When God Wipes Away Our Tears

Sermon delivered on All-Saints’ Sunday A, November, 1, 2020 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: Lectionary texts: Revelation 7.9-17; Psalm 34.1-10, 22; 1 John 3.1-3; Matthew 5.1-12.

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

Today is All-Saints’ Day where we remember the communion of saints and the promises of God that stem from our resurrection hope. So this morning I want to ask you this:  What does it look like when God wipes away all of our tears? After all, our tears are legion and a sign that things are desperately wrong in God’s world and our lives. So what does it mean to have God wipe them away? May I have the faith, courage, and holy imagination to proclaim this message boldly and may you have equally the faith, courage, and holy imagination to embrace it.

Today is a day we need to get real about our human condition and the world in which we live. To be sure there is spectacular beauty in our world and our lives.  We see it in creation and in relationships and people we hold near and dear to our hearts. We see it when we gather as God’s people in Christ to worship God, to listen to God’s Word, and to partake in holy Eucharist each week. We see God’s beauty anytime we see true goodness, kindness, compassion, and justice. We see beauty in music, art, poetry, and prose. So let us acknowledge that there is wondrous beauty and goodness in God’s creation because as holy Scripture tells us, God created everything good and intends for it to function and be that way (Genesis 1-2). 

But let us also acknowledge and lament the fact that something is desperately wrong in God’s world and our lives. This is not God’s doing. It is a product of human rebellion in paradise that allowed the dark powers of Evil to gain a foothold into God’s good world to defile and corrupt it and us, and resulted in God’s curse on his good creation. We see the awful results of the corrupting power of human sin and the dark powers of Evil everyday: from the lawless mobs in some of our cities to human trafficking to drug addiction that tears apart and sometimes destroys lives and families to the rising divorce rate and breakdown of families that causes a legion of other problems for us individually and collectively to the acrimony and rancor in our nation’s politics to disordered relationships that cause emotional trauma and devastation to COVID that sickens us and sometimes kills us and makes us isolated and afraid to cruelty toward animals to pollution and waste and a myriad of deadly diseases, we don’t have to look very far to see that along with the wondrous beauty and goodness we behold, things are also terribly wrong in God’s world and our lives. 

Closer to home, many of us have experienced the reality of living in God’s good but cursed and Evil/Sin-corrupted world. In just the last few weeks Father Bowser lost a younger sister to cancer, the second sibling he has lost to that wicked disease. His 97 year old mother has had to endure what no parent should have to endure: the loss of two children. Never mind that they were adult children. The fact remains that parents normally die before their children and she wonders why she is still alive while her beloved daughters are not. Where is the justice in that?

Then there are Nathan and Ashley, who recently suffered a miscarriage of their unborn son, Daniel. Death has robbed them of ever knowing their son in this mortal life and experiencing the joys and sorrows of raising him to adulthood. The couple did nothing to deserve or warrant this, yet it happened anyhow. We will remember Daniel at our roll call in a bit and celebrate that he is known by Christ and is in Christ’s loving arms. But the fact remains that Ashley and Nathan have had to endure an incalculable loss—the death of their unborn child with all of their attendant hopes and dreams for their child crushed. We can only imagine their sorrow and deep sense of loss and injustice.

Or consider our own Doug H., a young husband and father of three who is stricken with  a serious form of cancer. We pray for healing and beseech the Lord to answer our prayers. But the fact remains that the family is terrified of the awful possibility that the evil of cancer has the potential to rob them of their beloved husband and father. This is not what God created us for or intends for us as his image-bearing creatures. The most common phrase in all of Scripture is, “don’t be afraid,” an indication that there are lots of things in this world that make us afraid. The H-Family can testify to this sad reality.

The fact is that every one of us here or watching via live-streaming this morning knows the pain of loss or sickness or alienation or disease. One of our parishioners had his parents killed by a drunk driver years ago, snuffed out in the prime of life. Where is the justice in that? Our young people who live alone are suffering from isolation and loneliness, not to mention real questions about their professional future. All these things cause great anxiety and worry. Where is the justice in that? Some of our older parishioners (you geezers know who you are) lament the onset of infirmity and old age with its attendant diseases and disorders and frailty and loss of independence that often causes a loss of human dignity and perceived self-worth. Where is the justice in that? We have about half of our parish who are staying at home because of real and legitimate worries about contracting COVID. This has the effect of isolating them from their parish family and causes depression and anxiety for some of them. For those of us who choose to come to worship in house, our worship is constrained. We wear masks, social distance from each other, and our parish gatherings and celebrations are either canceled or greatly muted. This is not God’s will or intention for how his people are to live and worship as a parish. Where is the justice in that?

At the Eucharist we will read 78 names at the Roll Call of the Victorious, those saints who have died in the peace of Christ and are now part of the Church Victorious. 78 names! This means that for the friends and families of those 78 saints here in person or watching this morning, we can no longer enjoy their physical presence. We can’t see them, hold them, hear their voices, smell their smells, or enjoy the sweet fellowship of their love the way we could when they were alive in this mortal life. For those of us who lost our saints recently (we will read their names at the beginning of the roll call), the pain of separation that death causes is probably still pretty sharp or raw. For those of us who have had to live without our beloved saints for some time now, we learn to live with the dull ache their absence causes in our lives. Every one of us in this room today knows what I am talking about because Death has robbed every one of us of a beloved saint. Whether recently or long ago, the pain is real. For me, I have had to learn to live with the dull ache over a son that I have not seen or heard from in over eight years and the death of my beloved parents and grandparents. There is nothing good or right about any of this. These things produce buckets of tears for us. Many of us try to put on a brave face and hide our tears from others. But we all know those tears are real and they are present because our hearts ache over our pain, separation, and loss. There is no justice in any of it. It diminishes us as humans and makes us afraid, anxious, and lonely.

But—were you waiting for the great conjunction but?—the pain of death and the sting of Evil, Sin, and living in a cursed creation do not have the final say, thanks be to God. That is why celebrating All-Saints is so important for us. To be sure, it allows us to remember our beloved who have died in the peace of Christ, never a bad thing! But All-Saints also proclaims a far greater promise. Scripture tells us God did not curse the creation because God hates his creation or us. God’s curse can be seen as simply allowing the corrupting effect of our sin and the powers of Evil to manifest themselves in awful ways to despoil God’s good world and our lives. There is a great mystery in all this. But God cannot ultimately let Sin and Evil prevail and so the story of Scripture is the story about how the good and loving God is putting right all that is wrong and corrupt and unjust and evil in God’s world and our lives. In other words, God is busy at work in our lives in and through Christ, wiping away our tears, partially in this life but fully in God’s new creation. 

We get a glimpse of this from St. John’s vision of the heavenly throne room in our NT lesson from Revelation this morning. We need to be clear about this. This vision is not some vision about the future. It is a vision of what is happening right now in heaven, God’s space and the control room for all of creation. There we see a glorious vision of the redeemed in Christ, saints from every tribe, language, and nation. They are dressed in white, NT symbolism proclaiming that they and their sins have been washed clean by the blood of the Lamb who sits upon the heavenly throne. They have endured the great tribulation—most likely a reference to being persecuted for their faith but that could also certainly include the various tribulations with which we all have been afflicted in this mortal life. The point is their suffering, sorrow, and loss are forever wiped away, along with their tears. We know this is complete because God the Father is the one who is doing the wiping. Think about that and let it sink in. God the Father himself wipes away our tears forever.

So what happens when God wipes away our tears? Both Old and NTs give us glimpses of this. For starters, when Christ returns to usher in God’s new world, the new heavens and earth, the dead will be raised to new bodily life and all things renewed. We aren’t told much about what the new creation will look like other than the fact that we who belong to Christ will get to live directly in God’s presence forever—how awesome and glorious will that be!!!—and the domains of heaven and earth will be forever fused together (see, e.g., Isaiah 25.6-9; 1 Cor 15; Revelation 21.1-7). We know too that as St. John tells us in our epistle lesson, whatever it is we will be in the new creation, we will be like Christ, i.e., we will have a new physical body in the manner of Christ’s. Recall from the resurrection narratives that Christ’s resurrection body was similar to his mortal body but also radically different. The disciples could see their crucified Lord, touch him, eat with him, and hear his voice. They knew it was Jesus and Jesus had a body. But it was also a brand new body that could appear and disappear in locked rooms, a body that was now immortal and impervious to death (see, e.g., Luke 24; John 20). So too will we have old and new bodies when Christ raises us from the dead. We will be recognized and known by Christ and those whom we have loved (the old). But our bodies will also be transformed into perfectly beautiful bodies, bodies that are impervious to sickness, disease, infirmity, hunger, and death. We will not be plagued by anxiety or depression or disordered desires. We will be embodiments of perfect health and humanity (the new). I must be circumspect in my descriptions about our bodies/existence in the new creation because the NT is circumspect in its description of both. But that misses the point here and we should not focus on what our bodies will look/be like.

What we should focus on is this. When the new creation comes in full at Christ’s return, God will put to right all the injustices and hurts in the old world. God will judge and banish the wicked and evil, all things—spiritual and human—that serve as agents to corrupt, defile, hurt, and destroy God’s image-bearers and the rest of creation. Unjust/untimely deaths will be put to rights forever because the dead will be raised to die no more. Ashley and Nathan, e.g., will get to meet their son, Daniel, and get to know and love and enjoy him forever. Can there be a more perfect form of justice?? At Christ’s return all things will be restored to their perfect beauty and goodness in the manner that probably will exceed the beauty and goodness of God’s first creation. Only God has the power to do this and only then can our tears vanish forever because all the loss, hurt, suffering, sorrow, separation, alienation, deformity, ugliness and all the other forms of evil and corruption will be forever done away with, never to bother or hurt us or weigh us down anymore. This is a free gift to those of us who belong to Christ. We have done nothing to deserve the gift but it is ours for the taking because of the great love and mercy of God made known to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Can I get a resounding “Amen”?

Nor do we have to wait for the saving benefits of Christ’s love. We can enjoy them, albeit only partially, right now because God promises in the beatitudes that he will begin to wipe our tears away in this life so that those who mourn, for example, will be comforted as we have just seen. I am talking about our blessed hope, my beloved, the real and only hope that is based on the power and love of God, not some fantasy. Without it we would shrivel away and die a desperate and awful death. So we live by hope and an informed faith, a faith that is based on the historical reality of Christ’s death and resurrection and the revelation of God’s promises that flowed throughout the NT and the Church thereafter. That is why we attend to each other and weep and rejoice with each other. All Saints Day is not about whistling through the graveyard. It is about us as Christians embracing our hope and promise that one day God will wipe away our tears forever and usher in an eternal age where rejoicing and happiness and fulfillment and wholesomeness will be ours forever, all because of the blood of the Lamb shed for us to wipe away our sins and to defeat the Evil that presently bedevils us. That makes the present worth living for in faith, hope, love, and good courage (cf. 1 Corinthians 15.58).

For the love of God, my beloved, let us resolve to boldly embrace our resurrection hope and promise so that we are agents who embody faithfully the Father’s love made known to us in the Son and in the power of the Holy Spirit to love and minister to each other and the world, reminding one and all of God’s love for us and our very real and certain resurrection hope. As we do so, we will be living witnesses to the promise that one day God himself will wipe our tears away forever. Until that blessed day, God gives us the grace and ability to embody his love, mercy, compassion, and justice to each other. Let us therefore be bold in our proclamation and living. Death is destroyed and we will know and experience God’s complete restorative healing, justice, and love for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

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

Don’t Be Afraid. Here’s Why

Sermon delivered on Trinity 2A, Sunday, June 21, 2020 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: Genesis 21.8-21; Psalm 86.1-10, 16-17; Romans 6.1-11; Matthew 10.24-39.

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

Today we continue our preaching series on St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, focusing on our epistle lesson today. You recall that last week we looked at St. Paul’s astonishing teaching about God’s great love for us made known in Christ. There he told us that while we were still God’s enemies, hostile toward God and hopelessly alienated from him because of our slavery to the power of Sin, God moved decisively on our behalf to end our hostility toward him by becoming human (or in the words of St. Paul, by sending his Son) to die for us, thereby freeing us from our slavery to Sin’s power and its ultimate and inevitable outcome—death. We are now reconciled to God and called, in part, to be ministers of reconciliation, reflecting God’s great justice, love, mercy, and grace to the world that desperately needs to hear it even while it is vehemently opposed to God and his gospel. Today we look at what St. Paul has to say about the process by which sin is defeated in the life of believers. Before we do that, however, we must look at the passage leading up to our epistle lesson today which the lectionary (bless its pointy little head) has left out like it did last week because it provides the immediate context for St. Paul’s teaching in chapter 6. Hear now the rest of Romans 5:

When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned. Yes, people sinned even before the law was given. But it was not counted as sin because there was not yet any law to break. Still, everyone died—from the time of Adam to the time of Moses—even those who did not disobey an explicit commandment of God, as Adam did. Now Adam is a symbol, a representation of Christ, who was yet to come. But there is a great difference between Adam’s sin and God’s gracious gift. For the sin of this one man, Adam, brought death to many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of forgiveness to many through this other man, Jesus Christ. And the result of God’s gracious gift is very different from the result of that one man’s sin. For Adam’s sin led to condemnation, but God’s free gift leads to our being made right with God, even though we are guilty of many sins. For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of righteousness, for all who receive it will live in triumph over sin and death through this one man, Jesus Christ.

Yes, Adam’s one sin brings condemnation for everyone, but Christ’s one act of righteousness brings a right relationship with God and new life for everyone. Because one person disobeyed God, many became sinners. But because one other person obeyed God, many will be made righteous.

God’s law was given so that all people could see how sinful they were. But as people sinned more and more, God’s wonderful grace became more abundant. So just as sin ruled over all people and brought them to death, now God’s wonderful grace rules instead, giving us right standing with God and resulting in eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 5.12-21).

In this passage, quickly, St. Paul speaks of two Adams. The first Adam, our first human ancestor, rebelled against God and that resulted in humans getting thrown out of paradise and losing their intimate and life-giving relationship with God so that instead of being God’s children and faithful image-bearers who ran God’s world on God’s behalf, we now were hostile and alienated from God. As St. Paul reminded us sin leads to death and eternal separation from God, something God found intolerable as he demonstrated when he sent his Son, the second Adam, to die for us to rescue us from that fate. The law magnified our slavery to the power of Sin (or sin’s rule) more and more but in Christ, God’s grace, or undeserved mercy, reigned even more because only God is greater than the power of Sin and so only God can free us from our slavery to its power. That raised the logical question. Should Christians sin more and more so that grace can abound more and more? The 18th century German poet, Heinrich Heine famously (or infamously depending on your perspective) put it another way when on his deathbed he was asked by a priest if he thought God would forgive his sins. Heine replied, “Of course God will forgive me; that’s his job.” Right.

Now in our epistle lesson, St. Paul anticipates this rejoinder to his teaching about sin and grace and gives us his answer (this clearly wasn’t St. Paul’s first rodeo). He asks rhetorically if we should “keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of his wonderful grace?” Of course not, he roars in reply! We’ve died to sin. How can we keep on living in it?? Now if you are like me, you read this passage and are tempted to scratch your head in puzzlement. You want to say to him, “St. Paul, are you crazy? I still sin. I’m not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. You even address this phenomenon in chapter 7 of Romans. How can you say I’ve died to sin?” To which St. Paul would reply, “It’s not about you stupid, it’s about the power of God at work in you” (well, he probably wouldn’t have called you stupid, but this gave me an opportunity to do so, which always makes me feel better about myself so I’m good with it).

St. Paul knew very well that being united with Christ does not make one a sinless person. Like Father John Wesley, he would have said sin remains but it no longer reigns in our lives. But that is not what St. Paul is talking about. He is echoing what he wrote to the Colossians when he said that “[The Father] has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of his dear Son, who purchased our freedom [from the power of Sin] and forgave our sins” (Colossians 1.13-14). This is the power of God at work in us to rescue us from sin and death and bring us into the kingdom of his promised new creation that one day will come in full at Christ’s return. God did this for us out of his great love for us. We did nothing to deserve this gift nor can we earn it. In our own right we are utterly broken, unworthy and incapable of living as God’s true image-bearers. This is what the power of Sin has done to us. But God loves us too much to let us go the way of death and extinction and so God has acted decisively in Christ to break Sin’s power over us on the cross and transfer us into his new world via Christ’s resurrection. This is what grace looks like. We can’t earn it nor do we deserve a lick of it, but it is ours for the taking because of the power and love of God. What God wants, God gets and nothing, not even the power of Sin or the dark powers, can overcome God’s power made known and available to us through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen? It’s a done deal, even if it may not feel like that to us. And let’s be real. We are all about feelings these days, corrupted and unreliable as those feelings might be. But Christ’s death and resurrection were not feelings. They were and are the objective reality. They made known supremely the power of God to intervene in our lives on our behalf to rescue us from ourselves, our foolishness, our folly, and our slavery to the power of Sin and Death. That is why St. Paul tells us to reckon ourselves dead to sin. By this he meant for us to do the math, so to speak. When we do the math, we discover the sum of what is already there. For example, when we count the cash in the register, we learn what was there already. We don’t create a new reality; rather we affirm the existing reality. Christ has died for us and been raised from the dead to proclaim God’s victory over Sin and Death, and when we are united with Christ in a living relationship with him, St. Paul promises here that we too share in Christ’s reality, whether it feels like we do or not. Again, notice nothing is required of us except an informed (or reckoned) faith. We look at the reality and calculate it to be true so that we learn to trust the promise that has not yet been fulfilled is also true. 

How does this happen? St. Paul doesn’t tell us how, only that it does happen beginning with our baptism. When we are baptized we share in Christ’s death and are buried with him so that Sin’s power over us is broken (not to be confused with living a sin-free life, something that is not mortally possible because as St. Paul reminds us in verses 6-7, we are not totally free from sin until death). We have died to sin and can no longer live in it because we have been transferred into a new reality, God’s new world that was inaugurated when God raised Christ from the dead. So in our baptism we begin our new life with Christ (cf. 2 Corinthians 5.17), flawed as that might look at times. What St. Paul is talking about here is a matter of will. In chapter 8, he will talk about the power and presence of the Spirit in our lives to help us live after the manner of our Lord. Here St. Paul simply tells us that we have been given a great gift in the death and resurrection of Christ and through our relational union with him. If we have been given such a great and life-saving gift, why would we not together want to live our lives in the manner Christ calls us to live them? Today is Fathers’ Day and most of us who were/are blessed with good fathers seek to live in ways that honor our fathers or their memories. If we do that for folks who cannot give us life or raise us from the dead, how much more should we want to live our lives in ways that bring honor to God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ? This is what dying to sin looks like. It often looks messy on the ground and in our lives, but because it is the power of God at work in us and for us, it is a done deal nevertheless. If this isn’t Good News, I don’t know what is, my beloved.

So we have died with Christ and are raised with him. We’ve been delivered from the dark dominion of slavery to the dominion of freedom and life and light, the Father’s kingdom. Now what? Well, for starters it means we are no longer afraid. We have peace with God, real peace, a peace that was terribly costly to God, and we also have life that cannot be taken from us. Sure our mortal bodies will die, but that’s nothing more than a transition. We have no reason to fear death, even the worst of sinners who have genuinely given their life to Christ, because we believe him to be the Resurrection and the Life (John 11.25). It means we reject living our lives in the darkness of sin. It means we reject false realities and are willing to speak out boldly against them. It means we are willing to love even the most unloveable people (and believe me, we are seeing more and more of them every day), starting with ourselves. It means we are willing to speak out against injustices of all kinds. It means we have compassion for people, realizing they are without a Good Shepherd who will love and heal them just like he is loving and healing us. It means we recognize all human beings as being made in God’s image and therefore worthy of our highest respect and honor, even when they do nothing to earn it. 

Our Lord had something to say about this in our gospel lesson. There he tells us essentially the same thing St. Paul has told us in our epistle lesson. Preach the gospel boldly because it is the only way for real healing, goodness, justice, and forgiveness to happen. Be ready to challenge false gospels and narratives that are death-dealing and destructive. Know you will be called all kinds of vile names in an attempt to silence you, and some of you will be killed along the way. But don’t worry. Your effort to proclaim the Truth of the Good News will be made revealed to all by God the Father come judgment day, even if your voice isn’t heard now. But don’t keep silent out of fear of reprisal. Even if they kill you, I have won back your life by going to the cross for you. It’s a done deal. So don’t be afraid. Proclaim the Good News of my death and resurrection, of God transferring folks (not systems—listen if you have ears) from the kingdom of death to the kingdom of life only through me. Just don’t keep silent in word or deed. If you do, I will disown you come judgment day because your silence proclaims you really didn’t believe in my promise to rescue you from Sin and Death. Your faithful living and bold proclamation will be terribly costly to you, but count it a blessing because if you are truly acting faithfully and proclaiming my Truth, the only Truth, you have my promise that nothing in all creation will harm you or separate you from me or my love (cf. Romans 8.31-39).

My beloved, as I watch dark forces trying to dismantle and wipe out this country’s history and ethos, I can no longer remain silent and I encourage you not to remain silent if you are as troubled as I am about the state of our nation. Besides regular and fervent prayer for our nation, I’m not sure exactly what that is going to look like for me, but I cannot stand by silently and watch a false narrative and divisive ideology that is decisively anti-Christian be foisted on this nation. I am not talking about being a super patriot or about political solutions because fearful and arrogant politicians are a massive part of the problem. I am talking about the people of God, you and me, finding and embracing our identity in Christ to speak the truth in love to forces who are preaching lies and attempting to intimidate and silence us through their false and divisive narrative. When you start pulling down statues, erasing chunks of history, and not allowing historical figures to be human, you are doing what tyrants have done throughout history. If you don’t believe me, check out how the Reign of Terror came about in France. History doesn’t repeat itself perfectly but you will find some very disturbing analogues there, starting with the radical Jacobins’ refusal to believe in the Christian faith or any religion other than their own secular one. They renamed streets and institutions and even developed a new calendar in an effort to repudiate their history. They attempted to create a whole new and false reality and took no prisoners in the process, only to have their own hate-filled narrative ultimately collapse on them. When folks try to create an “us-versus-them” mentality, when they attempt to pigeonhole the narrative of history into oppressors oppressing the oppressed, they are no longer dealing with the reality of history and ironically are wiping out chances for history to teach about the good and bad of this country. The very foundation of democracy depends on the ability of humans to act wisely and humanly, rather than myopically and selfishly, and if the forces in our country today prevail, we will see the end of democracy. While this country is far from perfect, it has offered the best hope for human flourishing in history, in part, because we have been so influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition that must flourish if democracy ultimately is to flourish. 

As God’s people in Christ, we must work hard in the coming months to find and embrace our identity in Christ first and foremost so that he can equip us to be his voice and embody his goodness, justice, mercy, and love to one and all in these tumultuous times. Whatever we do, it means we do it gently and without rancor and vitriol. It means we are gentle as doves and wise as serpents. We learn to do that through regular worship, Bible study, prayer, partaking in the eucharist and through sweet fellowship with each other to love and support each other, even in our disagreements, because we realize we are all in the same boat and reject the false and arbitrary classifications and identities that divide rather than unite us. We have been rescued from the power of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of light and life in and through our crucified and risen Savior, in whom, and only in whom, we have redemption from our slavery to Sin and forgiveness for our ongoing sin and rebellion against God. We have died to sin and live now in union with Christ. Let us therefore embrace the only identity that truly heals, saves, and give life: Jesus Christ our Lord, and let that identity be the basis for our fearless and gentle witness as we proclaim boldly God’s love and Truth to a world hostile to the gospel but in desperate need of it. It is the only loving thing to do and as Christ himself reminds us, it will be a litmus test of our own faith when we stand before our Judge on the last day. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

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

Richard Bauckham (Psephizo): Facing Death with Easter Hope

The eminent professor hits a home run. Worth your time and reflection.

…death is the subject that unavoidably confronts us all in a pandemic. Modern societies tend to avoid thinking about death. By comparison with the ways death happened in all pre-modern societies, we mostly give no more attention than we need to death. Most deaths happen in hospitals. Far fewer people die young or in the prime of life, and so death in general seems more like a natural end to a long life. Little is left of the rituals with which societies used to mark and deal with death, when people were expected to mourn in very public ways and for a conventional length of time. A black tie for a funeral is about all we have left. The accent has shifted from mourning to celebrating the life of the deceased, something that perhaps has value, but which helps us to ignore rather than deal with the stark negativity of death.

Of course, we know, if we think about it, that people are dying every day, every hour, every minute. But we do not think about it. Now we are confronted daily with that day’s toll of deaths to Covid-19 and the steadily mounting total. We have become aware of what a sad and lonely way of dying it is for many of those who die in intensive care. Death is always a solitary experience: only the dying person experiences dying, though others may suffer that person’s death. But the essential aloneness of death is terribly aggravated in these conditions. We are grateful that nurses in ICUs are able to give some human attention (not just medical) to their patients, but it is a harrowing experience for them. We seem to hear very little about hospital chaplains in the UK, and I simply do not know how far they are permitted access to those dying in ICUs. (By contrast a recent newspaper story about Italy highlighted the heroism of many priests, monks and nuns who put their own safety at risk in order to be with the dying.)

Read it all

New Life in the New Creation Theology: A Testimony

From one of our bright young stars at St. Augustine’s. It’s a powerful testimony as to why there is no such thing as an isolate Christian for the love of Christ to be made fully known.

18 April 2020

When I was first introduced to the idea of the “New Heaven and New Earth,” I was resistant. Hostile, even. A perfected creation where I would live with a physical body, in a physical world very like this one? Yeah, right.

My skepticism was partly born from what I now recognize as despair. I believed that the substance of this world was so deeply broken, so deeply wretched, so enslaved to corrupting forces of sin and death, that there was no way it could be made good again. My relationships were so shot through with the misery inherent in all flesh that there was no way to fix them. Heaven was, I was sure, an ethereal place untethered from bodily existence, with no past to remember and no future to look forward to. I couldn’t possibly imagine otherwise.

I think back to that way of believing with more than a little pity for my past self. Not only did I think that God was waiting to destroy the world with fire, I also had no hope for a better future. The fact was, the “heaven” that I was taught to await was not a nice place. Eternality in a fleshless life was no less terrifying than endless darkness of death. The teachings I had received in that other, Not-to-be-Identified church told me to fear sin and avoid it (that was the extent of the spiritual life I was taught to lead); and if I avoided sin successfully enough, and believed in Jesus under very particular doctrinal constraints, then I had a fleshless, unimaginable heaven to look forward to. 

I called myself a Christian, and I desperately looked for Christ. But I lived inside of a theology that gave me no hope, no joy, and no guide for how to live in the world that Christ created. It had nothing to say about life, much less life-after-death. 

You would think that when I heard Fr Kevin talking about the New Creation, where we would live for eternity in a perfected physical world with our loved ones, I would have leapt at the idea. It should have been the clear answer shining in the darkness. But I was incredibly resistant to it. 

And that brings me to the second reason why I had trouble accepting this creation theology – because I didn’t want to be trapped in the body that I had been burdened with. It was bad enough, I thought, to be female in this life. But to be condemned to being female – and thus, in my mind, a lesser and derivative creature – for all of eternity? No way. That reeked of another male-centered theology that saw no reason why women shouldn’t want to be stuck as second-class citizens for all of time, a theology that saw no problem with telling women that their only value to God was their ability to bear children. 

The only thing I thought I could hope for, back then in that spiritually dead life I had, was to die and have the chance to be on equal footing with God’s other creatures – men – when we all got to be non-gendered, disembodied blobs together. 

How dare Fr Kevin tell me to believe in this New Creation with a “better” physical body that left me in the same position I was in before – the less loved creature? The one that God had only created to help Adam? It was well enough for him, I thought, and for all the other male theologians, to crow about a resurrection of the body, when they got to be men in the next life, and I got stuck being this. So I wasn’t having this misogynist bullshit about being created men and women, and how great marriage was (great for who? certainly not great for me), and the New Creation, and blah blah blah. 

But what Fr Kevin couldn’t convince me of with words he convinced me of with actions. Because it was around then that I started attending St Augustine’s regularly. This was the summer of 2015, I think. I had met Carl, and we talked a lot about spiritual things. As you can already tell from reading this, I was dealing with a lot of spiritual baggage (so much more than I’ve let on with these short paragraphs). And when Carl told me about his church, and what they believed, I was drawn in like a fly to honey. What, you mean ANY baptized Christian can come to communion? You’re saying the vestry has WOMEN on it?? I couldn’t believe it, and I desperately wanted to believe it. These conversations happened at the same time that the Holy Spirit in his infinite wisdom “gave the boot” from the Not-To-Be-Named Church I was previously attending; and so out I went, into the cold day of unanswered questions: Who is God? And who am I to God? 

I was troubled, deeply and painfully, for many years by a recurring thought that God had made me less by making me a female. I was told in my other church that I was not allowed to teach, not allowed to serve at the altar, not allowed preach, not allowed to read scripture or pray in front of the congregation. To do so was in violation of St Paul’s admonition that women were to be “silent in the church.” And yes, I was silent in the church, because I cry very quietly. “God loves you less,” the voice in my head told me. “God made you smart and opinionated and angry so that you could learn to tamp it down through true humility. God will love you better if you learn to be quiet; if you submit yourself to a husband; if you pop out a couple kids.”

But there was another voice, too. And that voice said, “You know the Holy Spirit kicked you out of the church that taught you that. Maybe He wants you to hear a new story, a new version of who He is and how he sees you. Follow that.”

So I followed Carl, and Fr Kevin, to St Augustine’s. I drank it in like person dying in the desert. Even when there were teachings that I wasn’t used to – Fr Kevin’s New Creation and the bodily resurrection; Fr Ric’s insistence that the “egoic mind” and its addiction to scarcity was the “flesh” that Paul talked about – I sucked it in and held it close. I was desperate for a new way of engaging with God, one that hurt less than what I’d had before. 

And if you saw me crying in the pew those first few months during communion (or even now sometimes, when gratitude overcomes me, that God brought me here, to this place, to these people), it was because I saw women standing next to men at the altar before the rest of the congregation came up front for the bread and wine. I saw smart, kind, capable women in the altar guild standing in white robes next to men. I saw women who were prayer warriors. And there they stood, equal numbers of men and women, standing together in that sacred space, as equals. 

In those early conversations with Fr Kevin, I couldn’t quite hold on to the words he gave me. The old stories about Creation and Resurrection couldn’t help me then. I couldn’t hear past the ringing in my ears that said “The Creation narrative tells you that you are only partially human, made from Adam’s rib.” But what moved me and changed me was seeing the actions: women standing next to men as equals. 

As I’ve come to know how business works at St Augustine’s, I’ve had a chance to see how men and women work together for the Kingdom of God. I’ve watched women speak up and be heard in Vestry meetings and at parish meetings. I’ve watched women lead, and teach, and talk, and be taken seriously as equals in a congregation family. I’ve come to know these women, love and admire them, as powerful forces for good in the church and in their families and communities. I’ve come to know the men in our congregation who also admire and listen to the women. And I’ve never heard anything derogatory about a woman’s participation in the life of the Church, or the life of the Spirit. Seeing that, living in that, I slowly healed. I became the marvel of calm assurance that you see before you today (please read that with the sarcasm I intend). 

I was given Special Dispensation to attend Thursday Night Men’s Group (thanks, Fr Kevin, for advocating for me), and I was treated like one of the guys. It was something I desperately wanted – just to be included with the men, as if I mattered, too – and it helped. A lot. Way more than you’d think for smoking a bunch of stinky cigars and shouting happily at each other across a noisy screened in porch. 

I’m one of those people who thinks too much. As such, I’m one of those people who thinks you can solve all your problems by thinking, by logical decision-making. So I was a bit curious when I realized that the “believing I was created as an inferior being” problem didn’t go away when I DECIDED that I no longer logically assented to the theology. Where had that voice gone, I wondered? But more importantly, why didn’t it disappear as soon as I decided I no longer agreed with that belief?

Well, there’s the short answer and the long answer. 

The short answer is this: the voice telling me God loved me less for being female was hounding me, and it began to sound less and less like “me” and more like some external force. One late night it became very pronounced, and so I exorcised it. No, not like the thing from The Exorcist. More like Alice in Wonderland, when she stamps her foot, and says “Go away!” to the Cheshire Cat. So I stamped my spiritual foot and said “Go away!” and recited some verses that state “Whatever you command in my name,” etc. etc. And it never came back to bother me again. 

The longer answer is more compelling (more compelling than casting out a demon, you may well ask?). And that is, that I needed to live in a community that practiced what it preached. I needed to be part of a group of Christians who not only said “Be fed,” but who fed me. At St Augustine’s, I participated in every aspect of the life of the church that the men did: I read scripture and prayed; I served on altar guild; I smoked cigars; I joined vestry and spoke up and was heard. And when I was more confident that I wasn’t just being relegated to “women’s work,” I helped run Godly Play and volunteered to help cook and serve meals with Faith Mission. After years of being involved in every way I can with the church and the other members, I can say “God loves me just as much as anyone else” – not through logical assent, but because I’ve lived inside of that love, equality, and acceptance. 

And this brings me to my final point: the importance of the messenger, not just the message. If we could learn everything we needed to learn from reading scriptures, then we wouldn’t need Christian community. But the fact is, God has specially ordained that the Good News of what God has done for us be spread through us. He has made us messengers. And we may not be the most eloquent, nor the most educated – Lord knows I’m neither – but he blesses our efforts to bring others into the fold. He blesses our conversations about spiritual things. He blesses our gatherings (virtual and physical). He blesses our services, our corporate prayer and worship. He blesses it when we invite a visitor to our church – however shy, awkward, and occasionally defensive or hostile she may be – into our homes, onto our porches, into the space at the altar. 

This is the community of God. This beautiful, weird, imperfect, loving family is the first-fruits of the promises of God. I couldn’t believe in the physical resurrection until I experienced a church family that valued me, despite my being a woman. I couldn’t believe in the New Creation until I experienced a church family that showed me that altruistic relationships were possible (if still to be perfected) in the next life. 

Back in the summer of 2015, I stood on a street corner – physically and metaphysically – and begged God for Christian friends and a Christian community. And the greatest evidence that I have that God loves me and gives good gifts is that he brought me to St Augustine’s. Thanks God. I love you weirdos. 

Celebrating Passion Sunday in the Midst of Covid19

Sermon delivered on Palm Sunday, Year A, April 5, 2020 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: Isaiah 50.4-9a; Psalm 31.9-16; Philippians 2.5-11; St. Matthew 26.14-27.66.

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

Today is the Sunday of the Passion, better known as Palm Sunday. Under normal circumstances I would begin this sermon by highlighting the paradoxical nature of this day, where we begin with the triumphal entry of our Lord into Jerusalem and end with his Godforsaken and utterly degrading death on the cross. These are not normal circumstances, however. Rather than getting together to rehearse and celebrate Christ’s triumphal entry, we are forced to remain physically separated from each other and consigned to waving our palm branches into a camera for others to see. Talk about absurd. No, today feels more like a Psalm 137 moment where God’s exiled people in Babylon lamented their condition. “Beside the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept as we thought of Jerusalem. [H]ow can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a pagan land?” (v.1,4), or a Lamentations moment as the prophet Jeremiah surveys the utter destruction of God’s holy city, Jerusalem: “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me, which the Lord inflicted on the day of his fierce anger. For these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears; for a comforter is far from me, one to revive my courage” (1.12,16). It is easy to see why we apply these verses to Christ during Holy Week. But here we are, nevertheless, gathered together as God’s holy people in Christ to celebrate Palm Sunday and lament over Christ’s Passion. It is anything but absurd, despite all that swirls around and within us telling us otherwise. So what does the Sunday of the Passion have to say to us in the midst of this awful plague that isolates us physically and makes us afraid? This is what I want us to look at this morning.

I could spend some time here talking about the symbolic significance of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem and the nature of his Messiahship according to St. Matthew, but that simply is more deflection and diversion. It keeps us occupied with interesting facts so that we do not have to cast our eyes on Mount Calvary. So let’s cut to the chase and get real here. How can Christ’s Passion help us navigate the awful situation in which we find ourselves? First, we have to find our place in the story of his Passion, and a good place to start is to ask the disciples’ question to Christ after he dropped the bombshell that one of them would betray him, “Is it I, Lord?” Much as we might like to think otherwise, our Lord would surely answer yes to our question because each of us has the capacity to betray our Lord in our thinking, speaking, and behaving. If you have no anxiety in asking Jesus this question or expect him to return a “no” to your question, you are to be pitied most of all because you are living in the dark land of denial and can never hope to peer into the enigmatic darkness of Calvary to find the only hope of your salvation. In telling us the story of Christ’s Passion, St. Matthew is telling us that Christ did indeed die for sinners whose representative sins are found the story: betrayal and denial (Judas and Peter), self-righteous justification of questionable thinking and morality (Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin), cowardly desertion of our Lord, failure to be there for a loved one during his darkest hour, failure to go to God in prayer for strength for the moment (various disciples), denying our role in his death (Pilate), actively calling for his crucifixion (crowds), mocking him as he hung naked and pierced on a cross (bystanders/criminals). In telling us these stories, St. Matthew is telling us the story of the human race and its rebellion against God with its death-dealing consequences. St. Matthew is telling us our story. No wonder so many of us avoid really reflecting on Christ’s sacred death. To do so requires us to get real with ourselves and admit that when it comes to the matters of real importance in this world (life and death), we are helpless to end our rebellion and alienation against God and stand under his just judgment. So the first thing we must do is to find our place in the story, whatever it may be, and confess it to the Lord in sorrow and repentance.

But second, we must also see God’s place in this story because in it is our healing and salvation. We must see that throughout the story, Jesus is ready and able to give his life so that we might live, to take upon himself the terrible wrath of God on all that despoils and corrupts and dehumanizes us to spare us from God’s righteous condemnation on our sins and the evil that afflicts us. Again, St. Matthew doesn’t tell us this in so many words, but in the story of Christ’s Passion: Christ tells his disciples that he is about to be given up into the hands of sinners. Pilate releases a terrorist and murderer (Barabbas) instead of Christ, so the truly innocent man dies for the guilty one. And then the terrible, haunting cry of dereliction on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” In telling us these stories, St. Matthew invites us to see that Jesus Christ came to die for sinners, for Judas and Peter, for Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin, for Pilate and Barabbas, for the Roman cohort who scourged Christ and took perverse pleasure in doing it, for the sleazy criminals crucified with Jesus and the other mockers, for you and me. Christ came to die for us so that we might live and be finally reconciled to God the Father by his grace alone, thanks be to God! Christ bore our shame and condemnation so that we no longer have to! It is an onerous (and impossible) task to contemplate how to make right our own sins. It is unimaginable having to contemplate making right for the sins of every living human being in the scope of history. No wonder Christ agonized in prayer in the garden before his arrest. No wonder he cried out in desolation as he felt separated from God for the first time in his life as he bore the sins of the world in his body. This is what St. Matthew wants us to learn and appropriate in our lives: The terrible justice and costly love of God the Father made known supremely to us in the death of God the Son, who willingly gave his life for ours. Christ died so that we could live, and live without fear. This is the other part of the story we must see, but it will never be ours if we don’t first see and acknowledge ourselves in that story.

But we want to object to this sacred Truth. If Jesus is God, how can God be against God? How can God be forsaken by God? How can God be a crucified God? Absurd! Who can understand it? But this is just more deflection and dishonesty on our part. These objections manifest human sophistry and intellectual pride and a breathtaking denial of our real precarious state and standing before a good and holy God without God’s help and intervention on our behalf. We engage in these activities because we equate ourselves with God as well as to deflect our utter terror at the thought that we really aren’t in control of very many things in our life, let alone our mortality and death. None of us want to think about falling into the hands of a holy God without the cross of Jesus Christ. It is just too terrifying and painful, much like the situation in which we find ourselves these days. The story St. Matthew and the other evangelists tell us is too humbling, too awful for us to consider because it knocks us off our proud and self-made pedestal and reminds us the cost of our sin and the evil we commit in the living of our days. This too we must acknowledge if we are to make Christ’s Passion our own story.

Human objections notwithstanding, however, the story of Christ’s Passion remains true in its proclamation of God’s victory over Sin and Death. It is to the glory of God that he still loves us and wants us to be his despite our human condition. And so St. Matthew invites us to peer into the darkness of that threefold hour on Calvary and to contemplate Christ’s cry of dereliction with the opposing feelings of sorrow and joy with thanksgiving for the love of God being poured out for us. St. Matthew is reminding us in his story that there is something in it that transcends us and will always be beyond our full understanding, much as we try to tame it and change the nature and meaning of the story. Here we see God himself suffering on our behalf, taking on our sorrow and sin and brokenness and fear so as to heal and transform it and us. How God did this on the cross we are not told (wisely) because it is not ours to fully know. Instead we are asked to contemplate and reflect on the story, trusting the veracity of God and his great love demonstrated for us. We can’t and won’t do that listening to snippets of the Bible read on Sunday mornings or listening to preachers blather on about it. We have to enter the story ourselves by an informed faith with thanksgiving and that requires the regular and hard work of prayer, Bible study, fellowship, and worship. That’s the only way we can ponder and appropriate together the love and justice of God made known to us in Christ.

And now we are ready to consider what Passion Sunday has to say to us during the midst of this pandemic. First, as we have seen, we must be circumspect in assigning motives to God. Is this God’s active doing? Is God punishing us? We had better take our cue from St. Matthew and the rest of the biblical writers. They don’t offer answers to these kinds of questions. Where the Bible speaks of God sending plagues, there is always a specific context/reason and the writers name the reason. God sent plagues on Egypt, e.g., to demonstrate to the Egyptians and God’s people Israel that there is only one God in this world and he has no equal. That is not the context for today’s plague. 

Instead, a better Christian response would be for us to enter into the story of Christ’s Passion with the same opposing emotions of sorrow and joy we saw above to see what it tells us. There we see our Savior struggle with God in prayer but ultimately live out the prayer he gave us with all its mystery and enigma. He asked his disciples to do likewise; instead, they slept. The result? They deserted him to save their own skin. He succeeded by going to his death while they failed in avoiding theirs. They needed the power of prayer in their darkest hour and refused to avail themselves of it. What are we to learn from this? We also see our Savior crying out in desolation on the cross as he takes on our sins and sorrows and brokenness and messy lives to heal and redeem us, i.e., we see the very heart of God breaking for and with his people. What do these stories reveal about God’s character and justice and love and mercy, specifically in times of darkness? Wrestle with these questions together, my beloved. In doing so with the help of the Spirit we will find our salvation.

Second, St. Matthew’s Passion story calls for lament. With our Lord, who in his cry of dereliction quoted the psalmist, we can and should cry out in complaint, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned [us]?” (Ps 22.1). But here’s the key difference between lamenting and complaining. When we lament, we do so in faith that God is good and merciful and loving, and because of that we believe God will act on our behalf at just the right time, much as we might want him to act immediately. So, e.g., when we ask Christ, “Is it I, Lord?” we do so in the light of our faith in his cross with its bold declaration that for those who put their trust in Christ and live accordingly, there is no longer any condemnation (Romans 8.1). In other words, we lament with the sure and certain expectation that God is for us and not against us, despite circumstances to the contrary. We have seen him crucified and heard his cry of dereliction, and we therefore have seen God’s broken heart for his people in the midst of our despair and fear. We therefore expect God to act in his good time to answer on our behalf. Christ died for us in accordance with the Father’s loving will for us. Why would he not rescue us from this virus? Complaining, on the other hand, is simply that. We complain because we basically are challenging God to prove he is for us, not agin us. Complaint is not based on faith in the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us. It does not recognize the comprehensive saving power of the cross. And so we lament rather than complain because we know we are dealing with a reality that is far beyond our ability to understand and fully control, even when, God willing, a vaccine is eventually developed. Is not God in the vaccine development?

Last, the Passion of Christ would be irrelevant without his Resurrection. The Resurrection made it possible for the first disciples of Christ to reflect on the story of his Passion and make sense of it, at least as much as humanly possible. Christ’s Resurrection reminds us that because of Christ’s sacrifice for our sins, our future is life, not death. I’ll have more to say about that next Sunday, but for now it reminds us that come what may for us as Christ’s followers—even if, God forbid, the virus claims some of us—death is only for a season, that one day we will live in a world devoid of viruses and cruelty and selfishness and every other form of evil. We have this hope—the sure and certain expectation of things to come—because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and so we really have nothing to fear during this pandemic. I do not suggest being unafraid is easy. It isn’t. Scripture tells us more than anything else not to be afraid, which suggests there’s plenty that makes us afraid. But we have each other with God’s Spirit living in us to strengthen and encourage and lament and weep together, and where we are together Christ promises to be there with us. Let us take advantage of his offer, especially because he has been there before us. He knows how this goes; just look at his agony in Gethsemane. Let us remind ourselves and each other of this reality and let God use our weakness to make known his power at work within us. There is surely much sorrow in the midst of this virus. But there is greater reason to rejoice. We are resurrection peeps!

In closing, I don’t claim in this meditation to offer you a comprehensive and exhaustive description of how the Sunday of the Passion can speak to us, but it is a start and so this is my appeal to you. It’s an appeal based on the assumption that you know and have made (or are working at making) Christ’s Passion your own. Come with us this week and commit yourself to following Christ on his path to Calvary. It is not pleasant or easy for reasons we have seen, but it is critically necessary for us to do if we hope to mature in our faith so that we have strength and power for these days. Come with our Lord to the Upper Room on Thursday where he explains his impending death by giving his disciples a meal. Follow him in his arrest, trial, condemnation, and crucifixion. Witness the ungodly spectacle of humans judging God, and doing it with zeal, and see how God unexpectedly turns our wickedness into goodness and life. Come and mourn with our Lord’s followers as they put his crucified body in a tomb and despaired over broken hopes and dreams like we do, and then listen to the story of God’s salvation for you so that you might have real strength and hope. This year especially you really have no good excuse not to make this commitment to Christ. It’s not like you have family events or social or business obligations this week. There’s nothing to prevent you from attending our services on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. So make the effort to witness and appropriate the love God has for you made known in Christ’s death and resurrection. Consider the costliness of this love along with the enigmatic manifestation of God’s power. If you make this commitment, my beloved, I promise that you will be blessed and find new hope, strength, comfort, and power to cope with the chaos. You will enjoy this blessing because it is based on God’s power, not yours, and as the empty tomb revealed that first Easter morning, nothing in this world can defeat the love God has for you or his power to save, not even your mortal death. Is this not worth your time and greatest loyalty? To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

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

A Further Word of Encouragement for Christians During the Pandemic

God [in Christ] is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change

Psalm 46.1-2a, NRSV

As news of covid19 continues to morph every day and we get bombarded with an increasing stream of bad news, do you (still) believe the passage above? In the face of all the bad news we hear, it is natural for us to become afraid. Our fear is exacerbated by our social isolation, a medical necessity, but with the capacity to have disastrous social, psychological, emotional, and spiritual side-effects on us. Our isolation has the tendency to make us even more afraid. And so I want to offer you another word of encouragement today. I will try to do so every week.

The eminent Anglican theologian, Professor Tom Wright, tells us the most common phrase in the Bible is “don’t be afraid.” This suggests there is plenty in our world to make us afraid and all of us understand that by now, if we didn’t before.

So what to do? I again quote above (slightly modified) from Psalm 46. But what should we do to prevent passages like this from becoming mere platitudes? The answer is as straightforward as it is complex. Our ability to trust in the Lord depends on whether we truly trust in God’s goodness, mercy, and power. If we believe God is a liar or is hostile to us or is against us, or is powerless to act, of course we will read passages like the one above as platitudinal. And if we really believe these things about God, then unfortunately we probably don’t have a real relationship with God.

But of course God is NOT a liar. It is impossible for God to lie as the writer of the letter to the Hebrews reminds us (Heb. 6.18). So what to do? Scriptures don’t have a lot to say as to why God allows things like this pandemic to happen. What the Bible tells us to do is to REMEMBER. The Jews were to remember the Exodus. The NT tells us we are to remember our own Exodus, Christ’s death and resurrection. We are also to remember the many times God has acted on our behalf in the living of our days.

If you read or listened to my sermon from Sunday you know that in God’s eyes you are to die for, and that is exactly what God’s Son did for us so that we can live and not have to worry about suffering God’s condemnation and permanent death. If we don’t believe in the truth and reality of Christ’s death and resurrection it will frankly be impossible for us to believe that God in Christ is our refuge and strength, a very present help in times of trouble. If Jesus is not raised from the dead, we are all screwed. But Jesus is raised from the dead and so we are reminded that come what may from this crisis, death does not have the final word. We are people who have died and are raised with Christ by virtue of our baptism (Romans 6.3-5), and so life and new creation are our hope and future, not death and destruction. The virus may kill us, but even if it does, we know we are to die for in God’s loving eyes and tender mercy, and so we are not to be afraid because we know that like Christ, we will be raised to new life in God’s new world where there will be no such thing as pandemics or sickness, sorrow, or death.

Let us therefore encourage one another in our resurrection faith. Let us make sure that none of our faith community families is huddled at home, living in fear and isolation. Let us reach out and check on each other, and encourage each other. Pick 5 people from your faith community each week to call, comfort, and encourage. Check in on your neighbors and encourage them as well. Demonstrate you are a person of power who defies your natural inclination to be afraid. Don’t be foolish, but don’t be timid.

And let us all be prayer warriors. Hear the ancient Christian theologian, Tertullian (d. 225 AD), speak on the power of prayer:

“Prayer cleanses from sin, drives away temptations, stamps out persecution [and plagues?], comforts the faint-hearted, gives new strength to the courageous, brings travelers safely home, calms the waves, confounds robbers [a huge problem in Tertullian’s day], feeds the poor, overrules the rich, lifts up the fallen, supports those who are falling, [and] sustains those who stand firm,” Tertullian, On Prayer, 28-29.

We are all in need of courage, hope, comfort, strength, and perseverance during these days, my beloved, and we all need to be ardent and faithful prayer warriors. Let every single one of us resolve to ramp up our praying for the duration. Pray for God’s mercy, God’s healing, God’s protection, God’s strength, God’s perseverance, and God’s comfort during these desperate days. Remember God answers prayer more often than not through human agency. Resolve therefore to allow God to use you to embody his goodness, mercy, kindness, and strength.

May the Lord bless, protect, and defend you and yours during these desperate days. May you know the peace of Christ and experience his strength, love, and power in the living of your days.

A Word of Encouragement for Christians During the Coronavirus Pandemic

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change.

Psalm 46.1-2a, NRSV

If you are a Christian, do you believe the passage from Psalm 46 that I quote above? If you do, I encourage you to put your faith into action by practicing what you believe. We are bombarded with all kinds of bad and scary news about the coronavirus of late and I encourage you not to succumb to the fear that it naturally engenders. We are Christians. We are therefore people of power, God’s power. As Christians we have a resurrection hope and future. We believe that come what may, because of God’s great love for us made known in Jesus Christ, crucified and raised from the dead, not even death can separate us from God’s love (Romans 8.31-39). A glorious future awaits us in God’s new creation. Let this hope and promise, the very promise of God, sustain you during these uncertain times. Resist the temptation to be afraid. If God is for us, who (or what) can possibly be against us? 

As you rely increasingly on the Lord’s power to protect you and keep you from being afraid, encourage each other in the faith because we all become afraid from time to time and we need each other’s encouragement and support. For starters, spend less time watching the news and more time reading your Bible and encouraging each other. Stay up with the latest developments, but don’t wallow in the bad news. Instead, go to God’s Word to be refreshed, calmed, and strengthened during these uncertain days. In addition to the verses I quoted above, read Psalms 23, 27, 42-43, 46, 77, 91, and 103 for starters. If you find yourself overwhelmed, make Psalm 130 your prayer and strengthen each other with these passages. Don’t be afraid! We are people with a Power far greater than anything the world can throw at us! Jesus Christ himself has promised that he has overcome the world for us (St. John 16.32-33). Dare we doubt him and fall into panic and fear? 

We have a wonderful opportunity during this pandemic to proclaim our faith to a fearful world shrouded in darkness and uncertainty. Let us therefore proclaim our resurrection faith in love and service to each other and to those around us who need Christ’s love made known in and through us. We are not to be reckless and put the Lord to the test, but neither are we to be timid and fearful. Why? Because “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change.” Commit this verse to memory and pray it often, especially when you are tempted to fall into fear. Likewise, pray the Lord’s Prayer regularly (it’s been suggested we do this as we wash our hands) and trust that God does indeed hear our petition to deliver us from evil and acts on our behalf for our good. May God bless you and yours during these difficult days.

Archbishop Foley Beach’s Ash Wednesday Letter

It’s worth your read.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent: by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and alms-giving; and by reading and meditating of God’s holy Word – BCP2019, p. 544


Dearly Beloved in Jesus Christ,As you and I begin the observance of Lent on this Ash Wednesday, I want to ask you to build into your Lenten observance specific times of prayer (and fasting) asking for God’s intervention in the spread of the Coronavirus in North America and all around the world.Dr. Nancy Messionnier, the director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Disease, said yesterday that it is only a matter of time before the virus now labeled COVID-19 begins to spread across North America.  Saying that schools and businesses should begin preparing now, she said: “I understand this whole situation may seem overwhelming and that disruption to everyday life may be severe. But these are things that people need to start thinking about now.”This is where you and I can make a difference in prayer.  If you are going to give up something this Lent, give up “time” and use that time in prayer. If you are going to take something on this Lent, take up specific times in intercessory prayer.  Ask God to eradicate this virus. Ask him to intervene.  Ask him to help public health officials, doctors, and government officials with wisdom and guidance. Ask him to heal the victims and comfort those who have lost loved-ones.  Let us pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ who are facing this virus right now in China, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Iran, Italy, and so many other places.God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and love and sound judgment (2 Tim.1:7).  Let us walk and live in God’s wisdom asking for his help, and trusting in His mercy.

In Christ,

The Most Rev. Dr. Foley Beach

Archbishop and Primate, Anglican Church in North America

Received via email.

A Third-Century Church Father Offers Practical Advice About Praying

As we near the season of Lent with its emphasis on self-examination, repentance, and prayer, here is some very practical advice on the latter from one of the early Church Fathers, Origen of Alexandria (d. 254AD). Notice his emphasis on the whole person, body included, in prayer. May his writing help you in your own praying, during Lent and at other times.

It seems to me that those who are about to come to prayer, if they withdraw and prepare themselves for a little while, will be more earnest and attentive in regard to their prayer as a whole. They should put aside every kind of distraction and disturbance of mind, and recollect as far as possible the greatness of God to whom they come, and that it is a sacrilege to approach God lightly and carelessly and with a kind of disdain; and they should cast off all alien thoughts. Thus ought they to come to prayer, as it were stretching out the soul before the hands, and directing the mind to God before the eyes, and raising up from the ground the reason and making it to stand toward the Lord of all. All malice toward anyone who appears to have wronged them they should cast aside insofar as they wish God to bear no malice toward themselves, since they have injured and sinned against many a neighbor, or else are conscious of deeds of various kinds that they have committed contrary to right reason. Neither ought they to doubt that, as there are countless attitudes [position] of the body, that attitude in which the hands are stretched out and eyes lifted up is to be preferred to all others, since the body brings to prayer the image, as it were, of the qualities suitable to the soul. We mean, however, that these attitudes should be given preference unless an obstacle opposes. For where there is an obstacle it is permissible on an occasion to pray suitably in a sitting position, on account of a disease of the feet that may not be disregarded, or even lying down, through fever or some such sickness. And also, on account of circumstances, if we are sailing, let us say, or if our business does not allow us to withdraw and offer the prayer that is due, it is permitted to pray without even seeming to do so.
And as for kneeling, that it is necessary when one is about to accuse oneself of one’s sins before God, supplicating him for healing therefrom and for forgiveness thereof, it ought to be known that it is a symbol of one who is abject and submissive. Paul says: ‘‘For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named.” Spiritual kneeling, so named because every creature falls down before God “in the name of Jesus” and humbles itself before him, appears to me to be indicated in the words: ‘‘That in the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven and things on earth and things under the earth.”

Origen, Treatise on Prayer 31, 11, 549-552

Ted Olsen: How to Jump Back In to Bible Reading

Christian leaders are also too aware of the dangers of bad Bible reading. We’re on alert against proof-texting. We fret about people misappropriating promises to Israel as guarantees of their own health, wealth, and safety. And we know that the Scriptures were written to believers for the life of the community, not for individualistic moments of personal piety. We start to wonder: Doesn’t the idea of reading one little chapter this morning encourage an atomized “thought of the day” when the whole point is the one large story it tells about God in Jesus Christ? Yes! And since I already know that story, do I really need to read a bit from 1 Corinthians again this morning? There’s so much else that needs doing!

Those thoughts and temptations have little purchase when I’m actually reading the Bible. It’s not that reading it always (or usually) floods me with a light of relief and certitude. But I’ve found that I’m hungriest to read Scripture when I’m reading Scripture. Part of this, no doubt, is simply the psychology driving any habit. But part of it is that the Word of God really is alive and active (Heb. 4:12)—and as much as I want to affirm its primary aims for the community of God, the Spirit keeps illuminating those ways in which it has something to say to me, personally, right now. 

https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/march/how-to-jump-back-in-to-bible-reading.html

First, I would encourage you to read this short article by Dr. Olsen. I like his stuff and find it edifying. From the excerpt above he makes two important points. Don’t read passages in Scripture in isolation from the larger story presented in the Bible. Doing so can lead inexperienced readers to interpret various passages (not all) very badly. Passages of Scripture must always be read in their proper context.

Second, professor Olsen makes the keen observation that reading Scripture can actually feed our hunger to read more of it. But how to overcome our initial reluctance?

Brilliant as professor Olsen is, I am always saddened when the Church’s various traditions for reading Scripture are ignored because in my experience, reading Scripture as part of participating in the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer, where Bible reading is combined with prayer, can serve as an antidote to our reluctance to begin or return to reading Scripture. In my Anglican tradition, we have the opportunity to read a vast majority of Scripture over a two-year cycle. This doesn’t overwhelm newbies but it also provides grist for more experienced readers as well as the structure to read Scripture systematically. That’s never a bad thing.

And when it comes to praying, why try and reinvent the wheel? There are a lot of saints who have gone before us who know how to pray and we shouldn’t be so arrogant that we think we can do better. Form prayers contained in the Office can easily be modified to make them quite personal and I dare say they do not lead to rote praying any more than spontaneous praying does if my experience is any indicator.

So how to jump back into (or begin) reading the Bible? Check out the Daily Office and make it your own. Using the Office, I have let the form prayers make me a better pray-er and have read the entire Bible through at least a dozen times, with each new iteration bringing new insights and teaching. The latter shouldn’t be surprising because the Word of God contained in Holy Scripture is infinitely plumbable and edifying. We would expect nothing less from the God who created this vast universe by his word and who raises the dead back to life.

So become a Daily Office Bible reader, especially if you come from a tradition that uses the Office (Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Anglicanism). You will find new clarity and understanding as well as new power and purpose for living if you do.

Aldersgate 2019: John Wesley on the Way Methodists Live

There is only one condition previously required of those who desire admission into these [Methodist] societies: “a desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins.” It is therefore expected of all who continue therein that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation, First: By doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is  most generally practiced, such as: The taking of the name of God in vain. Drunkenness. Slaveholding. Secondly: By doing good; by being in every kind merciful after their power; as they have opportunity, doing good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all men. Thirdly: By attending upon all the ordinances of God; such are: The public worship of God. The ministry of the Word, either read or expounded. The Supper of the Lord. Family and private prayer. Searching the Scriptures. Fasting or abstinence.

If there be any among us who observe [these rules] not, who habitually break any among them, let it be known unto them who watch over that soul as they who must give an account. We will admonish him of the error of his ways. We will bear with him for a season. But then, if he repents not, he has no more place among us. We have delivered our own souls.

The Book of Discipline of the UMC 1996, 70-72

There you have it. Mutual Christian accountability to help live lives worthy of the call.