Sunday, April 16, 2017

THE LORD IS RISEN INDEED! Easter 2017


John 20:1F

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

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

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

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

“Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time. For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” (I Cor. 15:1-9)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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You may hear my Easter Fugue at this link.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Lancelot Andrewes A Good Friday Sermon

Try fitting this into a seven-minute homily. Click on the picture for the link.


Two for Good Friday

From our archives: this one of Fr. Wells Bulletin Inserts:

GOOD FRIDAY

The special liturgy for this day is one of the great treasures of Christian spirituality.  As a sign of unusual mourning and penitence, both today and tomorrow the Church refrains from celebrating the Holy Eucharist and still in most places does not administer Holy Communion to the faithful.  In effect, we place ourselves under a sentence of excommunication as we remember the crime of our Saviour's death.  Today's liturgy is merely a "liturgy of the Word," which Anglicans of another generation called the Ante-communion.

Two further features of the Good Friday liturgy are the Solemn Collccts and the Reproaches which are chanted or read during the Veneration of the Cross.  Both of these have archaic qualities which recall the earliest centuries of Christian history.  In the "Solemn Collects" we remember that in His very death our Lord was officiating as our Great High Priest .  His first "word from the cross" was a prayer of intercession, "Father forgive them."  So His Church, keeping vigil with Him on Calvary, intercedes for all her children and likewise for the whole world.

The nine prayers of intercession are comprehensive, beginning with the bishops and hierarchy of the Church, proceeding with "all estates of men in thy holy Church," continuing on with various special needs, and concluding with prayers for the Jews and for the heathen.  Each intercession has a special bidding, "Let us pray for..."  One phrase runs through and unites them:  "the Lord our God."
Here we have an echo of the covenant formula which unlocks the entire Bible, "I will be your God, and ye shall be my people, and I will dwell with you."

The covenant of grace, first intimated in the Garden of Eden in God's curse of the serpent and later inaugurated with Abraham, comes into sharp focus today.  When was that promise ever so rejected, or ever so confirmed, as it was at the death of the Messiah?  When the Word of God was made flesh and dwelt among us in Jesus Christ, human wickedness (the depravity of all mankind) reached its lowest and vilest point in His murder.  But never has the covenant promise been so ratified as it was when He prayed "My God, my God."  We might lose our way in the rest of that word of dereliction, "why hast thou forsaken me," if we forget that He was pleading the covenant promise, "I will be your God."  Never was God so perfectly "our God" as when He put forth His only-begotten Son to be the propitiation for our sins.  The covenant language in the Solemn Collects should remind us that like our dying Saviour we are pleading the promises of the Covenant sealed in His Blood.

In the Reproaches, we have a meditation on a passage from the prophet Micah.
Here are the original words (Micah 6:3--5).
O my people, what have I done to you?
How have I wearied you?
Answer me!
For I brought you up from the land of Egypt
And redeemed you from the house of slavery,
and I sent before you Moses, Aaron and Miriam.
O my people, remember what Balak, king of Moab devised,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the saving acts of the LORD.

This address of the LORD to Israel was part of a covenant lawsuit, in which He had called on his unfaithful and idolatrous people to to give an account of their breach-of-contract with the God who had redeemed them.  Their situation is untenable, they have no defense in the LORD's courtroom, they have invoked His curses, their doom is certain.

Micah's description of the covenant lawsuit of God against His people is recalled on Good Friday because on Calvary this untenable situation was resolved, when Jesus Christ took upon Himself our guilt and our doom, by enduring the curse which we have justly provoked.  It is of some interest that Micah describes this lawsuit as taking place "before the mountains."  He may have foreseen Jesus' walk up Calvary's hill to answer for us.  Surely it was there that the greatest "saving act" of the Lord took place.

It is truly sad that this magnificent liturgical poetry (brilliantly set to music) is so little known.  This is owing to the frivolous notion that the Old Testament allusions are somehow anti-Semitic and offensive to the Jewish people.  We must be quick to say that the address "O my people" is not directed toward the idolatrous Israelites of Micah's day, nor to the Sanhedrin which sent Jesus to Pilate, and certainly not to the Jewish people of later centuries.  The Reproaches are addressed, specifically and painfully, to ourselves, the Christian community of here and now.  Because of the "new covenant" which our Saviour announced in the Upper Room (really the ancient covenant of grace re-established and made new), we are God's covenant people.  And we too are faithless, idolatrous, guilty covenant-breakers.  I am not convinced that it was sensitivity for Jewish feelings that has placed the Reproaches in our liturgical attic.  Each time I read them I feel bound to respond, "Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal, have mercy" not upon them, but "upon us."

Mercifully, the Reproaches do not end with the covenant lawsuit in which we are convicted.  The conclusion is, "We venerate the Cross, O Lord, and praise and glorify thy holy Resurrection, for by virtue of the Cross joy hath come to the whole world."

ONCE FOR ALL

The central and most important prayer of our Prayer Book is the one found on pages 80 and 81, called the Prayer of Consecration.  The more technical and ancient name for this prayer is the “Canon,” a Greek word meaning rule or norm.  This prayer not only consecrates bread and wine for the Lord’s Supper, but is also a normative statement of our church’s teaching concerning the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. 

Near the beginning of this all-important prayer we find the words: by his one oblation of himself once offered.”  These words are placed in parentheses, but surely not to suggest that they are optional or unimportant but to emphasize their critical importance.  These words are there to give point to the following language, “a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.”  Had it not been “once for all,”   the sacrifice of Calvary would have been less than perfect and insufficient for our salvation.

This language has been part of our Anglican liturgy since the original Prayer Book of 1549.  It is interesting that Archbishop borrowed all this from the Roman Catholic Archbishop Herman of Cologne.

The intent was to refute two serious errors of the late Middle Ages.  One was the grotesque notion that at every celebration of the Mass, our Lord and Saviour is re-sacrificed or even re-crucified.  The other error was the curious idea that every mass has only a finite value as a meritorious act.  Therefore if one mass is good, two would be better, and 1,000 would be better still. This was the basis for masses with a special intention and for mass stipends.  We must be quick to say that such was never the dogmatic teaching of the pre-Reformation Church nor of the Roman Church at the Reformation or now.

Authentic Biblical teaching exposes this  popular belief as radically wrong.  St.  John tells us that at His death, our Lord uttered the cry of victory, “It is finished,” with a Greek word which was a book-keeper’s term meaning “paid in full.”  His death was decisive, final and unrepeatable.  

The Epistle to the Hebrews, in a passage we read on Good Friday, contrasts the sacrifice made by Jesus, the Great high Priest, with the sacrifices made over and over, morning and night, every day of the year, by the priests of the Old testament.  Hebrews uses a very emphatic word, “For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified.”  The word which Hebrews hammers home is EPHAPAX, once for all,



We treasure our prayer book for its clear Biblical, Reformed and truly catholic teaching.  Our Saviour made one unique and perfect sacrifice for us,  which we can never repeat, to which we can add nothing, on which we may confidently rely for our salvation.  LKW  

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Two for Maundy Thursday.

I have here two things for Maundy Thursday. The first is a study on a much neglected topic, the New Covenant. Inasmuch as Jeremiah 31:31-34 is the lesson appointed for Morning Prayer, I offer you this link to an essay from our archives for your consideration. The second is a sermon for the Holy Communion service, which is at this link.

Saturday, April 08, 2017

Palm Sunday

          Click the icon for a link to a sermon

Thursday, March 30, 2017

URGENT Appeal for the South Sudan

http://anglicancatholic.org/news/Bishop-Garang-Issues-Urgent-Appeal-for-Aid

Bishop Garang Issues Urgent Appeal for Aid

Mar 27, 2017

Sudan_famine_web

Food relief is essential for the most vulnerable populations--the pregnant, the elderly, and the young.

In recent months both the ACC website and The Trinitarian have reported on the humanitarian crisis in South Sudan.  Though many have responded, the situation remains dire, leading Bishop Wilson Garang to make the following appeal.

In February 2017 the United Nations formally declared famine in South Sudan.  According to a recently released report, 4.9 million people are in need of urgent food.  This is more than 40 percent of South Sudan's total population.

The total number of food insecure people is expected to rise to 5.5 million at the height of the lean season in July if nothing is done to curb the severity of the crisis. The UN report also notes that more than one million children are currently estimated to be acutely malnourished across South Sudan.

The Diocese of Aweil has also been severely affected by the famine since last year.  Many have migrated from Aweil to North Sudan in search of food. Others have resorted to collecting wild fruits and leaves for food. 

I am therefore appealing to well-wishers to donate funds to provide famine relief.  Donations will be used to distribute food to the most severely affected and the vulnerable--pregnant mothers, households with children below five years of age, and the elderly.  Items to be distributed will include sorghum, maize, beans, powdered milk, Unimix, and Plumpy'Nut.

Your brothers and sisters in South Sudan pray for aid.  Those who are in need will not forget what you do. May God bless you.

+Wilson

Donations for famine relief may be made through the Saint Paul Mission Society.  Click here to find out how.

Tagged: aweilfoodfaminereliefdonationssaint paul mission society

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Fourth Sunday in Lent at the URL below


http://anglicancontinuum.blogspot.com/2015/03/fourth-sunday-in-lent.html?m=1

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Synagō

For the Third Sunday in Lent             

He that is not with me is against me: and he that gathereth not with me scattereth. (Luke 11:23) 

What does it mean to gather with Christ? It is possible that the word "gather" was meant to convey the idea of kibutz (קָבַץ), a word that the modern world became familiar with because of the early Zionists and the state of Israel. Or it may have been meant to convey adah  (עֵדָה), which means congregation, for which the Greek equivalent is the word ekklēsia (κκλησία), the word translated as "church" in the New Testament. The Greek word actually used in the verse is of great interest, synagō (συνάγω), from which we get the word "synagogue." No matter how we approach it, that verb form of "synagogue," used by Luke when quoting Christ, must bring to mind the assembled local Church.  

It is also significant that this line is recorded in a context about spiritual warfare and the attack of the Kingdom of God, a frontal assault to take back territory formerly siezed by Satan, and to set hostages free. Going back to v. 20, we see that context:  

But if I with the finger of God cast out devils, no doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you. When a strong man armed keepeth his palace, his goods are in peace: But when a stronger than he shall come upon him, and overcome him, he taketh from him all his armour wherein he trusted, and divideth his spoils. He that is not with me is against me: and he that gathereth not with me scattereth.

And what follows is about spiritual warfare also, with a warning.  

When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest; and finding none, he saith, I will return unto my house whence I came out. And when he cometh, he findeth it swept and garnished. Then goeth he, and taketh to him seven other spirits more wicked than himself; and they enter in, and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first. (vs. 24-26) 

Gathering with Christ and His Church seems to be one and the same, at the very least inseparable. When on his way to die in a Roman arena, St. Ignatius wrote several letters to various churches (circa 110 AD). Though he knew that he himself would never return to his bishopric in Antioch, he wrote for the good of all churches everywhere and for all generations to come. In his Letter to the Smyrneans, he said: “Wherever the bishop appears let the congregation be present; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”  

The alternative is to be part of a great scattering, a life of isolation where it is all too easy to avoid the clutter of prayer, worship, sacraments and sound doctrine. In that scattering an individual becomes such a house as Christ describes, "swept and garnished," ready for the habitation of evil plus more evil times seven. That last state is worse than the first.  

Koinonia
Another word that is relevant to the subject of gathering with Christ and His Church is the word translated as "fellowship," which is koinōnia (κοινωνία). "That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship (κοινωνία) with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ." (I John 1:4) Here we see that this fellowship is impossible without the truth of Apostolic doctrine, the word of God in Scripture.

This same word, koinōnia, is translated "communion" speaking very directly of the sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood. "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion (κοινωνία) of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion (κοινωνία) of the body of Christ?" (I Cor. 10:16) 

A form of this word is used also to say we are partakers. That is koinōnos (κοινωνός).  

"But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers (κοινωνός) of Christ's sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy." (I Pet. 4:13) 

"Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers (κοινωνός) of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust." (II Pet. 1:4) 

Contrary to that is a kind of fellowship from which we are told to turn away. 

"For ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord: walk as children of light: (For the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness and righteousness and truth;) Proving what is acceptable unto the Lord. And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them (Ephesians 5:8-11)." 

In that passage we see a form of the same word translated "fellowship," sygkoinōneō (συγκοινωνω). With what have fellowship, that is communion? The Body and Blood of Christ, or the unfruitful works of darkness? With whom have we fellowship, that is communion? Christ and His Body the Church, or the devil and the world? Choose. 

One can see the skillful use of words in our Service of Holy Communion when we come across such lines as, "humbly beseeching thee, that all we, who are partakers of this holy communion, may be fulfilled with thy grace and heavenly benediction." The scholars of the Church of England were second to none, and they knew exactly what they were saying in light of the Biblical use of words that formed their thinking. 

We partake, we communicate, we have fellowship; this is with Christ and His Church; and it is across all barriers of time and space. As St. John tells us in the larger context of his words quoted above about our fellowship, going back to the first verse and taking it from the top:  

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life; (For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;) That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. (I John 1:1-4)  

Our Synagogue
Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised;) And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching. (Heb. 10:22-25) 

That word "assembling" is a translation of yet another form of the word "synagogue." It is episynagōgē (πισυναγωγή).  

I do not know what value each of you place on the fellowship of God's Church, especially in countries where the choices seem endless, and where it is so free and easy to gather together. Unlike the ancient Christians under the Roman persecution before 313 AD, and unlike many Christians in various countries where the Church suffers persecution, modern western Christians do not take a risk or pay a high price for the opportunity to assemble. But, to understand the value everyone ought to place on the fellowship of God's holy Church, let us summarize the points we have learned in this brief study. 

When we gather as the Church we gather with Christ Himself. If we do not so gather or assemble together, we scatter and become prey for the enemy. If anyone doubts the reality of that peril, let us look at the very next verse from the portion we have quoted of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Vs. 26, 27 tell us, "For if we sin willfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries." Why does the writer, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, warn that forsaking the assembling together of the Church leads to a state of willful sin? Need we really ask this question?

When we gather as the Church we have fellowship. This is not merely social; more than that it is also sacramental and theological. That it is sacramental is obvious, as we have seen from the passage about the communion of Christ's Body and Blood. That it is theological is obvious, because of what John tells us about the doctrine of the Apostles who touched, who heard and who saw the Incarnate Christ (especially as they again touched, heard and saw Him after He had risen from the dead). Our fellowship and communion is in the truth of God's word and it is sacramental. It is with God, and it is with one another. Across barriers of time, we have fellowship with the Apostles themselves by believing their testimony and doctrine; this fellowship is with God and with His Son. We have communion with Christ's Body and Blood; we have fellowship one with another; together we look forward to the day when we may be partakers of the Divine nature. 

I hope you are not planning to sleep late this Sunday.


Thursday, March 16, 2017

THAT DANGEROUSLY SUBVERSIVE CROSS


And as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside, and on the way he said to them, "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and deliver him to the Gentiles to be mocked and scourged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day."

Then the mother of the sons of Zeb'edee came up to him, with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, "What do you want?" She said to him, "Command that these two sons of mine may sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom." But Jesus answered, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?" They said to him, "We are able." He said to them, "You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father." And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." – Matthew 20:17-28 RSV
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For the above quotation I have chosen to use the Revised Standard Version (RSV) translated in the 1950s rather than the Authorized Version of 1611, strictly because I wanted the word “servant” rather than the word “minister.” Granted, in 1611 it was understood that “minister,” as a noun, and “servant” were synonyms, and that “minister” as a verb, and “serve,” were also synonyms. The word translated “servant” in this passage is διακονω (diakoneo) from which we get the English word “deacon.” It may seem doubly ironic that I chose a word other than “minister,” that is, for any who either never knew or have forgotten that when we call a man a deacon it is the same as calling him a servant.    In a sermon I once wrote for Palm Sunday, expounding on the great Christological passage in Philippians chapter two, I related this story: “In a rather unhappy conversation with a man who aspired to be a priest, I asked the question, ‘What is it that you want?’ He answered me, ‘I want to be a priest; in fact, I want to be a bishop.’ He even said, ‘Isn’t it right to want to get to the top of your field?’ I told him that he should forget the whole idea of Holy Orders for himself. I said I would not help him with it at all. I went on to explain to him that this is not about ambition. Every priest, including the Archbishop, is forever a deacon, that is, a servant. He said that he had never heard that before. Had he not read what Saint Paul tells us? ‘Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.’ In fact, that is for everyone.”
          What we see in the Gospel passage, in the way that St. Matthew placed these two events together in succession, is a very clever use of irony by the former tax collector turned Apostle. In the much the same way St. Luke writes about the other passage in which Jesus said much the same thing to the Apostles as in what we read above. That is because, after telling them that He was about to be handed over to the Gentiles, and that one of them would betray Him to the terrible suffering and death that was now upon Him, we read, “And there was also a strife among them, which of them should be accounted the greatest (Luke 22:24).”

Lifestyles of the rich and famous – and powerful
          In the 1980s, or perhaps 1990s, a weekly television series caught the attention of people who, as I overheard from time to time, discussed it in their places of employment. The name of the program was Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. I never saw it, but I recall people being enraptured about what they had seen. The world, after all, has a value system in which riches, fame and, if I may add one more category, power, are in themselves the zenith of success. Or, to mention the same things, in terms of their spiritual substance, with the words of St. John, “The lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life.”
“Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever (I John 2:15-17).”
          It did not escape Patristic notice how those three things line up with the very first temptation mentioned in scripture. “And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat (Genesis 3:6).”
          Those things must be overcome in our hearts if we are to be Christ’s disciples. As much as modern Americans see the Church in terms of shopping and selecting only desired items, and as much as the clergy are tempted here to become competing salesmen in this awkward sort of emotional-religious retail, in reality the Church, wherever she is true to her Lord, has but two things: Discipleship and sainthood.
And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch (Acts 11:26).”
“Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours (I Corinthians 1:2).”
          The Christian life is a call to sainthood, which means simply holiness. Holiness means two things: Both that we avoid willful sin, and that we cultivate the virtues that grow in us by the grace of God, given to us by the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:16-26). The only method is discipleship, and we cannot be disciples without taking up, each of us, our own cross and following the Son of Man. “And he said to them all, If anyone will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me (Luke 9:23).”

Blessed Subversion
            It is not possible to be Christ’s disciples if we have the same value system as the World; that is as St. John uses the word “world,” both in the Epistle passage we have read, and in the opening of his Gospel: “He [the Word or Logos] was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not (John 1:10).” In our own time I see a troubling confusion among many American Christians. I have written quite a bit about the problem of churches that are given over to overt heresy, immorality and apostasy. But many American Christians who remain either orthodox, or traditional or Evangelical, demonstrate by their public statements an inability to distinguish between the spirit of the world and the Spirit of Christ. In a world that prizes riches, fame and power, taking up the cross of Christ is entirely contrary. We follow Christus Contra Mundum, that is, in terms of the world’s upside down values, Christ against the world.
          Beginning a few decades ago American Evangelicals began pushing the idea of “Leadership.” In daily mail to the church, among colorful glossy advertisements that I throw away every week are items about conferences with high sounding names like “Raising the Next Generation of Leaders.” How very contrary to the Lord who said, “It shall not be so among you.” Where are the conferences for Raising the Next Generation of Servants? Churches advertise (in a manner most insulting to traditional liturgical churches) their “Passion,” their “Power,” and their “Lively” services – which appear to be mostly entertainment. But disciples have no power in and of themselves, put no confidence in the flesh (Philippians 3:3), and must take up the cross daily to overcome themselves.
          The irony about which Matthew and Luke wrote, which Jesus corrected with His words that the greatest among us is a servant, is in striking consistency with the times in which we live. The twentieth century was a time of severe persecution for the Church, and it has grown more so since the turn of the millennium. Every day Christians face persecution, and in many cases poverty. Many are imprisoned, beaten, tortured or killed for their faith. In Touchstone, a Journal of Mere Christianity, every issue presents news about “The Persecuted Church.” How ironic, then, that in modern times many American Christians believe they will be “Raptured” before some seven year period of a “Great Tribulation” comes on the earth. Not only is that idea based upon a very poor interpretation of Scripture, but it is also a clear symptom of moral failure. If the Spirit of Christ is in them, how then can they fail to empathize with their persecuted brothers and sisters who live and suffer in other parts of the world?*
          It is essential that we become utterly subverted, from the world’s upside down point of view, by the cross of Christ. It is impossible to prevail in the spiritual battle unless we accept His call to take up our cross, and follow Him as disciples. We cannot overcome the power of evil by the arm of the flesh, or by the methods of the world. We must despise the value system of the world, and become servants. We must take the lowest place. We cannot overcome the world unless we become incurably subverted by that which is eternal, the Kingdom of God.
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* About that error I have written before. See “Why I want to be Left Behind,” available in our own archives, and also on Virtue Online.