Saturday, October 25, 2014

Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity

Ephesians 4:17-32   *  Matthew 9:1-8
THIS I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that ye henceforth walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind, having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them…

Saint Paul’s exhortation to the Church in Ephesus specifically told them not to live by the same standards as other Gentiles, that is, non-Jews; in this case that means people who are not Christians either. He was telling them not to live like the people around them, and he mentions Gentiles specifically because, as the text says, of “The ignorance that is in them.” In other words, having no knowledge of God’s commandments, they live by a different standard than God’s people, who are commanded to be holy. Remember how Jesus spoke of the Gentiles in the Sermon on the Mount. Gentiles are people that no disciple of His should emulate. In the Sermon on the Mount He mentions the Gentiles in terms of their unbelief.

In the Book of Esther, the evil Haman tells the king that all of the Jews should be killed. “And Haman said unto king Ahasuerus, ‘There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from all people; neither keep they the king's laws: therefore it is not for the king's profit to suffer them (Esther 3:8).’” He gave as his reason for having the Jews exterminated, that they lived by a different set of laws. We know that to be God’s commandments.

Increasingly, we are living in a society that resembles that kind of Gentile world; that is, like the days of Esther, and like the days of the earliest Christians, we find ourselves among a people who simply do not know God’s commandments. They do not teach their children to live by God’s commandments. A lot of that ignorance is due to the fact that God’s law has been forgotten by some, rejected by others, and in either case, it is not passed on to new generations. Neither are they pagans. Pagans worship their gods. But the modern Gentiles (if I may use that word in the way St. Paul used it, and frankly in the way Jesus Himself used it) in America do not sacrifice to any gods. Many of them are in what passes for Christians churches. In fact, we can expect, now that some activist judge has struck down Amendment One to the North Carolina State Constitution, that the Episcopal parishes in this very town will be conducting what they call “Same Sex Weddings.” Perhaps, for St. Benedict’s, that might bring us new members from people in the Episcopal “Church” who suddenly wake up and discover that they have been sleeping behind enemy lines.

We do not have the right to lower our standards in order to keep up with the world and its ways. We are commanded to be holy all throughout both testaments. But, many nominal Christians have accepted the world’s standards over God’s commandments. They live, frankly, like the Gentiles. They have sexual relations outside of marriage. They consider options such as abortion (which is murder, plain and simple). They promote what they foolishly call “Marriage equality.” How are they any different from the unbelieving people around them? 

But ye have not so learned Christ; if so be that ye have heard him, and have been taught by him, as the truth is in Jesus: that ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness. 

We live in a time and place in which people are obsessed with how they feel. The belief they express is that the truly kind thing to do is always to make people happy and consider their feelings. The modern idea of ethical behavior is to feel good and make others feel good. I am glad surgeons do not live by that code. Neither can we if it means affirming people in their sins so that we may be, as they call it, “inclusive.”

The kindest thing for a doctor to do may seem cruel. He might have to tell someone bad news about a diagnosis. He may have to say that unless the patient changes his habits, he will surely die, or suffer a stroke, or something equally unpleasant. Jesus, as the Great Physician, came to call sinners to repentance (Mark 2:17). Repentance, a true change of mind, μετνοια (metanoia), is the prescription. Without that medicine, the prognosis is very grim.

No one enters the Kingdom of God on his own terms. One can enter the Kingdom of God only on God’s terms. My charge is to teach and preach the truth faithfully, not to offer my opinions – not even to offer good opinions. My charge is to preach the word of the Lord. Somehow, people have come to the erroneous conclusion that God changes His mind, and that true morality is a matter of fashion. Don’t believe it. God does not care about what is fashionable, but about what is true and right. It is not consistent with God’s love to enable people in their own self-destruction.

In the Gospel reading we heard, Jesus did not approve the man’s sins. He did not affirm him in whatever lifestyle choices he might make. He did forgive the man, which is very different. He saw their faith (that is the faith of the man “sick of the palsy” and his friends). Faith cannot live side by side with willful sin. Their faith was more than intellectual assent. They went to a lot of trouble to make an opening in the thatched roof, and lower the stretcher with their paralyzed friend lying on it. They worked hard to get him to Jesus. They went to great effort, and it was worth every bit of it. The healing was a sign of forgiveness. The forgiveness was given at no cost to the formerly paralyzed man, for Jesus Himself would pay the full price for all human sin on the cross. The Lord’s words and actions were kind; they were what the man needed.

Love tends to people’s needs; but it may not always tend to their feelings. Indeed, love, which rejoices in the truth (I Corinthians 13:6), cannot affirm a lie. “Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law (Romans 13:10).” I haven’t always made everybody happy, and sometimes have had to tell people the very opposite of what they wanted to hear. A truly loving person always means well, and often might have to suffer for it. Not everyone welcomes the truth. Jesus did good for people, and the world assigned Him the cross for it.

Like the days of Esther, and like the days of the earliest Christians, we should be prepared for persecution. Our laws are different from the fashionable and changing mores of the Gentiles. Like “Hebrew National” hotdogs, we answer to a Higher Authority. The times are changing, as times always do. Things that were unthinkable yesterday are treated as normal and are accepted today. Tomorrow will they be required?

I told you last week about the ordained ministers in Idaho who have been told that they face jail time and fines for refusing to perform a same sex “wedding” in their chapel. I don’t know how intolerant our society may have become by the end of next year. The power of the state has been brought to bear on dissent, even the kind of dissent that was clearly guaranteed in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Some judges in the courts have proven that they are quite willing to make unlawful rulings that can be upheld by nothing more than the raw exercise of power. What can be done in the face of lawless judges? “If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?” asked the Psalmist (Psalm 11:3). That is not a fatalist question; it is a real question. The answer is, if necessary, endure persecution for refusing to call good evil, and evil good (Isaiah 5:20).

I have written about this in Touchstone before: I have had people come to me because they wanted to have a church wedding, and I mean a genuine couple (a guy and a gal), and I couldn’t do what they asked of me. These days too many members of the clergy fail to set a proper standard. I have a rule I live by. I will not marry any couple unless they promise me that they will abstain from sexual relations until the wedding night – no matter what may have gone on before. Do they want a Christian marriage, or do they simply want to place a legal stamp on fornication? “Oh, but if they’re truly in love…” If they’re truly in love they can wait until the wedding night.

I tell you this because nobody has ever presumed that clergy may be ordered to marry anybody. I was in an elevator in Baltimore several years ago, not wearing my collar. The building was full of legal offices. A man and his attorney got on the elevator on a certain floor. They were in the middle of a conversation. The lawyer was telling his client, “These days you just have to have a ‘prenup’ (that’s a signed and sealed Prenuptial Agreement).” His client was shaking his head. The lawyer turned to me, a stranger, and asked, “Hey you agree don’t you? These days people getting married need a ‘Prenup?’” I answered, “I am a priest, and if a couple came to me with a Prenuptial Agreement, in case they decide to divorce, I would refuse to marry them unless they tore it up.” The lawyer’s client liked my answer, but the lawyer didn’t (A good attorney never asks a question without knowing the answer – right?).

As a priest I can use my own discretion, so that I never violate my conscience by performing a wedding that is not entered into with a true Christian understanding. But, in the People’s Republic of Idaho, ordained ministers can be ordered, apparently, to marry a same sex couple or go to jail and pay outrageous fines. The word “discrimination” gets a lot of mileage. So far it’s a wedding chapel, but it is still a chapel, not a secular business or a courthouse. By next year will ministers in the U.S face the same thing in parish churches? Can it happen in North Carolina? What persecution might we face, as time goes by and things get muddier, because we are resolved firmly to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29)?

Indeed, we are so resolved. I am so resolved. If faced with jail, fines or even death, I will not deny Christ before the world. By his grace I will confess Him before men, and that both by word and deed (Matthew 10:32,33). I will never deny Christ in order to obey the state, for to do so is to receive the mark of the Beast. Caesar has only a limited claim to what we may render him; we will render unto God the things that are God’s (Matthew 22:21). If we are to be people who “put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness,” than we cannot render our consciences unto Caesar; but only unto God. Nor can we alter our convictions to accommodate the changing moral fashions of the Gentiles. They do what they do because of ignorance and darkness. But we must walk in the light.                                                              

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