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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Prayer for All-Souls’ Day 2021

Everlasting God, our maker and redeemer,
grant us, with all the faithful departed,
the sure bene?ts of your Son’s saving passion
and glorious resurrection,
that, in the last day,
when you gather up all things in Christ,
we may with them enjoy the fullness of your promises;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

All-Saints’ Day 2021: Being The Church Militant: A Call For Christian Boldness

Today we celebrate All-Saints and the Communion of Saints, the elect body of Christ, living and dead, forged through the blood of the Lamb shed for us and through his mighty resurrection. Those who have died in the peace of Christ and are currently enjoying their rest in the direct presence of their Lord are also known as the Church Triumphant, that part of the Communion of Saints currently hidden from our view with Christ in heaven. It is the penultimate goal of any Christian to attain membership in this Church.

For those of us still living in this mortal life are part of the Church Militant, the other half of the Communion of Saints. Unlike the Church Triumphant, we have not yet achieved our reward of being with Christ in heaven, awaiting the resurrection of our mortal bodies at the return of our Lord Jesus. So why is Christ’s Church on earth known as the Church Militant?

The term implies at least two qualities. First the Church Militant cannot possibly live up to its name without boldness. By boldness I mean that Christians living in this mortal life must be convinced that our Story, the Story of God’s rescue of his creation and creatures as contained in the Old and New Testaments, is the only true and real game in town. We must be convinced that God so loves us that he gave his only begotten Son to die for us to free us from our slavery to the power of Sin and reconcile us to God, a story vindicated and affirmed when God raised Jesus Christ from the dead on that first Easter so many years ago. It is a story that while true, has not been consummated and so we must live by faith in this mortal life.

When we believe our story contained in holy Scriptures (not the story of human making or revision, but the God-breathed story contained in the Bible), we are convinced that Jesus really is Lord despite all that swirls around us, that God really is in control of his creation despite the torrent of bad news that bombards us, and the jeering of our skeptics. This story makes us bold to live for Christ because we know that death, decay, sickness, sorrow, alienation, and evil do not have the last laugh, God does. We know this because Christ is raised from the dead. While this faith does not protect us from all that afflicts us in this mortal life, it gives us real hope—hope defined as the sure and certain expectation of things to come, i.e., God’s promised new creation along with the resurrection of the dead, not wishful thinking—to face our trials and tribulations with confidence and without fear. Without a resurrection hope, Christians are no better off than non-believers who have no real hope in God’s redemptive plan in and through Christ and there is no way the Church can be bold.

Show me a church without Christian boldness and I will show you a Church that cannot possibly be Militant.

We see it all the time with Christian leaders on the defensive, apologizing for all kinds of things, terrified they might offend someone and bowing to cultural pressure from those who hate them, while remaining silent in their bold proclamation of the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ’s saving death and resurrection for all who put their ultimate hope and trust (faith) in Christ and live accordingly. It is a sad spectacle indeed. Christ either is the Son of God, God become human, or he is not. His gospel is either true or it isn’t. If it isn’t we need to eat, drink, and be merry because tomorrow we will be dead and we ain’t coming back to life. But if it’s true, we need to starting thinking, speaking, and acting like it’s true. In other words, we need to start imitating our Lord Jesus and be prepared to suffer and give our life to and for him.

Related to this idea, the Church Militant implies that Christians are called to wage war in Christ’s name, not as the world wages war but as Christ waged it. To be sure, the devil and his minions, both human and spiritual, have been defeated in and through Christ’s death. But they are far from vanquished and chaos—the very definition of sin—reigns in our world. We are told, e.g., we are racists, homophobes, [insert your favorite anti-Christian invective here], etc., etc. Every time the Church Militant acts with boldness faithfully it can expect to get punched in the face! But we don’t retaliate in kind. The Church Militant are resurrection people with a real hope! Christ is alive and reigns! The world is still in God the Father’s good and loving control and nothing, not even the gates of hell, can pry it from him.

When the Church militant believes this, we can wage war on behalf of Christ and do it faithfully: Through prayer, fasting, loving our enemies, and speaking the truth in love, for starters. We needn’t panic. Christ is Lord and the dark powers are not. So what does that look like on the ground? I offer three examples. There are millions more.

First is this piece entitled Blessing Biden. Whatever one thinks of the president and his policies, a bold Christian response is to pray for him and for a repentant heart when we see him going off the rails as defined by God’s Truth contained in Scripture. Name-calling and cursing, two favorite weapons of the world, should never be part of the Christian’s arsenal, tempting as it may be or frustrated as we may get. It is in this context that we can speak the truth in love to those who push alternative anti-Christian agendas. We don’t curse or name call because as Christians we believe even our enemies are created in God’s image and Christ died to save them as well as us, whether or not they have the good sense to claim the gift.

Or consider Archbishop Cordileone’s call to “…Catholics to join in a massive and visible campaign of prayer and fasting for Speaker Pelosi: commit to praying one rosary a week and fasting on Fridays for her conversion of heart [on the matter of abortion].” No invective, no vitriol. Just prayers and rosaries and roses (and plenty of the latter!). The world does not know how to behave this way; and in behaving as such, it colludes with the dark powers to further spread chaos. Speaker Pelosi may remained firmly committed supporting the murder of unborn babies, but we believe that in our actions of prayer and fasting, God’s healing and redemptive power is still at work, bringing about God’s will, even when it is beyond our seeing and understanding. That is Christian boldness in action, a boldness that requires an informed faith, and it infuriates our enemies even as it encourages the Church Militant.

Finally, David Roberston speaks out about the Church’s timidity in the climate-change discussion, arguing instead that Christians have a distinctive solution, one the nay-sayers and doomsday wailers do not and cannot offer, a solution based on the Story of God’s rescue plan for creation. In Robertson we find a bold voice that is polite but that speaks the truth in love in the process. And he is spot-on in terms of his criticism of timid church leaders. Show me a Christian leader or follower who believes his/her story, and I will show you a bold Christian, one worthy of doing battle as part of the Church Militant.

Of course, any Christian with a sense of boldness will be careful to start being bold by looking at himself/herself in the mirror and realizing that he/she is in the same desperate need of Christ as anyone else. Boldness starts with a sense of Christian humility. We don’t have all the answers and we certainly are not superior to those we criticize or for whom we pray/ask forgiveness. We realize that repentance and love and mercy and charity all start at home. But we have the weapons we need to combat our fallen nature. We are part of the mystical body of Christ, the Communion of Saints. We have the wisdom of tradition and the truth contained in God’s holy word. We are empowered and led by the Holy Spirit and we are part of a holy, albeit imperfect, family who loves us enough to correct us when they see us go off the rails.

This All-Saints’ Day, I encourage you to seek Christ who loves you and wants you to be his forever, starting right now. Be part of the Church Militant and be a bold Christian for your Savior, asking him to lead, guide, and correct you at every turn so that you can bring his Name the honor and glory it deserves. After all, one day every knee will bow to that Name and every tongue confess him to be Lord and Savior, whether willingly or unwillingly. Let us therefore resolve to be a willing part of the only real game in town.

All-Saints’ Day 2021: St. Augustine Muses on the Saints of God

When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “With humans this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”— Matthew 19.25-26

The saints are those who are moved by God’s grace to do whatever good they do. Some are married and have intercourse with their spouse sometimes for the sake of having a child and sometimes just for the pleasure of it. They get angry and desire revenge when they are injured, but are ready to forgive when asked. They are very attached to their property but will freely give at least a modest amount to the poor. They will not steal from you but are quick to take you to court if you try to steal from them. They are realistic enough to know that God should get the main credit for the good that they do. They are humble enough to admit that they are the sources of their own evil acts. In this life God loves them for their good acts and gives forgiveness for their evil, and in the next life they will join the ranks of those who will reign with Christ forever.

—Augustine of Hippo, Against Two Letters of the Pelagians, 3.5.14

One of the reasons I love Augustine is that he was never afraid to be real. As you read his description of the saints, you cannot help but wonder how these folks can be enjoying their rest with their Lord. Look at their flaws Augustine is pointing out!

Here’s the answer. They have died with Christ and so are raised with him (Romans 6.8) They were buried with Christ in the waters of baptism so that they might rise with him in his resurrection (Romans 6.3-5). And when they were alive in this mortal life, this treasure of life eternal was hidden with Christ (Colossians 3.3-4), i.e., this hope and promise of resurrection and eternal life is based on their relationship with the risen Christ, who remains hidden from us in this mortal life from his abode in heaven, God’s space.

For you see, it is not about the saints or our worthiness. None of us is worthy to stand before God in God’s perfect holiness! Rather, it is about what God has done for us in Christ so that through his death we might enjoy real peace and reconciliation with God (Romans 5.1, 11). In Jesus, God condemned sin in the flesh so that we might be equipped to live with God forever, both here on earth in the power of the Spirit and in God’s promised new creation (Romans 8.3-4, 18-25, Revelation 21.1-7). This is what Jesus reminds us of in the passage above from St.Matthew and that’s why we have hope for the Christian dead and ourselves on All Saints’ Day. Jesus is Lord, even over death!

Is this your hope or are you clinging to something less which is bound to fail? On this All Saints’ Day may God grant you the grace, wisdom, and courage to embrace the hope offered to you in Christ, and may that hope make all the difference in the world for you, enabling you to be a bold saint for Christ.

A Prayer for All-Saints’ Day 2021 (2)

Blessed are you, Sovereign God,
ruler and judge of all,
to you be praise and glory for ever.
In the darkness of this age that is passing away
may the light of your presence which the saints enjoy
surround our steps as we journey on.
May we reflect your glory this day
and so be made ready to see your face
in the heavenly city where night shall be no more.
Blessed be God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Blessed be God for ever. Amen.

A Prayer for All-Saints’ Day 2021 (1)

Almighty God,
you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship
in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord:
grant us grace so to follow your blessed saints
in all virtuous and godly living
that we may come to those inexpressible joys
that you have prepared for those who truly love you;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for

For All the Saints: God’s Promise of New Creation and the Abolition of Death

Sermon delivered on All-Saints’ Sunday B, October 31, 2021 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 25.6-9; Psalm 24; Revelation 21.1-6a; John 11.32-44.

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

Today is All-Saints’ Sunday, the Sunday where we celebrate the communion of saints, those saints who have died in Christ and who are enjoying their rest with him, as well as those of us in Christ who still struggle in this mortal life with all of its joys and sorrows and everything in between. But why do we celebrate the Feast of All-Saints? Other than giving us a chance to remember our dearly departed—never a bad thing—what difference does it make if we have a robust belief in the communion of saints? To answer that question, we must look beyond the saints and see the power of God at work. This is what I want us to look at this morning.

Death under any circumstance is extremely hard, isn’t it? Death is the ultimate form of dehumanization. We don’t get a do-over with death. It separates us permanently from our loved ones and tends to leave us angry and/or without hope. Certainly we grieve. Death can also be the ultimate form of injustice. We’ve had people in our parish family who have lost loved ones prematurely to the wicked monster of cancer. We’ve had folks lose loved ones to suicide. Many of us have watched our parents or grandparents grow old and infirm and waste away, and it is heartbreaking. On a broader scale, we are bombarded with news of mass murder, horrific accidents, heinous crimes, drug fatalities, acts of terrorism, and all the rest. None of those folks deserved to suffer and die the way they did, especially when they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time or happened to have the wrong genetic makeup that stacked the deck against them almost from the start. Where’s the justice in that? We can punish murderers but it won’t bring back our loved ones. We might find cures for some of the evil diseases that afflict our bodies and minds but our loved ones are still gone. Where’s the justice, especially for violent or senseless deaths? No matter what we do, no matter how severely we punish evildoers or rage against the evil and injustice of death, our loved ones are still dead and we are still separated from them for the remainder of our mortal life.

All this can make us wonder where God is in it all. Why does God allow such suffering and death to occur? Part of the answer is that Death reigns because the power of Sin reigns in this world and our lives (Genesis 3ff), and as St. Paul reminds us, the wages of sin is death (Rom 6.23). None of us escape it. We can eat right, exercise like crazy, and take very good care of ourselves. The result? We all die because we all have been enslaved by the power of Sin. But this answer is not ultimately a satisfactory one. A life-long smoker who has terminal lung cancer will not really find much help or comfort in the knowledge that his smoking caused him to develop a disease that is killing him. As Christians, we know that sin leads to death and we are going to die because we are all sinners. But in the final analysis that really isn’t going to be helpful to us as we face our loved ones’ mortality and/or our own. In fact, most of us get angry when thinking about Sin and Death. We might understand the relationship on a theoretical basis but we sure don’t want it applied to us or our loved ones! 

The ugly reality of death and God’s response to it is why All-Saints’ Sunday is so important to us as Christians because today reminds us that Sin and Death do not have the final say in this world or our lives. Now as we just saw it is true that we live in a God-cursed world for our sin. God did and does judge human sin because a good and loving God cannot possibly tolerate any kind of sin that corrupts us and God’s good world. And so we live under God’s curse, but that is not God’s final word on the matter. And as we saw last week, the rest of Scripture attests that God is faithful to his creation and creatures, especially his image-bearing creatures, despite our sin and rebellion against God. God does not intend to destroy his good world gone bad, he intends to redeem and restore it and us to at least our original health and goodness where we will once again enjoy perfect communion with God, and with it comes perfect health and eternal life. 

We get a glimpse of God’s promise to heal and restore in our OT lesson when God proclaims through his prophet that he will destroy the shroud of death—an appropriate image, don’t you think?—and swallow up death forever. In doing so God will wipe the tears from all faces and take away our disgrace. I cannot think of a bigger disgrace than death because it utterly robs us of our humanity. So let the picture of this promise take root in your mind. You are standing directly in the Lord’s presence and he raises your dead loved ones back to life. He gently takes you in his arms and wipes your tears away as he reunites you with those whom you’ve loved and lost. You know that never again will you have to worry about the possibility of being separated from either God or your loved ones and so there is no more reason to weep. Let that image sink in and strengthen you. Then give thanks to the One who will make it happen. With that in mind, do you see what’s really going on here? God not only deals with death, God deals with everything that corrupts and degrades, death being the most significant form of corruption. By removing our tears and disgrace, God promises to remove the evil that caused them and free his world from all that infects/corrupts it. While the prophet never says this explicitly, that means the curse must be lifted and we must be freed from our slavery to Sin which leads to Death.

This OT promise finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ and his story contained in the NT. If the evil one has ever tried to deceive you about how God feels about death, look no further than our gospel lesson this morning to find the antidote. We see the Son of God, God become human, snorting in anger—the Greek word for the English phrase “greatly disturbed” literally means to snort in anger—at the tomb of his dead friend Lazarus as the emotions of the crowd and those he loves, as well as his own human emotions, are aroused by the wicked reality of his friend’s death. Sure, Jesus knew he was going to revive Lazarus, a preview of coming attractions when he raises the dead at his second coming, not to mention his own resurrection, but this did not stop our Lord from being offended by death. So if you ever think that God takes any pleasure in our death, look no further than our Lord standing at Lazarus’ tomb and snorting in anger over this obscene evil. That’s the kind of God we love and worship, and thankfully God has the power to do something about it. The Son of God resuscitated his friend and then went on to die a godforsaken and terrible death to spare us from God’s judgment on our sins and free us from our slavery to Sin’s power. In bearing the weight of our sins and taking on the full brunt of God’s terrible judgment on all our sin and evil, our Lord Jesus made it possible for us to stand again in God’s direct presence because we no longer wear our filthy, sin-stained rags that got us thrown out of paradise in the first place. Yes, of course we all still sin in our mortal life. But the NT is adamant in its insistence that on the cross, God the Father has taken care of the vexing problem of human sin and the separation it causes us, and in doing so, has broken the dark Powers’ stranglehold on us forever. And in raising Jesus from the dead, God has broken the power of Death forever. As St. Paul tells us in Romans 6.3-8, those who are baptized in Christ share in his death and resurrection. Where he is, so we will be with him. We didn’t earn this and we sure don’t deserve it, but it’s ours anyway because life and death always have been about the power of God, not our own muddled ways and thinking. 

Jesus’ death and resurrection make the breathtaking scene in our epistle lesson possible. The new Jerusalem, NT code for God’s space or heaven, comes down to earth and everything in this world is recreated so that we get to live in God’s direct presence without the hint of any evil or corrupting force in our lives. This means, of course, that the ultimate evil of Death is destroyed forever. The scene in Revelation 21 is Isaiah’s mountaintop vision on steroids because it promises so much more and is a done deal by virtue of the blood of the Lamb shed for us and his resurrection from the dead. The new heavens and earth are not yet a reality, but they will be when our Lord Jesus returns to consummate his saving and healing work. 

Of course, the resurrection of the dead is fully integrated into John’s vision of the new Jerusalem. Without it, God cannot possibly wipe the tears from our eyes. With it, God’s perfect justice is executed and we can finally be healed. The dead are raised to live forever under the protection and power and beauty of God the Father himself. The cause of our mourning is erased forever and we no longer have to fear being harmed or being sick or alienated or being poor or growing old and infirm. We don’t have to worry about our worth or value. We are living in God’s direct presence! But death cannot be abolished in a world that still has sin and evil in it. That’s why the resurrection of the dead, while massively important, is not the ultimate hope and answer for us. To live forever in a world where there is no more sickness, sorrow, death, or sighing means that all that corrupts and dehumanizes and disgraces us is abolished forever. The NT calls this the new creation and that is the hope and promise for all the saints, living and dead.

So what does this mean for our dead saints? Where are they now? As St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Philippians, they are with Christ and they are enjoying his presence and their rest in paradise as they await the day when their Lord will return to this world and their bodies will be raised from the dead. The communion of saints means that we have a resurrection and new creation hope, that death is not the final answer. Jesus is the final answer because only Jesus is the resurrection and the life. The saints kept their eyes on Christ in their mortal life, however imperfectly, just like we do, and they are enjoying their penultimate reward because as we have seen, they are united with Christ by virtue of their baptism and their faith in the Son of God who loves them (and us) and gave himself for them (and us). This is the Church Triumphant. Our Christian dead have triumphed because they put their hope and trust in the One who can and does rescue them from Evil and Death. In a little while, we will read the names of our loved ones who have triumphed over Death because of their faith in Christ and who will one day receive God’s perfect justice by being restored to bodily life. That’s why we call it the Roll Call of the Victorious. Rejoice in that hope even as you miss them.

But what about us who make up the Church Militant, those who live by faith and hope, but who do not yet experience the reward for our faith in the way that the Church Triumphant does? We too are called to keep our eyes on Christ, to pattern our lives after his, to extend his love, goodness, mercy, justice, and righteousness out into his world in our own neck of the woods. Of course when we do, it means all hell will break loose and we will suffer for following Christ, just as he predicted, because the evil powers, while defeated, are not yet abolished, and they don’t want us acting like or in the power of the name of Christ. But we don’t lose heart or hope because we keep in mind the resurrection of the dead and the coming of the new heavens and earth. We will be in that reality a lot longer than this current time of trouble. In saying this, I don’t mean to minimize our problems and suffering, my beloved. I know they are substantial. But the reality of the new creation and God’s love and power are far greater, and we must draw on God’s strength to help see us through. Without that strength, we will surely be lost. This is why it is so important for us to celebrate All-Saints’ Day today, especially in the midst of the darkness of this world. So as you go forth from here, let your resurrection and new creation hope guide and control you. As the chaos of this world swirls around you, tempting you to think everything and everyone has gone completely mad, offer the joy and hope of God’s saints to those around you. A few might ask what is your secret. Most will wonder what you’ve been smoking or scoff at you. But that shouldn’t bother you. As Christians, we believe and proclaim that God has overcome Sin and Death and opened the door to eternal bodily life and a new world equipped to sustain that life to one and all who put their ultimate hope and trust in Christ. There is no greater hope and promise in this world, my beloved. Ever. Let us therefore keep our eyes on the ultimate prize, Christ our Savior, and lead righteous lives. When we do, we proclaim to ourselves and others that we really do have Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. 

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

Saint Paul Muses on the Last Days

In his second letter to Timothy, Saint Paul warns his young protege´ of the dangers that lie ahead for Christians. Sound familiar?

You should know this, Timothy, that in the last days there will be very difficult times. For people will love only themselves and their money. They will be boastful and proud, scoffing at God, disobedient to their parents, and ungrateful. They will consider nothing sacred. They will be unloving and unforgiving; they will slander others and have no self-control. They will be cruel and hate what is good. They will betray their friends, be reckless, be puffed up with pride, and love pleasure rather than God. They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly. Stay away from people like that!

2 Timothy 3.1-5 NLT

As Christians, we must always examine our hearts and motives first to make sure we are not becoming like the world around us, the world Saint Paul describes above. But we have been warned and it is vital that we take care of each other, trusting in the power and grace of Christ to see us through. We are to fight the good fight, resisting Sin and Evil at every turn, again, starting with ourselves, and living to imitate and please Christ in all we do.

Amen. Come Lord Jesus.

The Bible as a Five Act Play (and Why That Matters)

Sermon delivered on Bible Sunday B, October 24, 2021 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon (and today you should listen rather than read the text below), click here.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 55.1-11; Psalm 19.7.-14; 2 Timothy 3.14-4.5; St. John 5.36b-47.

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

Today is Bible Sunday, celebrated every year on the last Sunday after Trinity Sunday. It is the Sunday we focus on what the Bible is and means to us. NT scholar and renowned commentator and Anglican bishop, N.T. Wright, has likened the Bible to a five-act play. What is that all about and why does it matter to you and me as Christians? This is what I want us to look at this morning.

Before we look at Wright’s model, let us keep the following in mind. Holy Scripture is God’s word to us and that alone makes it worth of our reading, reflection, and study. As  we prayed in our collect earlier, we are called to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest God’s word because we need it for encouragement, guidance, reproof, and correction. As we will see, we are created in God’s own image to be wise stewards of his good creation. If that is true (and it is), then it makes sense that we need our marching orders, i.e., we need to know how wise stewards who bear God’s image should think, speak, and act. Scripture isn’t an instruction manual per se, a “how to” for every contingency and situation in life. Rather it tells the story of God’s interactions with his chosen people and the rest of the world, giving us both examples and non-examples of what wise human stewardship should look like based on God’s law/will. Because it is God’s word, we have no right to tinker with it or interpret it according to our own preferences and inclinations. As we saw last week, Holy Scripture isn’t your Bible or mine. It is our Bible and we should read it together as much as we should read it individually. And because we are so profoundly sin-sick, we must read it in the context of how the Church has read it over time and across cultures. Only then can we have any confidence that we are not returning God’s favor of creating us in his image by trying to make God into ours.

Having reminded ourselves that Holy Scriptures are trustworthy and worthy of our best endeavor, let us look at Wright’s model of the Bible as a five-act play, remembering that the overarching narrative/story line is how God is putting his sin-sick and corrupted creation and creatures back to rights. Act 1 is Creation and we find it in Gen 1-2. There we learn that God, who is eternal, created all creation out of nothing by speaking it into existence. We dare not get too literal here nor misread Gen as a science book. Gen 1-2 cares very little about how God created this vast cosmos and us, only that God did. In Gen 1-2 we are told that everything God created was good and that when God created us in his own image to run his creation, God declared everything very good. Yet even in the midst of this brilliant and wonderful creation, the writer notes—almost in passing—that chaos still existed in God’s good and ordered creation. God’s creative word brings goodness and order, and as Christians we should always look back to the creation narratives to learn about God’s original intent for his creation and us. When we do, we learn that God’s world in which we live is full of beauty and goodness. There was nothing wrong with creation before the Fall. In Gen 2 especially we catch the breathtaking beauty of God’s good intention for us as his image-bearers. God created man and gave him dominion over the rest of his created order, expecting man to run it wisely. But man was lonely and so we read the beautiful story of how God created woman from man to be his equal and companion. Only then could man find real happiness and fulfillment. The beautiful and compelling story of how God commanded males and females to become one flesh (to marry) to enjoy perfect intimacy and union for the purpose of procreating and forming families, and so organize ourselves to be wise stewards, is the story of how God intended all this to play out. Only when man and woman come together as husband and wife is the logic of God’s image made known in humans completed. To be sure, some are called to singleness and celibacy, but that is not the norm for God’s created order. If humans are to be good stewards, we need to reproduce and multiply, and only marriage provides the ordered context and security for primary human relationships to thrive and flourish. When we look at the breakdown of the family and other forms of social experimentation, is it any wonder why so many in the West are unhappy and searching for something they know in their bones is possible? But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Here, we note that before the Fall (Act 2), humans enjoyed perfect communion with God and each other, and because we did, there was no such thing as anxiety or alienation or hostility or broken relationships. God created us for this and we need to pay careful attention to what the story of God’s created order intends/desires for us because it represents God’s gold standard for us as his image-bearing creatures and stewards. Even after the Fall, the closer we can align ourselves with God’s original intentions for his created order and us, the happier and healthier we will find ourselves, although not perfectly.

Why not perfectly? Because after the goodness and beauty of creation found in Act 1 comes Act 2, the Fall (Gen 3-11). Despite enjoying perfect communion with God and enjoying God’s presence in paradise (the writer talks almost wistfully about God in the garden, walking daily with humans), humans rebelled against God, trying to usurp God’s rightful role as Creator and Lord. In vivid and memorable language, the writer tells the sad and sickening (literally) story of how humans strove to become God’s equals by eating from the tree of knowledge. Whatever that looked like, it immediately caused alienation between God and humans, resulting in God’s terrible curse on our evil (our first hint that God does not and cannot allow evil to ultimately exist, let alone prevail) by cursing all of creation and expelling humans from paradise. No longer would humans enjoy perfect communion with God or with each other. Human sin allowed evil and the pockets of chaos that God mysteriously allowed to exist in the midst of his good and ordered creation to gain footholds and thoroughly corrupt both creation and us. This is why, e.g., we find evil and ugliness in the midst of God’s beautiful world. Natural disasters, human disasters, birth defects, madness, alienation, fear, and conflict, to name just a few, exist because of the Fall. And marriage? It too was corrupted. As we just saw, originally God created man and woman to be equals and enjoy perfect communion with each other, thus bringing out the beauty of God’s image through mutual love and trust. After the Fall that all changed and divorce, abandonment, abuse, and struggle for relational power/control took over. The beauty of God’s original created order was marred and corrupted by human sin and the evil our sin ushered in so that we were finally enslaved by those two powers. In Genesis 3-11, we see the ever-escalating corruption that human sin and evil ushered into God’s good created order. Murder, mayhem, madness, sickness, alienation, rebellion, war, and all the rest were sadly here to stay. Things got so bad that God considered destroying his good creation and creatures gone bad and starting over. You can read about that in the account of the great Flood found in Genesis 6ff. But as we all know, God changed his mind and didn’t start over because God’s love for his image-bearers is constant and faithful despite our inconstancy and faithlessness, thanks be to God!

But what was God going to do? If God refused to destroy all humanity and his creation and start over, how was God going deal with the corrupting and death-inducing sin and evil? After all, as we have seen, God can tolerate no evil! If humans are so thoroughly sin-sick as to be beyond self-help or human effort (which we are), how was God going to handle the intractable problem of Sin? Appropriately—and quite surprisingly—God again chose to deal with human sin and the evil it produces through human agency! God unexpectedly and inexplicably called Abraham, a wandering nomad, to be the human progenitor of Israel, God’s chosen people God called out to once again be God’s true image-bearers, through whom God would restore his good but sin-corrupted and evil-infested world. Welcome to Act 3, Israel, which starts with Gen 12 and comprises the rest of the OT. But as this Act quickly makes clear, God’s people were every bit as broken as the people they were called to bring God’s love and goodness to bear. This, of course, didn’t catch God by surprise, but it often leaves us scratching our own heads. Why would God choose to call a people to be stewards of his holiness and love if God knew all along they were going to fail? We aren’t told. Instead we are encouraged to trust in God’s wisdom and redemptive plan, a plan in which humans are intricately involved. Despite human wickedness and rebellion, God still chooses to use human agency to make his ways and Presence known to all creation, a reality St. Paul proclaims in Rom 8.18-25.

Israel’s failure to be the people God called them to be resulted in Act 4, Christ. Christ was the one true Israelite, succeeding where Israel had failed, but representing Israel nevertheless because as we have seen, God is faithful to his promises and commitments, despite our failures and wickedness. And so what God’s people failed to accomplish, God accomplished by becoming human to die for us to reconcile us to him and to break our slavery to the powers of Sin and Evil, powers that resulted ultimately in Death. What looked like catastrophic human failure on Mount Calvary, was transformed into God’s mighty victory when God raised Christ from the dead to defeat Sin, Death, and Evil, and to inaugurate God’s new creation, the new heavens and earth. But here again, God surprised us because Christ’s victory over Evil, Sin, and Death, while real, is not fully implemented. We await his coming in glory to complete his saving and healing work. St. John’s Revelation speaks to this reality in quite vivid language and it appropriately closes out Scripture, giving us a vision of God’s new world that exceeds the compelling and beautiful vision of God’s original creation found in Gen 1-2. Simply put, we live with the ambiguity of the already-not yet. God’s victory is accomplished (the already) and we know the good guys are gonna prevail, good guys being Christ and anyone who belongs to him, something left entirely up to God. But the victory is not yet consummated (the not yet) and we are left to endure the enemy, Satan, along with all the heartbreaking evil and sorrow the enemy, his human minions, and a cursed creation bring to bear on us. We will talk more about God’s new world next week, but for right now we should note that despite the ambiguities and unanswered questions, despite the heartache and sorrow, despite the ongoing existence of sickness, madness, chaos, and death, we are promised deliverance and rescue and healing because of the saving work of Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Once again, the story invites us to trust God despite all that swirls around us and screams at us not to believe.

This brings us to the final Act in Scripture, Act 5, The Church, you and me in all our redeemed sin and brokenness, seeking to imitate Christ in our lives in the power of the Spirit to bring his Good News to others. As St. Paul astonishingly proclaims in Eph 3.10-11, “God’s purpose…was to use the church to display his wisdom in its rich variety to all the unseen rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was his eternal plan, which he carried out through Christ Jesus our Lord.” Did you catch that? You and I and every other Christian on earth are called to proclaim to earth and heaven how God was reconciling the world to himself through Jesus Christ. Time doesn’t permit me to unpack this other than to say that this is an impossible task without the help and Presence of Christ as mediated by the Holy Spirit. Even then we get it wrong more than we care to admit. But we also get it right more than we sometimes acknowledge because we are people of God’s power. Act 5 will end when Christ returns to consummate his saving work and usher in the new creation in full. When that happens, the story of Scripture will be complete, God be thanked and praised.

So why does this all matter to us as Christians? Beyond the obvious from all we have said up to this point that we are a people with a future and a hope, let us allow today’s lessons to offer us some additional insights. From Isaiah we learn that God truly desires to restore and heal us, thus the inviting language of feasting and drinking. It is an astonishing thing to consider that God still values his human image-bearers and desires his original intentions for us. We also note that this invitation comes after Is 53 with its poignant story of the suffering servant who dies to redeem his people and ultimately the world. We only come to the table through Christ! There is much we do not understand about God’s plan of salvation, and we are sometimes consternated and puzzled over how and why God allows Evil to still make its deadly presence known. But our OT lesson reminds us God is God and we are not. His thoughts and ways are different from ours. But unlike us, God has the power to make good on his promises and we are to trust those promises based on God’s track record among us, most notably in Jesus Christ and him crucified and raised from the dead. 

Our psalm reminds us that God’s law or way of doing things revives us and heals us, and is therefore highly desirable. When we align ourselves with God’s created order we can rejoice because we know God is good and just, albeit in some surprising ways, but good and just nevertheless. That is why we are encouraged to pursue God and his ways revealed to us, supremely in Jesus Christ our Lord. Doing so gives us a hope and a future, our only hope for a future.

Our epistle lesson affirms all this. St. Paul argues strongly that when we read Scripture we mysteriously evoke God’s power on our behalf to be his holy people, his true image-bearers patterned after Christ. But St. Paul also warns us that human sin-sickness runs deep and that opposition will arise, even within God’s people. We see this playing out in our world today, and at a frightening pace. We have forgotten about the sacred origin and purpose of marriage and the vital role of procreation. We’ve given up the beautiful and wholesome vision described in Gen 1-2 in favor of human inventions that are bound to fail and in the process destroy people and lives: the oxymoron of “gay marriage,” the racism of CRT, the biology-denying disorder of transgenderism, the plundering of God’s good creation for selfish purposes, human support for abortion, all in the name of “freedom” and “personal rights,” except for the fetus of course, the unhealthy human desire for power that results in disorder of all kinds. Again I do not have time to unpack any of this, but a careful and consistent reading of the Bible as a five-act play gives us solid guidelines to help us in our thinking and doing as we navigate through the world’s chaos. As St. Paul reminds us, we are at war against the disordered human systems of the world, our own disordered desires and sin-sickness (the flesh), and our arch enemy, the devil. And because we are at war we will inevitably suffer for our Lord and his Truth because much of the world does not want to hear God’s truth as proclaimed in holy Scripture. Are we prepared to give up everything for Christ as he gave up everything for us? Without God’s help in the person of the Holy Spirit we are bound to fail. With God, nothing is impossible.

The story contained in the Bible as a five-act play is a story of creation, goodness, order, sin, and redemption. It is ultimately the story of how God’s power plays itself out in his creation and our lives and how we are to cooperate with our Lord’s power made known supremely in Jesus Christ, God become human. The arc of the story points us to new creation, not a disembodied eternity in heaven. Creation matters to God. We matter to God, and God has gone to great lengths to show us this. In the story of Scripture we find our future and our hope: healing, life forever with God in perfect communion with him, forgiveness, mercy, justice, beauty, truth, and righteousness. Best of all, God calls each of us to play our role in his world starting imperfectly right now and being transformed into utter perfection on the blessed day of our Lord’s return. 

But here’s the thing. If you don’t read the story or you rely solely on sermons like this one to learn it, you’ll never know your own story nor will you ever enjoy or benefit from its treasures like the psalmist did. If you love Christ and his Church, you will read his story, a story he told us was about him, even in the OT. So how do you do that? Anglicans have a time-tested and beautiful tradition. It is called the Daily Office and in it you will read the five Acts systematically and regularly over a two year period. If you are new to Scripture, get a good study Bible. I am happy to help you with that. But read Scripture via the Daily Office, which means reading it with others regularly and daily. Since I started using the Office 15 years ago, I have read through Scripture more than eight times and each time God reveals new things to me, building on the foundation he built when I first committed to reading Scripture systematically. Trust me. If you want to know Scripture so that God can help you become a faithful steward patterned after Christ, the one true human and faithful steward, if you want answers to legitimate questions and issues that bedevil us today, if you want a sense of certainty and order in the midst of uncertainty and chaos, if you want to find the meaning to real life, a life lived in and for our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and if you want to know the Truth and be set free by it to live as God created you to live, then learn how to read the Bible through the Daily Office so you know your Story. When we get in our new home, we will help you do this, but you have to first commit yourself to the process. Don’t be a fool. Learn your Story, the greatest Story ever. You won’t be disappointed, even in the midst of trials and tribulations, because we Christians have the best story ever and the greatest game in town, and in it God will show you Jesus his Son, who is your only life and hope. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. 

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

The God We Worship: The God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ

Sermon delivered on Trinity 20B, Sunday, October 17, 2021 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: Job 38.1-7, 34-41; Psalm 104.1-10, 26, 27; Hebrews 5.1-10; St. Mark 10.35-45.

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

We are all here this morning, hopefully first and foremost to worship God. But who is the God you worship? Is he the God of the Bible or the god of your own making? This is no small question as worshiping the former leads to salvation and eternal life; whereas worshiping the latter is idolatry—a sad practice of humans over our history—and leads to death. This is what I want us to look at today.

In one way or another, all our readings this morning point to the nature and character of God. In our OT lesson, God finally breaks his silence and answers Job’s complaint. Context is critical for our lesson today and we must remember how the story got to this point. God, you recall, had allowed Satan to bring about catastrophic suffering on Job and Job’s interlocutors had accused Job of bringing on his own suffering through his sins. Job vehemently denied those accusations and increasingly demanded an accounting from the Lord. Today we see that he gets that accounting, but not as he expected. Who are you to tell me how to run my created order, God thunders! Were you there when I created the cosmos? Can you tell me why I created this order the way I did? These rhetorical questions, of course, demand a “no” reply from Job and us. Of course none of us were there when God spoke the cosmos into existence; and while we certainly have a better scientific understanding of how the created order works than Job had, there is still a holy mystery about its operational order and our lives. Why does God allow suffering? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why does God allow Evil to operate in his world? Is God ever going to do anything about Sin and Evil, i.e., is God really just? Like Job, these kinds of questions still linger with us and bedevil us, and like Job, God still refuses to give us direct answers to these questions. In the context of this sermon, God’s created order and way of doing things all remind us that God is God and we are not, hard as we try to usurp his role and rightful place as Creator and Lord. Here we see God beginning to answer Job’s questions (and ours) by reminding us we are dealing with things way above our pay grade, things beyond our comprehension and understanding. You want to learn to live in awe and fear of the Lord? Start by looking at his created order and marvel at its beauty and complexity as the psalmist does in Psalm 8. As St. Paul reminds us in Romans 1.20-21, we can begin to learn about God through God’s created order, even if our knowledge is incomplete. And as our OT lesson reminds us in no uncertain terms, our knowledge of God is limited to that which God chooses to reveal to us because God is so much greater and bigger than our finite and mortal minds can comprehend. So the first thing we learn about God is that there is a vastness and beauty to God that defies our best efforts to fully comprehend, try as we might and must. God is God and we are not. If you have God entirely figured out, the God with whom you are dealing is a god of your own making, God-in-a-box, as J.B Philips described in his classic little book, Your God is Too Small

So while Scripture does not give us direct answers to our burning questions about Evil and Justice, God’s holy word does invite us to see God as he reveals himself to us, first through the created order and supremely in his one and only Son, Jesus Christ. Here our epistle and gospel lessons offer some rewarding insights to our questions about God’s nature and dealing with his created order and us. In our gospel lesson, St. Mark reminds us how badly disordered the power of Sin has made us and how terribly separated from God we are without God’s intervention, this despite the fact that we are God’s image-bearing creatures. We see this dynamic at play in the interaction between Christ and James and John. The latter two came to Christ and wanted to sit in positions of authority next to him, indicating how totally clueless their alienation from God had made them. Being products of the world’s thinking, they mistakenly saw power as the ability to lord it over others, presumably for their own benefit. Like most of us, they saw power as the ticket to privilege and the vehicle to get what we want. And by implication they equated power with force. And why wouldn’t they? Isn’t God a God of power? Isn’t he the God who rescued his people from slavery by an awesome demonstration of power at the Red Sea? Isn’t he the God who thundered at Mount Sinai as he gave Moses his Law? Isn’t he the God who destroyed 185,000 Assyrians as they besieged Jerusalem (2 Kings 19)? Being good Jews, they would have been familiar with how God had generally dealt with God’s enemies (and by extension theirs). After all, God promised to deal with Evil and evildoers by ultimately destroying them. So surely in their own minds, their request to Christ was not out of line. And of course their request angered the others. Everyone wants to sit in the best seats at the greatest table of all!

But their request showed how badly the power of Sin had corrupted their minds. They saw God, not through God’s lens but through their own muddled and disordered thinking. How do we know that? Because Christ rebuked them and immediately tried to get their minds right about the ways of God. While not denying that God had acted with shock and awe on behalf of his people in the past, Christ instructed them (and us) that this is not what God intends for his image-bearers. No, power is achieved through humility and suffering on behalf of others. Christ would come to rule his Kingdom by way of the cross and he had come to break the power of Sin by dying on behalf of the world to spare us from utter destruction and eternal death, catastrophically separated from God forever. It is a fate we all deserve because all of us are profoundly sin-saturated and broken. Consequently we are all blinded to God’s way of doing business and God’s desires because we are all too busy seeking our own best and often selfish interests, caring very little about the needs of others. God’s chosen method of dealing with the twin powers of Sin and Evil, powers that God mysteriously allows to operate in his good creation to corrupt it and us, was to become human and die for the sake of rebellious humanity, you and me, who time and again reject God’s ways and Way and seek to live life as we see fit. Here is God’s totally unexpected follow-up answer to Job’s “why” questions about Sin and Evil and bad things happening to good people. First we are reminded that there is no such thing in God’s economy as “good people.” All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. All of us are sin-infected and beyond self-help, and this has resulted in us being spiritually blind to the ways and will of God. But here is Christ, telling his disciples and us that God’s chosen method for dealing with us and our sins, as well as with the powers of Sin and Evil that have enslaved us, is to take on our full humanity and die for us to free us from Sin’s tyranny forever. We will not get to see what this looks like in full until our Lord Jesus returns to finish his saving work, but we get to see it imperfectly in Christ’s body, the Church, and the NT promises it is a done deal and calls us to believe it is true and act accordingly as faithful Christians. That the Church cannot get it entirely right after all these centuries is powerful testimony indeed to how profoundly broken and alienated from God the Father we really are. That notwithstanding, we are still invited to the party of Christ’s salvation and we still have work to do on Christ’s behalf. We have his cross, resurrection, and ascension, all inviting us to believe that in his death, we find real forgiveness and the hope of eternal life, all accomplished through humility and weakness, even though Christ is God incarnate as our epistle lesson strongly attests (cf. Phil 2.5-11). It is no small thing that Christ’s very own apostles didn’t get it until after his resurrection. Ironically—and perhaps fittingly because of the human condition—it took a mighty act of God’s power to open their eyes to this truth! They walked and talked with God become human. They ate with him and touched him, and yet they still didn’t understand until God acted in a totally unexpected way by raising Christ from the dead. But there was God in Christ nevertheless, loving them and conquering their sin through humility and weakness. On Calvary we see humans executing God in utter contempt and humiliation, surely the greatest perversion of all! Yet in and through his suffering we find real hope and real life, messy and marred as it is.

So what can we learn here? First, that we must read Scripture together and pay attention to how Scripture has been interpreted over the years, recognizing that even human tradition can become corrupted on occasion. While the Church, or at least minorities within the Church, have misread Scripture on occasion (I am thinking, e.g., about how badly it was misread to justify human slavery during the 19th century), overall the Church has been remarkably consistent in finding consensus in its reading and interpretation of God’s word. This is important for us to remember because of the human proclivity for idolatry and making the Word of God fit our own disordered thinking and desires. We need look no further than woke ideology today, from transgenderism to CRT to everything in between, to see how badly and catastrophically this plays out (a different topic for a different sermon, I’m afraid). 

Second, the overarching story of Scripture shows us a God truly worthy of our worship and adoration. Scripture reminds us that God is our good Creator and actively involved in the affairs of his creation and our lives, often in surprising and enigmatic ways. For example, I have no idea why we have been politely asked to leave these premises when we were so close to being able to occupy our new digs. I do not think there are malevolent motives on the part of our hosts. I think we have overstayed our welcome, and by a lot. When I first got the email, I immediately became anxious. Where are we to go? If we go to Zoom will we lose people? How will this affect your financial support? Will it all come unraveled? And then a short time later I was informed that we have a plumber under contract at a reasonable price and the work will begin Monday, paving the way for us to occupy our digs! God is surely in those developments, I reminded myself, working in quiet and unexpected ways, but active nevertheless, and my anxiety disappeared. Or consider our building financials. We need to raise an additional $48K to finish our renovations. How will we raise that kind of money in addition to our regular operating expenses? I don’t know; it seems like an impossible thing. But nothing is too hard for God and I know God works in powerful and unexpected ways in those like you who love him. God has seen us through to this point. He will not abandon us now. We need to do our part, of course, but God will see us through. The initial anxious thoughts I had on these matters came because like the rest of you, I prefer running my own life as opposed to letting God run it on my behalf. And like the rest of you, I have precious little (if any) real control over people and events in my life, and that inevitably produces anxiety. But then I ran across these words from St. Paul in the Daily Office this past week: 

Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again—rejoice! Let everyone see that you are considerate in all you do. Remember, the Lord is coming soon. Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you.

Philippians 4.4-9, NLT

St. Paul wrote this while he languished in prison. He was addressing a feud between two powerful women in the church at Philippi. He had every reason to be anxious. Yet he wasn’t, and because he wasn’t he found the peace of Christ that passes our understanding, but which is real nevertheless. And why was he not ultimately anxious (he very much worried about his churches)? Because he knew the love of God and God’s ability to work in all things, good and evil, for the good of those who love him (Romans 8.28). That promise remains true for us today, broken as we are, and in it we find our peace, or more precisely God’s peace. God is no absentee or uncaring God and if we have the faith and courage to believe God’s promises contained in Scripture, focusing especially on Jesus Christ his Son, we will find true freedom and peace, thanks be to God!

So what about you? Is your God big enough, awesome enough, just enough, and merciful enough for you to love and give your ultimate allegiance to or is the god you worship one of your own making? In the former, you will find strength and purpose and hope sufficient for all contingencies and with them sweet peace, the peace of Christ who loves you and who died for you so that you could be with him in God’s new world forever. In the latter you will find nothing by incompleteness, disorder, madness, and ultimately death because that is the way of all false gods. Chose the real thing, my beloved, the God and Father made known to us supremely in Jesus Christ mediated by the Holy Spirit and contained in God’s holy Word, the very gift of God himself. Give your life to Christ and choose real freedom, hope, and life, despite the changes and chances of life. That God is big enough for all our problems and fears. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. 

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

Chaplain Tucker Messamore: God’s Answer to Suffering

Sermon delivered on Trinity 19B, Sunday, October 10, 2021 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: Job 23.1-9, 16-17; Psalm 22.1-15; Hebrews 4.12-16; St. Mark 10.17-31.

Let the words of my mouth & the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

“Where are you, God? Where are you?” This seems to be the question weighing on Job’s heart as he sits atop the ash heap, trying to make sense of the incredible suffering that has befallen him. 

Job was a “blameless and upright” man, one “who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1). He had a thriving business, a large and tight-knit family, and was considered “the greatest of all the people of the east” (Job 1:3). In short, Job was living the dream! But that dream quickly became a nightmare when in the space of a few hours, Job lost it all. His flocks and herds were stolen by bandits and destroyed in natural disasters. His servants were killed by raiders. All his children died when a house collapsed on them. His body writhed in pain as he was plagued with sores from head to toe. Job’s life had been totally upended by His sufferings. He’d gone from riches to rags, from healthy to hurting, from a position of prominence to a place of pity. 

It’s no wonder that Job is wrestling with these hard thoughts about God that we find on his lips in our Old Testament reading. “Oh, that I knew where I might find Him!” (Job 23:3a). Job is trying to make sense of his sufferings. He’s frantically searching for evidence of God’s presence, but God seems to be strangely absent. “If I go forward, He is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive Him; on the left He hides, and I cannot behold Him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see Him.” (Job 23:8-9). Job longs to speak with God so that he can plead his case (Job 23:4), so that he can understand what God has been up to (Job 23:5), but so far, it seems that Job’s cries to God have only been met with silence.

Of course, Job is not the only person who has ever wrestled with God in the midst of difficult circumstances. As human beings who inhabit a broken and fallen world, we are unfortunately no strangers to pain, heartache, sickness, and loss. We are faced with the same sorts of struggles when we experience suffering of many different kinds: when we receive that difficult diagnosis, when we are forced to live with chronic pain or a debilitating injury, when a loved one dies, when we suffer abuse or mistreatment, when we experience division in our families. In times like these, like Job, we may cry out to God asking, “God, where are you? Do you see what I am going through? Do you care about my pain? Why won’t you do something? Why won’t you answer me?” God does provide an answer to Job’s questions—and to ours. While Job experiences divine silence in chapter 23, eventually, God does respond to Job with a lengthy speech beginning in Job 38.

But God’s ultimate answer to Job—and to all those who suffer—comes not from “the whirlwind” of Job 38, but from a manger in Bethlehem. The fact that God Himself takes on human flesh illustrates that God not only sees us in our suffering, but He understands it, and He cares for us. God does not remain distant or far-removed from human suffering, but instead, He makes Himself vulnerable and chooses to enter into it. This is the beauty of the Incarnation: “God, who cannot get sick, who cannot grow hungry, who cannot bleed, who cannot die—this God comes near” to us in Christ (Kelly Kapic, Embodied Hope, 89).

The author of Hebrews reminds us that Jesus experienced every aspect of our humanity (Hebrews 4:15). He dealt with the mundane weakness of the human body: hunger, thirst, tiredness, aches & pains. Jesus knows what it’s like to experience difficult emotions. He experienced sadness and grief at the death of His friend Lazarus. He felt loneliness as He was betrayed and abandoned by His closest friends. He was plagued with fear and anxiety so intense that He sweat drops of blood as He anticipated the brutality of the cross and the terrible weight of bearing the sin of the whole world. Through His crucifixion, Jesus experienced intense physical pain and even succumbed to death. Adopting the words of the psalmist, He cried out, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1). 

When we turn to God in times of great suffering, we can be assured that God is not distant from our troubles. Though He may seem absent, He sees, He knows, and He understands. Jesus is our great high priest who sympathizes with us, and He invites us to bring our burdens to Him (Matt. 11:28-30) “that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).

But Jesus didn’t just come to sympathize with us. He came to save us. He didn’t just step into our world so He could relate to human suffering; He came to rescue us from suffering and sin. Scripture makes it clear that pain, suffering, and death were not originally part of God’s good creation. Instead, they entered the world as a result of human sin. But God did not abandon the world and the people He created to futility and corruption. The Father sent His Son into the world in the power of the Spirit to reverse the curse of sin, to restore creation to what it was meant to be. We see this take place in small ways as Jesus goes about His public ministry. He opens the eyes of the blind, heals the sick, and rebukes and casts out demons. Jesus came to make the world right again. 

But this work of redemption would ultimately be accomplished by His death and resurrection. When Jesus went to the cross, He took our sin upon Himself, He suffered, and He willingly died the death that we deserve. But He didn’t stay in the grave—He rose again in victory, triumphing over sin, death, and Satan. Those who belong to Him can be assured that though we may experience pain and difficulty now, suffering and death do not and cannot have the final word. In Christ, we have the hope that though we die, yet we live (John 11:25). One day, Christ will return and “wipe away every tear from [our] eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

This morning, we are pointed to this hope in Christ as we come to the Table. We are invited to reenact the drama of redemption and to participate in it.

The Eucharist is an act of remembrance. As we partake of the bread and the cup, we are reminded that God Himself took on flesh and blood and became like us, experiencing every aspect of our humanity. We remember that He was tempted in every way just as we are, yet He was without sin (Hebrews 4:15). He suffered and died in our place to put an end to suffering and death.

Communion is also an act of defiant hope by which we proclaim that even though we often encounter pain, suffering, and evil, God is making all things new. Through our celebration of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we boldly declare, in the words of a beloved hymn, that “though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”

Finally, the Eucharist is an act of anticipation. Jesus said He would “not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes” (Luke 22:18). The Eucharist is a reminder to us that this day is coming! Christ will come again, and at that time, the kingdom of God will come in its fullness. Sin, death, and the devil will be no more, and when it does, we will celebrate—with a feast! The prophet Isaiah foretells of this day when “The Lord of Hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And He will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of His people He will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.” (Isaiah 25:6-8)

This is our hope. This is our future. In a few moments, as we prepare for Communion, Fr. Kevin is going to exhort us to “lift up your hearts!” Together, by faith, we ascend to the heavenly places where Christ is. Today, may we approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:16).

Father Philip Sang: Having Integrity in All Things

Sermon delivered on Trinity 18B, Sunday, October 3, 2021 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

Father Sang gets all whiny when we ask for a written manuscript. Nobody’s got time for a whiny priest so click here to listen to the audio podcast of his sermon.

Lectionary texts: Job 1.1, 2.1-10; Psalm 26; Hebrews 1.1-4, 2.5-12; St. Mark 10.2-16.