Bishop Julian Dobbs: Read It and Believe

Sermon delivered on Easter 2A, Sunday, April 19, 2020 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

The bishop has been bitten by the Father Bowser, “I can’t produce a written text for my sermon” bug. So if you want to listen to his excellent sermon, you will have to click here.

Lectionary texts: Acts 2.14a, 22-32, Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1.3-9; St. John 20.19-31.

What’s the Resurrection to You?

Sermon delivered on Easter Sunday A, April 12, 2020 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: Acts 10.34-43; Easter Anthems; Colossians 3.1-4; St. Matthew 28.1-10.

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

Today we celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. But what should it mean to us Christians? What does it mean to you? This is what I want us to look at this morning. In St. Matthew’s account of the Resurrection, we find a chaotic scene, one mixed with fear and shock and joy. St. Matthew tells us of a dazzling angelic presence and earthquakes, of guards passing out from fear, of a strange command given, and of women running to and fro. A strange story indeed! What is going on here? Before we look at these questions, let us be clear that this story would have been no less strange to first century ears than it is to ours. We needn’t look any further than the women’s reaction to understand this. Contrary to what many seem to think, the women had come to Jesus’ tomb, not expecting him to be raised from the dead but to visit his grave and mourn his death, just like we do when we visit the graves of our loved ones. Instead, they got something quite different. While many Jews in the first century believed in a general resurrection of the dead at the end of history, nobody believed or expected a one-off event would happen in the midst of it. But this is exactly what they were told had happened with Jesus and it was terrifying and incomprehensible to them, at least initially. In reporting these events, St. Matthew surely was aware that he was reporting strange things indeed and that his report would be met with skepticism by many, especially because it was based on the testimony of women who had little cred as witnesses. So if you are one this morning who cannot imagine these things happening as St. Matthew reported them, he would surely understand.

But he might also say this to you. Don’t worry if you can’t imagine Jesus being raised from the dead because the resurrection is not of human origin; it is from God. The earthquake and angelic presence announced it. So did the tombs that were split open and the dead being raised at Christ’s death that I reported. These things are beyond the scope of human imagination and reasoning, just like a crucified God is beyond human imagination and understanding. But that doesn’t make the events I reported any less historical or true. In reporting all these fantastic and highly unusual events to you, I am inviting you to consider by faith what Christ’s resurrection is all about. 

St. Matthew surely wants us to see the mighty hand of God at work in the death and resurrection of Christ to change the course of history by inaugurating God’s promised new creation to heal and restore the old order, a world marred and corrupted by human sin, evil, and death (the unholy triumvirate). As with all the gospel writers, St. Matthew doesn’t tell us this in so many words, he tells us this brilliantly in story, not as in a made up story, but a story that is based on historical reality and reliable eyewitness testimony, a story rehearsed and believed in by the Church over the last two thousand years in Word and Sacrament and in the sacred fellowship of believers whose lives have been healed and transformed by the power of our crucified and risen Lord. And because of this, it is a story that has far more cred than trendy, arrogant, and closed-minded “scholars” who just can’t imagine the power of God made known in this way, or by caustic outsiders who snipe at the sins of the Church from afar, unwilling to invest their lives in Christ to see if his claims on them are true. They, like the guards who fainted in terror at the presence of an angel of the Lord, are most to be pitied because their minds and hearts are closed off to God’s power in the life of his world.

So how are we to plumb the depths of God’s story of resurrection and new life? For starters, let us be clear about what all the NT writers, St. Matthew included, meant when they spoke of resurrection. For the NT writers, resurrection meant new bodily existence. It did not mean life after death or going to heaven or the immortality of the soul or some kind of spiritual existence after death. No, resurrection meant bodily existence and it was consistent with the Jewish belief in the importance of creation found in the creation narratives of Genesis 1-2. There we see that God created everything good and humans were created in God’s image to run God’s good world on his behalf. But human sin and the evil it introduced into God’s good world profoundly corrupted both the created order and human lives, death being the ultimate evil. We all know this first hand. We are gathered here today virtually to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. There are no lilies and flowers or spectacular music or sweet in-person fellowship. Our worship is devoid of many of the things that make our Easter celebration so joyous. We aren’t lighting candles or swinging incense or any of that. We’re not saying prayers in the Easter garden or enjoying a magnificently decorated altar, resplendent in its Easter glory. Instead we are huddled in our respective homes, looking at a makeshift altar that is not exactly resplendent, trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. So yeah, we don’t need to be reminded that the old order of creation has gone terribly wrong. 

But in the midst of this old order with its decay and darkness and death, St. Matthew reports that Christ is raised from the dead, to new bodily existence that conforms to God’s promised new world or new age. How does he announce this? St. Matthew starts by telling us the women came to mourn on the first day of the week, the eighth day, the day after God’s sabbath rest, i.e., the beginning of new creation. Like the guards who passed out, the women were terrified at God’s power and presence manifested in angelic form. The angel didn’t roll the stone away to let Jesus out of the tomb. Christ was already gone, raised by the power of God! No, the angel rolled away the stone to let them see the tomb was empty! And when Jesus appeared suddenly to the women (he had a habit of doing that during the forty days before his ascension), they were able to see him, hear him, speak to him, and hold him, all the things we cherish in our human relationships that death ends permanently.

But there’s more. As we saw last week in the reading of his passion narrative, St. Matthew reports that in the aftermath of Christ’s death tombs were split open and many of the godly dead were raised to life. In telling us this fantastic story that stretches our imagination, St. Matthew is telling us that in Christ’s death, our greatest enemy, Death, is defeated. Together, these two stories proclaim the defeat of Death and the inauguration of God’s new creation, a world in which sin and all forms of evil are abolished, a physical world where our dead or dying bodies are restored and death is no more, a world where we are reunited with our loved ones who have died in Christ so that we can hold them, talk to them, hear them, and see them, a world devoid of sickness, sorrow, plague, fear, rejection, alienation, heartache, broken dreams, disordered desires, and all the rest that beat us down and dehumanize us. It is a world hard to imagine because it is of God and comes from God’s loving heart and power (cf. Rev 21.1-7). In telling us these stories St. Matthew is telling us that Christ’s resurrection was a history- and life-changing event for the women and Christ’s first followers. How else to explain the transformation of his disciples from sniveling cowards who denied and failed their Lord in his hour of greatest need to bold proclaimers of the gospel who willingly and gladly faced death to proclaim the love and power of Jesus Christ and him crucified?

And here is where we must revisit our place in the story of Christ’s crucifixion that we looked at last Sunday because when God raised Jesus from the dead, he declared that whatever our place was in the story of Christ’s death, God loves us and has forgiven us, just like Christ forgave his disciples by telling them to meet him in Galilee instead of denying them publicly as he said he would do to followers who denied him publicly (Matt 10.32-33). By Christ’s blood shed for us on the cross, we are healed and made fit to live in God’s promised new world. To be sure, we won’t be full participants in the new heavens and earth until Christ returns to finish the work he started in his death and resurrection, but we are citizens right now. Everything has changed. Is this what the Resurrection is to you? Is it for you the turning point in history where God declares the Old Order in which we live with its decay, its brokenness, its sorrow and suffering, and its death is finished? Is it the turning point in history where Death is swallowed up in life, or is it something else? If it is something else for you, then nothing in your world has changed. You still live in a world where fear and uncertainty and decay and death reign, where covid19 paralyzes you with fear and robs you of your hope, where cruelty, injustice, chaos, and the burdens you bear in your own life reign supreme with no hope of relief or healing or redemption. If it is anything less for you than St. Matthew describes it, then you should frankly say to hell with it and quit living the lie that you are a Christian in any real sense of the word because you have no real hope or future. You are settling for a lie and something much less to sustain and guide you in the living of your mortal days. It’s as unedifying as listening to one of Fr. Bowser’s sermons or being a Michigan or BGSU fan. Why would you do that to yourself?

But if the Resurrection is real for you in the sense that St. Matthew and the other NT writers present it, and in the life-changing way the first followers of Jesus experienced it, then there is no reason for you to fear because you know that come what may, Death and all that is evil in this world have been defeated, and that new hope, new bodily life in God’s direct presence is your future. 

I do not claim that having this kind of faith is easy and here is where we can profit by listening to what St. Paul has to say to us in our epistle lesson. When we believe that Christ’s resurrection is the game-changing cosmic event that the NT writers proclaim it is and that we are greatly loved and forgiven, despite our sins and brokenness, we realize that resurrection isn’t given indiscriminately. It is given only through the death of Christ in whom our life and being are inextricably bound in the power of the Spirit. Therefore, says St. Paul, “If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.”

What is St. Paul telling us? That heaven really is our destination and that our eternal life will be as a disembodied spirit? Not at all. He is telling us that when we put our faith in Christ, we share in his death and resurrection. But the risen Christ currently reigns from heaven and is invisible to us as sometimes is his power and influence on us. That can be terribly frustrating. We know we are called to pattern our lives after him and we desire to do so. But we can struggle in living out our faith or do so badly. Our failures, however, do not necessarily signal that we are cut off from Christ and his citizenship in God’s promised new world because our citizenship there is based on his power and love, not ours, or our worthiness to be with him. His death and resurrection proclaim that reality!

And so we continue to live our lives after him in the power of the Spirit (or set our minds on things that are above). What are those things? St. Paul has laid them out elsewhere in his letters. Whenever we focus on that which is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, and admirable, we are setting our minds on things above. Whenever we love as Christ loved us, whenever we are tenderhearted toward each other and forgive each other, whenever we bear each other’s burdens, whenever we display the fruit of the Spirit in our lives, whenever we reject our old death-dealing ways and desires (remember Christ died for our sins), we are setting our minds on things above. We do these things because we believe we belong to God’s new world—despite our flaws and failures and the baggage we just can’t seem to shake—because Christ belongs to it and we share in his crucified and risen life by our baptism that unites us to him. In other words, St. Paul is telling us that our resurrection faith and hope is the starting point, not the result of, our relationship with Christ. So we must continue to focus on imitating our Lord in his love, mercy, goodness, generosity, et al., despite how imperfectly we imitate him. 

Here’s a quick example of how this works. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by news of this pandemic. We hear of people dying alone—a prospect that personally terrifies me—and about economic loss and suffering. We are forced to celebrate Easter today online. We wonder if this darkness will ever end. That is setting our mind on this age with its trajectory toward decay and death. Instead, St. Paul tells us to focus on Christ and his death and resurrection. So we focus on the fact that our sins are forgiven, that we are greatly loved by God the Father and redeemed by God the Son, and therefore promised a place in his new creation starting right now, however imperfectly that looks, so that life and health and wholeness are our destiny. Why then should we be afraid? But this takes a concentrated effort together. We have to be brave enough and humble enough to ask each other for help and encouragement until our thinking leads to our experiencing Christ’s love, presence, and strength in our lives. So turn off the TV or other news sources. Pick up your Bible and read together the stories of Christ’s death and resurrection or St. Paul’s great tract on the resurrection found in 1 Cor 15 to be reminded of the reality of things as well as your future. Worship regularly and be healed and transformed by God’s word and sacraments. If you come away from worship feeling refreshed and renewed or encouraged and strengthened, this is what St. Paul is talking about. You are refreshed and renewed because you have set your mind on Christ who reigns from heaven and who currently is invisible to you. So don’t go back into the world and focus on it so that it beats you down. Keep returning to Christ. Things are rarely straightforward in this life. We have to work at relationships if we want them to grow and worthwhile things in life rarely come easily. So we do the hard work to grow in our relationship with Christ. It’s called Christian maturity. That is what St. Paul is telling us we must do to live a Christian life and manifest our resurrection faith.

But it all starts with what the Resurrection means to us. And so this Easter morning I close by asking you again, what is the Resurrection to you? If you believe Christ’s death and resurrection to be the turning point in history you will learn to know that your destiny is new embodied life in God’s new world and that knowledge will help you overcome the travails of this world. Christ’s death and resurrection have set us free: free from doubt and despair, free from sin and guilt, free from darkness and everlasting death. The world, the flesh, and the devil will try their best to persuade us otherwise and they will succeed if we set our minds on them rather than on Christ and the things above. Don’t do that to yourselves, my beloved. The stakes are far too great. Let us embrace the gift of life offered to us out of the great love the Father has for us and be set free to love and serve him all our days, confident that come what may, the promise is true. We really are New Word Men (and Women)—apologies to Rush. 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 2020: St. John Chrysostom on Easter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Father Ric Bowser: The Veil

Sermon delivered on Good Friday, April 10 , 2020 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

Father Bowser believes the word is mightier than the pen, or something like that. The result is that there is no written manuscript of tonight’s sermon. To listen to the audio podcast of tonight’s excellent sermon, click here.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 52-13-53.12; Psalm 22; Hebrews 4.14-16, 5.7-9; St. John 18-19.

Father Philip Sang: Serving and Loving in Times of Crisis

Sermon delivered on Maundy Thursday, April 9, 2020 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: Exodus 12.1-14; Psalm 116.1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11.23-26; St. John 13.1-17, 31b-35.

The word “maundy” comes from a Latin word: mandatum. And mandatum means “mandate” or a “commandment”. And when we talk about “Maundy Thursday” we’re talking about “mandate Thursday”. We’re talking about the night that Christ told his disciples exactly what he expected of them and so is telling us too today.

The world is in crisis now. With the report we receive every day of the impact of COVID19; the rising numbers of the confirmed cases and deaths, the fall of the economy, many losing jobs, people quarantined in hospitals, cities lockdown, people being home against their wish, others putting their lives on the line, risking for the sake of others, this is real crisis. As christians what should we do during such times as these?

Jesus on the Maundy Thursday found himself in crisis, he knew he was going to be betrayed, he knew he was going to be abandoned, he knew he was going to be denied, he knew he was going to die, this is a real crisis.

On this Maundy Thursday let me ask you all a question. What would you do if you knew you would die in about twelve hours? Would you want to be alone in prayer? Would you record some final thoughts? Would you spend time with those you loved? What would you want to emphasize? Would you go to the farm or garden or would you focus on what’s most important in your life?

Jesus knew the time had come for him to leave this world and he took off his cloak, put a towel around his waist, and washed the feet of his disciples. Who’s going to waste time on that when the end is so near? Jesus did. Why? Because he wanted to show them how important it is to humbly serve one another

Jesus showed by his own actions that serving others, demonstrating our love in tangible ways, is of critical importance. Jesus considered it a priority and so should we.

It is said that Mother Teresa visited Phoenix in 1989 to open a home for the poor. During that brief visit, she was interviewed by the largest radio station in town. In a private moment, the announcer asked Mother Teresa if there was anything he could do for her. I guess the announcer was expecting her to request a contribution or media attention to help to raise money for the new home for the needy in Phoenix. Instead, she replied, “Yes, there is. Find somebody nobody else loves, and love them.” my friends this is what we are called to.

If anyone didn’t have to humble himself to wash the feet of others especially his juniors, it was Jesus.

But because he knew he was Lord of the universe and because he was not worried about his self-image he was able to show his love in humble service. He took up the towel and basin and stooped to serve. What an example for us all.

Let me share this other example; The late Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy’s hamburger chain, was known for his humble service within the multibillion dollar empire he founded. When asked what made him so successful, he replied, “my MBA.” But he didn’t mean a graduate degree in business education he meant “a mop-and-bucket attitude.” In other words, no task was too insignificant for him to tackle; he simply jumped in and got the job done.

On this special night it is also important that we try to discover our need to be in Jesus’ presence and the additional need of being served by Jesus himself. Sometimes that is a hard idea to come to grips with. Look again at the exchange between Peter and Jesus, When he came to Simon Peter, Peter said to him, “Lord, why are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus replied, “You don’t understand now why I am doing it; someday you will.” “No,” Peter protested, “you will never wash my feet!” Jesus replied, “But if I don’t wash you, you won’t belong to me.” Simon Peter exclaimed, “Then wash my hands and head as well, Lord, not just my feet!”

Jesus has shown us by word and deed that you cannot call yourself a Christian if you are unwilling to serve in humility.

You see, foot washing isn’t about foot washing, it’s about serving others at personal sacrifice, humbling ourselves when we don’t have to because we don’t have to. It’s somebody watching the children of a neighbor who has good reasons for needing to get out of the house. It is people checking on neighbors and friends to know how they are doing, it is offering to go shopping for those who can not go to the store because of fear; it is about clearing someone’s driveway of snow because you know they are not healthy enough to do it themselves. It’s listening to a neighbor who needs to talk when you don’t have time to listen. It’s giving ourselves when we don’t have to. It is about sharing a meal. It is about communing with Christ and being diligent in waiting with him as the world becomes a dark place. It is about standing at the foot of the cross and in faithfulness standing by an empty tomb as the darkness is lifted and life becomes hopeful once again. It is about serving and loving even in times of crisis.

It is my prayer that in this time of crisis we will be the light of Christ through our service and love by word and deed.

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

Celebrating Passion Sunday in the Midst of Covid19

Sermon delivered on Palm Sunday, Year A, April 5, 2020 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resurrection: The Foundation of Our Faith

Sermon delivered on Lent 5A, Sunday, March 29, 2020 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: Ezekiel 37.1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8.6-11; St. John 11.1-45.

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

Today we hold the final Scrutiny of our confirmands, where we pray for them and show them our love and support as they continue to grow in their relationship with Christ. As was the case previously, this sermon is aimed primarily at them, although the rest of us really need to hear what our lessons have to say. Specifically I want us to look at what it means to be resurrection peeps.

You recall that two weeks ago we saw that you are to die for in God’s loving eyes. As St. Paul taught us, we know that God became human (or in the language of the NT, God sent his Son) to die for us while we were still God’s enemies and unreconciled to him! God didn’t wait for us to change our ways or end our hostile feelings toward him before he sent his Son to die for us. Then last week we saw why we are to die for (besides the fact that God loves us so much). Christ’s death frees us from our slavery to the power of Sin (although we will all sin occasionally) so that we can once again be God’s image-bearers as God created and intended us to be. As his image-bearers, we shine the light of Christ’s goodness, truth, mercy, and love on a sin-sick world and its people, modeling for them how God wants us to think, speak, and behave as fully human beings, and inviting others to give their lives to Christ as we have. We also saw that because the world is so sin-sick and corrupted, we should expect to get a lot of opposition to living out our faith and proclaiming the truth of the gospel. Consequently, we should be prepared to suffer for Christ because he suffered for us and died to rescue us from permanent death and God’s awful but right judgment on our sin and everything evil in his world that corrupts and poisons his beloved creation and us. 

Today, despite the fact that we are still in the season of Lent, our readings point us to the culmination of Lent: Easter, with its joyous celebration of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. If we don’t get the resurrection right, our faith will eventually fold like a bad poker hand, so it is critical for us to look at what it means to be resurrection peeps. We start with our OT lesson and the prophet Ezekiel’s spectacular vision of resurrection for God’s people Israel (you do remember that prophets were God’s spokesmen and women who proclaimed God’s truth to God’s people and often paid a heavy price for doing so because God’s people back then didn’t like hearing God’s truth any more than many of us do today!). While Ezekiel’s vision had more to do with God’s promise to return and restore his people from their exile in Babylon rather than the resurrection of the dead when Christ returns to finish the work he started in his mortal life, we can learn about the nature of resurrection from Ezekiel’s vision because it reminds us that resurrection is all about getting new bodies. Resurrection isn’t another term that refers to life after death (as in dying and going to heaven to live with Jesus) as a spirit without a body. Neither does resurrection mean being alive in some kind of spiritual sense where we remember our dead loved ones. No, resurrection refers to a new bodily existence where our mortal bodies are raised and transformed into immortal bodies and reunited with our souls who have been in the loving and protective care of Jesus during the time between our mortal death and the time he returns to raise our mortal bodies from their graves. As one theologian puts it, resurrection is life after life after death. Given the importance the Bible places on creation and creatures, this should make perfect sense to us. God created creation good and God created humans in his image to run his world on his behalf. Because God values creation so much we are promised God intends to put it to rights again. So when Christ returns to usher in God’s new world, it makes sense that we would have new bodies adapted to that new physical reality. More about God’s new world in a minute. What is critical for us to understand is that when we speak of resurrection, we are speaking of new bodily existence. Bodies matter to God because they belong to God. After all, he sent Jesus to rescue us from all that can destroy our mortal bodies (sin and other kinds of evil). Bodies therefore had better matter to us as well. As St. Paul reminds us, our body is a temple in which God’s Holy Spirit lives (1 Cor 6.19-21). Think about that. What a privilege! That’s why we are to take care of our bodies and not abuse them. One day God is going to raise them from the dead and transform them into immortal bodies! That’s why, e.g., we are being faithful to Christ during this pandemic when we follow medical advice to prevent the disease from spreading. 

St. Paul also focuses on the bodily nature of resurrection in our epistle lesson. He tells us that when we believe that Jesus is the Son of God, who by his death has taken away our death by breaking Sin’s power over us and promising to raise us from the dead just as God his Father raised him from the dead, we are given the Holy Spirit to help direct and guide us in the living of our days in ways that please God. So even though our mortal bodies die, we are promised new life in the form of new bodies when Christ returns to raise us from the dead. This is the work of the Spirit and it is God’s free gift to us. None of us can earn it nor do any of us deserve it. St. Paul says something remarkably similar in his first letter to the Corinthians. Hear him now:

Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever. Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength. They are buried as natural human bodies, but they will be raised as spiritual bodies. What I am saying, dear brothers and sisters, is that our physical bodies cannot inherit the Kingdom of God. These dying bodies cannot inherit what will last forever. But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies. Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ

(1 Corinthians 15.42-44a, 50-57, NLT).

Notice first St. Paul’s emphasis on new bodily existence. Resurrection is about a new physical existence in bodily form. But what does he mean by a spiritual body? Isn’t that the opposite of a mortal body? Well no it isn’t. In the Greek, when St. Paul talks about a spiritual body, he uses the words pneumatikon soma and he uses the words psychikon soma to refer to mortal bodies like we have now. Any time a Greek adjective ends with the suffix -ikon, it doesn’t describe the nature or type of body but rather that which animates or powers the body. So just like our heart and lungs provide animation for our flesh and blood bodies (and when those organs stop functioning our mortal body dies), so St. Paul is telling us the Holy Spirit will power and animate our resurrection bodies so that they become immortal—you can’t kill the Holy Spirit so he never stops animating our new bodies— and equipped to live in God’s new world, the new heavens and earth. Again, notice carefully that St. Paul is not talking about living apart from our bodies. That’s why death isn’t fully conquered until God’s new creation comes in full and our bodies are raised from the dead. While it is true that our loved ones who have died in Christ are alive and their souls are with him now, they are still dead because they haven’t received their new bodies yet. When they do get their new bodies patterned after the body of Christ raised from the dead, death will finally be destroyed, thanks be to God!

Now it is true that we don’t know exactly what God’s new world will look like because it has not yet come in full. But we get glimpses of it in this mortal life when we gather at Christ’s table to celebrate Holy Communion each week and when we live our lives in ways that please God the Father. What we can say with confidence about God’s new world is this. It will be more spectacular than we can imagine (and if we can’t imagine it at all, that’s a problem with our imagination, not the reality of the promise as many claim who don’t believe in the resurrection of the body). But it will be a world where no evil exists because it will be a world where heaven and earth are joined together and evil cannot exist in God’s direct presence (Rev 21.1-8). That’s why believing we are forever washed clean by Christ’s blood shed for us on the cross is an essential Christian belief. Without it, none of us could hope to live in God’s direct presence because we all have sinned and committed evil in our lives. Neither will there be any sickness or death that we have to worry about. Death is abolished at the resurrection. Remember? Nor will there be any sorrow or fear or alienation. We’ll not have to worry if we are loved and accepted because we will know we are, and we will be part of a huge family who will love us and enjoy us as we will love and enjoy them. We will be reunited with our loved ones who have died in Christ and we will get to see them, hold them, talk with them, hear them, touch them just like we did when they were alive in their mortal bodies. We will feel the peace and presence of God all the time and we will be given meaningful work to do as his human image-bearers. We won’t ever worry if God loves us because we will enjoy sweet fellowship with him the way Adam and Eve did before they rebelled against God. Whatever all that looks like, it will be so utterly beautiful that we will want to pinch ourselves and ask if it’s real because it feels too good to be true. Trust me. It’ll be real. Christ himself promises this as we see in our gospel lesson today.

I don’t have the time to explore all this lesson teaches us so I’ll point out three things. First, we read a part of this lesson at Christian funerals and it’s easy to see why. We notice first our Lord’s attitude toward death. Even though he knows that he will raise his friend Lazarus from death, Jesus is so indignant about the evil of death that he snorts in anger at his friend’s tomb (the translation we use says Jesus was greatly disturbed, but that doesn’t really get at what’s going on in the Greek; Jesus snorted in anger and it should therefore be easy for you to imagine him snorting in anger when awful things happen to you). So if you have ever wondered if Jesus wants us to die, there’s your answer: NO!! Jesus loves us and wants us to live with him forever!

Second, we notice that resurrection isn’t a concept. It’s a person and his name is Jesus. If you want to enjoy resurrection life in God’s new world, you’ll only get to do so by uniting yourself with Jesus! Last, we notice that in this story we get an imperfect glimpse of our future. Jesus calls Lazarus from the grave and new life is poured into his friend. This isn’t resurrection in its true sense because we know Lazarus eventually died again and waits along with the rest of us to be raised or transformed with new bodies. But it serves as a preview of what Jesus is going to do in full on the last day when he returns to bring in God’s new world. Bodies matter to God. It’s embedded in the story. Jesus didn’t raise Lazarus’ spirit. He raised Lazarus’ body. So take care of your body because it belongs to the Lord. You’ve been baptized and you are giving your lives to Christ so you have God’s assurance that while you are united with Jesus in a death like his, you will also be united in a resurrection like his when he raises you from the dead one day (Romans 6.3-5). 

This is our resurrection hope, my beloved confirmands. This is your hope and future (hope being defined as the sure and certain expectation of things to come, not wishful thinking). Your destiny and future is life, not death. That’s why Christians need not fear opposition or dangers in this life. That doesn’t mean we are to live recklessly. It means that we shouldn’t fear dying because we know that our mortal death is only temporary and that death one day will be destroyed forever by the love and power of God made known to us in Jesus Christ. That makes it easier to be Christ’s light in this world!

But we also know that resurrection is our future hope. It’s not here yet and sometimes in this mortal life (like now) we can become afraid and very anxious. Like the psalmist in our lesson, we cry out in desperation to God and wonder if God’s promises are true, if God really isn’t angry with us. It’s OK to wonder that, my beloved, because we all do from time to time. When we do, we also need to take our cue from the psalmist and remember the promises and mercy of God demonstrated supremely in Christ’s death and resurrection. I personally know the things I have told you about the resurrection of the body are true first and foremost because I know Jesus Christ is raised from the dead!  It’s an historical fact and it validates God’s promises in a very powerful way! And so, when I am afraid, I remind myself (with the help of the Spirit) to put all my trust in Christ by remembering he is raised from the dead and is alive at God’s right hand so that he hears my cries and knows my fears. I give thanks that because I belong to Jesus through my baptism and faith, imperfect as the latter is, I can trust his promises about the future and I am calmed and sustained by my resurrection hope and future. May you also learn to embrace that hope in the living of your days. 

But I want to go even further than that. Our resurrection hope and future is so fantastic that you, like the rest of us, will need to spend a lifetime asking God to show you how he wants you to live out your resurrection faith in your life starting today. Whatever that looks like, it will surely involve pointing others to your crucified and risen Savior who loves you dearly and on whom your life is founded and your eternal future in God’s new creation is made secure. Remember, you are resurrection peeps no matter what comes in this mortal life of yours. You can stake your life on it because you know Jesus Christ is raised from the dead and he calls you to be his forever. Can there be any better hope than that? 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 Darkness to Light

Sermon delivered on Lent 4A, Sunday, March 22, 2020 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: 1 Samuel 16.1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5.8-14; St. John 9.1-42.

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

Today we hold the second of three scrutinies of our confirmands, where we pray for them and show them our love and support as they continue to grow in their relationship with Christ. As was the case last week, this sermon is aimed primarily at them, although the rest of us need to hear what our lessons have to say. Specifically I want us to look at what it means to be the light of Christ.

You recall that last week we saw that you are to die for in God’s loving eyes. As St. Paul taught us, we know that God became human (or in the language of the NT, God sent his Son) to die for us while we were still God’s enemies and unreconciled to him (we live in the dark)! God didn’t wait for us to change our ways or end our hostile feelings toward him before he sent his Son to die for us. No, God knew what needed to be done on our behalf so that we are no longer slaves to the power of Sin. This reminds us that while God will ultimately not tolerate any kind of evil that erases his image in us, God does not want to see us have to face his anger and judgment on human sin and evil. God created us to be his forever and to reflect his image out into the world to heal and refresh it, and for God to receive the praises of creation through us. This is what we will be doing in God’s new creation after Christ returns to raise us from the dead and finally put an end to every kind of evil so that nothing can harm us ever again. This is what St. Paul is getting at in our epistle lesson when he recites what was probably an ancient Christian hymn: Wake up sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light. In God’s new world, the new heavens and earth, we will get to live directly in God’s presence with all its benefits. More about that next week. For now, it is enough for us to ponder God’s spectacular love for us made known in Christ’s death on our behalf.

So what is to be our response to God’s great gift of life and mercy and forgiveness and love and grace (undeserved forgiveness and love, among others)? St. Paul tells us in our epistle lesson. We are to be Christ’s light in this dark world, to embody God’s love for his creation and creatures. But what does that mean? It means first and foremost that we desire to live our lives in the way God wants us to live them. Being a Christian is first and foremost a lifestyle where we pattern our lives after Jesus. Our Lord summarized this for us when he reminded us that living our lives the way God wants us to live so that God’s image shines brightly in our thinking, speaking, and behaving means that we are to love God above all others, even our family and friends, and to love others as we love ourselves. We are not to live this way out of some sense of obligation or because we think we have to, but because we remember we are to die for in Christ’s eyes and have been freed from our slavery to Sin and Death to care and work for the best for everyone we encounter in our lives, just like Jesus did and does for us. In other words, we seek to become like Jesus in our thinking, speaking, and actions because we have a grateful heart for all that Jesus has done and does for us. As God reminds us through his spokesman Samuel (that’s what prophets are, spokespersons for God), God sees our hearts, the very center of our will and being, and so he knows our motives for speaking, thinking, and behaving as we do. He knows whether we love him or are just trying to follow the rules. Rules are important, but they are no substitute for love, the kind of love that wants and works for the best for ourselves and those we love, “best” defined of course by God, not us. 

So what does that look like in real life? Here are a couple of examples. If you follow social media at all you know there are a lot of self-righteous, judgmental people who criticize others and attack those with whom they disagree. They don’t care about the welfare or well being of anyone but themselves or their positions and they are willing to attack others over almost anything. If you have ever had anyone make fun of you or criticize who you are, you know how hurtful that is. We may not agree with a person’s thinking or behavior, but we have no basis for attacking the person. So we are called to reach out to others and love them no matter what. That’s hard to do for all of us because when we disagree with others, we want to ignore them or do them harm. But that’s not how God treated us as we saw last week. We were all God’s enemies, but he loved us enough to bring us back into his loving arms again, even before we knew that’s where we needed to be. So if you have a social media account, you are to behave in ways that reflect God’s love. 

Or consider how afraid people are with this coronavirus plague. When we are afraid, we do desperate, selfish things to protect ourselves. People hoard products we all need, for example, and refuse to help others who might be in need. This is what the Bible calls living in darkness; we don’t have a real relationship with God. If we don’t believe that Christ died for us to save us from our sins and to free us from the power of death (even though our mortal bodies will die one day), we will live in fear and darkness because we remain unreconciled to God. But when we believe that we no longer have to be afraid of anyone or anything, not even our mortal death, because Christ died for us, it frees us to shine the light of Christ’s love on the world by making sure those around us are taken care of during this crisis. We’re not to act recklessly, but we are not to act out of fear either because we have nothing to fear anymore! So we call people up and check on them. We run errands for those who cannot get out of their house. We bring them food and water. We share our resources with those who need them but don’t have them (toilet paper, anyone)? This is what shining the light of Christ’s love on the darkness of the world looks like. When we do so, we expose the darkness of others as St. Paul tells us to do in our epistle lesson because we show that acting like Christ is the better way to live.

This can be hard work because while we are freed from Sin’s power over us, we will still act occasionally in ways that are contrary to the ways God wants us to act. When that happens, we ask God to forgive us and remember that Christ lives in us through the power of the Holy Spirit. As our psalm reminds us, we can count on Christ to be with us in all kinds of darkness, even the ultimate darkness of death, because he promises to be with us and God never lies. We believe that Jesus is the Good Shepherd and that his rod and staff are the two pieces of wood that made up his cross, the ultimate sign of God’s great love for us, despite all our messiness and messy lives. 

It is a great privilege to let Christ’s light shine in this dark world through us because we know that light brings Christ’s healing and life, forgiveness and peace. We also know that there are sadly many who want nothing to do with Jesus and they will hate those of us who try to live faithfully and imitate him. This has been the case from the beginning as we see in our gospel lesson. Jesus healed the blind man and in healing him, the blind man came to believe in him, first that Jesus was a prophet and later God’s Son. But there were many who hated the blind man because he decided to give his life to Christ and unbelievers ridiculed him and tried to get him to walk away from his life-giving relationship with Christ. The blind man’s opponents had a powerful weapon. They threatened to expel him from the place of worship he attended. Doing so would have been like all your family/friends turning against you and making fun of you and refusing to associate with you. This was such a powerful weapon that even the blind man’s parents passed the buck and refused to witness to Christ’s goodness and healing love because they did not want to be put out of their place of worship! Following Jesus is really hard because the world and its people are such a mess and many hate Jesus. 

But the blind man didn’t cave in and he discovered that after all the ridicule, all the suffering, all the name calling, Jesus stood by him and promised to do so in this world and the next. Nothing’s changed from Jesus’ day to our own and we all have to decide what is most important in our lives. Will we choose Jesus and life or will we reject Jesus and choose darkness and death? Will we count on Jesus to give us the courage and wisdom and power to love others and embody his love for them, even when they hate us, or will we cave to the pressure to fit in with others? This is a battle that is especially relevant to you at this point in your young lives. No one likes to feel shunned and we all want to be accepted, especially when we are young. And so the temptation is there for you to reject Jesus and his lifestyle for a lifestyle that can only bring sorrow, darkness, and ultimately death, just to fit in with others. But we are not to fear rejection because as Jesus tells us elsewhere, he has overcome the world and will be with us no matter what comes. Let us all resolve, therefore, to live like Jesus and to shine his healing love and light on the world around us. It’s never easy to follow Jesus but it is the best decision we can ever make because only in Jesus will we find our true heart’s desire to love and be loved. May you, my beloved confirmands, always find and shine the light of Christ around you as you live out your lives. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

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

God to You: You Are to Die For

Sermon delivered on Lent 3A, Sunday, March 15, 2020 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: Exodus 17.1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5.1-11; St. John 4.5-42.

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

Today we hold the first of three scrutinies of our confirmands, where we pray for them and show them our love and support as they continue to grow in their relationship with Christ. As such, this sermon is aimed primarily at them, although hopefully we all can benefit from what the Scriptures have to say to us this morning. Specifically I want us to look at what real Christian faith looks like on the ground and how our faith always points to how real our relationship is with Jesus.

Is the Lord among us or not? This was the complaint of the ancient Israelites as they wandered through the desert on their way to the land God promised them. And if you have paid attention to the news of late, it seems many of us are still asking the same question. As infections from the coronavirus continue to spread, we are tempted to doubt whether God loves us or is among us. If God is all powerful and loving, why doesn’t God just protect us by getting rid of this virus?

But as our OT and psalm lessons make clear, we are not to put God to the test like that because in questions like this we are really questioning God’s faithfulness and goodness toward us as well as God’s great love for us. To be sure, our world is full of many things that tempt us to question God’s love for us and his ability to make all things right, the current coronavirus pandemic being the latest example. But that is not what was going on with the Israelites when they asked this question. 

Imagine you had been one of God’s people Moses led out of Egypt. That surely would have been a frightening and anxious time. Would the Egyptians, who were stronger than your people, try to prevent you from leaving by killing you or cutting off your escape route? Would you be better or worse off leaving? But God answered these questions in spectacular ways. You suddenly find yourself crossing the Red Sea, with walls of water piled high on either side of you. How is that possible? Why does the seabed feel like dry ground? And what’s with that pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, always leading the way? Then there was the bread from heaven, the manna, that mysteriously appeared each day so that you and your family wouldn’t starve to death. What’s up with that? Here’s the point. Had you been among God’s people back in the day, you would have seen multiple examples of God’s power, of God protecting you from harm so that his promise to bring you to a new land could be fulfilled. You witnessed all these things first hand! God knows you need to eat and drink and be protected from the desert heat and other dangers, and in some very spectacular ways God demonstrated his love and care for you as he brought you and your people out of Egypt.

Now here you are on your way, wandering in the desert and complaining that God has abandoned you and won’t get you to the promised land. Sure you are anxious and frightened. The wilderness is not for wimps! But God had proven his love for you and his ability to care for and protect you. So why the grumbling now? That was the problem from God’s perspective. He had cared for and protected his people because God called them to be his own. Now when the going got tough (again), the people questioned God’s love, faithfulness, and ability to protect and care for them despite what they had experienced. Apply this to your own life. Think of family or friends you know intimately and who know you just as well. You have demonstrated to them that you love and care for them in what you do for them, in behaving in ways that represent your family name in the best possible ways. Then all of a sudden out of the blue, they question your motives toward them and call your character into question. How would that make you feel? At that point, even though you remain friends and/or part of the family, you have effectively become enemies, at least for the moment.

This is what happened to the human race and God. Before they rebelled against God in paradise, Adam and Eve enjoyed a perfect relationship with God. They knew God was their Creator and Father and that they were his creatures and children. Genesis 3 describes this by telling us God walked constantly in the garden with Adam and Eve, indicating they enjoyed perfect friendship with God, something that is hard for us to imagine because none of us have ever experienced perfect friendship with God or anyone else. But it was different for Adam and Eve because they did what God asked them to and reaped the benefits. They weren’t worried or anxious about anything because they experienced God’s presence and love and goodness first hand. They knew God better than we know those we love the most. Adam and Eve were functioning in the way God intended for them. They reflected God’s goodness and love out into the world to sustain and nourish and refresh it. But that all changed when they rebelled against God and tried to be God instead of his creatures. The Bible calls that sin and every one of us has been infected by it ever since. We’re afraid of the coronavirus right now, but it won’t infect everybody and the worst it can do is kill the body, terrible as that is. But our infection from Sin makes us enemies of God who is the Source of all life and health and goodness, and if something isn’t done about it, we will all be cut off from God (die) forever because God in his great love for us cannot ultimately allow evil to continue.

We don’t like talking about this because we like to fool ourselves into thinking we can fix ourselves and our problems. We can’t. We might eventually find a cure for the coronavirus but we will never find a human cure for our rebellion against God. Sure, we can work to improve ourselves and with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us, we can make good progress in getting rid of things that make us sick. But in this mortal life we will never be totally free from doing the things that makes us enemies of God and that is why some people really dislike the Christian faith because it doesn’t teach self-help and human solutions to the problems that make us most afraid and anxious. And so we keep testing God and asking if he really cares about us or has the power to help us solve problems we care most about because we really want to do things our way. Every one of us has felt this way and when that happens, it demonstrates that deep down we really don’t trust God. And if we don’t trust God, why would we want to act like God wants us to act, especially if we think we know better? Yet the ancient Israelites wanted to return to their slavery in Egypt. We Christians often want to return to our slavery to Sin. This demonstrates they and we don’t know any better!

But here’s the thing. The God who led his people out of Egypt and through the Red Sea is the same God we worship. So what mighty acts of power has God done for us to prove he loves us and has the ability to save us from all that makes us afraid? The death and resurrection of Christ. St. Paul makes an astonishing claim in our epistle lesson from Romans today. He tells us at just the right time, while we were still God’s enemies, Christ died for us to break the power of Sin over us, the very thing that makes us God’s enemies in the first place. St. Paul didn’t say that we had to turn away from our sins or feel bad about them or ourselves before Christ died for us. In fact, as we’ve seen, there’s nothing we can do to rid ourselves from Sin’s infection. No, God acted independently on our behalf, even before we realized we needed help, so that we no longer have to fear being his enemies or be afraid of dying! In other words, God reconciled us to himself on the cross of Jesus. End of story. We did nothing to deserve or earn this life-giving favor. God did it out of his great love for us and his desire that we be reconciled to him so that we could enjoy life to its fullest. The story of the Bible is not about us seeking God, but God seeking us because of God’s great love for us!

Think about the person you dislike most in your life (hopefully he is not preaching to you at the moment). Would you be willing to give your life for that person? St. Paul doesn’t think you would and neither do I. Sure, there might be an exception or two to this rule, but for the most part, what do we do to people who are our enemies? We shun them and have bad thoughts toward them. We don’t wish them well. We hope bad stuff happens to them. Now imagine that person one day acted unexpectedly to save your life and in the process, actually gave his or her life for yours. Would that not change how you feel toward that person forever? Wouldn’t you feel a sense of love and gratitude for that person and desire to act in ways that would honor the person’s memory? 

This is what St. Paul is telling us to do in our epistle lesson. When by the grace of God and in the power of the Holy Spirit, we realize the gift God has given us, the gift of eternal life and release from our slavery to Sin so that we are free to love God and others just like Jesus did for us, we will experience God’s peace, a peace you’ll always want to possess once you’ve experienced it. We no longer have to worry if God loves us. He’s already demonstrated that in Christ’s death for us, despite the fact that we were enemies of God at the time. He gives us his Spirit to continue his healing work in us and to make himself known to us. He invites us to grow in our relationship with him and demonstrate our faith and trust in him to care for us, come what may in this life, by imitating Jesus in our lives. This is what faith on the ground looks like. This is your challenge and ours, my beloved confirmands. Embrace the love of Christ and walk with him everyday. If you need reminded of God’s love for you in Christ, talk with your family and your parish family. We’ll remind and encourage you. And when you stumble along the way, as you surely will, don’t worry. Jesus is always willing to help you to overcome that which sickens you because he created you to be his own forever. Remember that Jesus typically works through other humans, especially those in your family, so trust Christ enough to share your struggles with us so he can use us to help you work through them. We will weep with you and embrace you in your failures and sorrows as well as your happiness and successes. If you allow us this privilege of sharing Christ’s love with you, you will come to know Jesus even more deeply in the process. May the Father always give you the grace to continue to grow in your knowledge of Christ this Lent and throughout your lives. Doing so will help you accept his love for you and strengthen your ability to believe his promise to you that you are his forever. Then you will surely know the truth that God in Christ is your refuge and strength, a very present help in times of trouble. Be of good cheer, my beloved. Christ has overcome the world for you. We who believe in him are his enemies no longer. After all, you are to die for in God’s eyes. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. 

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

Father Philip Sang: Sin and Death, Grace and Life

Sermon delivered on Lent 1A, Sunday, March 1, 2020 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: Genesis 2.15-17, 3.1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5.12-19; St. Matthew 4.1-11.

12Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned—

17For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.

18Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. 19For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.

Romans 5.12-19

My Dearest Brothers and Sister in Christ,

There are many times in this life that we like to be in control as much as possible. But when we look around us, we realize we can’t control much else. We can’t control the weather. We can’t control the future, and that list goes on. As much as we plan and like to think we are in control, the Lord reminds us in the book of James: “Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (JAMES 4:14). This is the theme that runs this time of lent “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”. Thus, Scripture describes our lifetime. In the big picture of things during our lifetime, no matter whether our life is long or short, it is like a mist in comparison to eternity, and in comparison to the rest of the world.

Today, our text reminds us as Paul points out that mankind is not in control. We are not in control since Adam and Eve first sinned, because by mankind’s disobedience, this brought into the world sin and death. Thankfully, mankind is not in control concerning salvation, for God’s plan of salvation through His Son Christ Jesus and His perfect obedience provides grace and life.

I want us to look at this two things today:

  1. Mankind’s disobedience brings sin and death.
  2. Christ’s perfect obedience brings grace and life.

Mankind’s disobedience brings sin and death

As you heard the reading of our text this morning, you probably have already picked up on the discouraging parts. It is almost 50/50 of the discouraging parts compared to the encouraging parts. The discouraging part is the fact that our world is no longer perfect. The discouragement is the fact that sin is in this world and is very much alive and well. Paul reminds us that “For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners.” One man disobeyed; and because of that, the world became sinful. It uses the word many that sometimes some take that word and say, “Well, not everybody is a sinner. Some are good.” Only many were made sinners. But Paul explains so that there is no mistake. Before this Paul says: 18Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men. Now, he says not just for many, but also for all. That word “many” meaning all men suffer the result of the disobedience of the one man. He wants to make that point very clear.

So our epistle lesson began with that word: 12Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned–. No one escapes. No one is born into this world sinless, but with sin. Then he says: 17For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man. The results of sin are very obvious–death came into the world. When Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden of Eden, the Lord’s plan for them was that they would live there forever, because it was already perfect. It already was heaven on earth, but they disobeyed. Perfection came to a crashing halt. That is the one man who disobeyed. That one man who committed sin is our very first parent. Since that time you and I have inherited sinfulness. Sinfulness has been passed down from Adam and Eve to every generation and will be until the end of time.We cannot dismiss sin as just a sickness or bad behavior. We cannot explain it away by saying the rest of the world is doing, so what is so bad about it? Sin is alive and well. We see it in our society. We see it in the way our nation reacts. Those who stand up for the truth on national TV are considered extremists and right-wing Christian radicals when they speak against same-sex marriage. Yet, homosexuality is another sin. It is another sin that the world tries to sweep under the rug, a sin that the world tries to dismiss and sanitize and cover up. Scripture reminds us we are sinners: “There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins” (ECCLESIASTES 7:20).

Because of Adam and Eve, we are out of control. We are born with sin. Sin infects us all. Sin affects us all. Sin has defected the world and all of us living in this world. The Psalm writer, actually David, in Psalm 51 says: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (PSALM 51:5). David writes, “There is when I began sinning. Even before I drew an earthly breath outside the womb, I was a sinner.” David says, “I was a sinner from the moment of conception.” In this way the Lord shows us when life begins. As soon as life begins on this earth, at the very moment of conception, there is sin attached to it; and there is no escape.

Sin is a word that many in our world around us do not like to hear. How do we know that sin is here? We know because our text says sin is here, disobedience is here, and death is here. Again, no one in this world ever escapes death, which is a result of sin. Adam and Eve were going to die now, because the world was no longer perfect. Who wants to live in this world especially when it is so imperfect, especially when we are so imperfect, especially when we have feelings of hatred and anger and rage because of sin? Sometimes those feelings and emotions are just like the text points out, “We are out of control.” The Prophet Ezekiel says: “For every living soul belongs to me, the father as well as the son–both alike belong to me. The soul who sins is the one who will die” (EZEKIEL 18:4). We face death, which means we have sinned. Everyone faces death, and therefore, everyone sins. Mankind is not in control, just as we are not in control of the time of our departure, so we were not in control with the time we were born–born with the infection of sin.

Now, we want to remember, as believers we are in control. We are in control of resisting the sins that are around us. We can avoid sin. We can overcome sin. We can defeat sin by the power of God; but the sin that we are born with is there. We cannot deny it. In that sense mankind is out of control because the disobedience of our first parents and our disobedience still brings sin into this world and eventually death.

Still, we can celebrate during Lent. We celebrate today the fact that Christ’s perfect obedience provides us with grace and life. We do not suffer eternal death but are given eternal life. That is the second part of each one of these verses from 17, 18 and 19.

Christ’s perfect obedience provides grace and life

Yes, Paul says there is sin and death, disobedience and trespass, but what else? 19For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous. Adam, the one man, brought sin into the world; and now there is another man who was sent into this world and brought righteousness. Instead of being cast out from the Garden of Eden forever, He has provided for mankind heaven that is far better than any kind of perfection found here on earth.

Then Paul lets us know who this one man is, even though our text did not mention Adam by name, but here he says: God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. It is Christ–the one Man–who brings into this world righteousness. It is Christ–the one Man—who brings into this world the forgiveness of sins and life and salvation. In that comparison just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. So again, he defines for us where it says, many will be made righteous. When Jesus died on the cross, He died for the sins of the world. Don’t be misled by those who say, “Well, just some are saved or a few are saved. Many, but not all, have their sins forgiven.” Listen to this: 18Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. The Lord’s sacrifice, the Lord’s gift of His life and blood on the cross was good enough to cover up the sins of everyone. It is true that not everyone who receives the benefit of eternity, because they harden their hearts.

Today you and I celebrate this, which is the Passion of the Christ, the Passion of our Christ. Yes, sin is in this world. It is always going to survive as long as people are born. There will be sin in this world, because man inherits sin and it is part of our nature. But sin is forgiven in this world through the gift of Christ, God’s own Son who paid for our sins. When Adam and Eve sinned, the Lord demanded justice, justice to pay for that sin and justice to pay for the sins of the world. God was so demanding that He demanded justice that only He could provide. The justice that God would provide came through His only Son, a sacrifice for sins. Paul writes to the people in Corinth: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 CORINTHIANS 5:21).Today you and I celebrate this, which is the Passion of the Christ, the Passion of our Christ. Yes, sin is in this world. It is always going to survive as long as people are born. There will be sin in this world, because man inherits sin and it is part of our nature. But sin is forgiven in this world through the gift of Christ, God’s own Son who paid for our sins. When Adam and Eve sinned, the Lord demanded justice, justice to pay for that sin and justice to pay for the sins of the world. God was so demanding that He demanded justice that only He could provide. The justice that God would provide came through His only Son, a sacrifice for sins. Paul writes to the people in Corinth: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 CORINTHIANS 5:21).Today you and I celebrate this, which is the Passion of the Christ, the Passion of our Christ. Yes, sin is in this world. It is always going to survive as long as people are born. There will be sin in this world, because man inherits sin and it is part of our nature. But sin is forgiven in this world through the gift of Christ, God’s own Son who paid for our sins. When Adam and Eve sinned, the Lord demanded justice, justice to pay for that sin and justice to pay for the sins of the world. God was so demanding that He demanded justice that only He could provide. The justice that God would provide came through His only Son, a sacrifice for sins. Paul writes to the people in Corinth: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 CORINTHIANS 5:21).

We, who are children of the devil by birth and by nature, are now called righteousness. As sinners we are declared righteous not because of what we have done, but because of the sacrifice of Christ. What made Jesus’ sacrifice so challenging is the fact that the God’s perfect Son came here in human flesh and blood to live in the world, to suffer and die, and even to be tempted by Satan. In our Gospel Lesson for today (LUKE 4:1-13) tells us how Satan tempted Jesus over and over again. Satan “quoted” Scripture, but in reality as you reread that, he misquoted Scripture. Jesus quoted Scripture correctly. We know that Satan tempted Him because this would be Satan’s last chance to totally destroy God’s plan of salvation. Yet, as we look at it, we see Jesus, God’s Son as he offers the perfect sacrifice. We also see Jesus, the Son of Man, overcomes every temptation for us. Isaiah says: “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (ISAIAH 53:6). This again describes our inherited sinfulness and Christ’s sinlessness that is passed on to us.

We are not in control by saying to the Lord, “Here is my plan of salvation. I am going to buy my way into heaven.” We are not in control by saying to the Lord, “Here is my plan of salvation. I am going to work hard enough and do the best I can to earn my way into heaven.” None of us can buy or earn our way into heaven. We do not deserve to be there, but God’s plan of salvation according to Him is, “I will do all the work. I will send my Son to die in your place.” Therefore Paul says in Titus: “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy” (TITUS 3:4,5).

Sunday after Sunday we are privileged to hear about the mercy of God. Day after day when we read our Bibles at home, we are privileged to see the mercy of God. We have seen our Savior’s passion. We have lived our Savior’s passion through God’s living and powerful Word. That reminds us that sure, we are not in control. When we look at our life, we are probably less in control than what we realize. Is it a reason to despair and throw up our hands and say, “What is the use?” No, it is the reason to rejoice and remember that even though we are not in control, God is in control. No one else, but God Himself! He is control even though our disobedience and our birth brings into this world more sin and eventually death. Our gracious God is in control to show us that His Son and His perfect obedience is our perfect payment and brings to us grace and life, not just on Sunday, but everyday of our life.

In the first letter of John: “He who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work” (1 JOHN 3:8). Now, the power of the devil has been destroyed; the power of sin has been destroyed; and the power of death has been overcome with Christ’s death and resurrection. We are not in control of that, but thankfully and praise God that He has decided for us that He wants all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. Our loving Lord has decided for us, rather than stay here among sin and death forever, we will live with Him in grace and eternal life forever.

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

Ash Wednesday Sermon: Reconciled to God: Restoring the Image

Sermon delivered on Ash Wednesday, February 26, 2020 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: Joel 2.1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51; 2 Corinthians 5.20b-6.10; St. Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21.

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. The season of Lent reminds 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. 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 Christ. So tonight I want us to look at what must be done to be reconciled to God and each other because too often we Christians get it wrong at precisely this point. So bear with me and stay with me. This is a long and complex sermon, but the Lord has given it to me to preach and it is critical that we get this right.

In our OT and psalm lessons, we are reminded starkly that we are alienated from God and therefore under God’s just and right judgment. It is here that many of us tune out. We simply don’t want to hear this and if we are honest with ourselves, we must confess we don’t know what we must do to make things right between God and us. To help us think about our dynamic with God and each other, I have found it increasingly helpful to reflect on these issues in light of the overall big picture contained in Scripture. A week ago Sunday you recall that we looked at the creation narratives because they give us insight into God’s original creative intentions for the world and us. We saw that God created everything good, that creation matters to God, especially in light of God’s promise to heal and redeem it, and most importantly we saw that God created humans in his image to be his good and wise stewards who reflected God’s goodness, righteousness, justice, and love out into his world to allow it to flourish and prosper. As God’s image-bearers, we were created to always reflect God’s character and glory. That’s what image-bearers do. Before our rebellion against God, we saw how beautifully things worked. Creation flourished (the garden was paradise that was doubtless beautiful and radiant and healthy) and humans enjoyed continuous intimate and life-giving communion with their Creator. Whether death was part of that picture has been much debated. If death existed prior to the Fall, it was certainly not seen as punitive or juridical. What we can say for certain is that there were no physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual maladies like disease, fear, alienation, rancor and the like. The first humans knew their place as God’s image-bearers and acted wisely to reflect God’s love and goodness out into his world and enjoyed all the benefits of perfect communion with God. 

But that all changed with the Fall, when humans rebelled against God and attempted to usurp God’s role as Creator and God. This resulted in the destruction of the life-giving and healthy communion between God and his creatures and resulted in God’s cursing creation. Human rebellion also allowed the outside and hostile forces of Evil to enter into God’s good world to corrupt it and us. Our alienation from God caused us to be hostile to God and introduced all the awful diseases of body, mind, and spirit that afflict so many of us today. In short, God’s image in us became marred, but thankfully not totally destroyed. This resulted in our inability to reflect God’s love and goodness out into the world to sustain it and allow creation to celebrate and flourish like it did before the Fall. This is the overall problem defined in the story of Scripture. God created all things good and created humans in his image to run his good world. As long as God’s image remained complete and whole in humans, paradise resulted. But once humans rebelled and God’s image became distorted in us, all hell broke loose on earth and throughout the cosmos because the powers of Sin and Evil were allowed to gain control to enslave us and corrupt God’s good world and our lives. The story of Scripture is therefore the story of how God intends to right these wrongs, no small or easy task, and Lent invites us to remember this story and what our role in God’s rescue plan might be so that once again, we might become the full image-bearing creatures God created us to be to rule his creation wisely and lovingly. In other words, this is the overall big-picture context for Lent and beyond. 

This context hopefully will help us think about our Scripture lessons tonight. In our OT lesson, we hear God calling his people to repent of their sins that have caused them to become alienated from God as his image-bearers. We recall that God had called Israel to be the agents through whom God would heal his sin-sick and corrupted world. But here we see Israel had failed miserably and were in terrible danger of falling under God’s awful judgment on all things evil when God returned to put his creation back together again. Instead of reflecting God’s goodness and justice and righteousness and mercy and love out into God’s world so that God could bring healing to the nations, Israel became ingrown and selfish because they had turned to false gods to worship and as a result developed a false image of those gods. This happened because we always reflect and eventually turn into that which we worship. Sound familiar? The result was chaos and destruction. The nations were not being healed because Israel was not reflecting God’s image properly into their world and lives, and judgment awaited God’s people as a result. And here we must be crystal clear in our thinking about God’s judgment. If we see God as an angry ogre who is bent on punishing us for our sins, we will naturally see God’s judgment as vindictive and restrictive. Eat your veggies! Don’t screw up! Behave yourselves! Make better decisions or I will punish you. That’s why you need to repent! But this thinking gets it so wrong on so many levels and reflects how thoroughly is our enslavement to the power of Sin—Sin defined as that semi-autonomous and alien power that is stronger than we are—because this thinking distorts who God really is and makes repentance all about us. Nothing could be further from the truth because if we think of our sins as misbehaviors or bad choices on our part, we totally misunderstand the nature of sin and God’s judgment on it.  

Sin, biblically defined, is missing the mark. And what is the mark? Being God’s image-bearers who reflect God’s love and goodness out into the world. But we have been enslaved by that outside power of Sin so that we are compelled to act in ways that emphatically do not bear the image of God. We have unhappy marriages so we cheat on our spouse. Our sex lives are not fulfilling so we turn to pornography. We disagree with others about politics or religion (or whatever) and we resort to name calling and ad hominem attacks or back-biting and evil speaking about them. Others do us wrong and we seek revenge. We worry if we’ll have enough resources to live so we cheat, steal, and deceive. Worse yet, we hoard our resources and don’t share them with those in need. You get the point. We turn inward and miss the mark. How do these behaviors and attitudes reflect the goodness, love, mercy, and justice of God to heal his broken and hurting world? How do they reflect God’s character and glory? We cease to become God’s image-bearers and become Sin and Evil’s image-bearers instead. Every time we act selfishly or cruelly or deceitfully, every time we speak or think in hostile ways about God and others, God’s image in us is marred a bit more and the result is chaos, anger, rancor, hostility, anxiety, and alienation to name a few. How can a loving and just God allow this kind of stuff to go on indefinitely? What kind of loving parent would stand by idly and watch his or her children being corrupted by outside forces? How can God not judge murder, rape, rapacity, cruelty, and the like? A good, just, and loving God must judge this kind of evil and those who perpetrate it. We all get this. But our enslavement to the power of Sin also corrupts our concept of God so that we mistake the nature of God’s judgment, projecting onto God our own anger and distorted motives for behaving in the ways we do. But if we learn to see God’s judgment as liberating us from our enslavement to Sin’s power and restoring us to be his image-bearing creatures again, we learn to see, if not lament, the necessity of God’s judgment on Evil and sin. 

One more note about sin before we move on to look at repentance. Sin is a theological concept. For those who do not know or believe in God, there is no such thing as sin. That’s because there is no standard by which to judge behavior. If one doesn’t know God, one cannot possibly discern what it means to be God’s image-bearer. Such people will scoff at the notion of sin and the need for repentance because they are happy to march to the tune of their own moral drummer, and that drummer will usually be anything or anyone but God. They will also scoff at the cross, seeing it as unnecessary and barbaric (cf. 1 Cor 1.18-25). This explains why St. Paul put forth all the apparent contradictions about himself in our epistle lesson. Those who didn’t know God skewered him (as they will us). But he was well known, loved, and protected because of his faith in the power of God made known in suffering love. I remind us of this because it points us to the Good News of our redemption. For us to be aware of sin is to be aware of God and God’s will for us as his image-bearers, and to be aware of this means that we have already come under God’s loving care for us. The question is, what will we do with that knowledge?

We hear God through his prophet Joel call for God’s people to repent, to turn back to God and God’s ways so that God’s image can be restored in them (and us) so that we can once again be the humans God created us to be. But because we are so thoroughly enslaved to the power of Sin, God’s call to us to repent gets corrupted and we make repentance about us. It’s not. To believe repentance will end our alienation from God and God’s judgment on our sins is to believe that we actually have the power to free ourselves from our enslavement to the power of Sin. That is a lie and a delusion and we as Christians must be very careful to understand what God’s call to repentance is really all about. Think about it. If we really had complete control over our thinking, speaking, behaving, and decision-making then of course repentance would remove God’s judgment of those sins. We just right the wrong. But that’s not how it works, does it? How many times have you resolved to repent of a behavior, only to keep on doing the same thing over and over despite your sincere desire to change your ways? It happens to me all the time and it happens to every one of you (how many of you, e.g., are still keeping your new year’s resolutions?). It is analogous to a drug addict who resolves to get off the juice without any outside help only to find himself relapsing time and again. He cannot fix himself. To be sure, we have the freedom to choose and make decisions and that makes us responsible for our thinking/doing/speaking, whether for good or ill. But because we are so thoroughly enslaved by Sin’s power, our decision making is often corrupted. We often want the wrong without even realizing it. This is what is going on in our gospel lesson where Jesus condemned the motives for doing good and holy acts like giving to the poor, praying, and fasting. There’s nothing wrong with these things. In fact, they all are designed to help us focus on God rather than ourselves so that we can be better image-bearers. But our slavery to Sin’s power corrupts our motives for doing these acts (we want others to see how good we are when we are actually Sin’s slaves) and this results in further sin and alienation from God, the very opposite result for which these acts were intended. Our sins are simply symptoms of our slavery to Sin’s power, not the root cause. Until our slavery to Sin’s power is dealt with and we are freed from its grip, the problem of our alienation to God will not and cannot be fixed because God’s image cannot be fully restored in us.

So the issue is not about making better decisions or strengthening our resolve. These things are all self-help delusions and non-starters. That’s why repentance will not turn away God’s severe judgment on the evil we all commit, whether or not we recognize the evil. Again, what needs to be done is to break our enslavement to the power of Sin so that we are freed once again to make the good and wise and healthy decisions God originally gave us the ability to make that allow us to function as God’s image-bearers. The Good News of course is that God has done exactly this for us in the cross of Jesus Christ. Without the cross, we can repent till the cows come home and nothing good will come of it, at least not over the long haul.  

God knows all this, of course, and God loves us and wants to restore his image in us so that we can once again function as healthy and wise human beings who freely choose to act in the manner of God. To do that, our slavery to Sin has to end. In our epistle lesson tonight, St. Paul makes the enigmatic statement that God made Christ to be sin even though Christ was sinless. What on earth did St. Paul mean? A sea of ink has been spilt over this, but one thing we can say with certainty is that on the cross, God broke Sin’s power over us so that we are no longer enslaved by it (cf. Col 2.13-15) and freed with the help of the Spirit to act and choose wisely after the manner of Christ (to repent). In other words, in the cross of Christ, God set the conditions needed for him to restore his image in us once again so that we can be fully reconciled to God. We don’t know how all this works, but we do know this. On the cross, God condemned our sin in the flesh and absorbed his own terrible but right judgment so that he could spare us (Romans 8.3-5). Jesus, the Son of God, did this willingly and in complete cooperation with the Father to free us from our bondage to Sin’s power. To be sure, Evil still exists in us and the world and will continue to exist until Christ returns to judge and put an end to all of it at the resurrection of the dead, but we believe that our slavery to Sin’s power has been broken by an even greater power: the goodness, love, and mercy of God the Father through the sacrifice of God the Son. There is no self-help here. There is nothing but God’s help. Self-help is doomed to fail always. God’s help never does. This is Good News at its finest. God did for us what we cannot do for ourselves and all that he requires from us is to believe that he has taken care of the problem of Sin and our alienation from God. We call this putting our faith in Jesus Christ and him crucified.

This changes how we view repentance. As we have seen, God has acted on our behalf to free us from Sin’s power to enslave us before we ever became aware of the notion of sin. We no longer have to fear God’s judgment on our sins because God has already condemned our sin in the flesh and our fallen nature, and taken his condemnation on himself to spare us. We repent, then, in sorrow but also with great joy and thanksgiving. We realize we are no longer slaves to Sin but to God, all made possible in Christ’s death and the presence of God’s Holy Spirit living in us. Our repentance is therefore not about avoiding God’s judgment as much as it is about allowing God to restore his image in us so that we can begin to bring God’s goodness and health and life back into God’s world. Being mortal and fallen creatures, despite God’s great act of mercy and grace on our behalf on the cross, we will sin from time to time, but we turn to God for forgiveness and resolve to repent out of joyous gratitude for God’s great grace toward us, however imperfectly that might look in our lives, because we believe we are freed to act as God’s image-bearers again, people who will love instead of hate, who will have mercy rather than condemn, who will work hard to reflect the goodness of Christ, the only true image-bearer of God. Put another way, we know repentance won’t and can’t save us for reasons we have already seen. That’s not a problem because we are already spared God’s condemnation on our sins before we ever repented or were even aware of the danger in which our sins put us! Instead, having been freed from our slavery to the power of Sin, repentance is about doing what we need to do to allow God to continue his saving work in and through the cross of Christ to heal us and restore his image in us until that day when it is fully restored in the new creation so that we can do the work and be the people God created us to do and be. A good self-check question regarding how well we are repenting would be as follows: How accurately am I reflecting God’s image out into his world, i.e., how closely does my thinking/speaking/acting reflect Jesus Christ? We look to Jesus as our standard of measurement.

That is why even as we repent and feel great sorrow over our sins we have committed against God and others as David did in our psalm lesson, we can also rejoice that we have a God who loved us and gave himself for us so that his image in us might once again be restored. As we’ve seen, that won’t happen fully until Christ returns to raise the dead and usher in God’s new creation. But as St. Paul tells us in the verses preceding our epistle lesson tonight, we are already new creations, i.e., God is restoring his image in us, because of the cross of Christ and the work of the Spirit. This is a God worthy of our love and adoration. This is what the season of Lent asks us to reflect on. When we see that our repentance and prayer and fasting are all responses to God’s love and mercy and have nothing to do with turning away his severe decree on our wickedness because the Father has already rescued us through the Son, we are ready to enter Lent with the proper mindset and spirit. During this season of Lent let us resolve to repent of our false and corrupt gospel of self-help and self-righteousness, acknowledging our helplessness to free ourselves from our slavery to Sin and thanking God for doing that on our behalf out of his great love for us. Let us resolve to rely on the power of God to restore his image in us and let us act accordingly in the power of the Spirit. Doing so will truly give honor, power and glory to the One who loved us and gave himself to us from all eternity to do what it takes to restore his life-giving image in us. May the name of the Holy Trinity be praised and blessed forever and ever.

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