Saturday, May 08, 2010

The Fifth Sunday after Easter

Jas. 1:22-27, John 16: 23-33

This fifth Sunday after Easter is commonly called Rogation Sunday: The word "Rogation" comes from the Latin verb rogare, meaning "to ask," and was applied to this time of the liturgical year because the Gospel reading includes the passage "Ask and ye shall receive" (John 16:24). And it goes on to say: "At that day ye shall ask in my name." At one time people observed the Rogation days by fasting in preparation to celebrate the Ascension, and farmers often had their crops blessed by a priest.

Well, we know about the blessing of the crops, and what it has come to mean in terms of the annual celebration of Rogation Sunday. We must be thankful to God because of every good thing He gives us, including the crops of the field and every provision. To have the work of our hands blessed by God, so that our labors are fruitful, and meaningful, is a necessary part of health and the whole of life. Furthermore, let us consider these earthly blessings in light of the Epistle, especially the definition given by Saint James of “true religion.” To be a “doer of the Word” is about those things that we are commanded to do- not just those things we are commanded not to do. Every “thou shalt not” commandment is simply part of the two great “thou shalt” commandments: namely, to love God with our whole being, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Whatever we have of earthly blessings is not meant to be hoarded, but shared with those who are in need; and we must also think on a higher level than these earthly things, or else instead of being mindful of the needs of the poor, as Saint James speaks of “the fatherless and widows in their affliction,” we will be spotted by the world. We can be people of true charity, or we can become carnal. It seems there can be no middle ground.

Throughout the Easter Season we (that is, those of us who pray the Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer) have been reminded every day of the words of Saint Paul: “If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God (Col. 3:1).” We are told to place our desires upon heavenly things as children of the Resurrection, because our hope is not in this temporary life, but in the eternal life given by Christ. We are told to mind heavenly things where Christ is at the right hand of God. At this time of the year we are reminded to meditate upon Christ’s ascension to the throne of God, His return to his Father’s right hand. It is a great mystery that the Lord is present with us, and that His saints are all around us, and that the throne of God is a place to which we may resort. And, yet, as long as we live in this world, in its condition of sin and death, these things are hidden from our eyes. What we call the Ascension is not about space or distance. It is the entrance into the pure presence of God, to which our eyes are shielded at this time: For if we saw the brightness and glory of the throne of God, and the glorious state of His saints who stand before Him to worship unhindered by sin and imperfection, it would be more than we could stand. Heaven is all around us; but we are protected from the sight of it; for as long as our sinfulness and imperfections remain, it would be more than we could endure. Yet, we are told to place our hopes there, and our affections as well.

Now, if anything tends to bother me about modern observances of Rogation Sunday, it is that in some churches the emphasis has moved from gratitude to God for giving to us the things we need, to a secular kind of emphasis on the environment. Now, it is perfectly fine to be responsible, and to be good stewards of the earth. In fact, it is a moral imperative. But two problems present themselves. First, we have the old problem of disguising self-righteousness under a cloak of false penitence. When whole congregations repent of “polluting the environment” I find it to be disingenuous. Often, when a group of wealthy white liberals repents of “polluting the environment,” or of something like racism, or whatever, they are not really repenting at all. They are saying, like the Pharisee, “I thank thee God I am not like other men.” They seem to feel virtuous about being environmentalists, and about being above those other things like racism, or polluting the earth for greed. So, group repentance of that sort does not impress me. Far better it is to repent of your own sins; indeed far better than listing the sins of other people in a self-righteous mockery of repentance. Now of course, if you are a wasteful polluter, or a racist, or whatever, then it is necessary to repent of those specific things; but to make a show of repentance about the sins that you really blame others for, while not repenting of your own sins, is just a new, painless and fashionable way of being like the Pharisee, the whole time fooling yourself into thinking that you are like the penitent Publican.

The second problem is that that whole focus takes us away from what today’s Gospel is about. On this day our attention ought to be focused on the right hand of God, to which the Lord Jesus was going to ascend. And, we are supposed to be thinking about that in terms of prayer, asking- rogation. And, we ought to be focusing on what it means to ask in this new way that our Lord Jesus teaches here. Why are we told to ask the Father our requests in His Name? In Genesis we see that there came a time when men first called upon the Name of the Lord. That is during the life of one named Enos, in the fourth chapter of Genesis, verse 26: “And to Seth, to him also there was born a son; and he called his name Enos: then began men to call upon the name of the LORD.” When I read this in Hebrew I saw that it really should be translated: “then began men to call in the Name of the Lord.” It was quite unmistakable; B’Shem Adonai. So, in using the words, “ask in My Name,” the Lord Jesus is again letting us know that he and the Father are One.

And, beyond that, we are told to pray to the Father in the human Name of the Person who is the Eternal Word, the nature He took into His uncreated eternal Person when “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” We do not pray to the Father without coming in the Name of the Son of God, specifically, the human Name of Jesus Christ. We could speak of Him as God the only begotten Son, or as the Word (or Logos). These are Names that speak of Him as God; and yet, in His human nature He is still One with the Father, while He shares our nature; fully God and fully man. Can we not simply come to the Father without this Man acting as our Mediator? Are we not good enough? The answer is no. We are not good enough to come to the Father, because we are sinners. If you are looking for a religion that flatters you, affirms you, and tells you how wonderful you are, you have come to the wrong place. Here we are all self-confessed “miserable offenders.” We spend a great deal of our time when we pray together, asking the Lord to have mercy upon us. So, no, we are not good enough to come to the Father without a Mediator.

Saint Paul wrote, in the first Epistle to Saint Timothy, the second chapter:

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. For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; Who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.

This passage speaks of prayer and God’s will that people will repent and be saved. And, in speaking of both of these things, salvation and prayer, Paul is moved to remind us that we have as our only Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus who gave Himself a ransom for all. He overcame the separation between the uncreated God and human creatures by taking created nature into His uncreated Person, becoming fully man while remaining fully God. He overcame the separation between God and man due to sin by dying for our sins on the cross. He overcame the separation between the Living God and our death by overcoming death. As one Person complete in two natures, Himself both fully God and fully Man, Jesus Christ is our Mediator. No man comes to the Father but by Him. That is true of our salvation, it is true of our worship, it is true also of our prayers.

This is why you must read the Epistle to the Hebrews. In that Epistle we are told all of these things very clearly. In addition, we are told that the Lord Jesus, seated even now at the right hand of God, ever lives to make intercession for us. Using the Old Testament picture of the High Priest who once a year took the blood of the sacrifice into the Holy of Holies, the Epistle to the Hebrews speaks of Christ’s once for all sacrifice, that is that he died once for all sinners, and of His ascension to the Father’s throne as the true offering of the true High Priest into the true Holy of Holies, of which the temple was merely a picture, a shadow or type. The blood of the sacrifices in the Old Testament were sprinkled on the Mercy Seat before the Ark of the covenant, inside the veil, in the Holy of Holies- the Kadesh h’kadeshim. This type was given to teach of the true offering in which the Son of God would offer Himself, and His blood would be the true Atonement, the true Kippur. And, that he would rise from the dead and present His own death and sacrifice, the shedding of His blood, the pouring out of His soul unto death, upon prolonging His days by rising to life again. And, that he would ascend back to the Father to be our Mediator, pleading for us with the scars from those wounds from which His blood was shed.

To pray in the Name of Jesus reminds us of these things. It reminds us that we need a Mediator, because we are sinners. It reminds us that He died for our sins, rose again and ascended into heaven. It reminds us that He is the one Mediator between God and Man because He is fully God and fully man, unique as the one whose Name alone is given under heaven among men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4;12) “Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my Name,” He said. “Ask and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full.” As the Epistle to the Hebrews puts it:

Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, By a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; And having an high priest over the house of God; 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. Heb. 10:19-24

(And, what are we to ask for? Above all, in this text, we are to ask for the Holy Spirit, the other Comforter.)

On this Rogation Sunday, as we prepare for the day of Ascension, and then for the Day of Pentecost, hoping for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in power, let us have these words as frontlets between our eyes: “Ask and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full.”

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