Don’t Be Afraid. Here’s Why

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard Bauckham (Psephizo): Facing Death with Easter Hope

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

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

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

Read it all

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!

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. 

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.

Hans Küng on the Eucharist and Baptism

So much is clear: the Lord’s Supper is the center of the Church and of its various acts of worship. Here the Church is truly itself, because it is wholly with its Lord; here the Church of Christ is gathered for its most intimate fellowship, as sharers in a meal. In this fellowship they draw strength for their service in the world. Because this meal is a meal of recollection and thanksgiving, the Church is essentially a community which remembers and thanks. And because this meal is a meal of covenant and fellowship, the Church is essentially a community, which loves without ceasing. And because finally this meal is an anticipation of the eschatological meal, the Church is essentially a community which looks to the future with confidence. Essentially, therefore, the Church must be a meal-fellowship, a koinonia or communio, must be a fellowship with Christ and with Christians, or it is not the Church of Christ. In the Lord’s Supper it is stated with incomparable clarity that the Church is the ecclesia, the congregation, the community of God. In the Lord’s Supper in fact the Church is constantly constituted anew. If the Church owes to baptism the fact that it is a Church, and does not have to become a Church through its own pious works, the Church owes to the Lord’s Supper the fact that it remains a Church, despite any falling away and failure. From God’s viewpoint it means that while baptism is the sign of electing and justifying grace, the Lord’s Supper is the sign of sustaining and perfecting grace. From the human viewpoint it means that while baptism is above all the sign of the response of faith and obedience, the Lord’s Supper is the sign of the response of love and hope.

—From The Church by Hans Küng