What to Do When it Appears God Has Abandoned You

Sermon delivered on Trinity 2C, Sunday, June 26, 2022 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 texts below, click here.

Lectionary texts: 2 Kings 2.1-2, 6-14; Psalm 77; Galatians 5.1, 13-25; St. Luke 9.51-62.

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

This morning I want to focus on our psalm lesson. What can we learn from it? How can it help us in our faith journey? Before we answer these questions, I want to read the first part of the psalm again from a different translation as I think it brings added clarity to the psalmist’s complaint:

I cry out to God; yes, I shout. Oh, that God would listen to me!/ When I was in deep trouble, I searched for the Lord. All night long I prayed, with hands lifted toward heaven, but my soul was not comforted./ I think of God, and I moan, overwhelmed with longing for his help./ You don’t let me sleep. I am too distressed even to pray!/ I think of the good old days, long since ended,/ when my nights were filled with joyful songs. I search my soul and ponder the difference now./ Has the Lord rejected me forever? Will he never again be kind to me?/ Is his unfailing love gone forever? Have his promises permanently failed?/ Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he slammed the door on his compassion?/ And I said, “This is my fate; the Most High has turned his hand against me” (Psalm 77.1-10, NLT).

So have you ever cried out to Lord in despair? If you are old enough you surely have. Some of us cry out to the Lord in despair over the state of our nation and the strident voices and lawlessness that are becoming increasingly prevalent. Some of us cry out to the Lord in despair over the “joys” of aging or over a catastrophic illness or over the desperate situation in which we might find ourselves or our loved ones. Whatever the reason for our cries, like the psalmist we who have a relationship with God search for him in hopes that God will comfort us or heal us or relieve our despair. After all, God is all-powerful, right? He raises the dead and creates things out of nothing. Nothing is too hard for him! And indeed, oftentimes God answers our prayers and we then proceed to go about our business acting like we don’t need God at all. But sometimes like the psalmist experiences, God seems to be strangely or even terrifyingly absent. We search for healing or peace or comfort or a sense of God’s presence and find none. If God’s perceived absence lasts too long our doubts and fears can grow like the psalmist’s did. We can’t sleep. We are overwhelmed with longing, desperately wanting God to answer his prayers. And then we ask the awful questions. Has God abandoned us forever? Has God rejected us forever? And more personally, has God stopped loving me because I am so rotten? In the past God has answered my prayers for help and has comforted me. But now? Where is God? Why doesn’t he hear my desperate prayers? Why will God not show me any compassion? All these questions can lead the psalmist and us to this terrible conclusion (not to mention a crisis of faith): God has turned his hand against me, i.e., God finally sees me as I really am, a sinner undeserving of his love and grace, and refuses to help me. Anyone here ever gotten to this point in your relationship with God? I did 22 years ago and I almost took my life as a result. This is very serious stuff about which we are talking and if you are in that boat right now, I encourage you to reach out to your priest, your family, and/or your friends, especially if they are Christians, because God can and does use human agency to heal and comfort us.

St. Paul understood how this all works. In our epistle lesson he reminds us in no uncertain terms that our sin-sickness causes alienation between God and his image-bearers and that alienation can produce the kind of emotional and spiritually dark state the psalmist experienced and we experience, whatever the issue was and is. So what to do? The psalmist along with the rest of Scripture tell us. We are to remember. We are to remember God’s promises to his image-bearing creatures in general and his people Israel in particular, promises to act on our behalf, to free us from our slavery to the power of Sin and our own fallen nature with its corrupted desires. St. Paul catalogues a sample of the fruit of our sinful nature in our epistle lesson: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and all the other fruit of our alienation from God and each other that our slavery to Sin produces. But the psalmist remembers God’s power to act on our behalf, to free us from all kinds of slavery, and that’s why he remembers. He remembers especially God’s mighty act of deliverance for his people Israel when he brought them out of their slavery in Egypt and through the dark and terrible waters of the Red Sea to eventual freedom. God did this. God acted in Israel’s history because God loves his people and is gracious to them, even though they are unworthy of his great gifts. Likewise with us as God’s people in Christ, the reconstituted Israel.

Why else would the psalmist in his desperation seek to remember God’s mighty acts in the past? Why must we do likewise? Because they are proof positive that God does not abandon his people; rather, God acts on our behalf, undeserving as we are, because God loves us and is gracious toward us. Israel did not deserve its liberation. The people demonstrated that when they started grumbling about wanting to return to their slavery almost immediately after God liberated them! You can read that sad and compelling story in Exodus and Numbers. Nevertheless, God acted to free them, even though God knew beforehand what they were going to do. 

For Christians, of course, we are to remember God’s mighty acts of love and power demonstrated enigmatically on Calvary but definitively when God raised Christ from the dead. In Christ’s Death and Resurrection, God did a much greater thing than he did for Israel at the Exodus, jaw-dropping as the latter was. In Christ’s Death and Resurrection God freed us from our slavery to Sin’s power, the stuff St. Paul spoke about above, and defeated the darkest, most evil power of all—Death. But God the Father did not stop there. As Christ told his disciples at the Last Supper, after he had Ascended, he would not leave them (or us) as orphans and without hope or God’s power in this mortal life. No, we have the unseen Risen and Ascended Christ interceding for us at God’s right hand, NT language that proclaims Jesus is Lord over all, as well as the Holy Spirit who makes Christ available to us and intercedes on our behalf, even when we can only groan in desperation, not knowing what to pray for or how to ask for something. All of these gifts from God are real and they demonstrate God’s love for us and his willingness to act on our behalf. 

As a result we are no longer slaves to our fallen, sinful selves. To be sure our fallen nature rears its ugly head from time to time. After all, the very act of doubting God’s love for us is a product of our alienation between God and each other! But as St. Paul tells us in our epistle lesson, God does not leave us to our own devices. No, we are set free from our slavery to Sin and ruled by the Holy Spirit who empowers us and helps us to live and be as God created us to live and be, surely the mightiest of all God’s acts! The proof is in the pudding of the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Whenever these fruit manifest themselves in our lives, we have proof that the Holy Spirit is alive and well in us, i.e., God is present and active in our lives, even when we consciously experience his absence. So like the psalmist, we as God’s people in Christ need to remember how God has acted on our behalf and how God continues to manifest his power in our lives, unlikely as that power appears to the unbelieving world. This is why the psalmist and the rest of Scripture tell us to remember. Why God seems to be strangely absent in our lives at times nobody knows. Why God doesn’t answer our prayers as we ask or seems to ignore our desperate situations nobody knows. What Scripture does tell us is that in all the ambiguities and mysteries and unanswered questions, God’s absence isn’t necessarily a sign God has abandoned us or is punishing us, although the latter is sometimes true, especially when we go off the rails for extended periods of time. But God never rejects a humble and contrite heart. Ever. God never rejects our sincere penance. Ever. God never ultimately rejects us unless we ultimately reject God. Christ’s Death on the cross is proof of that, thanks be to God! 

So what do we do when we are in desperate times, wondering if God has abandoned us? Well, many of us try to tough it out on our own. Instead of remembering that God is faithful to his people, we seek human solutions to alleviate our desperation. How’s that working out for you? I know it never has worked for me. No, as we have seen, we are called to remember, both collectively and individually, and then to rely on each other to remind ourselves that God never leaves us alone. In other words, we are to love each other and be there for each other when we sense God’s absence, just the way all healthy families help each other in good times and bad. Never underestimate the power of godly folk to help lighten your load as they walk with you through the dark valleys of life. The very act of remembering and relying on each other help us focus on God instead of ourselves. It reminds us to be patient and to trust God to act on our behalf in God’s good time and ways. That’s not easy for us god-wannabes but it is the only real option we have if we are not to totally lose heart and hope. When we remember, we are reminded that God is not some inconsistent ogre who delights in torturing us or who behaves erratically toward us as we do toward God and each other. God loved us enough to become human and die for us to free us from his just condemnation and an eternity apart from him, even while we were still sinners and his enemies. If God loves us that much, why would God abandon us now in our darkest hours? St. Paul comes to this exact conclusion in his letter to the Romans: 

If God is for us, who can ever be against us? Since [God] did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else? [Therefore] I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8.31-32, 38-39, NLT).

In this mortal life there are always going to be desperate times. When those desperate times occur in our lives Scripture tells us to double down in our efforts to focus on God and put our trust in him, no matter what the circumstances, no matter how dark the valley. God may not rescue us as we expect or hope, but we all have the assurance that God has indeed rescued us from the gravest danger of all: Death and eternal separation from him. God has broken the power of Sin and Death and promises us an eternity with him in his new world, a world without Evil or Sin or Death, a world that is full of perfect life and health forever. Don’t let your fears and weaknesses rob you of the spectacular hope contained in this promise, my beloved. Remember instead God’s willingness and ability to act on our behalf and for our benefit. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. 

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

Christ’s Resurrection: Making All Things New

Sermon delivered on Easter 3C, Sunday, May 1, 2022 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: Acts 9.1-20; Psalm 30; Revelation 5.11-15; St. John 21.1-19.

Today is my last regular Sunday to preach to you, my beloved (ignoring the fact that many of you consider that my preaching is enough to make any Sunday irregular). Fourteen years ago today I was ordained to the priesthood. Eleven years ago to the day, we started a home Bible study/eucharist that would eventually become St. Augustine’s. I don’t quite know where the last fourteen years have gone, or more precisely, how they have passed so quickly. But here I am on the verge of retirement, feeling very much like a washed-up old man and hot mess, and so I am resolved to pack fourteen years worth of sermons into one today. I’m guessing that will only take a few hours given my superb skill of summarization. I’m sure you are thrilled at the prospect. I see Father Bowser twitching already in giddy anticipation.

What are we to make of St. John’s strange story of Christ’s appearing to his disciples by the Sea of Galilee? What is St. John trying to tell us? How is this story relevant to us today, both as individuals and the Church? This is what I want us to look at this morning.

Hearing St. John recount Christ’s third resurrection appearance to his disciples, we get the distinct impression that something new has been accomplished, that things have really changed, and for the better. Jesus is the same, yet he is somehow different. Despite appearing to his disciples twice before (Jn 20.19-29), they still don’t recognize him at first. They knew it was him but yet there was something different about him, so no one dared ask him who he was. As one theologian has wryly observed about the nature of these appearances, after the resurrection you don’t find anyone casually slapping Jesus on the back and saying with a grin, “We’re so glad you’re back, Jesus!” No, Christ was alive and had carried his wounds into God’s new world, remaining the same. But he was different and because he was alive and transformed, everything else was new. But were things really new? St. John doesn’t tell us the disciples were busy proclaiming that Christ had risen from the dead and working enthusiastically to build his Church. No, they had apparently returned to their original vocation of fishing, and the story gives us the impression they had done so because they were either depressed and/or bored. Nothing new there. Where was the excitement from the Octave of Easter we read about last week? In our NT lesson, St. Paul was still breathing threats and violence against the fledgling church. Nothing new there. The world still scoffed at the disciples’ proclamation that Christ was risen from the dead. Nothing new there. So what was really new?

Before we answer that question, it is critical to our resurrection faith that we again pay careful attention to the bodily nature of Christ’s appearance in this story (cf. Luke 24.33-42). He stands on the shore and has cooked breakfast for his weary and discouraged disciples. He eats with them and talks with them. They can see him, hear him, touch him. Despite his transformed appearance they know it is Jesus because they recognize him primarily in his bodily form, not to mention his gentle kindness, thoughtfulness, and love. And here is the answer to our “what’s new” question. St. John, masterful and brilliant storyteller he is, is telling us in story form what the early Church proclaimed and what Jesus himself had told his disciples at the Last Supper—that in his Death our sins are forgiven, our wounds are healed, and we are made whole again. We are reconciled to God our Father and freed from our slavery to the power of Sin and with it, from Death’s tyranny. Yes, death will come to us all barring Christ’s return in the interim because all have sinned, but we will live and conquer Death because Christ lives and has conquered Death through his own Death and Resurrection, thanks be to God! Easter anyone?

How do you get all that from this story, you ask, and with a bit of snark? I’m glad you ask, despite the fact that I just told you. But it wouldn’t be right if you stopped arguing with me during my sermons after all these years. That would mean you have stopped being the quirky people that make up this nuthouse of a parish, the people I love so much. So to repeat, while St. John does not tell us these things in exposition, he tells us in personal stories. In other words, we see Christ’s victory over Sin and Death in the transformative power it has on those who belong to him. Take his encounter with St. Peter, for example. There is much to love about St. Peter because he is us. He had shot his mouth off on the night before Christ died, boasting of his undying loyalty to his Lord, only to deny him three times in a spectacular act of cowardice of which we are all capable, especially in the context Peter’s denials occurred. And afterwards he had rightly wept bitterly over his profound failure. Imagine now for a minute that Christ was not risen from the dead, that there was no possibility for reinstatement, for forgiveness, for personal reaffirmation after catastrophic failure. How would St. Peter have felt? Utterly devastated and remorseful, no doubt, with no chance of his failure being put to rights. We all know this because we’ve all lapsed in our resurrection faith on occasion. There’s no worse feeling in the world than knowing a massive wrong/injustice cannot be made right because of our sins and/or failures. But this is exactly the situation we would find ourselves in if Christ really is dead. We may love God and others, but we’ve all let God and others down. We’ve betrayed and denied God and others and failed to live as the holy people God created us and calls us to be, and if Christ is not alive we are still dead in our sins with no hope of resolution or forgiveness. 

But Christ is not dead. He is alive and now confronting St. Peter about his past sin. “Simon, son of John, do you agapao me more than these?” Agapao is the verb form of agape, the Greek word that means the highest form of love, the kind of love that is self-giving and seeks the absolute best for the beloved, the kind of love with which Christ loved his disciples and loves us. “Yes, Lord, you know I phileo you,” St. Peter replied. Phileo is another Greek word for love, but it can refer to a lesser kind of love, a brotherly, affectionate love that is not always self-giving. Back came the response: Feed my lambs (take care of my followers, the Church, Simon). A second time Christ asked his wounded and hurting disciple: Do you agapao me?, receiving the same answer. Yes Lord, you know I phileo you. Back came the response: Tend my sheep. A third time, matching the number of times St. Peter had denied his Lord on Holy Thursday, Christ asked him, “Simon, son of John, do you phileo me?” St. Peter was hurt by this third question, or perhaps the subtle change in it. We aren’t told why. “Lord, you know all things. You know I phileo you.” Back came the response: Feed my sheep. Now while there is much scholarly debate over the significance of Christ using St. Peter’s word, phileo, to ask a third time if St. Peter loved him, count me among those who believe St. John was too good a storyteller to have this be simply about semantics. Here we see our crucified and risen Lord meet St. Peter where St. Peter was emotionally with Christ at that moment. Surely St. Peter had learned from his unfounded bravado that he wasn’t the stud he fancied himself to be, nor did he love his Lord as he thought. He had failed catastrophically the man he loved more than anyone else, the man who had turned his whole life upside down. In telling us this tender and compelling story, St. John is surely telling us that this is how Christ and his resurrection are making all things new. Without forgiveness of sins on the cross, without a newfound freedom to resist Sin’s power, there could have been no real forgiveness. St. Peter, like us, would have remained dead in his sins and alienated from God the Father, doomed to utter destruction. But here was Christ, meeting his wayward and sorrowful disciple where he was, forgiving him and inviting him to take up the victory Christ had accomplished for him in his Death and Resurrection, and Christ does the same for us. St. Peter would accept Christ’s invitation by giving his life for the Son of God and so can we.

In telling us this story, St. John is surely telling us that the power of Jesus is typically not made known in stunning ways, in ways the world recognizes as spectacular, although there are notable and numerous exceptions to this rule. Christ making all things new is not about razzle-dazzle or eye-popping special effects that we love to see at the movies. Instead, it is about the quiet way of Christ with his people, with St. Peter, with you and me, agapaoing us in all our unloveliness, forgiving all our failures and betrayals and denials, recognizing our limitations, but also seeing our potential and putting us to work for him, despite who we can be, out of his sheer grace and love for us. There is nothing we have said or not said, thought or not thought, done or not done that is beyond the healing love and forgiveness of our crucified and risen Savior, nothing that will not eventually be put to rights, even if we must wait for it to be put to rights in God’s new heavens and earth. If you cannot find real hope, real comfort, real healing in this reality and promise, my beloved, surely you are to be pitied most of all. St. Paul found it on the road to Damascus, St. Peter found it in our gospel story today as have countless other Christians across time and cultures. Let us join this happy and forgiven throng so that like the psalmist in today’s lesson, we too can make the bold proclamation of conquering death through Christ our own!

And how does this apply to Christ’s body, the Church, to us together? It is quite appropriate that today’s gospel lesson was the appointed text because it is the promise and power of Christ making all things new, even with all its ambiguity and perplexities, that allows me to leave the people I love so much. Make no mistake. Human leadership, good leadership, is massively important for any family. But human leaders come and go and I am no different from anyone else in that regard. We are a healthy, thriving parish with a bright future, and while I have played some small part in that, the fact remains that we are this way because we make Christ our true Head and Leader. We believe in his promise to meet us where we are in all our changes and chances of life, in all our fears and hopes and dreams and failures, and he promises to lead us through even the valley of the shadow of death. This is what allows me to retire with confident hope for you our beloved family, because I know Christ lives and is present here among us, making all things new, transforming the old.  

My dearly beloved, don’t ever lose sight of this reality and promise. Christ seeks you out, no matter who or where you are, and promises to bring you home one day to a world where there will be no more sorrow or sighing or sickness or alienation or madness or folly or separation or death. We can stake our individual and collective lives on this promise if we continue to respond faithfully to the means of grace that make Christ available to us in real and living ways: Bible reading and study, prayer, confession, sweet fellowship of all kinds (don’t forget to party and enjoy the blessings Christ showers on you), and regular partaking of holy communion. All these things open us to Christ’s risen reality and Presence in and through the Holy Spirit. We have all died and been raised to new life in Christ in our baptism, and we are yoked to him forever, thank God. In Christ is our hope, our present, and our future. In him we find comfort in our sorrows, God’s tenderness, forgiveness, new life in our failures, and a deep abiding joy in all things because we belong to Christ. Imitate this great love as he commands us. Beloved, make this old man happy and proud by responding to Christ’s love with boldness and courage and hope. Remain faithful to him who delivers you from Sin and Death, and never abandon the faith once delivered to the saints, the true apostolic faith. Don’t be worried about your future as God’s family here at St. Augustine’s without the Maneys because you have Christ and he will never abandon or desert you. He is busy making all things new, yourselves included, both now and in God’s new world to come, a world that Christ’s resurrection announced and inaugurated. God bless you, my beloved. I thank God for blessing me with the massive privilege of being your rector for all these years. Toots and I are thankful to have been part of this holy and very quirky family and I am thankful to be yoked to you in Christ forever. We love you more than you’ll ever know. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. Alleluia! Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

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

Upon A Hill

Three men shared death upon a hill,
But only one man dies;
The other two—
A thief and God himself—
Made rendezvous.

Three crosses still
Are borne up Calvary’s Hill,
Where Sin still lifts them high:
Upon the one, sag broken men
Who, cursing, die;
Another holds the praying thief,
Or those who penitent as he,
Still find the Christ
Beside them on the tree.

—Miriam LeFevre Crouse

Easter: Seeking the Living Among the Living Instead of the Dead

Sermon delivered on Easter Sunday C, April 17, 2022 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: Acts 10.34-43; Psalm 118.1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15.19-26; St. Luke 24.1-12.

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

In our gospel lesson this morning, St. Luke tells us the women followers of Jesus, the same ones who witnessed his burial on Good Friday, went to his tomb to finish anointing his dead body. There they are confronted by two angels who ask them why they seek the living among the dead, why are they looking for Christ in his tomb? The question reverberates throughout history and applies equally to us as Christians today. Are we seeking the living among the dead or the living? This is what I want us to look at this Easter morning.

At first blush it is understandable why the women were looking for Jesus in his tomb. They knew, like we know, that dead people don’t come back to life. We, like they, still go to cemeteries to mourn our dead and think about them. In recounting this story St. Luke is reminding us that none of Christ’s first disciples expected him to be raised from the dead. The men were in hiding, afraid of being arrested by the Jewish authorities and sharing the fate of their crucified Lord. The women were braver but they weren’t coming to Christ’s tomb expecting to find it empty. They all knew, like we know, that death has the final say. That’s why so many of us, sadly including some Christians, seek the living among the dead. We desperately seek human solutions for the problem of Death in an effort to find some meaning and purpose in life or to discover what it means to be human because we all know dead people don’t come back to life. But in the end our efforts are utterly futile. 

What does this seeking look like? Some seek life by accumulating wealth. We work our brains out to make as much money as possible so we will have enough when we retire. Some seek the living among the dead by trying to acquire power and influence, either socially, economically, and/or politically, thinking that will satisfy us. Some seek the living among the dead through drugs or booze or porn or gambling, anything to take our minds off the real problem of the human condition with our sin-sickness and alienation from God. Some of us pin our hopes on medical and technological advancements, hoping they will save us. Then of course there are identity politics of all kinds, where we are encouraged to find ourselves by identifying with our race or gender (fluidity) or sexual preferences or political party or ideology. Doing so will help us find our true inner selves we are told. All of this, of course, is in direct contradiction to the biblical testimony and truth that our sin-sickness has made our hearts, the center of our will and being, desperately sick and beyond our ability to repair (Jer 17.9). Simply put, we are slaves to the power of Sin and where there is slavery to Sin, Death must follow. None of us can escape this reality and it shows. We are more alienated and isolated from each other than ever before. With all of our fantastic technology and medical advancements, we are more anxious than ever. We are afraid and angry, not to mention dazed and confused. We are this way because we seek the living among the dead, human solutions to our problems with no real hope or future. So this morning as we celebrate the living among the living, the Risen Christ, I ask you: Are you seeking the living among the dead or the living? Are you looking to human solutions and/or trusting yourself to be the solution to the root problem of human sin and the alienation from God and each other it causes? If you are, you are most to be pitied.

St. Paul was not among this crowd, at least after the Risen Christ confronted him on the road to Damascus. He stopped looking for the living among the dead, stopped trusting in his own Jewish pedigree and rich theological knowledge. No, he looked for the living among the living. He kept his eyes on the Ultimate Prize of Christ, who is the Resurrection and the Life, the one and only way to the Father. Why is this important? Because only God has the power to defeat the power of Death and as St. Paul also reminds us, it was through Christ’s saving Death on the cross that God chose to rescue us from the power of Sin and Death. Christ died for us so that we might have our relationship with God restored and therefore live, imperfect as that restored relationship is in this mortal life. As St. Paul tells us in our epistle lesson, Death came through a human and therefore God chose to fix the problem through a human, but in the most unlikely way, by becoming human and dying for us to reconcile us to himself. Even today Christ’s cross remains scandalous to many, Christians included. None of us likes to think we are totally reliant on God’s love, mercy, and grace to heal and restore us to God, but we are and that’s exactly how God chose to free us.

St. Luke tells us essentially the same thing in our gospel lesson. The angels rebuked the women, not because they were afraid, but because they didn’t believe Christ when he was alive and told them about the necessity of his saving Death and Resurrection. This was all firmly rooted in Scripture and the events of the past days were no accident; they were foretold. God wasn’t taken by surprise. No, this was God-ordained, the Father working with the Son to rescue us stubborn and rebellious people from our slavery to Sin and the universal power of Death that results from our sin. The Father and the Son didn’t wait till we got our act together. They acted preemptively to rescue us out of their great love for us. This is why Christ’s Death and Resurrection are the turning point in history. Until that time, we were all helplessly and hopelessly lost. Death and Hell were our final destinations and this was intolerable to God our Creator and Savior because God did not create us to destroy us. What good parent does that?? And so Christ came to die for us as the Scripture foretold, and in raising Christ from the dead, God vindicated his Death on the cross and destroyed the power of Death in the process, God be thanked and praised! The women should have known this (as should have the men). But they didn’t for whatever reason. And so they sought the living among the dead. They never anticipated that first Easter Sunday. 

Many of us still don’t and like them we remain afraid. But we needn’t be if we keep our eyes on the prize of Resurrection and new creation. And let’s be clear about the nature of our Ultimate Prize. Resurrection is about the continuity of bodily existence, albeit in radically new way. We’ll look at this more in two weeks. For right now, when the angels spoke of Christ being raised from the dead (as did Christ’s first followers) they had in mind bodily, physical existence, not some ephemeral disembodied state, the stuff of gnosticism and other new age religions. As St. Peter proclaimed in our NT lesson, the disciples ate, drank, and spoke with the Risen Lord. You don’t do that with a disembodied spirit. And as St. Paul proclaimed in our epistle lesson, Death is not finally destroyed until Christ returns to finish his saving work and the dead are raised. Our loved ones who have died in the faith of Christ are safely in Christ’s care and protection in heaven (Phil 1.21-23), but they are still dead and remain so until the time Christ gives them their new bodies patterned after his own. Resurrection is emphatically not about dying and going to heaven. It is about new bodily existence where we have bodies that are fitted to live in God’s new heavens and earth, a world that will surely be inexpressibly beautiful because God our Father is inexpressibly beautiful, a world where sickness and sighing and alienation and fear and anger and sorrow and madness and incompleteness are no more. More importantly, whatever that world looks like it will be a world where Death is abolished forever and we will never be separated from our loved ones who have died in the peace and love of Christ, no matter how hard their mortal death might have been. Best of all, we will never be separated from God our Father again the way we are now. As our first human ancestors enjoyed intimate fellowship with God in a way none of us can ever experience because of the Fall as we saw last night, so God promises to live directly with us in all his glory and we will be allowed to live in his direct Presence, all because of Christ’s saving Death on the Cross. It is the prize above all prizes, a prize that makes the prizes we strive for pale in comparison; it is worthy of our best striving, labor, and efforts to follow Christ and his Way. Nothing else will do because nothing else ends in life. This promised new world is made possible only by the love and power of God. None can attain it on their own, only by the mercy and grace of God manifested through Christ. When we keep our eyes on this prize, we are truly looking for the living among the living because we are looking at the only Power who can give us eternal life, Jesus Christ, our Crucified, Risen, and Ascended Lord. Resurrection is not a concept, my beloved, it is a person, and his Name is Jesus Christ, the only Son God. Without him we have no hope for real life, either in this world or the next, and all our other efforts to find life and meaning and purpose are utterly futile. When we seek the living among the living, i.e., when we seek to give our lives and ourselves totally to Christ and live as he calls us to live, it is imperative that we keep our eyes on this prize of Resurrection and new creation. I cannot speak for you, but whenever I have taken my eyes off this prize, my search for the living invariably results in me looking for the living among the dead instead of the living. Listen if you have ears to hear.

But how are we to experience the Risen Christ today? Nobody witnessed the Resurrection. Like many Christian interpreters, I am convinced this is because the Resurrection is beyond our ability to see or understand. As we have just seen, it comes from the realm and power of God. And God in his perfect wisdom has ordained that not everyone in Christ’s day would be able to see the risen Lord as St. Peter attests in our NT lesson. Only a select few were allowed to see Christ after his death and even those experiences stopped after awhile as St. Paul attests in 1 Cor 15. So how are we to believe that Christ is raised from the dead? The angels and the rest of the NT tell us. So does the collective and shared experience of the Church. The Resurrection was foretold in Scripture; it is the result of the power and promise of God and that is how we can experience the Risen Christ today. Whenever we read and study and meditate on what Scripture has to say about Christ and believe it, he becomes available to us in the power of the Spirit. He is here with us this morning, God be thanked and praised! Do you sense his Presence? I do! Christ is also available to us when we come to his Table each Sunday and eat his body and drink his blood. We literally take Christ into our own bodies for him to do his healing will and work. This of course requires faith on our part, but that is how God has ordained it and we should not shrink from the Faith or feel compelled to apologize to scoffers for it. When the women told the disciples that Christ was raised from the dead, the disciples considered it an “idle tale,” pure nonsense. They weren’t ready to seek the living among the living because they did not believe and trust in the power of God. The same thing often happens to us when we proclaim Christ crucified and raised from the dead to those who do not know him. Many will consider our proclamation an idle tale, pure nonsense—until they meet Christ in the Scripture and sacraments and see how he works in and among his people. They will know him by our love, our hope, our fearlessness, and our bold faith in Christ, i.e., our faithful seeking of the living among the living, not the dead. 

Let us therefore resolve, especially during this Eastertide, to seek out the living among the living by keeping our eyes fixed on our Ultimate Prize of Resurrection and new creation. Let the world see how we love each other and take care of each other (not to mention what a grand party we are having in the process). Let others see the joy that radiates from our reading the Scriptures and receiving our Lord at Table, in our celebrations and yes, in our mourning and lamenting. We are a people with a real hope and a future, the only hope and future, the kind the world does not know and cannot have until it surrenders to Christ. We all must choose, my beloved. Do you know fully that Scripture is the word of God with its proclamation of Christ crucified and raised from the dead and trust it so that you stake your very life on it? Do you experience Christ in the Eucharist and in the power of the Holy Spirit who lives in each of us and collectively? How we answer these questions goes a long way in helping us decide where we seek the living and our zeal for proclaiming Christ to the world. May we always seek the living in the Risen and living Lord. Alleluia! Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

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

Holy Week 2022: An Ancient Homily for Holy Saturday

What is happening? Today there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence, and stillness, a great silence because the King sleeps; the earth was in terror and was still, because God slept in the flesh and raised up those who were sleeping from the ages. God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled.

Truly he goes to seek out our first parent like a lost sheep; he wishes to visit those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. He goes to free the prisoner Adam and his fellow-prisoner Eve from their pains, he who is God, and Adam’s son.

The Lord goes in to them holding his victorious weapon, his Cross. When Adam, the first created man, sees him, he strikes his breast in terror and calls out to all: “My Lord be with you all.”

And Christ in reply says to Adam: “And with your spirit.” And grasping his hand he raises him up, saying: “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.”

“l am your God, who for your sake became your son, who for you and your descendants now speak and command with authority those in prison: Come forth, and those in darkness: Have light, and those who sleep: Rise.

“I command you: Awake, sleeper, | have not made you to be held a prisoner in the underworld. Arise from the dead; | am the life of the dead. Arise, O man, work of my hands, arise, you who were fashioned in my image. Rise, let us go hence; for you in me and | in you, together we are one undivided person.

“For you, | your God became your son; for you, | the Master took on your form; that of slave; for you, | who am above the heavens came on earth and under the earth; for you, man, | became as a man without help, free among the dead; for you, who left a garden, | was handed over to Jews from a garden and crucified in a garden.

“Look at the spittle on my face, which | received because of you, in order to restore you to that first divine inbreathing at creation. See the blows on my cheeks, which | accepted in order to refashion your distorted form to my own image.

“See the scourging of my back, which | accepted in order to disperse the load of your sins which was laid upon your back. See my hands nailed to the tree for a good purpose, for you, who stretched out your hand to the tree for an evil one.

“| slept on the Cross and a sword pierced my side, for you, who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side healed the pain of your side; my sleep will release you from your sleep in Hades; my sword has checked the sword which was turned against you.

“But arise, let us go hence. The enemy brought you out of the land of paradise; | will reinstate you, no longer in paradise, but on the throne of heaven. | denied you the tree of life, which was a figure, but now | myself am united to you, | who am life. | posted the cherubim to guard you as they would slaves; now | make the cherubim worship you as they would God.

“The cherubim throne has been prepared, the bearers are ready and waiting, the bridal chamber is in order, the food is provided, the everlasting houses and rooms are in readiness; the treasures of good things have been opened; the kingdom of heaven has been prepared before the ages.”

Dare We Party During Lent?

Sermon delivered on Lent 4C, Laetare Sunday, March 27, 2022 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: Joshua 5.9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5.16-21; St. Luke 15.1-3, 11b-32.

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

Today is Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Lent (thus our fashionable pink/rose colored vestments). Laetare is the Latin word meaning to rejoice and our readings today all point us to reasons why as Christians we should. This is what I want us to look at this morning.

So why do we dare party during Lent? Well, because there is good reason to do so as all our readings attest. It is also consistent with the season of Lent. Does that surprise you? It likely will if you see Lent as a grim time where we are supposed to follow a bunch of rules we don’t really like or understand, but are told to follow them anyhow, things like much fasting and prayer, doing acts of mercy and being extra generous with our resources for the sake of others. But to think like this misses the entire point of Lent. We don’t observe Lent for its own sake. We observe Lent because it is precisely the Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, repentance, and doing acts of mercy and charity that prepare us to live as the Easter people God calls us to be as followers of Christ, holy people! And as we shall see, the fifty days of Eastertide call for a continual party like no other party.

We start with our OT lesson. The geniuses who choose the texts for the RCL inexplicably leave off God’s command to Joshua to have all the males of Israel circumcised, the children of those whom the Lord had brought out of Egypt and who had died during Israel’s forty years of wilderness wandering. This is important because in so commanding Joshua to have the Israelite males circumcised, the Lord effectively commanded Joshua to renew Israel’s covenant with him so that they could enjoy the fruits of the covenant, the Promised Land. And in commanding Israel to renew its covenant with the Lord, God was also effectively commanding Israel to remember all the Lord had done for them and what the Lord was about to do for them. The old had passed away—freedom from their slavery in Egypt and God’s care for them in the wilderness so that his promise to them would be fulfilled—and the new was about to begin—life in the Promised Land, even before Israel had entered it! Israel’s shame, whatever the Lord meant by that, was now gone. They had escaped Egypt, a world power, and had survived forty years in the wilderness despite their rebellion against God. They had renewed their ancient covenants with God and were now in the position to claim God’s promise in full. No wonder the manna stopped. That was of the old order. From now on the Israelites would live off the fat of the land!

And we can relate to ancient Israel’s story because it is our own. While we have not had to endure a literal wilderness for forty years we know what it is like to live in the wilderness of our mortal life with its joys and sorrows, alienation and fear, and loneliness even within community. Like ancient Israel we have been both faithful and faithless in our lives and we know what it feels like to sense God’s absence even as God remains near to us. We too have seen our loved ones die. We too have experienced frustration of all kinds as well as broken relationships in our quest to find fidelity and relationships that are real and enduring. Yet even in the midst of our wilderness, we know God is merciful and faithful, quick and even eager to forgive us, especially when we confess our sins and faithlessness and rebellion to him as our psalm this morning attests. God is always faithful and just and right. God cares for us as his image-bearing creatures and wants to bless us with a future and a hope. When we remember God’s faithfulness and his love for us, even in the midst of our faithlessness and wilderness wanderings, and when we consider our resurrection hope (more about that anon), is this not a compelling reason for us to party, even during this season of Lent?

But our hope as Christians is even more remarkable and breathtaking than God’s promise of land to the Israelites and we see this hope powerfully expressed in our gospel lesson this morning. The pharisees and scribes were grumbling that Christ was hanging around sinners and the low-lifes of his day. How can anyone who claims to be righteous do a thing like that?? Why do you party so much?? Our Lord responded with three parables, only one of which we read today. Again the RCL geniuses chose to omit key passages because the first two parables were about things lost: a sheep and a coin, and more importantly, heaven’s response to those things being found. What was that response? A party of course! Then Christ tells the most powerful of the three parables: the story of the lost son. Before we look at this we need to disabuse ourselves of the lie that some in our day have attempted to foist on us. Christ is emphatically not saying that sinners and low-lifes are simply to be accepted as they are. The lost sheep and coin are found after all. The prodigal comes to his senses and returns home. In other words, sinners must repent. But that is not the point of the parables. The point is that God in Christ loves a party that celebrates the restoration of life to the dead and a relationship with the lost. And because God celebrates this, so do all who dwell in his heavenly domain. As Christians we should take our cue from God our Father and the heavenly host.

The parable of the prodigal son is powerful enough and memorable enough that it needs little exposition. I would only add the following points to help us appreciate the depth of God’s love and mercy for us sinners expressed in the parable. When the prodigal son asked his father for his inheritance while the father was still alive, it was tantamount to the son telling his father that he wished his father were dead. If you are looking to see how cruel words can blow up a relationship, try telling that to someone near and dear to you and see what happens. The wounds had to have cut deep. Despite this the father honored his wayward son’s request and the boy promptly went out and wasted it on ruinous living. Finding himself in literally a life-threatening situation, the boy came to his senses and realized what an utter fool he had become. He had despised his father and his birthright as son. He had fed his pearls to the pigs and so decided to return home. Even here the boy’s motives for repentance were not exactly pure. He was trying not to starve to death in utter loneliness. But the son’s motives for repentance really didn’t matter to his father, who apparently never gave up hope that his wayward son would return home one day because he saw the boy returning and ran out to meet him. In first-century Israel’s culture, for a father to run in public to meet his son would bring utter humiliation on the father. They just didn’t do such a thing. But so deep was the father’s love for his son that none of that mattered. He ran to his boy and took him back unconditionally. All that mattered now was that the son was back home. The father’s dead son had been restored to life through repentance and a love that refused to let the rebellion and wickedness of the son stand in the way of the son being restored to his father. My beloved, in a nutshell is that not our story, yours and mine? And when we understand that the father’s actions would have brought on humiliation to him, this scene must also surely evoke for us an image of Christ’s utter humiliation of being crucified naked on the cross so that we might be reconciled to God. Great is the Father’s love for us! Yet how many of us like the older brother refuse to see and/or accept the Father’s great love for us made known in Christ? I don’t have time to deal with the older brother this morning but we dare not ignore the self-righteousness (and perhaps self-loathing) that prevented the older brother from celebrating the love and mercy and goodness of their father that restored a good-as-dead family member. Let us resolve not to do likewise in living out our faith in Christ!

But how do we make this parable our own? We aren’t part of ancient Israel looking for God to return to end our exile that this parable addresses in part. Or are we? Is there anyone here today, if you are old enough, who does not long for God to rescue us and those we love from our exile to Sin and Death? St. Paul in our epistle lesson has answers for us. We can make Christ’s parable about the prodigal son our own precisely because of what Christ has done for us in his Death and Resurrection. We have the hope of being rescued from Sin and Death because of Christ’s death on the cross, a Death that atoned for our sins, freed us from our slavery to the power of Sin, and restored us to a right relationship with God starting right now and lasting for all eternity. As we have seen before there is a great mystery in all this because all of us still sin in this mortal life, despite the NT’s claim that Sin’s power has been broken in us. Neither are we told how this all works, presumably because such knowledge is well above our pay grade and our salvation isn’t contingent on us having that knowledge. The NT simply insists that it is true and calls us to have faith to believe it despite its mystery and ambiguity and our unanswered questions. Like the ancient Israelites on the verge of entering the promised land, St. Paul calls us to look back to Christ’s Death so that we are able to look forward to the promise of Resurrection and new creation that Christ’s Resurrection signals. 

Note carefully that St. Paul is telling us exactly what Christ tells us in today’s parable. We are to come to our senses, i.e., we are to have faith that on the cross God has really dealt with our sins and the power of Sin decisively forever so that we have a future and a hope. That is why repentance is always in order. We look around at the emptiness of our lives and our vacuous thinking and rebellious living, all in the name of unbridled freedom and independence, just like the prodigal son. And God being God and our Creator knows we are helpless to right our own ship when it comes to our sin and the alienation it creates. Like the prodigal’s father, our Father longs for us to be restored to him, a restoration that is only possible through Christ’s Death on the cross. And so God desires our repentance, our turning away from ourselves and our own disordered agendas, so that we return to him to receive and accept his unconditional forgiveness. Our motives do not need to be pure (are they ever in this mortal life?). We need only to believe the promise is true and accept God’s forgiveness won through the Death of his Son for our sake. 

And because we are baptized Christians, we know by faith that we are joined with Christ in his Death and Resurrection. Like the ancient Israelites in our OT lesson, we stand on this side of the river that separates God’s fallen creation from his new creation by virtue of Christ’s Death. But we look forward to a future of new embodied life living in God’s promised new world without a trace of evil or sin or loneliness or sorrow or death or sickness or sighing, all because God is faithful to us and his creation. St. Paul had already experienced a foretaste of this reality. That is why he could no longer look at Christ from a human point of view with the possibility of mistaking Christ to be something lesser and other than he actually is—the crucified and risen Son of God who has rescued us from our exile to Sin and Death, freed us from our slavery to the power of Sin, and reconciled us once and for all to God our Father, the one and only Source of all life. God longs to enjoy the sweet intimacy he enjoyed with us in the garden before the Fall and promises to bring that reality about one day; that’s why he became human. Like ancient Israel before they crossed the River Jorden, we too wait with eager anticipation for our entrance into God’s new world, the new heavens and earth, to live there in God’s direct presence forever. This is why we can rejoice and party during Lent. We are on the right side of history (a favorite phrase of those today who definitely are not but who sadly think they are because they are enjoying momentary success; anyone without Christ is on the wrong side of history). We are counted among the redeemed, not because of who we are but because of Christ’s Death and Resurrection. We have a real and eternal hope and future, the only hope and future there is, my beloved. Is that not the best reason of all to throw a party??

As we head toward Pascha, the Great Easter Feast, let us therefore resolve to live as our Savior Christ commands us and to have the humility of our Lord, a humility that is the only antidote to self-righteousness, a humility based on the knowledge that without Christ and his saving Death, we are a people without a future and with no hope. Let us also use the remainder of Lent to do the things that will help us increase our faith, hope, and love in Christ’s power. Let us resolve to allow Christ rule to grow in our lives each day through prayer, fasting, self-examination, acts of mercy and charity, and repentance so that we may be ambassadors for Christ, engaging in the ministry of reconciliation with both humans and God, taking our cue from our crucified and risen Lord, so that those who do not know or believe in Christ may share in his brilliant hope and future. 

But let us also resolve to throw a fifty-day party starting on Easter Sunday. Now is the time to start planning for such a party. We should celebrate the power of the Gospel and plan activities that might cause the folks around us to ask why we are partying like we do, much like the naysayers asked Christ why he partied the way he did. There will be those who scoff at us and mock us. May God have mercy on them and forgive them their hard-heartedness. But there will be those who want to join the party with us, a party that celebrates both our lives here now and forever in God’s new world. Let us therefore resolve and plan how to honor Christ’s name during Eastertide and beyond and to celebrate with the host of heaven all that he has done for us to reconcile us to God the Father, to bring us from death to life for his love and mercy’s sake. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

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

Will Willomon: Don’t Think for Yourself

I ran across this piece from Professor Willimon from 30 years ago. It still reads pretty well and he certainly is prophetic in places. Check it out.

Don’t Think for Yourself

Undoubtedly you have seen the movie The Dead Poet’s Society. In the movie an energetic teacher at an exclusive prep school is depicted as opening up the minds of his hung-up, privileged, young students by urging them to think for themselves. “Don’t trust what your parents have told you. Don’t trust what you have heard. The important thing is to think for yourselves,” he says. In one scene he rips up a textbook telling them, “Don’t listen to the experts; think for yourselves.”

A friend of mine noted that despite the movie’s claim that this teacher was somehow liberating his students from social convention, it would be hard to think of a more conformist and socially conventional message in today’s context than to give young people the advice to think for themselves. If there ever were a day when such advice was deemed radical, that day has passed.

Here’s how the president of Yale University welcomed the freshman to Yale last year. He told them, “The faculty can guide you. We can take you to the frontiers of knowledge, but we cannot supply you with a philosophy of life. This must come from your own active learning, from your own choices, from your own decisions. Yale expects you to take yourself seriously. Think for yourself.”

In other words, the university has absolutely no clue what you’re supposed to be doing here. Oh, we’ve got this smorgasbord of courses and professors. We’ve got this  graduate, well that’s really up to you. The important thing is that you think for yourself.

And it appears we are thinking for ourselves. A few weeks ago I received a shakily written letter from a woman in her late seventies. In her letter she enclosed a clipping from the Raleigh newspaper. (I think the Durham newspaper protected the citizens of Durham from this particular story.) The article described how during the gulf war American troops had buried alive 700 to 800 Iraqi soldiers in their trenches. One of the Gls said, “By the time we got there, there was nothing but hands and arms sticking up out of the sand.”

In her letter, she said, “Why did we not hear about this? Have you mentioned this in one of your sermons? Have you mentioned this in one of your prayers? Where is the moral voice of the church?”

One possible reply is, “Look lady, it’s called war. The old rules just don’t apply. it’s always a nasty business. Besides, when it comes to burying people alive, you’ve got your opinions, I’ve got mine. The important thing is that each of us thinks for ourselves, right?” Ironically, when I got her letter, I had been reading this new book, The Day America Told the Truth. That book says that 91 percent of us admit we lie routinely. Thirty-one percent of us who are married admit to having an extramarital affair lasting over a year. Eighty-six percent of youth lie regularly to their parents, and 75 percent lie regularly to their best friends. One in five loses his or her virginity before the age of 13. 2,245 New Yorkers were murdered by their fellow citizens last year, an increase of 18 percent. Two-thirds of those asked about religion said it plays no role in shaping their opinions about sex. It’s a lie here, an extramarital affair there, and before long it’s hands and arms sticking up out of the sand. We are thinking for ourselves.

Now an alternative epistemology is asserted in today’s text from Jesus and from Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy 6:6-8: “Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you’re at home and when you are away….Fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (NRSV).

These words in Deuteronomy refer to the words of the law of Israel; Torah. A better translation of torah than “law,” I suppose, is “teaching” — the teaching of Israel. Or more literally, the finger pointing in the direction: Torah is not so much the law that we’re not to break as it is the divine finger pointing us in the direction we ought to walk. Torah.

Interestingly enough in Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus is asked about life’s big questions, he simply refers them to Deuteronomy, to Torah. Good Jew that he was, Jesus simply said, “Look, you know the answer. We’re to love God with all of our heart and soul and mind and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves.” This is Torah, truth.

You may not know a lot about Jesus. You may not be clear on everything he said and did. But today’s text says if you know this about Jesus, it’s about all you need to know for now: love God with everything you’ve got to the very depths of your soul and your neighbor as yourself. Class dismissed.

People who follow Jesus, just like those in Israel before us, are people who do not bow down to other gods, be they called by the name Eros, January, Mars, IBM, Amway, or USA. We’re just real funny about who we’ll worship. We do not use labels like faggot, kink, nigger, or broad, preferring instead to refer to people as sister or brother. We have a very odd notion of who our next-door neighbors are.

Love God with everything you’ve got and then your neighbor as yourself. Take these words, advises Deuteronomy, and teach them to your kids. Paint them over the door to your dormitory room. Brand these on your forehead. Tattoo them on your biceps. Take these words and just drill them into yourself so that you won’t forget.

Here we come into a collision with an alternative way of knowing, a culturally disruptive epistemology. Alas, you have been the willing victims of a mode of education that has taught you always to locate the normative answer exclusively within your own experience, as though your experience, particularly your racial, gender, cultural experience could yield insight on the spot. Think for yourself.

And that’s why most of my sermons begin with your experience, because I have a hunch that’s the only thing you really trust. So I begin my sermons always groping around for some point of contact with what you already know.

But Torah always begins with what you could not know unless somebody had told it to you: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one.” Don’t think for yourself.

Thinking in Israel and with Jesus begins as an auditory act. Notice these verbs: hear, listen, speak, tell. Unlike Yale or many of my sermons, Israel did not expect her young to devise insight via personal conjuring. You don’t have to be the author of your own faith, for here is a massive faith that lies way outside the limited confines of your individual psyche.

Israel’s sons and daughters don’t have to invent the secrets to life. Their parents loved them enough to tell them the secrets. And it is no coincidence that in today’s text, wisdom is depicted as an exchange between an elder and someone of the younger generation as the giving of an intergenerational gift. Being 21 years old is just way too tough without having to make up the world as you go.

Think of the stance you’re going to assume here at the Lord’s table, with hands outstretched, open, empty, eager, ready to receive the gift of bread and wine. That is the primary biblical posture for how you get wise, for Torah-like wisdom.

Parenting and education in our day have become little more than the management of conflicting truth claims — a process of cool consideration of diverse alternatives, some of which may be true. But not here. Not in the middle of Deuteronomy. Not at the feet of Torah.

Joshua told Israel, “In the future, when your daughter asks you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ you are not to reply, ‘Well, they may mean that the Lord might have brought us out of slavery and chose us to be obedient to his way. And then they might not.’” No, in this Torah curriculum there is only the nervy, pushy, passionate assertion of truth that is reliable and coherent and confident in the face of chaos, narcissistic subjectivity, hands and feet sticking up out of the sand.

I agree with that great theologian Oscar Wilde who said, “About the worst advice you could give anybody is ‘be yourself.’” Don’t think for yourself.

As Walter Bruggemann says, “Torah is not just for children.” (Enemy is not just a danger for the young.) It may surface in what is now conventionally called the crisis of midlife (listen up alumni) or anywhere else. All persons of whatever age face the threat of darkness. Bruggemann says everybody needs some time of homecoming, when you can return to those sureties that do not need to be defended nor doubted. That’s what Torah is; it’s homecoming.

A Torah-less world in which there are many gods and no neighbors is a world just full of idols and enemies. Maybe that’s why we’re so fatigued as we rush breathlessly from one worship service to another. Before long, after you’ve bowed down at enough altars, the only posture you know is that of bowing. So accustomed have we become to submitting to so many different gods – the nation, the corporation, my own ego — all the while rattling our chains and pitifully asserting how free we are.

Since we’ve learned to bend ourselves before so many altars, there is almost nothing to which we will not stoop. It’s a lie here, a deceit there, until we are quite able to walk past the hands and arms sticking up out of the sand without even a twitch of conscience.

The Durham city council has become us all over. With no Torah-induced neighbors, the world is driven only by competing, savage self-interest. Even the people under our own roofs become our enemies. The office becomes a battleground for the war between the sexes. Cultural chaos leads to ethical immobility. We don’t make many big moves — having nowhere to stand, we can’t make big moves. A recent Duke graduate asked his old man late one night when he went back home, “Look, I’m getting ready to go out into life. Tell me what you know. Go ahead, tell me if you know something.”

For this touchingly child-like request, he received an hour of ramblings, a confession about how his old man had an affair with his secretary and how he hated his job, and he’d love to chuck it all and move out into a cabin in the woods, and he really despised his marriage, and he couldn’t trust any of his friends.

“Man, you are messed up,” said the son. “I’m supposed to be asking you for advice?” Now he’s reduced to thinking for himself.

Torah asserts a countercultural way of wisdom that is intergenerational, public, counter-cultural, historical. The beautiful thing is you don’t bear the burden of having to think for yourself. Every time you walk in this building, the chapel, and especially today on All Saints, a host of predecessors leans down out of the windows and tries to speak to us, if we’ll dare to listen. They stare down at us from the windows begging to show us the way — saints.

Saints are people who manage to love God more than life itself. They manage to love neighbor more than self and thereby find true life. Saints are people who just push their way into our modest present and make the God-question and the neighbor-question the only interesting intellectual questions. Christians are those who’ve learned to think with the saints, and thereby we think much more creatively than we could if we’d been left to our own devices.

St. Francis, Martin Luther King, Teresa of Calcutta, Gideon, Mary — they help us to think beyond ourselves. They help us to think despite ourselves and thereby in this act of holy remembering and saintly thinking, new options are envisioned. We are encouraged; a new world not of our own devising is offered to us. We get some big ideas. Torah and the saintly lives thereby produced is a kind of intelligence by proxy.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant once said, “I stand in awe of two things: the starry heavens above and the individual law of morality within.”

I’m still awed by the starry heavens.

©1992 William Willimon

Source unknown

Lent 2022: An Ancient Christian Theologian Muses on Prayer

Prayer is the offering in spirit that has done away with the sacrifices of old. “What good do I receive from the multiplicity of your sacrifices?” asks God. “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams, and I do not want the fat of lambs and the blood of bulls and goats. Who has asked for these from your hands?” 

What God has asked for we learn from the Gospel. “The hour will come,” he says: “when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. God is a spirit,” and so he looks for worshipers who are like himself. 

We are true worshipers and true priests. We pray in spirit, and so offer in spirit the sacrifice of prayer. Prayer is an offering that belongs to God and is acceptable to him: it is the offering he has asked for, the offering he planned as his own. 

We must dedicate this offering with our whole heart, we must fatten it on faith, tend it by truth, keep it unblemished through innocence and clean through chastity, and crown it with love. We must escort it to the altar of God in a procession of good works to the sound of psalms and hymns. Then it will gain for us all that we ask of God. 

Since God asks for prayer offered in spirit and in truth, how can he deny anything to this kind of prayer? How great is the evidence of its power, as we read and hear and believe. 

Of old, prayer was able to rescue from fire and beasts and hunger, even before it received its perfection from Christ. How much greater then is the power of Christian prayer. No longer does prayer bring an angel of comfort to the heart of a fiery furnace, or close up the mouths of lions, or transport to the hungry food from the fields. No longer does it remove all sense of pain by the grace it wins for others. But it gives the armor of patience to those who suffer, who feel pain, who are distressed. It strengthens the power of grace, so that faith may know what it is gaining from the Lord, and understand what it is suffering for the name of God.

In the past prayer was able to bring down punishment, rout armies, withhold the blessing of rain. Now, however, the prayer of the just turns aside the whole anger of God, keeps vigil for its enemies, pleads for persecutors. Is it any wonder that it can call down water from heaven when it could obtain fire from heaven as well? Prayer is the one thing that can conquer God. But Christ has willed that it should work no evil, and has given it all power over good.

Its only art is to call back the souls of the dead from the very journey into death, to give strength to the weak, to heal the sick, to exorcise the possessed, to open prison cells to free the innocent from their chains. Prayer cleanses from sin, drives away temptations, stamps out persecutions, comforts the faint-hearted, gives new strength to the courageous, brings travelers safely home, calms the waves, confounds robbers, feeds the poor, overrules the rich, lifts up the fallen, supports those who are falling, sustains those who stand firm.

All the angels pray. Every creature prays. Cattle and wild beasts pray and bend the knee. As they come from their barns and caves they look up to heaven and call out, lifting up their spirit in their own fashion. The birds too rise and lift themselves up to heaven: they open out their wings, instead of hands, in the form of a cross, and give voice to what seems to be a prayer.

What more needs be said on the duty of prayer? Even the Lord himself prayed. To him be honor and power for ever and ever. 

—Tertullian (d. ca. 225 AD), On Prayer, 28-29

Lent: A Time To Become Unafraid

Sermon delivered on Lent 2C, Sunday, March 13, 2022 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3.17-4.1; St. Luke 13.31-35.

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

In today’s lessons we are reminded in various ways that there are lots of things in life that make us afraid. In fact, the most repeated command in all Scripture is to not be afraid. So how can the season of Lent help us in our fight not to be afraid? This is what I want us to look at this morning.

We all can relate to Abraham in our OT lesson this morning. He had just finished risking a dangerous fight with the local kings in his region to rescue his nephew Lot, powerful kings who had a reputation for wreaking vengeance on their enemies, and Abraham had become one by defeating and humiliating them. Then he had done the most inexplicable thing. He refused to take any spoils of war, choosing instead to give a tenth of the spoils to the local priest, Melchizedek, and to restore Lot and his family. You can read about that in Gen 14. This is hardly the way of the world and surely Abraham had to wonder how that would all turn out. And now here is God, coming to Abraham, apparently in a very powerful night vision, making him even more afraid. 

And like Abraham, there are lots of things in our world that continue to make us afraid. There are wars in Africa that are slaughtering hundreds of thousands of innocents, wars that rarely get reported in our country. There is war in Europe that does get a lot of press, not all of it accurate, a war that has the potential to explode into another world war, only this time the belligerents have the capacity to annihilate each other with nuclear weapons. There is the very real threat of a cyberattack on our country’s most critical infrastructures, attacks that could cripple our nation if successful. We are enduring rampant inflation driven by exploding fuel costs. Then of course there are the usual tiresome voices denouncing all for which America stands and striving to fundamentally change our values. As we become an increasingly godless nation these voices become more strident and the rancor and strife they create becomes more intense. Abraham would surely have understood.

Then of course there are the personal fears and demons we all carry around. We worry about our health, about our kids or parents, about our bank accounts and career choices. We worry about finding a mate if we are single or about our marriages if we are married. Many of us worry (needlessly) about our standing before God. And of course in the back of our minds we worry about and fear death. Oh, most of us do a fine job repressing and deflecting and denying this reality. We delude ourselves by thinking that we’re not bad people so that God really isn’t all that concerned about our sins and foolishness and folly. That’s reserved for the really bad folks. You know, anyone but us. They are the ones who need to be concerned. But death is universal. It comes to every one of us, even the best of us, because all have sinned and death is its chief wage. Here too, Abraham would surely have understood. There is a lot in our world and lives that make us afraid.

Yet here is God, telling Abraham not to be afraid because God is his shield. Trust me, God tells Abraham and us, nothing will happen to you because I am your shield. I’ll prove it by giving you the offspring and land I promised. Notice what is happening here. First, God promised to give Abraham offspring before Abraham believed God. God’s promise wasn’t contingent on Abraham’s faith. God promised this to his fearful servant out of sheer grace and love for Abraham. Only after the promise was made did Abraham believe God, making Abraham right with God and showing us how to do likewise. And this is critically important because it is in our alienation from God that all our sicknesses and fears are rooted. Think about it. Before our first ancestors sinned against God in paradise, they enjoyed perfect communion with God. God walked with his beloved image-bearers daily in the garden and as a result, Adam and Eve enjoyed perfect health and happiness. Who among us would not enjoy perfect health and happiness living in the direct presence of our Creator and God? Only after human rebellion and sin ruptured our relationship with God and caused us to be alienated from God—Adam and Eve hid from God in the garden, God didn’t hide from them—did we become anxious and afraid and lonely and isolated. Our rebellion has cost us dearly. 

But God did not give up on us. He did not destroy humans and his good creation. No, God called Abraham to be God’s vehicle to restore his good creation and creatures gone bad to their right minds and right order. And it wasn’t until God became human as Abraham’s descendant, Jesus, that God’s plan was fully realized. So here in our OT lesson, we see the power of God at work to rescue humanity and creation from Sin’s ruin. All Abraham had to do was to trust God’s promise. That was what that strange ceremony was all about. Abraham had nothing to fear because God’s word is true and God’s power is completely efficacious—it always produces the desired results. 

Sounds good, right? Trust God. Have faith in God’s promises. But here’s the problem. That is easier said than done! Abraham needed continual reassurance and so do we, precisely because we live in a sin-sick and God-cursed world, and we lack the power and perspective of God! So how do we learn to strengthen our trust in God? The short answer is that we learn to see the power of God at work in our lives and his world so that we have a basis for trust. Nowhere does Scripture ask us to have a blind faith. Faith by definition cannot be proved. But faith needs a basis for the related trust that is part and parcel of it. So how do we learn to see the power of God at work in our lives?

First, we have to know what that power looks like and what it promises. In other words, we have to keep our eyes on the prize. God reminded Abraham that his promise to be Abraham’s shield was trustworthy. Otherwise, how could Abraham eventually have countless descendants? Abraham of course was skeptical because he laughed at the promise when God approached him about it the second time later in this story (Gen 17). But God is God, the God who spoke this vast cosmos into existence and who raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Nothing is too hard for God. Nothing. Giving Abraham offspring when his loins and Sarah’s were as good as dead was one way for God to show this to his trusting but skeptical servant. 

For us, the prize is new creation, God’s new heavens and earth, where we will get to live forever in God’s direct presence with all of the benefits Adam and Eve enjoyed in the garden and more. Death will be abolished as will evil and suffering and sorrow and all the things that make us afraid and anxious. Sheer beauty. Sheer life. We will be restored to the fully human beings God created us to be and given the sacred and holy privilege of running God’s world to the glory of God the Father. This prize is worth more than all our lesser prizes and idols combined. It is worthy of our supreme loyalty and striving, or to use St. Paul’s language, it is worthy of our citizenship in heaven whose values we are called to model here on earth, and it is made possible only by the saving Death of Jesus Christ. Forget this prize and we lose our way. That’s why Scripture repeatedly urges us to remember the power of God. For ancient Israel, that meant remembering the Exodus. For us, it means remembering Christ’s Death and Resurrection and the new creation to which the Resurrection points. When we remember the power of God at work in Scripture, it makes it easier for us to recognize the power of God at work in our daily lives, even if that work is nowhere near as spectacular. If we believe God really did speak this universe into existence and raise Christ from the dead, why would it be hard for God to be intimately and actively involved in our lives? Christ died to reconcile us to God and break Sin’s power over us so that we could be citizens of God’s new world as St. Paul reminds us in our epistle lesson. Why then would God abandon us to schlep around in our daily lives without his help? God knows we need him. If he became human to die for us while we were still his enemies, why would he abandon us now that we are reconciled to him?

To be sure, this act of faith is not always straightforward. We believe that Christ died to break Sin’s power over us yet we continue to sin. Why is that? We all know people who have loved the Lord but who died untimely or awful deaths. How was God a shield to them? We see wars and injustice swirl around us. If God is in control, why does God allow this? It appears that increasingly the patients are running the asylum in this county, i.e., more and more people try to convince us that wrong is right and right is wrong, and it makes us afraid. But that does not negate the promise, no matter how dark things look! We are called to live with the apparent disconnect, unanswered questions, and ambiguities. If we could have told Christ’s disciples that first Good Friday that things were gonna turn out all right, they would have looked at us in disbelief. They knew better. Dead people didn’t rise up from the grave. That’s why we must also persevere as we remember. The outworking of God’s redemptive plan requires a marathoner’s thinking and perspective, not a sprinter’s.

That is why it is critical for our faith to remember God’s power when things look bad, and we are called to remember together. As the psalmist reminds us, we need to keep coming into God’s presence as his people and worship him, especially in the midst of our fears, so that God can heal our fears, and where we can find people who know how to live out their faith well and who are willing to mentor us as St. Paul reminds us. God knows we need the human touch and worshiping together and enjoying fellowship together in the Risen Lord’s Presence are critical ways God uses to support and strengthen and inspire us when we are afraid. Let us therefore resolve to use these gifts, these means of grace, to strengthen our faith in trust. After all, as Christ reminds us in our gospel lesson, we worship a God who loves us and wants to mother us in the best possible sense. This reality is also an integral part of the prize on which we must keep our eyes. Great mothers protect, defend, instruct, and love their children, giving them freedom to grow and learn despite their foibles and rebellion. How much more does God our Father love and support and protect us? For you see, whatever happens to us in this world, for good or for ill, is only temporary, only partial. That is why we must keep focused on the truly good and eternal things, the things of God.

And this is where our Lenten disciplines come into play because they are designed to help us do just that. Lent is a season that helps us recall what life is really all about. It helps us focus on God’s beauty and love and power and forgiveness, reminding us the true joy involved in being reconciled to God so that we can truly be God’s image-bearing creatures. It points us to our deepest longings and desires as humans and God’s image-bearers, to be loved and to love, to pursue mercy and goodness and beauty and truth. Lent exposes the shallowness and falsehood of our disordered longings and desires to be selfish and ruthless and cruel, with all the accompanying fear and anxiety. It reminds us our lust for power, sex, money, security, status, and hedonistic pleasure is all a sham and will eventually lead to our eternal destruction as St. Paul warns us in our epistle lesson. None of these things can give life or provide real security because Death is universal and makes these disordered desires a sham and delusion. Lent reminds us what is real and what has real worth. It gives us the opportunity to examine ourselves in the light of God’s judgment and mercy and to develop the holy habits that will help us to remember the power and love of God through prayer, repentance, self-reflection, worship, Bible reading and study, and regular participation in the Holy Eucharist where we feed on the Bread of Life, the very bread that gives us life forever, Jesus Christ crucified and risen from the dead.

There is indeed much to make us afraid in this world, but we have the power to overcome our fears, a power that is not our own, the power of God who loves us more than we dare love ourselves. Let us therefore not throw these pearls to the swine, my beloved. During this season of Lent, let us renew our commitment to Christ who has the power to take away our fears now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

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

Our Ultimate Prize

Sermon delivered on the 3rd Sunday before Lent C, February 13, 2022 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: Jeremiah 17.5-10; Psalm 1; 1 Cor 15.12-20, 35-38, 42-58; St. Luke 6.17-26.

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

Last week we began a two-part preaching series on the Death and Resurrection of Christ based on 1 Cor 15, St. Paul’s massive treatise on the Resurrection of Christ. You recall that last week we focused on Christ’s sacrificial and saving Death. We saw that the problem of Sin, that outside and hostile power that has enslaved us thoroughly, requires more than just human repentance to be defeated; it requires the power of God to intervene on our behalf to offer an atoning sacrifice for our sins so that we could be reconciled to God the Father and thus healed of our sin-sickness so that its power is defeated once and for all. We saw that there is great mystery in all this and that the NT never explains fully how it all works, only that it does. If you don’t remember anything else from last week’s sermon—and being the brilliant teacher/preacher I am, I would be shocked, SHOCKED I tell you, if you didn’t remember every word I spoke—remember this. Christ died to reconcile you to the Father so that you can be fully healed of your sin-sickness. Christ, God become human, did this for you because he loves you and you are precious in his sight, even while you were still his enemy. There is nothing in all creation that can separate you from his love and there is no sin you have committed that has not been fully covered by the Blood of the Lamb shed for you on the cross. There is therefore no need or reason for any Christian to suffer debilitating, crushing guilt or despair. 

We also noted that without the Resurrection, Christ’s death would have been just another utterly humiliating and degrading criminal’s death, lost forever in the vast sea of history and without significance. But Christ was and is raised from the dead, forever alive, never to die again. The Resurrection vindicated Christ’s claim that he was indeed Israel’s Messiah and the eternal Son of God and therefore the cross accomplished what the early Church claimed it did. So this morning in part 2 of this series I want us to look at exactly what is the Christian hope of the Resurrection. I want us to do so primarily for two reasons: 1) as St. Paul proclaimed last week, the Resurrection is of first importance. Without it we are still dead in our slavery to Sin’s power and without hope. Death really does have the final say, a terrible reality made worse by the fact that all of us must endure suffering and hardship in this life to one extent or the other; and 2) we are baptizing two new members into Christ’s Body today, God be thanked and praised! As we will see, resurrection has definite implications for any who are baptized into Christ. Resurrection remains of first importance and needs Christ’s saving Death as much as Christ’s saving Death needs the Resurrection. Without both there would be no Christianity, no Good News, no turning point in human history.

One more preliminary note before we begin our discussion. This sermon presumes the historicity of Christ’s Resurrection, i.e., Christ’s Resurrection really did happen in history. It is emphatically not some made up hokum or wishful thinking. To give a basic defense of the Resurrection’s historicity would require a separate sermon in itself and ain’t nobody got time for that this morning. Coffee hour and Super Bowl are a-waiting and we need to get on with our order of business! Suffice it to say here that from the beginning the Church proclaimed Christ’s Death and Resurrection as historical fact and we have no good reason to doubt this Central Christian Proclamation 2000 years later!

I begin by asking you a question. How many of you find the vision of heaven where you live for all eternity without a body and float on a cloud playing your harp compelling?

Image of Gary Larson's The Far Side cartoon of man with wings and a halo floating on a cloud wishing he had brought a magazine.
Gary Larson’s The Far Side

I ask this question because this vision (or derivatives of it) seems to be the prevailing Christian understanding in the West of what happens to us when we die. Our souls are separated from our bodies and go to heaven to enjoy God’s company, forever as a disembodied spirit, freed from the woes and weaknesses of our mortal body. Is that compelling to you? It’s more than just a philosophical question because as Christians we are exhorted to keep our eyes on the prize—Jesus. Why is Jesus the prize? Because Christ is the only way to the Father because only his death atones for our sins and makes us fit to live forever in the Father’s Holy Presence so that we are not destroyed by God’s perfect Holiness and justice. That’s why the Resurrection needs the Cross (in case you were wondering). But is the vision I just described to you a compelling one? Is it the prize above all prizes for you that motivates your living? I’ll be honest. The vision I just described leaves me cold and I find little to no motivation to follow Christ because of it. I suspect I am probably not alone in my thinking. 

But thanks be to God that this vision is emphatically not the Christian vision contained in the NT, the vision of new creation that Christ’s Resurrection launched and proclaimed. It is a platonic and corrupted version of the Real Thing because resurrection never was about dying and going to heaven; it is instead about life in God’s new world, the new creation, God’s new heavens and earth. The former kind of teaching is the product of creeping gnosticism that believes in part that all things material are bad and all things spiritual are good. And I suspect if truth be told, it stems in part from inherent human disbelief and skepticism regarding the power of God and the utterly fantastic nature of the vision itself. Who among us has the power to imagine such a world so as to give it justice?

So what does the Church mean when it talks about the Resurrection and eternal life? Resurrection and eternal life are first and foremost—and I cannot be emphatic enough and exhort you strongly enough short of yelling and cussing at you, much as I would like that—about bodily reanimation on a permanent basis so that bodies are made fit to live in a radically new creation. When the first followers of Jesus proclaimed his Resurrection they were emphatically not saying that he had died and gone to heaven. They were proclaiming that God had raised his body from the dead and reanimated it by transforming it. This gets at what St. Paul is telling us in his very dense writing from our epistle lesson when he uses the analogy of seed and plant to compare our mortal body with our new spiritual body. St. Paul is telling that there will be radical change (a body that is impervious to death) within basic continuity (we are still talking about bodies, not spirits). We have a mortal body in this life and will have an immortal body patterned after the risen Christ’s body in God’s new creation.

And when we put this radical new teaching about a two-stage resurrection (Christ first and then later us when he returns to finish his saving work) within the overarching story of Scripture, this should make perfect sense to us. Think about it. The creation narratives in Genesis proclaim very clearly that God created creation good (very good after he created humans to run God’s world on his behalf; that’s why God created us in his image in the first place). And God continues to value his creation, creatures included. Only human sin and rebellion corrupted it and the rest of Scripture tells us about how God is going about rescuing his good creation gone bad and reclaiming it and us from the dark powers that usurped God’s rule in the first place, enigmatic and puzzling as that might be to us. God refused to totally destroy creation and start over because God loves and values us. That’s why he spared Noah et al. in the Great Flood. That’s why God called Abraham to be God’s blessing to his broken and hurting world and its creatures, a blessing ultimately achieved in Jesus Christ, the one true Israelite and descendant of Abraham. It makes no sense, therefore, that God would suddenly be uninterested in reclaiming the bodies of his image-bearing creatures, consigning us instead to an eternity of being disembodied spirits. How does that honor God’s faithfulness and love for his creation? Read in this manner, the Revelation to St. John, chapters 21-22, is seen as the successful climax of God’s redemptive project launched through Abraham and fulfilled in Jesus Christ’s saving Death and Resurrection. Heaven comes down to earth (we aren’t raptured so get that lousy theology out of your head). Heaven and earth, God’s space and humans’ space respectively, are fused together in a mighty act of new creation. Our mortal bodies are raised from the dead and transformed into immortal bodies, fit to live in God’s new world, the new heavens and earth, with new ways of working and living as God’s faithful, obedient, image-bearers. Death and illness and hurt and suffering and loneliness and alienation and all the rest that weigh us down and kill us are abolished forever, all by and through the power of God the Father who loves us and remains faithful to us as essential parts of his good creation. Seen in this light, resurrection makes perfect sense.

St. Paul also talks about the fulfillment of God’s creative purposes in Romans 8. Hear him now.

Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are. Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us (Romans 8.18-23).

Notice there’s nothing about dying and going to heaven here! No, St. Paul speaks of God’s curse on his current creation, a curse that was in response to human sin and rebellion, reminding us in no uncertain terms that God cannot and will not tolerate any form of evil in his promised new world. Notice too that St. Paul speaks unabashedly about the prize worth seeking above all prizes. This is about radical and total healing and transformation, the kind that can only be brought about by God the Father, and it speaks of a created future, not a spiritual or disembodied one. It is about being fully human, living in the created (or recreated) manner that God always intended for us.

But what about St. Paul’s comparison of the physical body and spiritual body? Doesn’t having a spiritual body mean we really don’t have a body? Not at all. The Greek for physical body, psychikon soma, and spiritual body, pneumatikon soma, both describe a body. In Greek and in the context of this pericope, when an adjective ends with -ikon, it refers not to the nature of the body (what the body is made of) but rather what powers or animates the body. So St. Paul is telling us that our new bodies will be powered not by flesh and blood or our soul, but by the Holy Spirit himself, thus making them indestructible. The reason flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God is not because God hates our bodies. That is ridiculous! God created our bodies and declared them good! No, flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God because the Kingdom is imperishable and immortal whereas our mortal bodies are not. Our bodies die and we are separated from them for a season. When Christ returns, however, our bodies will be raised from the dead and transformed and reanimated in a way that abolishes death forever. The NT has very little to say about what happens to our souls when we die other than a few oblique references (see, e.g., Phil 1.20-26). As we have seen, it has a lot to say about God’s new world, a world launched when God raised Christ from the dead and come in full upon Christ’s return. 

This is a vision that is compelling and worthy of all our striving. It proclaims a new world reclaimed by God, a world in which we get to live directly in God’s presence forever, a world therefore devoid of suffering, sorrow, sickness, and death, a world in which we are finally and perfectly healed forever, a world where we can finally be free to be God’s image-bearers who go about their business of tending to God’s new world with God’s blessing. It is a world where we will be reunited with our loved ones who have died in Christ, never to be separated again. And after our bodies are raised, death will be abolished forever as St. Paul tells us in today’s lesson. Death cannot be abolished until then, even for Christians, because death involves our bodies and souls, and until we receive our new bodies, death still reigns. While our loved ones who died in Christ are safely in his care as they await their new resurrection or spiritual bodies, they are still dead because they do not yet enjoy new bodily existence where their souls are reunited to their bodies. So we can remember them and miss them and find comfort that they are safe in Christ, but we can’t touch them or see them or hear them or feel them or smell them like we did when they were alive in their mortal bodies. The resurrection promises that this will all change one day when we and they are given new bodies. Whatever that looks like it is worthy of our highest calling and striving because it is a vision that exalts both God and humans, a vision beyond our wildest longings and desires and hopes. If what I have described does not stir you to want to give your ultimate allegiance to Christ, the One who makes it all possible because only Christ is the Resurrection and the Life, blame my inability to cast the vision for all it’s worth, not the vision itself with its incomprehensible richness and beauty that point to the power and fathomless love of God the Father for us as his human image-bearers. When it comes in full, whatever it looks like, God’s new creation will fully honor human beings and consummate our life-giving relationship with God the Father, our Creator.

So what do we take from this? Two things. For our about-to-be newly-baptized, it means they are about to become part of this promise because they are about to become united to Christ in his Death and Resurrection, sharing in both. In other words, they are about to tap into the power of God at work in them in and through the Spirit to make them part of God’s family forever. That’s why we can baptize infants and those who cannot speak for themselves. Baptism, like resurrection, is not about human responsibility but about the power of God at work to heal, redeem, and give life in full. It is a powerful and tangible sign of God’s extravagantly generous and gracious love for us. 

Second, for those of us who are baptized, this truth reminds us to remember our own baptism and be thankful. The promise of resurrection and new creation also has the power to help us see life clearly now. Resurrection and new creation are our future and our hope, and both give us a real and appropriate vision of how life is to be lived. If you get this, reread Jesus’ woes and blessings in light of living in the resurrection reality. Both are remarkably appropriate because they encourage and warn us respectively what it is like to live as Christ’s true people. We will make judgments based on what is to come, not what currently is with all of its corruption and false values. We have a promised eternity to live in this manner and it is a sure and certain expectation, based not on wishful thinking but on the historical reality that Jesus Christ is raised from the dead. That is why I can preach it. If we find the vision of resurrection and new creation compelling, we’d better get busy and practice living like the resurrection peeps we are, no matter how imperfectly we live it. What better hope for us than to be perfectly healed of all that weighs us down and kills us, death included, never to be afraid again, always to enjoy perfect health and relationships? That, my beloved, is a prize worth all our strivings and it is only made possible by the amazing love and power of God made known to us in Jesus Christ our Lord. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

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

N.T. Wright Muses on All-Souls’ Day and the Tradition Behind It

Excerpted from his splendid little book, For All the Saints? Remembering the Christian Departed.

Purgatory, in either its classic or its modern form, provides the rationale for All Souls’ Day. This Day, now kept on 2 November, was a tenth-century Benedictine innovation. It clearly assumes a sharp distinction between the ‘saints’, who have already made it to heaven, and the ‘souls’, who haven’t, and who are therefore still, at least in theory, less than completely happy and need our help to move on from there. 

The arguments regularly advanced in support of some kind of a purgatory, however modernized, do not come from the Bible. They come from the common perception that all of us up to the time of death are still sinful, and from the proper assumption that something needs to be done about this if we are (to put it crudely) to be at ease in the presence of the holy and sovereign God. The medieval doctrine of purgatory, as we saw, imagined that the ‘something’ that needed to be done could be divided into two aspects: punishment on the one hand, and purging or cleansing on the other. It is vital that we understand the biblical response to both of these.

I cannot stress sufficiently that if we raise the question of punishment for sin, this is something that has already been dealt with on the cross of Jesus [emphasis mine]. Of course, there have been crude and unbiblical versions of the doctrine of atonement, and many have rightly reacted against the idea of a vengeful God determined to punish someone and being satisfied by taking it out on his own son. But do not mistake the caricature for the biblical doctrine. Paul says, in his most central and careful statement, not that God punished Jesus, but that God ‘condemned sin in the flesh’ of Jesus (Romans 8:3). Here the instincts of the Reformers, if not always their exact expressions, were spot on. The idea that Christians need to suffer punishment for their sins in a post-mortem purgatory, or anywhere else, reveals a straightforward failure to grasp the very heart of what was achieved on the cross.

[W]hat the standard argument fails to take into account is the significance of bodily death. We have been fooled, not for the first time, by a view of death, and life beyond, in which the really important thing is the ‘soul’—something which, to many people’s surprise, hardly features at all in the New Testament. We have allowed our view of the saving of souls to loom so large that we have failed to realize that the Bible is much more concerned about bodies—concerned to the point where it’s actually quite difficult to give a clear biblical account of the disembodied state in between bodily death and bodily resurrection. That’s not what the biblical writers are trying to get us to think about—even though it is of course what many Christians have thought about to the point of obsession, including many who have thought of themselves as ‘biblical’ in their theology. But what should not be in doubt is that, for the New Testament, bodily death itself actually puts sin to an end. There may well be all kinds of sins still lingering on within us, infecting us and dragging us down. But part of the biblical understanding of death, bodily death, is that it finishes all that off at a single go.

The central passages here are Romans 6:6–7 and Colossians 2:11–13, with the picture they generate being backed up by key passages from John’s Gospel. Both of the Pauline texts are speaking of baptism. Christians are assured that their sins have already been dealt with through the death of Christ; they are now no longer under threat because of them. The crucial verse is Romans 6:7: ‘the one who has died is free from sin’ (literally, ‘is justified from sin’). The necessary cleansing from sin, it seems, takes place in two stages. First, there is baptism and faith. ‘You are already made clean’, says Jesus, ‘by the word which I have spoken to you’ (John 15:3). The word of the gospel, awakening faith in the heart, is itself the basic cleansing that we require. ‘The one who has washed’, said Jesus at the supper, ‘doesn’t need to wash again, except for his feet; he is clean all over’ (John 13:10). The ‘feet’ here seem to be representing the part of us which still, so to speak, stands on the muddy ground of this world. This is where ‘the sin which so easily gets in the way’ (Hebrews 12:1) finds, we may suppose, its opportunity.

But the glorious news is that, although during the present life we struggle with sin, and may or may not make small and slight progress towards genuine holiness, our remaining propensity to sin is finished, cut off, done with all at once, in physical death. ‘The body is dead because of sin,’ declares Paul, ‘but the spirit is life because of righteousness’ (Romans 8:10). John and Paul combine together to state the massive, central and vital doctrine which is at the heart of the Christian good news: those who believe in Jesus, though they die, yet shall they live; and those who live and believe in him will never die (John 11:25–6). Or, to put it the way Paul does: if we have died with Christ, we shall live with him, knowing that Christ being raised from the dead will not die again; and you, in him, must regard and reckon yourselves as dead to sin and alive to God (Romans 6:8–11). ‘Being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ … and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God’ (Romans 5:2).

I therefore arrive at this view: that all the Christian departed are in substantially the same state, that of restful happiness. This is not the final destiny for which they are bound, namely the bodily resurrection; it is a temporary resting place. Since they and we are both in Christ, we do indeed share with them in the Communion of Saints.

I respectfully suggest that is because we have collectively forgotten just what a wonderful thing the gospel is: that ‘our own departed’ are themselves ‘heroes of the faith’ just as much as Peter, Paul, Mary, James, John and the rest. What makes ‘the great ones’ great is precisely that they, too, knew human grief and frailty. The double day [All-Saints and All-Souls] splits off so-called ordinary Christians from these so-called ‘great ones’ in a way that the latter would have been the first to repudiate.

The salvation being ‘kept in heaven’ is God’s plan for the new heaven and new earth, and the new bodies of the redeemed; and this plan is safe and fresh in God’s storehouse, that is, ‘heaven’.

[T]he commemoration of All Souls, especially the way it is now done, denies to ordinary Christians—and we’re all ordinary Christians—the solid, magnificent hope of the gospel: that all baptized believers, all those in Christ in the present, all those indwelt by the Spirit, are already ‘saints’. Where did all that All Souls’ gloom come from? Are we not in danger of grieving like people without hope, instead of grieving, as Paul instructs us to do in 1 Thessalonians 4:13, like people who do have hope? There is all the difference in the world between hopeful grief and hopeless grief, and All Souls’ Day can easily encourage the latter rather than, with All Saints’ Day, the former. Many churches now put a black frontal on the altar for All Souls’ Day; where did that idea come from? Why should the service end in solemn silence? Why should we sing the Dies Irae (‘Day of wrath, that dreadful day’) for our friends and loved ones, if it is true that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus? Where is the gospel there?

The Christian hope, as articulated in the New Testament, is that if you die today you won’t be in a gloomy gathering in some dismal and perhaps painful waiting-room. You won’t simply be one more step further along a steep, hard road with no end in sight. You will be with Christ in paradise; and when you see him, you won’t shout, like poor Gerontius, ‘Take me away’. You will, like Paul, be ‘with Christ, which is far better’. How can there be any sense of foreboding, for those who already know the love of God in Christ, in coming face to face with the one ‘who loved me, and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2:20)?

Wright, N. T. (2003). For All the Saints? Remembering the Christian Departed (pp. 13–54). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

An Exhortation to be Living Stones

Sermon delivered on Parish Dedication Sunday B, August 22, 2021 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: Revelation 21.9-14; Psalm 122; 1 Peter 2.1-10; St. John 10.22-29.

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

Today we celebrate again the founding of our parish ten years ago on May 1. We had our big celebration back in May and it remains a glorious memory for many of us. We celebrate our founding again today because it is our custom to transfer this festival 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 AD 430. Having dispensed with why we are having two celebrations of our parish this year, we turn now to our readings for today. In our epistle lesson, St. Peter refers to Christ’s people as living stones. But what does that mean? This is what I want us to look at today.

We start with our NT lesson from Revelation because in it we find our future and our hope. Both are indispensable for us if we ever want to fully grasp and embrace the meaning of being living stones. Why? Because first and foremost we are a people of promise and hope and for a host of reasons the Church, at least in the West, has lost sight of that hope and therefore we have generally lost our boldness and power as God’s people. Of course I am speaking of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the promise of God’s new creation. Let me be clear. Nowhere else in the religious or the secular worlds do we have anything like the hope and promise of the resurrection. Christ either is who he says he is—the embodiment of God who was crucified for our sins and raised from the dead to announce that God the Father had defeated death on our behalf—or he is not. If Christ really is God, we had better pay attention to him and accept the gift of healing, salvation, and life he offers us. If Christ isn’t God the Son, then we ought to treat him like the lunatic he is and go about our merry way trying to find some meaning and happiness on our own (good luck with that, BTW). But as the NT boldly proclaims, Christ was and is no lunatic. He is God Incarnate, the Word become flesh. Only in him do we have any hope of being finally and fully reconciled to God. Only in Christ do we have the promise of new bodily life after death, a life lived in the direct presence of God—heaven and earth joined together as Revelation proclaims—a life devoid of sickness, sorrow, disease, despair, loneliness, alienation, and madness to name just a few, an unimaginably beautiful and perfect life. 

Without Christ in our lives we are dead people walking and have no hope or future, only the expectation of death and eternal judgment. And as all our lessons make chillingly clear, only God’s people in Christ dare to hope for this future. While final judgment is up to God, the NT gives little hope for a future for those who die without believing in Christ crucified and raised from the dead. We do not have this hope and future because of who we are. We are not unlike unbelievers; many Christians sadly act no better than some unbelievers. Some act worse. No, we have this promise of a hope and future, again defined as new bodily life where we live in God’s new world devoid of any form of evil, only by the grace of God, only by his calling as our lessons proclaim. In describing the New Jerusalem, St. John reminds us that it is not primarily a place as much as it is a new reality between God and his people. Why the Church has rejected her heritage is baffling to me. Perhaps the hope and promise are too spectacular and mind-boggling for our puny minds to comprehend. I don’t know and such speculation is frankly a waste of our time. What I do know is this, my beloved. If we are ever to recover our bold voice in proclaiming and living out the gospel of Jesus Christ, if we are ever to truly be unafraid of all in this world that can harm us and the accelerating chaos swirling around us, we must once again fully embrace the promised hope—the sure and certain expectation of things to come—that we are resurrection people by the love, grace, and mercy of God the Father through Jesus Christ. We must believe that promise with everything we are and set our eyes firmly on Jesus, asking him to be present in our lives in the power of the Holy Spirit and through the ordinary means of grace that the Church has recognized and established: regular Bible reading and study individually and together, regular participation in worship and the holy Eucharist, sweet fellowship, and regular and humble service to Christ and his people and to the broader world. In short we must be living embodiments of Christ to his broken and hurting world, i.e., living stones. And we must do this primarily together because only together do we constitute living stones that comprise the New Jerusalem in St. John’s vision. When we are convinced that not even our mortal death can hurt us or separate us from God’s love, we will no longer be afraid to believe, speak, and act accordingly with all boldness. Neither will we be reticent to proclaim Jesus Christ and him crucified and raised from the dead to a world that grows increasingly hostile to that message and those who proclaim it. When we really truly believe Christ is the God who loves us enough to die for us to free us from our slavery to the power of Sin and reconcile us to himself, and when we really truly believe that Jesus Christ is raised from the dead in bodily form and promises that where he is so will we be with him, despite our unloveliness and brokenness, we will no longer be embarrassed or ashamed of being called his disciples or living faithfully according to his good will and purposes for us and for all human beings. If anything we will be embarrassed and ashamed that we were so stupid and reticent in living out and proclaiming our faith, costly as that can be. We will look with pity and sadness on those who ridicule and mock us because we know they have no future or hope. They, like us without Christ, are dead people walking and our hearts break over this reality. 

 But Father, you retort, we don’t feel much like living stones. We are losers and ragamuffins—not as big a loser and ragamuffin as you of course—but still losers and ragamuffins nevertheless with all our fears, hurts, failures, and broken dreams. We get angry and want to act and believe like the world encourages us to act and believe. How can you call us living stones? Well, yes you are losers and ragamuffins (I plead the fifth). None of that matters, though. Feelings in matters of the faith are notoriously fickle and we should should rarely factor them in when considering the reality of our standing before God. Moreover, to argue this way is to miss the point completely. The point, as St. John tells us in his vision of the new heavens and earth, is that we become living stones by God’s power, not our own. On our own we will fail. And even with God’s power we will sometimes fail and miss the mark. We are that badly broken and alienated from God. But God’s love and power and mercy are greater than our brokenness and weaknesses. Nothing is too hard for God, my beloved! After all, he created this universe out of nothing and has the power to raise the dead. Do you think he will renege on his promise to give us life through his Son? No he will not!!  God the Father has raised Christ from the dead to proclaim the inauguration of his new world, a world we get a glimpse of in our NT lesson today. God loves us and is grieved by our slavery to Sin and the rebellion and alienation it has produced. And God loves his good creation and will not let it be permanently destroyed. The same power that spoke worlds into existence and raised Christ from the dead is available to us right now if we stop being afraid and fully embrace our resurrection hope. It is the power to be living stones full of God’s boldness, grace, mercy, love, goodness, righteousness, and justice with the power to embody those qualities and more to each other and to God’s world for the love and sake of his Son who has rescued us from Sin and Death. 

There is no better time than on our parish dedication festival to fully embrace our resurrection hope and let it change us into living stones, the people of God, pleasing in our Lord’s sight. We can trust the promise precisely because we know Jesus Christ is raised from the dead as the early Church and NT proclaimed and as countless people over time and across cultures have experienced ever since. I therefore encourage and exhort you, my beloved, to embrace your inheritance and let the Holy Spirit affirm it in you. When you do, no matter had bad things are or get, no matter how much evil and chaos and anarchy seem to rule the day, you will remember that not even the gates of Hell can prevail against us as members of Christ’s body, the Church, because Christ has defeated the strong man—Satan! No matter how much our enemies threaten us or even persecute us, we will draw on our faith in Christ and rely on his power to help us persevere and ultimately prevail. In his power we will fight our fears and not be afraid, remembering the promises of God made known to us in the Word made flesh, in his holy Word, and in the Eucharist. For the love of God, again I encourage and exhort you to seek Christ with your whole being and strive to imitate him in all your thinking, speaking, and doing. When we do this we will surely find the power to be living stones who embody the presence and goodness and love and power of the One who loved us and gave himself for us so that we could live forever. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever

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