same phrase we ourselves have said in the Creed. It means that these things were foretold by the Prophets, and written in the Scriptures centuries before the actual events happened.

What has been handed down to us from the ancient Church is that eyewitnesses told their story, their good news, that is their Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Apostles did not preach just religious ideals, a pattern of secret Gnosis, an impressive and considered philosophy, a collection of clichés or even the Golden Rule. They told the world that Christ had risen from the dead; they had seen Him alive again. Had they not seen Him, there would be no such thing as Christianity. The Church would never have existed. The world might have remained mostly in the darkness of the violent and cruel pagan religions that we know of from ancient history and archaeology. All history would have been different, for the worse; for it is the message of Christ that has made compassion and justice possible, to what degree these ideals have prevailed among the various nations on earth.

Sadly, today the word “martyr” has been corrupted by radical Islamists. For Christians, however, the word “martyr” is a good word. A true martyr does not kill himself or others. One cannot do violence in the Name of Christ, inasmuch as the whole idea of taking up the sword for Christ, whose kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36), is utterly blasphemous. A martyr is not an Islamist suicide bomber. A real martyr is a witness of Jesus Christ. A true martyr, a Christian martyr, is motivated by love.

The word “martyr” was not about death, and a martyr was not someone who died for a cause; that is, not until long after the Church was spreading through the various peoples of the ancient Roman empire. The word comes from the Greek word μάρτυς (martys). A martyr was a person called to give testimony as a witness. Because the witnesses who saw the risen Christ were condemned to death for their eyewitness testimony that they had seen the Lord Jesus Christ alive again after His resurrection from the dead, and because they went bravely to their deaths by refusing to recant or change their testimony, the definition of “martyr” came to mean someone who gave his life for a cause.

No one would give his life for an empty tomb, so easily explained away as the efforts of a gardener. But, for our sakes and for the sake of everyone who might hear the Gospel, eyewitnesses bravely laid down their lives rather than saving their lives by recanting their testimony, that they had seen the Lord alive, raised from the dead.

We need to recognize their initial unbelief at first, when confronted with nothing more than the mystery of an empty tomb. We need to realize that they were as realistic, skeptical and disappointed as any of us would have been. Indeed, it was necessary, for our sake, that they were just like you or I would have been, skeptical and unbelieving. Even though they had seen miracles at the hands of Christ, their skepticism prevailed at first. Efforts to explain away their testimony always end up looking pathetic and weak. That is because the attempts to explain away the eyewitness testimony end up being impossible to believe, far more hard to believe than the truth of His resurrection. The whole idea of a group hallucination is the silliest. One may as well try to convince us that several people could all wake up and discover they had had the same dream. 

The simple fact is this: The Apostles and other disciples were not ready to believe in the resurrection. They were certainly not preconditioned to believe it. All of them, not just Thomas, refused at first to believe. Thomas was simply not there when the others had their doubts removed, and their skepticism satisfied. That includes Mary Magdalene who warded off even the word of angels, weeping still in her unbelief until she saw Him. They were not susceptible or gullible. In fact, they were bitterly disappointed and of heavy heart, not ready for empty promises or cheerful songs. “As he that taketh away a garment in cold weather, and as vinegar upon nitre, so is he that singeth songs to an heavy heart.” (Prov. 25:20) But, these skeptics became convinced. "Then were the disciples glad when they saw the Lord. (v.20)." They believed because they were eyewitnesses.

The Gospel comes to us as history. God has invaded the sinful and sorrowful world, and has left His mark, His footprint. All of His promises have been confirmed, and with them all of His claims. Christ’s great I AM statements, identifying Himself as God, have been vindicated and proved true. “For all the promises of God in him are yea, and in him Amen, unto the glory of God by us.” (II Cor. 1:20) The Gospel preached by the Church is still that eyewitness testimony of Apostles and other early disciples who saw the risen Lord. We do not preach the mystery of an empty tomb, but rather the certain testimony, confirmed in the blood of martyrs, that explains that empty tomb. We preach Christ crucified as the risen Lord of glory. 




Friday, April 06, 2012

Good Friday



When we will have come to this evening, the evening following the death and Passion of our Saviour, we may recall what poets have spoken. About the evening that will fall this day, we find these passages at the ending of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (translated from the German):
At evening, hour of calm and peace,
Was Adam’s fall made manifest;
At evening too, the Lord’s redeeming love.
At evening, homeward turned the dove,
An olive-leaf the while she bore.
O beauteous time, O evening hour!
Our peace with God is evermore assured,
For Jesus hath His cross endured...

We sit down in tears and call to Thee in the tomb:
Rest softly, softly rest!
Rest, ye exhausted limbs,
Rest softly, rest well,
Your grave and tombstone
Shall for the unquiet conscience be a comfortable pillow
And the soul’s resting place.
In utmost bliss the eyes slumber there.
We sit down in tears and call to Thee in the tomb:
Rest softly, softly rest.
Yes, the unquiet conscience is itself a gift from God. We live in a time that follows decades of psycho-babble about the need for man to be liberated from the Tradition which demands that he suppress his desires and cravings, the alleged needs of his true nature as a noble savage. What rot, what foolishness, as if the conscience of man and his moral sense is the part of his nature that he must suppress. We have seen the results of this imagination, this high thing that has exalted itself against the knowledge of God, having created a broken society due to broken families, and the creation of broken individuals. These wander in darkness more severe than any since before the Gospel and the Church made a civilization where once stood only a world of pagan cruelty. Reversion back to this cruelty is the mark of our time, a false liberty celebrated less and less as people find themselves living with the tyranny of bad philosophy.

The conscience is the gift of God, and the feeling of guilt is not some medical disability to be cured. Thank God we have a conscience, and thank God we have enough self worth to feel guilt, for we know that we can live up to a higher calling than the calling of sin and death. We also know that we cannot do so without His grace. When this evening comes, and we see that Jesus has endured His cross, we are given both that calling and that grace. We read in the Epistle to the Hebrew that we have boldness to enter into the holiest, meaning into the very presence, the Real Presence of the Living God.

Hear again the words:

(Heb. 10:19f): "Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, By a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; And having an high priest over the house of God; Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised)."

This is the day that fulfills the meaning of the slaying of the Passover Lamb and also of Yom Kippor, that is, the Day of Atonement. That was the day in which the High Priest made the sin offering for the whole nation, and in which the scapegoat was led away. The Sin Offering that was killed was a type and shadow of the One True Sacrifice, the One True Offering made by the true High Priest, of which the sons of Aaron were themselves merely types and shadows. By His One Offering of Himself for sin, He put away sin forever. This is what the Epistle is mostly about, Christ the Kippor, the Atonement. The scapegoat was the type of Christ’s spirit descending to hell, to Hades actually, where He would preach to the spirits in prison, and bring the saints of the Old Testament out of their graves to be, with Him, the first fruits of Resurrection and of the World to Come (as we see from St. Matthew’s Gospel). But, on Good Friday we have come to the time of His death and burial. We can see that death and burial in one of two ways. Either it is a tragedy, no more than a simple injustice, one among millions in the history of a sinful and fallen world. Or, we can believe the truth, that no man took His life from Him; He gave it by His own power and His own will. He had power, as He said, to lay it down, and He had power to take it again.
His death is the One True Kippor, the atonement for all sin. “He is the Propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” He is the One for the many, by which the many who were made sinners in Adam are made righteous in Christ. We are told to come in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience. That word, “sprinkled” needs to be explained. “Without,” says this same Epistle to the Hebrews, “the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness for sins.” The sprinkling is with the blood of Christ, just as Moses sprinkled the people, just as the Levitical priests would sprinkle the blood of sacrifices. For us there is no need of animal blood; just as we need to kill no sacrifice on our altar, since the altar we have is meant to show that the True Sacrifice for sin was made, and we participate in that one Offering of Christ, both Priest and Sacrifice. The blood of Christ sprinkles the conscience and the heart if we come in full assurance of faith. This gift is effective, abundantly given to those who believe.
Again, the place of conscience must be understood. We feel the sting of conviction, the good and right office of guilt doing its wholesome work, whether or not the spirit of the age and the psycho-babblers agree. The conscience is aware of sin, aware of guilt, and forecasts the danger of judgment and of eternal separation from God. We want to come to the Holy Place, but we dare not. It may help to abandon all true religion, and take up a contemporary “spirituality” in its place. You perhaps know my meaning, the kind of “spirituality” which has no moral obligation but to affirm oneself and to seek power as a possession. The effect, if we succeed in such a thing, is simply deception, and the worst kind of deception, for it teaches us to kill the voice of conscience, and to eschew guilt. It truly suppresses our nature, it suppresses conscience, and moral sense, and so causes the very maladies wrongly ascribed to the Tradition of the Catholic Faith, to the Word of God. The conscience is not quieted simply because it is hushed.
But, if ever it becomes quiet, God has given us over, and we are lost; the alienation beginning in this life cannot feel like freedom for very long, nor can it be eased after death. Let the conscience perform its wholesome and healing office. For with all our embrace of genuine guilty conviction, we also embrace the Gospel. The cross is at once our diagnosis and our cure. The cross shows sin in all of its ugly, violent and cruel reality. The cross shows the Divine sentence upon sin, and the rejection of all that sin is. The cross shows the love of God for all sinners everywhere, for you and for me. The cross is the forgiveness of sin, the poured out blood of sacrifice, the blood sprinkled on the mercy seat. It is the place where perfect justice and perfect mercy meet. It is the place of condemnation and of forgiveness. It is where our hearts are sprinkled and our consciences are made whole. When we have been to the cross, we can enter into the presence of God with boldness, being made new and alive through Jesus Christ. The conscience takes on an even higher function, heeding the voice of the Holy Spirit, the Law of God written on our hearts, not simply to convict, but to instruct in the way of freedom, of life and of peace with God.

So the Epistle continues:
“Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised;) And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works...”
Beware of the kind of religion St. Paul warned against:

(Phil. 3: 17f ): “Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an ensample. (For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: Whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things.) For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ:”

St. Paul spoke of enemies of the cross of Christ. Such people probably think themselves to be friends of Jesus Christ, and may delude themselves that they love Him. But, to hate His cross is to be His enemy; for it was His work, His great act of love. He did embrace it, and carry it, and let Himself be nailed to it. He commands, also, that we take up our cross, and say no to worldly lusts, and to all self-exaltation. We are to walk in the way of Christ, the way of the cross. This is how to live with a good and healthy conscience.