Thursday, August 29, 2013

Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity

The Epistle. Gal. 5:16-24 * The Gospel. St. Luke 17:11-19

Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh.

The key to understanding the Epistle reading appointed for this Sunday is to know the Holy Spirit for Who He is. It is not enough to know about the Holy Spirit in terms of Trinitarian theology, that he proceeds from the Father, that He is one with the Father and the Son, "Who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified." We may know all that, and be able to say all the right things about the Holy Spirit. But, unless we know that He works among us and in us, and unless we learn to recognize His work, He remains a stranger. His is a Mysterious Presence, but His indwelling ought to be a known and discerned Presence. 

It would be easy today to zero in on the "works of the flesh," and to preach against various sins. Now, it is right to preach against those things that St. Paul lists, but only if we do so keeping in mind that he prescribes the cure before detailing his diagnosis. We should know that all of the things St. Paul lists are sinful, and that the consequences of living with those things willfully is dangerous indeed; as he wrote: "They which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God."

It is not fashionable to preach about Hell or even to mention it. It is fashionable in modern religion to make the Church safe for warm fuzzies, for feel good religion. It is not fashionable even to mention death in church anymore. Is that not ironic? The one context in which we learn how to face death without fear, church, has become a venue in which we are supposed to avoid all mention of death. That time will come, when there will be no death, for Christ shall have come again. But, if we are to arrive safely at that destination, risen with Christ in glory to die no more, we need to prepare. 

Sin and death are the sickness of the human race. This list that Paul gives us, that he calls "the works of the flesh," is merely a list of symptoms. Nonetheless, a real problem today is that some people cannot recognize the symptoms for what they are. For example, "Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness" are on the list. But, in some churches, no one has even taught the children, as they begin to mature, that everyone is commanded by God to wait until marriage. Television, movies, and the mores of our popular culture all seem finely tuned to teach your children to accept a standard of sexual conduct that is, frankly, sinful and forbidden. I don't care if "wait until marriage" seems quaint and outdated or not. You are required to teach it to your children, and to live by it. We don't get to make the rules, and we are forbidden to change them. It is God who has commanded us to obey His Law, and He never changes. Fornication is still a sin, and it will be a sin in the future too. Some things do not change, especially the commandments of God.

Hatred and wrath are also on the list. Indeed, the Epistle reading we heard today is followed by these words, as the last two verses of the chapter: "If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. Let us not be desirous of vain glory, provoking one another, envying one another." And, there is more on the list, including such things as heresies and witchcraft- by which the King James translators meant occult practices (seances, fortune telling, and other forbidden practices, that I hope no one here dabbles in. The danger in those things includes demonic possession).

Here too we see the need for the remedy. We are told to avoid all these sinful things. But never forget, this comes to us in a larger context, one that begins by telling us that the solution is to walk in the Spirit. The larger context tells us more than not to hate or envy. It tells us to love one another, something positive, and that is more dynamic and radical than merely not hating. The whole context, remember, speaks of this remedy coming from the Holy Spirit.

If we really want to understand the meaning of today's Epistle reading, we need to see the contrast between "the works of the flesh" and "the fruit of the Spirit." St. Paul is not merely preaching against giving in to sin. He is providing the solution to the problem, and telling us more: How to advance into our calling to be holy people, that is, saints. And, he seems to be saying that we are stuck between two opposing forces: The Holy Spirit and the flesh.

When St. Paul uses the word "flesh," he takes his meaning from the words of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Then saith he unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me. And he went a little further, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt. And he cometh unto the disciples, and findeth them asleep, and saith unto Peter, What, could ye not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak. (Matt. 26:38-41)”

It seems a simple task. Jesus told them to watch, to stay awake during His time of agony and prayer. They intended to watch and pray, but fell asleep because of the weakness of the flesh. "The spirit indeed is willing (in this case He means the human spirit), but the flesh is weak." How is the flesh weak? It seems, rather, to be quite strong. At times, it seems to have a power that grips and imprisons the human will. It seems strong indeed when someone finds it next to impossible to resist the flesh if certain properties are set in motion, such as lust, jealousy or rage.

Whether we think the flesh is strong or weak depends on what we intend to do. The disciples intended to do the right thing, that is, to stay awake, to watch with their Lord. But, they were overcome, and that is because the flesh had no power to resist exhaustion. And, that is what happens if we think we can rely on merely human power to become the holy people we are called to become. We find that the flesh, the stuff of which we are made, fails. It has no strength to do anything except to seek gratification and survival. That is the result of having a nature that is fallen. The flesh, this stuff of which we are made that is mortal and subject to death during this time of sojourn in the wilderness, does not possess the supernatural grace of God.

Therefore, though we constrain ourselves and act like civilized people, and exert a measure of self-control, we are still faced with that weakness that cannot rise to the ever present occasion of God's commandments, as they are summed up in the two greatest commandments of the Law. How can I love God? How can I love my neighbor? Where does the necessary power come from?

"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law."

What is that? The list of sinful symptoms are "the works of the flesh," and the list of godly virtues are "the fruit of the Spirit." We need to understand the contrast between the flesh and the Spirit, and also the contrast between works and fruit. Works are man made. We produce things by what we do, and we call the result our works. In a positive sense, we may speak of the works of Shakespeare, the works of Mozart, the works of Rembrandt, and so on.

But fruit is grown. It is not produced only by human effort, but by its nature and the nature of the soil. It grows by the power of life that is within the seed, and that is planted in good ground. It is God Who makes things grow, and therefore Paul uses the word fruit to speak of God's grace working in us.

However, although the growth of fruit is not a human work, it is aided by the right kind of labor. Human labor consists of preparing the earth, tending to the growing produce, and reaping it at the right time. But, it grows by another kind of power, and human hands cannot make it. Now, we are given gifts and helpful instruction to live by. We are given the gifts of Prayer, Scripture, Sacraments and the godly fellowship of the Church. We are given, therefore, means of grace to cultivate the fruit of the Spirit in our own lives, and we must make use of them.

We must approach this based on what Jesus said:

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing. (John 15:4,5)”

Jesus said those words the night before He went to His cross to die for our sins. He taught that, after he would rise from the dead, He would leave again to go to the Father (not by dying again, but by a mystery we call the Ascension), and that another Comforter (paraklētos) would come, that is, the Holy Spirit. And, although the Holy Spirit is another Comforter, that is, He is not the Son, still He is God and is One with the Father and the Son. When Jesus said "Without me ye can do nothing," and then spoke of His own Presence coming through "another (allos) Comforter." He made it clear, in saying these things, that He would be with us by the Holy Spirit. (That is because God is One. Where the Holy Spirit is Present in power to work in us, He brings the presence of the Father and of the Son.)

Look again at the fruit of the Spirit. It begins with love at the top of the list ("love, joy, peace," etc.). That is the truly Divine love, using the Greek word agapē. This is what St. Paul describes in that famous chapter 13 of his First Epistle to the Corinthians:

Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth (I Cor. 13:4-8).”

Where does that love come from? Paul, again, gave the answer:

"The love (agapē) of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us (Rom. 5:5).”

We need the grace and power of that Mysterious Presence among us. We need the Holy Spirit to be active in us. And, we need to participate and find communion in that life and power that He alone gives. Otherwise, we cannot bear the fruit of the Spirit.

Today's Gospel reading teaches us what the key is.

And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, and with a loud voice glorified God, and fell down on his face at his feet, giving him thanks: and he was a Samaritan. And Jesus answering said, Were there not ten cleansed? but where are the nine?”

The Samaritan who had been healed of leprosy returned to the Lord Jesus to give thanks. The key is in that expression of gratitude. If you know the full weight of what has been done for you by God's grace, by Christ pouring out his lifeblood for you on the cross, by His rising again to remain forever the Mediator between God and man, and by pouring out that other Comforter on his Church, you will return to give thanks. If you know what was done for you in your own baptism, the cleansing and rebirth in Christ, you will return to fall at His feet and give thanks.

The fruit of the Spirit cannot be made by our efforts, but we cultivate that fruit by cooperating actively with God. To walk in the Spirit is active, not passive. Each day we need to return to the Lord to give thanks. We give thanks by hearing His revealed word in the scared Scriptures, by prayer, by the sacraments and by the fellowship of the Church. We are given grace, and our participation, fellowship and communion (all of which are summed up in the original Greek New Testament by one word, koinōnia) must be active, not passive. We should not sit back, passively, and assume the fruit will grow without our cooperation; for then the weeds would strangle it. The flesh would be overcome by every passion, and we would be lost. 

No, we cannot make the fruit by our own hands; it grows by the power of the life within it. But, we can prevent its growth by failing to cultivate it, by failing to return to the Lord Jesus Christ to give thanks. Without Him we can do nothing. With Him, abiding in Him, we can bring forth much fruit. Our lives can become the blessed, holy and joyful fellowship with God that lasts forever, that proclaims Jesus, and that makes Him known to every person we meet, whether or not we say a word.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity

Galatians 3:16-22 * Luke 10:23-37
The Epistle and Gospel for today help to bring balance to a subject that has been confusing to Christians in the Western world for five centuries. Ever since the days of Martin Luther the question of Faith and Works, and the role they may or may not play in the salvation and justification of sinners, has dominated a great deal of theological discourse. As you may know, Luther built his German based Reformation on sola fide, which translates as “faith alone.” This phrase, taken out of context and misunderstood, can take all of the statements by Saint Paul about faith, and make it the only factor in the Christian life. And, indeed Saint Paul does speak often about faith that justifies and saves us. But, Saint Paul never added the word “alone.” There is another kind of faith that is alone, spoken of in the Bible: James 2: 17 says, “Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.” Because of Saint James’ teaching in his Epistle, Martin Luther called it “an Epistle of straw, compared to” most of the New Testament. What is the balance? What is the truth about faith and works, and the role of faith in our salvation?

Saint Paul never exactly said that by faith we are saved. Rather, he took it along a specific route that begins with grace. In Ephesians, the second chapter he wrote these words: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” In the very next verse he adds, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” (This ought to remind you of the words in our prayer of thanksgiving after receiving Communion, about good works that God hath prepared for us to walk in.) So, if Saint James was full of straw for teaching that “faith without works is dead, being alone,” then Saint Paul was full of the exact same straw, because he taught the exact same thing.

In fact, today’s Epistle is speaking more directly to the problem of faith and works then either Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, or the Epistle of James. This is for two reasons. First of all, Paul never conceived of faith existing all by itself, cut off from the rest of the Christian life. In the most famous passage he ever wrote, the chapter about the love of God, the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians, he lists the three most important virtues together: “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” Faith never is alone. True faith that is planted in us by the Holy Spirit always has two other virtues at its side: hope and charity. It simply does not exist alone. 

Article XI says, "that we are justified by faith only is a most wholesome doctrine, and very full of comfort." The careful use of "only" as opposed to "alone" is no accident. Article XII affirms that faith cannot exist alone, at least not for very long: "Albeit that good works, which are the fruits of faith and follow after justification, cannot put away our sins and endure the severity of God's judgment, yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and do spring out necessarily of a true and lively faith, insomuch that by them a lively faith may be as evidently known as a tree discerned by the fruit." True faith will produce fruit (and, in all fairness to Luther, he taught the same thing). Indeed the fruit will "spring out necessarily." The New Testament holds this as a consistent pattern: Faith produces love, and love produces good works.

But, in today’s Epistle, Paul tells us of the distinction between the Law and the promise, specifically this promise that Abraham believed. And, Paul builds a lot of teaching on this promise and the faith of Abraham, basing it on these words from Genesis. “And He [God, that is] brought him [Abram] forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be. And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness.”

The Hebrew word for believed is the word “amen.” Amen (אמן) is a form of emet. Emet (אמת) means “truth” and so “amen” means true. Jesus, when He said “verily, verily” actually said, “Amen, amen, (μήν μήν) I say unto you.” When you say “amen” you are stating that you believe the words spoken to be true. When Abram (as his name was at that stage) believed God, what he believed, very specifically, was that God’s word is true. That is how Abram amened God, and so was accounted righteous. From this Paul teaches two things. First, believing in God’s revealed truth is essential to our being accounted as righteous, namely, that by God’s mercy our sins are not taken into account. He also taught that Abram, as yet uncircumcised, became the father not only of the Jewish people, but of all people who have faith, that is all who believe God’s word to be true, even Gentiles. All of this shows the absolute necessity of faith. The writer to the Hebrews teaches us that this faith in God’s promise was manifest when Abraham was ready to offer Isaac on the mountain. James, however, uses the same story to teach the importance of works. Again, this should not surprise us, because the issue never was faith versus works.

We are saved by grace through faith, not by our works. But, faith lives with hope and charity. You can separate faith from works only if you can separate it from charity. Your own good works cannot earn for you the forgiveness of your sins; but the faith that calls and empowers you to enter the whole sacramental life as a Christian is a faith that God’s word is true, and it is faith that lives with hope and charity. And, because it lives with charity, good works will be present in the life of faith. However, like the Samaritan in today’s Gospel, this charity can be quite spontaneous. The Samaritan saw a man who may very well have despised him were he not in dire straits. The Jews looked down on Samaritans as being a group of Gentiles pretending to be Jews. They were seen as being second class at best. This did not matter to the Samaritan in this parable, and why? The answer is that he was, as the Lord said, “moved with compassion.” He was not trying to balance out his sins with good works (which is impossible). The idea of trying to appease God by doing a good work is not indicated at all. Instead, the Samaritan simply has compassion, and acts without resentment against a Jewish man who, under other circumstances, he may have avoided. His charity is natural and spontaneous, not forced and contrived.

The other thing we learn from the Epistle is the true context of faith and works as a theological question. In the Western world, ever since the Reformation, the whole treatment of this subject has been misunderstood, recast as a difference between people within Christianity. But, this is not right. Paul was not teaching that God’s grace saves us through just any faith, rather through faith in something very specific -the faith that God’s word is true. The promise, that we must say our own “amen” to, is the Gospel of Jesus Christ as it is now revealed through the Word made flesh as proclaimed by his Apostles. Any effort to be saved by works meant, as used by Paul in his Epistles, the effort to be saved by the works, specifically, of the Law. The Law of commandments that came four hundred and thirty years after Abram believed God’s promise, does not make you righteous. It reveals that you are a sinner. It reveals that you need the Savior from sin and death, the One who has died as the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world, and rose again the third day to destroy death. Before his conversion, when he was Saul of Tarsus, the great persecutor of the Church believed himself to be righteous, and his zeal to persecute the Church to have been the seal of his righteousness. But, when he saw the Risen Christ, and was blinded as he drew close to Damascus, he learned that this great crowning act of his own righteousness was actually the sin of persecuting the Messiah by persecuting His Church. At once he learned of his sin, and of God’s mercy in forgiving that sin. Saul of Tarsus (later St. Paul the Apostle) was converted and began to see in his brief period of physical blindness.

So, the issue, at the time Saint Paul was writing, was never some quality called faith versus good works. These terms are used, rather, to speak of the difference between religion when it is without a specific faith in Jesus Christ, even the best religion (the truth of the Jewish religion based on the revelation of God to Patriarchs and Prophets) and a belief that God’s word, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, is true. It is the difference between trying to be saved by the Law of Commandments, through efforts of self-deception that you are somehow a good person, and the faith that embraces the entire new life of a Christian. I could say that it is the difference between Judaism and Christianity; however, I would say that only with respect. As Christians we do believe in Judaism, the Law and the Prophets. It is simply that we also believe in the promise, and we say the “amen” of faith that God’s word is true, specifically the word of the Gospel as preached by the Apostles of the New Covenant, the word that is the foundation of the Church in every age and place about Jesus Christ.

Then, we must recall the words of James: “Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.” That is, this faith will grow in us by the work of the Holy Spirit within our hearts, and it will abide with hope and charity as we press on into the sacramental life by the grace of God, pursuing the goal and end of our belief, knowing God and His Son Jesus Christ whom He has sent (John 17:3).

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Twelfth Sunday after Trinity

II Corinthians 3:4-9 * Mark 7:31-37

The Epistle reading we have heard today is the source for a modern expression about the spirit and letter of the law. But, that, as worthy as it is, does not even begin to touch upon St. Paul’s meaning. To understand the Epistle reading we need to know the Old Testament reference to which it refers:

“And the LORD said unto Moses, Write thou these words: for after the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with thee and with Israel. And he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments. And it came to pass, when Moses came down from mount Sinai with the two tables of testimony in Moses' hand, when he came down from the mount, that Moses wist not that the skin of his face shone while he talked with him. And when Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone; and they were afraid to come nigh him. And Moses called unto them; and Aaron and all the rulers of the congregation returned unto him: and Moses talked with them. And afterward all the children of Israel came nigh: and he gave them in commandment all that the LORD had spoken with him in mount Sinai. And till Moses had done speaking with them, he put a vail on his face. But when Moses went in before the LORD to speak with him, he took the vail off, until he came out. And he came out, and spake unto the children of Israel that which he was commanded. And the children of Israel saw the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses' face shone: and Moses put the vail upon his face again, until he went in to speak with him (Exodus 34:27-35).”

We need also to understand how we use the terms “Old Testament” and “New Testament” in modern English. We use them to identify the two Testaments that, together, are one Canon of Holy Scripture. But, there is another distinction to be made, and sometimes it fails to come across in our translations. That distinction is between the Old and New Covenants. When St. Paul said, “God… hath made us able ministers of the New Testament,” the better translation, for our understanding, should be “God… hath made us able ministers of the New Covenant.”
          So the Prophet Jeremiah foretold the New Covenant, and explained its difference and greater glory centuries before St. Paul wrote his Second Epistle to the Church in Corinth:

“Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the LORD: But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.
(Jeremiah 31: 31-34).”

          So, the Apostles understood the words of the Lord Jesus, “This is my blood of the New Covenant, shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 26:28).”
          The essence of the Old Covenant Law is called, by St. Paul, “the ministration of condemnation.” Is this a criticism of God’s Law and commandments? The answer is no. The same Apostle tells us, “The law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good. (Romans 7:12).” It was a covenant in which the glory of God was revealed. The ethical and moral obligations of the human race were set forth, including the two Great Commandments of the Law, to love God and neighbor. Jesus taught us, “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets (Matthew 7:12).” He said also, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. (Matthew 5:17).”
          And, yet, St. Paul tells us, “The Letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” The “Letter” is the Commandment of the Law – “holy, just and good.” Here we see the consistency of St. Paul’s message, and how it remains the same from Epistle to Epistle. His message was the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ. Whether you study Romans, Ephesians, Galatians, the Epistle we heard from today, etc., always, everywhere, the Apostle teaches us, “The law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith (Galatians 3:24).” The Law is weak, not because it is insufficient as the revelation of God’s holy requirements, but weak through the weakness of our flesh, our fallen mortal nature.

“For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh (Romans 8:3).”

          He condemned sin in the flesh, for “The Logos was made flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14),” and in the flesh He carried your sin and mine, indeed all the sin of the whole world, and nailed it to His cross. So, for all who repent and believe, it is sin that is condemned and dead, but we who are alive in the Risen Lord Jesus Christ.
          We have heard people ask why it is that everyone is not healed always and everywhere of every sickness? I have a better question. Look at the Gospel reading today, and ask why Jesus healed the deaf and dumb man. The real question, in light of the “holy, just and good” commandments of the Law, is “Why did Jesus ever heal anybody?” Why did He go about “doing good, and healing all who were oppressed by the devil (Acts 10:38 )?”
           According to the Letter of the Law, if that alone was God’s whole revelation, He should have come in fiery wrath and blotted everyone out. But that is not the whole of God’s revelation. He has revealed His mercy and grace. God came into this world in His Son, and redeemed us from sin and death. The greater glory of the New Covenant is the grace of God in Christ. It is revealed in the Incarnation, it is revealed in His works of mercy and healing, it is revealed on the cross where He died for the sins of the whole world, and it is revealed in His resurrection when He defeated death.
          Moses hid the glory of his ministration of the Old Covenant by wearing the veil. Even so, everyone could see the light somewhat through that veil, enough to know it was there. But, the glory of God shines forever in the face of His Son, Jesus Christ. It is the greater glory of the New Covenant, of the Gospel, of the Spirit that gives Life.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Eleventh Sunday after Trinity

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 γραφo (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.

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 even 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 22nd Psalm. 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, 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 the last 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 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.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Trinity X Epistle commentary

“Wherefore I give you to understand, that no man speaking by the Spirit of God calleth Jesus accursed: and that no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost.”
- I Cor. 12:3

We must consider two venues when we think of this basic confession of Christian Faith (Jesus is the Lord): the Church and the World.
  1. Within the Church:
We make this very confession in this specific portion of the Creed: “…Begotten of his Father before all worlds, 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…”

The Jewish people had once known the ineffable Name of God which is represented by four Hebrew letters that correspond to our Latin alphabet with the letters YHVH (יהוה). This is the Name that is in the original Hebrew text every time that you find the word LORD rendered with every letter in the higher case, that is, in the KJV and other English translations that follow ancient Jewish and Christian tradition. The prophet Jeremiah had said that, upon their return from Babylon, this Name would no longer be pronounced by any man of Judah. The tradition of the Jewish people was to use the word Adonai whenever reading aloud from Scripture the Holy Name of God, that name YHVH. The Hebrew word Adonai, which means “the Lord,” would be substituted by a Jewish reader; and this still is Jewish practice to this very day. The First century Christians who relied on the Greek translation called the Septuagint (generally rendered LXX for the seventy rabbis who translated it) were accustomed to finding this Name of God translated as Kyrios (Κύριος), the Greek word for “Lord.”
So, when we say that Jesus is the Lord, we are saying that this man who walked the earth, lived, died and rose again is Himself to be identified with the God of Israel who made heaven and earth. We are saying that “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” We are confessing the Incarnation. On that day when the apostle Peter said to Jesus, “thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” the Lord answered him, “Flesh and blood hath not revealed this unto thee, but my Father in heaven” If you know, and can say with all your heart, that Jesus is the Lord, you are saying that He is one with the Father. You are saying, therefore, that “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” You are saying that God the Son has taken human nature into His Divine Person, our created nature into not-created Person. You are saying that He has taken what is alien to Him, our human nature, yet all the while remaining wholly other from every created thing as the Word (λόγος) and only begotten Son.          
This He has done to save us from sin and death and to forever sanctify and transform human nature, giving us by grace what we cannot by nature have, and so make us partakers of the Divine Nature, as is written by the apostle Peter.1 This is why you cannot say that Jesus is the Lord but by the Holy Ghost. Yes, someone can say the words, perhaps, without conviction. But, to speak of the Incarnation with faith, you must have the Holy Spirit within you making Christ known to you.

  1. Confessing Jesus as the Lord before the world.
This is more difficult. When the ancient persecution of Christians became the law of the empire, to the ears of a Roman Magistrate such a confession, that Jesus is the Lord, became a crime punishable by death. The empire had one lord, and that was Caesar. Furthermore, Christians were taught to obey and honor all earthly authorities, including Caesar; but (and here is the rub) only as far as the informed Christian conscience allows. The Church was taught to obey and honor Caesar’s title as emperor, but not his ultimate title, his claim to total authority over the human conscience. For that must be formed by the word of God, not by culture, custom or politics.     
Caesar was believed to be the lord and god of his empire. Eventually, for a Christian to save his life if charged with the crime of Christianity, he had to renounce Jesus. The words in this section of the Epistle show that persecuted Christians had been pressed to renounce Jesus by calling Him accursed in the region around Corinth, like a preview of the persecution that would soon be standard throughout the empire. Once the empire began to enforce the law that made Christianity a capital crime, one had to renounce Jesus as Lord, and then make an offering of incense to the image of Caesar, thus recognizing him as the lord and god of the whole world.        
An early form of official persecution had taken place already in region in and around Corinth. Certain lapsed believers sought to be allowed back quickly into the fellowship of the Church by claiming that the Holy Spirit had guided them to renounce Jesus, even to call Him accursed, in order to be spared. Saint Paul addresses this by teaching that such a notion is impossible. Paul, in this passage, did not set aside the possibility of forgiveness and restoration of those believers into the fellowship of the Church (for God does forgive sins, and so must we); but nonetheless he firmly corrected their unacceptable excuse and wrong idea.
Here in the modern Western world we cannot identify easily with the ancient Christians, who could at any moment face denunciation to the authorities, who might even have their services raided. However, in other lands Christians in our own time are faced with the power of the state, that Beast that has suffered a mortal wound and yet lingers before that wound brings about its inevitable death,2 the power of the state demanding to be acknowledged as lord and god by trampling the human conscience. The Twentieth century saw more martyrs than all previous centuries combined, and we see no change in the world even now except for the fall of one state, the Soviet Union. How poor an excuse it is, therefore, if under a threat no more serious than social pressure, we fail to live up to the dictates of an informed conscience and so declare by word and deed that Jesus is the Lord.       
Of course, it is also true that human pride is given no room by the courageous examples of the martyrs; for Saint Paul tells us that if we are faced with death it is only by the Holy Spirit that we have the power to confess Jesus as the Lord. C.S. Lewis once wrote: Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” And, this virtue requires the Holy Spirit giving us grace to say “Jesus is the Lord.” 

The confession that Jesus is the Lord means that He is equal to God. It acknowledges, by using His human name, Jesus, that the Word was made flesh. It carries within it the truth that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”3 It proclaims in its present tense form that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, and is alive today. This confession is a manifestation that the Holy Spirit is in us. Jesus is the Lord of life and death, of heaven and earth, and of all things; He is One with the Father. This confession, Jesus is the Lord, foretells that Jesus Christ will come again to judge the quick and the dead, and that His Kingdom shall have no end.
1.* “Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.  (II Pet. 1:4)”
2. Rev. 13:3 seems to predict a mortal wound to the empire, but survival of its basic evil.

3. I Tim. 1:15