Saturday, March 31, 2012

Palm Sunday

Phil. 2:5-11 * Matt. 27:1-54

Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus

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.

The passage we heard in the Epistle appointed for Palm Sunday, the great Christological passage in Philippians, has been the subject of very important, indeed necessary, theological writing and teaching since the earliest times. In no uncertain terms it teaches us that Jesus Christ is equal to God, that is, by His very nature He is God; as the Creed says, “Light of Light, very God of very God, of one substance (homousion) with the Father.” And, just as St. John tells us that “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us,” St. Paul tells us that this Person, equal to God, was “found in fashion (σχῆμα) as a man.” This passage tells us what John told us: “And the Word was God…and the Word was made flesh.”

And, it goes on to tell how He emptied Himself, which means that He humbled Himself. He remained equal to God, and is equal to the Father as God, but nonetheless took upon Him the form of a servant. And, as a servant He “went about doing good, healing all who were oppressed of the devil. (Acts 10: 38)” Above all, in that role of a servant He was “obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.”

“Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.” Important as the theological meaning to this whole passage is, the Apostle wrote it for a pastoral reason that included that same call Jesus had made to everyone who would be one of His disciples:

“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. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? (Matt. 16:24-26)”

As we begin Holy Week, we need to hear this call. When I consider the damage that has been done to the Continuing Church, I know that much of that damage was from men who wanted to slice off a portion of the Church in order to rule over something. They were not servants in their hearts.

When the Lord told His disciples that He was going to the cross before entering into glory by His resurrection, it was the same St. Peter, who had only just said his great confession, who took the Lord aside and tried to talk Him out of it. One minute earlier, Peter was told that he was blessed, because flesh and blood had not revealed to him that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” The Father had revealed this to him. Jesus then gave a new meaning to Simon’s nickname, Peter, the Rock upon which Christ would build His Church (a special calling that Peter would later fulfill in the early chapters of the Book of Acts). But, now Jesus corrects Peter for speaking the devil’s words.

“From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day. Then Peter took him, and began to rebuke him, saying, 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. (vss.21-24)”

Well, that only goes to show that Peter was not yet ready, and he would not be ready until he had seen the risen Lord, and until he was filled with the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. He had not yet learned to have the mind of Jesus in him. He had not yet learned the meaning of the cross.

And, we see that ignorance of that way, the way of Christ’s cross, made even this blessed man a mouthpiece of Satan; this same man who had been given the most important of revelations directly by God the Father. He had been given the revelation of Christ’s glory, but he needed to learn the way of Christ’s cross. Jesus resists Peter’s words, of dissuasion from the cross, in a way that is reminiscent of the temptations after His forty day fast in the wilderness.

Whatever your personal opinion may be of Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ, it does show the real horror to which the Lord submitted Himself. It is consistent with Scripture and informed by archaeology and history. Roman “justice” was that cruel. The soldiers did get their fun by crowning the Lord with thorns, beating Him and mocking Him after a near fatal scourging that would have killed a weaker man. The theory of Biblical interpretation upon which the movie was based seems to have gone over the heads of many critics, especially over the heads of those who thought it portrayed the Lord as weak or helpless.

From the first scene in Gethsemane, the devil is trying to talk the Lord into refusing the death of the cross, and the burden of carrying the full weight of human sin. It shows a contest, a wrestling match, between the Lord and Satan. When the Lord, in the garden, says to the Father, “not my will, but thine be done,” the moon goes behind a cloud. If the Lord is willing to submit Himself to the power of evil men, then the devil is going to make sure it is as painful as possible, to tempt Him. Recall the words that were flung at Him when He was on the cross:

“Likewise also the chief priests mocking him, with the scribes and elders, said, He saved others; himself he cannot save. If he be the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him. He trusted in God; let him deliver him now, if he will have him: for he said, I am the Son of God. (Matt. 27:40-42)”

In fact, the movie was all about Christus Rex, or Christus Victor, that is, that on the cross Jesus was still in complete control as King of kings, and by His death Jesus won the victory.

Listen to the words Jesus spoke:
“Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword. Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then shall the scriptures be fulfilled, that thus it must be? (Matt. 26:51-54)

And this:
“Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father. (John 10:17,18)”

Why did Jesus make His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane? What is the real reason for His words? “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt… O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done. (Matt. 26:39,42)” We know from other occasions that Christ spoke prayers so that others could learn from them, saying when He was about to raise Lazarus from the dead, “And I knew that thou hearest me always: but because of the people which stand by I said it, that they may believe that thou hast sent me. (John 11:42)”

This is all about why the Lord would so willingly fulfill the Scriptures about the Suffering Servant of YHVH (Isaiah 52:13-53:12): Because without Christ’s cross the will of God is not possible. That gracious will by which we, lost in sin and death, could be saved. “If it be possible,” said Jesus in the Garden. If what be possible? If it were possible that we could be forgiven, that the sins of the world could be taken away—for they could not be taken away unless Jesus gave Himself as the Lamb of God. His prayer in the Garden was not a moment of fear (he expressed no fear, but only sorrow). He did not pray to be spared: In fact, the effect of His words was very much the opposite: “Nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt… thy will be done.”

He willingly drank the cup of sorrow. And, about that prayer in Gethsemane, He said it for our sake. We need to know that only by His cross, only by His obedience unto death, even the death of the cross, was the curse and burden of sin carried away; and that it could not be carried away by any other means. Could God forgive and justify sinners without the cross? No; for He would then be neither just nor holy (Rom. 3:26). Could God then destroy the human race? No, “for God so loved the world…” For our sakes, Jesus submitted to the will of the Father who loved us, Who gave His own Son for us (“He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things? Rom. 8:32”).

Jesus was Christus Rex on the tree. And he was Christus Victor by His death. In all of this, He also shows us the way to live. If the One Who is equal to God could “humble Himself to behold the things which are in heaven in earth (Psalm 113: 6),” so much so that He “took upon Him the form of a servant,” just who is any one of us? Are you too good to be a servant? Am I? Is anyone here willing to claim a station, in this world, greater than that of God the Son? He became a servant, the Suffering Servant.

Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Compulsion and Contraception

I usually make something of a point of not commenting about political issues, as most of them do not concern Church teaching and therefore are a matter on which Christians can quite legitimately take differing opinions. However, every now and again we hit something that has moral as well as political implications, and it becomes neccessary for a Bishop to make some sort of statement to uphold the doctrinal or moral teaching of the Church. One such issues is the Contraception Mandate issued by the Department of Health and Human Services. I am reproducing here a letter that I circulated in my capacity as Archbishop of the United Episcopal Church:

February 13 2012


The Bishops of the United Episcopal Church of North America would like to express their whole-hearted support of their brethren in the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Conference, and other religious groups who have expressed their opposition to the HHS Mandate requiring religioius institutions to provide contraceptive devices, inclusing abortifacients, as part of their employee health insurance.

The HHS Mandate is problematical as it fails to take account of the Church's moral teaching concerning abortifacients and contraception. It also constitutes a thinly veiled attack on religious institutions within the United States and an infringement of the principle that the Federal Government shall not intervene in the religious lives of its citizens.

The new healthcare mandate may also have serious unforeseen consequences for the poorest and most vulnerable in our society if it forces religious institutions to withdraw from the provision of education, health and social services.

The Bishops of the United Episcopal Church of North America would also like to express the opinion that the "compromise" proposed by the President and the HHS shifting responsibility for paying for those services from the employer to the insurer does nothing to resolve the issue.

+Peter D. Robinson, Archbishop
United Episcopal Church of North America
Six weeks on there is still no sign of any further movement on this issue. The Churches are still expressing their opposition to the Mandate, but the news cycle has moved on, and their protests are not being covered by the mainstream media. For the time being it seems that the so called "compromise" offered by the President and Secretary Sibelius will remain the last word on this issue leaving the Government and the Church in something of a "Mexican Stand-off" as neither side wants to conceed its point. From the Church's point of view, the compromise is no compromise because the universality of contraception coverage is maintained irrespective of the moral teaching of the Church providing the coverage via its insurer. In essence, the Administration is asking the Churches to be complicit in allowing the contravention of Church teaching by Church employees. On the other hand, the present administration seems to regard contraception and abortions as beneficial to society and seems to want to avoid opt outs wherever possible.

Unfortunately, the current 'stand-off' about contraception is only the first in a series which are going to occur as "Obamacare" goes into effect. There are going to be further spats over stem cell derived therapies as they become available, and, of course, over the big two moral issues in healthcare - abortion and euthanasia. One thing that is quite clear from this initial skirmish is that the HHS has little patience with outright religious opposition, and no understanding of nuanced theological and moral positions such as that taken by the 1930 Lambeth Conference on Birth Control, which did not to institute a contraceptive free for all, but acknowledged that there were certain very limited circumstances in which artificial forms contraception were admissible as, for want of a better term, the lesser of two evils.

A further difficulty with the HHS Mandate comes through its assumption that the Constitutional principle of 'freedom of religion' actually constitutes nothing more than 'freedom of worship' and that religion is something that only exists behind church walls. God forbid that it should actually be allowed to influence the morals and politics of the country. This interpretation of 'religious freedom' smacks rather more of Joe Stalin trying to make Soviet Russia acceptable in the West when trying to gain our help against Hitler than of the American tradition of religious liberty. Certainly, it is another demonstration, as if one were needed, that the secularists in the American political scene wish to make Christianity irrelevant and precipitate its collapse by confining it behind Church walls. This may seem a harsh assessment, but there are chilling parallels in their attitude towards religion between those of the political elites in the USA, and those of Stalin's Russia or Hitler Germany.

Remember - it is better to raise the alarm now than to wear chains later!

Lastly, it was something of a disappointment to me that the Continuing Anglican Churches were not able to make a joint statement on the HHS Contraception Mandate. I am sure that the opposition that has already been registered by many of our bishops would have carried more weight with the politicians had a single statement been issued over the signatures of several archbishops and a dozen or two diocesan and suffragan bishops. It demonstrates the need for a standing conference of Continuing Anglican leaders in the USA to act as an orthodox counterpoise to the liberal views espoused by TEC, and, from time to time, by the ACNA.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Annunciation of the blessed Virgin Mary

Transferred from March 25th
For this Feast day of the Annunciation I want us to meditate on two very important things.

The first is the meaning of the Incarnation in light of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. For, as soon as the Angel Gabriel announced to the blessed Virgin that she was to become the mother of God, the miracle happened. "The Word was made flesh" at the very instant that she accepted her mission with the words, "behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word." 

The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats tells of those on the Lord's right hand, to whom the words are spoken: "Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world...Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." It also tells of those on his left to whom terrifying words are spoken: "Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels...Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me."

The Word became flesh, that is, he took into his Divine nature the fullness of human nature. In so doing he sanctified every stage of life, including that of the youngest and most helpless of all people. His brethren include children in the womb, boys and girls not "lumps of tissue," many of whom are murdered every day for the selfish convenience of fallen men who do not know God, who have allowed love to grow cold. The culture of death teaches us that life in the womb is worth nothing, a mere thing to be thrown away. Indeed, the pressure today is to accept birth as the beginning of life, when, in fact, it is simply an early stage in a life that has existed normally for about nine months.

As Christians, we must continue to work for the sanctity of all life, from the moment of conception until death. We must do all we can to protect the children in danger, and to come as well to the rescue of expentent mothers who feel afraid, who feel undue pressure to kill their children before seeing their faces, and think they have no one to whom they can turn. We must be that lifeline to them. "Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. "

 Also, I want us to consider this miracle, the Incarnation, itself. I mentioned before that Mary accepted her mission, a mission that would bring such pain to her, one Friday, that it would be, in the words of Simeon, a sword that would pierce her own soul. Her willingness to accept this mission would be fulfilled thirty three years later by her son, as he would pray in his agony, "not my will, but thine be done." Mary was the only person to share directly the miracle of the Incarnation with the Lord himself. She also felt keenly the pain of his death.

What happened when the Word, that is the Logos (λόγος), was made flesh? How did God do this thing? Not by reducing Divinity so that it could fit into a small receptacle. Think of our human nature as but a drop. A drop that falls into an ocean is transformed into something grand, into part of an ocean. He did not reduce divinity. Rather, he took human nature into his own divine Person as God the Son. God the Son has taken human nature into His Divine Person, our created nature into uncreated Person. He has taken what is alien to Him, our humanity, as the One who is wholly other from every created nature, to forever transform human nature and by grace make us partakers of the Divine Nature (II Peter 1:4). This Person, the Logos, is both Uncreated and creature; both Eternal and in time; both omnipresent and local; both King and servant; both Lord and worshiper; both God and man.

This, the Incarnation, is, along with the cross, the expression and revelation of God's love; so it is fitting to remember that the Annunciation was originally thought to be the correct date of the first Good Friday. That love is the charity that St. Paul wrote about to the Corinthians, and is poured into our hearts by the Holy Ghost given to us.

The Angleus

V/. The Angel of the Lord brought tidings unto Mary,
R/. And she conceived by the Holy Ghost.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. (Lk 1:28) Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. (Lk 1:42). Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
V/. "Behold the handmaid of the Lord."
R/. "Be it unto me according to thy Word."

Hail Mary, full of grace...
V/. And the Word was made flesh,
R/. And dwelt among us.

Hail Mary, full of grace...
V/. Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God.
R/. That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Let us pray: We beseech thee, O Lord, pour thy grace into our hearts, that as we have known the Incarnation of thy Son Jesus Christ by the message of an angel, so by His Cross and Passion we may be brought unto the glory of His Resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The fifth Sunday in Lent, commonly called PASSION SUNDAY

Hebrews 9:11-15 * John 8:46-59

“Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I AM.”

For once the enemies of our Lord were right about something, frankly, about something that many nominal Christians are wrong about. His enemies understood exactly what he meant by his words, “before Abraham was, I AM.” And, we call this day Passion Sunday because we see the reason, ultimately, that his enemies wanted him dead, and the reason they were unrelenting in pursuit of his execution. They understood him rightly, and because they reacted in the only logical way they knew, they picked up stones in order to kill him.
In one of his most famous passages in all his works, C.S. Lewis addressed this very thing that today’s Gospel is about, in Mere Christianity:

'I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: "I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept his claim to be God." That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a good moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic-on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg-or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great moral teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.' 1

Recall the words from the Gospel two weeks ago: “He that is not with me is against me: and he that gathers not with me scatters.” He called His followers to be ready to die rather than to deny Him before men. There was nothing innocuous about the commitment He called for, because that commitment was personal.

Some men have called people to die for ideas and ideals, causes both good and bad. These causes were always bigger than any individual, whether leaders and thinkers were advocating something harmful, or something truly heroic and principled. But, Jesus called people to die as martyrs out of personal commitment to Himself, faithfulness to Him as an individual. He allowed people to worship Him, even Jews who knew that there is only one God, and who were forbidden to worship any other god in the Presence, that covers all of heaven and earth, of the One True God. What kind of man would assume the place of God, and use that sacred Name, I AM, as his own? What kind of man would claim the right to such loyalty as leads his followers to persecution and death? What kind of man, if he has any compassion in him, would knowingly demand total commitment?

A word I use sparingly is the word “loyalty.” That is because loyalty is not always virtuous. I remember a young man saying to me, many years ago, that Albert Speer had been loyal to Hitler. He said this in the context of having just heard, in a rather pathetic sermon by somebody, that loyalty is a virtue, and that it always pleases God. So, the young man was praising Speer for his loyalty to something very close to evil incarnate. Loyalty can be pleasing to God, or it can be a sin. Loyalty to Hitler, or to any evil cause, man or movement, is not virtuous, but abominable. That kind of loyalty is the worship of a false god. It is one way, in any age of history, to bear the mark of the Beast, to make a radical decision against Jesus Christ.

But, Jesus dares to call His followers to complete loyalty to Himself, even to the point of dying rather than to deny Him. What kind of a man is He then? C.S. Lewis was right: He is either God or he is mad or worse. By the Law they all knew, Jesus deserved at that moment to be stoned for blasphemy, unless He truly is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, the Word made Flesh. Yes, his enemies understood Him. He did, in fact, declare Himself equal to God. Either He is the One who gave the Law to Moses, or, by that Law, he must die.

It would have been bad enough, by their standard, to say only the opening of today’s Gospel. “Which of you convicts me of sin?” The same chapter begins with the story about the woman taken in adultery, brought to Jesus by enemies who wanted to trap Him into either of two snares: denying the commandments in the Torah (though the commandment was to execute both the man and the woman who commit adultery- which presents quite a mystery in that story), or defying the Romans who allowed no one to execute anybody in their empire except through Roman law. We all remember what Jesus said: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” All of these men, enemies of Jesus, had at least the honesty to drop their stones and leave. Were they men of greater integrity than Jesus, who now turns around and says, in effect, “I am without sin- who can accuse me of anything?”

Either He gave the Law to Moses, or he had broken it, and deserved to die. Listen to the writer to the Hebrews in today’s Epistle: “For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies to the purifying of the flesh: how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” Jesus, alone out of all mankind, could go to the cross and there make “by His one oblation of Himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.” While having his vision on the isle of Patmos, the Apostle John wept because no one in all heaven and earth was worthy to open the book and break its seven seals, that is until the man came forth who was both Lion of the Tribe of Judah, and also the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, indeed a lion who appeared as a lamb that had been slain. He was worthy, and He alone of all mankind.

The writer to the Hebrews uses the temple, and its typology regarding the New Covenant that Christ would establish in his own blood, foretold by the prophet Jeremiah. The High Priest once a year, on Yom Kippor, brought the blood of the sin offering into the Holy of Holies, and sprinkled it on the mercy seat. That was the type. The priest who offered any sacrifice had to be a perfect physical specimen of a man, having no deformity or loss of limb or any member. The animal sacrificed for sin had to be a perfect specimen, without even spot or blemish. This is because both the priest and the animal to be offered had to be pictures of Jesus Christ, and their physical perfection had to be a picture of His spiritual perfection as the only human being free from all stain of sin.

Our Gospel text is just right for leading us into Passiontide. In declaring his own sinlessness, Christ reveals that every priest and every sacrifice were only types and shadows of the Real priest and sacrifice, Himself, the only man worthy to take the book and open the seals thereof. Declaring His own freedom from sin and death, as contrasted to all the rest of us, Jesus sets the stage for the sorrows of the cross that were to follow. 

“They that trust in their wealth, and boast themselves in the multitude of their riches; None of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him: For the redemption of their soul is precious, and it ceaseth for ever,” 2 says the Psalmist. 

Isaiah adds this: “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all… he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth. Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.” 3

Declaring oneself free from sin would be madness and delusion for you and me, but for Jesus it was another step closer to the cross. On that cross He would establish the New Covenant in his blood, the Covenant that alone frees us from sin and death, and that stretched back in time as well to those who before had hoped for the coming of Messiah. He bore the sins of all the world, the perfect and sinless Son of God. After the victory of His death and passion, He rose the third day, and appeared to witnesses. He spent forty days with those witnesses before ascending into the presence of God the Father to make intercession for us by means of His own blood, the fulfillment of that image we see in the Biblical Yom Kippur, where the High Priest, alive after making atonement, took the blood of the sacrifice into the Holy of Holies and sprinkled the mercy seat- the image of God’s throne.

When Jesus tells us He is without sin, He tells of His love for us; for on the cross he offered that ransom for each of us that no rich man can give for his brother. He said that He is the One, and He dared to proclaim on His own behalf the Name I AM. This declaration also took him closer to the cross. So, when He calls you to the radical commitment that may even cost you your life, as it does cost Christians in other lands who suffer persecution and martyrdom even to this day, know that He already died for you. Know, as I say often, that when you look up and see Him on the cross, and behold sorrow and love flow mingled down, the shedding of His blood and pouring out of His soul unto death, that you can and must take this love personally. Either reject him completely, if you can, or fall down and worship him as your Lord and your God.
1. Page 56
2. Psalm 49: 6-8
                  3. from Isaiah 53

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Sabbath Shift

“Sabbath Shift” first appeared in the November 2008 issue of Touchstone.

Robert Hart on Sunday Marathons & New Savages

If someone wants a picture of mankind without religion, I suggest the first twenty minutes of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. That image would be perfect if the apes were naked rather than furry, and used human speech rather than chimpanzee shrieks. Otherwise, it is just about right, and far from the ethically sensible and civilized non-religious world envisioned by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

At church one Sunday morning in Fountain Hills, Arizona, about fifteen minutes before service time, I was told that a man wanted me to come outside and speak with him (rather an imposition for a priest who is trying to put on vestments and concentrate). I went out into the Phoenix valley sunlight and was approached by the man, a rather busy-looking fellow visibly stressed. “We want to spray-paint the new office building next door. Could you ask everyone to move their cars far away from your parking lot and walk back to church?”

Even if everyone in my congregation had been young and athletic, I would have answered the same way. But the fact that a couple of parishioners made a great effort to walk even a short distance, leaning on their walkers and panting—such was their determination to be in church for Holy Communion—made his request all the more silly. “Absolutely not. Under no circumstances will I ask them to do any such thing.”  

“But we need to get this job finished, and I have my crew here, and I have to pay them.” I thought about the big sign that said “Church,” clear for all to see, under a huge cross, and considered that this was, after all, Sunday morning. Only one reply seemed appropriate. “You should have known better than to schedule a spray-paint job next door to a church on a Sunday morning.” I went back inside and turned my attention back where it belonged.

Running over Religious Freedom
Back in the 1970s we were all so busy fighting the major issues, especially for the pro-life cause, and trying to evangelize in the face of the major social upheavals introduced in the previous decade, that defense of what were mockingly called the “blue laws” seemed a bit archaic and counterproductive. In fact, even many Christians were probably glad that stores previously closed on Sundays were now open seven days a week, and that the world had finally given us non-stop shopping. By 1983 nearly everything was open everyday.

But look where this has led. All too often now it is simply assumed that religious liberty and rights can be sacrificed for a public occasion. On March 24, 2002, Washington, D.C., held a marathon race that hindered many people from attending church. Adding insult to injury, that day was Palm Sunday. The mayor, Anthony Williams, had the nerve to say that all the churches should get together in some public arena for an interfaith service, and leave the roads clear for the marathon runners. This insensitivity to and violation of people’s cherished rights are intolerable on any Sunday, but doubly offensive on Palm Sunday.

And Washington’s 2002 race wasn’t an anomaly. In Pittsburgh, for instance, five or six downtown churches must close on one Sunday every year because of the Pittsburgh Marathon. No one is permitted to drive or even walk on the streets around these churches because such activity would “interfere” with the race. Sunday-morning marathons that block access to churches are annual events in Stamford, New York; Evansville, Illinois; Los Angeles, California (despite claims of improvement in 2006), and so many other cities that we have not the space to list them all. The First Amendment’s protection of the free exercise of religion is blatantly curtailed by cities and towns without penalty.

Burdensome Liberation
“Liberation” from the blue laws has become a burden especially to the poor, who need the Sabbath rest even if they do not go to church. They now have to go to work on Sunday, even if they are troubled by their conscience for missing church, or simply hurt because they miss it. This progressive, bold step away from the shackles of the past, promising freedom and prosperity, has taken its toll on the people who suffer the greatest economic need, making them choose between their religious observance and their paycheck.

That is the very opposite of expanded freedom. Perhaps those “silly” blue laws, and other social norms and mores, provided a kind of freedom of their own, especially for people in the working and laboring classes.

I learned that one business in that Arizona town, a diner near the church, had traditionally closed every Sunday until shortly before my arrival. But then a local clergyman, my predecessor, convinced the owner to open every Sunday for the convenience of the congregation. Many liked to go there after the early Mass (8:00 AM) each Sunday and have breakfast together. One waitress there, I learned, had been a member of the church, but was no longer.

I remember the sight of that waitress looking at her former fellow church members, serving them breakfast, missing the services every Sunday. I suppose it was very convenient for the people who could now hop over to the diner after church, but at what cost to that waitress? Is this what a Christian clergyman should have asked for?

Just this past Sunday here in Easton, Maryland, about half an hour before our principal Holy Communion service, I heard what sounded very much like machine-gun fire out in the street. It turned out to be one of those hand-held jackhammers that tears up a street or sidewalk and deafens all passers by. I walked through the front doors of the church into the street, and got the attention of the crew. They were contractors working by the schedule of their boss, who was not of the town.

“You can’t do this here this morning,” I said. We are about to have a church service.” I pointed to St. Andrew’s, a historic (former Roman Catholic) church building that dated from about 1860. They all looked up at the steeple with the cross, and at the signs with clearly visible words like “St. Andrew’s Anglican Church,” “Holy Communion Sunday morning at 10:00,” and other subtle clues.

“Do you want us to stop?”

Just then our bishop walked right up, smiling, and asked them in friendly tones if he needed to call the mayor. Easton is civilized, and the crew knew that they were not going to be drilling for quite some time. But what if they had arrived during a service? They would have been stopped, but only after creating an inexcusable interruption of a sort no one would have dreamed of making several years ago, during a time when work crews and their bosses simply did not need to be told.

False Paradise
In 2006, a town councilman in Scottsdale, Arizona, introduced a bill that would make it illegal for churches to hold services except on Sunday, on the grounds that some of the church parking created an “inconvenience.” No Holy Week services, often no Christmas services, no Saturday weddings, no weekday funerals, no midweek Masses in liturgical churches, no Wednesday Bible studies, no prayer meetings, no revival services in Baptist churches. Sunday was enough.

Even if that bit of insanity had passed, the courts would have been obligated to strike it down. But what has happened in our day and age that makes such lunacy conceivable at all?
Pure capitalism, without ethical or even legal restraints to protect the freedom of the lower classes to worship God, is no wonderful Utopia. We have moved away from those protections hardly noticing what we were doing, and sometimes even cheering for all the wrong reasons as we welcomed the alleged convenience and liberty.

We have, however, been taking a step forward into the world of those first twenty minutes of Kubrick’s movie. Not as hairy, ape-like, pre-man creatures, but rather as businessmen, shopkeepers, entrepreneurs, contractors, and politicians, all living down to the call of the wild in a non-religious “paradise” of savagery.

Robert Hart is rector of St. Benedict's Anglican Catholic Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (Anglican Catholic Church Original Province). He also contributes regularly to the blog The Continuum. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Fourth Sunday in Lent

Archbishop Haverland will be with us at St. Benedict's this Sunday, Confirming, celebrating and preaching. So, I am rerunning the following sermon.

But, I want to comment first about the miracle of the loaves and fishes. In that miracle we see something unique. There Jesus works His miracle through the hands of ministers, the Apostles, rather than working directly. This miracle, one of feeding, is a picture of the Lord's ministry in and through His Church, both of word and sacrament. It is a picture of His ministry through the Apostles and their successors, and as such should remind us of the opening of St. John's first Epistle, that our ongoing fellowship (or partaking) is rooted in the Incarnation, and that it is truly Apostolic fellowship and communion. 

Galatians 4:21-31 * John 6:1-14

The Epistle and Gospel appointed for this Sunday teach us about the wide gulf between God's grace, and the weakness and hopelessness of man's highest aspirations apart from that grace. The Epistle is a blend of doctrine and St. Paul's autobiographical reminiscences that demonstrate the truth of that doctrine. The occasion for the writing of the Epistle was a heresy that is described in the 15th chapter of the Book of Acts. "And certain men which came down from Judaeataught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved." This so troubled the Church that the first Council was called, the proto-Council of Jerusalem. This new and troubling doctrine contradicted what all the Apostles had taught ever since the day that St. Peter entered the house of Cornelius, and Gentiles had become part of the Church.

This heresy is called the Judaizer heresy, and it has very much in common with a later heresy of the fourth century.Pelagius in the fourth century taught that man does not needthe grace of God to become righteous, but can achieve perfection by the power of the flesh. What the Judaizers did not understand, and what later the Pelagians did not understand, is expressed perfectly by St. Paul in another Epistle, the Epistle to the Church in Rome: "For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh."1 The Law cannot save us, because the flesh is weak. The Law, rather, serves the purpose of diagnosing our genuine condition, that we are subject to sin and death, and that we need the Savior. In this context Paul opens the whole Epistle by contrasting the limited and weak state of man against the unlimited power and wisdom of God.

The Gospel tells of a miracle that Jesus used for the purpose of teaching that he alone is the food and drink of eternal life, that he imparts grace and salvation as we partake of him, the true Bread from heaven. He not only wrought our salvation: He himself is our salvation.

The Epistle

The only way to understand the Epistle is to know your Old Testament. The story from Genesis about Hagar, and her son, is the story about two sons of Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac. Both of them are the sons of Abraham, but Paul tells us that one, Ishmael, was born after the flesh, the other, Isaac, after spirit. St. Paul considers his own life, and presents himself as an example of both of these, inasmuch as before his conversion he was very much the son of Abraham, but only after the flesh. Look at these words that were read today from the text we have heard: "But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now." In the overall context of the Epistle, this follows the autobiographical confession of St. Paul near its beginning, where he wrote:

"For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews' religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it: And profited in the Jews' religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers." 2

And, this gives an autobiographical flavor to what comes near the end of this Epistle:

"As many as desire to make a fair shew in the flesh, they constrain you to be circumcised; only lest they should suffer persecution for the cross of Christ. For neither they themselves who are circumcised keep the law; but desire to have you circumcised, that they may glory in your flesh. But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availethanything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature." 3

And, so also an earlier passage:

"Even as Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness. Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham." 4

Saul of Tarsus had been that son of Abraham born only after the flesh, for he had yet to become a full son of Abraham by faith in the Messiah. Born after the flesh a son of Abraham, but not a son with the faith of Abraham, he persecuted the Church, those who were born after the spirit, those born according to the promise which was by faith. In those days he imagined that he was keeping the Law: "Imagined" I say,because he described his own self-deception in no uncertain terms, in yet another of his Epistles, and then describes the light of truth that shined on him:

"Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other manthinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more: Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; Concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith."5

What Saul learned, on the day that Jesus Christ appeared to him, was that his greatest crowning act of righteousness, persecuting the Church, was a filthy rag,6 the sin of persecuting the Messiah himself. "Saul, Saul, why persecutestthou me?" But he also learned that righteousness isaccounted to us only through faith. This was not simply any faith. The old question of faith and works can be very misleading if we see these as mere principles. What matters is not some thing called faith versus some thing called works, but specifically faith in Jesus Christ himself. Only that faith can save us, because only Jesus Christ can do what the Law, the good, holy and death-dealing Law that condemns us all, cannot do. What the Law cannot do is not because it is weak, but because we are weak due to the Fall of man into sin and death.

Saul, on the road to Damascus, lying in the dust of death, now revealed by his own most righteous act to be a miserableoffender in desperate need of God's mercy, rises to become Saint Paul the Apostle. No longer clouded by the self-deception of having some righteousness of his own, but having the righteousness of faith in the Messiah, Jesus, he is forgiven, justified, and called to true service in the Kingdom of God.

So, when St. Paul contrasts faith in Jesus Christ against the works of the Law, he speaks from his own life. When he speaks of the good works to which Christians are called (in full agreement with St. James), he speaks even of these as part of the life of faith, something that charity itself, by the Holy Spirit, produces in us because of our faith; not something that we can manufacture by our own strength. So, he wrote to the Church in Ephesus:

"For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them."7

St. Paul had been the son of the bondwoman, and he so cast out the son of the bondwoman from his own heart and life, that he became the son of the free woman; that is, in place of Saul was Paul; he was born again, born of the spirit,8 a child of Abraham by faith. Now he receives persecution rather than dishing it out. And, that share of persecution was part of knowing Christ, fellowship with his sufferings in light of the hope of the resurrection.

The Gospel

The very next verse, directly following the selection we have heard today from the Gospel of John, says, "When Jesus therefore perceived that they would come and take him by force, to make him a king, he departed again into a mountain himself alone." Later, as recorded in the very same chapter, it was this that prompted Jesus to say to the crowds that sought for him, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Ye seek me, not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled." 9

The crowd was interested in having the problems of this world solved. The aspiration to have a king who would break the tyranny of a foreign empire, Rome, was understandable, as was the desire for a king who could employ his miraculous power to feed the nation. But, like those who later would teach salvation by the power of the flesh to keep the perfect and holy Law of God, the worldly focus of the crowd fell short of God's grace as he was revealing it through his Son.

This miracle revealed that Jesus Christ places in the hands of his Apostles miraculous food for all the people, and he does so in a desert place where no one can keep himself alive. Where there is no means of feeding, and where there is no power from human strength to bring forth bread from the earth, Jesus Christ provides all that is needed. He sustains life, feeding the bodies of the crowd to teach them that it is he who gives the only true bread, the food and drink of eternal life. For, we are in the desert place, unable to keep ourselves alive, unable to avoid the universal sentence for all human sin, namely, death. No matter how long we hang on in this desert, we do not have in ourselves the power to survive forever. Sooner or later, this applies to each one of us: "Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return."10

It is from this miracle that the Lord begins to teach them, to lift the vision of those who will see, and to speak the word to those who may hear:

"Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world. Then said they unto him, Lord, evermore give us this bread. And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he thatbelieveth on me shall never thirst."11

He went on:

"Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me hath everlasting life. I am that bread of life. Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world. The Jews therefore strove among themselves, saying, How can this man give us his flesh to eat? Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood,dwelleth in me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me. This is that bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eateth of this bread shall live for ever."12

Not until "the night in which he was betrayed," when he broke the bread and took the cup, did they know how to eat his Body and drink his Blood. Those who continued to follow him trusted him enough to expect the revelation that would explain how to make sense of his words. "Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life," said Peter. On that night they were not disappointed.

Jesus Christ places into the hands of the ministers in his Church the means of eternal life, this Sacrament "generally necessary to salvation." But, remember that this sacrament is a means of grace only to those who believe in Jesus Christ. As St. Paul tells us in the 11th chapter of his First Epistle to the Church in Corinth, those who presume to eat and drink without faith, add sin to sin and incur judgment. They do notreceive the grace of the sacrament. Therefore, our Book of Common Prayer only bids those who come with "hearty repentance and true faith." To approach the sacrament without "hearty repentance and true faith" is dangerous, profiting nothing, incurring judgment. Therefore, as we have heard, Jesus prefaced his teaching by saying, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me hath everlasting life. I am that bread of life."

When our Anglican Fathers wrote the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549, under the direction of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, they emphasized the need to eat and drink the sacrament rather than merely to attend Mass. They gave the service we are having this day a new and somewhat long name: "The Supper of the Lorde and the Holy Communion, commonly called the Masse." Since then, to emphasize the words of Christ ("take, eat...drink, ye all, of this...") Anglicans have called the Mass by this Biblical name, full of meaning: "Holy Communion." Unlike the word "Mass," that simply refers to being dismissed at the end of the service (having no spiritual or theological meaning), "Holy Communion" actually means something; and what it means is very important. It takes us to the words of Jesus Christ abouthimself, and how he gives himself that we may be partakers of him: "I AM the Bread of life." The Name of God, "I AM" is contained in these words. The grace of God is revealed in these words. He is our salvation.

When you approach the altar rail, know this is the gift of Christ to you, and you are feeding on him as he gives himself. Come forward with hearty repentance and true faith, or not at all; because, we are not trying to keep ourselves alive by the efforts of our own flesh, weak as it is through sin. We put our trust in Jesus Christ, and not without that faith that makes us children of Abraham, born after the spirit because we were buried and risen with Christ in baptism, partaking of him by that same faith as receive him in this sacrament today.

Even the best aspirations of mankind, of hopes for this world and confidence in our own ability, are nothing worth, compared to the grace of God revealed in his Son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

And now, unto God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost, be ascribed as is most justly due, all might, majesty, dominon, power and glory, henceforth, world without end. Amen.

1. Rom. 8:3
2. Gal.1:13,14
3. Gal. 6:12-15
4. Gal. 3:6,7
5. Phil. 3:4-9
6. Isaiah 64:6
7. Eph. 2:8-10
8. John 3:1-17, Rom. 6:1f
9. verse 26
10 Gen 1:19
11. John 6:32-35
12. John 6:47-58