The Cross and the Empty Tomb: The Wisdom and Power of God

Sermon preached on Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 65.17-25; Acts 10.34-43; 1 Corinthians 15.19-26; John 20.1-18.

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

Happy Easter, St. Augustine’s! Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia! Before we turn to this history-changing event, I want to read you a more sober passage from the book of Lamentations, a book written primarily to lament the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Babylonians. I want you to close your eyes and imagine you are the man whose voice you are about to hear in the text, a man who laments the destruction of his beloved city—and with it apparently his life as well [read Lamentations 3.1-20]. Now imagine this lament is a metaphor for your life with all its hurts, heartaches, failures, fears, sin, and brokenness. Imagine you, like ancient Jerusalem, stand under God’s righteous judgment with no prospect of rescue. And because God in his judgment has left you to your own devices, the forces of evil are going to win the day so that all the sorrow, pain, and hurt that have afflicted you are going to continue unabated with no hope of rescue. How does it make you feel? What does that do to your hope? If you are like me, it is an absolutely terrifying picture devoid of hope. The future, along with the present, is one of utter darkness and despair.

I am not trying to rain on your Easter parade. Instead, I am trying to get us to see vividly what Paul is talking about in our epistle lesson this morning where he reminds the Corinthians (and us) what our world would be like without the death and resurrection of Jesus. When we understand what it means to be God’s enemy, when we understand what a world without the love of God would be like, given the human condition with all its sin and brokenness, and what results from that, we are ready to see the cross of Jesus for what it is—the very symbol of God’s love for his human creatures and God’s triumph over the dark powers and principalities. In other words, the power and wisdom of God. Because without the cross of Jesus, we are still dead in our sins and remain God’s enemies (cf. Colossians 1.20-23). And without the cross, evil has not been defeated so that the foundation of God’s promised new creation launched at Easter could be laid. That is why we can never separate Jesus’ death and resurrection and we must always keep the cross in view, even as we gather today to celebrate our Lord’s resurrection.

“But wait!” you say. “Evil has not been defeated. Look around you!” All very true. So how could Paul and the other NT writers make such a bold and audacious claim? After all, Jesus had been executed as a criminal and everybody knew that meant Caesar and the dark powers behind Caesar were the real lords. Crucified Messiahs were failed Messiahs, not the Lord of the universe! So how could Paul and others possibly think Jesus was Lord and Caesar wasn’t? Because of the resurrection! In the death and resurrection of Jesus we see God in his sovereign, rescuing love dealing with the evil and pain of the world in a surprising way by bearing it himself, and also with the greatest enemy of his creation—death itself. By allowing the forces of evil and darkness to do their very worst to him, Jesus, the very embodiment of God, showed that he had defeated the powers on the cross when God raised him from the dead on that first Easter Sunday. Had the powers and principalities really won, if they were the true lords of the universe, Jesus would have remained dead and we wouldn’t be gathered here today as his people. But Jesus didn’t remain dead. As all our readings testify, God raised him bodily from the dead and in doing so demonstrated that not only had he dealt decisively with the forces of evil but had also defeated death itself. This, of course, is why Jesus is Lord and Caesar and the powers behind him are not. To be certain, the defeat of evil is not yet fully consummated, but it is assured. The empty tomb is God’s guarantee of that. This is why Paul called the cross the power and wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1.18-25).

But so too is the resurrection the power and wisdom of God because as we have just seen, it signaled that the forces of evil really had been defeated on the cross and that God’s promised new creation that we read about in our OT lesson had begun. When God raised Jesus’ mortal body and transformed it into an immortal one, he gave us our first tangible sign of what our bodies in the new creation would be like. When God speaks into existence his new creation, the dimensions of heaven and earth will be fused together so that we will get to live directly in God’s presence. God will consummate the defeat of evil he achieved on the cross and raise our mortal bodies from the dead so that we never have to fear death or any of the other kinds of evil that afflict us now, thus bringing God’s kingdom in full on earth as in heaven. It is a glorious and breathtaking promise and we rob ourselves of the power of the gospel if we miss or dismiss it.

John wants us to see this very clearly in today’s gospel lesson. He starts out by telling us that Jesus was raised on the first day of the week and we need to pay attention to this because from the very beginning of his gospel, John has alluded to the great creation narratives of Genesis 1 and echoed its themes of light and darkness. As we think back to John’s crucifixion narratives, Jesus’ last words on the cross were, “It is finished.” What was “it” that was finished? The work of bearing the weight of the world’s sin and evil, the work of defeating the powers that had ruined God’s good creation. And this happened on Friday, the sixth day of the week. What happened on the sixth day in the creation narratives? God created human beings in his image to be wise stewards of his world. But we got it all wrong and our sin opened the floodgates for evil and God’s curse on both us and his world, of which the chaos and death we now experience are part. But now on the sixth day, the world’s only true human would do what was necessary to rescue us from God’s righteous judgment on our sin and defeat the powers of evil and darkness by going to the cross. And then what happened on the seventh day? The great Sabbath rest as Jesus’ body rested in the tomb, just as God had rested on the seventh day.

Now John tells us it is the first day of the week, the day of resurrection, the first day of new creation in which God’s promised future burst into our present to show us that death had been swallowed up in life and evil had been effectively defeated. That is why we are repeatedly told not to be afraid! This was completely unexpected because while most first-century Jews anticipated a final general resurrection of the dead and the defeat of evil at the eschaton (end times), nobody expected just one person to be resurrected before all the rest. We see this confusion very clearly in John’s gospel as well. There is uncertainty and panic with the disciples running around—literally. When Peter and the beloved disciple reached the empty tomb and saw the linen cloths, John tells us they believed. This doesn’t mean they believed Jesus had been raised from the dead because John tells us immediately that they did not yet understand the scripture, that Jesus must be raised from the dead. They didn’t go out and proclaim the resurrection. They went home. And then we see Mary not recognizing Jesus, mistaking him for a gardener. Mary of course was wrong on one level but quite right on another because Jesus was called to be the new gardener to bring order and new creation out of the chaos of the old. No, the first followers of Jesus did not expect to see a risen Messiah and all the gospel accounts reflect this quite authentically. They initially missed the power and wisdom of God because they were not expecting God to rescue us in this manner. They were (and we are) used to fighting evil and the forces of darkness on their terms and using their weapons. But God did not fight evil on its own terms to defeat it. He defeated evil by the power of love as demonstrated on the cross.

So what do we do with all this? What difference does this make for our lives right now, to our marriages, our jobs, our families, and our loved ones who have died in Christ? First, it means there is nothing in this life that is beyond the power of God’s love and redemption. Nothing. Not us and not the brokenness and chaos of our lives. And that means we don’t have to imagine a world where evil reigns unchecked and where we stand under God’s just judgment like we imagined at the beginning of this sermon. Evil and death do not have the final say, but rather life and new creation, and we are called to be living signposts of God’s new creation by abandoning all the worthless junk of old creation—the lies, the various kinds of lust, greed, and anger that enslave and dehumanize us and lead to death. We as Jesus’ people are called to live in the manner of Jesus and to cultivate, with the Spirit’s help, the fruit of the Spirit to show the world that a new day has arrived, even if not yet completely, and that God has not abandoned us but is actively involved in his world and intends to redeem us. If we want to be Easter people, the way we live our lives that imitate Jesus will be the telltale sign that we are.

Second, because Jesus’ resurrection signaled the beginning of God new creation, we have a hope and a future that should call forth wild celebrations. If we really believe that Jesus’ death and resurrection is the turning point in history, and for the good, why would we not celebrate wildly during the 50 days of Easter? We as a church will be doing just that and you will hear more about this during the announcements. Simply put, our Easter celebrations ought to put our Christmas celebrations to shame.

But I also want to sound a note of caution lest I be misunderstood and you think I am simply being Pollyannaish. I know that while the Easter hope sounds good on paper, we all have our doubts and fears, in part, because evil, sin, and death are not fully defeated, and I am not asking us to put on a happy face in the midst of deep sorrow or to act happy when we are not. There is a massive difference between being happy and having a deep, abiding joy that is not based on the circumstances of life, but rather on a relationship with the risen Jesus.

As we have seen, the first followers of Jesus did not put on a happy face because they did not expect to find a risen Jesus that first Sunday. They simply didn’t expect to encounter the wisdom and power of God in this manner. But the resurrection is just one of many examples in the Bible, albeit the most important of them, where God acts in unexpected ways and God continues to do so today. So if you are particularly afflicted this morning, I encourage you to do this. Pray through our gospel lesson this week. Meet Jesus in the garden with all of your doubts and fears, your hurts and your heartaches, your sin and your brokenness. Bring them to Jesus just the way Mary did that first Sunday and ask him to help you hold your mind open to the sovereign God who does unexpected things, just as he did when he raised Jesus. Ask Jesus to help you see God’s wisdom and power, not just in Jesus’ death and resurrection but in your own life right now, and then dare to claim the hope and promise of Easter. Then commit to memory some of the words from our hymn today, This Is My Father’s World, “Let me ne’er forget that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the Ruler yet…the battle is not done; Jesus who died shall be satisfied, and earth and heaven be one.”

As you begin to grapple with your Easter hope, I want to close where I started, with a passage from Lamentations. Pay attention to what the writer says and remember this is the same man we heard at the beginning of the sermon [read Lamentations 3.19-26]. The challenge of Easter is not to say all is well when all isn’t well. The challenge of Easter is to have the faith, wisdom, and knowledge to recognize the wisdom of God and the power of God contained in the Scriptures and at work in our lives so that at every turn we can be reminded that in Jesus, God has defeated the dark powers that have ruined his good creation and set us free from sin and death so that God’s future is here among us right now, and that not even death can separate us from that future or the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. And when, in the power of the Spirit, you are able to recognize the wisdom of God and the power of God consistently, you will surely have Good News, now and for all eternity.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen. Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Fr. Philip Sang: Why is Good Friday Good?

Sermon delivered on Good Friday, March 29, 2013, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 52.13-53.12; Psalm 22.1-31; Hebrews 10.16-25; John 18.1-19.42.

Good Friday, the most tragically beautifully date on the Christian calendar, is set aside to remember the passion of our Lord. It’s tragic for what the creator would suffer at the hands of the creature, and it’s beautiful for the work that was done on that dreadful day.

Today is the bleakest moment in the Gospel story. Reading the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion today, we have the benefit of knowing that it’s all leading up to the triumph of Easter. But to the Jesus-followers present at the scene, it must have seemed that the world as they knew it was falling apart and maybe Coming to an end.

One of the challenges of reading the crucifixion story two thousand years after the event took place is that it’s difficult for us to empathize with its participants. From our perspective, the Easter crowds seem insanely fickle; Jesus’ disciples seem utterly clueless; the members of the Sandhedrin seem evil; and Pilate corrupt.

Those things are true. Nobody except Jesus behaves well in the Good Friday story. But it’s these very people—fickle, clueless, evil, corrupt—that Jesus died for.

To most of us, death is not usually one of the most favourite topics for public speaking or not usually a welcome topic. For those of us who drive, we come across dead end signs when driving, and also we are always rushed to meet the deadline in our daily undertakings.

In all these cases, the word “dead” implies an end of some kind: end of the road; end of an order/programme; end of time. And “dead’ means just that: no more, finished, done, over.

But With Jesus, “already dead” isn’t the end. The cross is not only the instrument of the death of Jesus, but better to be viewed, as the sweet wood of exaltation, salvation, and reconciliation.

On this day, we need to silence ourselves and ask again and again who was this man, this man of sorrow; this man of suffering? A suffering servant as alluded to by prophet Isaiah

And why did he have to undergo all off this?

Of course, we Christians know the answers. But sometime it calls us to do more. This is why I love Good Friday service. I love the solemn atmosphere: we need to quiet our mind and soul so that the answers can resonate in an innovative and new way; that the answers will find a new way in our spirit; that the answers will awaken and find an inner room in our conscience; that place, deep within where we tend to connect with God; that place deep within where God speaks in the silence of our being.

Why did he have to suffer, be scorned?

This should drive us then to live in gratitude and love. We need to show appreciation that we have been redeemed; that Christ has transformed us from within and he has opened the gates of heaven for us.

When we ponder what Christ has done for us, this can only create a wellspring of love, gushing out from within: a wellspring of love that purifies and cleanses and returns us to the one who should be at the centre of our life.

We need to be willing to die to ourselves if we want to heal divisions, hurts and pain. We need to be willing to die if we want to love others with the same compassion and mercy that Jesus faithfully showed.

The cross, the mystery of death – calls upon us to the transformation of self, that is the only way to harmony and to lasting peace.

This day – this Good Friday, is a reminder that the road to peace is paved by a cross. This day – this Good Friday, is a reminder that “dead” is no longer the end. Death opens the way for new life, unity and peace.

All of us have betrayed and Denied Jesus like those disciples so long ago in one way or the other. The encouragement of this day is that Jesus does not count betrayal and denial as the last word. His last words, “It is finished,” indicate that he had accomplished all that was necessary to heal our betrayal, our denial of him, to heal our divisions, to bring reconciliation among us, and between humanity and his Father.

To live this well, we must surrender ourselves to do as Jesus did – die to self for the sake of others. We actually look for ways to embrace death, to be self-giving, to die to self. This is how we should live. This is how we choose life.

Today is our Lord’s Good Friday. But each of us is called in love to live our own Good Fridays.

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

Archbishop Bob Duncan’s Easter Letter

Received via email.


red line

Easter, A.D. 2013


Beloved in the Lord,

The Psalmist declares:

The Lord is my strength and my song,
and he has become my salvation.
[Psalm 118:14]

As I write this letter to you it is Wednesday in Holy Week. I am travelling to Juba in South Sudan to spend the Great Three Days (The Sacred Triduum) with Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul, his clergy and his people. I am to be away from all the things that are familiar, except that the Church is one throughout the world, and the old, old story does not change (yet changes everything).

Flying today I could see the Chesapeake and Delaware Bays (Kent Island, Cape Henelopen, Cape May), places associated with boyhood and early ministry. Hours later there were Cape Trafalgar and Gibraltar and the North Coast of Africa, places I had never been but about which my historical studies and interests caused me to reflect over lots of years and lots of learning.

Easters have been spent mostly with the Church communities I have known well and with those who are family (blood, marriage and church) whether in New Jersey or Connecticut or New York or North Carolina or Delaware or Western Pennsylvania. One Easter, Nara and I spent at Canterbury, which was to be surrounded by things we knew (the cloud of witnesses, the music, the architecture) and those we did not know (the worshippers we were present with.) I know that this Easter in South Sudan will be all at once different and the same.

The seventeenth century poet and pastor George Herbert left us with two poems he entitled “Easter.” The second of the poems ends:

Can there be any day but this,
Though many suns to shine endeavor?
We count three hundred, but we miss:
There is but one, and the one ever.

This Easter I am looking back. Like Lady Julian of Norwich in the 14th century, I am asking, “What does it all mean?” Whether in Juba or in Pittsburgh – and wherever you find yourself – what I testify is that the Gospel is my strength and my song, and that Jesus has become my salvation. Easter is the day that lights and gives meaning to all the others, wherever I – we – spend it and with whomever I – we – spend it. The tomb is empty. The world, the flesh and the devil are defeated. Jesus is alive. In Him, the alien becomes familiar, loss becomes gain, sorrow becomes joy, and death becomes life. This Easter I am also looking around and looking ahead.

May the Father’s love, the Son’s victory and the Holy Sprit’s power overwhelm you, penetrate you and those surrounding you, as they continue to do in me, with the Easter perspective that changes and transforms everything.

Faithfully in Christ,

+Robert Pittsburgh_Signature

Archbishop and Primate

Anglican Church in North America

Holy Week: Remembering What Constitutes Eternal Life

After Jesus said this, he looked toward heaven and prayed: “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do.And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began. I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe bythat name you gave me. None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled. I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them. I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.

–John 17.1-5, 11-16 (NIV)

Today is Maundy Thursday. Maundy comes from the Latin antiphon, Novum Mandatum, meaning “a new mandate.” It originates in Jesus’ mandate to his disciples in John 13.34 to love one another. Maundy Thursday begins a three day period starting tonight known as the Easter or Paschal Triduum and today’s passage comes from Jesus’ prayer during the Last Supper.

Here we see our Lord asking God to glorify him through his impending crucifixion and we remember the terrible cost of our rebellion against God. We remember the Father’s great love for us in taking on our flesh and suffering himself the full weight of his wrath poured out on our rebelliousness. This should make any of us who have an understanding of the human condition pause and lament over that which we have heaped on our Lord. It is not pretty and tomorrow we will have a terrible visualization of the true cost of God’s love for us.

In his prayer, Jesus goes on to tell us what eternal life is–knowing God manifested through himself. We are reminded that it was God alone who made it possible for us to be reconciled to him through Jesus’ death on the cross, and in saying this we must always remember that Jesus was God himself made man. What does this mean for us? It means that when we turn in faith to Jesus, our whole orientation is different. To know God and his Son Jesus means that we stop trying to make ourselves God and resolve to let God be God.

Moreover, to know God means that we know Jesus and follow his example of humility, service, and suffering love, which perforce goes against our natural inclination toward selfishness, self-aggrandizement, pride, and the rest of the ugliness that besets human beings and defaces God’s image in us. We can know God precisely because we have seen him as a human in Jesus. We listen to Jesus’ commandment to love and we watch our Lord in action. We watch him heal the sick, give sight to the blind, offer mercy to sinners, and raise the dead. In doing so we are astonished to realize that we are watching God put his Kingdom into effect here on earth as it is in heaven and we resolve with the help of the Spirit to put to death that which is in us that keeps us hostile toward God. When we know God in Jesus we take seriously Jesus’ command to us to deny ourselves, take up our cross each day, and follow him.

In doing so, Jesus reminds us that we are going to face severe opposition from the world and from the powers and principalities who hate him (and us), and who would seek to destroy us. But has our Lord reminds us, we are not to fear or lose heart because when we embody Jesus and take him to his broken and hurting world, we have his protection. This doesn’t mean we are immune to danger, hurt, sorrow, or betrayal, to name just a few. Jesus himself was not immune to these things during his earthly life. Rather, we have Jesus’ promise never to let us go so that not even death itself can separate us from him. We have his promise to be with us each day through the presence of the Holy Spirit.

And it all begins on Calvary. Not only do we find eternal life in Jesus’ death, we find our marching orders here in this world. As our Lord commands us in his prayer, we are not to withdraw from the world; we are to imitate our Lord and allow him to use us to help him bring forth his Kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven. Here we find the whole package for life and living. Our future is secured for us by God’s great love for us in Christ. We find comfort and hope in that knowledge and we find meaning and purpose in this present life by imitating our Lord in his patience, humility, service, and suffering love for others. It’s not what we expected from God. Yet if we have the needed faith and humility to hear God speak to us through Jesus, we will discover that following a crucified Messiah is so much better than what we could possibly imagine about God because we realize that, like Jesus, God will bless our suffering and turn it into his glory and ours.

Think deeply on these things as you follow your Lord tonight to dark Gethsemane and tomorrow to Calvary. Think deeply about the terrible and costly love manifested for you. But don’t stop with simply having a contrite and broken spirit over what God has suffered for you. Remember too with a glad and thankful heart that you have been freed from your sins to serve in joyful obedience this God who loves you so passionately. When you do that, you really will have eternal life because then, and only then, will you really know the God who manifested himself to you in Jesus.

Fox News: Alabama Church’s ‘Strip For Me’ Billboard Draws Attention

Interesting. See what you think.

The church’s sign quotes Jesus from Hebrews, saying simply, “Strip for me.” The message: Instead of spending money in a strip club, spend it in a way that will better your strip_for_mefamily and yourself.

Even more powerful, perhaps, is the location of the sign, which can be seen just behind The Palace Gentlemen’s Club sign on 3rd Avenue West in the city’s downtown.

Pastor Mike McClure, Jr., expected some negativity in response to the billboard but he said he doesn’t mind. He says his church is out to change lives of Magic City men.

Palm Sunday: Looking for the Messiah in All the Wrong Places

Sermon delivered on Palm Sunday, March 24, 2013, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 50.4-9a; Psalm 31.9-16; Philippians 2.5-11; Luke 22.14-23.56.

As we enter the most sacred week of the Christian calendar, it is an appropriate time for us to pause and take stock of what God has done for us in Jesus. It is important for us to not be in a hurry to get to the great Easter celebration and so we need to reflect on the terrible cost of God’s great love for us in Jesus. One way to do that is to ask why the crowds turned on Jesus. Why did they hail him as the Lord’s Messiah on Sunday and shout for his crucifixion on Friday?

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, he never explicitly announced that he was Israel’s Messiah. Instead, and consistent with his previous modus operandi, he announced his messiahship through his actions and symbols. When you are living in occupied territory, it is a dangerous thing to come right out and announce your intentions, and Jesus understood this all too well. If you understand this dynamic, by the way, it will also help you better understand Jesus’ ministry in which he often taught in parables and/or acted out prophetic announcements in public and then later explained their meaning in private to his disciples (cf., e.g., Mark 4.1-20).

And the crowds, both those who supported Jesus and those who opposed him, would have understood his symbolic actions. When he chose to enter Jerusalem on a donkey right before the great Passover celebration that marked Israel’s defining moment when God delivered his people from their bondage to slavery in Egypt, the crowd that followed Jesus would have understood that he was enacting the prophecy about the returning King found in Zechariah 9.9, part of the prophetic book that generally addressed God’s unfulfilled promise to return and live among his people. The crowd showed their understanding of Jesus’ prophetic reenactment by waving palm branches to symbolically convey the notion of victory over Israel’s enemies and reciting a passage from Psalm 118.1-29, a psalm that celebrates God’s rescue of his people.

And while there were diverse opinions about what God’s Messiah would do when he came, generally speaking most first-century Jews expected the Messiah to do two things: First, to expel Israel’s enemies and establish God’s righteous rule, and second, to cleanse the Temple. This helps us to understand what the crowd expected Jesus to do as he approached Jerusalem that day and why they would later turn on him. Jesus’ followers surely expected him to be a conquering Messiah who would rid their land of the hated Romans. They were still operating under a shock and awe conception of God, where God would be present to his people like he was in the pillars of cloud and fire in the desert, the kind of God who would deliver his people in dramatic fashion as he had done at the Red Sea and then annihilated Israel’s enemies who pursued them. And when Jesus failed to deliver in the manner the crowds expected of God’s Messiah, they were quick to turn on him. Sadly, I suspect that many, if not most, Christians today have the same conception of God. We want a God who is powerful and who will take no prisoners, a God who will rid his world of evil and evil-doers in a dramatic and spectacular fashion, making the latter drink to the dregs his terrible cup of wrath—provided, of course, we are not on that list of evil-doers. We, like Jesus’ contemporaries, much prefer the God of shock and awe, the God of Mount Sinai and the Red Sea. The God of the cross? Not so much.

But Jesus would have none of that. He did indeed come as God’s Messiah. He did indeed come to rescue God’s people Israel and through them the rest of the world. But he would not use pagan means to do so because that would mean his mission was defeated before it ever got started. It is impossible to be God’s light and salt to the world when you act just like those you have come to redeem. No, Jesus would come to rescue us from a greater slavery than political ideology or military occupation. He would come in the fashion of the suffering servant contained in our OT lesson and echoed in our epistle lesson this morning. He would come in great love and humility and pour out his very blood for us and for the world to free us from our slavery to sin and death. This means we no longer have to fear death or God’s righteous judgment on us because our sins are covered by the blood of the Lamb shed for us. It means we are freed to become the fully human creatures God created us to be and to be his salt and light to his broken and fallen world to announce to others that evil, sin, and death have been conquered and that there is no longer any reason to live in fear of anything because God himself has overcome all that can really ever harm us. To be sure, evil is not fully vanquished. However, we do not fear because by faith we know that in Jesus, God has overcome evil and death.

But important as our salvation is, it is only one part of God’s plan of redemption because God plans to redeem and restore his fallen creation as well (cf. Romans 8.18-30). From the very beginning God has remained faithful to his fallen world and broken people and we are saved so that we can be the wise stewards God always intended us to be to watch over God’s new creation that Jesus’ resurrection proclaimed on that first Easter Sunday and which will be fully consummated when our Lord comes again.

But that is a story that must wait and we must not be too eager to get to the great Easter celebration before we stop and consider how terribly costly our salvation and the redemption of God’s world is to God. And so this morning I invite you to be fully invested in the story of your redemption this week. Come to table with Jesus on Thursday and listen as he proclaims the meaning of his impending suffering and death. “This is my body broken for you. This is my blood shed for you.” Follow our Lord to Gethsemane and watch as he agonizes over the prospect of taking all the evil and sins of the world on himself so that we will be spared God’s terrible wrath. Given the countless stories of courageous Christian martyrs who gladly suffered death for the sake of their Lord, this is the only reasonable explanation of Jesus’ agony in the garden. We can hardly bear the weight of our own sins let alone the weight of the world’s as well as the evil of the powers and principalities arrayed against us. No wonder Jesus sweat blood that dark night as he contemplated what he must do for us!

Then on Friday, come to the stations of the cross and stay for the Good Friday liturgy where you can stand with our Lord as he faces relentless questioning and abuse from the Jewish authorities and then Pilate and the Romans. Recoil in horror at the massive injustice you are witnessing and the terrible scourging that Jesus endures for you. Weep with the women at Calvary as you behold the spectacle of Jesus’ naked and pierced body hanging on a cross so that you might not have to live in fear of death or God’s judgment on your sins. Shudder as you listen to his cry of dereliction as he experiences the God-forsakenness that must inevitably accompany his bearing of our sins and all the world’s evil, and weep with sorrow as you see his dead body taken down from the cross and buried in a newly hewn tomb. “This is my body broken for you. This is my blood shed for you.” And then come to the great Easter Vigil on Saturday where you watch in sorrow at the tomb and listen to God’s story of redemption for his world and us, unworthy as we are. Then be prepared for the most unexpected thing. The great shout of acclamation! He is not here! He is risen! If you do not participate in the events of the Holy Triduum (Maundy Thursday-Holy Saturday), you will certainly miss why we must celebrate Easter so wildly and joyously.

In the meantime, this week if you want to learn more fully what it means to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus, try this exercise. Pray through our Psalm lesson this morning (Psalm 31.9-16) each day, but don’t be in a hurry to get to verses 14ff. Instead, focus on verses 9-13. Be honest with yourself and admit that there are real and terrible problems in God’s good but fallen world and in the lives of his people and of people everywhere. Then identify people who are being afflicted by the kinds of trials identified in this psalm—physical ordeals, overwhelming sadness, loneliness, and a sense of utter abandonment—and then ask Jesus to help you pray for those people this week and to bear their pain with them. As you pray in the power of the Spirit, and as you begin feel the awful hurt and the pain of the people for whom you pray, only then come to verses 14ff. Doing so will help you better understand part of what Jesus is calling you to do as his followers who take up their cross. We do that often in prayer. Remember too that Jesus died to ultimately redeem the awful hurt and pain and evil, as well as the people, for whom you are praying so that even if your prayers are not fully addressed in your mortal lifetime or in ways you completely understand, the hurts and the sorrows and the evil have been dealt with on the cross so that you can live with hope, expectation, and thanksgiving, even in the midst of all that can go wrong in the world. “This is my body broken for you. This is my blood shed for you.” Doing so will not only help you prepare for the great Easter celebration next Sunday, but by the power of the Spirit, you will also know you have Good News, now and for all eternity.

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

10 Must-Read Quotations from Pope Francis: Portrait of a Forceful Thinker

From here.

Jorge_Bergoglio2-240x160Who is Jorge Bergoglio, the new Pope? What does he think about contemporary issues? The handful of translated quotes which constitute his work in English up to now do not give a rounded idea of what he thinks. Here are a few paragraphs from his 2011 book Sobre el cielo y la tierra (On heaven and earth). It is a wide-ranging dialogue with a well-known Argentinian rabbi, Abraham Skorka, on religious and social topics.

The Future of Religion

There have been worse times for religions than the present. Nonetheless they pulled through. Perhaps nowadays there is a scarcity of religious people, but there were times in the past when there was a scarcity of virtue. There have been corrupt times in the Church… There were very difficult times and nonetheless religion revived. Suddenly there appear people like Teresa of Calcutta who revolutionise the notion of personal dignity, who spend their time… helping people to die. These deeds create mysticism and renew the religious sense.

In the history of the Catholic Church, the true renovators are the saints. They are the true reformers, the ones who change, transform, lead and revive spiritual paths. Another example: Francis of Assisi, who introduced a new attitude towards poverty in Christianity when faced with the luxury, pride and vanity of the civil and ecclesiastical powers of the time. He introduced a mysticism of poverty, of detachment, and he changed history.

The more I read about the new pope, the more impressed I am. Read it all.

David Wilkinson: Bigger Than We Think

From Christianity Today online.

“The biblical Creator doesn’t need to hide in little gaps in science.”

The Christian doctrine of Creation has often been hijacked by controversies over how old the universe is. It has been hollowed out by the theory that God simply ignites the universe and then goes off for a cup of coffee, never touching his masterwork again. It is interesting that attacks on belief in a Creator, whether from Hawking, Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, or Lawrence M. Krauss’s recentA Universe from Nothing, tend to target this diminished deity. But the Bible has a much bigger understanding of God as Creator. Not only does the doctrine of Creation feature in Scripture beyond just Genesis 1, God’s creative activity permeates every moment of the history of the universe.

My Hawking-induced crisis of faith spurred me to move beyond a “God of the gaps”—a shrunken deity enlisted merely to fill any remaining pockets of mystery that science has yet to illuminate. Indeed, my experience has been that recapturing the doctrine of Creation in its scriptural fullness points us toward a much more exciting understanding of creation. It points us toward a God for whom science is a gift rather than a stumbling block. And perhaps most importantly, it points to a Creator God who is worthy of worship, enjoyment, and trust.

A spot on article about God the Creator and his creation. See what you think.

A Little Passiontide Quiz for You

Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. One of you [Jews] will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use? What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory—even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?

–Romans 9.18-24 (NIV)

As the season of Lent moves ever closer toward the climactic events of Jerusalem during Holy Week, we enter a period of time known as Passiontide, the last two weeks of the Lenten season that will end with the death and burial of our Lord. Here is a little test for those of you who have been working on your Lenten disciplines of self-examination and denial, prayer and fasting, confession and repentance. How are you doing, by the power of the Spirit, at putting to death that within you that keeps you hostile toward and alienated from God? For those of you who have not been engaged in the Lenten disciplines, this little test could possibly help you decide if you might want to begin working on this project, even at this point in the Lenten season.

Here’s the test. How did you react to today’s Scripture lesson? Were you offended by it or did it remind you that God is God and you are not? Paul is not necessarily telling us that we should never have questions for God. He is reminding us that God has sovereign freedom to do as God pleases, and if we have an adequate conception of God, this should bring us great comfort. God is not capricious or ever-changing. God is constant and steadfast, and here Paul reminds us of God’s great mercy to us in Christ. Our minds go immediately back to what Paul wrote in Romans 2.4, that God is infinitely patient with us so that we might be lead to repentance (cf. 2 Peter 3.8-9).

If we, by the power of the Spirit, have been successful in putting to death our proud, arrogant self that wants to dethrone God and install us in his place, what Paul tells us here will invariably make us fall to our knees with grateful hearts in thanksgiving for God’s wondrous offer of life to us in the cross of Christ. We understand instinctively what Paul was talking about when he wrote the following to the Corinthians.

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength (1 Corinthians 1.18-25).

Paul is reminding us here that God’s ways are not our ways, that his ways are infinitely better (cf. Isaiah 55.8-9). He reminds us that only God can bring about our healing and reconciliation to him, and he has chosen to do this through the cross of Jesus. There is nothing we can do to earn his forgiveness nor do any of us merit it because we are so innately and profoundly broken.

But God does not want to leave us there and so he has acted decisively on our behalf.

In response to God’s sovereign and gracious initiative toward us in Christ, we acknowledge that we are incapable of doing anything to win or achieve our being reconnected to God, our life support system. We are thankful that God has done what is necessary on the cross of Christ (even if we do not fully understand all that happened there) to end our exile and our alienation from him. We are more than willing to give him all the credit in the universe because we know who and what we are. We know that all we can do is gratefully accept God’s gracious offer to us in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit to live.

When we do that and really begin to understand God’s gift to us in Jesus–again, as best as we are able to understand–it is inevitably a life-changing event and process, and we are changed forever. Instead of always looking out for ourselves and our needs, we deny ourselves, take up our cross everyday, and follow our Lord in sacrificial love to serve those around us. And as we do so we understand that it is only by the Spirit’s help in us that we have the power to imitate and follow Jesus. We are too profoundly broken to do so on our own.

But if we are not yet ready to end our rebelliousness, if we delude ourselves into thinking we are on equal footing with God or we want to minimize or negate the power of sin in our lives, what Paul writes above will inevitably be quite irritating to us. It just won’t make sense because we really haven’t wrapped our mind around the fact that God’s holiness cannot countenance any form of sin or evil in his Presence, that he is implacably opposed to it. We will want to rationalize that we aren’t really that bad, that we’ve done plenty of good works to merit God’s love and affection toward us. Like some of the Jews whom Paul was addressing in the passage from Romans today, we will still be trying to pursue a program of self-help and the cross of Christ will remain superfluous to us, if not scandalous. And when that happens, there really isn’t much hope that we will ever be reconciled to God.

As you draw nearer to Jerusalem with our Lord during this Passiontide, are you following him for the right reasons? Are you, by God’s grace, gaining an ever more humble and contrite heart that leads to an outpouring of thanks for God’s wondrous love for you? Or are you grumbling under your breath (or sometimes out loud), wondering what the big deal is in the first place? Worse yet, are you tooling through life smugly self-reliant? How you answer these questions will give you keen insight into the state and condition of your only true and real life support system. If you have not already done so, choose life so that you too may come to know what all the fuss over Jesus is really about.

Remember to Claim Your Prize

Sermon delivered on Sunday, Lent 5C, March 17, 2013, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 43.16-21; Psalm 126.1-7; Philippians 3.4b-14; John 12.1-8.

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

This morning is the first day of Passiontide, the two weeks prior to the great Easter celebration. It is a time to focus on our Lord’s suffering and death and all that it means, and you may have noticed the tone of our gospel lesson has gotten darker with Mary anointing Jesus and preparing him ahead of time for burial. Passiontide also signals that Lent is drawing to a close and so it is worth our time to look briefly today at why we have been observing a holy Lent these past four weeks. Specifically I want us to look at why it is so important for us to remember all that God has done, is doing, and will do for us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

This past week I learned that two of my cousins suffered miscarriages at about the same time and stage in their pregnancies. Closer to home, Sarah and Tom have lost a beloved family pet and several of you continue to struggle with personal and family issues that not only distract you but can suck the living energy right out of you. Without a doubt, the powers and principalities have been very busy of late, at least from my perspective. And even if things are going well for us at the moment, we understand the toll life’s hurts, failures, and losses can exact on us because unfortunately at one time or another we’ve all been there and done that. When things go wrong in our life it can make us feel like we are all alone and have to deal with life’s problems all by ourselves. It also makes us afraid and causes anxiety about the future. We feel this way, in part, because we are such control freaks. We want to be able to control everything in our lives but if we are honest with ourselves, we are forced to admit that we have control over precious little in our lives.

Then of course when life gets rough or makes us sorrowful, it can have a negative impact on our relationship with God. When we suffer loss or setbacks or failures we tend to wonder where God is in it all. The dark times of our life tend to reinforce the false and unbiblical notion that God is no more than an absentee landlord who really doesn’t care about us and our problems. That is why it is so important for us as Christians to remember our Story and Whose we are so that we are not overcome by all that life can throw our way.

Take our OT lesson, for example, with all its breathtaking promises. Do you know who the intended audience was? Those Israelites who were living in exile and slavery in Babylon in the 6th century BC! Think about how they would have read these gracious words from Isaiah. Jerusalem with its Temple, the very dwelling place of God, had been destroyed and God’s people had been carried off into exile and slavery. It was simply inconceivable to them before it all happened. It would be like us trying to imagine an enemy destroying Washington, DC and subjugating the rest of our country to a cruel and oppressive regime. Most of us simply cannot envision a scenario like that and neither could most Jews imagine that their nation would be effectively ended in 586 BC, especially because they were God’s chosen people. But it happened just as God had promised and now they were suffering in exile (cf. Psalm 137.1-9).

Yet even in the midst of their darkest national hour, here is God speaking through his prophet and reminding his people that he is a God who rescues his people from their slavery and inviting them to see the new thing he was doing even then in their very midst. Like many of us, I suspect there were those who read these words in disbelief and scoffed at them. What rescue? That was centuries ago! What new thing? As far as we can tell we are still living in exile and are slaves to the Babylonians. Are you kidding us, Isaiah? What a joke, and a cruel one at that! But as we know, God did free his captive people and a remnant returned home to Judah and Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple. And speaking of Egypt, we don’t have to read any further than the book of Exodus to see that God’s people were equally skeptical of God’s promises to free them from their slavery there! But God delivered his people from their slavery as well.

What all this is pointing to, of course, is the need for faith on the part of God’s people. But God does not ask us to adopt a blind faith or whistle through the graveyard, so to speak. No, we are invited to develop an informed faith that is based on the knowledge that God always delivers on his promises, whether they be good or bad. In other words, we are invited to look at history and the biblical narrative to see that we can trust and depend on God to deliver on his promise to rescue his people from our slavery to sin and death. Faith is required because unlike God, we are not all-knowing and do not have an eternal perspective so that we know exactly what the future holds and how God plans to deliver us. All we have is our present limited perspective, which can get badly skewed at times. That is why we must make a conscious effort to remember all the ways God has acted on behalf of his people so that we have an informed basis to believe his future promises and recognize God’s modus operandi. And when we expect God to be active in our midst and act with mercy and grace on our behalf to deliver us ultimately from our sin and death, we will be like those people in today’s psalm, whose mouths were filled with laughter and joy. Sorrows and troubles there will be, but God promises to deliver us from them all and help us even in the midst of our trials and tribulations. Do you really believe this?

This is essentially the reasoning behind what Paul is talking about in our epistle lesson. Before Jesus claimed him, Paul had relied on his identity as a Jew to determine his status before God. And Paul was no ordinary Jew. He was a man among boys and had the pedigree to back up his claims. But after his encounter with Jesus, all that changed for Paul. He realized that basing his identity on his ethnicity was rubbish because he would still be a slave to sin and death. The Greek word Paul uses, skybala, literally means dung or excrement. In other words, Paul is saying rather crudely that all he considered to be good and valuable as well as the idea that the righteousness he claimed based on being a good Jew was crap. Paul said this not because he hated his people. To the contrary, Paul loved his people and was very concerned about their welfare as his writings in Romans 9.1-11.36 and elsewhere make clear. Rather, knowing Jesus made Paul realize that God’s people had failed to live up to their calling to be God’s light and salt and to bring God’s healing love to his hurting and broken world. Paul realized instead that Jesus is the world’s only true light and life and only in Jesus could Paul or anyone else hope to find real freedom from all that truly enslaves us. Without Jesus’ saving death on the cross and the hope of resurrection and new creation that Jesus’ resurrection inaugurated, we are still lost in our sins and have no future or hope. Put another way, Paul believed God delivers on his promises.

That’s why Paul thought it was so important to identify himself with Jesus (i.e., to live like Jesus) because only in Jesus do we have a future and a hope. Our hope has certainly not been realized in full yet, but it is surely coming and when we really believe that we are set free from our slavery to sin and death by Jesus’ death and resurrection, it makes all the difference in the world in how we live our lives in the present. We don’t need to be fearful or anxious anymore because we are reconciled to God and we understand that God is fully in control of things. Moreover, Paul understood that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was a sheer act of grace on God’s part. In other words, Jesus had accepted Paul, undeserving as Paul was, and Jesus does likewise with us. This is what made the race worth running for Paul as he struggled to become just like his Savior. In fact, for Paul it was the only race worth running.

We see this kind of transformed life illustrated poignantly in Mary’s act of devotion in our gospel lesson this morning. Our Lord had raised her brother from the dead and here we see how clearly this had transformed Mary’s life. As a result, she acted extravagantly and anointed Jesus with expensive perfume and then rather scandalously wiped his feet with her hair. Mary’s letting her hair down in public was tantamount to a woman today raising her skirt to her upper thighs at a dinner party. Proper Jewish women simply did not do such a thing in public. It would have (and did) cause quite a stir. But Mary didn’t care what the world thought. She only cared about showing Jesus her great love for him because Jesus had claimed her as he would do with Paul. John seems to be telling us to pay attention to Mary because her extravagant and heartfelt act is a worthy response to the great and saving act that Jesus is about to perform for her (and all of us) by going to the cross. This is also what made Judas’ response so tragic. For whatever reason, he did not have the eyes of faith to see Jesus as Mary saw him, but rather remained a slave to his sin. No wonder he reacted so strongly against Mary and it is not beyond the stretch of our imagination to think that Jesus rebuked Judas as much out of sorrow and pity as out of anger.

And as we reflect on all this we realize that we will miss the richness of these stories and God’s love for us in Jesus if we don’t stop to learn the broader Story of Scripture and then remember it. If we don’t remember all that God has done for us in and through Jesus, if we don’t stop to remember how God has acted for the sake of his people consistently throughout history to rescue us from all that enslaves us, we will likely succumb to the temptation to think of God as an absentee landlord when things go wrong in our lives because we won’t know what to look for or how to recognize Jesus’ presence among his people and in the power of the Spirit. That’s why we need to be in prayer, Bible study, worship, and fellowship so that we don’t forget that God is a God who delivers and who is actively involved in the lives of his people, even when we cannot ostensibly see him at work. We need to remind each other of this and support and encourage one another when trials and tribulations afflict us. And that is why this season of Lent is so important with its emphasis on self-examination, confession, repentance, and self-denial because doing these things enables us to put to death with the help of the Spirit all those things in us that want to keep us skeptical and hostile toward God. So this morning I encourage you to stop and ask yourself how you are doing in keeping your eyes on the prize of new life in Jesus.  In other words, what are you doing to remember your Story? What needs to be overcome so that you can grow in grace and faith and have the power of the Spirit to help you persevere during the dark times of your life? The more you can remember God’s mighty deeds of the past, especially Jesus’ death and resurrection, the more confidence you will have that God is always good to his promises for the present and future. And if you remember this regularly, it means you will also remember you have Good News, now and for all eternity.

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

Wife of American Jailed in Iran Pleads for Help from US

From Fox News.

This is very troubling, not least because Abedini is an American citizen and no other media outlets are reporting this.

The wife of an American Christian pastor imprisoned in Iran,  in emotional testimony Friday on Capitol Hill, told lawmakers she’s “disappointed” with the State Department’s lackluster involvement in the case — as her lawyers accused the government of going completely “AWOL” in the face of prisoner Saeed Abedini’s plight.

In a sign of movement, Fox News has learned that after the hearing, Secretary of State John Kerry called commission co-chairman Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., to discuss the case. In addition, Fox News has learned that Suzan Johnson Cook, who handles matters of religious freedom at the department, will meet with the wife Friday.

Naghmeh Abedini, the pastor’s wife, testified through tears as she described how her children could not understand what happened to their father. “They kept saying, ‘Does daddy not love us anymore?’ … And I had to tell them that he was in prison because he loved Jesus.”

Read it all.

Archbishop Gregory Venables Comments on the New Pope

From here. Very encouraging as ++Venables is rock solid. I am especially grateful for Francis’ comments on the ordinariate not being necessary.

But in addition to the official reports, Greg Venables, former Anglican Archbishop of the Southern Cone and based in Argentina, offers a look at what Bergoglio “is really like.” He writes:

[Bergoglio] is much more of a Christian, Christ centered and Spirit filled, than a mere churchman. He believes the Bible as it is written.

I have been with him on many occasions and he always makes me sit next to him and invariably makes me take part and often do what he as Cardinal should have done. He is consistently humble and wise, outstandingly gifted yet a common man. He is no fool and speaks out very quietly yet clearly when necessary.

He called me to have breakfast with him one morning and told me very clearly that the Ordinariate [creating by the Catholic Church to accommodate alienated Anglicans] was quite unnecessary and that the church needs us as Anglicans.

I consider this to be an inspired appointment not because he is a close and personal friend but because of who he is In Christ. Pray for him.