Sermon delivered at St. Augustine’s annual Parish Dedication Festival, Year C, Sunday, August 25, 2019 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: 1 Chronicles 29.6-19; Psalm 122; Ephesians 2.19-22; John 2.13-22.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we celebrate the founding of our parish eight years ago on May 1. I remind you that we transfer our celebration to the Sunday in August closest to the feast day of our patron saint, Augustine of Hippo, which falls on August 28, marking the anniversary of his death in 430AD. What does it mean to be part of the one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church? What are we really celebrating today? What privileges do we as people of God enjoy and what responsibilities must we bear? These are some of the things I want us to look at this morning.
What do you think of when you hear the word church? Chances are you think of a building (let’s go to church today) and at first blush, our OT lesson seems to reinforce this notion of church as a place to worship. But not so fast, my friends, because what we get a glimpse of in our OT lesson is the Lord’s promise to dwell with his people; and before Christ’s arrival that place was the Temple in Jerusalem, the place where most of God’s people Israel believed that heaven (God’s space) and earth (humans’ space) intersected. To be sure, as King Solomon would later acknowledge, no place could hold God, the Creator of heaven and earth. But God’s people believed that God would be true to his promise to dwell with his people here on earth. So the Temple was a place for God’s people to meet with God. The Temple was important to be sure, but it was more important that God would dwell with his people on earth because God had called Israel, Abraham’s descendants, not a building, to bring God’s healing love and blessing to a sin-sick and God-cursed world.
And as our gospel lesson makes clear, the Temple in Jerusalem came under God’s final judgment when Christ cleansed the Temple and accused those who dwelled there of turning it into a den of thieves rather than using it as house of prayer where all the nations could come to find healing and refreshment in the presence of the Lord, cf. Mark 11.17 (the Temple was destroyed almost forty years later, never to be rebuilt). From now on, said our Lord Jesus, I am the new Temple, the place where heaven and earth intersect, the place where people come to meet God and find healing and refreshment and reconciliation of all kinds. And as St. Paul reminds us in our epistle lesson and elsewhere, we are connected to Christ, the head of his body, the Church, in the power of the Spirit and through baptism. Now God makes his presence known on earth through his people in the power of the Spirit, people who have faith in, and give their lives to, Jesus Christ. It is a staggering promise if we allow ourselves to think about it and begin to wrestle with the full implications of the promise.
It means first and foremost that the Church is not a building but a living, breathing organism linked mysteriously and organically to its head, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, in the power of the Spirit, i.e., it is a family. It means that you and I are family members and part of Christ’s body, the Church, with all our flaws and weaknesses and idiosyncrasies. It means we are called to live our lives in ways that embody the Spirit of the living God who loved us and gave himself for us, imperfectly as that might look to outsiders. It is a call that is fitting with our human dignity as God’s image-bearing creatures and with God’s original creative intent for humans to run God’s good world on God’s behalf, reflecting his image out into the world and receiving and reflecting back to God the world’s thanks and praise for the goodness, generosity, and love of God the Father and Creator.
We who are God’s people in Christ (AKA, Christians) are a people who enjoy the gift of God’s grace. Without the love and intervention of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, we deserve nothing but God’s terrible wrath and judgment on our sins and wickedness because no one can live up to the moral perfection of God nor can God tolerate any kind of evil because it flies in the face of God’s perfect goodness and good intentions for his world and its creatures. God wants the very best for us and the only way we can accomplish that is to live as his creatures rather than trying to live as God’s equals. But the history of the human race demonstrates sadly that we are incapable on our own to live as God’s creatures. We want to be God’s equals or to live as if God didn’t exist at all. It is our terminal sin-sickness and without God’s help, mercy, and grace, we are all destined for God’s terrible wrath on our sins.
But this too is intolerable to God because God did not create us for destruction. He created us for relationship with him and as we’ve just seen, to be his image-bearing creatures. So God did something on our behalf to end our grim standing with him and to bring about our reconciliation with him so that we could once again be the human creatures he created us to be. God did this, of course, by becoming human and taking on himself the weight of our sins and his own terrible judgment on them. There is now no longer any condemnation for those who have a real relationship with Jesus Christ. Having broken the power of Sin over us on the cross, God then broke the power of the ultimate evil over us, Death, by raising Christ from the dead, thus vindicating his saving death. Why does this matter? Because in baptism we are united with Christ in his death and risen life (Romans 6.3-5). Where Christ is, so will we be. Despite our ongoing rebellion against God, God has chosen to rescue us anyway. This is why the story of Christ is called Good News. As St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans, at the very right time, while we were still sinners and God’s enemies, God sent his Son, i.e., God became human, to die for us and reconcile us to himself. That’s why we are no longer aliens and strangers to God. God has ended our alienation from him and reconciled us to himself so that we have a real hope and a future. None of us deserve this love or grace. None are worthy of this mercy and forgiveness, but God offers it to us anyway. We just have to have the good sense and grace to accept God’s invitation to us.
Why am I spending time with this? Because this defines us as God’s holy people and it had better change us, otherwise our membership in God’s family is suspect. Hear me carefully. I am not suggesting we must live perfect lives to qualify as God’s people. We don’t. We aren’t God’s people by what we do or don’t do. We are God’s people because of what God has done for us in Christ. Let us be very clear about this. But God did not rescue us from the power of Sin and his terrible wrath on our sins to allow us to keep doing business as we did before we knew Christ or as the world does business. You don’t help rescue someone from destruction by imitating their behavior. No, if we have a relationship with Christ, we seek to become like him with the help of the Holy Spirit who dwells in us. St. Paul makes the bold claim that our Spirit-mediated union with Christ transforms us into the image of Christ, which allows us to do business in ways that are pleasing to God rather than the world. Again, we don’t imitate Christ perfectly because none of us are done with sin until we die (Romans 6.7). Having said that, we strive to be like Christ and this is how we become the Church, the embodiment of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Christ’s presence with us in and through the power of the Holy Spirit means we realize like David and his people realized, that all we have comes from God. Yes, we are called to use our time, talents, and effort to help sustain ourselves, but nothing comes to us, especially life, without the Father’s permission. This knowledge must humble us and motivate us to please the Father by imitating his Son. This in turn means we forgive when wronged, are generous with our time, talents, and resources for the sake of the Lord and his people, not to mention the world. It means we are to park our egos and selfish ambitions and listen to God’s call for us as his people. It means we work for peace, not rancor. All this is inherent in our mission statement here at St. Augustine’s, that we are “changed by God to make a difference for God.” It means we love God enough and hate our sins enough (not ourselves, but our sins) that we want God’s word, God’s Spirit, and God’s people to heal and change us. It means we learn the story of salvation contained in the Bible and have faith that in so reading, learning, and inwardly digesting God’s word in Scripture, God will use our efforts to heal us, edify us, and equip us to do the work he calls us to do. If you do not have a burning desire to learn and be changed by God’s word in Scripture, you might want to take a hard look at what kind of faith you really have (or lack) and then turn to Christ to help you get where he wants you to be. You are his beloved and he died so that you can live. Why would he not help you grow to his full stature if you really desire to get there?
Being healed and transformed by God’s word and through prayer and fellowship allows us to roll up our sleeves and go into a hostile world to minister to it and preach the Good News of Christ and him crucified, raised from the dead, and ascended. We do this by word and deed. People should look at us and see humans interacting and operating in fundamentally different ways than the the secular world does. Of course we are going to have disagreements on how best to do this, but we learn to work through them and we never let our disagreements poison the well or our love for each other. When we find that we must have our own way, it usually means we are in need of repentance because we are looking out for ourselves rather than others. Christians are no different from non-Christians. We have our own perspectives and peccadilloes, our own broken history and fears. We are not immune from the world, the flesh, or the devil. But we have Jesus Christ as our head who is present with us if we will give him the proper attention and effort. When we do, we will find our troubles and disagreements can be transformed and healed, just like us, to the glory of God the Father. I think overall we do a pretty good job of loving each other and bearing each other’s junk that we all bring to the table. That’s one sure sign that our head is here and active among us.
This is what and why we celebrate. This is what it means to be the Church. Together we are to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus, trusting him to heal and transform us according to his good will for us. And here I want to say something that may surprise you given all that I have just said. For us to let Christ heal and transform us to the fullest extent possible, we need a building we can call our own. It simply won’t do to be satisfied with a nice chapel in which to worship, massively important as worship is. We have no place to call our own, to call home. Why does that matter? For starters, we have a group of young people who need to study God’s word together and learn to love each other as they grow up physically, emotionally, and spiritually. To do this they need a place to meet and discuss and plan and dream. We don’t have that for them now. Neither can we offer adults a full set of opportunities to grow and be enriched, or for all of us to use as a base of operation to serve God’s world, or to rejoice and mourn together when we need to do so. The Spirit lives in us to be sure and Christ is present among us. But we are a homeless people and that is never good for anyone, especially God’s people. This has become an intolerable burden for me and I pray it becomes an intolerable burden for you all because only then when we show God we really are ready to end our homelessness will God give us our heart’s desire. This fall I am going to give you a chance to show God your holy desire and impatience for a home. More about that in two weeks.
In the meantime, we have much to celebrate as God’s people here at St. Augustine’s. We also have much work to do. We are a healed and reconciled people who have been given the best gift of all, eternal life. We are given the spectacular privilege of engaging in God’s kingdom work in the power of the Spirit. We have been given this, not because we deserve it, but because of God’s great love and mercy for us. Let us therefore show our love for him by seeking to grow in Christ and fulfill our call to bring his healing love to a hostile world that desperately needs to be healed and loved. May we always answer Christ’s call to us to be his people and may he bless us with a home to better help us answer his call. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.