Saturday, July 27, 2013

Ninth Sunday after Trinity

I Cor. 10:1-13 * Luke 15:11-32

The Parable of the Prodigal Son could as well be called The Waiting Father, and it could also be called The Elder Brother. Each of the main characters is necessary to the story. This was the third parable in this chapter, and each tells the same story. One is the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep and searches for the lost sheep until he finds it, and the other is the woman who searches until she finds the lost silver coin. Then this longer and more compelling story of the father who loses his son, and then receives him back. Make no mistake, these are all really one story. The loss of one person to sin and death is revealed to be God’s own loss; hence there is joy in the presence of the angels of God when the sinner repents, that is, the joy of God beheld by the angels (spoken in our terms to reveal the great mystery of God’s love for fallen mankind, and of that particular love for each one who is lost).

Does anyone anywhere fail to understand the prodigal son himself? Can any of us look at the warnings that St. Paul draws from the Old Testament (in today's Epistle) without a conviction of sin? Does anyone really fail to understand the people of Israel in the wilderness? I know that complaining or murmuring, idolatry and lusts can all be frightening subject matter, and that in one sense the promise that we will never be tempted to sin without a divinely appointed escape, can be just as troubling as it comforting. It is comforting to us to realize we can face the temptations of the future because God provides the escape; but, it also means that our past failure to take that escape makes each of us all the more culpable- doesn’t it? I did not need to study sin as a theological subject in order to understand it. I have to study holiness in order to understand it, and faith and everything to do with the virtues that only grow in us when we are led by the Holy Spirit. But, sin I understood only too well, and the only thing study could offer for that subject was to clarify the facts, all of which came easily. Have any of us lived without the realization that we have wasted the goodness of God on very unworthy and temporal things? I wish I could identify with the saints who love God, and with the angels in glory who behold His face in all good conscience. But, it is only in and after Confession that I have ever come to understand even a glimpse of them. I wish I Corinthians chapter thirteen, the chapter on charity, described my own character; but, all too often, it doesn’t.

Anyone who does not identify with the prodigal son as the sinner who comes to his senses and begins to return to his father’s house, either has yet to come to his senses and begin to return to God (whether or not a member of the Church in good standing), or is living in self-deception. Listen to the words of St. John the Apostle:
“But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us (I John 1:7-10).”
Yes, all of us, especially the most devout and believing, should identify readily with the prodigal son who came to himself, and returned home.

Then we come to another character, the elder brother. I have no doubt that Jesus had the Pharisees in mind, those who believed they were righteous and despised others, and who were critical of the Lord’s willingness to go into the home of a sinner as the physician goes to the sick- that is, to restore them to health. The elder brother has his own priorities, none of which are in harmony with the love his father has for the lost brother, that is, his lost son. Furthermore, the elder brother does not realize that by this very attitude he is every bit as far away from his father’s heart as his brother is from his father’s house. He too is estranged from his father, but deceives himself by thinking that it is enough that he is at home. And, simply by living at home he believes he does enough, though never standing with his father who watches and waits for the lost son, and never sharing in his father’s pain and tears, and finally, not rejoicing when his father rejoices.
What is enough for us? Is it enough to be involved with the business and activities of the Church? Is it enough to be active in its plans? How important is it for us to seek out lost souls and help them return home to the father’s house? When people come in faith and are welcomed back by the Father, are we full of joy? Do any of us dare to judge whether these people who come are the “right sort” of people, that is, “people like us?” Is it more important that the Church make us happy, even if that means that it does not grow? I have seen plenty of elder brothers, individuals who don’t want to mix with the wrong sort of people in Church, and who would never want to be in Heaven with such people. Remember the man in The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis, who would not enter Heaven because he saw there a notorious sinner, in fact a murderer. His objection was that he didn’t need the “bleeding mercy.” But, the repentant man, who had been a murderer and was now redeemed and among the saints in light, pleaded with him that the bleeding mercy was exactly what he needed. But, the man returned to the gray city, that is Hell, rather than associate with the kind of rabble who had been welcomed into the Father’s House.

First John the Baptist, and then the Lord Himself, called upon the most notorious of sinners to repent. Jesus spoke often of such notorious people as tax collectors and prostitutes who had repented at the preaching of John, and at His own preaching, and were now following Him. Boldly, He goes to the home of Matthew the tax collector, and later to the home of Zacchaeus, always bringing sinners to repentance. He allows the sinful woman to wash His feet with her tears and dry them with her hair, over the unspoken but real objection of his Pharisee host. The people He did have real conflict with, however, were the Pharisees, the religious hypocrites who disapproved of the Lord’s mercy on repentant sinners. For some people it is more important to feel superior to others than to become acquainted with the Father’s heart. 

Finally, here is the father in the story. When we think of the Trinity it helps to remember how St. Paul speaks of the main attribute we know in our relationship with each Divine Person; each an attribute that is Divine, but each revealed more clearly in identification with what we are taught about each of the Persons. “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all. Amen (II Cor. 13:14).” We cannot understand the Father as He is revealed unless we identify Him primarily with love, that is agape or charity. It is this love that is revealed in and by His Son, most powerfully and manifestly on the cross. Throughout eternity it is the scars of His Passion, still visible in the resurrected Christ, that will always remind us of the love of God, whereby He gave His only begotten Son for us. It is that love manifested by the Son of God as He took away sin and conquered death. 

The prodigal son does not ask for his due as a son, and would settle for being only a mere hired servant. Such is true repentance. The Father restores the lost son, slays the fatted calf to celebrate, and has his own joy, the joy of receiving back a son who was lost and is found, was dead and is alive again. The grace of God meets us on better terms than we can ask, extends forgiveness that is, itself, prodigal but never exhausted. This parable teaches us that by the grace of God in Jesus Christ and the love of God shed abroad within us by the Holy Ghost, we must remain in the Father’s house, and also come close to the Father’s heart for the lost.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Laymen's guide to the Thirty-Nine Articles

Article XXVI

Of the unworthiness of the Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacraments

Although in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometime the evil have chief authority in the ministration of the word and sacraments; yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ's, and do minister by His commission and authority, we may use their ministry both in hearing the word of God and in the receiving of the sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ's ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God's gifts diminished from such as by faith and rightly do receive the sacraments ministered unto them, which be effectual because of Christ's institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.
Nevertheless it appertaineth to the discipline of the Church that inquiry be made of evil ministers, and that they be accused by those that have knowledge of their offences; and finally, being found guilty by just judgement, be deposed.

De vi institutionum divinarum, quod eam non tollat malitia Ministrorum

Quamvis in Ecclesia visibili bonis mali semper sunt admixti, atque interdum ministerio verbi et sacramentorum administrationi praesint ; tamen cum non suo sed Christi nomine agant, eiusque mandato et auctoritate ministrent, illorum ministerio uti licet cum in verbo Dei audiendo tum in sacramentis percipiendis. Neque per illorum malitiam effectus institutorum Christi tollitur aut gratia donorum Dei minuitur quoad eos qui fide et rite sibi oblata percipiunt, quae propter institutionem Christi et promissionem efficacia sunt, licet per malos administrentur.
Ad Ecclesiae tamen disciplinam pertinet, ut in malos ministros inquiratur, accusenturque ab his qui eorum flagitia noverint; atque tandem, iusto convicti iudicio, deponantur.

          Two important facts are presented in this Article: 1. That sacramental efficacy and pure preaching can be real and valid when ministered by unworthy persons, and 2. that the Church must, nonetheless, exercise discipline and maintain moral standards.
Article XXVI introduced nothing new in the teaching of the Church. St. John Chysostom wrote:

“So that it is possible having wrought even miracles to be carnal. For so God wrought by Balaam and unto Pharaoh. He revealed things to come and unto Nebuchadnezzar, and Caiaphas prophesied not knowing what he said, yea and some others cast out devils in His name though they were not with Him, since not for the doer’s sake are (Luke 9:49) these things done, but for others’ sake. Nor is it seldom that those who were positively unworthy have been made instrumental to them. Now why wonder if in the case of unworthy men these things are done for others sake, seeing that so it is even when they are wrought by saints. For so Paul saith,

‘All things are yours whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or life or death and again.’ ‘He gave some Apostles and some Prophets and some Pastors and Teachers the perfecting of the Saints unto the work of the ministry (I Cor. 3:22, Eph. 4:11,12).

“For if it were not so, there would have been no security against universal corruption. For it may be that rulers are wicked and polluted and their subjects good and virtuous, that laymen may live in piety and priests in wickedness, and there could not have been either Baptism or the Body of Christ or Oblation through such if in every instance grace required merit. But as it is, God uses to work even by unworthy persons, and in no respect is the grace of Baptism damaged by the conduct of the priest, else would the receiver suffer loss. Accordingly though such things happen rarely, still it must be owned they do happen. Now these things I say lest any one of the bystanders, busying himself about the life of the priest, should be offended as concerning the things solemnized. For man introduces nothing into the things which are set before us, but the whole is a work of the power of God, and He it is who initiates you into the mysteries.”1

          Saint Paul wrote that “The gifts and the call of God are irrevocable (Romans 11:29 RSV).” Although the context is about Israel and election, the principle stated is not limited to the immediate topic. In both the first chapter of St. Paul’s Epistle to Titus, and in the third chapter of his First Epistle to St. Timothy, the Apostle laid down requirements concerning the kind of men who ought to be ordained. He also warned, “Lay hands suddenly on no man (I Tim. 5:22).” The RSV translates it, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands.”
          One of the most clear points to be gleaned from the Pastoral Epistles is that the foundation of Apostolic Succession is demonstrated very early in the life of the Church. “For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders (πρεσβύτερος, presbyteros i.e. priests) in every city, as I had appointed thee (Titus 1:5).” Both of the truths we find stated in Article XXVI can be drawn from these passages.
          Both Timothy and Titus are warned to select only qualified men, those who not only can teach soundly, but also who demonstrate by their lives an example worthy to be followed by others, and one that avoids scandal. The warning extends not only to allowing them to act, but to ordination itself. To lay hands on a man in haste is risky because the impartation of the spiritual gift, the charismatic reality of ordination, is not in question. Once given, “The gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.”
Paul did not address the subject of sacramental validity in the texts in question. Rather, the sacramental validity of ordination is assumed in these texts of Scripture. If, in haste, the Ordinary lays hands on an unworthy man, one whose manner of life makes him notorious, he is nonetheless ordained. St. John Chrysostom has helped us to understand the reason why God, in His goodness and mercy, uses even the worst of men if they have been ordained, as we have seen: “Since not for the doer’s sake are these things done, but for others’ sake…But as it is, God uses to work even by unworthy persons…else would the receiver suffer loss… For man introduces nothing into the things which are set before us, but the whole is a work of the power of God, and He it is who initiates you into the mysteries.”
          Why should a sincere believer suffer loss because of the sins of priests? If the people, having been baptized and receiving Holy Communion, could not rely on the grace of God in the sacraments, how could they approach the sacramental life with any faith? It would depend on the hidden motives and lives of men, rather than on God. But, God has made it so that we may be sure and certain of His work, and so live the sacramental life in faith. How, also, could one receive instruction and believe the Gospel if faith in the Gospel depended on the hidden motives and lives of men, rather than on God?
          “Nevertheless it appertaineth to the discipline of the Church that inquiry be made of evil ministers, and that they be accused by those that have knowledge of their offences; and finally, being found guilty by just judgment, be deposed.”
          It may be discovered, indeed too often has been discovered, that a man was ordained who lives a notorious life. The standards of St. Paul (Titus 1:5-9, I Tim.3:1-13) might appear to be met at the time of ordination, only for a later exposure of scandalous living. In such cases, the ministry of the man must end by the lawful action of the Church, even though Ordination itself is an indelible sacrament. He remains ordained, but his license to act as a minister in the Church must be taken away.
          This second part of Article XXVI is an important point too often overlooked. It is true that sacramental validity is essential to the life of the Church, if only for the sake of the people’s faith. They deserve to have no doubts about that validity, but assurance. However, the people also need true pastors with a good heart, men who can teach both by virtue of knowledge gained through diligent learning, and by having the ability to live as examples to the people of God. St. Paul was able to say, “Brethren, join in imitating me, and mark those who so live as you have an example in us (Phil. 3:17 RSV).” And, St. Peter wrote:
“So I exhort the elders (πρεσβύτερος, presbyteros i.e. priests) among you, as a fellow elder (πρεσβύτερος) and a witness of the sufferings of Christ as well as a partaker in the glory that is to be revealed. Tend the flock of God that is your charge, not by constraint but willingly, not for shameful gain but eagerly, not as domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd is manifested you will obtain the unfading crown of glory (I Peter 5:1-4 RSV).”
          In both passages that list the standards, to Titus and to Timothy, Paul includes the ability to teach sound doctrine. So, a man must be able to speak both with knowledge and as an example to the people of God. Otherwise, he has no true ability to teach effectively over the long run. His life will speak louder than his words. It goes back to a very ancient commandment: “Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them, Ye shall be holy: for I the LORD your God am holy (Lev. 19:2).”

1. St. John Chrysostom’s Homilies on The First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians, Homliy VIII.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Eighth Sunday after Trinity

Please click on this link for a sermon for this week's readings.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Seventh Sunday after Trinity

From the Bible Illustrations of by Gustave Dore'

Romans 6:19-23 * Mark 8:1-9
The Epistle for this Sunday picks up a bit after the place where we left off just one week ago. This sixth chapter of Romans is all about baptism and what it is, what it means, and what it has done for us. Modern society has a secular version of documents that were part of old church records, two important certificates. We have death certificates and birth certificates; and when we think of baptism, we should think in that order. After all, what is a birth certificate but a secular version of the baptism certificates and the entries from Parish records? In the sacrament of baptism, Saint Paul tells us that our death certificates came first. We are dead with Christ, buried with him in baptism and then raised to new life. This is how we are born again of water and the Spirit, as the Lord taught Nicodemus. In the sixth chapter of Romans you will find your death certificate, and then your birth certificate right after it.

The call we read about today is based on the fact that we are dead to sin, because we entered into Christ’s own death. In the mystery of salvation, Christ died for our sins, the just for the unjust, to reconcile us to God. And St. Paul makes it clear that we somehow, in a spiritual reality beyond our full comprehension, have entered into his death. So, in baptism we are also born to new life, risen from the dead with Christ, empowered by His resurrection to enter even now into “newness of life,” having even now a power from that new life in Christ that will be given to us fully on the day when He comes again in glory, and we rise to immortality never to die again. In the sacrament of baptism we are borrowing from our future, but borrowing without debt from a limitless inheritance that is ours in Christ. It is the opposite of owing interest; the more we borrow from this resurrection life in Christ, the more wealth we lay up and keep forever.

About this very same hope, St. John wrote:

“Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God: therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not. Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as He is pure.” (I John 3:1-3)

In a different way, St. John tells us the same thing as St. Paul: we have this hope and so purify ourselves- how? “Even as He (that is, the Lord) is pure.” The holiness St. Paul calls us to, and the purity that is motivated by hope, as St. John tells us, is Christ’s own holiness and Christ's own purity. We are dead with Him, and then are raised with Him, called to live by the hope placed in us already as people of the resurrection.

This is much more than a Law of commandments. We have the commandments, yes, and we know they have come from God. And, they teach us how to live a righteous life. What the sacrament of baptism has done for us is to give us that other thing that the Law cannot give us, namely grace. The word “grace” is often mistaken simply for “mercy.” Grace is unmerited, yes, because the true meaning of “grace” is gift- from the New Testament Greek word karis, that word from which we get “charisma” or “charismatic”, or “charism.” Charism means gift. “Our creation, preservation and all the blessings of this life” are charisma; they are all gifts. And, our new life in Christ is charisma, that is, a gift. The New Testament ties two things together consistently, and those two things that go hand in hand are charisma and dunamis. That is, grace and power; words that often tell us of the working of the Holy Spirit within the believer just as the Holy Spirit worked with our Lord Himself when He performed his miracles.

This grace that is more than a Law, is more because added to the moral requirement of the Law is the power and grace of the Holy Spirit working within you to live a life worthy of your calling. Not a perfectly sinless life like our Lord lived, no, because although aided with this grace and power, we are yet in our mortal weakness. But, nonetheless this is a life in which we are called to be holy, and given grace and power to become holy; more than a law that tells you to live a holy life, you are lifted to a higher place in which you can “walk in newness of life.” You cannot attain perfection in this life; but you can still walk in the Spirit and experience His working within you, transforming you after the pattern of Christ’s own holiness, just as we look to be transformed after the pattern of His resurrection fully and completely when He comes again to raise the dead and establish everlasting life.

Why are we called to a life of prayer and to the sacramental life within the Church? Because it is in such a sacramental life of prayer, and of hearing the word of the Lord in scripture, that we may be constantly cleansed and renewed in His resurrection life, and where we are aided by keeping the Lord Himself in focus. In baptism we died with Him, and were raised with Him, and therefore, we are in Christ. Your whole identity is established in baptism; no longer part of the dead race called Adam, but of the living Christ, having passed through His death into His life; given grace and power unto holiness. For that is your calling. The Epistles of Paul teach us that the calling of every Christian is the call to become a saint, a holy person. This is the calling of a life marked above all by the virtue of charity, by the holy character of God Himself. Even with the struggles of this world, and the inevitable occasions of failure and sin, the grace given to you empowers you to have this mark of knowing God even now, as we await the fulness of our salvation. The real question is, will you let Him change you? And will I let Him change me?

In the Gospel for today, we see that the people in the wilderness could not feed themselves. In the miracle of the loaves and fishes, in which the Lord once again fulfills the prophecy from Deuteronomy of the prophet like unto Moses, we are taught that He meets our greatest need. The truth is, we all need the food of eternal life, because we cannot keep ourselves alive. The bread they ate that day was miraculous, like the manna in the wilderness that fed the children of Israel for forty years. How can we read of the food He gave them in the wilderness, the desert wilderness in fact, and not think of the food of eternal life that He gives us? Indeed, when St. John recalls the miracle, He lets us know that the Lord used this miracle to teach that He Himself is the Bread of Life, and that to live forever we must eat His flesh and drink His blood. Such talk was a scandal to many of the people, and they never walked with Him again.

It may seem as if they turned from Him because the idea sounded crazy- and yet, they had to know that He spoke of a spiritual reality. He was telling them that their truest and deepest need is for Him, the One Who is God revealed in our own nature. He took our limited human nature into His unlimited Person, our finite nature into His infinite Being, our time into His eternity, our weakness into His strength, our death into His life. Indeed, we must feed on Him in order to live. Christ Himself, as the Lord God Almighty- one with the Father and the Holy Spirit, tells us “I AM the provision that meets your greatest need. You must feed on Me and live forever.” So we have this Blessed Sacrament, the wonderful mystery of the food and drink of eternal life. We feed on Him in this sacrament; and we feed on Him by His word.

Today’s scriptures are about our salvation. What does our Catechism tell us? It tells us that two of the sacraments are “generally necessary for salvation.” Five sacraments appear in the Old Testament (as I can quite easily demonstrate), but the sacraments of Baptism and the Holy Communion of our Lord’s Supper have been established by Christ Himself when He walked this earth (“sacraments of the Gospel” –Art. XXV). We can speak of the Law of commandments, but St. Paul tells us that, as holy and good as the Law is, we need grace in order to live the life that is given in Christ. You are given the new birth from death into life by baptism, having become a new creation in Christ Jesus, and you must feed on the Lord Jesus Christ who meets your greatest need in the wilderness of sin and death that this world is, and by feeding on Him live forever. In every way you have been given every gift you need to rise above sin and death, to be saved from sin and death, to enter into life, and to have life enter into you. You are in Christ, and you receive Him as the food and drink of eternal life. This is grace. This is power.

As you hear His word feed on Him by believing. When you come forward this day toward the altar to receive the Blessed Sacrament, feed on Him by taking Him into your very mouth, and so also feed on Him in your hearts by grace and with thanksgiving.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

The Shadow War Against Syria’s Christians

On June 23, Catholic Syrian priest Fr. François Murad was murdered in Idlib by rebel militias.

You can read the story here. 

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Fr. Wells' Bulletin Insert


This was specially written for the occasion of a Baptism in the Parish of St. Michael and All Angels, Fleming Island, Florida.

Had we  had sought  for a reading from the  Epistles suitable for the joyous occasion of a Baptism, we could not have done better than the passage from Romans 6 which the Prayer Book provides as the Epistle for this Sixth Sunday after Trinity. The sacrament of Baptism is like a many-faceted jewel, with many aspects of meaning.  The New Testament is emphatic that Baptism, whether to an adult believer or to a small infant, is the effective sign and seal of regeneration, God’s gift of New Birth.  This New Birth (or  Second Birth,  or “birth from above”) ought not be any mysterious concept.  It is simply an act of God which translates every Christian from the fallen predicament of Adam’s offspring to the redeemed status of the family of God.

Put simply, this is what Paul calls “newness of life.”  Every baptized person enjoys a new status before God, a new condition of life, an utterly new existence in God’s universe  All the baptized have been lifted out of the old creation into the new creation.

Every Baptism is another miracle made possible by the miracle that happened to Jesus on Good Friday and Easter morning. He died once for all, and was raised up into eternal glory. His resurrection was His newness of life.  Our Baptism is our death unto sin, that is, our separation, once for all, from the sinfulness of ordinary living, and our initiation into the new life under God’s reign and within that kingdom.  Our Baptism is simultaneously our death, our burial and our resurrection.  This is why the majestic Easter candle should be prominently visible at every Baptism. 

The newness of Life which Jesus received on the resurrection morning, He generously shares with us here and  now. The life we enjoy now as the ”Christian Life,”  is nothing less than His resurrection-life, a quality and condition of life,  the “abundant  life” which the non-Christian cannot know or possess.

The joy of a Baptism is our joy that yet another soul has been claimed for God’s kingdom, another person has been transferred from darkness into light, another human is no longer “in Adam” but is now “in Christ,” that another soul has been saved.  The great events which took place in early April  A. D. 30, were cataclysmic for the human race and for human history, splitting it into a Before and After, B. C. and A. D. Likewise our Baptism was our own Easter Event, the line of demarcation splitting our existence into a Before and After.

Note well how Paul speaks of being baptized into Jesus Christ. He thinks of Baptism not only as an immersion into water but as a submersion into the person of Christ, not only burial with Christ but as union with Christ.  Baptism effectively signifies that Christ’s obedience is now our obedience, His good works are our good works, His death is our atonement, His resurrection  is our Resurrection and the  commencement of our newness of life.  `LKW