Friday, December 23, 2016

CHRISTMAS



Hebrews 1:1-12 * John 1:1-14
On Christmas, this Feast of the Nativity, the hidden revelation we celebrate on the Feast of the Annunciation becomes visible.

"Then the babe, the world's Redeemer
First revealed his sacred face
Evermore and evermore."

I never tire of the prologue to St. John’s Gospel. This is the Gospel for the first Mass of Christmas, which is also the last Gospel of almost every High Mass. These words are hakadesh hakadeshim- the holy of holies- in all of scripture. Even We cannot hear it too much. It cannot become tiresome though we were to read it daily. In fact, listen to the words of our hymns this day. In Hark the Herald, look at Charles Wesley’s words, especially the second verse (the verse beginning Christ by highest heaven adored). Such words as these can never become tiresome either.        
          It is impossible to overemphasize the Incarnation. Many heresies come about by overemphasis on one little part of Christian truth at the expense of the rest of it. This cannot happen to the doctrine of the Incarnation, for it contains all of the truth in itself. This truth, that Christ is God the Son come to us in the fullness both of His Divine Nature, and of His human nature, is the truth, the central doctrine, of Christianity. Take it away and we have nothing. Keep it, and we have everything. No wonder St. John also tells us that this simple true statement, that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh, is the one doctrine that the spirit of Antichrist refuses to permit.   
          The doctrine of the Incarnation contains all of the truth of Christianity. The full revelation of the Trinity becomes necessary for God is the Son, and God is the Father; but the Son is not the Father. And the Son is present with us by the Holy Spirit. But, the Son and the Father are not the Holy Spirit. Yet, every Jew always knew that there is only One God- sh’mai Israel... The truth of the Incarnation opens more questions than it gives answers; the questions are because God was revealed fully by Jesus after He rose from the dead, by this Name: The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. He leaves us this new name for God, and teaches us that we can spend eternity asking questions about the infinity of the True and Living God because He will always be beyond our full comprehension. Yet, because He came among us as a man, in the person of the Son, we can know Him. He is beyond us forever; He is with us forever. His name is called Emmanuel- God with us.
          The truth of the Incarnation tells us that we are sinners, lost because we are lost in sin. The light shines not against lesser light, but in the very darkness itself, a darkness that neither understands nor can solve the problem of this bothersome light. The darkness comprehended it not, the darkness into which we have fallen, and in which we were blind. Even many of the very chosen people themselves received not this Light; no wonder then that most of the world cannot receive Him either. Those who can receive Him do so because they face the light. This light hurts our eyes at first; for it tells the truth, the truth about ourselves which we wanted never to see nor hear.    
          The writer to the Hebrews wastes no time in telling us that this Man, the Son of God who is the very icon of the Father, in Whom the glory of God is perfectly seen, has purged our sins. The Gospel we read in the second Mass of Christmas is from St. Luke. In it the words of the angels are heard, “Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.” What peace is this? Is it some magic that makes sinful and fallen men stop waging war, as if the cessation of violence alone is enough to define peace? Is not the greater war shown to us in scripture? That God has a right to wage war upon man because of our sins? As early as the story of Noah’s flood we see that God accepted the sacrifice of Noah after the flood- a sacrifice that pointed to Christ’s own death on the cross as did all the sacrifices. We are told that God hung up His bow as a sign in the heavens. He hung up what we call the rainbow, His bow of warfare, and promised not to destroy mankind from the face of the earth. This is the peace of which the angels speak. The sacrifice that had been offered in the story of Noah, after he came out of the ark, was only a type of the cross, the shadow of which hung already, over a newborn infant Son lying asleep in a manger. This night is answered by "the night in which he was betrayed." Only by his cross, by his sacrifice, is peace made between God and fallen mankind.

Nails, spear shall pierce Him through
a cross be borne for me for you,
hail, hail the Word made flesh,
the Babe the Son of Mary.”

          All of the events to come, right up to His dying and rising again are foretold in these words of the angels. We do not see goodwill among men, as some misinterpret the angelic words, but goodwill toward men, from God. The whole revelation that God is Love is thus given to us, also, by the Incarnation. This is the great gift of love, that He would give His own Son; He offers the sacrifice that He would not allow our father Abraham to make. Abraham was ready to obey God, and prepared to offer his son, his only son Isaac whom he loved, upon whom had been laid the wood of the altar while they had climbed Mount Moriah.     
          Abraham was spared this terrible agony of slaying his beloved son, and God used this dramatic means to teach His people that He would never accept the sacrifice of their children, such sacrifices as the pagans made to what were no gods. But, God in His love gives His only begotten Son Whom He loves. This is the goodwill toward men. This goodwill was seen that night in the manger in Bethlehem; this goodwill was seen on the cross many years later on a Friday afternoon.
          In the Incarnation, now revealed, we see that God would call a people to be His children, adopting them in the very Person of His only begotten Son; for as St. Paul tells us, we are in Christ. It is because we are in the Beloved, in the Son Himself, that we are chosen by God for salvation, instead of having been abandoned to the fate we had deserved for ourselves.
          We see also that He would establish His Church, and give to it His Word and Sacraments for the salvation of all who believe the Gospel. St. John, in opening his First Epistle, tells us that he had been among those whose hands had handled, and whose eyes had seen the Word of Life; and he goes on to tell us that we too are called to fellowship with God and His Son Jesus Christ through the invitation of the Apostles. St. John is telling us that in the Church the sacraments are given and God’s Word is spoken, that we may know Him. Without the Incarnation the Apostles have no word to tell, and there is then no Word from God, nor any sacraments. Because of the Incarnation we are given the Word of His truth. And the sacraments stem from His own coming in the flesh, and are given to us only because He was given to us when He came in our own nature, a created nature that was alien to His uncreated Person as God the only Son, eternally begotten of the Father.
          In his classic, On the Incarnation, St. Athanasius said that while Christ walked the earth as man, He still filled the heavens as God. The Council Of Chalcedon taught us that He is fully God, being of the same nature as that of the Father, and fully human, being of the same human nature as ourselves, like us in every way except for sin, having human nature from his mother Mary, the Virgin, the Theotokos- which means that God the Son has a mother; and he is "like us in every respect apart from sin."
          None of this is explained to us. How is it that God is made man, that the Word is made flesh and that He dwelt among us, that we beheld His glory? We do not really know all the answers- which is part of the revelation. God cannot be figured out, dissected and explained. He cannot be understood, analyzed and described. But, He can be known through Christ, the Only Mediator Who Himself is God and Man.
          How do sacraments work? How is bread and wine made into the Real Presence of the Living Christ? How does water, with the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, give new life when applied to human flesh? How can priests, themselves men, absolve sinners? How did Christ’s death take away the sins of the world? How does His resurrection save us from death? If we needed to know the answers in some mechanical way, then salvation would be reserved only for people far too clever for the likes of me; people who are capable of much that is beyond the greatest achievements of science. The point is to know that it is beyond our understanding, because we are not God. We know not the how of it. But, what we do not understand we can know; we can know the love of God shown to us in the coming of Christ into the world. “For God so loved the world,” and that is the why of it.
          I will close with words written in 1765, by Christopher Smart, words which made it into our hymnal, and which work equally well for this Feast of Christmas and also for the Feast of the Annunciation which was nine moths ago:

O Most Mighty!
O Most Holy!
Far beyond the seraph’s thought,
Art Thou then so mean and lowly
As unheeded prophets taught?

O the magnitude of meekness!
Worth from worth immortal sprung;
O the strength of infant weakness,
if eternal is so young.

God all bounteous, all creative,
Whom no ills from good dissuade,
Is Incarnate and a native
Of the very world He made.


Now unto God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost, be ascribed, as is most justly due, all might, majesty, dominion, power and glory, now and forever. Amen

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Third Sunday in Advent


Click on the Dore Bible illustration above for a link to written sermon.

Saturday, December 03, 2016

Second Sunday in Advent

Romans 15:4-13 * Luke 21:25-33

The opening of today’s Epistle and the last line from today’s Gospel are the seeds of today’s Collect.  Together, they explain why this Sunday has come to be called “Bible Sunday”.

That Collect speaks of the obligation we each have concerning the Holy Scriptures:  we are to “hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them….”  Then, the Collect suggests, comes the work of the Holy Spirit as He uses those Scriptures within us to plant and grow the patience and comfort that keep us upon, and help us along, the path to eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord. 
Also, in the Epistle and Gospel for this day we find that hope to be what our Prayer Book calls “the sure and certain hope of the resurrection unto eternal life.”  This “hope” is not a mere wish for something that may never happen.  When we examine the meaning of “hope” as it relates to “faith”, we see that the Scriptures clarify their meaning by adding the words “sure and certain.”  This important qualifying phrase comes from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews:

“Wherein God, willing more abundantly to shew unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath:  That by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us:  Which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which entereth into that within the veil.”[1]

Thus we see that St. Paul clearly never separated “hope” from “faith” and never separated either of these two from “charity”.  These three virtues grow together and hope depends on faith.  Hope believes, faith hopes, and charity labors.
We find our sure and certain hope in the word of God.  Faith grows within us when we hear that particular voice, the voice of God that we discern so clearly as he speaks to us now within the Scriptures.  Written so long ago, when they are spoken or read God Himself speaks to us in the present.  Never are they worn out or obsolete or irrelevant.
A common misconception is that the Bishops of the Christian Church assembled in the city of Nicea under the direction of the Emperor Constantine and there, at his behest, began cutting books out of the Bible.  In fact, when the Council met and the all-powerful Emperor presumed to address the Bishops of the Church, they told him that he, not being a bishop, could not address their assembly.
Something similar is true of the notion that those same Bishops set out to prune the Bible of important books they did not wish the Christian people to know about.  The truth is that the Bishops at Nicea did not decide which books then in circulation were actually Scripture and which were not. All those Bishops did was to affirm in unity of mind – and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit -- that the books the Church already perceived as the word of God were, indeed, just that.
The process of recognizing the books of the Old Testament and the New was what we might call the vox populi, the “voice of the people”, that is, the common consensus of the household of the faith.  The ancient Jewish people had discovered, over time, which books spoke to them in what they recognized as the distinctive voice of God; these books became the Jewish Bible which is now our Old Testament.
St. Paul tells us in what high regard we must hold the Old Testament in today’s Epistle: “Whatsoever things were written afore time were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.”
In the earliest days of the Church this Old Testament formed the only Canon of scripture.  But, by the early years of the Second Century, twenty-seven additional books had already been received into Christian congregations and there quoted as the word of God.  These twenty seven books formed additional and final portion of the Canon of Scripture, that we know as the New Testament. 
In some places a few questions were raised about II Peter, Jude and Revelation.  But over time skepticism about them disappeared.  In a few places some people thought that a work called The Shepherd of Hermas might be part of the Canon of the Church’s Scriptures but it failed the prime test for acceptance.
That question was, as it had been for the ancient Jews before, did or did not the people of God recognize the voice of God in this book? In this book, as in the other books that ultimately were not recognized as part of the Canon, the early Christians simply did not hear the clear and familiar voice of God in the same way as they heard God’s voice in the books they recognized, and we accept, as Canonical Scriptures.
Thus, long before the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D., the Church had defined its Canon. This was the same as the one we have now, adding to the Jewish Scriptures the Church had inherited the twenty-seven books of the New Testament.3
Thus, too, there were no books for the Bishops at Nicea to delete, but, instead, only a Canon that had already been established before any of them had been born.
In Advent, the Church traditionally reads Isaiah’s passages about the Suffering Servant, the one by whose stripes we are healed and who prolonged his days after dying, that he would live forever as the agent of the hope.  The Lord Himself assures us that His coming again will be our redemption and that the fears and darkness of this age will disappear in the light of His glory.
His coming to rule over heaven and earth, cleansing this world from all evil, from death and suffering, and all such things, is sure and certain.  If instead of comfort, this fills your heart with fear, then that means that you must repent from all your sins.  Turn, then, to the Lord, that you may enter that blessed state of sure and certain hope, and be strengthened by the Holy Spirit. 
Today’s Epistle speaks of Christ’s ministry, first to His own people of Israel, and then of the way that ministry extends to all nations through those people of Israel who believed in Him and became His disciples. This recalls the words of Simeon, when he held the infant Jesus in the Temple: “A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.”[2]
This light shines into the darkest places where we try to hide from God because we are conscious of our own sins. If we respond to His mercy, that same light of revelation brings comfort and hope, the sure and certain hope of the resurrection unto eternal life.
The invitation is extended by His words:  come, eat and be filled with the food and drink of eternal life. Come feed on the Living Bread that has come down from heaven, and with hearty repentance and true faith receive Christ through these humble means unto everlasting life with him in glory.

“Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost.”



[1] Hebrews 6:17-19 (KJV).
[2] Luke 2:32 (KJV).
3 For purposes of this sermon and its basic message, I have not brought up the Apocrypha. Suffice it to say, it is covered in Article VI.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

First Sunday in Advent


Rom. 13:8-14 * Matt. 21:1-13
For us, today is New Year’s Day. Advent is the first season of the Church year, and the idea of New Year’s resolutions ought to pale in comparison to the God-ward turning that is represented by the first of our two major Penitential seasons. I hope we all understand why we must resist the emphasis on shopping and the secular pressures about holiday preparation that compete for our attention. The world has decided that “Christmas” is the name of a shopping season that runs between Thanksgiving Day and the Feast of Saint Stephen on December 26th. Don’t give in.

The spirit of the world wants to take away your Advent, and then your Christmas too. Christmas is, first and foremost, a feast of the Church, named, as it is, the Christ Mass. It is the feast of the Nativity (in the glorious light of the Incarnation of the Word). The emphasis is on Christ’s coming in the flesh and taking human nature into His uncreated, eternal divine Person: and, only in this understanding is it a celebration of His birth in Bethlehem, when "the babe, the word's redeemer, first revealed His sacred face."

One "pop" song, that frequently adds to the noise pollution in public places and stores, is a song that I absolutely hate. It is called “Do you hear what I hear?” It removes the Divinity of Christ from the picture, and celebrates nothing more than the birth of, as the song so vacuously says, “a child, a child, freezing in the cold.” The song ends with the king saying to the people everywhere, “pray for peace people everywhere.” Is that really what the king said? Was it not, rather, “go and kill every male child under two years old, and bring me word again,” in a mad effort to destroy Christ? The voice that the world wants to hear is the voice of the spirit that was in Herod. That spirit wants to kill Christ, to take away your Christmas, and, before that, your advent.

Advent is very important for what it is. It is not Christmas, not yet. Frankly, I wish we did not even put up our trees before Christmas Eve, like it used to be. But, even so, remember this: Christmas starts on the 25th of December and lasts until January 6th. But, for now, it is Advent; it is a Penitential season. We have before us two passages from the New Testament, rich with the meaning of Advent, to start us off. Advent did not originally prepare the Church for a celebration of the birth of our Lord, but rather for His coming again in glory; it is the season with eschatological meaning, looking to the future. Now, the word eschatological (or eschatology) comes from the word Eschaton. It means the End. And, therefore we emphasize the last things of the resurrection and eternity: Death, judgment, Heaven and Hell. Mostly, we emphasize the coming again of Jesus Christ in glory to judge the quick and the dead.

So, the Epistle reading gives us clear warning to turn from sin, to repent and live in the light. And, the Gospel reading gives us a glimpse of Christ coming as king and meting out judgment. First let us consider the Epistle. On the subject of self-examination and turning from sins, we really have to ask God to show us the truth about ourselves. It is not wise to trust our own opinion of ourselves. Jesus said, “Men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” Sadly enough, that is the truth about everybody. We would rather not see the truth about ourselves, or hear what the Holy Spirit brings to our attention. So, we have defense mechanisms. The first is comparison. “I am not as bad as this publican.” Jesus said to the Pharisees and the Sadducees, “the harlots and the publicans (that is, tax collectors) enter into the kingdom of heaven before you, because they repented at the preaching of John [the Baptist].” So much for the comparisons they were making. Yes, there is always someone worse than you. When all else fails, I like to remind myself that I am better than Hitler, because I have not killed a few million people lately. However, it is better for me to read the Sermon on the Mount, and take it to heart, praying that the Holy Spirit will shine His light on my sins, even though that particular light hurts my eyes.

Another method is the group guilt dodge. In fact this is among the most dangerous things we can do. I am convinced that many people whom I have known, avoid repenting of their own real sins by lamenting the guilt of their group. They deplore and repent of the sin of white racism, or something like that- something safe. Adding danger to danger, they seem to feel quite meritorious and self-satisfied, because they have convinced themselves of their own moral superiority by “repenting” of a group sin- especially since they are truly convinced that they are, actually, above such a thing in real life. In certain circles this dodge is quite popular, a real favorite. It is about as genuine a form of penitence as the hypocrisy of the Pharisee, who said: "I thank Thee God that I am not as other men are." It is self-deception.

The worst kind of penitence is when someone feels proud for repenting of the group sin.

Now, it may seem strange that I have said of today’s Gospel that, in it, we see a picture of the future. The story is, after all a true account of events that happened in the past. In fact, when Jesus entered into Jerusalem, he was hailed as a king by the cheering crowds who met Him. And the prayers of the crowd angered the powers of earth. The people cried “Hosanna to the Son of David.” This means two things. They were crying out to Him to be their Savior. “Hosanna” is not a joyful word. It is a cry asking to be saved. It contains a form of the very Name of Jesus, that is, the Name Yeshua- meaning “Savior.” They identified Him as the Messiah, the Son of David. And, as soon as He entered the city and the temple, He meted out His judgment, cleansing it of the dishonest cheats who had perfected a system to defraud the poor, hard working Jewish worshipers. Later, about the Final Judgment on the Last day, Saint Peter would write: “For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God? And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear? (I Pet. 4: 17,18)”

In every way, the story of what the Lord Jesus Christ did that day, is a picture of what He will do when He comes again. He did not yet bring the kingdom in its fullness; but he did bring the kingdom to bear on the House of God. When we pray “Thy Kingdom come,” we ask that He bring His rule to bear upon us: His rule, “his government and peace” which is unending upon the throne of David. To the measure that we mean that prayer, our comfortable world will be shaken up. But, it is better to be shaken now than at His coming again in glory on the Last Day.

In this Gospel passage, we see important elements of His Second Coming, elements that are true to the Person of the Son of God, the everlasting Son of the everlasting Father. He is the only king and savior. He is the judge “Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire (Matt. 3:12).” Judgment will begin at the House of God, until His whole creation is cleansed and purified, made ready for a habitation of His righteousness, a dwelling place of His glory among men. The purpose of a Penitential season is to learn to sharpen and focus our self-examination, the same self-examination that we should do every time we draw near to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. I know that a “feel good” religion is the popular model for success in today’s “spiritual” market; but the only good feeling we should ever trust is that spoken of by the Psalmist: “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered (Psalm 32:1).”

To be ready for the last Judgment, we must be willing to let the Holy Ghost shake up our world, we must allow Him to shake up our very selves. Indeed, to prepare for the coming again of Jesus Christ, we must draw near "with hearty repentance and true faith" in order to make a good confession, sincere and resolute of purpose to "walk in newness of life ." Indeed, to prepare for the coming again of Jesus Christ, we need do no more, and no less, than we do when we prepare to receive Communion.
____

Thursday, November 10, 2016

To my fellow American Christians

“I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.(I Timothy 2:1-4).”

Let me do a bit of preaching to my fellow Christians. I know it is irresistible to criticize, analyze, and even to attempt to prognosticate. However, as the above quotation teaches, whatever else we say, this is one directive about what we ought to do with our tongues, whatever else we may freely say.

 O LORD our Governor, whose glory is in all the world; We commend this nation to thy merciful care, that being guided by thy Providence, we may dwell secure in thy peace. Grant to [Barak] THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES, [and to Donald our President elect] and to all in Authority, wisdom and strength to know and to do thy will. Fill them with the love of truth and righteousness; and make them ever mindful of their calling to serve this people in thy fear; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.

From the 1928 BCP, Morning Prayer

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Twenty-third Sunday after Trinity

Phil.3:17-21 * Matt. 22:15-22

I question if we ever think clearly about how difficult a concept it was to “render unto Caesar” in the place and at the time that we read about. How very different is our society, in which the politicians must answer to the public at least once every two, four and six years, respectively, and to the Rule of Law (theoretically at least), from the life of the Jews under the power of the empire of Rome. This empire had once been a republic, and it still had a Senate. But, in the time of the Caesars it had become a totalitarian regime, and by means of empire, a foreign power that had invaded, defeated and presumed to rule. The fact is, whether or not taxes were paid voluntarily, they would most certainly be taken by force.
          The Pharisees knew that if the Lord had answered that taxes were unlawful they could then see to it that this information found its way to the governor, so that he could be put to death for sedition. On the other hand, if he answered that taxes to Caesar were lawful, they could use this to try to discredit him with the people, claiming that he was on the side of their conquerors. No matter how much they tried to flatter him as they built up to the question, the question was meant as a dagger. It was intended to kill him or silence him; they imagined it presented a no win situation.
          The answer our Lord gave was not an evasion, but rather authoritative teaching. He did not walk into their trap, but presented the truth, and in so doing he confounded the expectations and presumption of his enemies. Within a generation his Church would be persecuted to the death by the empire, treated as a criminal organization from the time of Nero until the edict of Milan, that is the edict of Toleration by Constantine in 313 AD.  Yet, under that burden it was the duty of the Apostles to present to the churches a doctrine that “all authority is from God.”1 The evil and injustice of the empire did not prevent St. Paul from teaching that, in general, a ruler is not a terror to good works, but to evil. St. Peter also taught that the king should be honored.2
This important for us today, in our own time, for many reasons. First of all, Christians are not to be “rebels without a cause.” I think of a man who came home from the grocery store with his wife, and discovered that their children had poured molasses on the cat. “I don’t understand,” said their mother. “They have never poured molasses on the cat before. Why would they even think of such a thing?” Her husband answered, “I don’t understand it either. In fact, the very last thing I said to them, before we went out was, ‘Don’t pour molasses on the cat.’” The truth is, for some of us the idea of walking on the grass never comes to mind until a sign says, “keep off the grass.”
Remember the lesson from the Book of Acts, however, that only one reason exists to disobey proper authority. That reason is because our consciences constrain us to obey God rather than men3 when we are faced with a conflict. This was the answer that St. Peter gave to the High priest when he was asked why they had continued to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ after being ordered by the Sanhedrin not to do so. St. Peter’s conscience told him that his first obedience was due to God, and that Christ’s clear command to preach the Gospel was from the highest authority, the revealed will of God against which no man had the authority to command silence.
          Totalitarian regimes know nothing of Christ’s teaching that constitutes the second part of this teaching that came in his answer. “…and to God the things that are God’s.”
          Often people want to render unto Caesar the things that are God’s, and that includes the conscience. We are taught by Saint Paul to be subject to the authorities, and, if we may put modern American terminology to the Apostle’s teaching, to be model citizens (Romans 13:1f). We obey the law, pay taxes, and respect the offices of those in government. In this way we render unto Caesar what is his due.
          Now, the conscience of the Christian is supposed to be informed by the word of God, and so it is the duty of every Christian to learn the scriptures and to learn the meaning of the scriptures from the Tradition of the Church. When the conscience finds itself pitted against authority, it ought to be for a very clear and very real reason. Totalitarian regimes want to take the place of God. Tyrants want to displace the conscience.
           In the last Century Christians were subjected to more injustices than during the Roman persecution (and we see no sign that things are getting any better). In the 20th century more Christians died as martyrs than in all previous centuries of the Church combined. Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Idi Amin, the Ayatollahs and Sheiks of radical Islam, all wanted to be obeyed absolutely, to dominate the conscience of their subjects, to be in the place of God.  And, so it remains in this century. The Christians who have been killed for their faith knew something we need to know: We ought to obey God rather than men. When Jesus gave this answer, it was to a hostile question. The question was meant as a weapon, a clever no win scenario.
          But, the answer teaches us the priorities by which we order our lives as men under authority. Your first obedience is to God. Your conscience was designed by the Creator to be the voice inside of you where his Law is written, the inner voice that resonates with the Holy Spirit, and with the word of God. Therefore, the Book of Exodus praises the midwives who refused to murder the male children at Pharaoh’s command. The Bible praises the faith of Rahab who hid the spies, and of Esther who entered the king’s chamber unbidden to plead for the lives of her people. The same Bible condemns the obedience that Doeg the Edomite rendered to Saul when he murdered the priests at Nob as commanded by the mad king.
Too many people are careless in their reading of scripture. When certain leaders of that other denomination over there wanted to blame the Holy Spirit for their heretical and immoral innovations, they decided to proclaim to the world that the Bible approved of slavery. Then, they tried to say that nowadays we know better because the Holy Spirit has corrected his former mistake that he made back then, and so he must have grown in his understanding (they seem to have a very different “Holy Spirit” than the One we know). I love to point out that Deuteronomy 23:15, 16 4 absolutely, and for all time, forbade slavery. The whole idea of slavery is condemned and forbidden in those two verses. The New Testament, specifically in the writings of St. Paul, addresses the reality of slavery in the pagan empire of Rome. The Apostle taught Christians who happened to be slaves, how to behave as Christians in their circumstances. To read approval of the pagan system of slavery into the New Testament is absurd, since the mission of the Apostles was not to lead a rebellion like Spartacus, but to build the Church in all nations of the earth. I mention this because, we see here that even rebellion for a good cause is not always a duty to God.
          The Bible requires obedience to the voice of conscience, and it is the duty of the Christian to inform his conscience not by the changing fashions and whims of culture, but by the word of God. The Affirmation of St. Louis contains this statement:

“The conscience, as the inherent knowledge of right and wrong, cannot stand alone as a sovereign arbiter of morals. Every Christian is obligated to form his conscience by the Divine Moral Law and the Mind of Christ as revealed in Holy Scriptures, and by the teaching and Tradition of the Church.”

Furthermore, it is the duty of parents to teach their children these things, because popular culture will teach a false version of morality that has no foundation, and that changes with every breeze that blows. As it says in the Book of Deuteronomy: “And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.”5 Now, if any Christian wants to disobey people in authority, it must be for the sake of this higher principle of the conscience as it has been formed by the word of God.
          The direct subject of the answer, “render unto God the things that are God’s” is part of a question that has to do with money. To the Jews who heard this answer, the whole subject of tithing would have come to mind, as well as commands to aid the poor. The way that some churches have addressed the subject of contributing, in my experience, can make the poor feel unwelcome. I want to be clear; people who are struggling to get by, and who have no money to spare, are perfectly welcome here. This is the household of God, the Body of Christ. Let me be clear about something else. Those who object to the normal standard of the tithe, that is of ten percent, need to realize that we really owe God one hundred percent. The poor widow received the praise of our Lord Jesus Christ because she cast in more than all of the rich, because her two mites were all that she had
We are stewards of all that we possess. It all belongs to the Lord. I know that some people cannot give ten percent of what they simply don’t have. Others can give more then ten percent. They can give other things too, such as time and effort. The real question is this: are you giving in a way that is sacrificial? Let me really meddle. Who needs three hundred channels instead of the few you have time for? What is the real point in much that we do with time, money and own energy? Is your giving sacrificial? And, though we think of the word “sacrificial” as something that should hurt and as a loss we should feel, let us turn that around. Let us think of it as an offering, that is, as part of how we worship God by honoring him with our substance. What we contribute should be given with joy; it should represent our very selves as living sacrifices poured out on the altar of joy and service with faith.
The opposite of this is the kind of life that St. Paul speaks of, with sorrow, in today’s Epistle.  Earlier I mentioned that other denomination over there, and I suppose most of you know the one I was thinking of. I was thinking of religious teachers whose entire life’s work has been for the purpose of scratching itching ears.6 Talk of giving one hundred percent of your life to God, your whole self to God, requires an embrace of Christ’s call to carry the cross. The Epistle warns us not live a life centered on indulgence of our appetites and whims, of lusts and desires.       The Apostle uses a curious phrase, one that could pass us by unheeded unless we slow down and consider it. He speaks of “enemies of the cross of Christ.” What is an enemy of the cross of Christ? Some people seem to think they can be friends of Jesus, but enemies of his cross. Jesus said, “Whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple.”7 To carry the cross means to walk with the burden of death on one’s back. The people who heard him speak these words knew what crucifixion was, and the image this statement brought to mind would have been graphic. Nonetheless, what do we see as the natural reaction that his disciples had when they first heard him foretell his own death? Immediately, after being told that he was blessed, that he was the rock upon whom the Lord would build his Church, we find St. Peter reacting to the Lord’s prediction that he would be put to death, and then rise on the third day.

Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee. But he turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men. Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.”8

We can identify with Peter’s incredulity, if we are honest. Who wants to bear the cross? In worldly eyes, albeit religious eyes, success demands that we present a Christ who carries no cross. This christ of theirs, their Jesus, makes no demands that we die to ourselves in order to follow him. His own death makes no sense in their new religion. But, we know why he can call us to lay down our lives to be his disciples. “We love him because he first loved us.” 9 We can pour out all that we have, and all that we are, with joy as living sacrifices to God, 10 only as our life of worship and thanksgiving, and only by knowing what he did for us. We were lost in trespasses and sins, subject to the twofold power of sin and death, but for the kindness of God our Savior, even the Lord Jesus Christ who “poured out his soul unto death;”11 “for the blood maketh atonement for the soul.”12 I have said this many times, and I will repeat it many more times. You need to come to the foot of the cross, and spend some time there, looking up at your Lord; you need to “See from His head, His hands, His feet, Sorrow and love flow mingled down!” as his blood makes atonement for your soul, as he gives up his spirit to death for you. This is the great offering of love that you need to behold, and you need to take it personally.
Only in the light of this love does it make sense to talk of giving to God one hundred percent of your very self as your life of worship and thanksgiving. Only in light of this love can we speak of the everlasting joys won for us on the first Easter in the triumph of his resurrection, when he overcame death and the grave and opened to you the way to everlasting joy. We are speaking of the love that we have for God and for one another as the fruit of gratitude that begins to grow within us as the love of God is poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. It begins at the cross of Christ.





  1. Romans 13:1-7
  2. I Peter 2:13-17
  3. Acts 5:27-29
  4. “Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee: He shall dwell with thee, even among you, in that place which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best: thou shalt not oppress him.” Simply put, to obey this commandment makes it impossible to treat human beings as property
  5. Deut. 6:6, 7
  6. II Tim. 4:2-4
  7. Luke 14:27
  8. Matt. 16:16-25
  9. I John 4:19
  10. Rom. 12:1,2
  11. Isaiah 53:12
  12. Lev.17:11



Friday, October 21, 2016

Twenty-second Sunday after Trinity

THE UNFORGIVING SERVANT

Matt. 18:21f


The parable of the Unforgiving Servant should remind us of words that the Lord spoke earlier in the same Gospel, in the sixth chapter:

…And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen. For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matt. 6:9-15)

Later today in this service of Holy Communion we will be bold to say “Our Father.” Following the Prayer Book translation of 1549, we will use the word “trespasses” instead of the word “debts” from the King James Bible, published later, in 1611. However, the word “debts” is actually a more accurate translation of the Greek word (opheilema) .

The servant owed the king ten thousand talents, but was owed by his fellow servant a mere one hundred pence. The difference is staggering, sort of like a man who was released from a debt of a million dollars demanding full payment from another man who owed about, as one hundred pence suggests, ten dollars. Frankly, the use of absurdity is a method of humor that Christ employed in His teaching (“ye strain out a gnat and swallow a camel” - a perfectly ridiculous picture). But, the fact is that both men in this story were too poor to pay, and could have faced a lifetime of debtor’s prison or slavery unless they were given mercy.

When the Lord Jesus addresses the issue of our sins He forces us to face the fact that we are much too subjective. We do not look at the world objectively, but rather as it affects us, and how we feel. So He compares the act of repentance from our cherished sins to the pain of self-mutilation, an act of amputation. Go back to chapter five:

Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. And if thy right eye offend thee (i.e. if it makes you sin), pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut if off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. (Matt. 5:27-30)

For people who are fond of their sins, to repent can feel like self-mutilation, as hard as pulling out an eye, or cutting off a hand. That bit of lust, that secret desire- how can they live without it? The price of holding on to sins, including cherished sins, is far worse than being maimed, loosing an eye or a hand. It is an eternity of separation from God. The danger is that those who do not repent in this life could cling to their sins forever, growing more attached to them, going only further into darkness, into Hell.

The same subjectivity that deceives us about our own sins, and makes repentance seem painful (painful, that is, until we have done it and realize that we are free), is the same cursed subjectivity that distorts the truth about the offenses that others have committed against us. And so it is that the mercy that was just shown to me, the mercy that forgave my million-dollar debt, seems small compared to the ten dollars that my fellow servant owes me. That is what sin does to our common sense; that is how it distorts our perspective.

You see, we cannot pay God the price for our sins. But, it has been paid already; the King Himself to Whom we owed our hopeless debt said, upon the cross before He gave up His spirit and died, "teleō" -“it is paid in full” (translated, "it is finished" in the KJV). The debt is impossible to pay ourselves because we cannot redeem ourselves, and because God is infinite in His Divine Majesty. Yet, it was paid in full,1 and we are frankly forgiven all. But, whatever offense has been committed against us has been committed against a finite creature by another finite creature. It has been committed against one sinner by another sinner. It has been committed against one creature made in God’s image by another creature made in God’s image. It has been committed against someone for whom Christ died by another person for whom Christ died. It has been committed against one object of God’s love by another object of God’s love. It has been committed against one person called to share in Christ’s resurrection by another person called to share in Christ’s resurrection.

I hope this puts the million-dollar debt against the ten-dollar debt into perspective. Furthermore, we have three classes of wrongs. Some wrongs are very real, for if you live in the real world, somebody somewhere, perhaps even somebody close to you, has hurt you or wronged you. These are the real offenses against you. Other wrongs are simply perceived wrongs, but they seem to be real. Perceived wrongs can be accidental, or maybe even things others have done innocently, or even quite correctly because they had to; but from our perspective they appear to be wrong. A third category is the grudge, the wrong we refuse to forgive. Be it real or simply perceived, be it a wrong done to us, or a grudge we bear out of loyalty to another person who bore his own grudge, and for whose sake we must carry on the grudge so as not to feel disloyal to a friend, one who may be dead or alive. Whatever, if I bear a grudge for my own sake or for the sake of someone else, it is killing me, bringing death into my own spirit unless I cast it off.

I know, I know, it feels like a bigger debt than ten dollars. Bad enough those strangers who hurt you; but if it is a person close to you… That person ought to be dropped into boiling oil, because his ten-dollar debt is so big, so much bigger than the million you once owed the king before he frankly forgave you all. There it is, the curse of subjectivity. Do you know why you are asked to forgive your debtors? For the same reason that God your Father forgives you your debts. You must forgive for the sake of the One Who shed His blood to atone for every sin against God. He bought their forgiveness from the Father, and for His sake you must pray for their salvation.

What will you really mean when you pray today, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who have trespassed against us?” Taken in one sense you maybe would not want to ask such a thing. Who would want to limit God’s mercy to the smallness of our mercy? To understand the meaning of this prayer, look at the version of the same prayer from the Gospel of Luke: “And forgive us our sins; for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us.” (Luke 11:4)

And so we see that when you pray these words you are actually pronouncing forgiveness upon everyone who has hurt you. At least, that is how you are supposed to mean it. “Forgive us our debts, as we here and now forgive everyone who is our debtor.” You are pronouncing your forgiveness in the very words of this prayer. And, this brings us to that last problem of subjectivity. You are not forgiving because your emotions agree with the need you have to show mercy. Indeed, your emotions may not agree. But, like that repentance that may seem to be as impossible as cutting off a hand, the pain is not real. The freedom that follows the effort, once the deed is done and the decision made, outweighs the pain we had imagined. Destroy your resentment, cast if off, have done with it, and find your freedom.

In the Old Testament Chronicles, a prophet named Zechariah (not to be confused with the later prophet of the same name), suffered this fate:

And the Spirit of God came upon Zechariah the son of Jehoiada the priest, which stood above the people, and said unto them, Thus saith God, Why transgress ye the commandments of the LORD, that ye cannot prosper? because ye have forsaken the LORD, he hath also forsaken you. And they conspired against him, and stoned him with stones at the commandment of the king in the court of the house of the LORD. Thus Joash the king remembered not the kindness which Jehoiada his father had done to him, but slew his son. And when he died, he said, “The LORD look upon it, and require it.” (II Chron. 24:20-22)

However, in the Book of Acts, we read of the same fate being suffered by the first Christian Martyr, Saint Stephen centuries later. Notice the difference.

  • Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers: Who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it. When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth. But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God. And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, and cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man's feet, whose name was Saul. And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7:57-60)


Saint Stephen had an advantage that Zechariah, centuries before, did not have. We do not criticize Zechariah for demanding justice when he died, because, unlike Saint Stephen, he could not look back to Jesus Christ on the cross. We all know the words from the Gospel of Luke: words spoken by Jesus as He was hanging upon the cross: “Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 24: 34) The Word made Flesh, God the Son in His human nature, showed us what mercy truly is. We already knew that God, from heaven, forgives sins. God cannot be harmed, wronged or deprived of anything. Yet, as a Man, it is God who was mocked, beaten and crucified by sinful men, and who pronounced forgiveness. No angel can preach on this subject as well as you and I can, for it takes human frailty to understand the reality of forgiveness, especially if we forgive after we have suffered.

So we do not criticize the holy prophet, Zechariah, of the Old Testament; Instead, we see that Saint Stephen had even more grace, for he could look back to God the Son, in His human nature, forgiving the very men who were murdering Him, who were enjoying the spectacle of His suffering, as they displayed the depths of schadenfreude. Saint Stephen could recall God in the flesh forgiving genuine pains that were inflicted upon His Person.

May our Lord Jesus, grant to us the joy that comes when we are free to love everyone, including those who have wronged us, with that charity placed within us by the Holy Ghost; for only that God-given charity can make us perfect, as our Father in heaven is perfect. Amen
__________
1. "It is paid in full" is an acceptable alternative translation of the words rendered "It is finished" in John 19:30. The Greek word used is τελε’ω (teleo). It means to finish, and was used often to speak of complete payment of a debt.


Saturday, October 15, 2016

Twenty-first Sunday after Trinity

Ephesians. 6:10-20

"For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand."

In the nice world of religious pleasantries, today’s text from Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians has no meaning. The idea of spiritual warfare, striving against demons, is seen as quaint, outdated, the product of an age of ignorance rendered irrelevant by scientific rationalizations. In other words, it is disregarded due to the bigotry of our modern age, and the arrogant assumption that the little bit of knowledge we have gained about material things gives us wisdom about the invisible world and its realities. The words of Shakespeare’s Hamlet speak to our age : “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

The problem with the modern Rationalist prejudice is that people who suffer from it think it is not a prejudice. They do not know the difference between being rational and being a Rationalist. I, for one, am rational enough to know that the belief that there is a scientific explanation for everything, is simply a new dogma that rests on faith without evidence- the very thing they accuse us of. They say “a rational explanation” or “scientific explanation” because they either disregard the true meaning of words, or do not know what the words mean. By “rational,” they do not mean the use of reason, but rather the prejudiced dismissal of belief in natures supernatural to those natures below them. By “scientific” they do not mean the acquisition of knowledge through empiricism, but rather, the dismissal of facts that cannot be explained in strictly material terms. For these reasons, I do not regard the Rationalists, or believers in what is called "Scientism" (as opposed to simply "science") as being either rational, scientific or sophisticated. Quite the opposite.

On the other hand, a large number of people these days who escape the influence of the Rationalist prejudice look for the supernatural in all the wrong places. A few years ago I was watching something, that passed for a documentary, about a family that had been living in fear and torment because their daily experiences indicated to them that their house was haunted. In fact, they feared that the spirits were evil, and even called them demonic. But, to whom did they turn for help? They called in a man who supposedly was a “Doctor of Paranormal Psychology.” I don’t know where they found this D.P.P., but, I do know that there is no university anywhere that would bestow a doctorate for something called “Paranormal Psychology.” That is, of course, unless Mr. Haney from the old comedy “Green Acres” has opened his own university. And, who did this alleged doctor call in for “expert” help? A psychic. And, did the "psychic"- that is, medium- offer any help? No. Just very bad advice, namely, to regard the tormenting affliction as a rare “psychic” gift. Finally, after finding no help from the psychic, they asked their pastor for help. It turns out that they were members of some sort of Pentecostal denomination. It was obvious, from a scene filmed in their church, that theirs was not one of the kooky fringe snake-handling types, but a simple old fashioned Protestant congregation with a seemingly reasonable pastor, one who seemed to know how to pray in faith. I wonder why these church-going people failed to go to their pastor first.

I mention this because, if any of you are impressed by psychics, or fortune-tellers, or go to seances, or any engage in any other occult practices, I want to be clear with you. The kinds of evil spirits that Saint Paul speaks of in today’s Epistle are very real. If you are looking for the supernatural in all the wrong places yourself, there are two things you need to know. First of all, it is a sin. It belongs to a forbidden world of idolatry and magic that the Biblical prophets referred to as a spiritual form of adultery, because it is unfaithfulness to God. Secondly, it is forbidden because it is dangerous. You may think that demon possession is only a Hollywood genre within a larger genre of horror movies. No. It is real, and the Church has always maintained that it is real. I have had to perform an exorcism on a real life demon possessed person in my time (more than one really), and I know it is real. Just as I know that miracles of healing still happen by the power of Christ, because I am an eyewitness to them. It is all of it quite real, everything you see in the pages of scripture, all of those supernatural events recorded in the New Testament (and, by the way, if you think you may need someone to do an exorcism, don’t call in a psychic. It is a job for a priest, not a circus sideshow act).

We live in a natural world that interacts with a world of holy angels and fallen angels. The holy angels are God’s servants, and the fallen angels are called "demons" (δαιμόνιον, daimonion) in the New Testament (translated as “devils” in the King James Version). The latter seem not to be super-human, but sub-human. The evidence indicates that they resent us, because we are destined to be, by God’s grace in the Lord Jesus Christ, “partakers of the Divine nature.” (II Pet. 1:4) Satan and his fallen angels were defeated when Christ died on the cross, the sinless One for the sins of the many. If you saw Mel Gibson’s The Passion, you may recall that right after the Lord gives up His spirit and dies, and the earth quakes, that Satan cries out in agony from being defeated. That is not a bad scene at all; it makes a very true point about Christ in his cross defeating the enemy of mankind. Because we live in the time of Easter, that is Christ’s resurrection, and because we live in the time of Pentecost, that is, because we are the Church of Christ filled with the Holy Spirit and His gifts and power, we need not fear any evil power such as the spirits mentioned in today’s Epistle. They are, as the Lord Jesus told us, subject to us. If I may be critical, an exorcism is not something to be tried or attempted. It is, rather, something to be done. When it is the appropriate thing to do, it must be done with faith, faith that it cannot possibly fail.

Listen to these words from the tenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel:

"And the seventy returned again with joy, saying, Lord, even the devils are subject unto us through thy name. And he said unto them, I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven. Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you. Notwithstanding in this rejoice not, that the spirits are subject unto you; but rather rejoice, because your names are written in heaven." (Luke 10:17-20)

This brings us to an unavoidable question: If they are subject to us, and we can trample all over them, and they cannot hurt us, why does Saint Paul tell us to put on the whole armor of God? Why are we in a fight? The answer is to be found in scripture, and also in the tradition of spiritual warriors throughout the history of the Church, such as Saint Anthony and the desert fathers; it is continued today among monks such as my younger brother got to know on the famous Mount Athos, and many others who have been spiritual directors. The demons work hidden from our view through temptations into sin, and they work mainly through deception.

In the New Testament we see that false teaching is attributed to the work of demons. The scripture speaks of “seducing spirits and doctrines of demons,” “the spirit of error” and the “spirit of Antichrist.” How do you understand that in our time the former Episcopal bishop of New Jersey attracts audiences and readers by proclaiming that it is high time for Christianity to abandon belief in God? How is it that many cults exist that cause people to suffer both spiritual and physical harm? Apart from the countless and shocking examples of heresy, ask yourself how much you are willing, in your own mind, to abandon the direct teaching of the word of God in the scripture as understood by the Church in every place and age, in favor of ideas that you like better? Where do those ideas come from? These ideas, that we all must fight by wearing "the helmet of salvation," are capable of reaching the flesh because it has sympathetic vibrations in its tendency to sin. All of us must wear the armor, the whole armor of God, and we must consciously and deliberately put it on every day.

My dear brothers and sisters, it is time we all took heed to Saint Paul’s words. It is time we all put upon ourselves the whole armor of God, and gave ourselves to prayer.