Thursday, November 13, 2008

26th Sunday after Trinity

If in any year there be twenty-six Sundays after Trinity, the service for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany shall be used on the Twenty-fifth Sunday. If there be twenty-seven, the service for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany shall be used on the Twenty-sixth, and the service for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany on the Twenty-fifth. If there be fewer than twenty-five Sundays, the overplus shall be omitted.

(Continuum readers: It is always wise to read the appointed readings from scripture first.)

I John 3:1-8
Matthew 24:23-31

The Gospel today is quite sober. It warns of false messiahs and false prophets. "Wherefore if they shall say unto you, Behold, he is in the desert; go not forth: behold, he is in the secret chambers; believe it not. For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be." Aside from the very simple and troubled people who get into cults and follow false prophets and false christs, the danger exists of following a more sophisticated falsehood. Where religious error cannot cause great dangers to peoples and nations, political ideology often can. From the time of the French revolution and throughout the time that has followed, political ideology has been a curse of the modern world. It carries the idea that we can establish Utopia on earth if we have the right policies. But, there is no place upon earth that can be perfected, or become a perfect society. The problem that plagues every nation and people is not simply imperfect political structures. The problem is sin and death. It is a false gospel that teaches us to settle for nothing more than some man-made human effort at perfection.

The problem is more basic, and the solution is more radical.

In two weeks the Church's new year begins again, and the Gospel appointed for that Sunday will tell of the Lord entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, entering the temple and driving out the money changers. It always seemed strange to me that the penitential season in which we emphasize the End, the second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, takes us back to a specific day in history that ushered in the events of Holy Week, leading to his cross and to his resurrection from the dead. Specifically, we will hear of Jesus driving the money changers out of the house of God, claansing the temple.On that first Sunday in Advent we read that and look backward in time, and that is what seemed strange to me, or out of place. Why not look ahead to his second coming, using passages such as our selected readings for today, or perhaps others that deal with eschatology and the last things? The answer has everything to do with the Epistle and Gospel for today.

Two weeks from now, when we read the Gospel on that first Sunday in Advent, we will be given a picture from our Lord's earthly life, when he came the first time and lived among sinful men, a picture from that day that foretells in a very real way what it means that he will come to judge the quick and the dead. In light of his second coming, we must use this time as the opportunity to prepare ourselves to appear before Christ. St. Peter wrote, "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?" (I Pet. 4:17) As Jesus cleansed the temple in Jerusalem, so judgment begins with his temple, the Church which is that temple made of living stones, you and me. So we ought to make ourselves ready for the day in which we shall see him face to face, a day which shall strike terror into an unbelieving world, but that day that will be the fulfillment of all our glorious hope.

We say in Creed, "And he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; Whose (that is Christ's) kingdom shall have no end." Make no mistake about it. The only teaching that Christians have ever been given, the only doctrine ever received by the Church and so taught by the Church, is that our ultimate hope is not the intermediate state in heaven or some place of preparation and cleansing (as real as that is); but rather, our ultimate hope is to rise again from the dead and to share the immortal and eternal life of the resurrected Christ. Let me put it simply: Easter is not only an event that happened in the past when Christ rose from the dead; it is for us also the future, when we shall also rise from the dead at his coming. So, in the words of today's Epistle: "Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is." This is our hope, our sure and certain hope of the resurrection.

The Apostle John goes on to tell us the effect that this hope must always have, the manifestation of Christian hope that comes from God's promise of eternal life, our share in Christ's resurrection and complete victory over death: "
And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he (that is, as Christ) is pure." So it is that a true believer cooperates even now with the Lord Jesus Christ in the cleansing of this temple, the Church; and cooperates with the Holy Spirit since each member of the Body of Christ is the temple of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is with us for many reasons, such as giving us power for service, gifts by which we help one another, some gifts supernatural in an obvious way and others in a hidden way; and the Holy Spirit is in us to give us utterance of the mysteries of God, to boldly make known the truth of his salvation to the world around us. In today's Epistle we see that he is a cleansing fire burning away the dross of sin, unbelief and every unholy fear. St. John says that everyone who has this hope purifies himself, namely the hope that we will see the risen and glorified Lord at his coming, and be ourselves transformed and made like him. If we are to purify ourselves, above all else, we must cooperate with the Holy Spirit as he sanctifies and makes us ready as a people prepared for the Lord. This is a necessary part of our continued sojourn on earth. This must be part of my life and yours.

Our dross must be cleansed away, and only so can the godly character of virtue, the very character of Jesus Christ, grow in us. I say grow, because we cannot manufacture that life of Christ within ourselves. We have no power to produce it by our own effort. It is planted as a seed in our hearts by the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the Gospel of Christ. When I was in Arizona it shocked me to hear a member of my church say, after several months of hearing my preaching, that she thought the whole point of religion was only to make us "better people." Death must be defeated, for it cannot be made better, and the state into which we were born was sin and death. "Better" may be better, rather than worse, but some relative measure of how dead sin and death is, cannot come to our rescue. The work of the Holy Spirit is much more radical, beginning in the waters of baptism where we have died to sin, were buried with Christ and then risen to begin life anew. St. Paul wrote to the Galatians about the difference between the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit. Works are made, but fruit is grown. The virtuous life of Christ's own character grows in us, above all charity, that love of God described in I Corinthians chapter 13. This is the work of the Holy Spirit, and only of the Holy Spirit.

So, when St. John writes of a hope that makes the believer "purify himself" to be like the Lord Jesus Christ, the first and obvious point is our need to cooperate with the Holy Spirit. So, he writes in the present tense. What he says seems impossible: "Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not: whosoever sinneth hath not seen him, neither known him." This is the same Apostle, and in fact the same Epistle, where we find this in the opening chapter: "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us." (1:8-10) If we are to understand why this is not a contradiction, the same effort to think this through will also help us with his other phrase, that if we have this hope of sharing Christ's resurrection we will purify oursleves "as he is pure." For John never tells us that if we have sinned-past tense-that we do not know Christ.

The use of present tense, "whosoever sinneth," indicates very strongly a willingness to live without repentance, and therefore a willingness to live without God. Every day I look back on my thoughts, words and deeds, and I know that I have sinned. That is very different from making the decision to accept sin as the way of life. I know that I have sinned by the end of each day, rather each hour. But, this is a war, and I do not plan to make peace with sin. Past tense, I have sinned: Present and future tense, I want to follow Christ and know him, and I want to change and become holy. This answer may seem simplistic, but it works. It is the meaning of our powerful invitation to the General Confession: "Ye who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead a new life..." Please, always pay attention to these words, and prepare yourselves with them in mind.

We come here today to feed on the living Christ through the sacrament of his body and blood, and so receive his life to save us from sin and death. Modern people have cut out of our Prayer of Humble Access a little phrase that confuses them, "Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his Body, and our souls washed through his most precious Blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us." They reason that the body cannot be sinful, since it is only a machine without volition. I understand that. But, the very fact that death is, as taught in the Law of Moses, an unclean thing, quite justifies the words of our Anglican prayer. Really, it expresses the glorious hope of St. John's words in the Epistle. As we learn from the sixth chapter of John's Gospel: "Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. " (John 6:54) Our sinful bodies, that is, our bodies that are subject to death, are purified and cleansed by eating this sacrament with faith and thanksgiving; our souls are washed as we receive this sacrament of his blood. I love the words from our Prayer of Humble Access, for they speak of the glorious hope that awaits us by the mercy and goodness of God in his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The powerful salvation of God, the glorious hope of the believer, is to be transformed after the pattern of the risen Christ's own immortality, and to be given a share in the power of his unending life. The readings today provide a stark contrast, a contrast we must all heed. We have two ways set before us, the way of life and the way of death. The way of life is this: "Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God." The other way, the way of death, is the way of fear that has only dread and no hope. The fear that is described by the Lord in the reading from St. Matthew contrasts sharply with the joyous hope in the Epistle. The Lord speaks words of warning, saying that the tribes of the earth shall mourn. Recall those words written in the Book of Isaiah, and quoted by Christ, that they will beg the mountains and rocks to hide them from the face of the Lord. But, when the true believers see the Lord, they will be changed into his image: "Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is." When the unrepentant people of the earth see the same Lord, they want to run for cover out of fear. This is the difference between faith and unbelief, and it is the difference between knowing the Lord and being a stranger to him. Upon seeing him, will you be terrified or transformed? If we know him, and prepare forhis coming, we cannot help but rejoice when he appears.

We have been given many great and glorious promises, all of them personally guaranteed by our Lord on the cross where he died to take away all of our sins, and certified when he rose from the dead on that first Easter, that Passover from death to life, testified and verified in the blood of martyrs. This is our past and the testimony of the Church for every people and all time, that they saw him alive again after his resurrection; and it is our future. We look back to Easter and see his resurrection; we look ahead to Easter, and receive our part in his resurrection when he shall come again.

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