Saturday, April 27, 2013

Discerning the Lord's Body

This essay comes with a text, I Corinthians 11:17-34 (for clarity I will use the RSV).

“But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you assemble as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and I partly believe it, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. When you meet together, it is not the Lord's supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal, and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not. For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.] Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we should not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are chastened so that we may not be condemned along with the world. 
So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another --if any one is hungry, let him eat at home -- lest you come together to be condemned. About the other things I will give directions when I come.”

Earlier this week I pointed out that our Book of Common Prayer tradition does not require intellectual assent to a specific theory about how Christ is present in the Sacrament, but instead lays out specific requirements in the Invitation to the General Confession. The General Absolution, spoken only by a priest, lays out conditions, most notably “hearty (sincere) repentance and true faith.” Among the requirements in the Invitation we see that the communicant must be “in love and charity” with his neighbors (Matthew 5:23, 24).

As I look out at the general mindset of our own people, I wonder if we have the right priorities about how we are to receive this sacrament. I even fear that some novice priest somewhere is adding conditions from his own mistaken notion about the “teaching of the Church” from an imagined Canon of something he calls the Tradition. Perhaps he embraces a theory, like Roman Transubstantiation, or Lutheran Consubstantiation, or something less defined except in his own understanding. Perhaps he thinks that he should not communicate any person who fails to share his own understanding of the Sacrament.

I would challenge such a novice priest (perhaps such a perpetually novice priest) to show me in Scripture a clear definition of his theory set forth as revelation, or to demonstrate that any of the Ecumenical Councils ever laid down any definition. Sacraments are Mysteries (from the word Mysterion), and no one actually knows how the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. Whatever devotions you direct to the Sacrament, remember that it is a mystery beyond your comprehension. But, never forget that it is no “bare sign,” and therefore is not effectual, in terms of grace, until you eat and drink it with faith (John 6:54).

Nonetheless, I must challenge the whole idea that St. Paul’s concern in the above text is about any theory of Real Presence. It is obvious that St. Paul regards the elements to be both bread and wine, and Christ’s Body and Blood at the same time. But, when he speaks of discerning the Lord’s Body, or rather of failure to do so, look at the context. The context is more about being “in love and charity” with your neighbors than it is about your theological understanding of the Sacrament. A person may have the best humanly possible understanding of the Sacrament, but fail to discern the Lord’s Body by harboring resentment or by mistreating members of the Body of Christ. Another may have no proper understanding of Christ’s Real Presence in the Sacrament, may even confuse it with a “bare sign” through honest ignorance, and yet receive it with “hearty repentance and true faith” walking in love and charity. It is that ignorant man who better discerns the Lord’s Body than the other.

Look at the context. What immediately follows this text about unworthy reception of the Lord’s Body and Blood? What immediately follows it is the twelfth chapter, about the Church as the Body of Christ, and gifts of the Spirit in the various members of Christ’s Body. And, the context of that must include the famous chapter thirteen that follows. The great chapter on Charity (the love of God) was a stinging prophetic style rebuke to selfish Corinthian Christians, however much we may try to make sweet, sweet music of its words.

I do not fear that our people are receiving the Sacrament without some appreciation for Christ’s Real Presence at the altar. I do fear that some of our people do, even with that appreciation, fail to discern the Lord’s Body. If you cannot love Christ in your brothers and sisters, if you do not see Him in His Body the Church, it doesn’t matter at all if you appreciate His presence in the Sacramental elements.

Why did St. Paul begin by reminding them of the Lord’s betrayal? We even use those words in our service straight from this very text: “The night in which He was betrayed…” What is it, but betrayal of Christ Himself, to mistreat the members of His Body the Church? Be it by selfishness, by gossip, by sinful and willful alienation, the lack of charity makes one unworthy to receive. Such a person may have the soundest and best understanding, but it profits him nothing. He is not in love and charity with his neighbors, and therefore not ready to receive the Sacrament he may so deeply understand – he may even understand all mysteries; it profits him nothing.

Fourth Sunday after Easter

James 1:17-21 * John 16:5-14
“EVERY good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning,” writes Saint James in today’s Epistle. These words are more than a profoundly beautiful piece of prose; these words speak of the unchanging and unchangeable will of God. In God is no variableness, and not only no turning, but not even a shadow of it. “God is not a man that he should lie, neither a son of man that he should repent.” God wills, God speaks and He acts. But never does He react. The revelation that God has given of Himself in scripture has been given through language that can speak to the human mind, and as such that language is inherently iconographic. The limitations of the human mind cannot comprehend God, and so we are given words about God that must come short of a full description. We read of Divine mercy, or we read of Divine wrath, and we picture these things in human terms; we imagine how the mercy or wrath of men comes across. Such things come across as emotion, as reactions which must, by their nature, be both variableness and a shadow of turning. For that is how we experience these things.

But where man comes closest to God, and where His image is most clearly perceived in the very nature of what we are, is the highest of the virtues, namely charity. This is that love that never fails, that is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost. With or without the element of reaction, always with the constancy of feeling but never dependent on the whims of emotion, this love motivates us to labor for the people most dependent on our untiring efforts. Even anger does not erase this love, because it is deeper than any passing emotion. Saint John told us that “God is Love.” So, the words “no variableness neither shadow of turning” naturally move into the next phrase in today’s Epistle of James: “Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first-fruits of his creatures.” The love of God for us, the love of the Father that begat us, never depended on how He felt at the time, how He reacted, on whim, fancy or any changeable thing. When we say that God is Impassible, not subject to the changes and reactions of emotion, it is our very hope itself of which we speak. His will for us runs deeper; it is the true Love itself; love that takes human nature into the Godhead, so that Jesus Christ is that one Person both fully God and fully man, who suffered and died for our sins. The old problem of whether or not God could have suffered on the cross is answered for us by saying that Jesus Christ suffered for us, and that He did so as One Person in two complete natures. And, in that depth that is love, stronger because it is deeper and higher, beneath and above all we know of mere emotion with its changing whims and reaction, we see the will of God carried out. In Christ we died to sin, and in Christ we rose to new life, born again because we are begotten from above by the Word of Truth.

The will of God is not capricious. For a mere human being, the will is subject to what side of bed he gets out of on a given morning. God’s will, however, does not change, unlike the unstable will of a man who, upon getting bored, undergoes a change of tastes; or who, upon being taken by emotion at a given moment, changes his mind. In the news a few years ago, I heard of a family suing some well-known sex symbol celebrity, because a rich man had married her and had rewritten his will. If I heard it correctly, the rightful heirs, that is the children, were left desolate because the rich man had, in what passion he could muster or in what vanity had taken him, married a woman several decades his junior; and his children no longer could expect his promise, which was the expectation of their inheritence, to be fulfilled. This kind of unstable behavior takes place among sinful men; but our Father in heaven will never be moved to forget us. He will not break His promise. Once we are in Christ we are never forgotten. In the words of the prophet Isaiah: “But Zion said, The LORD hath forsaken me, and my Lord hath forgotten me. Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee. Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are continually before me (Isa. 49: 14-16).”

Understand that when we speak of Divine mercy or of Divine wrath, we are not speaking of some reaction in God. God remains constant. Whether we experience mercy or wrath depends upon where we decide to stand, what side of that unmlovable line he has laid down in His commandments. His love for us will not be satisfied, however, with our laxity. He commands us to grow in holiness and virtue because that is part of His will for us in Christ. He knows what he wants to make of us, the kind of people we are meant to be. Whatever Hell is, that place of darkness about which our Lord Jesus Christ warned us many times over, it is not a place we might enter due to God’s reactions. It is a place we may enter by choosing to stand on the wrong side of His love, the side where we shut out His will for us in favor of any wilful sin. God does not change, and so, if we refuse to turn from our sins, we will be lost. For God cannot compromise: it is against His very nature. God does not negotiate or bargain. He does, however, forgive when we turn to Him.

In today’s Gospel we see that Jesus said, about the coming of the Holy Ghost- that event we will remember shortly on Pentecost- “And when He is come, He will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: of sin, because they believe not on me; of righteousness, because I go to my Father, and ye see me no more; of judgment, because the prince of this world is judged.” Look at these things closely. The world remains in sin because it refuses to believe in Jesus Christ. This is put in very personal terms. The choice to be given over to sin and death is the refusal to believe in this one Man: Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God. Why? Because only He is the remedy for sin and death. “Neither is there salvation in any other; for there is no other name given under heaven among men whereby we must be saved (Acts 4:12).”

The Holy Spirit convicts the world of righteousness by Christ’s ascension into heaven. He must sit on the throne of God with the Father; as long as the world is fallen and sinful, His presence here as the Incarnate God was extraordinary, something that the world could not long endure. Until the world is ready to be made new by his coming, His presence remains hidden and mysterious. His ascension to the throne of His Father vindicates His righteousness, even though the world treated Him as a sinner and a criminal.

The Holy Spirit convicts the world of judgment because the prince of this world is judged. The cross appeared to be the condemnation of Jesus; but it turned out instead to be the condemnation of the whole order of sin and death. Christ bore the wrath of God, and this was in fact the mercy of God at work. The one who was cast out and defeated was the Devil, the serpent’s head bruised by the bruising of the heel of the Seed of the Woman, the Son born to the Virgin (Gen 3:15, John 19:26). The entire system of sin and death was judged. The prince of this world was cast out. Now, the Holy Spirit convicts the world of the defeat and condemnation of its evil ruler, the prince of darkness, and of everything he had achieved by deception.

How does the Holy Spirit do these things? He works through the Church. So the Lord continues, in today’s Gospel, with these words: “I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit when He, the Spirit of truth, is come, He will guide you into all truth.” Indeed he has guided the Church of the Apostles into all truth. It began with the writing of the New Testament, with bringing to mind, after His resurrection and ascension, the words of Jesus that would have been impossible to hear while He walked among them. It began with the teaching we find in the words of the writer to the Hebrews, in the Epistles of the Apostles, Saints, Peter, Paul, John, James, and Jude. It began as they came to understand what Jesus had done in fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies. And, the Holy Spirit continued to guide the Church throughout the years of persecution; and He guided the Church when it emerged from persecution in the first Millennium, as the successors of the Apostles met in those seven Ecumenical Councils and agreed together about the meaning of the Word of God for all people for all time.

This ministry of the Church, to speak with the voice of the Holy Spirit to the world, is the will of the Father who has begotten us to new life in the Person of His Son, Who guides and empowers us by His Holy Spirit, sending down every good gift and every perfect gift. In Him is no variableness neither shadow of turning.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Lost in the Shuffle

"Ye that 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..."

Interestingly enough, our Book of Common Prayer tradition does not restrict Communion to people who understand it perfectly, and have all their theological ducks in a row about this sacrament. Instead, it emphasizes "hearty repentance and true faith." Theories about "Transubstantiation" and "Consubstantiation" or "Real Presence" appear to take a backseat to sincerity when making the General Confession.

Indeed, the only requirement set forth publicly during the service is the invitation to the General Confession. Had the Anglican fathers no respect for theological fine points, those absolutely necessary things to help us know for sure who is saved, and who deserves to be burned at the stake for heresy? I would bet they didn't even care how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

From the Holy Communion service it would appear that they considered the requirements set forth by the whole General Confession section to greatly outweigh intellectual and scholastic complications, the kind of complications necessary in knowing who to weed out of God's Holy Church, or, in the good old days, get roasted. One would think that they took First Corinthians chapter eleven more seriously than the finest points of raging debate. They must have considered the idea silly that one could commit heresy about the nature of the sacrament, when clearly, if you're just smart enough to be in the inner circle, you will understand it perfectly (along with a perfect understanding of Almighty God Himself. It's a purely intellectual thing you know).

After all, where else could they have gotten such priorities as true and earnest repentance, and being in love and charity with your neighbors, etc.? They must have taken seriously St. Paul's reference to the betrayal of our Lord by Judas, and how it applied to the manner in which the Corinthian Christians treated each other. They must have grasped the meaning of the "New Covenant" in Christ's blood, and how it applies to the way believers ought to treat each other, especially when approaching the sacrament of that Covenant and of the sacred Blood He shed.

It sure takes the fun out of pointless and idiotic theological arguments. 

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Third Sunday after Easter

The Epistle. 1 St. Pet. ii.11f  * The Gospel. St. John xvi.16f
A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see me, because I go to the Father

We must hear in these words their blunt, literal, objective meaning. If we become overly-mystical, or even slightly allegorical, in our interpretation of them, we rob them of their power and effectiveness. We cannot afford ever to treat the crucifixion and death of Christ, and his victory over death by rising again the third day, as a poetic allusion meant to teach us simply to hope for relief from the difficulties of this transitory life. The Gospel of Christ, with his real death and his real resurrection, is not by any means a tale told to relieve the pain of worldly stress, or to inspire us to keep on keeping on. We should not belittle the Gospel by referring to our emotional ups and downs as, to quote one very unworthy individual, "God bringing an Easter out of a Good Friday."

If anything, our own life experiences work the other way around. When God brings us out of any trouble or sorrow, it is nothing more than a foretaste of what he has in store for those who love him. Frankly, God will not bring us out of every trouble and sorrow in this transitory life; for we all shall have our final trouble, our last sorrow, or sickness or injury, and we shall depart this life never to return.

Our hope therefore, because of Christ's death, is that God will not deal with us as our sins deserve. Because Christ laid down his life for you, you may appear before God as righteous and without spot or wrinkle, that is, without sin. Christ's death saves you from estrangement and isolation, cut off from God to wander as a lost soul; that is, from Hell. Because he died, if you are sincere in your own repentance from sin, you are forgiven and cleansed. That brief time, in which his disciples faced despair because they did not see him, has bought your soul back from sin and its end. God is the one, as St. Paul wrote to the Church in Colosse, "Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son: In whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins (Col. 1:13,14).”

Because he rose again from the dead the third day, your hope is not in this world only, but in the world to come when God makes everything new. St. Paul wrote to the Church in Rome, "But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you (Rom. 8:11).” We do not believe merely in a symbolic resurrection, something to help us feel good about worldly things, about transient emotional turmoil or desires. Our hope is not about this world that passes away, or the things of this world that so easily draw away our love from God to carnal affections. It is not always the will of God to deliver us from our perceived problems or to give us what we think we want for ourselves. Frankly, some of our desires are petty, some are sinful and selfish, and some are simply irrelevant to the things that God would have us pay attention to.

But, our hope is sure and certain. Easter is a fact of history certified by the blood of many ancient martyrs who chose death rather than deliverance; they did not recant their testimony that they had seen the Risen Christ in the flesh as he stood before them, as he showed his hands, his feet his side, and said "Peace be with you." They preferred to die for the truth of their testimony, to let the Roman authorities shed their blood unto death, so that we could be certain, yes so that we their children in the Faith all these centuries later could know, that they had indeed seen the Risen Christ.

Easter is a fact of history and it is our sure and certain hope of the future. For "we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is," wrote St. John. (I John 3:2) St. Paul, writing to the Church in Corinth, says: "But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ's at his coming (I Cor. 15:20-23).”

The imagery is from the harvest. In the Spring we have the firstfruits, that first growth of the field; it is a foretaste of what comes later in the harvest. The Book of Leviticus has the Feasts of Israel, those feasts that God commanded the people of Israel to keep through all their generations, and all of which have special meaning that foretells the Gospel. About the firstfruits we see this:

“And ye shall count unto you from the morrow after the Sabbath, from the day that ye brought the sheaf of the wave offering; seven Sabbaths shall be complete: Even unto the morrow after the seventh Sabbath shall ye number fifty days; and ye shall offer a new meat offering unto the LORD. Ye shall bring out of your habitations two wave loaves of two tenth deals: they shall be of fine flour; they shall be baken with leaven; they are the firstfruits unto the LORD (Lev. 23:15-17).”

After the Sabbath they were to present the firstfruits, just as Christ would rise and appear to witnesses after the Sabbath, on the first (and eighth) day of the week. The firstfruits are a pledge of the future, a promise of what is to come. As Christ rose from the dead in the springtime of the world, he will come again at the time of harvest. As he rose from the dead never to die again, so shall those who love God and look for his appearing also rise again at his coming, and enter into his Easter life, his resurrected and eternal life, his immortality, never to die again.

St. Paul in his Epistle to the Church in Rome, writes, "Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him. For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God (Rom. 6:9, 10).” You see, "when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is." Easter is history and future. It happened and will happen. The third day, the day after the Sabbath, was Christ's Easter. The day when he comes again shall be our Easter - our Passover; and like him, all who have looked for his appearing again, all who love God, will enter his immortality. Though we will have died, we will die no more; Death shall have no more dominion over us; for it has no more dominion over him. This is our future if we hold to the faith of Christ.

Never take those words in today's Gospel and lower their meaning to speak of the things of this life that ends, and of this world that passes away. Do not settle for something so low and ultimately worthless; "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable (I Cor. 15:19).” Modern religion all too often is about feeling good in this life, or being successful in this world, or even about health and prosperity, all of which though they may be good for a time, are ultimately worthless; for this life ends. "Here we have no abiding place." These words that Jesus spoke mean so much more. They mean everything.

The Gospel events of which St. Paul wrote, as he opened the fifteenth chapter of his first Epistle to the Church in Corinth, include that very important fact that Jesus Christ, after he rose from the dead appeared to witnesses. In that passage, Paul tells us that Christ died for our sins in fulfillment of Scripture, that he was buried and rose again the third day in fulfillment of Scripture, and that he then appeared to witnesses on several occasions. In one address to people in Jerusalem, St. Peter said, "But ye denied the Holy One and the Just, and desired a murderer to be granted unto you; And killed the Prince of life, whom God hath raised from the dead; whereof we are witnesses." Another time he said, "The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree. Him hath God exalted with his right hand to be a Prince and a Savior, for to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins. And we are his witnesses of these things; and so is also the Holy Ghost, whom God hath given to them that obey him." In the house of Cornelius, Peter said, "And we are witnesses of all things which he did both in the land of the Jews, and in Jerusalem; whom they slew and hanged on a tree: Him God raised up the third day, and showed him openly; Not to all the people, but unto witnesses chosen before of God, even to us, who did eat and drink with him after he rose from the dead." (Acts 4:14,15; 5:30-32; 10:39-41)

As I said on Easter Day, Christ's post resurrection appearances are part of the Gospel if we preach it correctly. We fail to say enough if we throw around the term, "the empty tomb." By itself the empty tomb proved nothing; the proof was that Jesus Christ appeared to witnesses after his resurrection from the dead; he ate with them, he showed them his wounds in his hands and feet and side; he bid them touch him and be certain. As the Gospel of Luke tells us:

“And he said unto them, Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts? 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. And when he had thus spoken, he shewed them his hands and his feet. And while they yet believed not for joy, and wondered, he said unto them, Have ye here any meat? And they gave him a piece of a broiled fish, and of an honeycomb. And he took it, and did eat before them (Luke 24:38-43).”

In the recent weeks, leading up to Easter, we kept getting closer and closer to Passiontide and Holy Week. In our liturgical tradition we lived through the troubles and fears of those ancient disciples; the five hundred disciples and the apostles who were closest to the Lord. Think again of the words He spoke to them:
“A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see me, because I go to the Father…Verily, verily, I say unto you, That ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice: and ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy. A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world. And ye now therefore have sorrow: but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you.”

In Passiontide we hid from our eyes the things that remind us our Lord’s presence, all under purple veils. But, afterward, when you walked through the door on Easter the veils were gone, and you rejoiced at the presence of the Risen Christ. For a while you did not see Him, then you saw Him, and your joy could not be taken from you. Think about what the disciples had gone through; their Lord was dead. They had placed not only their love, but they had placed all their hope in this one Man. He had said that he was One with the Father, that He would be the Salvation not only of Israel, but the light to the Gentiles, the hope for all nations. Several times He told them how it would be. He would be handed over and crucified, and rise the third day. But, like most of us, they could only hear just so much. Their minds blocked the rest until they had gone though the worst of it.

So, instead of watching Him take an earthly throne and seize the power that justly belonged to the Son of David as King in Jerusalem, they saw that he was humiliated, unjustly condemned, and given to the Romans to die the worst death of all, the death of the cross. Their hope was shattered. They mourned and wept while the world rejoiced. But, after three days He appeared to them alive again. He had not conquered Rome; he had not ended the rule of that empire. He had, instead, conquered the real enemy. He had overcome sin and death. He had been the Suffering Servant spoken of by Isaiah the prophet; now he was the man who died, and would, as the prophet had said, after dying “prolong His days” as the one in whose hand the will of the Lord would prevail.

Their joy no man could take from them.

A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see me, because I go to the Father

For a brief while they did not see him, and then they saw him. We must hear in these words their blunt, literal, objective meaning.

He suffered under Pontius Pilate
, was crucified, dead and buried. The third day he rose again from the dead.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Second Sunday after Easter

II Peter 2:19-25 * John 10:11-16

The Epistle we read today is drawn, as I hope many of you have noticed, from that very famous Suffering Servant passage in the book of Isaiah, specifically chapters 52:13-53:12. I have said before that the Suffering Servant passage goes beyond Christ’s atoning death, predicting as well his resurrection by telling us that he would, after death, “prolong his days” as the agent of God’s will. It predicts the day of Pentecost by telling us that Christ would “divide the spoil with the strong.” This echoes words from Psalm 68: 18: “Thou hast ascended on high, thou hast led captivity captive: thou hast received gifts for men.” But, as the chapter draws to a close, the prophet takes us back to the cross, because that was the main thrust of this particular passage. In this way the Holy Spirit reminds us, through the prophetic oracle, that all of the grace, and, indeed every gift, that God gives to us has come by way of the cross of Christ. St. Anselm taught that Christ did all the work, and after earning a great reward for his labor, gives all of the benefits of his work away. He gives all of the earning, profit and reward to us. For He is God the Son, and has need of nothing.
The emphasis of that passage is what Jesus did for us, and very importantly, what he did as the One for the Many. And, I can think of no better summary of that prophetic passage about the sacrifice Jesus offered of his own life, than the words of St. Paul from the fifth chapter of Romans:
“For if by one man's offence death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ. Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.”
So, we get that message, that Jesus died for our sins just as scripture foretold. St. Peter puts it to us with great force: “Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree.” That’s the first message. Christ offered himself as the One who loves mankind, in fact, as the one who loves you. He is the sacrifice not just for the whole world, but for you; dying as much for each as for all. This is why I tell you so often; when you look up at the crucifix where he pours out his soul unto death, and you see his love there, take it personally.
When we prayed the Collect today, we asked for understanding and for grace to see in his death two very important things that go together. This is what we prayed: “Almighty God, who hast given thine only Son to be unto us both a sacrifice for sin, and also an ensample of godly life; Give us grace that we may always most thankfully receive that his inestimable benefit, and also daily endeavor ourselves to follow the blessed steps of his most holy life; through the same, thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” This Collect is drawn from the Epistle we read.
“For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps: who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not: but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously: who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed. For ye were as sheep going astray: but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.”
This follows an exhortation to be patient when suffering wrongfully. “If, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God.” St. Peter tells us that when we follow Christ our Lord, we may expect to find the cross awaiting us. When we find it, and find no way around it, we may embrace it as the will of God, just as Jesus did.
The Lord spoke clearly of the difference between a true shepherd and a mere hireling, “whose own the sheep are not.” The Church has had its fill of hirelings. We know that the Church must tend to business in this world. Indeed, every family must conduct business. We all must have a place to live, food on the table, and utilities. So, the Church, like every family, must engage in a certain amount of practical business. Jesus sent his disciples to buy the things needed for the Passover; every family must conduct these practical matters of business.
But, though the Church must take care of a certain amount of necessary practical matters of business, the Church is not a business. We are not here to earn a profit (and thank God, because we would be failures if we had to be judged by the criteria of the marketplace).  And, the work of the clergy is to serve as shepherds, and so carry on the work of Jesus himself.  It is to care for God’s people, not to devour them, and not to abandon them in the face of danger, like the hireling who sees the wolf coming, and flees.
Some men receive Holy Orders and become hirelings; and, if they are not hirelings for money, they may be hirelings for something else.  I see, sometimes, young men who were ordained much too early, and who imagine that the priesthood will give them respect from others. They love the title, they love the vestments, and, they remind me all too often of the words of Jesus, about the Pharisees who loved greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called of men, Rabbi. 1 Well, if they stick long enough, they find the cross that they cannot get around. That is when they find out if they were ordained for the right reason.
Look at the closing words of today’s Gospel: “And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one flock, and one shepherd.” I have no doubt that this speaks mainly about the inclusion of the Gentiles, the grafting in of non-Jews to the cultivated olive tree of Israel, and began to be fulfilled when St. Peter went to the House of Cornelius to see Pentecost repeated and the Holy Spirit poured out on Gentiles. But, it is also right for us to see that, even today, there remain yet other sheep, not of this fold, who need to be brought in. The work is far from over, and each of you may have a share of that work. Because “you are the Body of Christ and members in particular 2,” each endowed with special gifts for ministry by the Holy Spirit, you are called to share in the work of bringing those other sheep in. And, that is a win-win proposition. It is good for us, and good for them, indeed, a lifeline sent out to them whether, at first, they realize it or not.
If we are to work in God’s field with all the mess sheep bring, and the dangers presented by the wolf, we need not worry about finding the cross. It always finds us if we are faithful to Christ. It will be there; that I can promise each of you. The cross, in some form or other, is all that the fallen sinful world has for true servants of Jesus Christ. Not honor, respect or esteem; the cross. So, you don’t need to go looking for the cross, because the world is quite aggressive in providing it. Like the Son of God, who endured the cross, and esteemed as nothing the shame of the cross, for the joy set before him, 3 may each of you have grace to endure, to hope, and to follow in his footsteps. The suffering is but for a moment, that is, brief: But the joy is eternal.
On his cross, the Good shepherd died for us; and by his cross he showed to us how to follow him on the path of life.
1. Matt. 23:7
2. I Cor. 12:27
3. Heb. 12:2

More persecution in Egypt

"Egypt’s Coptic Christians frequently accuse state security, police, and the military of overlooking Muslim attacks on Christians and their places of worship, especially monasteries and churches. The Western mainstream media often ignores these accusations, or mentions them in passing as 'unsubstantiated reports.' Last weekend’s assault on the St. Mark Cathedral — unprecedented in significance — was no different, except for the fact that there are many pictures demonstrating governmental complicity."

You can read more by clicking here.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

To read a sermon for the Feast of the Annunciation, click the picture above.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

First Sunday after Easter

(originally posted in 2007)
I John 5:4-12 * John 20:19-23
And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life.

At the beginning of Saint John’s First Epistle we see a connection between the fellowship that the Apostles had with Jesus Christ during the years in which they followed Him from town to town, the relationship they maintained with Him after His resurrection, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit that began to be manifested on the day of Pentecost. Among those charismatic realities we are given the sacraments. This continued fellowship with the Risen Christ is, in a sense, Part II of the Incarnation. It is the Incarnation as it continues to affect the fallen world through His Body the Church, from which the Lord is never absent. He is its chief member, the Head of the Body.

So now, hear these opening words from that Epistle:

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. And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full.

We should think together about how this brings us to the words in the fifth chapter that we have read this day, especially, “He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life.” We should reflect on the charismatic reality and power of God in His Church, and of how we remain in that blessed fellowship. We should reflect on how the hands of the apostles handled the Risen Lord, and how their eyes saw Him, and how we continue in that fellowship. We should reflect upon the reality of His Presence when we partake of the Blessed Sacrament, when our eyes see and our hands handle the Word of Life even here and now. All of this is part of having fellowship with the Apostles, and in that fellowship, fellowship with God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ, that our joy may be full.

We speak of the Sacramental Life, and we need to know that this is, indeed, Part II of the Incarnation. The Sacramental Life is everything that we have read about. We know that our Lord came to his earth by taking the limitation of human nature into the infinity of His Divine Person as God the Son, time into eternity, creation into uncreated Life, man into God. The means of our salvation are physical, located in time and space, visible in history. His conception and birth, the Nativity in Bethlehem wherein the words of Christopher Smart ring true: “God all bounteous, all creative, Whom no ills from good dissuade, Is incarnate and a native of the very world He made.” In going “about doing good and healing all that were oppressed by the Devil” the Son of Man made use of matter, the touch of His hands and the vibrations of his voice, serving to heal through those means. By taking all of our sins and dying on the cross as the “sacrifice for sin,” and then after death “prolonging His days” by rising again, He used the physical means of our world, our home, to bring us salvation. He bore in His own body our sins on the tree, and by rising to life again destroyed death, and the one who has the power of death.

Therefore, to conclude that salvation is sacramental in nature, that it depends on the Incarnation, and that salvation is both the Church’s message and ministry, is to understand the apostolic fellowship about which Saint John taught us. It all comes from the richest truth gleaned from that simple phrase, “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” Without a flesh and blood Jesus who is fully God and Fully man, and without His resurrection by which he ever lives to make intercession for us, and without His continued ministry through His Body the Church by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, we could not enter, let alone remain in the fellowship of which Saint John speaks. But, we have our Lord Jesus who is fully God and fully man, risen from the dead, our Great High Priest, our only Mediator, our Advocate and Propitiation, who calls you and me to live in fellowship with him and his Father, that fellowship he established in the Church of the Apostles so long ago, and which has never passed away from heaven and earth. We need to be in that fellowship. We are invited in, welcomed in, and even urged in. The benefits are eternal.

We see from the Gospel this day that our Lord ordained the Apostles, and that this included the priestly gift of the power to absolve sins. Make no mistake. This is the power about which the people had rejoiced when “they glorified God, because this power had been given unto men (Matthew 9:8).” To the Jews of that time, when the temple yet stood, this was indeed a priestly ministry. In the Law of Moses, the laws of Kippur, Atonement, required a priest to offer sacrifice for the penitent Israelite who, coming to the priest, made his confession of sin. In order to reconcile the penitent to God, the priest was required to make atonement. But, he could not kill himself, and so had to slay an animal in sacrifice (in his own place as the atonement), so that remission of sins could come through the shedding of blood (Heb. 9:22). Of course, to the Israelites, it was only natural to understand confession of sin in relation to the priests and sacrifice.

For us, the sacrifices are a type and shadow of the real sacrifice, that of Christ on His cross. So, on our altars we do not shed blood, but rather we obey the words, “do this as oft as ye shall drink it, in remembrance of Me.” “Types and shadows have their ending, for the newer Rite is here.” So too, when we hear confession, we speak a sacramental form to effect genuine absolution. When the Lord granted to men this gift in His own words of Ordination, He handed on the priestly ministry of forgiving sins that is granted by His own priestly act as the true Atonement, the real Kippur, by the shedding of His own blood. The Risen Christ has, by this sacrifice, given to the Church, by means of apostolic and priestly ministry, this great gift as part of that fellowship, “this life [that] is in His Son.”

Some of you may feel the need to make a private confession other than the General Confession, and that may very well be the voice of the Holy Spirit directing you. If so, do you fear the pain of making confession? Consider His pain by which this gift is given. Do you fear the embarrassment of confessing your sins to a man? Consider His humiliation by which this gift is given. Do you want fellowship with the Church of the Apostles? Do you want, through that fellowship, the fellowship with God and His Son Jesus Christ? Consider the One who allowed himself to be completely forsaken by all, so that he could restore you to this fellowship. Do you want your joy to be full? Then do not be afraid to come and confess your sins. The Risen Christ, using even now the means of this physical world, the presence of men who hear, the vibrations, that is the sound of your words of confession and their words of absolution, gives this wonderful certainty that your burden is laid down, and your soul healed.

This healing comes from the Incarnation; it all comes from the manifestation of the Word of Life in the Flesh; it is continued as Christ remains incarnate here in His body the Church. The Risen Christ is known to us in the waters of Baptism, in the Apostolic gift of Confirmation. He is known to us in the Church’s ministry of the forgiveness of sins. He is known to us in the Breaking of Bread.

Even now, in His Body the Church, by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, those charismatic realities that make the sacraments genuine and powerful, He yet goes about doing good, healing all who are oppressed by the Devil. Even now, this very day, within His Body the Church, He gives the fullness of this rich salvation. “And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life.”