Feasting at the Banquet

Sermon delivered on Lent 3C, Sunday, February 28, 2016, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 55.1-9; Psalm 63.1-8; 1 Corinthians 10.1-13; Luke 13.1-9.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

If you ever thought that the OT is all gloom and doom while the NT is all bright and cheery, you were surely disappointed in today’s lessons because the opposite is true. We hear dire warnings from our NT readings while hearing a warm and redeeming invitation in our OT lessons. What’s up with that? Well, in one way or another, all our lessons implore us to accept God’s mercy and ways right now while there is still time and we still have the chance to do so, and this is what I want us to look at this morning.

We begin by looking at the prize described in our OT lesson. God, through his prophet, issues us an unbelievable invitation. In the previous chapters of Isaiah, God has been preparing a meal for his starving people, us included, despite the baggage we all bring to the table. God knows life can wear us flat out and beat us down, and that our sin leaves us desolate and fearing death. We think we can have life without the Source of all life. We think we know better than our Creator what is best for us. But of course, that is utter nonsense. The patient cannot survive without being connected to his life support system, and left to our own devices, we steadfastly refuse to get hooked up! Sin got us kicked out of paradise and leads to our alienation from God and therefore to our death. This is serious stuff, literally a matter of life and death, and we have no reason to hope for mercy from God, especially based on how we treat each other. You hit me and I’ll hit you back harder. We all know how the game is played.

So imagine our surprise as we listen to God speak to us through Isaiah. Are you burdened by life’s failed expectations, by your own inadequacies, or by your sin? All the above? Well then, says God, come and eat the richest foods from the table at my salvation banquet! Are you afraid of death or feel like you are enslaved to circumstances and/or forces beyond your control? Come and drink the finest wines! Reluctant to come to table because you have nothing to bring? No problem! Come and feast anyhow until you are fully satisfied. After all, you are my heart’s desire! You can trust that my invitation is good because I don’t break my promises. Want proof? I promised my servant David to be his God and to redeem the people of Israel I called him to lead. And of course I fulfilled that promise ultimately in David’s descendant, Jesus, my promised Messiah. Remember what he told you?

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever” (John 6.35, 54-56, 58).

I know you break your promises all the time. But not me and it’s my table, not yours. So come and eat and drink at my table because when you do, you will find you have renewed health, not sickness, and new life, not death, just like I promised through Jesus when I became human.

At this point we want to look at God with our mouths hanging wide open in utter disbelief. Are you kidding, God? What have you been smoking, dude? Have you looked at my past track record? You are holy and perfect. Me? Not even close. And you want me to come in the tattered rags of my sin and rebellion and brokenness to feast at your table? Unbelievable—literally. Just too good to be true.

Well, no it’s not. Now if we only read our assigned OT lesson today, along with the corresponding sentiment in our psalm, we would indeed be perplexed at God’s gracious invitation to us (that’s one of the problems of preaching from just the assigned readings in the Lectionary). But if we go back and read the Suffering Servant passage from Isaiah 52.13-53.12, a passage we read every Good Friday, we find the reason for God’s invitation.

[H]e was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53.5-6).

God can invite us to his salvation banquet where we can feast in his kingdom now and forever because of the work of his Suffering Servant, Jesus the Messiah, God become human. Our sin keeps us hostile toward God and separates us from him so that we can expect nothing but death. That is our just reward and we get earthly justice. But we are not dealing with humans. We are dealing with God who loves us and cherishes us despite our sin and rebellion and hostility. God knows we do not have the power within ourselves to break our enslavement to sin, so God broke it for us on the cross and by sending his Spirit to live in us to heal and slowly restore us to our right minds. We struggle to believe this because we know our own heart and we know we wouldn’t be this gracious toward our enemies. We’d hit them in the mouth (or worse) if we could. But God’s ways are not our ways. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. He has prepared for us the new creation from all eternity and given us a taste of it when he raised Jesus from the dead. And now because we have been healed and reconciled by Christ’s body broken on the cross and his blood shed for us, we are invited to be part of God’s feast in his new world forever, starting right here and now. The cross testifies to the fact that God takes the deadly consequences of sin very seriously. But it also testifies to his great love for us. The resulting invitation to the heavenly banquet is the prize for which we strive, made possible only by the love, mercy, and grace of God given to us through Jesus Christ our Lord, thanks be to God!

Do you believe this? Really believe this promise and invitation? If you don’t, you need to work on ending your own stubborn rebellion against God’s love and gift offered to you in Christ. If you do believe the promise and accept God’s invitation for you to come feast at his salvation banquet, then it must change you. For those of us who believe that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, God’s invitation to feast at his table is also an invitation to reject our old ways, the ways that dehumanize and kill us and make us sick, and to accept his new way of living that is exemplified supremely in Jesus. In Christ we have a perfect model of what real humanity looks like and we are called to strive to become like Jesus with the help of his Spirit who lives in us by denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following Jesus in his suffering. This isn’t easy or clean by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, it is quite messy. We are thoroughly broken and out of whack. But it’s possible to reject the evil that dwells in us and say yes to our humanity so that we don’t lose our place at God’s table with its rich food and finest of wines. Why? Not because of anything we might do or not do, but ultimately because God’s ways are not our ways. God created us to love and enjoy, and he calls us to do likewise with him. God’s mercy is greater than we can ever dare hope for or comprehend, thanks be to God! Amen?

With this in mind, we are now ready to look at the warnings in our NT lessons. We must always remember that they are there to help us fight the good fight to be transformed into the very image of God as made known to us in Jesus our Lord. There seem to be at least two ways we can reject God’s invitation to us to feast at his table, and the consequences are both dire and eternal. The first way we can reject God’s offer to us is to refuse to let the love of God change us so that we choose the way of idolatry and evil instead. We tend to become what we worship and when we choose to give in to the evil that is within us instead of working to resist that evil, we can expect nothing but God’s righteous judgment and death. Thus the biblical imperative to repent, i.e., to change the course of our life. We are not called to repent because God is some kind of cosmic bully who delights in punishing us. We are called to repent because God loves us and does not want to see us slip into patterns of behavior that will ultimately dehumanize us and obliterate God’s image in us so that we don’t want  to feast at God’s table (and sadly there are many today who fall into this category). Jesus tells us as much in our gospel lesson. Turn things around in you before it is too late. You never know when you are going to die. You just know that you are. So the question is this: Do you want to die being hostile to God or reconciled to him? Act now. Shed your evil ways. Follow me. You don’t know how much time you have left. And trust me, you don’t want to die outside the mercy of God.

I am not talking here about our ability to follow the rules. The issues I am talking about run much deeper than this. Rules are fine, but they only help us achieve a greater end. What I am talking about is the evil that is within every human heart that makes us want to hate God and reject his love and leadership over our lives (cf. Jeremiah 17.9). This is why Paul warns us in our epistle lesson not to desire evil. God gives us free will and the ability to choose, and for our good. Without free will, we can never truly have a relationship with anyone because love requires that we enter into relationships freely and willingly, not under duress or coercion. Without free will, it would not be possible for God to love us or us to love God.

The second way we can reject God’s invitation to feast at his table is through presumption as Paul also warns. Remember your spiritual ancestors, the Jews, he asks? God rescued them from their slavery in Egypt by leading them through the Red Sea and out to real freedom. And afterwards God was present with them in the wilderness in the pillars of clouds and fire. God fed them manna and they drank from the water that was Christ somehow mysteriously present with them. And how did God’s people respond? They rebelled against God and effectively wanted to go back to Egypt, back to their slavery! Here is Paul warning us not to be willfully hostile and rebellious toward God. But Paul is also telling us something else. God’s people got presumptuous. They thought they were exempt from God’s wrath because of all God did for them. Their presumption helps explain their rebellion: God won’t hurt us because we are his people. Therefore, we’ll do whatever we please. Not so fast, says Paul!

Now of course we recognize in these examples that Paul was talking to us about our own baptism in Christ and our participating in the eucharist. These two sacraments—outward and visible signs of the inward invisible reality that God has rescued us from sin and death in and through Jesus who is present with us powerfully in the eucharist—while efficacious, are not magic. Paul warns us not to presume, like our ancestors in the wilderness did, that because we are baptized and come to the table each week that we can therefore go and act any way we want. If we willfully choose to return to our old, sinful ways that lead to alienation from God and our death, our baptism and eating and drinking Christ’s body and blood will not save us. They are not here to give us an excuse to continue to act badly. No, they remind us we have been redeemed, and so we are to act accordingly! Paul tells us to put on Jesus, i.e., to choose to act like Jesus in all our living, and we will find that these sacraments remind us of God’s great love for us and strengthen us to follow in his ways so that we can be his true image-bearers once again. We must never presume to take God’s love and mercy for granted, in effect throwing them to the swine by willfully choosing to live evilly. Again, I am not talking about the occasional failures we all inevitably suffer. I am talking about willfully deciding to live a life of hostile rebellion against God, all the while thinking we’re covered by the sacraments when we are not.

And so we close by returning to God’s gracious invitation to us. Come and eat and drink at my table and celebrate your freedom to love and become fully human once again! Don’t worry or fret that you are not worthy. Of course you are not! But that is not why I invite you to feast. I invite you because I love you, and I love to be merciful and compassionate toward you. That is the kind of God I am and that is the kind of people I want you to be. This is our Lenten challenge, my beloved. It is also our Easter hope and promise. Don’t be afraid and don’t lose hope. God never abandons us. Instead, God promises to help us shed our slavery to things and idols that dehumanize us. The finest food and wines await us because God is who God is. Let us resolve to embrace God’s love and mercy and fight the good fight to perfect love and freedom. It won’t come in this lifetime, but it will help us get ready for the day we will be able to love perfectly and be perfectly free. What a celebration that will be! It means we’ll be at the best table in all creation, celebrating life and living faithfully to our Lord and God. And that, folks, really is Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

David Brooks (NYT Op-Ed): The Governing Cancer of Our Time

What dude said.

Over the past generation we have seen the rise of a group of people who are against politics. These groups — best exemplified by the Tea Party but not exclusive to the right — want to elect people who have no political experience. They want “outsiders.” They delegitimize compromise and deal-making. They’re willing to trample the customs and rules that give legitimacy to legislative decision-making if it helps them gain power.

Ultimately, they don’t recognize other people. They suffer from a form of political narcissism, in which they don’t accept the legitimacy of other interests and opinions. They don’t recognize restraints. They want total victories for themselves and their doctrine.

This antipolitics tendency has had a wretched effect on our democracy. It has led to a series of overlapping downward spirals:

The antipolitics people elect legislators who have no political skills or experience. That incompetence leads to dysfunctional government, which leads to more disgust with government, which leads to a demand for even more outsiders.

The antipolitics people don’t accept that politics is a limited activity. They make soaring promises and raise ridiculous expectations. When those expectations are not met, voters grow cynical and, disgusted, turn even further in the direction of antipolitics.

The antipolitics people refuse compromise and so block the legislative process. The absence of accomplishment destroys public trust. The decline in trust makes deal-making harder.

We’re now at a point where the Senate says it won’t even hold hearings on a presidential Supreme Court nominee, in clear defiance of custom and the Constitution. We’re now at a point in which politicians live in fear if they try to compromise and legislate. We’re now at a point in which normal political conversation has broken down. People feel unheard, which makes them shout even louder, which further destroys conversation.

Read it all.

Scot McKnight: One More Time, What Kind of Literature is a Gospel?

Precisely. Thank God for faithful theologians and scholars.

Now my response, and I will use Brant’s own logic from the previous discussion about authorship. Inasmuch as there is no evidence the Gospels were anonymous since in the early church there are no anonymous Gospels (that is, using the early church evidence), so I make this claim: there is no evidence the Gospels were called “biographies” in the early church either. Therefore… that absence matters.

This matters for genre. Why? The Gospels were not called “biographies” but “gospels” and they were called “gospels” because they were a unique kind of communication (gospeling) that becomes a different kind of literature (a genre). That is, they were called “gospels” because they were designed not simply to tell the life of Jesus but to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah, the Lord, the living, crucified, and resurrected one.

The Gospels, I contend, have traits of biography but they are more than biographies. They are gospels.

Read it all.

Abbess Egeria Describes how Catechumens were Instructed in 4th-Century AD Jerusalem

Fascinating. It was no easy or light thing to become a Christian in those days.

I must also describe how those who are baptized at Easter are instructed. Those who give their names do so the day before Lent, and the priest notes down all their names; and this is before those eight weeks during which, as I have said, Lent is observed here. When the priest has noted down everyone’s name, then on the following day, the ?rst day of Lent, on which the eight weeks begin, a throne is set up for the bishop in the center of,the major church [behind the site of the cross], the Martyrium. The priests sit on stools on both sides, and all the clergy stand around. One by one the candidates are led forward, in such a way that the men come with their godfathers and the women with their godmothers.

Then the bishop questions individually the neighbors of the one who has come up, inquiring: “Does this person lead a good life? Obey parents? Is this person a drunkard or a liar?” And the bishop seeks out in the candidate other vices which are more serious. If the person proves to be guiltless in all these matters concerning which the bishop has questioned the witnesses who are present, the bishop notes down the candidate’s name. If, however, the candidate is accused of anything, the bishop orders the person to go out and says: “Let such a one amend their life, and when this is done, then approach the baptismal font.” He makes the same inquiry of both men and women. If, however, some are strangers, such people cannot easily receive baptism, unless they have witnesses who know them.

Ladies, my sisters, 1 must describe this, lest you think that it is done without explanation. It is the custom here, throughout the forty days on which there is fasting, for those who are preparing for baptism to be exorcised by the clergy early in the morning, as soon as the dismissal from the morning service has been given at the Anastasis [site of the cross]. Immediately a throne is placed for the bishop in the major church, the Martyrium. All those who are to be baptized, both men and women, sit closely around the bishop, while the godmothers and godfathers stand there; and indeed all of the people who wish to listen may enter and sit down, provided they are of the faithful. A catechumen, however, may not enter at the time when the bishop is teaching them the law. The bishop does so in this way: beginning with Genesis and going through the whole of Scripture during these forty days, expounding ?rst its literal meaning and then explaining the spiritual meaning. In the course of these days everything is taught not only about the Resurrection but concerning the body of faith. This is called catechetics.

When ?ve weeks of instruction have been completed, they then receive the Creed. The bishop explains the meaning of each of the phrases of the Creed in the same way as Holy Scripture was explained, expounding ?rst the literal and then the spiritual sense. In this fashion the Creed is taught.

And thus it is that in these places all the faithful are able to follow the Scriptures when they are read in the churches, because all are taught through those forty days, that is, from the ?rst to the third hours, for during the three hours instruction is given. God knows, ladies, my sisters, that the voices of the faithful who have come to catechetics to hear instruction on those things being said or explained by the bishop are louder than when the bishop sits down in church to preach about each of those matters which are explained in this fashion. The dismissal from catechetics is given at the third hour [9:00am], and immediately, singing hymns, they lead the bishop to the Anastasis, and the of?ce of the third hour takes place. And thus they are taught for three hours a day for seven weeks. During the eighth week, the one which is called the Great Week [Holy Week], there remains no more time for them to be taught, because what has been mentioned above must be carried out.

Now when seven weeks have gone by and there remains only Holy Week, which is here called the Great Week, then the bishop comes in the morning to the major church, the Martyrium. To the rear, at the apse behind the altar, a throne is placed for the bishop, and one by one they come forth, the men with their godfathers, the women with their godmothers. And each one recites the Creed back to the bishop. After the Creed has been recited back to the bishop, the bishop delivers a homily to them all, and says: “During these seven weeks you have been instructed in the whole law of the Scriptures, and you have heard about the faith. You have also heard of the resurrection of the ?esh. But as for the whole explanation of the Creed, you have heard only that which you are able to know while you are still catechumens. Because you are still catechumens, you are not able to know those things which belong to a still higher mystery, that of baptism. But that you may not think that anything would be done without explanation, once you have been baptized in the name of God, you will hear of them during the eight days of Easter in the Anastasis following the dismissal from church. Because you are still catechumens, the most secret of the divine mysteries cannot be told to you.”

Pilgrimage, 45-46

Abbess Egeria Describes Fasting in 4th-Century AD Jerusalem During Lent

When the season of Lent is at hand, it is observed in the following manner. Now whereas with us the forty days preceding Easter are observed, here they observe the eight weeks before Easter. This is the reason why they observe eight weeks: On Sundays and Saturdays they do not fast, except on the one Saturday which is the vigil of Easter, when it is necessary to fast. Except on that day, there is absolutely no fasting here on Saturdays at any time during the year. And so, when eight Sundays and seven Saturdays have been deducted from the eight weeks—for it is necessary, as I have just said, to fast on one Saturday—there remain forty-one days which are spent in fasting, which are called
here “eortae,” that is to say, Lent.

This is a summary of the fasting practices here during Lent. There are some who, having eaten on Sunday after the dismissal, that is, at the fifth or the sixth hour [11:00am or noon], do not eat again for the whole week until Saturday, following the dismissal from the Anastasis [site of the cross]. These are the ones who observe the full week’s fast. Having eaten once in the morning on Saturday, they do not eat again in the evening, but only on the following day, on Sunday, that is, do they eat after the dismissal from the church at the fifth hour [11:00am] or later. Afterwards, they do not eat again until the following Saturday, as I have already said. Such is their fate during the Lenten season that they take no leavened bread (for this cannot be eaten at all), no olive oil, nothing which comes from trees, but only water and a little flour soup. And this is what is done throughout Lent.

Pilgrimage, 27-28

The Martyrdom of Polycarp on his Feast Day

From here.

ISIS doesn’t have anything over these guys. And I love the way Polycarp turned the use of “atheist” back on his enemies. Either the man was a lunatic or there’s a power here that we’d better pay attention to.

UnknownAs a very old man, probably in his 90s, he was burnt to death in front of a frenzied crowd in a sports’ stadium in the city of Smyrna, then in the Roman proconsular province of Asia, now Izmir in western Turkey. He had been Bishop of the Christian church in Smyrna.

The 4th century church historian, Eusebius, reproduced a contemporary Christian account of Polycarp’s martyrdom:

‘As Polycarp was entering the stadium, there came a voice to him from heaven, “Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man.” The speaker indeed no one saw, but the voice was heard by those of our friends present. Then he was brought forward, and great was the din as they heard that Polycarp was arrested. So he was brought before the Proconsul, who…tried to persuade him to deny his faith, urging, “Have respect to your old age…Swear by the genius of Caesar; change your mind and say, ‘Away with the Atheists!’ [the Roman name for Christians who refused to worship the emperor] ”

‘Then Polycarp looked with a stern countenance on the multitude of lawless heathen gathered in the stadium, and waved his hands at them, and looked up to heaven with a groan and said, “Away with the Atheists.” The Proconsul continued insisting and saying, “Swear, and I release you; curse Christ.” And Polycarp said, “Eighty-six years have I served Him, and He has done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my King who has saved me?” ’ (New Eusebius, ed. J Stevenson, SPCK, 1957, p21).

Almighty God,
who gave to your servant Polycarp
boldness to confess the name of our Saviour Jesus Christ
before the rulers of this world
and courage to die for his faith:
grant that we also may be ready
to give an answer for the faith that is in us
and to suffer gladly for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Happy Birthday, Mr. President

Today is George Washington’s birthday. To our great detriment, Americans are forgetting about our first president. This is sad, in part, because without him, there would not likely be the USA that we know today. Do yourself a favor and learn about this extraordinary man with whom God blessed this country.

To the world’s amazement, Washington had prevailed over the more numerous, better supplied, and fully trained British army, mainly because he was more flexible than his opponents. He learned that it was more important to keep his army intact and to win an occasional victory to rally public support than it was to hold American cities or defeat the British army in an open field. Over the last 200 years revolutionary leaders in every part of the world have employed this insight, but never with a result as startling as Washington’s victory over the British.

On December 23, 1783, Washington presented himself before Congress in Annapolis, Maryland, and resigned his commission. Like Cincinnatus, the hero of Classical antiquity whose conduct he most admired, Washington had the wisdom to give up power when he could have been easily become dictator. He left Annapolis and went home to Mount Vernon with the fixed intention of never again serving in public life. This one act, without precedent in modern history, made him an international hero.

In the years after the Revolutionary War, Washington devoted most of his time to rebuilding Mount Vernon, which had suffered in his absence. He experimented with new crops and fertilizers and bred some of the finest mules in the nation. He also served as president of the Potomac Company, which worked to improve the navigation of the river in order to make it easier for upstream farmers to get their produce to market.

Read it all or pick up this book and really get to know the Father of our Country.

Promises, Promises

Sermon delivered on Lent 2C, Sunday, February 21, 2016, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27.1-17; Philippians 3.17-4.1; Luke 13.31-35.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today we enter the second full week of Lent with its emphasis on self-examination, confession, repentance, and self-denial. So how are you doing with your Lenten disciplines? Me too. You recall that on Ash Wednesday I outlined the reason for Lent within the broader scriptural story of God’s rescue plan for his broken and hurting world and his image-bearing creatures. Knowing the Big Picture of Scripture can help bring meaning and purpose to our Lenten disciplines so that we don’t engage in them just because it’s Lent and we think we need to do something to make us right with God. Doing a Lenten discipline for its own sake is never a good reason to do it. So today, on the outside chance that you may have forgotten my Ash Wednesday sermon (heaven forbid!), I want to remind us all exactly what the prize is for which we strive as Christians and why Lent should matter to us.

In our OT lesson, we see God making a whopping big promise to Abram (later to be renamed Abraham by God). When we hear promises made, even when they come from God, if we are honest with ourselves, we tend to be a bit skeptical about those promises being fulfilled because we’ve all been the victim of broken promises and have all broken a few ourselves. So let’s just say it. When we hear promises we have our serious doubts. And apparently Abram had his too because God had failed to produce on his promises up to that point. Almost eleven years had passed since God promised Abram offspring and now Abram was 86, hardly a spring chicken, if you catch my drift! So when God once again promised Abram an offspring, Abram showed his disappointment in God by telling God that his slave would be his heir, not the promised son.

But God wouldn’t have any of Abram’s pity party. Nonsense, God tells him. Go outside and look at the stars. Count them if you can. Their countless number will be indicative of how many descendants you’ll have. And why was it so important that God deliver on his promise? Because approximately 11 years earlier God had made this promise to Abram:

“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed (Genesis 12.1-3).

Here we see the beginning of God’s plan to rescue his world and its creatures from the ravages of evil, sin, and death that our first ancestors’ rebellion had caused. Genesis 3.1-11.9 is a litany of the cascading effects of human sin and the evil it unleashed on God’s good creation: pride, folly, increasing violence and murder, unfaithfulness, and chaos of all kinds, to name just a few, just like the stuff we see regularly on the news channels 24/7 these days. And here is God, surprisingly, even shockingly, calling a wandering nomad from his home country to go to modern-day Israel so that God could use his family to bring God’s love to the world to heal it and us. No wonder God would remind Abram a second time that a son was on the way!

And despite Abram’s doubts, fears, and skepticism, we are told that Abram believed God’s promises and God counted Abram’s belief as righteous. But what does that mean? The Hebrew verb for believed indicates something that is active and ongoing. It was more than just a one-time intellectual assent. In other words, Abram’s belief in God’s promise affected how Abram lived and interacted with God. Throughout his story, Abram’s behavior was always characterized by his prompt obedience to God’s commands. And despite the fact that approximately 11 years had passed since God had first promised Abram an offspring, Abram believed God’s promises so that God considered him to be righteous. In Scripture, righteousness signifies the fulfillment of the demands of a relationship, and basic to the righteousness in our relationship with God is trust in his plan and God’s working out of that plan. Unlike Adam and Eve, whose lack of trust in God’s goodness and ability to guide and provide for all their needs got us kicked out of paradise in the first place (Genesis 3.1-19), Abram accepted God’s promise and believed that God would fulfill it. That constituted his faith, his trust, and that trust made him acceptable in the eyes of his God.

To be sure, Abraham’s faith and trust in God was not perfect. Twice while he wandered in this new land Abram lied about his relationship with his wife, Sarah, to save his own skin. And shortly after this episode, Abram and Sarah took matters regarding their promised son into their own hands, literally, and Abram had a son via one of Sarah’s slaves. This is hardly an airtight or perfect faith on display here! But God does not demand perfect faith because God knows we are broken creatures and life gets very messy. No, God tells Abram that because of his faith, i.e., because of his overall trust in God’s promises, Abram was made right (or justified) in God’s eyes. Here we see the first instance in the Bible of justification by faith. Faith is trusting God’s promise and acting as if it will be fulfilled. Throughout the Bible, God makes many promises. For example, in the NT God promises that, “I am with you always” or “whoever lives and believes in me shall never die” or “I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you.” Genuine biblical faith clings to God’s promises and acts as if they are true. Despite his sometimes messy faith, Abram believed God’s promises and acted accordingly overall. Do you?

This faith thingy is no small matter for us as well because we are part of Abraham’s family by virtue of our faith, hope, and trust in Jesus Christ. We believe that God initiated the conditions to restore us to a right relationship with him by becoming human and dying on a cross so that he could deal with our sins without destroying us. In our gospel lesson, Jesus tells the Pharisees that he is about doing kingdom work by casting out demons and bringing healing of all kinds to people like you and me, activities that are sure signs of God’s love for us and his desire to restore us to our full humanity. And how do we know this is true? How do we know that on the cross Jesus dealt with our sins and destroyed the power of evil over us? He tells us himself. On the third day, God would raise him from the dead to usher in the beginning of God’s promised new world, the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promise to bring blessing and healing to God’s broken and hurting world and its peoples. To be sure, God’s new creation has not yet come in full. But because God raised Jesus from the dead and promises to do the same for all who put their whole hope and trust in Jesus, we have a real basis to believe this most unbelievable of all God’s promises. God never asks us to whistle through the graveyard. He always gives us a real and historical basis for his promises, starting with Abraham, who had the promised son, Isaac, when Abraham was 99 years old and Sarah was 100. If God can call things into existence that do not exist, and give life to the dead (Romans 4.17), is there anything too hard for God?

And as Paul makes clear in our epistle lesson, our faith in Jesus and the healing power of the cross is the only way we can expect to inherit God’s promised new world. The challenge for us is to overcome everything within us that wants to make us not believe in the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection, so that we follow our own selfish and disordered appetites and remain hostile to God and outside his forgiveness because we refuse to repent of our proud and selfish appetites of all kinds. Those who refuse to put their trust in Jesus are doomed to destruction, warns Paul, and if we have any good sense about us, we will heed his warning.

But in heeding his warning, we had also better heed the lesson of Abram. The point of giving our lives to Jesus is to trust in him and to act in ways that please him. We don’t do this to get our ticket punched. We do this because we love Jesus and believe him to be trustworthy and true, and we want to please him because he has literally saved us from eternal destruction. He didn’t do that because we are deserving of his love and mercy and grace any more than Abram was when God called him out of Ur (Iraq) to go to Canaan (Israel). No, God became human for our sake so that he could rescue us and use us to be his faithful image-bearing creatures in the manner he created us in the first place, thanks be to God! Like Abram, we won’t live out our faith perfectly. What is necessary is to love and trust God consistently and to root out all that is within us that prevents us from becoming more like Jesus. And now we are back to Lent with its disciplines of confession, repentance, and self-denial. We do these things so that God can help us put to death all that is within us that dehumanizes us and causes us to be stubborn and rebellious. Of course, we will never be successful in putting to death entirely those things that keep us hostile toward God. But God knows our hearts and honors our efforts to become more like him. In fact, God sends us his Spirit to help us in our endeavors. It’s a messy process, but it boils down to this. Despite setbacks and difficulties and the messiness of life, do we believe God’s promises to use us as Jesus’ people to be a blessing to his world, i.e., to embody and bring to bear God’s great love and mercy to all people, even (or especially) our enemies?

This call to be a blessing never changes because God’s promise to Abraham and his family to be a blessing to the world never changes. The ultimate son of Abraham is Jesus, God himself, and he calls us to follow him in living out his promise to use us as God’s people to bring God’s blessing to his disordered and sin-sick world. This is what Paul meant when he talked about us being citizens of heaven. The logic is to bring the values of our real home, heaven’s values, God’s values, to bear on the world, just like we would bring the best of American values to a foreign land where we settled. We can’t very well do that if we are fundamentally hostile to God. So whatever it is within you that needs to die, ask the Lord to help you put it to death and struggle with it during this Lenten season and beyond. Do so because you believe the promises of God to rescue and restore his good world, yourself included, and give thanks that God honors you enough to ask you to be part of that rescue plan! Do it because you believe God really is for you, that God is like a mother hen who longs to bring you under her wings to heal and love and cherish you all the days of your mortal life and then throughout all eternity. Jesus himself promised this and so we remember that it is therefore God the Father’s promise to us through God the Son. This is why we do Lent, because we are eager to love the Father in return for his great love for us and because we believe the promises of God, that through Jesus our Lord we are part of Abraham’s family and therefore part of God’s promise to heal and bless God’s world. That, folks, means we have work to do in the Lord’s name right here and now. It also means we have Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Justice Antonin Scalia on the Importance of Christian Funerals

Wow. Just wow. He got it. Couldn’t agree more. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

From here.

Supreme Court of the United States
Washington, D. C. 20543

CHAMBERS OF
JUSTICE ANTONIN SCALIA

September 1, 1998

Dr. James C. Goodloe
Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church
1627 Monument Avenue
Richmond, Virginia 23220-2925

Dear Dr. Goodloe:

I looked for you unsuccessfully at the luncheon following the funeral yesterday. I wanted to tell you how reverent and inspiring I found the service that you conducted.

In my aging years, I have attended so many funerals of prominent people that I consider myself a connoisseur of the genre. When the deceased and his family are nonbelievers, of course, there is not much to be said except praise for the departed who is no more. But even in Christian services conducted for deceased Christians , I am surprised at how often eulogy is the centerpiece of the service, rather than (as it was in your church) the Resurrection of Christ, and the eternal life which follows from that. I am told that, in Roman Catholic canon law, encomiums at funeral Masses are not permitted—though if that is the rule, I have never seen it observed except in the breach. I have always thought there is much to be said for such a prohibition, not only because it spares from embarrassment or dissembling those of us about whom little good can truthfully be said, but also because, even when the deceased was an admirable person—indeed, especially when the deceased was an admirable person—praise for his virtues can cause us to forget that we are praying for, and giving thanks for, God’s inexplicable mercy to a sinner. (My goodness, that seems more like a Presbyterian thought than a Catholic one!)

Perhaps the clergymen who conduct relatively secular services are moved by a desire not to offend the nonbelievers in attendance—whose numbers tend to increase in proportion to the prominence of the deceased. What a great mistake. Weddings and funerals (but especially funerals) are the principal occasions left in modern America when you can preach the Good News not just to the faithful, but to those who have never really heard it.

Many thanks, Dr. Goodloe, for a service that did honor to Lewis and homage to God. It was a privilege to sit with your congregation. Best regards.

Sincerely,

Antonin Scalia

Funeral Sermon: The Resurrection of the Dead: The Promise of Evil Defeated

Sermon delivered on Saturday, February 20, 2016 at Maize Manor United Methodist Church, Columbus, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Revelation 21.1-7; Psalm 23.1-6; 1 Corinthians  15.1-26, 35-38, 42-44a, 53-58; John 11.17-27.

In the name of God: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Death under any circumstance is hard, isn’t it? But it is especially hard when we are dealing with cancer, a disease that can only charitably be called pure evil. In this case it has struck down a mother in the prime of her life, robbed her of her human dignity as God’s image-bearer, and took her against her will from her husband and young son, along with the rest of her family and friends. There is no good way we can spin this, nor should we try. Her death from cancer is just wrong. There is no justice to be found in it, no goodness. Cancer is truly a wicked disease and Sarah’s death makes us angry and indignant, the way Jesus was when he snorted at his friend Lazarus’ tomb just before he raised him to life (John 11.38) because death is our ultimate enemy, the last enemy to be destroyed (1 Corinthians 15.26). And like Martha in today’s gospel lesson we want to throw our hands up in the air and ask in desperation why God allows this to happen. In other words, we need to hear a word of real hope today.

And if you paid attention to our gospel lesson, you heard that word because Jesus gave Martha and us a much more satisfactory answer to her “why” question about evil and death. Jesus did not answer her question directly. Instead, echoing Psalm 23, he acknowledged that while evil and death still exist in God’s good but fallen world, he had come to destroy their power over us. That is why Christian funerals are so important. They serve to remind us that for those who are in Christ, evil and death do not have the final say because of God’s great love for us expressed in the death and resurrection of Jesus. As Jesus tells us in our gospel lesson, resurrection isn’t a concept, it’s a person, and those like Sarah who are united with Jesus are promised a share in his resurrection when he returns to raise the dead and usher in God’s new world. Jesus’ new bodily existence attests to the fact that we as humans—body, mind, and spirit—matter to God, and that new bodily existence, not death, is our final destiny for all eternity.

Paul talks about the nature of our promised resurrection body in 1 Corinthians 15 and it is worth our time to see what he has to say. Paul tells us that unlike our mortal body that is subject to disease, decay, and death, the resurrection body with which we will be clothed will be like Jesus’ resurrected body. It will be a spiritual body, that is, it will be a body animated and powered by God’s Spirit instead of being animated and powered by flesh and blood. This means that our new body will no longer be subject to all the nasty things like cancer to which our mortal body is subjected. Whatever our new body looks like—and surely it will be more beautiful and wonderful than our minds can comprehend or imagine—it will be impervious to death and suited to live in God’s promised new world, the new heavens and earth.

When Christ returns to usher in the new creation, the dimensions of heaven and earth will no longer be separate spheres for God and humans respectively, and which currently only intersect. Instead, as Revelation 21.1-7 promises, the new heavens will come down to earth and the two will be fused together in a mighty act of new creation so that evil will be banished and we will get to live in God’s direct presence forever. There will be no more sorrow or sickness or suffering or pain or death or evil of any kind. We will be reunited with our loved ones who have died in Christ and get to live forever with our new body and limitless new opportunities to be the humans God created and always intended for us to be. Given the cancer that ravaged her body, I am sure that as she rests with the Lord and awaits her new body, Sarah is all about this promised future reality living in God’s new world where there will be no pain and suffering.

Please don’t misunderstand. I am not suggesting that we should not grieve. That would be cruel nonsense. You don’t love a person for an entire lifetime and then not grieve her loss when an evil disease like cancer claims her. But as Paul reminded the Thessalonians, we are to grieve as people who have real hope and not as those who have none at all. It is this resurrection hope, the promise of new bodily life in God’s new heavens and earth, that we claim today. Our resurrection hope is the only real basis we have for celebrating Sarah’ life today, because without a union with Jesus, none of us have life in this world or the next.

I want to close by telling you a story that powerfully sums up our Christian hope.

In 1989 Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma, wife of Emperor Charles of Austria died. She was the last Empress of Austria, Queen of Hungary, and Queen of Bohemia—one of the last members of the storied House of Habsburg. Her funeral was held in Vienna, from which she had been exiled most of her eventful life. After the service in St. Stephen’s Cathedral, her body was taken to the Imperial Crypt, where some 145 Habsburg royals are buried. As the coffin was taken to the Crypt, an ancient ceremony took place. A herald knocked at the closed door, and a voice responded, “Who seeks entrance?” The herald answered, “Zita, Empress of Austria, Queen of Hungary.” From within came the response, “I do not know this person.” The herald tried again, saying, “This is Zita, Princess of Bourbon-Parma, Empress of Bohemia.” The same reply was heard: “I do not know this person.” The third time, the herald and pallbearers said, “Our sister Zita, a sinful mortal.” The doors swung open.

And so we return to Jesus’ question to Martha in our gospel lesson. Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Do you believe this? The promise is mind-boggling. But the God we worship is mind-boggling. Jesus’ promise that he is the resurrection and the life is ours, not because we are deserving, but because of who God is, the God who created us to have life with him forever, and who is embodied in Jesus Christ raised from the dead. That is why we can rejoice today, even in the midst of our grief and sorrow. And if your pain and sorrow are too great so that you cannot hear the promise of resurrection today, hold onto the promise nevertheless until the day comes when you can hear and embrace it. Because of her faith in Jesus who loves her and who has claimed her from all eternity, the doors of heaven have swung wide open for Sarah and she is enjoying her rest with her Lord Jesus until the new creation and the resurrection of our mortal bodies come. And that, of course, is Good News, not only for her, but also for the rest of us, now and for all eternity.

In the name of God: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Happy Birthday, Mr. President

Abraham Lincoln pictureToday is Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. He would be 207 years old! The president is one of my heroes, primarily because of the role he played in saving this country. Mr. Lincoln had a wonderful spirit about him and his humility, compassion, and willingness to forgive his enemies arguably saved this country from a terrible aftermath following our Civil War. Reconstruction was hard enough as it was, but at least we did not have guerrilla warfare to contend with, something that would have probably done us in as a country forever.

We healed as well as any country could following a civil war. If you don’t believe me, check out other countries who have suffered through a civil war. Most of the time it didn’t turn out well. The reason our country’s reconstruction went relatively well is because of President Lincoln. He set the tone for U.S. Grant and the other Union commanders by insisting that they treat the vanquished with dignity and respect. Lincoln insisted that the rebels would not be treated harshly or punitively and as a result, everyone else followed suit, including the Confederate commanders.

Of course, this wasn’t all Lincoln’s doing, but as president he set the tone for others to follow as great leaders always do. It would have been just as easy to hang all the rebel commanders and make life miserable for the vanquished. But Lincoln knew better. He knew how that would turn out. It would have been interesting to see how much more quickly we would have healed as a nation had Lincoln lived to serve a full second term. Instead, the zealots and self-righteous decided to “fix” Lincoln’s initial proposals for reconstruction and nearly managed to destroy all that President Lincoln had sought to establish in the process.

I am convinced God put Abraham Lincoln in our history for a reason. His presidency is more evidence that God has blessed this country. Whether that blessing continues today is debatable.  But that’s a different story for a different day. Today, it is fitting that all Americans honor our 16th president and give thanks to God for placing the right man in the right situation at the right time. Happy birthday, Mr. President, and thank you for your service to our country.