Saturday, September 13, 2008

17th Sunday after Trinity

Ephesians 4:1-6, Luke 14:1-11
People today love to use the word "spiritual” as a substitute for genuine religion that makes moral demands. Saint Paul uses the word “spiritual” to mean overcoming the temptations of the world, the flesh and the Devil by walking in the Holy Spirit. The most practical thing we see in today’s Gospel and Epistle is that humility is essential for those who want to be spiritual. Also, since humility is necessary in order to be spiritual (as Saint Paul uses that word), it is also the key to peace among believers. Not only that, but it is the key to remaining orthodox. It is the element of character that we must have in order to bend our ears to hear, to be able to learn. For, the Christian must be someone who, as G.K. Chesterton observed, knows that there is in the earth something smarter than himself; and that something is the Church. Frankly, if we ever think that we are smarter than the Church, we will be lost. The Hebrew word for hear, and for obey, is the same word: That word is Sh’mai. It takes humility to hear, and it takes humility to obey.

Long ago in a sermon I told you that I would not feed you my own stupid ideas, but only the word of God. You see, the word “heresy” comes from a root that means “opinion.” Yes, the word “heresy” carries the ideas of false doctrine and of church division. Yet, all of that destructive power, unleashed by a terrible combination of carnal and demonic motivation, comes from the exaltation of one’s own opinion above the revealed truth of Scripture as known by the Church’s Tradition- in fact, its infallible Tradition, built upon the Rock of revelation that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Against that Tradition of revealed truth, you and I can choose our own ideas. But, when we do that, it is pride, both in its base carnality and in demonic motivation. Pride welcomes the spirit of error into the heart and mind. St. Pauls' list of "The works of the flesh" (Galatians chapter 5) are not only sexual lusts, but also many other things. Even political sins, which include the use of manipulation -even within the Church, are included in Paul's list of "the works of the flesh." Pride is one of those “works of the flesh” that wars against the spirit and the knowledge of God. It desires glory to be given to oneself. It desires power and prestige, position and honor. But, in order to hear and obey God we must be humble. We must take up the cross and follow Jesus Christ.

So, humility is also the key to peace among believers, to peace in the Church. Divisions are not always caused by false doctrines. Many times they are caused by strong and imposing personalities, by uncharitable deeds and words, by politics and gossip. All of these things are works of the flesh, and they are also tools of demons and the lure of the world. When they find their way into the Church, it is, more often than not, due to pride. The words we have read today tell us why we must strive to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. It is because “There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.” The Church is one Body with one doctrine and one God. There is only one Body of Christ and One Holy Spirit.

When Christ prayed that “they all might be one” this was one Person of the Trinity speaking to another Person of the Trinity. The Son asked it, not of us, but of the Father. And, as Saint Paul’s words tell us, there is only one Church. But, just as a man and wife are one flesh, and are made one flesh by God Himself, it is no guarantee that they will have the love and humility it takes to get along with each other. Where pride motivates us to seek our own satisfaction in life, love is cast aside. Indeed, many churches have been built because of doctrinal errors due to the very thing I have mentioned, the exaltation of opinion over the faith that was revealed once for all to the saints. And, we cannot pretend that these things do not matter. But, in addition to the problem of bad theology, we must avoid those other things that divide the Church; politics, gossip, ambition and so forth.

Look at where we came from. Most of us awoke one day to the terrible fact that the official Episcopal Church- the one headquartered in New York- had left us behind. We had not left it; it had left us. It was all because of that terrible combination of carnality and demonic motivation. Because of pride, that very first sin of the Devil that caused his fall, many of the leaders of that once solid denomination, that for many years had upheld the best of the Catholic Tradition and the best of the English Reformation, began teaching their own ideas in an attempt to be chique’, and to be acceptable to a fallen world that hates God. Doctrine became more a matter of being fashionable than of being true and faithful. Many of us held out until we saw that it was a waste of time. For me, the truth hit hard when I came to see that any person that I might evangelize into the faith of Christ, I could not, in good conscience, bring into my own church. Not even the Parish I was in; yes, it was still fighting the good fight (or trying to). But, ultimately, it could not win because of the power of apostate bishops. Our life in the Church should be one of a positive mission to the world around us, not of a negative drain on our energy due to a constant battle against prelates and General Conventions. How could I, in good conscience, bring anyone into that? But, now we have found that, by God’s grace, our faith still lives just as it was taught to us from the beginning; that others can keep the endowments, the real estate and the social position that came with being Episcopalians. We will keep the faith, thank you.

But, let us take heed that we learn a few lessons in light of the scriptures we have read this day. I suggest that we must unlearn some bad lessons that we learned from being in a constant battle (that is, for those of us who were struggling for orthodoxy in the Episcopal Church, before realizing the futility of wasting our alloted time in this world). The first lesson to unlearn is about the whole idea of what a diocese is. In our old days, a diocese was simply a legal entity which gave us a legitimate existence as a local church, and it became for many of us a necessary evil. The reason is obvious. Bishops were the enemy. More often than not, we just did not trust them. As C.S. Lewis said about the clergy and the laity, in the Middle Ages the laity were sure the priests were more orthodox than themselves. But now, they are sure that they are more orthodox than the priests. Well, that applied double for bishops.

But, if we go back to the Bible we see apostolic ministry as a gift that was appointed by God, the extension in this world of Christ’s own ministry. If we look at Saint Paul’s epistles to Timothy and to Titus, we see that he had laid his hands upon both of those men in order to make them into shepherds of the flock, and to be his successors in the apostolic college with the authority to ordain men for the priestly ministry. The apostolic succession is in scripture, described rather than explained, but clearly in scripture nonetheless. And, we can read about the ministry of the bishops in great detail, in epistles to various churches, by Saint Ignatius of Antioch, who wrote in the very early years of the Church.

I remember a very unfortunate and inaccurate TV presentation about Church History in which some scholar, a woman from a University somewhere (oh my, it was Elaine Pagels), was theorizing that Ignatius wrote his epistles in order to add to his own power as a bishop. The truth is, however, that he wrote them after being sentenced to death while on his way to Rome in chains to die in an arena, expecting to be killed within a very short period of time; so I am not sure how his teaching on the subject of the epscopacy, that is the office of bishop, was supposed to increase his power. These letters were his legacy, given to the whole Church out of love. He tells us in those letters that where the bishop is present, there is Christ; and where Christ is present there is the Catholic Church. We need bishops for that reason. That is why we belong to a diocese. It is so we can belong to the Church, and so we can have valid sacraments. The apostolic succession is more than a legal matter of canons, and more than a relay race. It is the continuation of apostolic ministry; it is not a necessary evil. It is a blessing.

If you want to see chaos it is easy to find. You can find crazy doctrines and personality cults tearing apart churches all around us. We need to be humble if we want to avoid those things; that is, we need the humility of which St. Paul wrote in the Epistle read today.

Of course, the great example of humility is that of Christ Himself. While always being equal to God, He took human nature into his Person, and humbled Himself to be, as the scripture says, obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. He had, as a Man, always an ear to hear the Father’s will. So, He humbled Himself as a servant and took away the sin of the world, and was exalted after His resurrection, revealed to be the Lord of all heaven and earth. That is the most astonishing thing. God the Son had an ear to hear. Humility was good enough for God. How can it be less so for us?

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