Church of the Epiphany
104 Epiphany Court
Amherst, VA 24521
Rev. Canon Charles H. Nalls
Services are Sunday at 11:00 am
Bible study Sunday at 12:45 pm and Wednesday at 10:30 am.
(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.