Church of the Epiphany
104 Epiphany Court
Amherst, VA 24521
Rev. Canon Charles H. Nalls
Morning Prayer every Monday thru Saturday at 8 am
Sunday Morning Prayer at
Services are Sunday at 11:00 am
Bible study Sunday at
12:45 pm and
Wednesday at 10:30 am.
SERMON FOR THE SECOND SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY-2021
(Given at Church of the Epiphany, Amherst, Virginia)
“Mine hour has not yet come”
-St. John 2:4
The story of Jesus' first miracle at Cana-the changing of water into wine at a marriage feast. It may seem a bit out of place in this season, but it is part and parcel of the Epiphany. It involves making known the essential divinity of Jesus Christ which contains as well the making known of the will and purpose of God for us and for humanity. In fact, perhaps, no epiphany story better concentrates and encapsulates both the essential divinity of Christ and the divine will and purpose for our humanity so gently and so joyously.
It is such a pastoral, rustic, and ordinary scene. The setting is a country wedding, “in Cana of Galilee.” It is a simple wedding, but in the midst of the ordinariness of this ordinary scene, extraordinary things occur. They are things for us to ponder and to wonder at. There are things here to adore.
There is the discovery of the limitations of our humanity, pointed out ever so poignantly and yet so directly by the Blessed Virgin Mary. “They have no wine”, she says. The earthly drink has run out in a time of celebration. So, there is a divine provision for our joy, water turned to wine. And this is not just ordinary wine but the best wine, “the good wine [has been kept] until now”.
It is, we are told, the “beginning of signs” which Jesus did. “This beginning of signs” is the first of a series of events that has extraordinary. “This beginning”\ contains the essential meaning of all the signs of Jesus. In a way, the miracle narratives only make sense through this story.
Beloved in Christ, the miracles of Jesus are ultimately signs – things that are done – which teach and manifest purpose. They show the power of God in Jesus. They demonstrate the power of the Creator who is the Redeemer without whom our humanity would remain in its wounded and broken state. Without our Redeemer, we remain in sorrow and sin: blind and deaf, dumb and lame, lacking the means of lasting joys within ourselves; in short, dead and dying.
What are the miracles of Christ really all about? They are about two things. There is the power of the Creator from within His created order. “What manner of man is this”, say the storm-tossed sailors, “that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Then there is the power of the Redeemer present in the compassion of Christ who seeks the healing and the restoration of our humanity, both soul and body.
Why? For what end or purpose? The gospels show Jesus giving sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, speech to the dumb, cleansing the lepers-and, by extension, to all who suffer from the contagion of disease. He gives movement to the paralyzed and the lame and the halt. He even gives life to the dead and buried.
All these signs have a signal purpose. They speak to us about the hope of transformation and healing. They tell us of the hope of being made whole in the fullness of our humanity. In a way, the healing miracles of the Gospel are all about death and resurrection, the death and resurrection of Christ in us. But again, why? For what end or purpose?
Simply for praise. Simply for the act of worship and adoration. Simply for joy, holy joy.
My beloved, the teaching church does not exist first and foremost as some sort of world-improvement society. All of the things which St. Paul reminds us about and exhorts us to be in today’s epistle are testimonies and witnesses to the meaning of our life in Christ. Our work and our actions and our very lives are to be the signs of the love of Christ alive in us. We reach out to others out of that love, seeking his face in the poor and the lonely, the sick, and the dying of the world. In short, we provide for others in need out of the love of Christ. Our works must be signs of our faith. That is always the challenge.
God seeks the very best for us and that very best has to do with our joy and blessedness, joy and blessedness that can only come from him to us. Even more, it is a joy and blessedness that must be Christ in us, sacramentally and practically, by way of what we hear and see. It is a joy and blessedness that can come by way of what we do out of what we are given to hear and see in the Word proclaimed and the Sacraments celebrated, in lives of holiness and service, in lives of sacrifice and commitment.
Know this: the healing miracles are about far more than the healing of our physical selves. That is wonderful enough. They are about far more than our mental sense of well-being. They are much more radically about our life with God. The end and purpose of our humanity are found in God. We have an end with God.
Something of what that means appears in the imagery of a wedding feast. After all, the kingdom of heaven is often described in terms of a marriage feast-a feast to which we all have been invited. While there are things that, quite rightly, are required of us as guests and participants in the wedding, marriage is fundamental to God’s doing. This is true when we speak of the union of man and woman in holy matrimony, that “honorable estate, instituted of God signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church: which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence and first miracle that he wrought in Cana of Galilee”, as the marriage service in The 1928 Book of Common Prayer so wonderfully puts it. It is also true when we speak spiritually and metaphorically of the union of God and man in Jesus Christ, a union which preserves in the fullest possible way the distinctiveness of the divine and the human. Such is the challenge for our church and age.
There are, as an old medieval hymn puts it, joys which belong to our fellowship in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, come what may. There are even joys that come from persecution or sorrow, frustration, or failure. How can that be? Because of the radical meaning of this Gospel story.
There is this extraordinary thing which Jesus says to Mary, “mine hour has not yet come.” What does he mean? He means that the very things which God seeks for us, our good and our joy as found in him, are bought with a price, the price of his sacrifice, his death, and resurrection, the hour of his crucifixion and triumph.
Somehow “this beginning of signs” points to what is present in all of the healing miracles of Christ. They all belong to his passion. In a way, they all participate and share in his passion by which our humanity finds healing and salvation. The end – the goal or purpose - is joy and blessedness. But only through “his hour”, the hour which gathers all the things of time into the eternal purposes of God.
This is a response to the question, “What is the chief end of man?” It is, “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Our liturgy, especially in this Gospel story, suggests something of what that means. We live in Christ through his Word and Sacrament. But we can only partake of Christ through his body broken and his blood out-poured, through the things “of his hour.” Such is his love for us, the love that is agony and joy. For “love,” as poet and divine, George Herbert, puts it, “is that liquor sweet and most divine, /which my God feels as bloud; but I as wine”. The wine of divinity graces us with the joys of heaven and signals the salvation of our humanity; all because “mine hour has not yet come.”
Finally, remember that God works slowly and in His time. God can afford to wait. Sometimes, I think we are like children putting a seed in the ground, then going out the very next day to see if it is growing, and through our impatience interfering with the growth we desire. The hour is not yet come. So, we have to learn to work and wait, to be content doing our part for the kingdom, perhaps without the striking miracle.
Beloved, as we approach this year in our spiritual lives, particularly as there may be darkness and alarms around us, have the courage, and have faith. For the one who said, “Mine hour is not yet come,” did in the fullness of His time, supply the need, provide the miracle, and change the water into wine. Amen.
Sermon for the Second Sunday in Christmas-2021
(Given at Church of the Epiphany, Amherst, Richmond, Virginia)
“...he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets...”–St. Matthew ii.23
A few years ago, a series of slogans appeared on billboards seen across the United States–the “God speaks” campaign–a campaign to draw people’s attention to our Father. Maybe you saw some of those billboards, or perhaps a t-shirt or bumper sticker. The website, now sadly gone, offered visitors a closer look at how the Bible verses and messages tied together. It also featured short devotionals and lengthier blog posts that further explore message topics.
I guess advertising sells shoes, toasters, toothpaste, sodas, and all manner of things. But, God? Advertising sells God? Well, it certainly seems counterintuitive. Once upon a time, there were Blue Laws forbidding doing anything on Sundays–some of us are old enough to remember them. The stores by law were closed–absolutely no commercial trade went on. You couldn’t even buy a gallon of milk. God was the only focus of the day.
Now Sundays are days of competition. Even in this time of COVID have you seen how full stores are on Sunday mornings? Of course not! You’re here at Epiphany! But the rumor is that the Lowes and the Walmart in Madison Heights are packed.
Since Sundays are no longer exclusively days for worship, advertising hammers the message home in a way no other medium can. For several years, God billboards could be seen throughout the country.
The God campaign started back in 1998 when an anonymous person walked into the Smith Agency in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and said, "I want to market God." He had the goal of showing God as a living God ... not a historical figure, but a God who loves and cares about people. As word about the Florida campaign spread, the idea caught on. Soon the Outdoor Advertising Agency of America made a commitment to put billboards across America as the OAAA’s national service campaign in 1999. As a result, 10,000 GodSpeaks billboards were posted in 200 cities across America—no small feat for a project that started as a citywide campaign with a handful of billboards and a limited budget. The campaign garnered local, regional, and national media attention from no less august outlets than “Good Morning America,” and the “Today” show.
The aim of all this is to remind us that God is always on-line in pithy sayings like,
"That "Love Thy Neighbor" Thing, I Meant It." –signed God
“Just what part of thou shalt not don't you understand?" –God
"Keep Using My Name in Vain And I'll Make Rush Hour Longer"- God
My personal favorite remains:
“I know what you’re going through–I have a Son–God.”
The Epistle lesson this morning speaks to us in this way. It is a most suitable passage on the eve of Epiphany with its description–a declaration, really--of the saving missionary work of the Messiah. The passage is indelibly associated in our minds with our Lord’s application of it to himself, at the beginning of His ministry, when he read it in the synagogue in Nazareth.
The passage is notable for its personal tone–it is a bit like those God speaks advertisements. We know several other things. First, the speaker is an evangelist, consecrated, and endowed of the Lord to declare the coming of divine favor and a day of judgment. He is sent to a distressed and downhearted people of God, like so many today. The words set forth the work of the spiritual community in Israel and, ultimately, that of the Christian church, its ministers, and members.
The prophet Isaiah says to us that our business is all about “anointing”, about “preaching”, being “sent,” about “bringing,” and “proclaiming,” and we hear about “comforting,” and about “planting”–a word that we perhaps have not been as attentive to as we should.
In a way, this is advertising. It is the prophet getting people to listen to the message, and this is the mandate for the church: to do all of the above in the power of the Spirit.
You know, God is not averse to getting some good publicity. In fact, although he revealed himself through the law and the prophets, Bethlehem remains the quintessential campaign: God comes to live among us. Jesus is the incarnate Word–the proclamation in our own flesh of the timeless message of love and salvation.
The Gospel speaks of the fulfillment of prophecy–the beginning of this work proclaimed by the prophet and announced by our Lord in the Temple. But, our Gospel comes at a curious time in the calendar–still in Christmas and before the Epiphany. After all, only after the visit of the magi–that second great announcement of the presence of Christ in the world the Epiphany--and the flight of the Holy family into Egypt until finally Herod died.
But, there is the mention of the fulfillment of the prophecies–those signs of God’s work to come. There is this curious discussion of Nazareth when the name of the village Nazareth doesn’t occur in the Old Testament. It is curious. There is a similarity in sound and possibly meaning between the Aramaic word for Nazareth and the Hebrew word translated branch. Isaiah 11.1 There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
St. Cyril of Alexandria noted that “But if ‘the Nazarene’ is interpreted to mean ‘holy’ or, according to some, as ‘flower’, this is the designation found in many instances. For Daniel calls him ‘holy’ or of the ‘holy ones’ Likewise we find in Isaiah: ‘A branch from the stock of Jesse and its flower.’ Even the Lord says of himself in the Song of Songs, ‘I am the bloom of the plain, the lily of the valleys.’”
And there is the bloom–as we hear in that old favorite hymn, the mystical rose blooms and opens and springs forth to carry out those works we hear from Isaiah.
Beloved, our Incarnate Lord Jesus Christ, has come into the world, the good news of man’s salvation has been proclaimed to us, and now we are confronted with the question, “What kind of advertisement for God and the good news of the Gospel are we?”
You remember that at the Ascension, Jesus said to the Apostles and to us: “You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). We don’t really have a choice. We who claim the name of Jesus are advertisements, living billboards–by our lives and works... The question is: are we good ones, effective ones? Do our lives express the nature of God? Do their lives ring true?
The prophet Isaiah provides the default billboard by which to measure the message: We are called to proclaim the good news, to comfort others, to give as we have been given--and more. We can be pretty creative when it comes to proclaiming the good news. Think of the many ways over these last two millennia.
The ancient symbol of the ichthus–the fish--quietly, covertly advertised who were Christians. Stained-glass windows and marble carvings in medieval cathedrals were picture stories for the illiterate masses. The printing press and the King James Bible were revolutionary innovations of biblical communication. And now, web sites and the Internet carry the message.
But, beloved in Christ, there has never been a substitute for us. We are God’s living billboards erected in a world of dissonance to shout the good news, to make a culture which is accustomed to processing an average of 1,500 individual messages a day, to hear, to catch God's transforming message of love.
We’re here to bring good news to the people, and it is good news! Sometimes it is the only good news among the vapid and empty news or the bad news everybody seems to get every day.
You and I, we are commanded to bear tidings from and of God. The Gospel is never advice, or explanation of current events; it is tidings of what God has done with consequent liberation of men’s spirits.
I am reminded at Epiphany of the arch I once saw on an old Saxon church; I think it was in Lincolnshire, England. It is a hand reaching up in supplication. Above the hand is the word “God”; at one side are the words “I will”, and at the other the words “I can”.
When we as his people devote ourselves to the work God lays upon us, we may be confident of their ability through Him to accomplish it. But as people of God, it is not just a matter of bringing the good news; it’s a matter of being the good news. Today we have heard Saint Luke's story of the shepherds, hastening to Bethlehem, “to see this thing which is come to pass,” “And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child,…” The world remains astonished by this strange story the shepherds had to tell; but we, we who have worshipped at the manger, treasure these things and have a job to do. It is our turn to make known these glad tidings with our lips and in our lives. If we have but one New Year’s resolution, let it be so. We can, and, by His grace, we will. Amen.
The Rev. Canon Charles H. Nalls, SSM
Sermon for Saint John’s Day-2020
(Given at Church of the Epiphany, Amherst, Virginia)
“…hat 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…”
-I St. John 1:3
We’ve just had a wonderful Christmas, with hymns and candles and prayers and lights. Today we celebrate the feast of St. John, apostle, and evangelist. The Gospel narratives speak of John as one of the three who was present at the transfiguration of Jesus on the Holy Mountain; he was with Jesus in his agony in the garden; he was there with Jesus and his mother standing at the foot of the cross; he was there with Jesus as a witness of his resurrection and “he saw and believed.” According to tradition the same John who took part in these events wrote the Gospel and letters we find in the bible in his name and he died in Ephesus at a ripe old age. When he got older he used to be carried out of his house to preach to the crowds and his sermons often consisted of the single phrase: “Brothers and Sisters, love one another.”
Today. the celebration of Saint John comes sandwiched between two somewhat more sobering events in the life of the church. First, it comes immediately after the Feast of St. Stephen, which commemorates the martyrdom of one of the first deacons in the church. We will have an opportunity to think about St. Stephen in a little more detail this time next year as Christmas Day falls on a Saturday.
It immediately precedes the day known as Holy Innocents which commemorates all the innocent children under the age of two killed by Herod in his attempt to stop a new King of the Jews arising who might challenge his dynasty. Both the martyrdom of Stephen and the slaughter of the holy innocents remind us that the church did not simply grow from the crib without being fiercely resisted by the vested interests in the world, both religious and secular. As the Gospel of John said to us on Christmas Day the light has come into the world in the Word of God made flesh and whilst the darkness cannot overcome that light it is also true that the world did not know or accept the light and it is absolutely true that those who prefer to keep their deeds hidden in darkness would like nothing better than to snuff out the glimmerings of light at every opportunity.
So we have three consecutive days during the Christmas season, December 26th, 27th, and 28th during which we could easily preach on the theme of martyrdom. But there is another theme from the life work and witness of St. John the Evangelist I would share with you today. I should like to speak with you this morning about fellowship and communion.
We have been speaking these last few weeks, particularly in our Bible study, of the nature of the reality of our faith. We frequently hear the claim that the Bible is just a collection of fables or falsehoods. When you hear such things, I would like you to remember St. John’s witness. He and the other Apostles heard, saw, and touched Jesus. In fact, we know that St. John, the beloved disciple, leaned his head upon our Lord at the Last Supper. In hearing, seeing, and touching Jesus, they touched God, God in the flesh. Now, says St. John, those of us who were with Him, who heard Him, saw Him, and touched Him-we proclaim Him to you, so you can be with us, so you can have fellowship, communion, with us Apostles, so you can be part of the Church that Jesus established.
What does this mean? What does it mean to have fellowship, communion, with the apostles? What does it mean to be a true Christian, to be a true member of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church?
St. John teaches us two important things about this. First, we must not think of ourselves as holy people, good people, perfect people, people without sin. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” But then, we also are to dedicate our lives as Christians turning away from sin and living a new life. “My little children,” John writes, “I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.”
St. John goes on to emphasize in all his writings how important it is that we make every effort to be holy: to not sin, and to keep the commandments of Jesus. Again and again, he drives home this point. For instance, “He that saith, ‘I know Him,’ and keepeth, not His commandments, is a liar and the truth is not in him” (I John 2:4) “He that saith he is in the light and hateth his brother, is in darkness even until now.” (I John 2:9)
On the one hand, “If ye know that He is righteous, ye know that everyone who doeth righteousness is born of Him.” (I John 2:29b). On the other, “Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law, for sin is the transgression of the law.” (I John 3:4) Again, “Whosoever abideth in Him sinneth not; whosoever sinneth hath not seen Him, neither known Him.” (I John 3:6) In sum, “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin...” (I John 3:9)
Beloved in Christ, it comes down to a commandment of love. As St. John says, “By this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither is he that loveth not his brother. For this is the message that ye heard from the beginning: that we should love one another.” (I John 3:10-11)
John’s writings are replete with passages like these. We should mark well his use of the word “practice”, which speaks of ongoing, habitual, and intentional sins. You know what the commandments of God are. They are condensed in the Summary of the Law, the Shema. All of the Commandments are summed up in one word: “love”-love God, and love your neighbor.
So it is that St. John calls us to fellowship through the holiness of living. We should be constantly repentant as we feel and experience our own sinfulness. At the same time, St. John assures of the forgiveness and salvation found only in Jesus. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (I John 1:9) “My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” We have defense counsel, and his case on our behalf is that that our penalty has been paid. What a Christmas present of unconditional love that is!
As we follow Jesus, there is one thing alone that is our authority, our guide, our light: the words of Holy Scripture that contain all things necessary to our salvation. We have heard about “the things that must soon take place…. for the time is near.” Our Advent lessons have given us a different view of the time-a view that sees this life as short, where Christ’s coming is always “soon.” It does not matter if it is another two thousand years or a mere two minutes from now. We are always to be prepared.
All this is lived out in different ways for each of us. After Jesus had prophesied St. Peter’s martyrdom, Peter asked the question recorded in today’s Gospel: “What about him? What about John?” Jesus replied, “How does that concern you? You, follow Me!”
St. John and St. Peter had different kinds of endings to their lives. St. Peter was condemned and crucified, a martyr for the faith. The great English mystic Dame Julian of Norwich says in one of her writings: “God lays upon everyone he longs to bring into his bliss something that is no blame in his sight, but for which they are blamed and despised in this world. Scorned, mocked, and cast out. He does this to offset the harm they should otherwise have from the pomp and vainglory of this earthly life, and to make their road to him easier, and to bring them higher in his joy without end.” Being in the position of the condemned cures us of a lot of our pretenses.
St. John suffered in a different way, being exiled to an island called Patmos. Saints Peter and John had different particular callings in life, but the same overarching calling to be disciples of Jesus, to follow Him. That is also our calling. Whether you are an engineer, a chef, a secretary, or a soldier, in every place you go, the words of Jesus go with you, “Follow Me.”
Those words are not burdensome. You follow the One who at Christmas took on your flesh and bone, your human nature, and who proceeded to live perfectly in your flesh, to suffer every temptation you suffer in your flesh. You are fellow heirs with the Christ who endured every pain and humiliation you endure, finally to die your death, and to rise again in your human nature, now glorified, and to bring that human nature into the presence of God the Father. He is the One you now follow, the One who is coming again for you, he is the One with Whom you are in communion.
In this Christmastide, we celebrate God become incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ. God the Father is in Jesus and Jesus is in the Father and they are one. Eventually, Jesus gave that gift of the Holy Spirit to the disciples/apostles and the whole church, to you and to me in fellowship and communion.
Toward the end of his earthly life, Jesus prays that the apostles will be one as he and the Father are one and that they will be in that holy union as well. What John gives us is an image of holy unity, established by the Trinity and lived into by the church. As the Father is in Jesus and Jesus is in the Father, they are in us and we are in them. We are also in union with each other. This unity should allow us to not only reflect the face of God to those around us but allow us to see the face of God in others. And, as St. John tells us again and again, love is at the heart of this unity.
St. John is not just remembered today as one of the Disciples of Christ, he is also remembered as an evangelist, as someone unafraid of telling people about the grace and love that he had received through Christ, and helping them to find their own way to faith.
His message in our New Testament reading today is one that each and every person on the earth should have the opportunity to hear. They should hear it through fellowship and through the love of every man, woman, and child who has faith in Christ.
Each one of us has the ability to speak the words that are deep in our hearts, about the love and the faith that we have for Christ. It may not be easy, but it is also something that we will be given the strength to do when the moment is upon us. That is the heart of fellowship. That is the heart of love for one another.
Beloved in Christ, if we are to take St. John’s words into our own hearts, then we need to remember what he said in his letter. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our bands have handled, of the Word of life; …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.”
In a few days’ time, we begin a new year. Let us enter it with St. John’s words ringing in our ears. The next time we are asked why we have faith, let’s not be afraid to dig deep into our own hearts and souls and share with them a glimpse of the love and joy that we have received through our faith in our risen Saviour Jesus Christ. Let us share that same fellowship the Apostles share with us.
May God pour out on us His Holy Spirit, that we may always heed St. John’s Words as a light in a dark place. Amen.
SERMON FOR CHRISTMAS DAY-2020
(Given at Church of the Epiphany, Amherst, Virginia)
“He came unto his own.” -John i.11.
Beloved assembled in the name of Jesus Christ this glorious morning! behold the mystery of Christmas! Now you weren’t really expecting Santa Claus and his team of dancing reindeer just yet, were you? But perhaps, just perhaps, you might have expected, reasonably enough, the story of Mary and Joseph and the wee child, “cradled in a stall was he with sleepy cows and asses.” And yet, the great and resounding Gospel which you just heard is the gospel that lies at the heart of the mystery of Christmas.
Christmas proclaims a great and double wonder. There is the mystery of God, divinum mysterium, and there is the mystery of ourselves, the mystery of our humanity, the humanity with whom God dwells. Such is the counterpoint of glory, the double mystery, the mystery of God, and the mystery of ourselves. They meet in the great wonder of Christmas.
The wonder of God with us is the wonder of the Incarnation, the wonder of God made man. It is the wonder of “the Word made flesh”. It is the wonder which we celebrate in the most extraordinary and exalted language imaginable. This is the language of Creed and carol, the language of prayer and praise. It is the language that shapes the Christian imagination, the language which enfolds us in the bliss of Bethlehem on Christmas night.
We ask the question, “Who is this who has come unto his own?” It is “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of very God” as we have just proclaimed in the Gospel of St. John. God’s great little one is God with us, God made man, the God who has willed to enter into the midst of our world and day, the God who wills to be with his own.
This changes everything. It must change everything. There is this extraordinary claim in the being of God with us. The claim is that we belong to God and not God to us.
You see, the great wonder and mystery of Christmas is about our joy at the realization that we belong to God. “Love came down at Christmas.” That love is about more, though not less, than all of the sentimentality and confusions of the season. It is about the deep love of God for our humanity in spite of and, perhaps, even because of, all of ours chaotic and dismal disarray. It reveals a higher vision for our humanity than what we could ever conceive on our own. God’s great reaching down to us in the lowliness of the Nativity of Christ confers an astounding dignity and grace upon our humanity. “He came unto his own”.
In the Christmas story, He audible in the Word proclaimed, He is visible in the Sacraments celebrated, He is altogether present to us and with us in the liturgy, in even in the decorations of the Church. In these signs and symbols, we are made aware of this new reality, the new reality of our vocation. We are his own who are called to be his own.
Even when we become aware of this wonder we cannot ignore the accompanying phrase of the great Christmas Gospel. “He came unto his own.” Wondrously so. But what comes next? “[H]is own received him not.”. It should and must give us pause to reflect on the deeper meaning of the wonder of God with us.
He comes unto his own who reject him. We are his own and we reject him? Yes. The story of our betrayals cannot be ignored or hidden from view. There are the betrayals of our hearts in our selfishness and our petty small-mindedness, in our lusts and our greed, in our arrogance and our complacency, in our misery and our whining self-pity. We see it in the sad parade of uncharitableness. Love comes down at Christmas and encounters all the forms of our unloveliness.
This is all part and parcel of the Christian message even in the face of a world which is increasingly hostile and intolerant of Christianity. It is apparent often in paradoxical ways. For instance, we celebrate and encourage acts of charity in our post-Christian world. Aha! Not, though, if those acts of charity are identified and named as Christian! The voice of Christians is denied.
The confusion of so many churches about what belongs to the Church to proclaim makes, no doubt, for an utter lack of credibility about the Church. But, this doesn’t wholly account for the animosity and hostility against Christianity. No, there is a deeper resistance and greater repudiation of the authority of God as well as the hubris that presumes to take all things captive to its own whims and fancies, whether it means the re-imaging of God or the re-defining of the family and marriage.
What contemporary culture hates most of all is the idea of any limit to its own authority. It has forgotten its spiritual origins, “thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it was given thee from above.” The folly lies, really, in the attempt to own God, to take him captive to “the devices and desires” of our own hearts.
All the commercialism of the season, too, plays a part. It is part of the same kind of folly, the folly of our trying to “make” Christmas, the folly of our trying to make God our own, to take the mystery of Christmas captive to the desires of our hearts and the confusions of our souls.
Yet, somehow, all this is part of the “great and mighty wonder” of Christmas. The cross, after all, cannot be hidden from view in the sweet wonder of the crèche. We see that Cross and are called to contemplate something of the greater miracle and wonder of Christmas in his coming unto his own who reject him.
Why? So that his love might move us all the more to embrace his love, the love that redeems and sanctifies, the love that perfects and restores us to loveliness in spite of ourselves and even in the face of the worst of ourselves, both individually and collectively. Somehow the betrayals of our hearts are made part of the story of redemptive love. This is the “great and mighty wonder” of the Christmas miracle.
Christmas is the December miracle. All our carols and songs, all our services and liturgies, seek to capture something of the great wonder and mystery of Christmas. Language is stretched to the breaking point so that the mystery of God with us might breakthrough into our hearts and minds.
A fifteenth-century monk in the ancient German city of Trier, walking in the woods on Christmas Eve, it is said, found a rose that was blooming which he took back to the monastery and placed in a vase before a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Later the German Kapellmeister, organist and composer, Michael Praetorius would arrange the folk song that arose from that story, Es ist ein’ Ros entstprungen. This became the tune associated with the early 8th century words of St. Germanus’ carol “A great and mighty wonder.” These words capture something of the great and mighty wonder of Christmas, the December miracle.
The Word became incarnate,
And yet remains on high,
And cherubim sing anthems
To shepherds from the sky.
Such words challenge and convict us about the divinum mysterium, the divine mystery of the love of God who has come unto his own bestowing his grace and dignity upon our wounded and broken humanity, the grace, and dignity which alone perfects and sanctifies, the grace and dignity which alone brings joy and salvation to the world everywhere. It enters into the world that God embraces in the mystery of Bethlehem this night when “he came unto his own.”
Beloved in Christ, to receive him is to acknowledge that we are his own, that something of God is born in us. How? By receiving the Word proclaimed and the Sacraments celebrated. By leading lives committed to Christ anew in service and sacrifice, all because “He came unto his own.” In this way let us greet the Savior born this happy morning. Let us receive Him and give him glory. Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing, we are you own. Amen!
SERMON FOR CHRISTMAS EVE-2020
(To be given at Church of the Epiphany, Amherst, Virginia)
“And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.”
-St. Luke 2:7
Time to take a deep breath. During the run-up to Christmas, we have been pushed to sacrifice…to sacrifice time and effort to make the holidays work to get it all done—to get the cards out and to get the presents in. These days you see folks making incredible sacrifices to be able to have a larger house, to get their children into the right college, and to have the kind of lifestyle they want. Give, give, give to get.
This night is not about asking for more sacrifice and laying down the law, but how a life is laid down for us and how the heart of God is laid open for us in a manger. It is less about the sacrifice of our bodies, but all about the sacrifice of God that makes us a body of believers-the body of Christ. It is about proclaiming that the one who hung the stars in their places now lies in a manger. The one who created the roaring waters now cries tears. The one who leads his people out of Egypt and in the march toward the promised land must now learn to walk. This our very God has sacrificed being above and beyond us and now is with us.
This is why we love Saint Luke’s account of the nativity. Christmas would be empty without the little baby cradled in the straw of the manger. This catches hold of the human heart. Anyone, especially a parent, who has watched children, especially little girls, peeping into our Christmas cribs to catch a glimpse of “baby Jesus” will understand it. In fact, anyone with even a spark of humanity left in them must at least be touched by the Christ child in the manger.
We can, of course, call it an appeal to sentiment, and, frankly, I will say to you that it is…let it be so. For this is the very point I want to drive home to you tonight, this holy night. In the Incarnation, God comes right down, down, down to the level of sentiment so as to touch the very humblest of us, even people with very little in the way of advanced reasoning powers, even little children.
Over the last few years, my attention has been caught by something that has happened whilst waiting in shopping lines. (Remember them?) Should a mother arrive with a baby in her arms, most folks generally go out of their way to peep at the baby. Even some pretty tough-looking blokes at the Lowe’s with a basket of hardware will make funny faces at a baby and smile when they think no one is looking. I have seen the hard-case girl with the tattoos checking my purchases stop for a quick look and even a bit of cooing.
At times like these I ask myself, could God possibly have become more accessible, more evocative to response than appearing on the world’s scene as a helpless infant? Incarnation really does mean God stooping down to where we are.
Perhaps you think I am being too sentimental. It’s true, I want to retain the sentimentality of Christmas, I hold on to the sentimentality of Christmas even in watching old movies like Miracle on 34th Street or the Bells of St. Mary’s. Why? Beloved in Christ, it is because I want to retain the reality of the Incarnation, the totality of God's coming down to our level. I am not surprised that more people attend churches at Christmas than at Easter; though Easter is the greater Christian festival, Christmas is easier to grasp. So let us be profoundly thankful to St. Luke for this gift of the Nativity story with all that warms our hearts and reaches our humanity.
But let’s consider two other chief characteristics of St Luke’s gospel, things that make this story even more exciting, more tangible, and more anchored in reality. First, it is a dated account. The Incarnation began in the days of Caesar Augustus at the time he called for a census, the first under the Syrian governorship of Quirinius. You know, there are a lot of people who obsess about the precise dating of these enrolments. They can be pretty tiresome. But, I don’t think anyone can gainsay this: St. Luke intended us to understand that the story of Jesus’ birth is historical even if the precise dating may not be.
Like any good writer (and St. Luke was that) he structured his account artistically, but the nativity of Jesus is not a fairy story. There is no “once-upon-a-time” about it. The Incarnation happened. Christianity is a historical religion, not a myth. And you know, this night, we ought to be excited about that! We ought to be thinking of the shepherds, and magi and old Simeon in the Temple—all of the witnesses who saw the Word made Flesh.
And now let’s look at another characteristic. St. Luke takes great care to stress the humble circumstances of the nativity of Jesus. Mary’s baby was cradled in a manger where the animals were stabled and fed, a makeshift business, and all because there was no room in at Bethlehem's inn. That inn may have been a lower ground room jostling with travelers displaced on account of the Imperial census, and there simply was no space for the couple, Joseph and Mary, to bed down.
Would the jostling crowd appreciate a woman about to deliver a child? And would she herself want it? The innkeeper was probably at his wit’s end with the crowd. Both Joseph and Mary accepted that relatively private corner of the stable with its manger with gratitude, thankful for small mercies.
Did Joseph act as a midwife at the birth of Jesus? You can't get much grittier, more real than that at birth. Then Mary wrapped her baby round in what we traditionally call “swaddling clothes”' which she must have brought with her from Nazareth to Bethlehem, some eighty miles.
What a merciful step, this humility. He appeared as a child full of love, full of tenderness, full of joy. The child looks at everyone; and at the sight of the child, all fear vanishes. Everyone can look on a child without fear, the high and the low, the learned and the unlearned, rich and poor. This humility tells us how near has God come! A child is born to us and now we can go to the throne of His mercy with confidence. At the crib, all fear vanishes.
What a wonderful triumph we celebrate! God with us, in the weakness of an infant, over all obstacles in the world. If I am weak, then am I strong-God with us in the form of a child?
The Son of God preaches to us in His infancy from the crib. Unless you become as little children you cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven. The child is not worldly and sensual. The child is unselfish, humble, and pure of heart. So, when we come to the crib, let us bring our Savior a childlike, repentant heart, and pray to Him that we may be as little children; that we, as children, may walk in the purity of our hearts, that we may be humble before God and men.
Perhaps you will worry that in this sermon I have been telling you how I personally read these Nativity stories. You may charge me with a naïve or even a sentimental reading of them. So be it.
Beloved in Christ, I believe in the Incarnation. I am committed to it in faith. There is much I do not pretend to understand and know that I cannot until I see Him face-to-face. At the end of the day, though, belief-faith is what matters, not understanding nor even intellectual assent. We only live as Christians by personal trust in the living Christ who became “incarnate for us men and for our salvation”.
The Incarnate Christ, the living Jesus will console you, make you happy, give you peace. Blessed are we, as St. Bernard says, when we come to the stable, heeding the call from the crib, the cry that announces as Gospel the tears of the divine Infant. It is enough-it is enough for us all
We learn from the poor child Jesus, the humble Christ, the message of Christmas. It is a delusion that possessions can make us happy; that money can give us liberty, that wealth can redeem us. Tonight, let’s tear away our hearts from earthly things. Let us use the goods of this world as steps to bring us nearer heaven, in works of charity. Let us make our hearts into a crib, so that we may have a dwelling that we can offer to the divine Saviour, so that He may return to our hearts, He, who is in the most perfect manner our Emmanuel, our God with us, and in us.
In this way, if we humble ourselves before the Incarnate Christ, our Savior will have his claim on us. Then will the angels sing in our hearts, as they did on the plains of Bethlehem, that message of joy and peace to men of goodwill upon the earth. Amen and Amen.
SERMON FOR THE FOURTH SUNDAY IN ADVENT-2020
(Given at Church of the Epiphany, Amherst, Virginia)
“There standeth One among you, Whom ye know not.”
-St. John 1:26
We have come full circle this morning to our theme for the first Sunday in Advent. It is a wonderful scene in the description of St. John’s preaching at Bethabara! Scribes and Pharisees, who had spent their lives in studying theology, in reading about the Messiah, flocked to St. John the Baptist with the question, “Who art thou?” He answered, “I am not the Christ.”
When they asked, “Art thou Elias?” He replied, I am not. “Art thou that Prophet?” “No.” To the further question, “Who art thou then?” St., John replied, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness.” Finally, when they demanded of him, “Why then baptizest thou?” he answered, “I baptize with water; but there standeth One among you, Whom ye know not.”
Let’s think on these words on this Fourth Sunday in Advent, “There standeth One among you, Whom ye know not.” Our Lord standing among the multitude unknown! Here they are-the best and brightest-Scribes, Pharisees, men learned in law, all searching for Him everywhere, but in vain. They sought Him in the Jewish Scriptures which clearly pointed to Him, but they did not recognize Him when He came.
They sought Him on the banks of the Jordan in the person of St. John the Baptist; yet He was there in their midst unknown. They knew about Him intellectually, they could have quoted all the prophecies which referred to Him, but they did not know Him. He stood amongst them unknown.
Is this not often precisely the case in our own times? There are so many are seeking the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of Christ, as though it were something external. In fact, don’t we often ask our Lord for grace, as though He were far off from us. We cry out with the Psalmist, "Bow thy heavens, O Lord, and come down: touch the mountains, and they shall smoke." (Ps. cxliv. 5.)
But, beloved in Christ, He has come down; He has touched the mountains, the high places of this world, and set them on fire by His touch—with the fire of love. There is standing among us One Whom we ought to know better than anyone else in this world, One Whom we ought to love better than anything else in life, and yet so often we do not recognize Him, no matter how hard we look.
This brings us to the Fourth Last Thing for Advent. There are consequences for not knowing Jesus Christ Him-or, worse, for knowing Him and rejecting Him. We hear in St. Luke’s account of St. John the Baptist that there is a time coming when, “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” (3:4-6) At that time, “the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: every tree therefore which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire…and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and will gather the wheat into his garner; but the chaff he will burn with fire unquenchable.” The chaff he will burn with fire unquenchable.
So it is that we are called to think about that time, when, as the prophet Isaiah said, “the Lord GOD will come with strong hand.” We need to think about the consequence of not knowing Christ or, worse, of rejecting Christ-hell. There, I mentioned it, and the modern mind says, “The hell with hell!” It is front and center on the atheist banners that these benighted folks are trying to hoist at Christmas. Let’s face it: of all Christianity's teachings, hell is certainly the least popular. Non-Christians ignore it, weak Christians excuse it, and anti-Christians attack it.
Some, like the late atheist Christopher Hitchens and philosopher Bertrand Russell in his famous essay “Why I Am Not a Christian”, argue that because Jesus clearly taught the existence of hell, he was not a good moral teacher. Russell’s essay, by the way, makes fine devotional reading for a Christian. Professor Peter Kreeft tells of his college roommate who was about to lose his faith until he read it; he said to me, “If those are the arguments against Christianity, I'd better be a Christian.”
Why do we believe there's a hell? Not because we’re vindictive. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” Judgment is the province of God. Why, then? Simply because we’ve been told, by Jesus Christ himself, that hell is.
Now, there’s a popular fallacy that Jesus spoke only comforting words and that the fear of hell began with Saint Paul. The truth is just the opposite: Jesus uttered many “hell fire and damnation” sermons, while nearly all the passages that offer any hope to the “all paths lead to God” crowd-those who believe all will be saved in the end-are from St. Paul. Indeed, not even everyone who says “Lord, Lord” will enter his kingdom-they will have to face the consequences of judgment for being Christians only with lips and not lives.
I have to tell you that fear of hell is not a base motive. As the famed English author George MacDonald once said, “As long as there are wild beasts about, it is better to be afraid than secure.” God’s graciousness accepts even the “low” motive of fear of hell for salvation if that's the best we can muster. His arms are open to all prodigals. He is not high-minded, like some of His detractors.
Hell makes sense, really, in light of heaven and free will. If there is a heaven, there can be a “not-heaven”. If there is free will, we can act on it and abuse it. Those who deny hell must also deny either heaven (as does Western secularism) or free will (as does Eastern pantheism).
You see, Hell and heaven make life serious. The all-inclusive notion of a heaven without hell removes the bite from life’s drama. C. S. Lewis once said that he never met a single person who had a lively faith in heaven without a similar belief in hell. The height of the mountain is measured by the depth of the valley, the greatness of salvation by the awfulness of the thing we’re saved from.
Most Americans, according to surveys, believe in hell. The debate is not if Hell exists, but what is it, where is it and how long does it last?
What is hell? We’ve talked about this before: The popular images of demons-little cartoon demons-gleefully poking pitchforks into unrepentant posteriors misses the point of the biblical image of fire and hell.
Fire destroys. Gehenna, the word Jesus used for hell, was the valley outside Jerusalem that the Jews used for the perpetual burning of garbage because it had been desecrated by heathen tribes who used it for human sacrifice. Hell is not eternal life with torture but something far worse: eternally being consumed, eternal dying. What goes to hell, said C. S. Lewis, is “not a man, but remains”.
The images for hell in Scripture are horrible, but they have symbolism. The thing symbolized is not less horrible than the symbols, but more. Spiritual fire is worse than material fire; spiritual death is worse than physical death. The pain of loss—the loss of God, the failure to know Jesus or, imaging, to reject Him who is the source of all joy—is infinitely more horrible than any torture could ever be. All who know God and his joy understand that.
Saints, real saints, do not need to be threatened with fire, only with loss. “All your life an unattainable ecstasy has hovered just beyond the grasp of your consciousness. The day is coming when you will wake to find, beyond all hope, that you have attained it-or else that it was within your grasp and you have lost it forever.” (C. S. Lewis)
Jesus does not tell us much detail about hell. He tells us that it exists, that it’s horrible, that any man can go there. Jesus says the way to hell is broad and many find it and that the way to heaven is narrow and few find it. He means it. You don’t get to heaven simply by being born, by being nice, putting a “coexist” or rainbow bumper sticker on your car and by then oozing into some sort of psychological “eternal growth experience.”
“Few” here does not mean that less than half of mankind will be saved or any particular number. God speaks as our Father, not our statistician which art in heaven. Even one child lost is too many, and the rest saved are too few. The good shepherd who left his ninety-nine sheep safe at home to rescue his one lost sheep found even 99 percent salvation too “few”.
The most important question about hell, as about heaven, is the practical one: How do we stay out of it? What roads lead there? They are interior, of course. In fact, heaven and hell may be the very same objective place—namely God's love, experienced oppositely by opposite souls. The fires of hell may be made of the very love of God, experienced as torture by those who hate him: the very light of God's truth, hated and fled from in vain by those who love darkness. Imagine a man in hell endlessly chasing his own shadow, as the light of God shines endlessly behind him. If he would only turn and face the light, he would be saved. But he refuses to-forever.
Just as we can attain heaven by implicit as well as explicit faith, so hell too can be reached without explicit rebellion or rejection of Christ. This is the terrible—and terribly needed—truth taught by C. S. Lewis in The Great Divorce and Charles Williams in Descent into Hell. We can drift, slouch, even snooze comfortably into hell. All God's messengers, the prophets, say so. We desperately need to hear this truth about hell again, particularly as we approach the Incarnation, that time when we are called to renew our knowledge of Him who comes to save us. We need to hear this truth out of honesty, because it is there. And also out of compassion.
For when the abyss looms ahead, the least compassionate thing to tell the traveler is “peace, peace, when there is no peace”. Out of love for god and man, let us tell the truth about hell as we proclaim the truth of the living Jesus!
It’s certain: that we'll be mocked as naïve or ignorant, or even as vindictive or manipulative or fundamentalist. So be it. As we hear in the Epistle, “Be careful for nothing.” Sometimes it seems that we're more afraid of sharing our Lord's holy un-respectability than of hell itself.
In the classic "Dante’s Inferno" Hell is described in graphic detail and with great imagination. Much of the book is based on conjecture not Scripture as to what Hell might be like. But there is one thing in the book that is in full agreement with the Scriptures. There is a sign at the entrance to Hell which says: “Abandon hope all you who enter here.” This much is certainly true. There is no hope in hell-destiny, a destiny apart from Christ, is fixed eternally.
I can’t imagine a tragedy greater than that. To miss the opportunity for something good is bad. To miss the greatest opportunity of all – the chance to go to heaven is terrible, but to miss it forever, and know that you have missed it forever, seems almost unbearable. Would we wish it on anyone?
We may suffer for our witness to the Incarnate Christ. We may be ridiculed or mocked for warning another of the danger of the pit—at least the world of unbelievers may do so. Let them do their worst. It's a small price to pay for the salvation of a single infinitely precious soul. You know, that is the business we're supposed to be in. And the hour is late, the Lord is at hand. Amen.
SERMON FOR THE THIRD SUNDAY IN ADVENT-2020
(Given at Church of the Epiphany, Amherst, Virginia)
“Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
-St. Matthew 11:11
Here we are at last on Rose Sunday, the Third Sunday in Advent which used to be called “Gaudete Sunday.” Gaudete is the Latin word that means “rejoice,” but with the ending that makes it a command. So we are really being commanded to rejoice.
So why should we rejoice? Certainly, Advent is a time for rejoicings because it is a season that revives our expectation of the most joyful event in history: the birth of Jesus the Christ, the Son of the Most High God, but the Virgin Mary. As both the Prophet Zephaniah and St. Paul proclaim, the Lord is in our midst, He is near to us, and with Him the kingdom of Heaven is near.
Today, even the liturgical color of our Advent candle is meant to call to mind Heaven. We could engage in some rose-colored thinking about Heaven. After all, there are so many popular notions about Heaven—you know, the angels, harps, fluffy clouds, chubby cherubs floating about. The sentimentality of it even struck a curmudgeon like a writer Ambrose Bierce who defined Heaven as, “A place where the wicked ceases from troubling you with talk of their personal affairs, and the good listen with attention while you expound your own.”
Certainly each time I think of Heaven, I always come back to one of a favorite quote, “If I ever reach heaven I expect to find three wonders there: first, to meet some I had not thought to see there; second, to miss some I had expected to see there; and third, the greatest wonder of all, to find myself there”
There is much to think about when we think about Heaven. How many times do we ever hear convincing homilies about heaven? Rather than being an affirmation of the realities of eternity, most homilies tend to be vague, and particularly funeral homilies usually end up in a humanistic celebration of the person who has died. In our modern-day culture, we are continually bombarded by secularism, and that is more and more so as there seems to be an ever-increasing attack on Christianity by segments of our society.
Fr. Romano Guardini, writing in his book Eternal Life, What you need to know about Death, Judgment and Life Everlasting, calls the deprecation of the eternal, of the heavenly, by modern society an evil. As Christians, we need to be continually reminded of the most basic fundamentals of our Faith, especially the reality of heaven and of the eternal.
Our Gospel lesson at first blush doesn’t seem to have much to do with Heaven. It is an interchange between two emissaries from St. John Baptist who ask Christ, “Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?” Essentially, they are posing the question as to whether Christ is the Messiah of Hebrew prophecy.
Look at the response, Jesus answered and said unto them, “Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hears, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them.” Christ is telling them about his authority. There is talk of Our Lord=s upcoming earthly ministry, present reality, and the miracles that He will perform. But with these miracles, Christ gives them and us a glimpse of Heaven where all things are made new.
You see, my beloved in Christ, Heaven is far beyond what we now experience. We do not have adequate words or images to describe it. Our culture unfortunately has developed stereotyped ways of talking about heaven. Some of them are “cute”, “Good old Joe is now up in that big golf course in the sky.”
Maybe a little better are images of heaven as a reunion and “going home” sermons. You’ve heard this before, you know “She is finally back with her husband (mother, son, sister) whom she loved so much.” I suppose this at least expresses something about the “communion of saints.” Nevertheless, it leaves out what makes the communion possible: seeing God himself. I don’t know about you, but the thought of heaven as a giant “sharing” session sounds to me more like the other place.
An image of heaven that I personally love is from the Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis. Narnia is a kind of heaven and it is ruled by a magnificent lion called Aslan, Aslan represents Jesus. After the children have spent some time in Narnia, Aslan tells them they must return to their own world. The children become very sad and bury themselves in Aslan's mane. Aslan reassures them that one day they will be able to return to Narnia. The children say, “it is not Narnia. It is you, Aslan.”
It is about Christ, it is about our Lord. For you see, my beloved in Christ, God is the fullness of being. Things here can only dimly reflect him. When we stand before him any other joy, or pleasure, or beauty, or goodness will seem as pale. This joy which excels everything else is called the “Beatific Vision,” which is seeing God face to face. (I Jn 3:2, I Cor 13:12, Rev. 22:4). In the words of the Psalmist (Psalm 22),
26: The meek shall eat and be satisfied: they shall praise the LORD that
seek him: your heart shall live forever.
been saved-and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,@ (Eph 2:4-6 RSV)
That’s the work that has been done for us—heaven awaits.
So, we have two visions, one for the people of Christ in the here and now and one for the future, and both are visions of heaven of life with and in God. But we are called to know him now, to experience His grace and his love right now, to be part of His people right now. And in the life to come, we shall see Him, not as through a glass darkly, but in those heavenly places.
Should this not fill us with humility, gratitude, and a desire for greater service? Shouldn’t we love Christ? Shouldn’t we desire Him? Isn’t it a call that we ought to be even more dedicated in our service to Christ?
Let us ask this Rose Sunday whether we have cause to rejoice. Put aside all of the worries of the secular world for just a moment. No politics, no pestilence, no popular press. The immediate and eternal question is in play. Is the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven among us? We have been saved-and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,@ (Eph 2:4-6 RSV)
That’s the work that has been done for us—heaven awaits.
So, we have two visions, one for the people of Christ in the here and now and one for the future, and both are visions of heaven of life with and in God. But we are called to know him now, to experience His grace and his love right now, to be part of His people right now. And in the life to come, we shall see Him, not as through a glass darkly, but in those heavenly places.
Should this not fill us with humility, gratitude, and a desire for greater service? Shouldn’t we love Christ? Shouldn’t we desire Him? Isn’t it a call that we ought to be even more dedicated in our service to Christ?
Let us ask this Rose Sunday whether we have cause to rejoice. Put aside all of the worries of the secular world for just a moment. No politics, no pestilence, no popular press. The immediate and eternal question is in play. Is the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven among us? We have got just a few days of Advent to think about this, to reflect on this. Do we truly believe the word Emmanuel, God-with-us? If we believe it, then we must show it.
(Given at Church of the Epiphany, Amherst, Virginia)
“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patient endurance, kindness, generosity, faith, mildness, and chastity. Against such, there is no law.”
Beloved in Christ, this morning we hear the words of St. St. Paul in his epistle to the Galatians-a stern rebuke to an erring church, I am reminded of the fact that the western Church of which we are a branch, the Body of Christ in which we are members, is not particularly healthy. When I say this, I say it in anguish. You and I are fully aware of what is happening in so very many churches and in our society, and much of it is not very good.
When St. Paul writes to a community like the Galatians, even in stern rebuke, he wants to instruct them and to build them up-or re-build them in the case of the Galatians. He wants them to become a true community of believers in order that they might live a normal Christian life. Unfortunately, many people in our contemporary society haven’t got a clue as to what is a normal Christian life.
As we move through Trinitytide and see the basest depravity wafting into our homes on commercial platforms like Netflix, I think that it is vital for all of us to understand, “What is the normal Christian life?”
Basically, there are five marks of normal Christian life; first, to know Jesus personally and experientially and to give your whole life to Him; second, as we hear in the epistle to live in conscious awareness of the power of the Holy Spirit; third, to live in communion and to live in community; fourth, to show forth our Christian life and the fruits of service particularly in filling of the Great Commission in the evangelization of the world; and, fifth, that communities of believers be related to each other in perfect unity.
Let’s look at the first mark-to know Jesus personally and experientially and to give your life to Him as Lord. This is a necessary truth to hear even as mature Christians. To know Jesus is at the very root and the very foundation of our Christian lives. Jesus died and rose again and ascended to the Father. And then what? Oh, but we hear that He doesn’t communicate with us anymore. What nonsense! To enter into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is to recognize Him as Lord; to go to Him; to know Him as a person; and perhaps, just perhaps, to listen to Him.
Hear also these words from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is the Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom. 10:9) To confess that Jesus is the Lord is the very foundation of our Christian life, our normal Christian life.
Beloved in Christ, a lot of people don’t understand this. A lot of people don’t have a clue as to who is the Lord.
Back in the first century, before the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed, the very simplest creed in the Christian Church was “Jesus is Lord.” Before Baptism, a person was asked “Why are you here?” The reply, “Because Jesus is Lord.” “ Be baptized.” Later on, we expanded it, “I believe in God the Father. I believe in God the Son. I believe in God the Holy Spirit.” But the simplest creedal statement at the very beginning era was, “Jesus is the Lord.” To acknowledge this and to give ourselves wholly and completely to Him as Lord is the foundation of normal Christian living. Anything else is not normal for the Christian life.
Beloved in Christ, you and I belong to a community of believers-a Church. We aren’t here because we have subscribed to a set of dry dogmas. Why are we here? What was caused you to come here to Epiphany this morning? There was a lot of energy that you had to muster to get out of bed, dress, jump in the car, and come over here. Why?
You’re here because Jesus called you, and you heard and you responded. If you’re not here for that reason, then, you might just as well go home. You see, we’re here because the Lord has called us together, and we have answered His call.
You see, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is not something that is taken for granted and we say, “Well, yes, I did that a long time ago when I was Baptized or when I was Confirmed.” No. This relationship takes an entire lifetime. It is a process of growing in the Lord. We understand that as the Lord speaks to us, as we respond to Him, there is a purity of heart that you and I must work to develop.
In the epistle to the Galatians, St. Paul lists all kinds of really horrible things that we could get into. Pray to God always that none of us fall into any of that poisonous stuff. We defend against it when we are a people that constantly acknowledges that Jesus is the Lord. That marks us out because “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except in the Holy Spirit” (ICor.12:3).
The second characteristic of normal Christian life is to live in conscious awareness of the power of the Holy Spirit. When we were baptized into the Body of Christ, we were given His life. The Spirit of Christ was poured out into us. It was given to us in order to create in us the heart of Jesus. We have to have the heart of Jesus and the very first thing that the Holy Spirit would teach us in normal Christian life is that we can call God Abba, that is, Father.
Earlier, in chapter four of Galatians, St. Paul writes:
The proof that you are sons is the fact that God has sent forth into our hearts the Spirit of His Son which cries out, “Abba, Father.” You are no longer a slave, but a son, and the fact that you are a son makes you an heir by God’s design (Gal. 4:6-7).
This is the way Jesus taught us to pray. When you pray, pray thus: “Abba, Father!” Nobody ever approached God up until the time of Jesus and called Him Abba. In fact, you didn’t even use the name of God out of respect, but Jesus said, “Look, He’s your Father. You can call Him Abba, Father.”
In St. Mark’s Gospel when Jesus was suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane, He used the word “Abba”. He kept saying, Abba (O Father), you have the power to do all things. Take this cup away from me. But let it be as you would have it, not as I (Mark 14:36).
This is normal! It is normal Christian life that you and I have a relationship with our Heavenly Father whereby we can call Him Abba, Father. If we live in conscious awareness of the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we understand that we live according to those gifts of the Holy Spirit that we have received. The gifts are given to the Church, not just to the ordained clergy. They are given to all of us for the up-building of the Body of Christ and that is normal.
The trouble with a lot of what is happening in the Church today is this: people are trying to build the Body of Christ, not with the gifts of the Spirit, but with human power. We see this, especially in political seasons. No wonder it’s failing and unraveling in so many places. If you begin to focus on the spirit of this age and say, “This is what the Church is’,” you’ve got it wrong.
The Church is the Body of Christ animated by the Holy Spirit and empowered by the Holy Spirit; that we might build up the Body of Christ. There are a lot of charisms and gifts that St. Paul talks about in First Corinthians 12: God has set up in the Church first apostles, second prophets, teachers, miracle workers, healers, assistants, administrators (those are the people who spend and give away the money), and those who speak in tongues (I Cor. 12:28).
Are all apostles or prophets or teachers? No. But each person within the Church is given the gifts that are necessary for the building up of the Church. You see, Jesus established the Church, this isn’t a man-made organization. Jesus has promised that His Church will survive and prevail. He will see to it that it thrives if we all begin to live a normal Christian life knowing that we are empowered by the Holy Spirit.
This is a great book, this Bible of mine. And yet, what is it? It’s a lot of ink on pieces of paper unless we understand that this Word has to be alive in its people. This isn’t just a rule book: this is the operator’s manual. When we breathe the life of the Spirit into the Word of God, that’s what we call Tradition. That’s the living out of what is in here. That’s the Tradition of the Church, that is normal. We would see that within the Word of God is everything we need to live in this world and for our salvation. That’s normal.
How many times have I heard clergy-yes clergy-say, “Gee, I wish I had more time to study the Scriptures. I don’t have much time to do it at all.” They aren’t living a normal Christian life. They are more interested in developing programs. You know, programs are nice, and we have to have some programs here and there; but a lot of people and a lot of churches hide behind their programs. They’ve got a program for this, that, and the other thing.
Jesus didn’t have any programs. I mean, did He have a multi-session healing program with workbooks and PowerPoint and those ten lepers got in on it? Did He have a teaching program? Did He have a dying and rising from the dead program? No! And yet so many churches are loaded with programs, but does anybody know Jesus there? That’s the question, isn’t it? Because that’s not normal Christian life.
To know Jesus, to be empowered by the Holy Spirit, and to live in a communal situation. It doesn’t mean that we sell all, give everything to the poor, and all of us sit around singing folk songs. It means that we have within a community a network of committed relationships.
The rugged individualist living out his Christian life is an oxymoron. You can’t live out a normal Christian life all by yourself unless you are called with a very special charism to be a hermit, and even for them, there is Communion. You and I are called to committed relationships. Remember from our lessons several weeks ago what the father said to the older son in the story of the Prodigal? “Everything that I have is yours.” You know that our attachment is not to the things of this world, but our bond is with Christ our Lord.
Unless we show our normal Christian lives and the fruits of service to God’s people, we aren’t living a normal life. You see, when Jesus came into the world, He came in order to redeem mankind. He did that on the cross and He was raised up to the right hand of the Father. And now He is Lord. Now, in 2020, we are supposed to be the Body of Christ of which He is the head. We’re the members and we are supposed to be the ones to carry the message of salvation to those that need it. All of us. Not just ordained clergy.
If you think about it, look at all of the people that don’t even know who Jesus is. I’m not even talking about all of the baptized pagans that seem to be wandering about, but just all of the people that have never heard of Jesus. Well, if it’s only up to clergy to get to these folks, we’d better ordain about a million and a half people next week! No, this is what the Body of Christ is supposed to do. All of us. It’s all our work. We’ve been equipped by the Holy Spirit to do this. That’s normal.
This fifth item is something that would show us that none of us are living a normal Christian life: that these communities be related to each other in perfect unity. That all may be one as Thou Father art in Me and I in Thee. That they also may be [one] in us (Jn 17:21). That was Jesus’ prayer the night before He died. To Abba. To the Father. That unity is still not there. That isn’t normal. Jesus has something better in store for us than all of the factions and divisions that we see in the Body of Christ.
The normal Christian life isn’t easy. This isn’t a little holiness club we have joined. We have come here because we acknowledge that Jesus is Lord. We have been given the power of the Holy Spirit. We have been given the power to develop within us the heart of Jesus. We’ve been called to live a community life, a community of committed relationships with one another where we would respond to one another’s needs. We know that the Body of Christ in a normal situation is here for the salvation of mankind and it is the work of all of us to evangelize the world. We also know that it is the plan of Jesus that all be one. All of these are characteristics of a normal Christian life.
What are we going to do with this? We have the information. What do we do with it? I’m not sure. All I know is that with violence, and sickness and general craziness our lives aren’t normal now. How are we going to get in touch with God’s plan? How?
All wisdom is not summed up in one person, except God, of course. It’s in rather short supply among us human beings. What we have to do is pray about this, understand it the best we can, and do what we can to live out this normal Christian life.
Saint St. Paul lists the fruits of the Holy Spirit. “By their fruits, you will know them,” said Jesus. St. Paul ticks off a list of fruits of the Holy Spirit that you can see. If you see them in a community, there is Jesus. If somebody is all beat up and hurt, you can say, “We got a little community. It’s not a whole lot. But, you know, I think you will find Jesus here. Come and join us.” You can do that. What are the fruits of the Spirit?
. . . Love, joy, peace, patient endurance, kindness, generosity, faith, mildness, and chastity.
The fruits of the Spirit. If you see them in a community, you say, “Yes,
there’s the Lord.” That’s normal, That’s where I want to be”. Then, we can arise, for our faith will have made us whole. Amen.
With thanks to St. Dunstan’s Church and acknowledgment to Fr. Sisterman some of whose words of twenty years ago are included in this sermon.
SERMON FOR THE ELEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY-2020
“God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.” St. Luke 19:11
This morning we hear a parable about “twos”-two men, two prayers, and two outcomes-two very different outcomes. As our Lord told this parable: Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men–robbers, evildoers, adulterers–or even like this tax collector. Look at me--I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’ The tax collector, rather than the Pharisee, went home justified before God.”
The Pharisee in the story reminds me of a house guest that Ralph Waldo Emerson once described: “The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.” Or as an anonymous author once said it, “When someone sings his own praises, the tune is always too high.”
At the time, though, the Pharisee would have been considered the good guy–he wore the white hat. He was a religious leader, a super-religious man who was extremely careful about obeying the Torah. He also followed the Mishnah, which explained how to obey the Torah. The Pharisees literally lived by the book. If you had been a good Jew listening to Jesus, when he mentioned the Pharisee, you would have cheered, “Yeah! Hurrah for the good guy!”
The tax collector was at the other end of the spectrum. He would have been perceived by the community as the worst of the worst of Jewish citizenry. Tax collectors, in the Scriptures, were Jews who worked for the ruling Roman authorities. They were considered both extortionists and traitors - extortionists because they were notoriously noted for collecting more taxes than was owned and pocketing the difference. They were traitors because they served the occupying power of Rome. Again, Jesus was speaking of one specific tax collector and not the whole bunch. Two men-two very different men.
And what of the two prayers? We might paraphrase Charles Dickens-one was the best of prayers, the other the worst of prayers, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of grace, it was the epoch of law, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had accomplished nothing, we had accomplished everything, we were going direct to Heaven, we deserved to go direct to Hell--in short, the period was so far like the present period, that the story could have been told of us today.
What is it about these two prayers that still speaks so directly to our hearts today – 2000 years after Jesus first spoke the parable? With apologies to Dickens, let’s take a closer look at the two prayers of the two men.
The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself, himself as the audience. He addressed God, but really holding an internal conversation, a conversation that is building himself up by putting others down. - “O Lord, it’s hard to be humble when I see how rotten others are compared to me. Thank you, Lord I’m not like those people, you know, people who steal, who do bad things and who cheat on their wives or even like this guy over there who works for Revenue Rome. Yes, Lord, I am one of the very, very few who does more than even the Law requires – you know, I give a tenth of all I get to the temple while everyone else just gives a tenth of their income. I also go without food and water, I fast from sunrise to sunset twice a week and not just once a year like most other folks. Yes God, thank you that I am not like these other people.”
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). God, have mercy on me a sinner.
Look at the differences in the attitudes, the spirit of the two prayers. They are instructive.
The Pharisee considered himself morally and religiously superior than others. He despised those whose spiritual caliber he perceived to be less than his own; he praised himself and condemned his neighbor. He exulted in his own religious practices and trusted in his own good deeds to make him acceptable to God.
It is as if he believed that God owed Him something for his goodness. He failed to see his sin and therefore, his own need for God. At the end of the day, he measured himself to others rather than to God who is absolute in holiness; he built his self-worth on the moral failings of others.
This Pharisee, zealous for the faith and well-versed in the Scriptures, had somehow overlooked passages like Isaiah 26:13 “…but by thee only will we make mention of thy name.” and Isaiah 64:6: “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind, our sins sweep us away.” What about Proverbs 3:34 as recorded in James 4:6: “God opposes the proud….” Or perhaps even the simple words of the Psalmist who declares, “Our help is in the name of the LORD, who hath made heaven and earth.” (Ps. 124:8)
In the poisonous sin of pride, he missed even the direction of prayer. Bishop Fulton J. Sheen once said that: “Pride is the king of vices. . . it is the first of the pallbearers of the soul. . . other vices destroy only their opposite virtues, as wantonness destroys chastity; greed destroys temperance; anger destroys gentleness, but pride destroys all virtues.” (C. S. Lewis) “A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and of course, as long as you are looking down, you can’t see something that’s above you.” It certainly destroys prayer and keeps us from God.
Do we pray like that all too often? Listen carefully to your own prayers – especially the “thanks” part of prayers. How many times do we thank God for things that we have done and not for what He has done? How often are we thanking God for who we are rather than for who He is? It’s an easy trap to fall into, and it has a name – idolatry. When we start making this mistake, we’re worshipping ourselves rather than God. We put our own efforts above God’s. We become idolaters – just like the Pharisee.
But, look at the tax collector. What a difference! He recognized the holiness of God; and he knew the great gulf that lay between himself and God – “[he] stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven.” He was willing to recognize the sin in his life; he didn’t hide it or deny it. He recognized his need for God’s grace and begged for it – “[he] beat his breast and said, ’God, have mercy on me, a sinner”
St. Ignatius of Antioch in writing on this parable shortly before his martyrdom said, “The righteous man is his own accuser;” and again, “Declare thou first thine iniquities, that thou mayest be justified;” and again, “When ye shall have done all things that are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants;…for that which is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God.” For says [the Scripture], “God be merciful to me a sinner.” Epistle to the Magnesians.
Those great ones, Abraham and Job, called themselves “dust and ashes” before God. In fact, David said, “Who am I before Thee, O Lord, that Thou hast glorified me hitherto?’ And Moses, “the meekest of all men,” saith to God, “I am of a feeble voice and of a slow tongue.”
Do you bring this spirit to prayer? What is the attitude of your heart when you speak with God?
For there are two different outcomes for these two men praying in two different ways. The tax collector went home from the temple “justified before God” – forgiven. He had new standing before God. He had received the blessing King David spoke of in Psalm 32: “Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD does not count against him…” (Psalm 32:1-2). The Pharisee went home not having been justified before God. He went home with nothing.
It is within our grasp, this spirit of prayer. We know that “God gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). In the words of St. James, “Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will lift you up” (James 4:10). God told the prophet, Isaiah, “I live in that high and holy place with those whose spirits are contrite and humble. I refresh the humble and give new courage to those with repentant hearts” (Isaiah 57:15).
Pray with a spirit of humility recognizing that we are sinners saved by grace (Ephesians 2:8). Pray knowing that even the
privilege to come before God is a gift (Ephesians 3:12). Pray knowing that God will turn away a prayer saturated with pride, selfishness, and the defamation of others. God will welcome a contrite
prayer, a prayer which is honest about our spiritual state, our need for God’s grace.
“The sacrifice you want is a broken spirit. A broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise” (Psalm 51:17)
Pray knowing that it is to an absolutely holy God we speak (Isaiah 6:3). Pray knowing that God will hear a plea for mercy, help, and forgiveness no matter who you are or what you have done (1 John 1:9,10). Pray the prayer of the tax collector for he went home justified before God. Amen
Sermon for the Tenth Sunday in Trinitytide-2020
(Given at Church of the Epiphany, Amherst, Virginia)
AND when he was come near, he beheld the city, and wept over it, saying, If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! but now they are hid from thine eyes.
-St. Luke xix.41
I have been thinking about our latest group of young people who graduated high school this spring. They graduated in difficult and new circumstances. Now, they are going off to university or to the military. We too face the fall and the start of a new school year for our children and grandchildren. These are fresh starts in times of uncertainty and unique challenges. So it is this morning, I’d like to speak about new beginnings.
Our Gospel text this morning includes the dramatic account of our Lord’s cleansing of the temple. The passage, which is recounted in all four Gospels, tells of Christ driving out the sellers of doves and moneychangers from the temple. In the Gospel of John, the imagery is vivid–violent–Christ fashions a scourge–a whip of small cords–and uses it to flog those who defiled His Father’s house out the door while tipping over their tables. It is a scene of controlled rage as the house of God is purified.
Well, we might ask just how this relates to the theme of fresh starts and new beginnings. Well, in a very real sense, the account of the cleansing of the temple is a story of a new beginning. It is a story of purification. It tells of washing iniquity out of the house of the Lord. It speaks of a cleansing that then allows the restoration of teaching in God’s house. Of course, Jesus does just that–he begins to teach daily in the temple.
I think that there is a kind of baptismal quality to the incident–a washing–not by water but certainly by the Holy Spirit. More vividly, the scourging of the sellers and violence of the act looks forward to the passion and death of Christ that will once and for all purge the temple and begin our restoration to the Father. These very powerful images mark a new beginning for those wishing to see the word of God and the teaching of the Gospels restored in this place and in accomplished in the world.
But, beloved in Christ, this is nothing new. Salvation history-our history-is filled with God’s new beginnings for us as individuals and people of God. We entered into the world created in the image and likeness of God. Despite the transgressions of our first parents, the Father granted mankind a fresh start with the tools to survive in a fallen world.
Then there were repeated fresh starts and new beginnings. The world was cleansed by water following the transgressions of the descendants of Adam and there was a new start with the covenant to Noah. Then we hear of the patriarch Abraham had his new beginnings in a child granted to the aged Sarah and in a covenant of to raise up a people, a place, and a faith. Isaac and Jacob inherit that beginning, but it suffers and is renewed again in young Joseph. Moses marks another beginning with a fresh start for the Hebrews and a law given for their profit.
Despite these gifts, man’s excitement over these fresh starts quickly fades. Instead of manna given from the hand of God in the wilderness, the Israelites clamor for the mundane food of slavery. Instead of a faithful God, the creator of the universe, the Israelites return to false and foreign gods and the comforts of the day. At each turn, though, God pushes the reset button and grants a new beginning after a new beginning.
You know, if you think about it, the whole history of the prophetic books of Scripture tells of these repeated attempts to tell of a fresh start and the consequences for those who don’t take advantage of it. Hear the words of the prophet Isaiah who had to remind the people even of the power of God:
Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me, Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure
Yet, at every turn, a disobedient people rejected the Lord and frustrated his powerful love for those who began their existence with His breath.
So, the Father gave us that ultimate new start–Jesus Christ, His only begotten Son. Here is a true beginning–the beginning of fallen man’s reconciliation with the Father, the beginning of new life in Baptism, the beginning of life in God, and His in us through Holy Communion. How about that for a fresh start?
The disciples see these fresh starts again and again in Christ’s earthly ministry. The blind now see–theirs is a new beginning insight and light. The lame walk, the unclean are cleanses, the deaf begin to hear. Listen to the blind man healed at Siloam when questioned by the authorities on the transformation he had experienced:
Why herein is a marvelous thing, that ye know not from whence he is, and yet he hath opened mine eyes. Now we know that God heareth not sinners: but if any man is a worshipper of God, and doeth his will, him he heareth. Since the world began was it not heard that any man opened the eyes of one that was born blind. If this man were not of God, he could do nothing. They answered and said unto him, Thou wast altogether born in sins, and dost thou teach us? And they cast him out.
Even sinners have a new beginning at Christ’s own table: “And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples.” And the reaction of the public? As we hear in the Gospels of Saint Mark and Saint Luke:…when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto his disciples, Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners? They don’t see that this marks the beginning of a new life for the sinners, a life cleansed from sin.
For the knowledgeable man of the world, the scholar Nicodemus, there is a fresh start. Nicodemus came looking for his new beginning having heard of Jesus’ miracles: Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him. Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born? Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. He’s got the key to cleansing and rebirth the new beginning. And, he seems not to get it. We don’t hear of him again until he is a witness to the crucifixion, that terrible moment in which mankind’s fresh start is purchased with the blood of the Lamb.
Even the dead have a chance to begin again. Jesus cried to his friend, “Lazarus come forth.” Lazarus came forth and sat down to eat. The reaction of the world? The authorities wanted to put him to death.
Following Christ’s saving death and resurrection, the disciples have their new beginning. With all they had seen and done, even the Ascension left them befuddled. But, they are fully brought into the newness of life in Christ through the Pentecost. Men like Saul of Tarsus, a persecutor of his own neighbors, is granted that new chance.
Beloved, we, as faithful Christians, have that very same chance. Psalm 111 gives us a reference point. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: a good understanding have all they that do his commandments: his praise endureth forever.”
If wisdom begins with a fear of the Lord, then what about eternal life? Our Lord tells the disciples in the Gospel of Luke: “These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me. Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures, And said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behooved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day: And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” It is the beginning of life in the resurrection. It is the beginning of the mission and the necessity of telling forth the good news–beginning at Jerusalem.
You know, these beginnings aren’t easy. Imagine a life of darkness suddenly illuminated by day. The blind man needs to reorient his entire way of sensing–of dealing with his world. What about the life of the healed sinners–the community knows you as one thing–perhaps a cheat or a prostitute–but you have been transformed.
You, beloved in Christ, each of you is challenged to teach people about that chance for a fresh start. You are called to tell of the healing power of Christ to a cynical and skeptical group of friends and even family. Think of Lazarus raised from death itself. How will he use that new life and how will he deal with the curious or un-believing?
These are the problems of fresh starts, of new beginnings. But we are guaranteed them, by baptism, in repentance and through faith in Christ and His sacraments. We are healed and washed clean from our sins. It is compounded when we are called corporately, at times, to these new beginnings as a people of God. When the money changers invade the temple, we are called to sweep them out. If heresy besets us, we must reject it and begin anew. If evil stands in our path, we are to sweep it aside.
This doesn’t square with the wisdom of the world. It doesn’t make us comfortable when we must leave perhaps comfortable surroundings, challenge our own comfort zones, and deal with the questions of those around us.
Certainly, this was the situation of those first Christians. This was the challenge of the reformers of the church, the evangelicals of the 1700s, and the Anglican-Catholic slum priests and Tractarians of the 1800s. It is our challenge now. We are called to join those who have and do face the difficulties of a real Christian life.
Saint Paul spoke of the challenge in his first letter to the Corinthians. “We are fools for Christ's sake, but ye are wise in Christ; we are weak, but ye are strong; ye are honorable, but we are despised, even unto this present hour we both hunger, and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwelling place; And labor, working with our own hands: being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we suffer it”
It is in many ways this is the story of a wedding. The disapproving family worries over the choice of the new husband or wife. Parents fret over the change of the status quo and wonder what will become of the family with the departure of the son or daughter into a new life.
Well, aren’t we there in a sense? We are called to the bridegroom Jesus Christ. Those who don’t know Him very well, or at all, worry over our choice–maybe disapprove of it. And, like that old saying about the wedding we have something new and something old.
We are called to that “something new”–a new life in Him and with Him. We can do nothing else. We do go forward with something old–the faith once-delivered. It is the foundation upon which we build our faith and our lives as we begin again. It is the foundation of the world as we hear in the beginning of St. John’s Gospel:
In the beginning, was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth
That is our beginning and our end, our Alpha and Omega–the Word made flesh who dwelt among us. Let us go forward from this beginning, always living new beginnings each day through the love, forgiveness, and mercy that can come only through a life in and with Jesus Christ. Amen.
SERMON FOR THE FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY-2020
(Given at Church of the Epiphany, Amherst, Virginia)
“Be ye all of one mind.”
-I St. Peter 3:8
This morning’s Gospel reading from St. Luke recounts the story of the miraculous draught of fish, which Jesus brings about on the lake of Gennesaret. It is easy to miss the point of this story, as we tend to concentrate on its miraculous element, rather than its teaching. Remember that Jesus Himself resisted the temptation of performing miracles when he was led “by the Spirit into the wilderness.” (Matthew 4:1) Also, Jesus frequently instructed his disciples and those whom he cured that they should tell no one of his miraculous deeds. (e.g., Mark 5:43; Matthew 8:4) Our Lord doesn’t want people to believe in him for the wrong reason, as if he were merely some kind of magician with miraculous powers.
Jesus is concerned that men believe in him for what and who He is and what he teaches. He knows that if our faith depends only on the continuous performance of miracles, that faith is without substance. It will cease simultaneously with the miracles themselves. However, in this case, Jesus Himself initiates the performance of the miracle by telling Simon Peter to let down his net once more. Because He initiates the miracle, we can be fairly certain that Jesus wishes to teach us something. In fact, he does wish to teach us about the “blessing” we are to “inherit,” to use the words of St. Peter from this morning’s Epistle.
There are three things he wishes to teach us through this miraculous draught of fish. First, God’s blessing does not depend on our effort. He is not in any way restricted to what we can imagine or fulfil. Simon Peter has toiled the entire night and has caught nothing.
If we followed the limits of our human reason and possibility, we would not send the boats out again. Our efforts have not produced anything until now, why should the next trip have any better result? But as the story teaches us, God is not limited. He is not restricted to what we can conceive or imagine. His kingdom exceeds our powers and achievements as much as heaven is higher than the earth.
The second point that the story makes is that the gift of God appears where there is faith. As Simon Peter says, “we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing; nevertheless, at thy word, I will let down the net.”
Faith is the sign that we have moved beyond what is conceivable and possible for human reason. Faith shows that we have moved towards a love which never fails, never ceases to show mercy, never refuses to forgive. In faith, our human possibilities are left behind so that we may grasp the possibility of an infinite Majesty, untarnished by all weakness and smallness of spirit.
Of course, beloved in Christ, this possibility is only incompletely realized in this life, and so our blessing is held in faith, hope, and charity. But that divine blessing which was evident to Simon Peter on the lake of Gennesaret is already a reality in our lives: through our prayers, through our baptism, in our marriages, indeed at this very Eucharist here today, wherein faith we receive the very body and blood of Jesus Christ. Christ’s flesh and blood are not present here at this Eucharistic banquet for common sense, but only for faith. That is why we are exhorted to feed on Christ’s body “in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving”
The third point of the story is that the blessing we shall inherit bursts our nets and causes our ships to sink. This blessing will be more than we imagined, more than we hoped for, more than we could ever use. It represents an inexhaustible richness, against which the riches and wealth of this world can be no more than the grass which withers.
The story tells us that to receive this richness without sinking under the incomprehensible fullness of the divine love, our nature will have to be transformed.
So it is that God promises that we will be the inheritors of the divine “blessing.” The gift that God will bestow will not be something external, under which our nature sinks, but will belong to us as a birthright. What an amazing transformation! A gift which we cannot conceive of according to our own human possibilities will, through the divine love, become our right by nature.
This new nature itself is part of the gift because it will ensure that we receive the gift as inheritors, as sons and daughters of God, who receive the gift by right of redeemed nature. As Jesus so aptly expresses it, no one puts new wine in old skins, lest they burst. (Matthew 9.17). God’s blessing for us will include the new skin for the new wine, so that his gift will not overwhelm us (as it did Peter), but will belong to us as our birthright.
In the story, St. Peter is overcome by the size of the catch, and says to Jesus: “Depart from me, for l am a sinful man, O Lord.” But, of course, Jesus has no intention whatsoever of departing from him. St. Peter does not yet know, as we know, that Jesus will give him strength and endurance, not only to receive his gift but also to do his work. This sinful nature will, through the grace of God, become the rock on which Jesus will build his church.
So the Lord says to both St. Peter and to us “Fear not.” For he shall, as he has promised, send us “another Comforter... even the Spirit of truth” (John 14.16-17). It shall be part of God’s saving mercy that he shall make us strong enough to receive the abundance of his blessing, so that we may indeed be his sons and daughters.
So, on this Sunday, at this Eucharist, let us pray that God may grant us that faith for which his blessing appears. Let us recollect that it is not what we do that matters, but what he does in us, not what we are by nature that matters, but what he will make us by his grace. Further, let us recall that in this story of the draught of fish, we have the assurance that despite the disappointments of the night, he shall respond with riches we cannot as yet imagine. Let us therefore again launch our boats and let down our nets in faith! Amen.