From the Sermon Archives for Trinity Sunday 2024: The Trinity: Comprehending the Incomprehensible

Sermon delivered on Trinity Sunday C, June 16, 2019.

Play the video before you read the sermon.

Lectionary texts: Proverbs 8.1-4, 22-31; Psalm 8; Romans 5.1-5; John 16.12-15.

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

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Trinity, the day when we focus on the triune nature of God, i.e., God in three persons. But as our video pointed out, this is no easy task for mere mortals, especially for someone with a peabrain like mine, and I will leave it to the Great Thinkers, the Church Fathers and Doctors, to explain the nature of the Trinity. For Small Thinkers like me, I have found it helpful to understand our triune God by looking at how God has chosen to reveal himself to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As we look at each, we must always remember that while we are talking about three different persons, we are also talking about One indivisible God. Clear as mud? Wonderful. We’re off to a good start.

Before we look at how God has chosen to reveal himself to us, let us keep in mind that while there is no formal doctrine of the Trinity articulated in the NT, a formal doctrine would eventually have to be formulated by the Church based on the writings of St. Paul and others. Take, for instance, these introductory verses found in his first letter to the Thessalonians:

This letter is from Paul, Silas, and Timothy. We are writing to the church in Thessalonica, to you who belong to God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. May God give you grace and peace. We always thank God for all of you and pray for you constantly. As we pray to our God and Father about you, we think of your faithful work, your loving deeds, and the enduring hope you have because of our Lord Jesus Christ. We know, dear brothers and sisters, that God loves you and has chosen you to be his own people. For when we brought you the Good News, it was not only with words but also with power, for the Holy Spirit gave you full assurance that what we said was true (1 Thessalonians 1.1-5a, NLT).

Notice carefully how St. Paul describes the nature and work of God in three persons. He speaks of the Father’s great love for us made known in and through the work of the Son, mediated by the work and power of the Holy Spirit. So let us not fall for the baloney that the doctrine of the Trinity was some unnecessary and overly-complicated human invention. It’s not. It comes directly from God, who chooses to reveal himself to us as such.

Especially appropriate for Father’s Day we begin with God the Father, the ultimate Progenitor, Creator of all that is and Source of all life. As Genesis 1-2 tell us, God created the heavens and earth, himself existing from all eternity (try wrapping your mind around that little nugget!). Genesis tells us that God created this vast cosmos out of nothing, giving us a glimpse of God’s awesome power. As St. Paul would tell the Romans, we worship a God who creates new things out of nothing and who raises the dead (Romans 4.17). So we can have confidence in God to accomplish his purposes. Because God is good, God created all things good and then enigmatically created humans in his image to bring God’s goodness and wisdom to bear to run God’s creation on God’s behalf (Gen 1.26-28; Ps 8). As Genesis 1-2 also tell us, before our first ancestors rebelled against God, they lived in perfect communion with God the Father, obeying his creative intentions (bearing his image faithfully) and enjoying the perfect health, peace, and happiness that accompanies perfect communion with the Father. This poignant picture of the Father communing with his human image-bearers reminds us that God created us to share in his glory and to enjoy perfect happiness, health, and freedom, the kind that comes only in obeying God’s good and creative intentions for us. If you are interested at all in obeying the general will of God the Father, pay attention to the creation narratives.

But if we are going to have any kind of relationship with God the Father, we have to know more about him than his creative work. We have to have some idea of the Father’s nature as well. Is God really lovable? Is he worthy of our first loyalty and ultimate obedience? Before the Fall, our first human ancestors instinctively and consciously knew the answers to these questions because they enjoyed perfect communion with their Father, and God chose to reveal himself to them in ways they could comprehend. After the Fall, this knowledge was lost (Gen 3.8-10) and as a result, the power of Evil and Sin ushered in madness, Death, alienation, and chaos into God’s good world, corrupting it and causing God to curse it and us. Why the curse? Was it because God just doesn’t know how to have a good time? Is it because the Father is a divine child abuser as some have arrogantly charged (a charge so ludicrous that it illustrates unhappily how our sin-caused alienation from God has caused us to no longer know God our Father)? Certainly not! God cursed his good creation and creatures because God can tolerate no evil or injustice in his world, and that is ultimately for our good. As we shall see, if we hope to spend an eternity in the Father’s direct presence, who wants to be bedeviled by the Evil, folly, chaos, madness, and alienation we experience in our fallen state?

But if we only look at God’s justice, we miss huge parts of God’s nature. For despite our attempts to usurp God’s power and our ongoing hostility and rebellion against God, the heart of the Father beats love for his wayward children. Hear what Scripture has to say about the love of God: Saint John tells us that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that everyone who believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3.16), and that anyone who does not love does not know God because God is love (1 John 4.8). The psalmist characterizes the Father as “merciful and compassionate, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. The Lord is good to everyone. He showers compassion on all his creation” (Ps. 145.7-8). Jesus tells us likewise when he tells us to imitate the Father by loving our enemies as well as our friends (Matthew 5.43-48). Elsewhere, the psalmist declares how precious the Father’s love for us is because God saves both humans and animals, providing us with much-needed shelter from the storms of life (Ps 36.6b-7). 

Scripture also declares God’s patient, steadfast love for us, despite our ongoing rebellion. As you listen to these gracious words, imagine your heavenly Father speaking them to you and take heart.

But now, O Jacob, listen to the Lord who created you. O Israel, the one who formed you says, “Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you. I have called you by name; you are mine. When you go through deep waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown. When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I gave Egypt as a ransom for your freedom; I gave Ethiopia and Seba in your place. Others were given in exchange for you. I traded their lives for yours because you are precious to me. You are honored, and I love you. “Do not be afraid, for I am with you. I will gather you and your children from east and west. I will say to the north and south, ‘Bring my sons and daughters back to Israel from the distant corners of the earth. Bring all who claim me as their God, for I have made them for my glory. It was I who created them’” (Isaiah 43.1-7, NLT)

My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all. How can I give you up? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like [my enemies]? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy [Israel]; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath (Hosea 11.7-9).

Do you hear the tenderness and compassion in these verses? Israel had indeed been intent on running away from their God, but the Father’s generous heart would not give up on his wayward children. This is the love and compassion and mercy and tenderness we give up when we thumb our noses at God and refuse his gracious overtures. This is what causes us to live in darkness and chaos, feeling alone and afraid. This is the cost of human sin and rebellion against God the Father.

But as these OT passages attest, God is not put off so easily because God the Father is good and faithful, even in the face of our unfaithfulness as St. Paul wrote to Timothy (2 Tim 2.13). And so at just the right time, God the Father took on our human flesh (or in NT parlance, the Father sent the Son) to free us from our slavery to Sin and Death and to establish the basis for restoring God’s good creation gone bad. St. Paul summarizes it best in his letter to the Galatians. Pay careful attention to the trinitarian nature of this passage and the role of each:

But when the right time came, God sent his Son [God became human], born of a woman, subject to the law. God sent him to buy freedom for us who were slaves to the law, so that he could adopt us as his very own children. And because we are his children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, prompting us to call out, “Abba, Father.” Now you are no longer a slave but God’s own child. And since you are his child, God has made you his heir (Galatians 4.4-7, NLT).

Why did the Father do this? Because he desires life and goodness and health, not death and destruction and chaos. And so the Father’s love for us was and is made known supremely in Jesus, the Son of God. The coeternal Son who existed with God from all eternity (Jn 1.1-5) took on our flesh to destroy Sin’s power over us and to bear the Father’s just wrath on our sins to spare us and make us fit to stand in God’s direct presence forever (Rom 5.6-11, 8.1-4; Rev 7.9-17). All who believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who came to be a sacrifice for our sins, and who was raised by God from the dead, are washed clean by his blood shed for us on the cross. As St. Paul tells us in our epistle lesson this morning, this was an act of pure grace on the Father’s part. None of us deserve this mercy because before Christ’s Incarnation, we were still God’s enemies. But those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and only those who believe Jesus is the Son of God, are no longer God’s enemies. Instead, we are God’s children (Jn 1.12) and therefore we have a future hope and inheritance: God’s new world, the new heavens and earth. In Christ, we see the very heart and face of the Father healing the sick, casting out the demonic, and defeating Evil and the powers behind it. And because of the resurrection, those of us who are united to Christ by faith are promised a share in God’s new world. As St. Paul reminds us in Rom 6.3-5, those who have a relationship with Christ, i.e., who are in Christ, share in both Christ’s death and resurrection (and if we love God and others as he loves us we definitely are “in Christ”). I don’t have time to develop this today. Suffice it to say that St. Paul proclaims to us that eternal life, bodily life in God’s new world where we live directly in God’s presence, unlike we do right now, is our destiny (1 Cor 15), i.e., we are resurrection peeps. Christ’s resurrection also validates the unlikely claim by the NT writers that on the cross God defeated the dark powers (Col. 2.13-15) who have invaded his world and corrupted it, wreaking havoc and pain and misery and suffering on anyone and everyone. If you do not see the Father’s love for you made known in the Son’s work and love, you are truly to be most pitied.

God the Father makes all this known in and through the power of his Holy Spirit, who reveals God’s truth to us, makes Christ known and present to us, and equips us to live like the truly human image-bearers God created and wants us to be. In other words, he makes us living stones in God’s new Temple built on Christ (1 Peter 2.1-6). Without the Spirit, we cannot possibly know God or Christ. We cannot possibly know the Truth. We cannot possibly love or forgive or be gracious or merciful or kind or compassionate. As our Creed proclaims, he is the Lord, the giver of life. Even when you hear lousy sermons on the Trinity like this one, the Holy Spirit will overcome and make God in three persons known to you. He makes your prayers efficacious and gives you power to serve and be humble, to be genuine people of God. There’s much more, but I’m out of time.

So why should knowing God in three persons matter to us? Just this. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit have overcome our sin and rebellion, restoring us as truly human image-bearers of our Father. If you want to live life with meaning, purpose, and power, the only way you can do that is to know and worship our triune God because this is the real God, not some false or incomplete imitation of the Real Deal. This one God wants to heal us and equip us to be real children who bring to bear God’s love and goodness to his broken and hurting creation. How can we do that if we don’t know the Father’s love made known supremely through the Son and imparted to us in and through the Spirit? If you seek wholeness and healing and blessing in the midst of a chaotic world, if you seek to love as you have been loved, if you seek real comfort for your grief, if you are aware of the Father’s great love for you despite your sins and rebellion, you are already in his loving grasp. We cannot imitate him who we do not know and we come to know our triune God through prayer, Scripture, the Eucharist, tradition, and fellowship, all in and through the power of the Spirit. Most of all, we know we worship the real God if we are resurrection peeps who claim for our own the promise of Christ’s resurrection because only in his resurrection will we know completely the love, mercy, kindness, and justice of God to heal us and make us entirely whole again. Of course we’ll schlep along in this mortal life and get it wrong at times. Many of us will get it wrong more than we’ll get it right. But despite this, we don’t lose hope. Because we know God our Father, we dare believe in his great promises to heal, redeem, and restore us, promises validated in the Son of God’s death and resurrection. We know it because we are God’s people who have the Holy Spirit living in us. Let us therefore live as people with power and hope and love, with charity and great grace, daring to allow the Father to make himself known in and through us by faithfully imitating Jesus the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit. I cannot think of a better way to celebrate the Feast of the Holy Trinity, not only today but every day, 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. 

From the Archives for Ascension Sunday 2024—The Ascension: God’s Power Play

Sermon originally delivered on Ascension Sunday, May 13, 2018.

Lectionary texts: Acts 1.1-11; Psalm 93; Ephesians 1.15-23; Luke 24.44-53.

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

Today we celebrate our Lord’s ascension into heaven. But what’s that all about? Is St. Luke trying to tell us that Jesus was the first astronaut, zooming up into space? Not at all, and if we understand our Lord Jesus’  ascension in this literalist and linear way, we miss the point and are robbed of the vital power we need to live as Christians in a broken world. What does it mean for us to participate in God’s power play? This is what I want us to look at briefly this morning.

If we are ever to understand by the grace of God what it means to be God’s people in Jesus, i.e., people with power, we must first understand what St. Luke is telling us about the Ascension in our NT and gospel lessons. He is not trying to suggest that Jesus was the first astronaut who gives his disciples one last glimpse of him by allowing them to see the soles of his feet. No, for St. Luke and the rest of the NT writers, Jesus’ ascension into heaven (God’s space) meant that Jesus was going to assume his rightful place as ruler of the cosmos. When St. Paul tells us in our epistle lesson that God seated our ascended Lord at his right hand, he is telling us that Jesus is now Lord over both the visible and invisible powers, i.e., over all creation. Jesus is Lord precisely because on the cross, God defeated the forces of Evil and transferred us from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of God’s beloved Son, in whom we have redemption and the forgiveness of our sins, thanks be to God. This is the wisdom and power of God: the suffering and self-giving love that rescued us from utter destruction and our slavery to the dark powers that hate us and want to see us destroyed. But none of us would ever have known the power of crucified love had it not been for God raising Jesus from the dead that first Easter Sunday. As we have seen during this Eastertide, the cross needs the resurrection and the resurrection needs the cross. Without the resurrection, the cross would have meant that Jesus was just another failed Messiah wannabe. Without the cross, the resurrection would have been nothing more than a spectacular act of power on God’s part because we would remain in our sins and unreconciled with God so that death would be our destiny, not eternal life

Based on God’s power in and through Jesus’ death and resurrection, St. Luke and St. Paul both remind us that now Jesus has returned to God’s space (heaven) to assume his rightful role as Lord of all creation and to rule until all God’s enemies have been defeated, death being the last and greatest of these enemies (cf. 1 Corinthians 15.26, 51-55). Can any of us think of a greater power than being able to destroy the power of death forever when the dead are finally raised to life? And who among us has the power to be reconciled to God given the desperately sick hearts with which we are all burdened (Jeremiah 17.9)? The answer, of course, is that none of us has this power, only God does. 

So in Jesus’ death and resurrection we see the penultimate chapter in the story of God’s plan to rescue his good creation and its creatures gone bad, corrupted by human sin and rebellion and the evil it unleashed in the world. Now that the forces of evil had been defeated on the cross and Jesus validated as the Son of God who takes away the sin of the world, the Son returned to the Father to assume his rightful role as Lord of all and to build on the work he had accomplished in his death and resurrection. In other words, Jesus’ ascension signaled to his followers and the world that God is in control of things in a new and definitive way. For those who have eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts and minds to believe, God is again demonstrating his power to save and reminding us that the good guys are in charge, not the bad ones.

But the Ascension also meant that Jesus would no longer be available to his followers in the way he had been during his mortal life. He had to return to heaven to continue the work he started on his Father’s behalf. So why does St. Luke report that after Jesus’ Ascension his disciples were filled with joy? If we knew our loved one was going to be absent from us for a period of time, wouldn’t we be filled with sadness and anxiety? So why weren’t the disciples? The answer, of course, is that Jesus promised them the power of his Presence with them in the coming of the Holy Spirit. While Jesus would be strangely absent from his followers, he would also be strangely present because he was going to send the Holy Spirit to mediate his presence with us. Father Bowser will presumably take up this theme next week. Or not. 

And now we are getting ready to understand what it means for us as Jesus’ followers to be part of God’s power play and what that might look like. Being part of God’s power play means we are people who have been forgiven our sins and equipped with the power to reorient our lives away from ourselves, which would mean death, to God, which means life. Don’t misunderstand. This process is not automatic or neat and clean. We are a profoundly broken people, but God’s healing power and love for us is far greater. To be part of God’s power play means we have the power and person of Jesus always available to us, even in our darkest moments of anxiety and fear, healing us, loving us, and equipping us to lead the cross-shaped lives he calls us to lead. He gives us this power because he calls us to continue his kingdom work by announcing repentance and the forgiveness of sins and bringing Christ’s love and presence to his sin-sick world. We are tempted to shake our heads about all this, of course. If Jesus is Lord, he is doing a really lousy job of it. Look at the mess this world is in! But this misses the point of the Ascension. The first Christians knew the world was in bad shape. St. Paul, after all, wrote about the dark powers being defeated while he was in prison! He certainly knew the reality of evil, but because he knew the risen Christ present to him both on the road to Damascus and in the power of the Spirit, he also knew that evil had been ultimately defeated. 

What the Ascension means for us in terms of power is that we are given the tremendous privilege of being real human beings again and doing the work that God always intended and called us to do. We are to rule the world by reflecting God’s love and goodness into it. That God did not put the world to rights with the wave of God’s hand is a testimony to the worth God assigns us as his image-bearers. In and through Christ, God did what was impossible for us to do: rescue us from ourselves and our slavery to Sin and Evil. Now God calls us to continue the work of bringing in God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven. That’s a mighty tall order and it is impossible for us to do this on our own. We simply don’t have the power to get the job done. 

But we are not called to bring in the Kingdom on our own nor are we given the task of bringing in the Kingdom in full so that all the darkness in our lives and God’s world are totally vanquished. Only God can do that when Jesus returns to consummate his saving work started in his earthly ministry. No, the kind of power we wield is the kind of power Jesus wielded and if we get this right, it will help us better understand how the power of God works and why quest-ions about the ability of Jesus to rule as Lord of all creation miss the point of the Ascension. The kingdom will come on earth as in heaven as the Church—you, me, and all other Christians—engage the world as Christ did. It means we go out as vulnerable, suffering, praying, praising, misunderstood, misjudged, and even hated people. But we are people of power, God’s power, and that means we go out into the world as forgiven and beloved people, and therefore as people with real hope. Consequently we are always celebrating despite our setbacks and failures because we know how the story ends. As God’s people, then, we are given power to forgive where no forgiveness is warranted. We are given power to bless when cursed. We are given power to love instead of hate and to offer the same crucified love to others that Christ offered to us. We are given power to have a tender and compassionate heart, especially to those who least deserve it. We are given power to be patient and kind and gentle, even when we know this makes us vulnerable to exploitation. We are given power to resist temptation and to refuse to make and worship our own idols like the world does. It means we have power to heal all kinds of disorders and to celebrate even when confronted by death because we know we bear in us both the scars and the life of our crucified, risen, and ascended Savior. And when by God’s grace we know that we share both in Christ’s death and risen life because we are forgiven and redeemed, we have power over anxiety that the world simply cannot possess or understand because the world neither recognizes or acknowledges this kind of power.

None of this is easy or straightforward. We don’t get to waltz through life without hassles, heartaches, and defeats. It just doesn’t work that way. Therefore we have to read and study the Scriptures, and learn how to pray, worship, and engage in real fellowship with each other, all the while trusting God’s grace to produce in us the needed faith and knowledge about these things we cannot understand on our own. And when we finally start to grapple with the realization we are people who possess God’s power to love, forgive, bless, and redeem, it can make all the difference in the world for us. We should therefore never be timid about sharing with all and sundry the Good News of which the Ascension is a part, precisely because we know God’s power to heal and restore in our own lives, however imperfectly that might look. After all, God is a God who calls into existence things that do not exist and raises the dead to life. So nothing in our life is too hard for God, even if it is too hard for us when we rely on our own power. The Ascension reminds us of this reality. Despite our doubts and fears, despite the messiness of our lives and the world in which we live, we are reminded of the dignity and nobility of being human in the eyes of God and God’s promise to rescue us and all creation from all that is evil and opposed to God’s good will and purposes for us. Because we are people of power who enjoy Christ’s love and Presence with us in the power of the Spirit, we can learn to find real joy in the people and events and opportunities that the Spirit puts in our path. Because Jesus is Lord we know that nothing in our lives is ever coincidental or serendipitous. We are all connected and therefore have plenty of opportunities to demonstrate the love and power of God. And because Jesus is Lord and we are not, we never have to despair when our best efforts and intentions apparently do not bear any results: We pray and our prayers are not answered in the manner we hoped. We offer forgiveness but it is not reciprocated. We are bedeviled by besetting sins. We offer Truth and receive shame and derision in return. Without the power of the Lord Jesus who is with us in the presence of the Spirit, we would surely be overcome with despair. But we are crucified and resurrected people who share the King’s power, and who enjoy his real Presence in the power of the Spirit given to us. And because we have this power, we are not overcome because we know even the gates of hell cannot overcome the Risen and Ascended Lord of all creation, thanks be to God! Alleluia! Christos Anesti! Christ is risen and ascended! The Lord is risen and ascended indeed! Alleluia! To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. 

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

From the Sermon Archives: The Easter Effect

Sermon originally preached on Easter 3C, Sunday, April 10, 2016.

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

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

The past two weeks we have looked carefully at the resurrection of our Lord Jesus. We have seen that when God raised Jesus from the dead it signaled the turning point in history. No longer is sin and death our inevitable fate, at least for those of us who are God’s people in Jesus. We have seen that God’s good but sin-corrupted creation and its creatures matter to God and that they had better matter to us as well. We know this because in Jesus’ resurrection we are given a glimpse of God’s promised new world, where life reigns, not death, a world devoid of all suffering and evil, thanks be to God. Then last week we saw that we as God’s people have work to do, work empowered by the Holy Spirit himself. The resurrection never was meant to be about a private religious experience, designed to make us feel all warm and fuzzy about ourselves and our relationship with God. It has always been about God the Father healing and transforming the world by breaking the power of evil in and through the death and resurrection of his Son. Today, we are given a third look at Jesus’ resurrection, this time with an invitation to see what desired effect it should have on us, and this is what I want us to look at this morning.

In one way or another, all our lessons today point to the fact that everything is different as a result of Easter. We begin with John the Elder’s vision of the heavenly throne room in our epistle lesson. It is important for us to understand that this isn’t some vision of the future, but of the current reality in heaven. And what can we learn from John’s vision? First, that there is a reason for the joyful worship we are witnessing. Jesus, the Lion of Judah, has overcome the dark powers and destroyed their dominion over God’s creation and us. Not yet fully to be sure. That will have to wait until Jesus’ return. But the message is clear: Countless multitudes worship Jesus and celebrate his victory over the forces of evil won on the cross. And of course, Jesus’ resurrection announced that death, the ultimate evil, has been destroyed. That is why they worship Jesus the Lamb. And here is where we are confronted with a startling paradox. Jesus, the Lion of Judah, the strength of Judah, accomplished his victory over evil by his obedience to God’s will in and through his suffering and death (cf. Philippians 2.5-11). Jesus’ victory over evil was accomplished ostensibly through weakness, not conventional power as we all expected God to act. Jesus is the Passover Lamb sacrificed for us. This is Exodus language, folks, reminding us that in Jesus’ death we are delivered from our slavery to sin and death, thanks be to God! That is why Jesus is worshiped as God. That is why there is celebration in heaven right now. The victory, while not yet consummated, is won by the blood of the Lamb shed for us (and this is why it is so important to know God’s story contained in the Bible, our story, so that we recognize and learn the lessons its symbolic language wants to teach us).

This is the God the multitudes are worshiping in heaven. Is this the God you worship? Do you share the unequivocal belief of the multitudes that Jesus has conquered the dark powers and reigns over God’s vast creation? If you do, it must change you, and for the better. You realize that even in your own weakness, in your own insignificance, at least as the world defines both, Jesus is using you to help advance his kingdom on earth as in heaven. It means, for example, the next time you pray for that person you despise or pray for a seemingly hopeless situation, you can have confidence that Jesus is using your faithfulness in ways you can’t possibly see or understand to advance his kingdom. When you really believe that, I mean really believe that, you will discover a great power unleashed in your life, the power of God made known in suffering love. But it is a power made possible only in and through the death and resurrection of Jesus. And if you do not believe this, you can count on limping along through life, trying to use the conventional means of power to get what you want. Good luck with that; you’re gonna need it. This is the first Easter Effect we see in our lessons. We discover we have an indefatigable hope and joy as we follow the ways of Jesus to bring healing to his broken and sad world.

We turn next to the powerful story in our gospel lesson to see another dimension of the Easter Effect—prerequisite forgiveness. As we listen to John’s story we are somewhat perplexed by the setting because we remember that last week Jesus imparted the Spirit to his disciples and commissioned them for new work. So why are they back in Galilee and out fishing? Were they discouraged and lost? Were they waiting for further marching orders? We aren’t told. John simply tells us that Jesus appeared to his disciples again. As with Mary at the tomb, the disciples do not initially recognize their risen Lord. This  reminds us again that the resurrection will change us, this time physically. To be sure, there was continuity. The disciples knew it was Jesus, but no one dared ask him for sure. In telling us this, John reminds us again (and did you catch that this happens yet again at the dawn of a new day?) that there are things about the resurrection body we simply don’t understand. So don’t let their inability to initially recognize their risen Lord confuse or discourage you. Instead, rejoice that God’s got something in store for us in the New Creation that will simply blow our minds because it is so fantastic!

After feeding the apostles (how did Jesus get this food?), John turns our attention to some unfinished business between Peter and his Lord. Peter had brashly shot off his mouth, proclaiming his undying loyalty to his Lord, only to end up denying Jesus three times by a charcoal fire and weeping bitterly afterwards over doing so (John 13.36-38, 18.15-18, 25-27; Matthew 26.75). Each of us understands this background better than we’d like to admit because we have all been there and done that, each in our own way. But now here is the risen Jesus, again by a charcoal fire. Perfect. He asks Peter three times if Peter loves him. Three, the number for completeness, and the exact number of times Peter had denied his Lord.

Do you recognize the beauty in this story? Jesus is doing the hard but necessary work to restore Peter so that Peter can get on with the work Jesus calls him to do. Notice carefully that Jesus does not say to Peter, “There, there. It’s all right. Let’s sing Kumbaya together.” No, Jesus tells him to get to work! Here is a love and forgiveness that is bound to choke up even the hardest person if we grasp what Jesus is doing. He is healing a memory of Peter that absolutely had to be healed. Imagine the guilt and failure Peter felt. He’d run his mouth and then stuck his foot squarely in it by his failure of character. He had denied the man he loved, the most wonderful man he had ever known, and there was no chance to reboot. But now unbelievably there was! Jesus doesn’t browbeat his chastened disciple. He gently restores him. Once again, there’s no glitz or excitement or outright show of power. Instead, Jesus cuts right to the chase and in doing so, equips Peter to be his shepherd on his behalf. Imagine that. Imagine the release Peter must have felt. His Lord, the man he had denied, was now entrusting him for some critically important work on his behalf and for the sake of his fledgling church. On one level Peter was eminently unqualified to do the work. But Peter had found the power of forgiveness and a healed memory that transcended whatever was in him that would disqualify him to do the work.

One of the things that must occur in the New Creation is that our memories must be healed of all their hurt and rancor and whatever else that weighs us down. Otherwise, there would still be evil in the New Creation, and we are promised there will be none of that at all. Here we see another preview of coming attractions in the healing of our memories and the forgiveness of our sins, again made possible because of the blood of the Lamb shed for us and because Jesus is now Lord. This is another reason why everything is different as a result of Easter!

Have you found the healing love and forgiveness that our Lord offers to each of us? It is offered freely to everyone! If not, there is no way you can possibly do the work Jesus calls you to do, whatever that is, because your guilt will cripple you and prevent you from offering and embodying Jesus’ healing love and forgiveness to others. You will not be able to forgive your enemies as Jesus has forgiven you if you have not embraced his tender love and mercy for you and let him heal your memories. Again this is all made possible because of the blood of the Lamb shed for us and because Jesus is alive and reigns over all God’s creation, making his healing love and forgiveness available to you right now and on a continuous basis. And he calls each of us to do something about it in response, to embody and share that love and forgiveness to others. As we have seen, every time we do so, we have confidence that Jesus is using our efforts, messy and broken as they (and we) can be at times, to advance his kingdom on earth as in heaven. But we cannot possibly forgive and retain sins without first repenting and accepting the love and forgiveness of God made known to us in Jesus Christ our Lord.

This is the essential story of Paul in our NT lesson. Here is Paul, who breathed threats and murder against God’s people, forgiven and healed by our Lord Jesus in his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. At first it doesn’t look that way, but that is what’s going on. It was such a landmark event that Luke reports it three separate times in Acts! And in Paul we see the Easter Effect in spades. He is forgiven and healed so that he can suffer much for Jesus’ people, the Church. We are not called to do the scope of Paul’s work, but we are called to imitate Paul in our own work on behalf of God’s people and the world.

So where are you in these stories? Wherever you are, remember why we are being told these stories. Jesus is Lord and because of his death and resurrection we are a people with a future and a hope, a people who are empowered to do the work our Lord calls us to do. We won’t always see results that we hope for or desire. But it’s not our job to bring in the kingdom. That’s Jesus’ job. Our job, thanks be to God, is to continue Jesus’ work, despite being the messy and broken creatures we are. So let’s get busy, my beloved, and continue the work Jesus calls us to do. Let’s also find time to celebrate the fact that Jesus is risen and we are his new creations, despite who we can sometimes be. Remember, all work and no play makes Jesus’ people dull because we forget why we do what we do when we deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. So let us always remember and celebrate the fact that we have Good News, now and for all eternity, precisely because we worship and adore our crucified and risen Lord. 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.

Good Shepherd Sunday 2024: From the Sermon Archives: Why We Need THE (not a) Good Shepherd

Sermon originally delivered on Easter 4B, Good Shepherd Sunday, April 25, 2021.

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

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

Today is the fourth Sunday of Eastertide and we are at day 22, almost midway through the 50 days of Easter (how are your new creation celebrations going, BTW? Are you causing anyone to wonder why you are partying so much?). In the Anglican Tradition, we celebrate the fourth Sunday of Easter as Good Shepherd Sunday, where our readings point to Christ as our Good Shepherd. But what does that mean for us as Christians living in an increasingly chaotic 21st century world? This is what I want us to look at this morning. 

So who needs Christ as their Good Shepherd? Well, all of us, frankly, because we live in a world of instant communication that allows us to see with increasing intensity the dark and chaotic world in which we live. Toots and I can barely watch the news anymore and we increasingly stay away from social media because of the ever-growing toxic strand of stories that stream from these various sources. In short, we avoid the news for the sake of our mental and spiritual health, and we’re not alone. As the Christian faith and those who profess and live it come under increasing attack, not to mention the very foundations and traditions of our nation, if we are not careful we can quickly and easily fall into despair. Then of course there are the personal failures, setbacks, losses, anxieties, and other difficulties we all face. Many of us who try to live up to the high calling of the Christian life are all too painfully aware that we miss the mark, sometimes as much as we hit it. Like David in Psalm 51, we know our transgressions and our sin is ever before us. Perhaps a better question might be, where is our Good Shepherd, rather than do we need one! Then there’s the quaint and seemingly outdated term, shepherd, itself. Most of us don’t come from a rural background and even if we do, shepherding seems to be a thing of the past. Why would we need a good shepherd when we live in the 21st century?

But we mustn’t let the historical context of Scripture lull us into false and misleading conclusions. We must remember that it is to the glory of God that he indeed works and is active in the context of human history, meaning that Jesus lived at a particular time and in a particular culture where his listeners would have quickly related to his use of the term shepherd. No, as Scripture consistently proclaims, our God is not some absentee god who is disinterested in this world and our lives. Nor is he a god who focuses exclusively on things “spiritual” as any self-respecting gnostic, past and present, would have us believe. Instead, Scripture proclaims consistently that God our Father is the God of history and our Creator. And as the resurrection of Christ proclaims boldly to us and to the world, creation matters to God and God intends to make all things right again. The risen Christ is our living preview of coming attractions so to speak, testifying to this truth, thanks be to God!

If we keep all this in mind, we are ready to answer the question as to why we need Christ the Good Shepherd. A shepherd is one who looks after those who follow him, in this case human image-bearers, not mindless sheep. This image therefore reminds us that the notion of shepherding by definition applies not to individuals, but to groups (think Christ’s body, the Church). Of course, Jesus leads us and is available to us as individuals. Anybody who knows the risen Lord knows that. But Christ does not call us to live our lives in isolation. He calls us to live together as a family of believers. We are all in this together because we are all subject to the same dark powers and forces of chaos, which at its root is the very nature of sin. Show me sin of any kind and I will show you chaos. Given that we are subject to powers and forces far stronger than we are, forces that have enslaved us and stripped and robbed us of our original human dignity as God’s image-bearing creatures whom God created to rule his good creation on his behalf, we are in constant danger of being undone. Simply put, we are not able on our own to free ourselves from our slavery to that alien and hostile power we call Sin, and if we are unable to free ourselves from its slavery, we all face Death, not only our mortal death, but also the Death that results from being disconnected from God, our very Source of life. This means that we are already dead people walking without God’s help. Take the patient off his life-support systems without a cure and the patient dies. Try to live life in the face of the dark powers and the chaos they impose on our lives and world without the help of someone or something stronger, and we become people who live without hope. And without hope, we all die.

But thanks be to God that we do have someone who is stronger than the forces who hate us and want to destroy us. We have Jesus Christ, crucified, died, and raised from the dead, available to us. Christ is our Beautiful Shepherd (a more accurate description for the Greek word, kalos, than the term “good”), who loves us enough to give up his equality with God to become human and to die for us to break Sin’s power over us, and to bear God’s righteous and just punishment for our sins. This self-giving love for us reflects the heart and glory of God the Father who does not give up on us, irrespective of how badly we manage to screw things up. None of us know all that transpired on Calvary that Good Friday because none of us has the mind of God. Yet we believe that our sins are forgiven and that we have new life starting right now because Christ’s death reconnected us to God our lifeline and promises one day to raise our mortal bodies from the dead to live with him forever. How do I know this? How can I be sure, especially with so many unanswered questions and in the face of so much dysfunction and suffering and alienation and chaos (sin)? Because Jesus Christ is raised from the dead as he tells us he would be in our gospel lesson today. As St. Paul proclaimed in his letter to the Romans, at just the right time, Christ died for us, even while we were still God’s enemies (Romans 5.6-20) so that we could have life once again and be the image-bearing creatures God created us to be as human beings. This is what real shepherding looks like, the only kind that matters, and this is why we have only one real Shepherd because only in Christ do we find forgiveness of sins and salvation. And here we need to spend some time unpacking this extraordinary statement found in our NT lesson. Isn’t it incredibly exclusionary? Well, no it isn’t. 

Why? Because what Saints Peter and John were proclaiming, along with the early Church, is that only Jesus is God-become-human and only his saving death can break our slavery to Sin and restore us to our rightful place as God’s image-bearers. In other words, Christianity has a truth that other religions simply do not because only Jesus Christ is raised from the dead. Neither is God’s love closed to anyone. All are invited to put their faith in Jesus Christ and no one is shut out expect through their own stubborn refusal to see and believe the truth that is in Christ. Now of course the history of Christianity is littered with all kinds of folly that has accompanied our proclaimed faith in Christ and all kinds of wickedness that has sadly accompanied real Christian wisdom. But human wickedness and folly do not negate the truth of the claim itself! Jesus Christ is raised from the dead, proving he is who he claimed to be, not to mention the testimony of hundreds of millions of people over time and culture, our little parish being a blessed microcosm of that collective witness! Christ himself tells us this today in rather stark terms: You’ll never know me or that my claims are true if you don’t know the One who sent me, i.e., God. Why? Because the Father and I are one and that kind of deep intimate relationship characterizes the relationship my followers have with me. Confess me as your Lord and live like you believe it, and you will know that my claim to be the only way to the Father is true (John 14.6). As both the psalmist and St. John in his epistle remind us, Christ our Beautiful Shepherd is the basis for our reconciliation with God and our confident trust that he is with us, even at the moment of our mortal death. What more protection and promise do we need, my beloved? That is why only Christ can be our Good Shepherd, because only in Christ do we find forgiveness of sins and the promise of resurrection. No other shepherds will do because no one but Christ can give us life. Pinheads like me who claim the title of pastor (shepherd) by virtue of our office cannot give you life; we can only point you to the One who can and does, and encourage and exhort you to believe the power and the promise, especially in today’s world where it is increasingly viewed with disdain and hostility. Even so, we do not fear nor will we let ourselves be kowtowed into silence if we really do believe that there is no other Name than Christ’s by which we are saved! That is why Christians, and by that I mean those who have a real and lively faith in Christ, have never feared persecution and have actually rejoiced when suffering for Christ’s sake. As Jesus himself reminded us, we shouldn’t fear those who can kill our body but are then powerless to do anything else to us. We should instead fear God who has the power to end our life forever (Matthew 10.28).

I can hear some of you grumbling right now. You have questions. Why does he sweat so much when he preaches and leads worship? (A: I am a born sweat hog.) If Christ really is the Good Shepherd, why is my life so blown up right now? C’mon dude. Get real. Well, my skeptical interlocutory friend, here’s the deal. I don’t know why God allows what God allows to go on in his world. Nobody does and if you hear someone claim otherwise, run like crazy from that person! What I can tell you is this. Life is not a grand experimental design. It does not consist of experimental and control groups where we can manipulate variables to determine causation and/or correlation. It just doesn’t work that way. We aren’t God and we aren’t omniscient. We aren’t privy to all to which God is privy. That’s why, for example, I can’t prove in any kind of strict empirical sense that God answers prayer or that God is moving mightily within our parish family by bringing new families in and opening up your generous hearts to enable us to occupy our new premises. I can’t “prove” any of this, but I know it’s true because I know the power of God in Jesus Christ raised from the dead, in my life, in the lives of many of you, and in the life of the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church, broken and dysfunctional as she is. It’s called FAITH. And because I know the power of the risen Lord and his presence in and among his people, I don’t feel the need to try to “prove” anything to skeptics with their sneering questions. I’m not copping an attitude here. I simply don’t feel compelled to play by the enemy’s rules or by the rules of scoffers. I know the reality and so, I pray, do you. 

None of this means that we are immune to hurts, heartaches, failures, and brokenness as a parish. We know this all too well. Wendy just lost her dad to congestive heart failure. Chris recently lost his brother to the wicked disease of cancer. Doug is still not fully healed, to name just three examples. You all can add your own heartbreaking stories. But mysterious as this all is, it does not negate the reality of Christ’s promise to be our Beautiful Shepherd in life and in death because he is risen from the dead and because we don’t live a life that is built like a cosmic experimental design. There’s much more than meets our senses and Scripture affirms that there is an unseen reality out there of which we are unaware. Think, for example, of Elisha and his young assistant who found themselves seemingly trapped by the Aramean army. The young man fell into despair as a result, thinking that they were about to be utterly undone. But then Elisha prayed for God to open the young man’s eyes and he beheld the unseen forces of God ready to intervene on their behalf to rescue them (2 Ki 6.8-23)! St. John essentially tells us the same thing in our epistle lesson when he reminds us that when we are Christ’s we have the invisible Presence of the Holy Spirit working in us to remind us of God’s great love for us despite the fact that we were at one time God’s enemies. God’s love reminds us that we no longer need to languish over a guilty conscience. Rather we are to repent of that which caused that guilty conscience and ask God’s forgiveness. And because we know the crucified and risen Lord, we know that God gladly answers our prayers. Do you believe this? If you do, let Christ’s shepherding strengthen and encourage you in the dark valleys of your life. And by all means, let us encourage and strengthen each other with this reality when we become aware of of those dark valleys.

All this reminds us why we need Christ our Beautiful Shepherd and what it leads to: changed lives and the power to be a living embodiment of Christ’s love for us and for his world. If we really believe that there is no salvation other than in the Name of Christ, and if we really believe God does truly love us despite our warts, sometimes quite sizable, then we must live and proclaim our faith to others because having Christ as our Good Shepherd really is a matter of life and death. It means, in other words, we put our faith into action, starting with our families and our extended parish family. When we see others in need we act on their behalf, having generous hearts that imitate our Savior. It means we give our time, talents, and money to help our families and those around us who desperately need to both survive and to hear and see the gospel of Jesus Christ proclaimed and lived out faithfully. It means we are to embody the self-giving love Christ has for us to others in the context of our daily lives and communities. And here I want to offer counsel to you because many, if not most, Christians misunderstand what self-giving love looks like. To embody the self-giving love of Christ doesn’t mean we become punching bags of all sorts to others. Jesus Christ did not love us and die for us to enable us to continue in our (self-)destructive behavior. He died for us so that we might learn to live and love like he loves us and the Father loves him. He died for us so that we might be truly healed and find wholeness and peace. Remember this as you attempt to love others. Becoming their verbal, emotional, or physical punching bag or enabling their destructive behaviors is not loving them. It is actually participating in their sin and this is never the loving thing to do. We sometimes are confronted with difficult choices when dealing with others. That is when we go to Scripture and pray to the Lord for guidance and wisdom. And we learn to trust each other enough to seek and receive their godly guidance. We can do so with confidence, a confidence not rooted in ourselves or others, but because we know the One who is our Beautiful Shepherd and who promises to be with us, individually and together, in any and every circumstance because of his great love for us. This is Jesus Christ, crucified, raised from the dead, and ascended into heaven to rule until he returns again to finish his saving work on our behalf. This is the Shepherd we desperately need and the One on whom we can count and to whom we can give our wholehearted love, loyalty, trust, and obedience because only in him is forgiveness and life. 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. 

Easter 2024: From the Sermon Archives: Our Easter Hope: We Need it Now More than Ever

Sermon originally preached on Easter Sunday, April 4, 2021.

Lectionary texts: Acts 10.34-43; 1 Corinthians 15.1-11; St. John 20.1-18.

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

Today we celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Sadly there is a lot of muddled thinking about the Resurrection and I blame the Church primarily for that because it capitulated to the forces of secularization and so-called “enlightened” thinking, thinking that dismisses Christ’s resurrection as made-up fantasy. To put it bluntly, the Church for the most part, at least in the West, has lost her bold voice and failed to proclaim and live out her resurrection hope, and we suffer because of it. We can’t expect the people of God to proclaim and live their Easter Faith if Holy Mother Church doesn’t teach them what that faith is and what it is supposed to look like! So this morning I want us to look at exactly what the first Christians proclaimed when they proclaimed Christ’s Resurrection. Why? Because without the Spirit-filled power of an informed and robust Easter Faith, given the crazy state of our world today and the patients who are trying to run the asylum, we as Christians will inevitably succumb to the destructive Zeitgeist of this age and in doing so bring harm to ourselves and dishonor the Name of the One we profess to follow.

On Friday we looked at what was so “good” about Good Friday and saw that the cross of Christ is a tangible sign of God’s great love for us and his desire to offer us forgiveness, irrespective of who we are or what we have done or failed to do, thereby establishing the necessary conditions for our reconciliation with God, a message echoed in today’s reading from Acts. This is quite necessary if we ever hope to find real healing and peace. Without the healing and forgiveness of Christ found only in having faith in him, no matter how imperfect that faith, it is impossible to be a faithful disciple of Jesus where we can love and serve him in joyful obedience, even in the face of the suffering we must inevitably endure for his sake. Simply put, we cannot love and serve Christ and others if we are distracted by our guilt, failure, and fears. And so forgiveness is absolutely essential for anyone who wants to be a a follower of Christ and the cross is God’s everlasting promise to us that we have that forgiveness. How do I know this is true? How can you know this is true so that you can stake your very life on it? Is it because I’m a smart guy? Well yes I am (good looking too), but that’s not why I know it’s true. We all can have great confidence that this is true because Jesus Christ is raised from the dead! Without the Resurrection, we never would have heard the name of Jesus let alone worship him, and without the cross, the Resurrection would not be possible because we would still be dead in our sins, alienated and hostile to God the Father, and deprived of any real hope. Simply put, the new heavens and earth will not be open to those who are still sin-stained. More about that anon. As St. Paul took pains to remind us in our epistle lesson, Christ’s death and resurrection were historical events, the crucified and risen Christ being witnessed and experienced by hundreds of people, and with it the turning point of history had arrived, the very essence of NEWS, Good News. The old order was done for; God’s new order had arrived, and with it God’s healing love and forgiveness. So the first thing we need to say about Christ’s Resurrection is that it is an historical event inextricably tied to his saving death on the cross. This is critical for a vibrant Easter Faith.

Second, and equally crucial for us to have a meaningful Easter Faith is to have a clear understanding of what resurrection means. When the NT writers and early Church proclaimed Jesus Christ is raised from the dead, they didn’t mean that Jesus had gone to heaven to be with God. It didn’t mean that Jesus was somehow available to them in a new spiritual way so that they could commune with him. That’s an ancient gnostic heresy that is still the darling of many today, including sadly many Christians. In both instances, our Lord would still have been dead and gone, his body presumably moldering somewhere, but certainly still a corpse. This focus on spirituality and life after death is emphatically not what the NT writers meant when they proclaimed Christ was raised from the dead. If Christ was merely available to his first followers in some mystical or spiritual sense, what difference would that really have made to them? Think about it. When our own beloved die, we might draw some comfort and solace if we think there really is life after death. But the fact is, they’re still dead. We can’t see them, touch them, talk with them, hear them, smell them, or interact with them in any meaningful way. Neither does our hope that our dead loved ones somehow survive after their mortal death generally have the power to change our lives much. We must adjust to life without them, and if we had any meaningful relationship with them in this mortal life, our lives going forward are always poorer because they are no longer available to us as they were in this mortal life. No, if Christ’s Resurrection was simply about a new kind of spirituality, the first disciples wouldn’t have been running all over the place that first Easter Sunday, full of wonder, excitement, and fear. I know I don’t have that kind of reaction when I visit the graves of my loved ones. They’re  dead and gone and my life is the poorer for it, forgetting for the moment my Easter Faith. So to repeat, resurrection is not about dying and going to heaven or life after death or spirituality.

So what is resurrection? When the first followers of Christ proclaimed that he was raised from the dead, they were talking about new bodily existence and this is where the brilliance of St. John as a theologian and storyteller shines brightly. As we read last night at the Easter Vigil, creation has always mattered to God. Scripture proclaims that before God created there was nothing but darkness and chaos, but that God created goodness and order to replace that. Genesis declares very clearly that God’s original creation was good and God’s creation of his human image-bearers to run his good creation made the whole enterprise very good. Here we see a good God speak into existence a good created order, complete with his image-bearers to run the whole thing. 

But then came human sin and rebellion, and that allowed the powers of Evil and Death to enter God’s good creation to corrupt and disorder it. The whole story of Scripture, then, is about how God is rescuing his good created order (us included) from our bondage to the powers of Evil, Sin, and Death. Fast forward now to St. John’s gospel, which as we saw at Christmas, purposely mirrors the creation narratives of Genesis 1-2, but with the focus specifically on the Son of God, Jesus Christ. As we saw Friday night, Good Friday represented the culmination of God’s redemptive work in Christ, the sixth day of God’s (re)creative process, mirroring the sixth day of the original creation narratives that represented the pinnacle of God’s creative activity as he created humans. On the cross, Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures as St. Paul declares in our epistle lesson, and his dying words were, “It is finished.” But what was finished? As we saw above and on Good Friday, what was finished is God’s redemptive work to reconcile us to him through the blood of the Lamb so that we could once again take our rightful place as God’s good and wise image-bearers to run God’s new creation, the new heavens and earth. This was always God’s creative intent. And then on the seventh day, Christ rested in his tomb, paralleling the seventh day of creation when God rested from his creative work. Now here we are, the first day of the new week, the eighth day. St. John clearly wants us to see that when God raised Jesus from the dead on that day, God ushered in the new world, the new heavens and earth. It’s so important that the evangelist repeats it later in this chapter as we will see next week. Christ died to make all things new and break the powers of Evil, Sin, and Death so that we would no longer be enslaved by them. Why? Because creation matters to God. We matter to God, and Scripture testifies consistently that it has always been God the Father’s intent to heal and restore his good but corrupted created order, us included. 

And so this is what the first followers meant when they talked about Christ’s Resurrection. New bodily life, a new created order. As we saw in our gospel lesson, Mary tried to grab hold of Jesus. You don’t do that with a ghost or disembodied spirit. Christ’s new body had both similarities to our mortal bodies as well as new characteristics. His followers could see him, hear him, touch him, converse with him, and eat and drink with him, just like they could in his mortal life. Yet his body was different. He could mask his identity as he did initially with Mary in the garden and with his disciples at the Sea of Tiberius. He could appear and disappear behind locked doors. All of this would certainly have produced the kind of commotion and fear the gospel writers all report happening that first Easter Sunday because it was something totally unexpected. And let’s be clear about that too. The women didn’t come to Christ’s tomb expecting to see him risen from the dead. They knew, as we do, that dead people don’t come out of their graves. They came instead to mourn his death and anoint his body to slow down the inevitable decomposition that accompanies death. 

So why is this all critical to us and our Easter Faith? Well, if, as Revelation promises in its closing chapters, God’s new world is a-coming, the day when the dimensions of heaven and earth are joined together in a new created order, we will need new bodies to inhabit it. Why? Because the new creation will be a material order, but also something entirely new, a world devoid of all the evils and hurts and heartaches we must endure in this mortal life, and it will last forever because Death will be abolished forever. Therefore we need bodies that will last forever, the kind of bodies that are patterned after our risen Lord’s body, suitable to live in God’s new world. St. Paul spells this out in detail later in 1 Cor 15 but that will have to wait for another day. The critical point here is that when the first Christians spoke of Christ’s Resurrection they were proclaiming new bodily life, and that is so much more satisfactory than some disembodied spiritual existence. 

Why? Because without a body, human relationships as we know and value them would be impossible. Take St. Peter’s restoration for instance. When our Lord restored St. Peter after the latter’s disastrous denial of Christ, he had to be embodied for it to have a lasting impact on St. Peter. Our own spiritual struggles validate this. Unless we hear a tender voice speaking to us, unless we can look into another person’s eyes and hear the tone of his or her voice and feel the person’s gentle touch, we will never be quite sure if we are forgiven or restored. We ask forgiveness in prayer and we are assured that we receive it because Christ lives and intercedes for us. But we receive it by faith. Unless we hear his voice or receive a clear intimation from him, there is always the possibility of doubt. Are we really forgiven? I suspect St. Peter’s catastrophic denials were so severe that nothing less than an encounter with his risen embodied Lord would do it for him. God, of course, knows best what we need to receive his healing love and forgiveness, but the point remains that without bodies we do not have what it takes to be truly human. And if we are not truly human we are not God’s image-bearers and God’s original and eternal intent for us is destroyed. If we believe in an omnipotent God, a moment’s thought will confirm to us what a ridiculous proposition that is. What Christ’s resurrection announced to his first followers and to us is that the old world order of Sin, Evil, and Death is defeated, that a new day has dawned—God’s new day, the beginning of the new heavens and earth. That day is not yet consummated but the war has been won and we are the beneficiaries. The rest, as a cabbie once said to N.T. Wright, is basically rock and roll, isn’t it?

So how can our Easter Faith assist us in the living of our days in this increasingly mad and bizarre world? Time limits me to two basic ideas to get you jump-started in your own thinking and reflections. First, Christ’s Resurrection invites us to look at our present world and evaluate it using different criteria. Instead of looking at the past and present to assess our future prospects, what if we use our future hope of new creation to assess our present world? When we assess our future prospects using the past and present, how can there really be any hope? The human condition hasn’t changed. Science and technology, while making our lives so much better and easier in some ways, has not changed who we are. Human rapacity, sin, selfishness, pride, greed, and lust for power (to name just a few) continue unabated and unchanged by any of our scientific advancements, the Star Trek myth notwithstanding. In fact, if anything, technology has exposed human wickedness in unprecedented ways. We have instant access to an unending stream of bad news and human madness and evil. Death still reigns. People still suffer. Old age and infirmity still come. We are still alienated to each other and the God-ordained institutions of marriage and family are crumbling before our eyes. Our nation becomes increasingly divided and there are very few voices of reason out there these days. Based on this, what is our realistic hope for the future? This is the old world order at its finest and worst, and with it comes darkness, despair, sickness, and death. 

But what if we really believe Christ’s Resurrection announced the in-breaking of God’s new world, a world in which Evil, Sin, and Death are destroyed forever? A world in which there is no more sickness, sorrow, suffering, alienation, despair, or want of any kind? A world that is dominated by the love and goodness of God, a world about which St. Paul spoke in 1 Cor 13? To be sure, that world has not yet arrived, but it’s coming in full one day and we are called by Christ to so order our lives in ways that will announce to the powers of the old order that their day is through. We do this locally as the family of God. We love each other, care for each other, and suffer with and for each other. We bear each others quirks and pricklies. We grieve with those who grieve and rejoice with those who rejoice. We worship together our risen Lord and Savior and eagerly await his return to finish the work he started in his death and resurrection. We refuse to take revenge and are quick to forgive, especially those who hate Christ and us for being his followers. This will inevitably produce suffering for us, but we have a real hope and future. We know a new world is coming some day. It may be a million years from now. It may be tomorrow. But that doesn’t matter. We assess our present and imitate our crucified and risen Lord because we believe that his Resurrection announced a new world order, a world order run by God alone, a perfect world in which we have been invited to live forever because of the love of God poured out for us on the cross and vindicated that first Easter Sunday. As the great bishop of S. India, Lesslie Newbigin, once said, “I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.” Exactly.

And on a more personal and emotional note, Christ’s Resurrection promises us that Death will not have the final say. If you have ever watched a loved one suffer and die or are enduring a loved one’s infirmity or terminal disease, you know how heartbreaking that is. But your Easter hope can help mitigate the heartbreak. Why? Because we know that the ugliness and suffering we and our loved ones are enduring (or endured) will one day be redeemed. Broken, weak, ugly bodies on the verge of death will be restored to new beauty and vitality unknown in this mortal life. Suffering, sorrow, and separation will be no more. We will once again get to see, touch, hear, smell, and converse with our beloved as fully restored human beings, perfect and beautiful in unimaginable ways, our relationships with them healed and restored. Who would not want that? But that day has not yet arrived. Until it does we must be content that our dead loved ones are taking their rest in their Lord who claimed them from all eternity, safe in his loving care in heaven as they await their new bodies. In the meantime hope remains, the sure and certain expectation of things to come, because Jesus Christ is raised from the dead, announcing God’s promised new reality, helping us to endure the unendurable until that great and glorious day. The hope of resurrections fulfills our deepest longing for restored human relationships shattered by death.

If you are having a hard time imagining this, don’t worry. God’s power and love and beauty, which of course the Resurrection is all about, is hard for us mortal finite humans to imagine. But just because we cannot fully imagine it doesn’t mean it’s not true. This Eastertide, be living signs of God’s new world. Find ways to celebrate and imitate your crucified and risen Lord. And when the news of the day gets to be too much for you so that you find yourself despairing over the state of things in this country and/or your life, remember that Jesus is Lord and the powers of the present order are not (and that’s got nothing to do with politics, my beloved). I’m not talking about platitudes; I am talking about availing yourself to God’s power, a power that not even the darkest powers can overcome. But you can’t do this on your own because you will be overwhelmed by the pervasiveness of the madness of this world. So let us also resolve to remember and declare together that Jesus Christ is Lord and the dark powers that run this world are not. Their day is done, even if they are not fully vanquished. We know Jesus is Lord because he is raised from the dead and lives with God to intercede for us as his people. He calls us to be living signposts—tangible markers in this life pointing to our final destination, not the destination itself—of his healing love and redemption of the entire human race. So let us together as God’s people here at St. Augustine’s resolve anew to embody God’s great love and forgiveness, goodness and righteousness, to a world gone mad. As we do, let us resolve to worship God and the Lamb together in the power of the Holy Spirit and to rejoice in this gift of resurrection life. Let us come to Christ’s table and feed on him and so be strengthened for this arduous task. Let us have generous hearts with which to share the abundance of Christ’s love and blessings. Let us enjoy sweet fellowship together and take care of each other, always welcoming strangers and inviting others to join in the Paschal Feast. And let our worship and fellowship drive a renewed sense of service to a world that so desperately needs to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ. Everything has changed because Christ has died and risen from the dead. Stake your very life on it and be bold in your living and proclamation of this new reality. And let us find ways to announce this Good News to the world, especially during these next fifty days. After all, we have hope for the present, no matter how bleak things become, because we know our future is secure, and not even the gates of hell can rob us of that promise. 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. 

Easter 2024: Saint John Chrysostom on Easter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holy Triduum 2024: 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, I have not made you to be held a prisoner in the underworld. Arise from the dead; I 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 I in you, together we are one undivided person.

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

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

“See the scourging of my back, which I 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.

“I 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; I will reinstate you, no longer in paradise, but on the throne of heaven. I denied you the tree of life, which was a figure, but now I myself am united to you, I who am life. I posted the cherubim to guard you as they would slaves; now I 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.”

Good Friday 2024: From the Sermon Archives—What’s So “Good” About Good Friday?

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 52.13-53.12; Psalm 22; Hebrews 4.14-16, 5.7-9; John 18-19.

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

Remember, LORD, what has happened to us; look, and see our disgrace. You, LORD, reign forever; your throne endures from generation to generation. Why do you always forget us? Why do you forsake us so long? Restore us to yourself, LORD, that we may return; renew our days as of old unless you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure (Lamentations 5.1, 19-22).

The man was dying of cancer and he knew it. As the time of his death approached he became more and more fearful, even though he was a professed and devout Christian. For you see, like the psalmist in Psalm 51 he knew his transgressions only too well and his sin was ever before him, and that terrified him. He personifies the passage from Lamentations that I just read. That passage was written after the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem in 586 BC and burned down God’s Temple, the very place where the Jews believed heaven and earth intersected and God had come to dwell. As the writer makes clear, he and his people wonder if God had forgotten or forsaken them forever because of their sins. Like the man dying of cancer, they too knew their transgressions and their sin was ever before them. They had utterly failed to be the people God called them to be and now they were paying dearly for it. They were faced with the real and awful possibility that the Source and Author of all life had rejected and abandoned them forever, just as he had abandoned his Temple. This too is what the man dying of cancer feared. 

Or take St. Peter in tonight’s gospel lesson. In his bravado he had bragged to Jesus that he would never abandon or desert him, only to do exactly that to save his own skin. In St. Peter, we see all the ugliness of the human condition—pride, fear, cowardice, and loss of integrity. We all can relate to St. Peter because we are just like him. We remember the times we failed to speak up for goodness and justice because we were afraid. We remember the times when we have denied our Lord in word and action because we wanted to be accepted and didn’t want to face the prospect of being ridiculed. Who does? We can relate when the other gospel writers tell us that after this massive collapse of truth, courage, and integrity, especially in the face of his earlier bravado, St. Peter went out and wept bitterly. When you have denied and separated yourself from the one who loves you and who has always been there for you, how can you possibly expect to be forgiven for something like that? It simply does not compute and it makes you afraid. The man dying of cancer surely would have understood. 

And I suspect this is what many, if not most, of us fear. We know our transgressions and our sin is ever before us and that makes us terribly afraid. Each one of us carries secret sins so dark that we are terrified that someone might find out about them. We are convinced that those things are so wrong and so unforgivable that if found out, especially if God finds them out—which of course, God already has—that we will be justly condemned and rejected by God and others forever. Who could ever love someone like us who carry about our dark secrets? And so we usually do one of two things. We sometimes bury our secrets so thoroughly that we forget about them. We do this because the pain of carrying them with us on a daily basis is too great and terrible for us to bear. This strategy, of course, will not work because the knowledge of our repressed sins will continue to bubble up and manifest itself in the form of ongoing guilt or fear or alienation or a host of other psychological and/or physiological disorders, the way they did for the man dying of cancer. Satan uses all this to convince us that we are unlovable or beyond hope, and he will often appeal to our sense of justice. God or others could never love or accept someone as awful as you. 

Or we do what sinful humanity has done since that sad and terrible scene in Garden that we read in Genesis 3. We hide from God or we come out to attack God and rid ourselves of him like the soldiers did in that other garden from tonight’s gospel lesson. We do this because while we know we can keep our darkest secrets hidden from others, we cannot keep them hidden from God and so we seek to attack and destroy him, as utterly futile as that might be. This is what many who reject God in all kinds of ways do. But if we are honest with ourselves, we know that jig is up and that God knows who we really are—and that scares us beyond our ability to describe or cope with. Perhaps you are one of these people I have just described, or some variation of it. Perhaps you are someone like the man dying of cancer who is terrified that you are beyond forgiveness or healing or reconciliation, even as you desperately seek it. If so, I encourage you to hear what God has to say to you in tonight’s Scripture lessons and with the Spirit’s help, really believe it because in it you will find the forgiveness, healing, hope, acceptance, reconciliation, and real peace that you desperately seek. 

This brings us to the title of tonight’s sermon. What’s so “good” about Good Friday. Seen from one perspective, there’s nothing good about this day because all we can see is massive injustice and human cruelty at its finest. We see an innocent man being flogged within an inch of his life. Roman scourging was not just some ordinary beating. It involved using a whip with multiple tails, each have rock, bone, or other sharp materials attached to the end of each tail so that when it hit the flesh, it was designed to flay it open. Often people died from the 39 lashes themselves. But Jesus didn’t. No, he survived not only that but also having a crown of sharp thorns shoved down on his head so that he could be crucified as King of the Jews.

Then there was the crucifixion itself, which none of the four gospels offer any details, but which we know quite a bit about. The victim was taken to the place of execution carrying the crossbeam of his cross on his shoulders and with a placard of the crimes committed around his neck. Crucifixion involved nailing spikes into the victims wrists and then hoisting the crossbeam onto a pole already embedded in the ground onto which the victim’s feet would be nailed. To add to the humiliation, crucified people were stripped naked and then left to die. It was a slow and agonizing death because the weight of the body made it increasing impossible for the victim to breathe so he would have to push up with his feet to relieve the pressure around his lungs and grab some air. This trauma would eventually rupture the sacs of fluid around the lungs and the victim would drown in his own fluid. The whole process could literally take days. It was not a pretty sight to behold but behold it the Jews of Jesus’ day did and it is not unreasonable for us to believe that Jesus would have witnessed others being crucified so that he would have been familiar with its horror before his own crucifixion. But of course, looking at Good Friday in this manner is to look at it only from a human perspective and if that is all you can see, you likely will never understand why it’s called “good” because there is absolutely nothing good in what I have just described. Neither will you ever find the forgiveness and healing you seek.

But this is emphatically not what St. John and the other gospel writers are telling us about Jesus’ crucifixion. That’s why they do not detail his torture; they simply report it happened and that he had to suffer it. Instead, the gospel writers have something much, much better in mind. The massive injustice and extreme human cruelty—and the terrible, dark forces of evil behind it all—were simply means to a greater end. What the gospel writers want us to see in the death of Jesus is that this is how God is putting to rights all that has gone so terribly wrong with his good creation and its people—by becoming human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and taking on the full weight of God’s just and holy wrath on our sins and rebellion so as to spare us from having to experience it. Consequences for our sin often remains, and in some cases we have to deal with those consequences for the rest of our life. But we no longer have to fear bearing God’s terrible judgment on our sin and darkness and the total alienation and separation from God that accompanies that judgment because God himself has borne it for us. The gospel writers, each in his own way, are telling us that Good Friday is the decisive turning point of human history, that God has taken on himself all the awful consequences of sin, evil, and death, and defeated them decisively, but not yet completely (cf. Colossians 2.15). In quite subtle and sophisticated ways, St. John and the other gospel writers are telling us in the crucifixion narratives that the cross has reestablished God’s sovereign rule on earth as in heaven and that in dying for us, Jesus has become Lord. 

But I do not want to focus on the kingdom aspect of the cross tonight. Instead, I want to focus on what must happen if we ever hope to follow Jesus in joyful and willing obedience, even in the face of our own suffering for his sake. For you see, if we ever hope to be a faithful follower of Jesus and do what he commands, we must first be convinced that we are forgiven those terrible and dark secrets we keep hidden and that God really will accept us for who we are (but who also loves us enough not to let us stay where we are). In other words, we have to be convinced that God really has made it possible for us to be reconciled to him so that we can have our relationship with him and others restored and enjoy real peace with God and others. When we know, really know, that God loves us despite who we are, that not even our darkest sins will keep us separated from God and his love for us, and that God will never abandon us, despite our massive rebellion against him, all the guilt, fear, and despair that we deal with and dehumanizes us will go away and we will find real healing and the wonder of forgiveness that is really undeserved. Without God’s forgiveness, without him bearing the consequences of our sin and the evil it produces, we can never hope to love or follow him in his kingdom work. We will be too busy dealing with our own guilt and despair.

We see God bearing the consequences of our sin and the forgiveness that flows from that illustrated in several places in our gospel narrative tonight and here I will point out just two. First, we see the innocent Jesus bearing the consequences of Barabbas, a murderer and insurrectionist. Barabbas, representing sinful humanity that deserves nothing but God’s wrath and condemnation, goes free while God himself bears his (and our) punishment. This explains the horror that Jesus the man felt in the garden of Gethsemane, which St. John does not report but which the other gospel writers do. We watch him sweating blood as he agonizes over having to bear the consequences of all the world’s evil and sin. It also explains the cry of dereliction in St. Matthew and St. Mark’s gospels. The terrible consequences of having to bear the weight of all our sin was so awful that for the first time Jesus knew what it was like to be separated from God, just like we do when our sin separates us from God. But if we stop there we miss the point. In bearing the consequences of our sin, God offers us forgiveness! We are not beyond hope! Jesus suffered God’s abandonment so that we would never have to worry about that again—ever! 

Second, in St. John’s gospel we also see God’s forgiveness offered in Jesus’ last words on the cross. “It is finished.” What is “it” that was finished? St. John, always conscious of the creation narratives in Genesis, is telling us that the conditions for the new creation have been established by the Creator God himself embodied in Jesus. On Friday, the sixth day of the week in which he created humans and declared things to be very good, God himself has defeated evil, sin, and death by bearing the collective weight of human sin himself, thus taking care of the necessary conditions for forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation to be offered, the very things needed for us to follow Jesus in his kingdom work. All this is why we call Good Friday “good.”

And so we return to our story of the man dying from cancer. Without Good Friday, he would indeed be without hope, as would all of us. But Good Friday has come and the course of human history has been changed. Because of that, I was able to ask him what he was going to do with St. Paul’s great statement in Romans 8.1, “[Because of the cross] there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Either you are in Christ through faith or you are not. Either you believe the truth or you do not. Fortunately the dying man was able to wrestle with this and found forgiveness, healing and peace before he died. He was able to know that the love of God manifested on the cross is far greater than even his darkest and manifold sins and he died in the peace of God, thanks be to God!

What about you? Are you struggling tonight with issues of failure and darkness? Are you allowing Satan to whisper in your ear that you are no good and beyond any hope for God to love someone like you? Do you suffer guilt or fear or despair or alienation because like the dying man or the people of Jerusalem you don’t believe that God could possibly love the likes of you? Do you desperately seek healing and reconciliation with the Source and Author of all life but are afraid that you will get wrath and judgment instead? If so, listen to the stories of Jesus’ crucifixion and really come to grips with it. Dare to believe the great love you see poured out for you. Dare to believe that like Barabbas, Jesus is taking your place on the cross. Dare to hear the gracious words of Isaiah and Hebrews in tonight’s lessons that by his wounds you are healed and that you do not have to live life alone and afraid because you have God’s very Spirit living in you and shaping you slowly into the human God created you to be. Dare to believe the truth of St. Paul’s statement that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus and understand there are no exceptions to the great truth. None. Then let the healing forgiveness that you see flow from Christ’s side on the cross flow down on you so that by the power of the Spirit you might know what real healing and forgiveness are all about, just the way the dying man did and countless others have. Don’t succumb to the lies of the Evil One or your own broken fears. Look on the cross of Calvary and realize the one who is dying there is none other than God himself and he is doing so because he desperately wants you to feel his healing love and forgiveness so that he can equip you to help him bring in his kingdom and promised new creation. A God like that will never abandon you or remain aloof from your problems and hurts. And when, by God’s grace, you finally know what’s good about Good Friday, you really will have Good News, now and for all eternity. I pray that God grant each of us the grace to accept without reservation the wondrous love he offers to the whole world on Calvary.

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

Palm Sunday 2024: From the Sermon Archives—Palm Sunday and Holy Week: God’s Word for the Weary

Sermon originally delivered on Passion (Palm) Sunday, April 9, 2017.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 50.4-9a; Psalm 31.9-16; Philippians 2.5-11; Matthew 21.1-11. Passion narrative: Matthew 26.14-27.66.

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

In our OT lesson this morning, the so-called Servant—widely held by Christians to be Jesus—desires to faithfully preach the word of God to sustain the weary. But what does that look like and what does it have to do with our celebration of Passion Sunday today? This is what I want us to look at briefly this morning.

To help us understand what we’re dealing with, listen to this short list of news stories compiled from the past couple of days. Father Says Goodbye to His Baby Twins Killed in Syrian Attack. MIT Grad Arrested on Terror, WMD Charges. US Launches Missile Strikes on Syria Base Over Chemical Attack. 1 Dead, 2 Wounded After Shooting at Fitness Center in South Florida Mall. Terror in Stockholm: Four Dead as Hijacked Truck Plows Into Shoppers. Palm Sunday Bombings at Two Egyptian Churches kill at least 32. 11 Year-Old Boy Kills Himself in Response to Girlfriend’s Fake Suicide Prank on Social Media. I have to tell you. These stories and countless more like them make me weary. How about you? And they don’t even begin to address the things in our own lives that make us weary: life-threatening health issues with which we and/or our loved ones struggle, job and career struggles and uncertainties, chronic financial struggles that some of us face, fear of loneliness and broken relationships that don’t seem to get better. The list goes on and on. We see a world seemingly becoming more insane by the hour, not to mention parts of our lives that spin out of control with little or nothing we can do about it, and it makes us weary and afraid. When we get to this point in life—and all of us eventually do—we want to cry out to God for help. You’re all-powerful, God, so help us out here. Do something about the craziness in your world and in our lives and in ourselves!

Like us, God’s people Israel in Jesus’ day knew what it was like to be weary from evil and oppression and disorder in their lives. Their beloved land was occupied by hated foreigners. And while Solomon’s Temple, the very place where God chose to dwell with his people on earth, had been rebuilt, God had not returned to his people to live among them as promised. Neither had God’s promised Anointed One, God’s Messiah (or Christ) returned to lead God’s people. To top it all off, God’s people were assembling in Jerusalem for the great Passover festival that celebrated God’s mighty act of deliverance on behalf of his enslaved people in Egypt. Passover always raised people’s hopes and expectations that God would soon act on their behalf to expel the foreigners and restore right religious order in the land in preparation for God’s return to it.

St. Matthew wants us to see all this, of course, and like a good story teller, he lets the story itself convey his message. Jesus clearly saw himself as God’s Messiah, God’s anointed, who would lead God’s people and be their king. But not in the way the people expected. We see this in his choice to ride on a donkey and colt as he entered Jerusalem. As St. Matthew explains, this was to fulfill what the prophet Zechariah had written about how God’s promised Messiah would return to his people ahead of God’s return. In effect, God was promising his people that when his Messiah showed up, God wouldn’t be far behind, so it was time to get ready! And the people’s response clearly showed they understood the symbolism behind Jesus’s mode of entry into Jerusalem, or at least that he was proclaiming himself to be God’s Messiah. Their shouts of Hosanna to the Son of David (i.e., for the new king to save them from their occupiers), coupled with throwing their cloaks on the road and waving (presumably palm) branches, indicated that they understood something very special was happening. But did they really?

By choosing a donkey on which to enter Jerusalem instead of a warhorse, Jesus was proclaiming that he was not a Messiah who would be a conquering warrior. To be sure, Jesus did conquer Israel’s enemies that week, not to mention the world’s, but not in the way most of them or us expected. He conquered our enemies by shedding his blood for us in a way that helped fulfill the prophesy in our OT lesson this morning (cf. Isaiah 52.13-53.12). More about that in a moment. And while Jesus would clear the Temple later in the week, it was not for the reasons many of his contemporaries expected. As St. John makes clear in his gospel, this was the Word made flesh, God himself, returning to his people to announce that Jesus, instead of the Temple, would be the place to meet and know the One True and Living God. Astonishingly, God and Messiah were apparently one and the same! By his actions, Jesus was telling God’s people Israel that the Romans were not the real enemies. There were powers far more evil and sinister that had to be dealt with, and only he could do it because only he was God. Suffice it to say that this would not have been the word God’s weary people wanted to hear or what they were willing to believe. It would have violated their hopes and expectations to their very core.

Now if you want to have folks turn on you, and ferociously, all you need to do is to violate their deeply-held expectations. Do this and you can be assured that you will go from hero to villain in no time flat, and this is exactly what happened to Jesus. But violated expectations about Jesus are not unique to first-century Jews. They also apply to us. Like Jesus’ contemporaries, we cry out to the Lord to save us and our world and we expect him to answer in the way we want and demand because, well, we know better than Jesus. This is the challenge of Palm Sunday and Holy Week for us. Can we worship and follow a God and his Christ who constantly violate our expectations in how they should act to rescue us from the chaos and evil in God’s world, our lives, and ourselves? Will we let God’s word to us, spoken through an unfolding story, a story that reached its climax with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and the subsequent events of Holy Week, be sufficient to relieve and sustain us in our weariness?

We would prefer God to bring in the tanks and destroy the forces of evil and their human minions, but God knows better because he knows evil runs through all of us. To destroy evil means God would have to destroy us and his entire creation because we are all that radically infected, and God simply won’t do that. So bringing in the tanks just won’t do. There has to be another way, a better way that shows God’s love for his world and its creatures, especially God’s image-bearing creatures. The better way, of course, was through Jesus’ death and resurrection. In one way or another, the NT writers all insist that on the cross, God broke the power of Sin and Evil. As we have seen this Lent, the power of Sin—the outside, alien force that is greater than and hostile toward us—had to be broken and God did that by condemning Sin in the flesh through his Son (Romans 8.3-4), who willingly obeyed his Father’s will because both love us and hate what Sin and Evil have done to us. So God acted on our behalf in and through Christ to free us from the power of Sin and Evil, and to take his own good and just judgment of our individual sins on himself, thereby enacting the justice that is so necessary, thanks be to God!

But this is hard for us to believe because as our headlines scream out (not to mention the turmoil in our lives) the power of Evil, while broken, is not yet fully vanquished. That will have to wait until our Lord’s Second Coming. But the powers of Evil, Sin, and Death have been broken and defeated as evidenced by Jesus’ resurrection (more about that next Sunday), and we are called to imitate our Lord in his suffering and humble obedience to the Father as Paul reminds us in our epistle lesson. We are to empty ourselves of our own false glory and live our lives in ways that show God’s glory revealed in his great love, mercy, compassion, and justice. In other words, we are called to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow our Lord Jesus. Only then can we reflect God’s glory out into God’s world as we await our Lord’s return. It is a daunting task, precisely because it seems so counterintuitive to the ways of the world, and if we do not have real faith that begins to appropriate God’s strange and beautiful Truth contained in the events of Holy Week, we’ll never have the needed motivation to want to live this kind of life in the power of the Spirit.

This is why I appeal to you and exhort you to make the story of Holy Week your story first-hand. Come with our Lord to the Upper Room Thursday night where he will give his disciples a meal as the means to help them understand what his impending passion and death is all about. Watch with him in the garden as he struggles and shrinks from the gigantic task of allowing the powers of evil to do their worst to him, and the prospect of having to bear the judgment of God for the sins of the entire world, your sins and mine. Our own personal sins can be a terrible burden to us. Try to imagine having to bear the sins of the entire world. Come, therefore, and venerate the cross on Good Friday as you ponder and contemplate the death of the Son of God for your sake and the sake of the world. Such contemplation demands silence, desolation, and humility. Was there ever any suffering like our Lord’s (and if you answer yes to this question, there’s a good chance you don’t really understand the magnitude of what happened on Good Friday)? Grieve with his first followers as they laid his tortured and crucified body in the tomb with no expectation of Easter Sunday. Holy Saturday is the time to do just that, culminating with the Easter Vigil and the reading of the story of God’s salvation on Saturday evening. It simply won’t do to observe any of this from afar. It’s as unedifying as listening to one of Father Gatwood’s sermons. No, if you really love your Lord and have even an inkling as to what great love has effected your salvation and changed the course of history forever, how can you possibly stay away from our Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Vigil services? Easter Sunday will come with its great joy. But let none of us be too hasty to celebrate the great Paschal Feast without first pondering and agonizing and reflecting on the great and astonishing love of God that flows from God’s very heart as it was pierced by a Roman soldier’s spear. To be sure, it isn’t a pretty or fun thing to do. But if you commit yourself to walking with Jesus this Holy Week it will change you in ways you cannot imagine or envision, and for the good. It will change you because it is the Good News of our salvation, now and for all eternity. May we all observe a holy and blessed Holy Week together as God’s people at St. Augustine’s. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

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

Lent 2024: From the Sermon Archives: Dare We Party During Lent?

Sermon originally preached on Laetare Sunday, March 27, 2022.

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.

From the Sermon Archives: Grace, Guilt, Gratitude: A Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2024

Sermon delivered on Ash Wednesday, 2021

Lectionary texts: Joel 2.1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51; 2 Corinthians 5.20b-6.10; John 8.1-11.

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

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the 40 day season we call Lent. It is a time for self-examination, penitence, self-denial, study, and preparation for Easter. Our Commination Service earlier today reminded us that something is terribly amiss in God’s world and our lives, that without the love, mercy, goodness, justice, and power of God, we remain hopelessly alienated from God and each other because we are all slaves to the power of Sin, that outside and malevolent power that is too strong for any of us to resist on our own power. And if we are not reconciled to God, we are undone forever in ways too terrible for us to imagine. Lent therefore is a time for us to focus not so much on ourselves but on the power of God manifested most clearly in the cross of our Lord Jesus. So tonight I want us to look at the dynamic of forgiveness and reconciliation that God the Father makes available to all through the work of God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, the interaction of grace, guilt, and gratitude. Until we understand this dynamic and what we are up against, we can never hope to observe a holy Lent (and beyond).

If we ever hope to be reconciled to God our Father so that we can live with him forever, we must first acknowledge our utter helplessness to fix ourselves so that we are no longer alienated from God. This means that we must first have the wisdom and humility (signs of God’s grace) to acknowledge the fact that we are all slaves to the power of Sin, that malevolent power that was unleashed in God’s good world when our first human ancestors rebelled in paradise. Too often we speak of our sins and think of them as misdeeds or acts of wrongdoing, the root cause of our alienation to God. This diminishes the problem of Sin to an absurdly reductionist level. This thinking implies that we can get right with God by simply adjusting our behavior or changing our thinking on certain things or making better choices—the current darling of excuses for our feel good culture. This is a fatal mistake on our part, however, because it implies that we can fix ourselves and our problems, that if we repent of our bad choices or thinking or behavior, our sin problem with God goes away. But the whole of Scripture makes very clear that there is something vastly more sinister going on. There is something desperately wrong in the world and our lives and we know it in our bones if we have the courage to be honest with ourselves. We don’t have the ability to defeat the power of Sin in our lives and we delude ourselves if we think otherwise. Don’t believe me? How are you doing with your new year’s resolutions seven weeks on? Or how about those sins you confess? I bet you never do them again after you confess them, do you? Or how about your resolution to do better in your life? How is that working out for you? Try as we may, if we are honest with ourselves, we must acknowledge that our efforts matter very little when it comes to turning away from our sins. Why? Because we are up against a power that is far greater than us, a power that seeks our destruction and undoing as God’s image-bearers, a power that must ultimately lead to our permanent death. The sins that we focus on are not the root cause of our alienation from God. Rather, just as a fever is a symptom of a larger problem, not the problem itself, our sins reflect our slavery to the power of Sin, again defined as an outside and malevolent force that has enslaved us. We acknowledged this very starkly in our Commination Service this noon when we acknowledged that without the cross of Jesus Christ and his presence in our lives, we are condemned to utter and complete destruction forever. This should both humble us and scare the hell out of us—literally. Until we get our thinking straight on this, we will surely have and live out a half-hearted faith (at best) because we live under the delusion that we can fix ourselves so that we are pleasing to God and set ourselves up for a self-righteousness complex. When we think like this, we inevitably dismiss the cross of Jesus Christ and the life-saving gift God the Father offers us all in and through his Son. But when we understand that Sin is a power we cannot overcome on our power and there is nothing we can do or say that will change our status before God, we are ready to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ, crucified and raised from the dead.

This calls for us to be sober in our thinking about the power of Sin and see it as God sees it—a force that corrupts and destroys God’s precious image-bearers and good creation. This is why God hates Sin and this is why we can expect to receive God’s wrath on our sins: they are symptoms of the problem that God hates. God is first and foremost a God of love and if that is true, God must also be a God of justice. Why? Because God cannot and will not ultimately allow anything or anyone in his creation to continue corrupting it and his image-bearing creatures. God loves us too much to allow us to be victims of injustice and all the evil that flows from the power of Sin. Since we are powerless to break Sin’s grip on us, and since God is the only person who can free us from our slavery to it, God must intervene to destroy Sin and set things right, the very essence of justice. Otherwise, we would be doomed to be forever in Sin’s grip, catastrophically and permanently separated from God’s eternal love for us and excluded from God’s great heavenly banquet he has prepared for us so that we can enjoy him forever. It means that we would forever be trapped in our worst selves and that violence, greed, selfishness, cruelty, rapacity, suffering, hurt, brokenness, and alienation would continue to rule unchecked in our lives and God’s world. If God really is love, God cannot let this state of affairs go on forever, and when we understand this we can begin to see God’s justice as a positive thing. If we are going to follow God, we have to be sure that God loves us enough and has the requisite power to put all things to rights. To be sure, punishment is involved in this making-right process, but the overall thrust of God’s justice is restorative and healing because the heart of God is merciful, kind, generous, and loving. God does not create us to destroy us (What parent looks at his/her newborn baby for the first time with the intent of destroying it? The notion is absurd. If we fallen humans don’t think like this, why would God? Makes no sense!!); God created us so that we can enjoy him and rule his world faithfully and wisely on his behalf. 

This knowledge will also help us think clearly about the dynamic of repentance and forgiveness. As we have seen, because we are helpless to free ourselves from our slavery to the power of Sin, our repentance is not enough to reconcile us to God because we will continue to sin even with repentance. Repent or not, unless our slavery to Sin is broken, we are doomed to continue living in the power of Sin. This is the guilt part of the dynamic or repentance and forgiveness. We see this clearly in our OT and gospel lessons tonight. The prophet calls God’s people together to collectively repent of their sin of idolatry, the worship of false gods that inevitably leads to all kinds of sins that will provoke God’s anger and wrath (idolatry is a primary sin because sooner or later we become what we worship). If God’s people turn away from (or repent of) worshiping false gods and turn to the one true God, then there was hope that God might relent on executing his wrath on his sinful people. Here we are reminded that we dare not presume God’s mercy on us, that God is free to show us wrath or mercy quite independently of what we resolve to do (or not do). In other words, God’s mercy is not contingent on repentance. The prophet believes God will be merciful because God has revealed his character to his people: God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. If God relents on punishing his people for their idolatry, it will be because of who God is, not because God’s people have repented. 

Likewise in our gospel lesson. Notice that our Lord forgives the adulterous woman before calling her to repentance (go and sin no more). In this case God the Son showed mercy before the woman changed her behavior, reflecting the heart and character of his Father. This is the grace part of the grace, guilt, and gratitude dynamic of forgiveness and reconciliation between God and humans. Grace—God’s undeserved blessing, goodness, bounty, mercy, and forgiveness on us—precedes our awareness of sin, not vice-versa. This is because God’s character is eternal, preceding our slavery to Sin. In fact, without God tugging at our heart and mind, we would be unaware that we are alienated from God and stand under God’s just condemnation of our sin. Why? Because sin is a theological concept. People whose lives are devoid of God have no awareness that their behavior is offensive to God and that they are slaves to Sin’s power. Don’t believe me? Just check out Twitter or listen to the extreme rhetoric of self-righteousness that accompanies the sense of warped justice that invariably accompanies human thinking and behavior without the intervention of God. Simply put, if the Holy Spirit is at work in us he will make us aware of our awful unmediated state before God and our own sinfulness, our awareness of his Presence not withstanding. But here’s the thing. The moment we become aware of our sin captivity, we are already standing in God’s grace, ready to receive God’s healing love, mercy, and forgiveness because of God’s eternal nature! We see this dynamic expressed powerfully in the old favorite hymn, Amazing Grace. John Newton, who wrote the hymn, was a slave trader whose eyes were opened to the wickedness of his sin by God’s grace. He was a wretch who was saved, a man lost but now found, by the grace of God that preceded his evil deeds, a grace that called him to repentance. God’s grace always precedes our repentance because God and God’s character always precede us. God makes us aware of our slavery to Sin and the chasm it creates so that we will turn to him and let him heal and rescue us from our slavery.

And how did/does God do this? In the cross of Jesus Christ as St. Paul reminds us in our epistle lesson. Here is the essence of the Good News of Jesus Christ. God became human to suffer his own just and right punishment on our sin and wickedness himself so that God could spare us from suffering his wrath and eternal condemnation that would lead to our destruction. In the process the power of Sin is broken in us, only partially in this life but fully in the next (a topic for a different day and sermon). Our knowledge of the power of Sin and our slavery to it makes us realize that we don’t deserve this kindness and mercy. None of us do. But it is ours for the taking if we only have the humility and wisdom to believe it to be true, despite the fact that we cannot fully explain how God accomplished this all in the cross of Christ. But because we believe that Scripture is the word of God, we believe the promise to be true. God’s undeserved mercy, grace, love, and forgiveness lead us to a sense of profound and deep relief and gratitude because we realize we are no longer under God’s just condemnation and there is not a thing we did to deserve it. This is the gratitude part of the dynamic of God reconciling us to himself in Christ. We see it powerfully illustrated in our gospel lesson and we should take our cue from it. Imagine you are the woman who was dragged before Christ. You know your sin because you know God’s law; God has made himself known to you through it. And so you expect the worst, a death sentence for your sin of adultery. You are braced to feel the stones strike your body, slowly and painfully killing you (not unlike our sin does to us over the course of time). And then comes a remarkable surprise. Jesus pronounces you not guilty, despite that fact the he and you both know you are guilty of an awful sin. You have experienced God’s mercy and forgiveness, not because of who you are, but because of who God is. How would you feel? Stunned? Relieved? Grateful? All of the above and more, no doubt! He tells you to go and sin no more (he calls you to repent of your adultery), but his forgiveness is not contingent on that. Certainly the vast majority of us would be grateful for this reprieve and our gratitude would likely serve as ongoing motivation for leaving the adulterous life. She, like us, would certainly have to recall her sin and the great gift of forgiveness because life, well, gets in our way and distracts us so that we forget. That’s why we recall our sins and God’s mercy shown to us in Christ, not to make us feel bad (although that is really unavoidable on occasion), but to make us remember the love, mercy, grace, and faithfulness of God applied to our wickedness. When the woman remembered Christ’s intervention on her behalf, was she grateful? Did her gratitude help motivate her to repentance? We aren’t told, but our own experience suggests that it can and does, and this is what God desires from us. In this story, Christ does not tell us to suspend moral judgment by challenging those who brought the woman to him. Instead, he was exposing their hypocrisy and evil intent to trap him. In doing so, he was able to show mercy to the woman caught in adultery, calling her to repentance and giving her the motivation we all need to live our lives in imitation of our Lord and Savior, the essence of repentance and faithful living. 

This is what it means to observe a holy Lent and beyond, my beloved. We are called to reflect on the fruit of the dynamic of repentance and forgiveness in our lives. We are called to understand that to be reconciled to God means trusting in the power, mercy, love, and character of God revealed supremely in Jesus Christ and not our own perceived (and often delusional) abilities to make ourselves right with God. It means we see clearly the truth about the human condition and our standing before God without the intervention of Christ. We needn’t fear the truth because the truth always sets us free to love and serve the Lord, thanking him for his love and kindness and justice, and asking his mercy and forgiveness when we miss the mark as we attempt to imitate him in the power of the Spirit as we live out our lives together. May we all observe a holy Lent and sing God’s praises with grateful hearts forever and ever. 

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

A Sermon for Epiphanytide 2024: More Than We Can Hope For or Imagine

From the sermon archives. Originally preached on Sunday, January 16, 2022.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 62.1-5; Psalm 36.5-10; 1 Corinthians 12.1-11; St. John 2.1-11.

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

What are we to make of that strange but compelling story about Christ changing water into wine at a wedding in Cana? What might we learn from it as Christians who seek to be faithful disciples of our Lord in a world going increasingly mad? This is what I want us to look at this morning.

We come to our gospel lesson by way of our OT lesson. In it we note the desperation in the prophet’s voice as he resolves to give God no rest until God makes good on his promise to restore his people. In last week’s OT lesson—which Tucker ignored because he’s a Loser and likes to make my preaching job more difficult, but I digress—God himself had promised to end his people’s exile in Babylon and restore them to the promised land (Is 43.1-7). Now here we are, several chapters later in Isaiah, and God had apparently not fulfilled his promise to Israel to end their exile. And we all get what this is about because we too are waiting for God to consummate his promises to us in Jesus Christ. Simply put, between the increasingly insane demands and lies of wokery, the strident language coming from our leaders, and the ever-increasing division, rancor, and lawlessness in this nation, we are flat worn out. Now depending on how we view God—whether we think God is fundamentally for or against us—this waiting can cause us to lose hope and/or stop believing that the promises of God to liberate us and his good creation from the powers of Evil, Sin, and Death are true. Neither is a good choice for us as Christians because then we are effectively calling God a liar. Others of us want to roll up our sleeves and work harder to bring in the Kingdom on earth as in heaven to get things moving in the right direction. Notice carefully that Isaiah did none of these things. Instead, he resolved to persevere in prayer like the persistent widow in Jesus’ parable (Lk 18.1-8).

Why am I spending time with this? Because if we lose hope or stop believing the promises of God or attempt to take matters into our own hands, we will eventually be defeated by the dark powers and/or our own fallen nature. If in the end we do not have a vision of God’s new heavens and earth that is robust enough and extravagant enough to help motivate us to keep our eyes on the prize, our faith will always be in danger of being broken by the next setback or catastrophe that strikes us or the world in which we live. And we all get why this is a problem. Think about that prize in your life on which you set your sights, be it work or school or athletics or love or fame or whatever. It was/is big enough and compelling enough for you to do whatever you had/have to do to achieve it. You probably were/are wiling to endure any setback, persevere against all odds, and sacrifice mightily to achieve your prized goal. We need to strive likewise in our faith journey to help keep it strong and vibrant. As our Lord Jesus was fond of reminding us in many of his parables, if we are content to pursue the lesser things of life, how much more should we pursue the greater things of life, like eternal life in God’s new creation? 

And now we are ready to turn to our gospel lesson today because it is the prize on which every Christian should set his/her sights, a foretaste of what is in store for us as God’s beloved and redeemed children in Christ. Before we begin, I want to clarify that when I just talked about pursuing a prized goal, I was certainly not suggesting that we are responsible for our salvation. Nothing could be further from the truth as we saw last week when we looked at the grace of baptism. Salvation comes solely from the Lord, but it does require a response—after all, faith is more than a set of convictions, it demands a response—and if we stop believing the promises of salvation in Jesus Christ, we no longer have the ultimate prize to look forward to because without Christ we are no longer God’s redeemed children. 

In our gospel lesson, then, we see the first of seven “signs” in St. John’s gospel, seven being the biblical number for completeness. Signs in St. John’s gospel refer to Jesus’ miracles, but they are not just supernatural acts. They are significant acts that point us to something greater. Here we see the astonishing extravagance of God manifested in Christ at this wedding in Cana. The wine has run out, a social catastrophe that could have serious legal consequences for the host, and the mother of our Lord asks him to rectify the situation. Please observe carefully that nothing happened until the servants obeyed Mary’s command to, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2.5). Remember that. At first our Lord apparently rebuffs his mother’s request (more about that later), but ultimately he delivers a whopper, producing the equivalent of 600-900 bottles of the finest wine! 

So what is St. John trying to tell us? Among the many things we could talk about, first we note the theme of the wedding/marriage covenant, a biblical theme that denotes the gracious call of God to his people Israel in the OT and ultimately to all people in and through Jesus Christ. Of course this covenant also describes the intimate relationship between God and his people, a relationship broken by Israel’s sins and ours. No relationship in all creation is more intimate than the relationship between a husband and wife at its best. It is the restoration of this relationship that the prophet sees as the fulfillment of God’s promises for his people in our OT lesson (Isaiah 62.4-5). What could be better news for hurting and broken people who are alienated from God and each other, then and now, than to hear that God loves us as his spouse despite our infidelity? In this wedding/marriage theme we find security, belonging, protection, forgiveness, and healing, among others. And we are encouraged to embrace the love of God for us made manifest in his Son Jesus Christ and to be made new again in our relationship with Christ in and through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Of course, the wedding feast is an integral part of a wedding where we celebrate the newly-formed union of husband and wife because weddings are meant to be public affairs. Scripture celebrates likewise with its various images of the wedding feast or Messianic banquet where God’s people will celebrate their union with their rescuer and savior, the Messiah, whom Christians know to be Jesus of Nazareth. This theme is by no means an exclusive NT theme. Listen to this description of God’s great future banquet from an earlier chapter of Isaiah, a passage that is frequently read at funerals:

In Jerusalem, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies will spread a wonderful feast for all the people of the world. It will be a delicious banquet with clear, well-aged wine and choice meat. There he will remove the cloud of gloom, the shadow of death that hangs over the earth. He will swallow up death forever! The Sovereign Lord will wipe away all tears. He will remove forever all insults and mockery against his land and people. The Lord has spoken! In that day the people will proclaim, “This is our God! We trusted in him, and he saved us! This is the Lord, in whom we trusted. Let us rejoice in the salvation he brings!” (Isaiah 25.6-9, NLT)

We note here the extravagance of God’s grace and generous heart on display like it was when Jesus turned the water into wine. People of the world will gather at God’s banquet to celebrate their liberation from all the darkness of this world and to feast on the finest, well-aged wine and choicest meat, symbols of God’s good creation. None of us deserve an invitation but God invites us anyway. And those who have the good sense to accept the invitation will celebrate the end of their exile and enjoy no second-rate food and drink—we are not talking metaphor here—but the finest food and drink from God’s storehouse of grace. St. John is pointing us to the same promise in our gospel lesson this morning, thus he calls Jesus’ action a “sign.” As the psalmist proclaimed in our lesson, God gives us drink from the river of his delights (Ps 36.8)!

Second, we note that in providing this finest wine Jesus tacitly approves things that make life meaningful and pleasant: relationships, sexual fidelity in the context of marriage, community, hospitality, meals, family, and celebration, to name a few. Contra to those who look for every reason to make our relationship with Christ a lifeless, dour, and grim experience, our Lord will have none of that nonsense in this story. When we are redeemed and healed by Christ, we have no reason to be dour and stingy. Christ gives our mortal life meaning and purpose, even as we live in the darkness of a fallen world and our sinful desires. When we love each other and work at developing healthy and wholesome relationships with all kinds of people, especially the people of God, the promise of this story is that we will find abundance and delight in doing so because we obey Christ. Engaging in the above activities is part of living the abundant life our Lord told us he came to bring (Jn 10.10). Nothing else will do it for us. No one other than Christ can give us the joy of love and the delight found in giving generously of our time, talents, and resources for the sake of others. To be sure, there is plenty in this world to make us sad and beat us down. But the hope and promise of having a real and lively relationship with our risen Lord can overcome the darkest darkness because it reminds us that life, wholeness, health, goodness, and abundance are the reality, not scarcity, sickness, alienation, hurt, or death, thanks be to God! Can I hear an Amen??

Last, the foretaste of the Messianic banquet that will be ongoing in God’s new creation reminds us to keep our eyes on Jesus the prize because the ordinary things of this life will be transformed when he returns and made more beautiful and abundant than we can ever imagine, just like the new wine Jesus made. Think about the most beautiful things you’ve ever seen—husbands, this is a good time to turn to your wife and tell her she is that most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen, it’s a good old-creation, anti-doghouse practice—and then try to imagine things more beautiful and abundant than that, i.e., try to imagine the unimaginable. This will give you a clue as to what awaits us in God’s new heavens and earth. I don’t know all that that entails, but I do know that our resurrected bodies will be inexpressibly beautiful and without defect or sickness or any kind of malady. We will drink the finest wines without becoming intoxicated and we won’t desire to become intoxicated because we will be enjoying unbroken communion and fellowship with God the Father and the Lamb. There won’t be an addictive or lonely bone in our new body. The intimacy we enjoy only partly now, we will enjoy in full then. We won’t worry about being unloved or abandoned by God or others because we will be living in the light of God’s presence and the Lamb’s forever! I’m sure my puny imagination does not do justice to God’s new heavens and earth in trying to describe our future life. But one thing is certain, we get a glimpse and foretaste of the extravagant love and generosity of God in this first sign at Cana. 

Our future, of course, is made possible by the final sign in St. John’s gospel. Spectacular as this first sign is, the most powerful sign of Jesus is his death and resurrection, where the dark powers are broken and our slavery to Sin with its attendant sickness and alienation are forever destroyed. When Jesus told his mother that his hour had not yet come, he wasn’t pointing to his death, but later in the gospel this was the hour about which he consistently spoke, the hour that couldn’t happen before its time. Without Christ and his sacrificial death and resurrection, we have no future on which to keep our eyes focused because we would still be living in our sin and death would therefore remain unconquered (it’s no coincidence that St. John tells us this creation of new wine happened on the third day). Without Christ’s death and resurrection we would have no motivation to live in the manner he calls us to live. Thankfully, because of God’s extravagant love for us, we do have a real future and hope to sustain us in the midst of our darkness and sorrow (cf. Jeremiah 29.11). When we obey Christ, we allow ourselves to live life and live it in the abundance of God’s extravagant love and grace first revealed by our Lord at Cana. 

So what’s this all mean for us as Christians? First, as St. Paul reminds us in our epistle lesson, we are to celebrate in ongoing and diverse ways the gifts of healing, wholeness, and life given us by God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is no reason for any Christian to live a joyless life, even in the midst of sorrow. Having a joy that is not contingent on the circumstances of life will go a long way in helping us deal with our sorrows when they come. 

Second, we get a taste of the future real deal (new creation) each week when we come to the Table and feast on our Lord. That’s why we serve you fine port wine and bread. It mirrors imperfectly Christ’s banquet in the new creation where bitterness is no more. When you take in Jesus at the eucharist, he should be sweet to your palate and leave you wanting more because of Who he is and what he has done for you. And here’s a little self-check to help you assess your hope in Christ: As you return from the Lord’s Table and/or when you leave worship, would people mistake you for wedding guests or party goers? If not, I challenge you to examine your new creation theology because chances are it is lacking in significant ways. 

Last, it means we are to take our relationship with each other seriously and celebrate those relationships, along with our relationship with God, whenever we can. How we treat each other as family members matters to our Lord and it should matter to us. The relationships we enjoy are part of God’s extravagant love for us and we are called to both celebrate them and take them seriously. They help us flourish as God’s human image-bearers!

Let us therefore continue to pray for God’s kingdom to come in full on earth as it is in heaven and for Christ to give us the grace to be obedient to him so that we will never turn his extravagant wine into water on our watch. After all, the only reason we have to celebrate is God’s extravagant and gracious love for us made known supremely in Christ and him crucified. So go celebrate God’s Good News in Christ and make others wonder what is your secret so you can explain it to them. Maybe even invite them to have a glass of the finest wine with you at the wedding feast of which you are a part so that they too can experience the new eschatological joy you do. In doing so you will also find it to be the needed balm for your soul to help you transcend the death-dealing and soul-destroying business as usual of this world that wears us all out. Keep your eyes on the prize who is Jesus and dare to imagine the unimaginable world he promises to usher in, God’s new world that defies and transcends our deepest longings. To Christ be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

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