Fr. Philip Sang: The Fruit of the Vine

Sermon delivered on Easter 5B, Sunday, April 29, 2018, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, click here.

Lectionary texts: Acts 8.26-40; Psalm 22.24-30; 1 John 4.7-21; John 15.1-8.

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

Greetings to you from the ADGL synod. It was a blessing to be able to meet brothers and sisters in the Lord from other parts of this diocese and beyond. I interacted with bishop Boniface from Tanzania who is here in the states visiting and hope to visit with us before he goes back to Africa. From many good things shared by archbishop Foley Beach, I have a food for thought for us this morning before I share my message for today. Archbishop mentioned that there is a somebody who researched and wrote about the worst books to read and listed number one as the Bible, asked why it is so, he said because those who believe in it, do not read it either. I will leave it at that.

Jesus is the source of life, and His life within you is for one purpose- that you might bear fruit. Today i want us to ask ourselves; Are we connected to Christ? and If we are in Christ, then how much fruit is there in our lives?

Today’s Gospel is one of the seven I am sayings of the gospel of John;

“I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger.” John 6:35

“I am the light of the world; he who fallows Me shall not walk in the darkness, but shall have the light of life.” John 8:12

“I am the gate; if anyone enters through Me, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture.” John 10:9

“I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for His sheep.” John 10:11

“I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me shall live even if he dies.” John 11:25

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me.” John 14:6

“I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser.” John 15:1

In Hampton Court near London, there is a grapevine which is about 1,000 years old. This grapevine has one root which is at least two feet thick, and some of the branches are 200 feet long. Despite its age the vine produces several tons of grapes each year. Although some of the smaller branches are 200 feet from the main stem, they still bear the sweet and delicious fruit because they are connected to the vine. Life flows from that single root and throughout the vine bringing nourishment and strength to each of the branches.

Jesus promises to do the same for us. He is the “true vine” bringing life to each of the branches. The purpose of the vine is to bring nourishment to the branches in order that they might produce fruit. When separated from the vine the branches wither and die. The importance of our spiritual life is dependent upon our connection to Christ the “true vine.”

Each of us must answer two questions this morning. First, are we connected to the vine, or is the life of Christ flowing within us? Secondly, if we are connected to the vine and we are joined to Christ, then how much fruit are we producing through our lives; is there no fruit, some fruit, or an abundance of fruit?

Jesus tells his disciples, “I am the true vine.” Have you ever wondered why Jesus may have said that? Think with me a moment about what has happened and where Jesus and His disciples most likely are.

If you remember this is the night of Jesus’ betrayal, but before that happens Jesus and the disciples have been in the upper room. As they celebrated the Passover in the upper room, Jesus had washed the disciples feet and spoke with them about the events that were to take place. After a great deal of discussion with His disciples Jesus ends chapter 14 saying, “Come now; let us leave.”

I believe that it is as they are making their way from the upper room to the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus continued to instruct this group who had walked with Him for the last three years. Jesus knew that time was running out, but He still had much that He wanted to share with the disciples.

Our gospel today is continuation of the teaching, Jesus was a master teacher. He didn’t talk over people’s heads; He used things which were common to those He taught so that they could understand His teaching. So I believe that as Jesus and the disciples were making their way they walked beside something familiar to everyone in Jerusalem–a grapevine.

Everyone living in Jerusalem, and even the fishermen among the twelve who walked with Jesus knew that life flowed from the vine into the branches. So Jesus uses this common sight around Jerusalem to bring further understanding to his hearers.

Jesus is showing His disciples and us that He is the source of spiritual life. Jesus is the source of life, a resource made available by the Holy Spirit when He comes to dwell within the believer. John spells it out plainly for us:

“And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.(1 John 5:11-12)

Jesus is the life source and His life within the believer is for one purpose–to produce fruit. The question we need to think about for ourselves is, “How much fruit is being produced, is there no fruit, some fruit, or an abundance of fruit?” Remember, Jesus is talking with His disciples. Jesus is the true vine and His disciples and those who believe in Him are the branches. So when we think about the quantity of fruit in an individual’s life we are talking about believers– that is those connected to the vine. As we said, anyone who is not connected to Jesus cannot bear fruit.

Therefore, the question as to how much fruit is being produced in your life deals with the issue of what you and I are doing with the life source that is within us.

Let’s quickly think about the Fruit. Some of you may be wondering exactly what is this fruit we are supposed to be producing.

  • Some have taught that the fruit Jesus is talking about is OBEDIENCE. This fits with the context, those who love Christ will obey His commands.
  • Others have taught that the fruit is to REPRODUCE OTHER BELIEVERS. One of the signs of life is that it reproduces itself. Fruit carries within it the seed which has the ability to reproduce.
  • Others have taught that the fruit is the FRUIT OF THE SPIRIT. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control is the fruitful evidence that you are connected to the vine.

So which one is it?

Jesus says, “By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. (Matthew 7:16-18)

Jesus says you will recognize the fruit; we are fruit inspectors. So let’s check out the fruit.

  • Is OBEDIENCE to Christ’s word something that the life of Christ would produce within the life of a believer. YES!
  • Is REPRODUCTION of new believers something that Jesus’ life within you will yield as fruit? YES!
  • Is the FRUIT OF THE SPIRIT a byproduct of Christ’s life at work within a believer? YES! So the the fruit of the believers’ life that is connected to Jesus, the true life-giving vine is ALL OF THE ABOVE! And more. Those who are Christ’s branches should desire to produce more and more of ALL His fruit.

Now the of quantity. How much fruit is your life producing; is there no fruit, some fruit or an abundance of fruit?

The gospel says there are branches that produce NO FRUIT.

“He cuts off [takes away (NKJ)] every branch in me that bears no fruit. . . If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. (John 15:2, 6)

Jesus said the Father’s desire is that all who are in Christ will produce fruit bringing glory to the Father. The Father receives no glory by cutting off branches that are in Christ. The Greek word “airei” translated “cuts off” or “takes away” also means “LIFT UP.” That’s what a gardener does for the new branches; he lifts them up giving them the support and training that they need in order to produce fruit.

Left to ourselves we all would remain branches IN CHRIST, but unfruitful because we are growing in the dirt of this world. The life source is within us; God’s Holy spirit is in our lives, but God does more to make us fruitful. God lifts us up; He disciples and trains us in order that we might grow and produce fruit. How does God lift up these fruitless vines?

  • He places us in relationship with other believers. We need each other to grow effectively and be fruitful; none of us can make it alone. I believe this is the single most important thing that God does for us. Being a part of a church and sharing in loving relationships with other Christians is vital to our spiritual health.
  • He instructs us in His Word. The Holy Spirit is our teacher; through our personal devotions, sermons, teaching and interaction in small groups the Holy Spirit will cleanse and strengthen our lives through the Word of God.
  • God renews our minds so that we no longer conform to the ways of this world but pursue His kingdom; He teaches us to hate sin and desire righteousness in our lives. When we have sin in our lives we want to be restored in our relationship with God and He is faithful to forgive us.

If we don’t let God lift us up then we are in danger of becoming a fruitless branch that chooses not to remain in Christ. If we don’t enter into relationships with other believers, if we don’t apply His word to our lives, if we don’t let the Holy Spirit renew our minds, then we are cutting off the flow of Christ’s source of life that He places within us.

The branches that produce SOME FRUIT.

As a believer you are joined to the vine. The life of Christ within the vine is what produces the fruit. Therefore any fruit produced in your life, obedience, reproduction, or the Fruit of the Spirit, IT IS ALL GOOD FRUIT.

However, each of us as branches can restrict the quantity of fruit produced in our lives.

Jesus said:

“ . . .every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. (John 15:2-4) What is it that restricts the production of fruit? In a word it is SELF.

We love Christ; His Spirit is within us, and His fruit is evident in our lives. But from time to time, more often for some and less for others, we stop relying upon Christ and His life within us and live our life in our own strength. Jesus said, “No branch can bear fruit by itself!”

In those times when we stop depending on Christ and rely upon our own strength and ability, it is then that the branch is unable to continue to produce fruit. Often times we may fall into sin once again simply because we didn’t depend upon Christ the source of life to help us.

“Every branch in me that doe bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” Pruning is painful. But also is productive. When the branches are pruned more fruit is produced. The pain of cutting accomplishes what the Father intends–FRUITFULNESS!

“Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? . . . No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:7, 11)

I want to conclude by mentioning the branches that produce an ABUNDANCE of FRUIT.

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:5) These are the branches that have been properly trained through the discipline of pruning. They have crucified self and have learned that apart from Christ they can do nothing.

Paul says “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)

“If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. (John 15:7-8) Those branches that remain in Him and His word remains in them will not ask selfishly. They have died to self and the passions of the world; they live for Christ. Therefore whatever they ask for is what Jesus would ask for.


Jesus, the true vine is producing fruit within His branches. Christ’s fruit is good; it alone will endure. How much fruit are you letting be produced through your life? Is there no fruit, some fruit or an abundance of fruit?

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

Fr. Ric Bowser: Jesus, the Good Shepherd (or When the Person in the Position of Authority Gets it Right)

Sermon delivered on Sunday, Easter 4B, April 22, 2018, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

Father Bowser loves the Lord but he has never learned the skill of writing. So take pity on him and listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon instead of trying to find the text to read it.

Lectionary texts: Acts 4.1-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3.16-24; John 10.11-18.

Fr. Terry Gatwood: When We See Him We Will be Like Him

Sermon delivered on Sunday, Easter 3B, April 15, 2018, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

Father Gatwood has completely lost his ability to write, so no manuscript for today’s sermon. Click here to listen to the audio podcast.

Lectionary texts: Acts 3.12-19; Psalm 4; 1 John 3.1-7; Luke 24.36b-48.

The Cross and the Resurrection: Living Out Our Easter Hope

Sermon delivered on Sunday, Easter 2B, April 8, 2018, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: Acts 4.32-35; Psalm 133; 1 John 1.1-2.2; John 20.19-31.

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

Last Sunday we looked at the integral relationship between Jesus’ death and resurrection. We saw that without the Resurrection, Jesus was just another failed Messiah and that he had not really died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures. In other words, nothing was accomplished by Jesus’ death on the cross. Our sins remain unforgiven and we remain enslaved by its power forever, which means death is our only future. The cross needs the Resurrection and the Resurrection needs the cross. We also focused on the nature of resurrection as a new bodily existence that is impervious to death. It is not a teaching about life after death or going to heaven or existing in some kind of disembodied state for all eternity. Most of what I said about the Resurrection, especially its attendant hope, is future oriented, i.e., we looked at what our future is in God’s new creation, the new heavens and earth. But there’s more to the Resurrection than that because as St. John makes clear in his account of the Resurrection we read both last week and this, the Resurrection signaled the beginning of God’s new world breaking in on God’s current good but sin-corrupted and evil-infested world. This is often hard for us to see, given that Evil and the dark powers still seem to be having a field day with us and the created order. Yet St. John insists that until the new creation arrives in full, we are called to live as faithful people in God’s good but broken world because we are Easter people who have a resurrection hope: the sure and certain expectation of things to come based on what God has already done for us in the past. So how do we do that? Last week, I suggested that Father Gatwood take up this topic. But then I had my one allotted bright idea for the year and decided I should follow up on last weeks’ sermon myself. Being the lazybones he is, Father Gatwood graciously allowed me to swap preaching dates with him so I could do just that.

Before we look at ways we can live as Easter people, let us keep in mind (and proclaim boldly) that as we saw last week, resurrection is not a concept, it is a person. Jesus, and only Jesus, is the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in him will live, even after dying. And everyone who lives in Jesus, i.e., who has a living relationship with him, and believes and trusts his promises, will never ever die (John 11.25-26). And what specifically is our resurrection hope based on what God has already done for us in Jesus? Hear St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 because he articulates it better than anyone else.

But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies.

Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled: “Death is swallowed up in victory/O death, where is your victory?/O death, where is your sting?” For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15.51-57).

Before I read you St. Paul’s conclusion to what he has just written, what would you expect him to say to us, i.e., what’s the punchline? That we have a great and eternal party awaiting us? That we should thank God for pointing us to the abolition of death when God raised his Son? That living in God’s new world will be more wonderful than we can ever imagine? All of that is true, of course, and we should indeed thank God for our future hope as Jesus’ people, even as we anticipate being part of the ultimate party of parties. But that is not how St. Paul concludes his description of our resurrection hope. Here is what he says: “So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless” (1 Corinthians 15.58, NLT). 

Did you catch that? St. Paul is telling us in no uncertain terms that our future hope is vital to how we live in God’s created order with all of its corruption and Evil-infestation, not to mention  the darkness of residual sin and brokenness each of us brings to the table. You see, St. Paul understood how difficult it is for us to live faithfully in a world that gives every appearance of being impervious to the death and resurrection of Jesus. So he understood we need to have a real hope, a resurrection hope—the sure and certain expectation of things to come based on what God has already done for us—to sustain us as we live out our faith. This is never easy because as Jesus himself told his disciples, as the world hates him (which it does), so it will hate us his followers (John 15.18-20). And since none of us likes or wants to be hated, we need a hope strong enough to sustain us when we encounter the world’s hostility. Remember your resurrection hope and stay the course, St. Paul tells us. The new creation is a done deal, even though it is not readily apparent to most, us included at times. Stay the course because appearances can be deceiving. When God reconciled us to himself by defeating the dark powers on the cross and raising Jesus from the dead, God demonstrated his power to heal and to overcome the worst that the darkness can afflict on us and God’s created order. One day we will live in that reality. Until then, we must live it by faith in the power of God, the God who raises the dead and calls into existence things that do not exist (Romans 4.17b).

Jesus tells us essentially the same thing in our gospel lesson. For the second time in this chapter (the first being last week), St. John, pointing us back to the creation narratives in Genesis 1-2, reminds us again that Jesus appeared to his disciples on the first day of the week, the eighth day, the day of new creation, the day following Jesus’ completed work on the cross and his day of rest in the tomb. Here again we see the nature of Jesus’ resurrection body, along with our own future bodies. Jesus suddenly appeared to his frightened disciples hiding behind locked doors. Our Lord showed them his hands and his side, and the following week invited St. Thomas to touch his wounds. No disembodied spirit or ghost here, kids. 

Then our Lord breathed on his disciples, evoking memories of how God breathed life into his image-bearing creatures in Genesis, and giving them the Holy Spirit so that Jesus could remain with them (and us) always, even after he had ascended back to the Father (and hence out of our sight) to rule over the present created order as its Lord and King. You’ve got work to do in my name, our Lord tells us. But you will never have to live out your faith alone because I am present with you in the power of the Spirit who lives in your mortal bodies. Because I am alive forever, your future is secure and I am calling you to do my healing and Kingdom work on my behalf. You are to announce the Good News of God’s love shown most notably in my death and resurrection and warn folks what will happen if they are foolish enough to reject the gift my Father and I offer them (and you). Don’t you be fools along with those who hate me and refuse my Father’s gift offered to all freely and at great cost to my Father and me.

With all this in mind, we are now ready to consider what being Easter people who live in the present created order looks like. I do not offer you an exhaustive list of ways we might live out our Easter faith. Rather, I offer you some suggestions that hopefully the Spirit will use to help you jumpstart your own reflections and thinking on this essential topic for us who profess to be Christians. 

The first distinct trait of Easter people is that we are wise enough and humble enough to accept the gift of being forgiven our sins that was accomplished on the cross. Our acceptance of this gift, coupled with our resurrection hope, should produce in us an unmistakable joy that is not contingent on our current life situations. More about that in a moment. In other words, it is not a joy that depends on the happenstances of this world for its energy. Rather, its energy is derived from God’s gracious love for us demonstrated supremely on the cross so that we know we are forgiven and that Sin’s power over us is broken forever, even though we are not yet sin-free. Despite the residual darkness that remains in us, we are equipped to stand in God’s presence forever, starting right now, all because of our Savior’s blood shed for us. 

Yet it is curious how many of us refuse to accept God’s gift of forgiveness won in Christ and offered to everyone freely. Many of us like to wallow in our past sins, choosing in our prideful arrogance (usually masquerading as pious humility) to believe our sins are greater than God’s love and mercy for us. Why do we continue to think and act as if our past sins are still being counted against us when in fact they have already been dealt with once and for all on the cross? To think and act in this way is to effectively retain our sins and to thumb our nose at God’s grace, mercy, and love for us, not to mention having to deal with the anxiety and joylessness that retaining our own sins produces. Even if we believe in the resurrection of the body, if we retain our sins, we will never be Easter people in any meaningful sense of the term. At best, we are without hope and can only try to manage our own anxiety over being unforgiven and unreconciled with God. As our own St. Augustine observed in one of his sermons, “Those who despair of God’s merciful kindness inwardly suffocate themselves and make it impossible for the Holy Spirit to remain in them” (352.8). And without the Holy Spirit, it is impossible to have a relationship with Christ, the only source of real life. Does your Easter faith lead you to truly forgive your own sins just as God in Christ has forgiven you?

As forgiven people, then, we are quick to forgive others, costly as that is to us, and to seek to be reconciled with those who do us wrong, always with the understanding that it takes two to make real reconciliation happen in any relationship. This will entail that we suffer for our Lord because the enemies of Christ (and sadly sometimes his friends) will not offer us forgiveness or mercy. Yet how many Christians take to social media and other venues to rail against our enemies? To be sure, if we love people, we must warn them about the consequences of human pride and hardheartedness that make us hostile toward God and his Christ. But that is different from getting into shouting matches with enemies of the cross and condemning them as so many Christians today seem to want to do. Doing so effectively denies what God accomplished in Christ’s death and resurrection. My beloved, let us resolve to love others as Christ loved us and when we fail, as St. John tells us, let us approach the throne of grace and ask for forgiveness, confident it will be granted to us because of our Lord’s cross. Our ability to love and forgive, to show mercy where none is deserved, is one of the most powerful signs of the in-breaking of God’s new world on the old. It is also one of the most costly.

Third, living as Easter people means we resolve to live as a family, warts and all. In other words, we resolve to live out our Easter faith and hope together. This was the point of our NT lesson, not that the first Christians were really Marxist wannabes. It means we are willing to get in the trenches with those in our parish family, to rejoice with them and weep with them and everything in between. It means we are quick to forgive and slow to anger when our fellow family members don’t treat us fairly or are ungracious to us instead of taking our toys and leaving. It means we speak the truth in love to family members, hard as that is to do sometimes, always with their welfare and best interest in mind, not our bruised ego. How we settle our disagreements—and let’s be clear about this, there will always be disagreements among us because that is the nature of life; just ask St. Barnabas and St. Paul who disagreed so severely that they never worked together again, but whose disagreement God used to spread the gospel even further (Acts 15.36-41)—is a key indicator of the nature of our resurrection hope and faith. Our Easter faith demands that we dare love each other and forgive each other, surrendering our own prideful needs for the sake of the other. Without a real hope in the future, not to mention the power of the Spirit who lives in us, it is impossible for us to do any of this. Our ability to live together as a parish family, however imperfectly, is another powerful sign of God’s new creation breaking in on the created order. I think overall we do that pretty well as a parish family.

Last, we as Easter people must live and act as people who are part of God’s eternal party, even in the midst of darkness and desolation. I am not talking about being glib in the face of Evil. I am talking about having a hope and joy that are impervious to it. This gets to the heart of what St. Paul told us in his first letter to the Corinthians. We suffer setbacks and defeats. We face personal obstacles, from health issues to alienation to poverty to all kinds of injustice in our lives. Of course we will weep when we are afflicted. But we will weep as people who have hope. For example, we will bury our dead with the hope of resurrection in mind and its accompanying joy. We will face health issues with a resurrection hope, always mindful that our mortal bodies must be changed into immortal ones. Or consider this story about Bob B’s mother when she was a child. It is a powerful example of living as an Easter person and I share it with his permission. Bob’s mom lived in a household ravaged by their father’s alcohol abuse. During one particularly bad evening, Mary Lou did the most remarkable thing. In the midst of the darkness of being left alone in the house with little to eat, Bob’s mom, at the tender age of 11, lit a few candles, turned off the lights, set the table for her sisters and her, and then cut an orange into four slices—a piece for each sister—sprinkling them with sugar and offering up a feast of light and love that could only come from a resurrection hope, knowingly or otherwise, a tangible sign of Christ’s love in their otherwise desolate lives. It is such a remarkable story that Bob’s aunt still revels in telling it. This poignant story reminds us that our resurrection hope gives us a fresh and new perspective, and is the best antidote to prevent us from being overwhelmed by all the darkness that confronts us in the living of our days. Like Bob’s mom, we remember that nothing we do on the Lord’s behalf is ever in vain because God has overcome the darkness that afflicts us and promises us eternal life in the death and resurrection of Jesus, thanks be to God!

Certainly, being the flawed characters we are, we will need help in remembering this. This is why having a family to walk with us and remind us of our hope is so critical to our well-being. Every one of us needs to be reminded from time to time (some more than others), that we are forgiven and redeemed sinners who have immediate access to our risen Savior in the power of the Spirit, through prayer, in our reading of the Scriptures, through each other, and in the eucharist. And every one of us needs to be reminded that as we walk through life’s darkest valleys, our Lord is with us in any and every circumstance. God has a proven track record with God’s people. Therefore we must constantly remember. For God’s people Israel, the go-to remembrance is the Exodus, where God rescued God’s people from their slavery in Egypt. For Christians, our go-to moment to remember is Jesus’ death and resurrection, where God rescued us forever from our slavery to Sin and Death and promised to heal his good but disordered creation in the process. As Easter people who have a joy that does not have its origin in the present created order, we are to remind each other and encourage each other, not to mention those in the world around us, to remember what God has done for us in Christ and then get to work in a thousand small and great ways to bring the love and mercy of God to bear on God’s world. We do this without losing hope because we know our future is secured, unlikely as it appears at times. We have heard our Lord’s cry of dereliction on the cross and seen his empty tomb. We have been given the Holy Spirit to live in us to make Christ’s presence known to us, and we have been given each other to provide the much-needed human touch, itself a glorious foretaste of the resurrection. So we get to work on the Lord’s behalf, remembering always that God’s power demonstrated most spectacularly in the Resurrection ensures that our work on Christ’s behalf is never, ever in vain. Join the biggest and best party of all (life in the new creation) and ask others to join you. Let us never be bashful or afraid of sharing this Good News with anyone, now and for all eternity. Alleluia! Christos Anesti! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia! To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. 

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

Why are Some of You Saying There Will Be No Resurrection of the Dead?

Sermon delivered on Easter Sunday B, April 1, 2018, 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: Acts 10.34-43; Psalm 118.1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15.1-11; John 20.1-18.

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

Today we come together to celebrate the joyous occasion of our Lord’s resurrection from the dead. This feast is the central feast of the entire Christian calendar and marks the turning point in human history, the day God’s new creation was launched. Why, then, do so many of us, like our forebears in the ancient church at Corinth, struggle to believe that the Resurrection was an actual historical event and/or try to make the Resurrection into something it is not? This is what I want us to look at this morning.

We start with our epistle lesson from 1 Corinthians 15, the longest and most detailed exposition on resurrection contained in the NT. In our reading, St. Paul reminds us of the Good News he preached. He emphasizes that the most important aspect of the Good News is that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, and that God raised Jesus on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. In other words, Christ’s death and resurrection are the two primary markers that confirm Jesus is who he claims to be: Israel’s Messiah and King. Jesus’ death and resurrection fulfilled what the OT said was going to happen (a different topic for a different day). What I want us to see today is the integral connection between the cross and the empty tomb. I wish the Lectionary would have included the next eight verses because they serve to illuminate what Paul has just said about Jesus dying and rising again in our morning’s lesson. Here is the punchline from those verses: 

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? …For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins [emphasis mine]. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished (1 Corinthians 15.12, 16-18).

Did you catch that? No resurrection, no forgiveness of sins. We are toast and so are our loved ones who have died in the Lord. The cross needs the resurrection and vice versa. 

I can see some of you starting to squirm and mutter under your breath. What’s this stuff about the cross and forgiveness of sins on Easter Sunday, Father? You’re supposed to be preaching happy stuff, not all the gloomy jazz we heard about on Good Friday. Patience, my ignorant ones. We are talking about the good stuff because the cross is part of the good stuff. Here is what St. Paul is saying to us. When God raised Jesus from the dead in accordance with the Scriptures, this vindicated Jesus as God’s Son and Messiah so the apostolic and ancient Church’s proclamation about the cross was true. And what was that first proclamation after the resurrection of the Son of God? That on the cross, Jesus willingly and in full cooperation with God the Father, absorbed the outpouring of God’s wrath on our sins so as to spare us from having to experience that terrible damnation. For this to be of any use, God also had to break the power of Sin over us, Sin being defined as an enslaving, hostile power that has kept us prisoner to its will and grip ever since our first ancestors were expelled from paradise. If Sin’s power over us isn’t broken, then Jesus’ sacrifice for us on the cross would be rendered essentially useless. We would still be enslaved by Sin’s power and would never be able to come close to living as the fully human image-bearing creatures God created us to be. But this is exactly what the apostles and the early Church proclaimed: Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures and freed us from our slavery to the power of Sin. As a result, we are reconciled to God and each other and have real peace, not to mention life that will continue on forever, even after our mortal death. As St. John writes in his first letter: 

Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son. And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life;  whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life (1 John 5.10b-12, NLT). 

Without the Resurrection, none of this would be true. Jesus would simply be another failed Messiah who was psychotic in his beliefs and claims, and we should treat him as such (as those who do not believe in him often do). So the cross needs the empty tomb, but the empty tomb also needs the cross, precisely for the reasons we’ve just discussed. Without the forgiveness of sins, there would be no point of resurrection, new bodily life. We would still be dead in our sins and without hope for a future. Jesus’ resurrection would be no more than a dazzling display of power on God’s part and an in-our-face reminder that we are still toast. Look at me, says God. I can raise the dead. Too bad you aren’t gonna be among them. Hahahahaha! Losers. To repeat, the cross needs the empty tomb and the empty tomb needs the cross.

And let’s be crystal clear about what we mean when we say resurrection. Resurrection does not mean life after death. It does not mean going to heaven when we die. It does not mean some spiritualized existence where we live in a disembodied state. It does not mean the immortality of the soul, which is a Greek concept, not a biblical one. It does not mean continuing to exist in some form in our loved ones’ memory. These are all variations of the ancient heresy of gnosticism, a belief that at its core sees things spiritual as being good and things material as being bad. Neither is resurrection resuscitation, where the dead are brought back to life, only to eventually die again.

No, resurrection refers to our body being raised from the dead and transformed, never to die again, just like what happened to our Lord Jesus that first Easter morning. Consider the various NT testimonies about Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. He was able to eat and drink. The disciples could hear him, talk to him, and touch him. Yet he could appear to them suddenly behind locked doors. Clearly Jesus had a body, but while there was some continuity with his mortal body, there were also some radically different qualities about his body. So when we speak of resurrection, we are talking about new bodily existence that is impervious to death.

And if we know the overarching story of Scripture, this should make total sense to us. According to Genesis 1-2, God did not create us as spirits. God created us as body, mind, and spirit. We were created as a package deal because as the creation narratives make very clear, God values God’s created order. The material created order matters to God as evidenced by the fact that when God finished all his creative work, with his image-bearing human creatures being the pinnacle, God pronounced it all very good (Gen 1.31). This is why we say that our Christian dead, despite their souls being quite alive in the presence of their Lord Jesus in heaven, are still dead. Their bodies have not yet been raised. They still lie mouldering in the grave, separated from their souls. And a moment’s thought about this helps us truly understand the truth of this claim. Think of someone you have loved but lost to death. If you are like me, when you think of that person, you miss seeing his face, hearing his voice, feeling the warmth of his embrace. You miss hearing her laughter or seeing the beautiful things her hands and mind created. You miss looking into her eyes and seeing a love for you burning brightly there. No sanitized version of a disembodied heavenly existence comes close to this or will ultimately satisfy because God made us into creatures and to desire the goodness of creation. We long to see our dead loved ones and to embrace them once again. Jesus’ resurrection promises that for those of us who are united with Christ by faith and love will get to do just that one day. It wasn’t some disembodied spirit that Mary embraced in the garden. It was her risen Lord. She heard him and touched him and spoke to him, just like we will get to do on the day of our Lord’s return, thanks be to God. Amen? As Christians, let us embrace the original goodness of creation and things material, just as God the Father did when he created it all, including us, before our sin ruined it.

With all this in mind, we are now ready to see why so many struggle to believe in the Resurrection, Christians included. Jesus’ death and resurrection remind us that we are not ultimately in control of the most important things in our life. We aren’t in control of life or death. Because we are thoroughly infected by the residual power of Sin, that outside enslaving power that once held us in bondage, we are unable to fix ourselves so that we are reconciled to God our Father. This means we are still unable to stand in the presence of perfect Goodness and Holiness, and are doomed to destruction without outside help. That outside help came from God the Father, who in perfect cooperation with God the Son, freed us from our sins and made us fit to live in God’s presence forever. Or as St. Paul put it, Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures. We are reconciled to God only through the blood of the Lamb shed for us on the cross. As St. John put it in his Passion narrative we read on Good Friday, the final words out of our Lord’s mouth were, “It is finished!” (John 19.30). What was finished? God enacting the ultimate Passover by freeing us from our slavery to Sin and reconciling us to himself, just as God always promised to do. In other words, we are seeing the power, wisdom, and love of God the Father for us miserable rebels to claim us for himself once again. None of us deserve it, but we may claim it nevertheless because of the great love the Father has for us. And we couldn’t proclaim this truth if it weren’t for the resurrection of our Lord Jesus. 

Paradoxically, this is what makes many of us reject the Resurrection. We don’t want to acknowledge our helplessness or acknowledge the power of God acted out on Calvary for us. And if Jesus really was raised from the dead, it means that the Christian faith is radically different from other religions and this offends our worship of the false god of inclusivity. Now to be sure, if we love God and humans, we would wish that all might be saved from destruction, even the worst of the worst. So in that regard, our desire for inclusivity is not bad. But this is not the testimony of the first eye-witnesses of the Resurrection. Neither is it the testimony of the early Church or the writers of the NT, not to mention Jesus himself. We want to think that there are many paths to God, but there are not. There is only one way to God, as Jesus himself claimed, and that is through Jesus. This is true for the reasons we’ve just seen. Only in Jesus do we find reconciliation with God and the forgiveness of our sins. Jesus said so himself when he told Thomas that he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, that only by having a real relationship with him do we have any hope of going to the Father (John 14.5-7). We want to protest. That’s not fair! But our protestations are futile and indicative that we have not considered fully the seriousness of our sin, which can find resolution only in the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus. When we are united with our Lord in baptism, we are promised that we will share both in a death like his—we all must die and struggle in the power of the Spirit to put to death in us all that keeps us hostile to God—and a resurrection like his (Romans 6.3-11). Only Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Resurrection is not a concept, my beloved. It is a person and his name is Jesus. 

There are other reasons why many of us struggle with the idea of resurrection. We are troubled that the path to life is so narrow (Jesus) and we are frankly skeptical of the notion of new heavens and a new earth where we will live with immortal bodies forever in God’s direct presence. After all, who among us has ever seen a dead person raised to life? That’s why I refused to recite the clause in the Apostles’ Creed about believing in the resurrection of the body when I was a young man. Cemeteries were still full and my loved ones were still rotting in them. 

Despite all this, as both St. Paul and St. John make clear in our epistle and gospel lessons today, the resurrection was an historical event. There were eyewitnesses to an event that was totally unexpected. Mary didn’t go to the tomb expecting to find it empty. In fact, that’s what threw her into such a panic. She thought Jesus’ body had been stolen and the thought of that, heaped upon her already intense grief over his awful death, was unbearable. We can relate. But all four gospels proclaim that God did raise Jesus from the dead and in doing so, inaugurated God’s new world and new age, the promised new heavens and earth that would be devoid of any pain, suffering, and evil, including the ultimate evil of death itself. It’s a promise and hope that is available to all who accept it by faith. Not a blind faith, mind you. Rather, a faith that has weighed out the evidence, listened to the testimonies and stories, and come to know that those stories are true, even if we don’t fully understand all the ramifications of Jesus’ death and resurrection. That’s why we are resurrection people, people of hope—the sure and certain expectation of things to come based on things that have already happened, not wishful thinking. And without hope, we die. Our resurrection hope is the only hope that can ultimately satisfy because only in God’s new world will perfect justice be enacted. In this world, we can punish evildoers but we can’t undo their evil deeds, especially the wickedness of murder. In God’s new world when the dead are raised and all evil and injustice is forever expunged from it, the victims of injustice will finally receive full justice and those who perpetrated evil will receive their just reward, barring repentance on their part. Harmony will then be fully restored, the whole point of justice in the first place. If this hope is not enough to strengthen and encourage you in the living of your days, even in the darkest of days, I fear nothing will ever be able to, my beloved.

I’ve focused on the future. But what about the present? Time doesn’t permit me to talk about living out our resurrection hope here in this world that is still corrupted by Sin and Evil. Even when we believe with all our heart and mind that the resurrection is true, we’ll still be greeted with bad news when we leave this place. We will still carry with us our hurts and pains and sorrow. What are we to make of that? Hopefully Father Gatwood will piggyback on today’s sermon and pursue this topic with you next week. But being the Loser he is, he probably won’t. That notwithstanding, let us seize the gift of life offered to us in the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus, especially during these next fifty days of Eastertide, and seek to find the joy that accompanies that knowledge, a joy given by the Spirit. As Christians, we are first and foremost resurrection people who have Good News to offer, both to the world and to our sometimes doubting and despairing hearts and mind, now and for all eternity. Let us not be bashful or afraid of sharing this Good News, the best news of all, so that others can hear, believe, and join the biggest and best party of all time and for all eternity. Alleluia! Christos Anesti! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia! To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. 

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

Easter 2018: An Ancient Account on How Those Who Were Baptized at Easter Were Instructed

The season of Lent has always been a time when the Church prepared new converts to become full members by instructing them in matters of the faith and preparing them for baptism. Here is a description from how this was done in the 4th century in Jerusalem.

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 first day of Lent, on which the eight weeks begin, a throne is set up for the bishop in the center of the major church, 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, I 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. 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 first 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 five weeks or 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 first the literal and then the spiritual sense. ln 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 these forty days, that is, from the first 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, and immediately, singing hymns, they lead the bishop to the Anastasis [the cross], and the office 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, 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 flesh. 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 the those things which belong to a 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.”

—Egeria, Abbess (late 4th century), The Pilgrimage of Egeria, 45-46

Easter 2018: St. John Chrysostom on Easter

Everyone who is devout and a lover of God, let them enjoy this beautiful and radiant Feast of Feasts!

If anyone is a wise servant, rejoice and enter into the joy of the Lord
If anyone has been wearied in fasting, now receive your recompense.

If anyone has labored from the lirst hour, today receive your just reward. If anyone has come at the third hour, with thanksgiving keep the feast. If anyone has arrived at the sixth hour, have no misgivings; for you shall suffer no loss. If anyone has delayed until the ninth hour, draw near without hesitation. If anyone has arrived even at the eleventh hour, do not fear on account of your delay. For the Lord is gracious, and receives the last even as the first; He gives rest to the one that comes at the eleventh hour, just as to the one who has labored from the first. He has mercy upon the last, and cares for the first; to the one He gives, and to the other He is gracious. He both honors the work, and praises the intention.

Enter all of you, therefore, into the joy of our Lord, and whether first or last receive your reward. O rich and poor, one with another, dance for joy! O you ascetics and you negligent, celebrate the Day! You that have fasted and you that have disregarded the fast, rejoice today! The table is rich-laden; feast royally, all of you! The calf is fattened; let no one go forth hungry!

Let all partake of the Feast of Faith. Let all receive the riches of goodness.
Let none lament their poverty, for the Universal Kingdom has been revealed.
Let none mourn their transgressions, for Pardon has dawned from the Tomb!
Let no one fear Death, for the Savior’s death has set us free!
He that was taken by Death has annihilated it!
He descended into Hell, and took Hell captive!

He embittered it when it tasted of His Flesh! And anticipating this Isaiah exclaimed, “Hell was embittered when it encountered thee in the lower regions.” It was embittered, for it was abolished! It was embittered, for it was mocked! It was embittered, for it was purged! It was embittered, for it was despoiled! It was embittered, for it was bound in chains!
It took a body, and face to face met God! It took earth, and encountered Heaven! It took what it saw, but crumbled before what it had not nven!

“O Death, Where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory?”
Christ is risen, and you are overthrown!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Christ is risen, and the Angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and Life reigns!
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the tombs!

For Christ being raised from the dead, has become the first-fruits of them that slept. To Him be glory and dominion through all the ages of ages!

Easter 2018: An Easter Prayer

O God, who for our redemption gave your only-begotten Son to the death of the cross, and by his glorious resurrection delivered us from the power of our enemy: Grant us so to die daily to sin, that we may evermore live with him in the joy of his resurrection; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Eastertide 2018: N.T. Wright: Can a Scientist Believe in the Resurrection?

Wonderful stuff. The video is over an hour but you don’t have over an hour to watch it. Do yourself a favor and watch it anyway.

And if you are the reading type rather than the viewing type, pick up Wright’s book, Surprised by Hope, and read chapter 4 because it essentially contains the contents of this lecture.