Feast of the Ascension 2020: Dr. John Stott on the Ascension (2)

There is no need to doubt the literal nature of Christ’s ascension, so long as we realize its purpose. It was not necessary as a mode of departure, for ‘going to the Father’ did not involve a journey in space and presumably he could simply have vanished as on previous occasions. The reason he ascended before their eyes was rather to show them that this departure was final.  He had now gone for good, or at least until his coming in glory.  So they returned to Jerusalem with great joy and waited – not for Jesus to make another resurrection appearance, but for the Holy Spirit to come in power, as had been promised.

—Understanding the Bible, 103.

Feast of the Ascension 2020: Dr. John Stott on the Ascension (1)

It is a pity that we call it ‘Ascension Day’, for the Bible speaks more of Christ’s exaltation than of his ascension. This is an interesting avenue to explore. The four great events in the saving career of Jesus are described in the Bible both actively and passively, as deeds done both by Jesus and to Jesus. Thus, we are told with reference to his birth both that he came and that he was sent; with reference to his death both that he gave himself and that he was offered; with reference to his resurrection both that he rose and that he was raised; with reference to his ascension both that he ascended and that he was exalted. If we look more closely, we shall find that in the first two cases, the active phrase is commoner: he came and died, as a deliberate, self-determined choice. But in the last two cases, the passive phrase is more common: he was raised from the tomb and he was exalted to the throne. It was the Father’s act.

—The Exaltation of Jesus (sermon on Phil. 2:9-11)

Feast of the Ascension 2020: A Prayer for the Feast of the Ascension of Jesus

O God the King of glory,
you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ
with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven:
we beseech you, leave us not comfortless,
but send your Holy Spirit to strengthen us
and exalt us to the place where our Savior Christ is gone before,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

From The Book of Common Worship

Feast of the Ascension 2020: Pope Leo the Great on the Ascension of Jesus

With all due solemnity we are commemorating that day on which our poor human nature was carried up, in Christ, above all the hosts of heaven, above all the ranks of angels, beyond the highest heavenly powers to the very throne of God the Father. And so our Redeemer’s visible presence has passed into the sacraments. Our faith is nobler and stronger because sight has been replaced by a doctrine whose authority is accepted by believing hearts, enlightened from on high. This faith was increased by the Lord’s ascension and strengthened by the gift of the Spirit.

Proclaiming Christ During the Pandemic

Sermon delivered on Easter 6A, Sunday, May 17, 2020 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: Acts 17.22-31; Psalm 66.8-20; 1 Peter 3.13-22; John 14.15-21.

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

This sermon is a bit different from what I normally preach so I was feeling anxious about it until I realized that I am not subjecting you to Father Bowser’s or Father Sang’s preaching and I immediately felt better about myself and the sermon. Besides, given the delay of our worship service, only about a third of you will hear it anyway, so it’s all good!

As we continue to deal with the effects of this pandemic, our readings remind us that we have a wonderful opportunity to proclaim our resurrection hope to folks who are afraid or who wonder where God is in it all. This is what I want us to look at this morning. 

A word of clarification before I begin. When I talk about proclaiming Christ, I don’t have in mind you all jumping up in your respective pulpits and preaching a sermon. I have in mind the many opportunities we have in the circumstances of our various lives. There is great fear out there, my beloved, and we have the only real antidote to that fear. So in our conversations and interactions with others, when opportunities arise, let us take advantage of them, thanking God for giving us those opportunities to proclaim our Easter faith to others.

In our NT lesson, we see St. Paul proclaiming his resurrection faith to a society that was essentially ignorant of the one true and living God, the God of Israel, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. While we don’t live in first-century Greece, we do live in a society that increasingly does not know the God we worship, and like St. Paul as he observed the various idols the Athenians worshiped, God will give us opportunities in this pandemic to connect with those who do not know Christ and witness to our Easter hope of resurrection and new creation.

How might we do that? Well, for starters we are to meet people where they are, just like St. Paul met his audience where they were. Many want to know if this pandemic is from God. While we must be very circumspect in answering this question because frankly none of us knows the entire answer to the issues it raises, we can say with certainty that God has allowed this pandemic to take place, even if God’s reasons for doing so are less clear. So the better question to ask, perhaps, is what spiritual resources do Christians have available to help us cope with this plague and sustain us with real hope? This we can readily share with those who are perhaps now more ready to listen to our message than they were before this pandemic struck, always keeping in mind St. Peter’s admonition to us to proclaim our faith gently and with reverence.

Like St. Paul did with the Athenians, a good place to start is to challenge society’s false gods. The Epicurean gods of St. Paul’s day made a roaring comeback with the 18th century Enlightenment movement. The false, largely monotheistic god of the Enlightenment is an absentee and fickle god who is hard to please and who doesn’t seem to care about the affairs of this world. This deist god of human invention is made popular by increasing biblical ignorance and capitulation to the Enlightenment movement that is essentially hostile to God. This false god gladly allows pandemics and other nasty things to ravage our world and its people because he is essentially a cruel and angry god, who cares little about creation; hence, he doesn’t get involved in human affairs. 

But if we spend any amount of time in the Bible and learn its overarching story of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration—you do know what I refer to, right?—we quickly realize this distant, cruel god who gladly inflicts suffering and unhappiness on people is a false god and not the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. As Christians we know how important creation and we are to God. After all, we humans bear his image and God created us to run his world on his behalf. While we have gotten that part terribly wrong, that isn’t about the nature of God; it’s about us and our sin and folly. But as both the Old and New Testaments proclaim, God loves his world and us and has promised to heal and redeem us, along with God’s beloved creation. The resurrection of Jesus Christ stands as living testimony to this truth. Our God cares deeply about us and the affairs of his world, and from the very beginning has actively sought us out to heal and restore us. We see God’s love made known supremely to us in Jesus Christ, crucified for our sake to restore us to God as St. Peter proclaims in our epistle lesson, and raised from the dead to announce death’s ultimate destruction with the coming new world. So first of all we are people with Good News, the Good News of God’s rescue of us, despite our hostility toward him and our ongoing rebellion against him. This is the God who promises to be with us always as our Lord himself declares in our gospel lesson. Here we have it. Jesus, God become human, promising to be with us always through the Spirit’s presence until he returns to finish his healing and saving work. Scripture is the story of our God who loves us and seeks us out to heal and restore us to himself. This God is actively involved in his world in the power of the Spirit and through his people, and this God flatly contradicts false narratives about an absent and uncaring god who actively seeks to punish us with pandemics and other catastrophes because he hates us. The world desperately needs to hear about this God, my beloved.

A second place to start witnessing our resurrection faith is to be willing to talk truthfully about the reality of death. As we saw two weeks ago, we Americans have lived in La-La Land when it comes to death. We deny it as best we can and prior to this pandemic we foolishly believed we are masters of our own destiny. If nothing else, this pandemic has shown us emphatically that we are not masters of our destiny and death is a constant reality. As Christians, we can bring to bear something that no one else can: the love, power, and promise of God to defeat and abolish death in and through Jesus Christ. We believe that on the cross, God made peace with us and dealt with our ongoing sin, folly, and rebellion once and for all. Much of that remains a mystery to us because we look around and see sin, folly, and rebellion everywhere we turn. But it is the NT’s proclamation that God has indeed dealt with all that separates us from him and makes us sick as a result, the ultimate sickness being death itself. We know this is true because God raised Christ from the dead to usher in God’s promised new creation and with it the abolition of death and everything evil. Because God does care about creation and us, God has acted decisively on our behalf to heal and restore us. Christ raised from the dead means that death will ultimately be abolished forever and the hope and promise of our baptism proclaims that because we belong to Christ we will share in his resurrection, learning as we do how to live as the truly human beings God created us to be, beings who reflect the love, goodness, mercy, and justice of God. We can’t do this on our own, of course, because we are too profoundly broken. But we don’t have to do it on our own because we are promised and have been given the very Spirit of Christ himself who helps heal us and shape us into his own likeness, and promises us that we will be his forever. No other religion proclaims the new creation and the resurrection of the dead and when we truly believe that this is our destiny, a destiny made possible by the love of God made known to us supremely in Jesus Christ, we no longer have to be afraid of death or of dying. Again, Christ himself promises to be with us, even in the valley of the shadow of death, so that even if the virus strikes us down, we are not separated from him. Hear St. Paul beautifully describe this unbreakable bond made possible by Christ’s death on the cross for us:

If God is for us, who can ever be against us? Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else? Who dares accuse us whom God has chosen for his own? No one—for God himself has given us right standing with himself. Who then will condemn us? No one—for Christ Jesus died for us and was raised to life for us, and he is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us. Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death?  …No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us.

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow [nor Covid-19]—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8.31b-39, NLT).

Here is great hope and power to help people deal with their fears during this pandemic. When we give our lives to Christ, we become resurrection people, whose destiny is life, not death. Mortal death comes to all humans because all have sinned and death results from sin. But God in his great love and mercy has conquered death for us through his Son and we no longer have to fear death or dying. None of us deserves this great love and grace of God, but it is available to anyone who is willing to enter into a relationship with our Lord Jesus. If this is not an appropriate conversation during this pandemic, I don’t know what is. Eternal life in a world devoid of any kind of evil or sorrow is a great antidote to the despair of pandemic. For the love of Christ, how can we remain silent?

Of course there are other ways to talk about our faith to non-believers and sadly not everyone will be interested or willing to hear us. But these are two good ways to start and the love of God demands that we try. When we do, we are assured that Christ himself is with us to strengthen us and use us to advance his good purposes in the world, despite its opposition to God and us. 

But before we can proclaim our faith to others, we have to know our own story well enough to proclaim it. That comes through regular Bible study together, prayer, fellowship, and worship. The Christian Faith is essentially relational and as with every relationship, our relationship with Christ requires us to do our part. While we have a God who loves us passionately and pursues us relentlessly, we will never know him or his love for us if we continue to run away from him or refuse to listen to his voice contained in Scripture, in the lives of our parish family and other faithful Christians, and in the Eucharist. When Christ tells us he will be with us in the power of the Holy Spirit, we have to learn what that looks and sounds like in the living of our days so that we can recognize his spiritual presence and voice. We learn this and receive guidance from Scripture, from the lives of his saints, in the Eucharist, and in studying his word. Just like married couples come to know each other more intimately with every passing year, so we too can expect to grow in our knowledge of Christ and appropriate his promises to us as time goes by. When we do, we discover that we actually are supremely loved by our Great Shepherd despite our unloveliness and learn to imitate his love to others. Whenever we forgive when no forgiveness is warranted, whenever we are generous to others where no generosity is deserved, whenever we learn to bless our enemies instead of cursing them, we are given power to grow in our knowledge of Christ, and when that knowledge grows, so too does our faith in his promise to us that we really are resurrection people whose destiny is the new heavens and earth where we will live in God’s direct presence and protection forever, thanks be to God!

So proclaim the Good News we must, especially if we claim to love God and others. But first we must come to know and believe our Story and make it our own by faith. As our psalm reminds us, we will not have all our questions and concerns answered in this mortal life because we must live and walk by faith, and faith requires an abiding trust in the power of God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead and creates things out of nothing. But we can walk by faith, confident that God the Father in his great love for us gives us the resources we need to grow in our love and faith and so imitate his dearly beloved Son so that God’s will may be done on earth as in heaven. We believe this is true because we believe that God really did raise Christ from the dead, thereby demonstrating that all his promises are trustworthy and true. It is a spectacular promise and one the world desperately needs to hear, whether it knows it or not. Let us give thanks to God that he loves us enough and deems us worthy enough by virtue of the blood of the Lamb shed for us to call us to this great and sacred task. Let us resolve with all our might to be obedient to his call and proclaim boldly the Good News of Jesus Christ, crucified and raised from the dead. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. Alleluia! Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

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

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

Father John Jorden: Amid All of This Be at Peace! Really?

Sermon delivered on Easter 5A, Sunday, May 10, 2020 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

The Father Bowser Syndrome continues to spread and infect the clergy and guest preachers at St. Augustine’s. We therefore have no written manuscript to share, but you can listen to the podcast of today’s sermon by clicking here.

Lectionary texts: Acts 7.55-60; Psalm 31.1-5, 15-16; 1 Peter 2.2-10; St. John 14.1-14.

V-E Day 2020

Today marks the 75th anniversary of V-E Day (Victory in Europe Day), May 8, 1945, in which the Allies celebrated the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany the day before. Take a moment today and thank God for bringing us victory over evil. Remember the brave men and women who fought against Nazism. If you know a veteran who is still alive, take time today and thank him (or her) for his service to our country. Ask that person to tell you his story and remember it so that you can pass it on to your children and others. Nazi Germany may be a thing of the past, but unspeakable evil certainly is not. #VEDay75

May 7, 2020: Happy Birthday, Mom

Today would have been my mama’s 98th birthday, something she would have no doubt hated (besides COVID- 19, that is) if she were alive today (it was hard to grow old for one so young at heart). My mother was an exquisite role-model of motherhood. She loved me, spent time with me, loved me enough to instill what it meant to be a Maney, and disciplined me when I did not live up to that standard. I hated it at the time, but am grateful for it today. She allowed me to have a childhood that was second to none because she insisted that I be a kid and worked sacrificially to make that happen. In that regard, I have missed her presence these past 12 years. But I cannot be sad because I would rather her be where she is than to be here with me and struggling with illness and infirmity like she did in her last years (check out this reflection on grief and consolation over parents who have died).

Thank you mama, for being the mother you were. Thank you for all your sacrifice for me and for our family. Thank you for allowing me to grow up in a timely manner and not before it was my time to do so. Thank you for personifying sacrificial love for me. And thank you, dear God, for blessing me with the best parents a person could ever want or dream of having.

Happy birthday, mama. I love you. Enjoy your rest with the Lord who loves you and has claimed you from all eternity.

Rest eternal grant unto Margaret, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon her. May she, with all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace and RISE IN GLORY. Amen.

And for those of you whose mother is still living, make sure you remember your mama on Mothers’ Day this Sunday. Better yet, treat her like every day is Mothers’ Day. I know my mama would surely approve.

Living Out and Dying In Our Resurrection Faith

Sermon delivered on Easter 4A, Sunday, May 3, 2020 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: Acts 2.42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2.19-25; St. John 10.1-10.

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

Today is the fourth Sunday of Easter, the Sunday traditionally celebrated as Good Shepherd Sunday. In these dark days of virus, social isolation, death, and fear it seems especially appropriate to talk about why we need Christ as our Shepherd and this is what I want us to do this morning.

In our gospel lesson, our Lord tells us that he is our Good Shepherd, who both leads and guides his followers, and it is critical for us to remember in these dark times, especially you self-loathers, that it is the shepherd who seeks his flock, not the other way around. As our psalm lesson reminds us, Jesus, and only Jesus, is the Shepherd who can and will lead us to peace, the kind of peace our first human ancestors enjoyed with God before their rebellion in paradise. Ps 23 is a beloved psalm, especially the KJV, and it is traditionally used at funerals. But if nothing else, this cursed pandemic has shown us in no uncertain terms that all of mortal life is lived in the valley of the shadow of death, not just when we die. I suspect prior to the onset of the pandemic many of us would have said, “Medical science and technology are my shepherds, I shall not want” instead of saying, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want” because we can cure (or slow down) all kinds of diseases, and this has made us very adept at putting off and denying death in our culture. With our facelifts and tummy tucks, we deny the aging process that is part and parcel of this mortal life. We send off our old folks to “retire” and die in nursing homes and hospitals. Doing so helps us manage our fear of death and keeps us from having to deal with the reality of living in the dark valley of death, a reality caused by human sin and God’s just judgment on it. Don’t misunderstand. There are times when hospitalization and nursing homes are critically necessary and I would not want to live in a society where pre-modern medicine is practiced. God be praised that his image-bearers have used their minds and imagination to help increase our quality of life. My point is that our faith in medical miracles and technology can prevent us from seeing that all mortal life is lived in the valley of the shadow of death, which in turn helps us keep Christ and his demands on us at arm’s length.

But our delusions have been thoroughly exposed by this virus that is both insidious and evil. If we are honest with ourselves, many, if not most, of us are stunned that we even have to deal with a pandemic like our ancestors and most other parts of the world did and do. We are stunned because we foolishly believed our medical and scientific communities could protect us from evils like this. We were wrong. We now find ourselves living in social isolation and fear, terrified that we will be stricken with the virus and die. We have clearly forgotten that we have a Good Shepherd who leads us and guides us, even during our transition from this mortal life to the eternal life of new creation. But rather than wring our hands in fear and despair over the current state of things, I want us to remember we are people of real power, God’s power. We are resurrection and new creation people by virtue of God’s grace and great love for us made known fully in Jesus Christ, and we are promised that as Christians we are united to our crucified and risen Lord in and through our baptism and faith that he is who he claims he is and has done for us what the NT claims he has done for us.

So what does it mean for us to have Christ, the Great Shepherd, walk with us through the valley of the shadow of death? It means first and foremost that we are not to be afraid of the precariousness or fickleness of life. While none of us is guaranteed immunity from being afflicted by the virus (or a thousand other diseases)—nor are we immune to the heartaches, disappointments, failures, or hurts that come with living in a sin-sick and evil-corrupted world—we nevertheless live in the presence and power of the One who loved us and gave himself for us so that we might live. When we follow Jesus Christ, we live out our belief that condemnation and death is not our final destiny and that means we have the power to overcome our natural tendency to be afraid because we know that on the cross, God has dealt with all that could cause him to condemn us and lead to our permanent death. And when God raised Jesus from the dead, he gave us a preview of the day when our greatest enemy, Death itself, would be destroyed. Medical advancements and technology, wonderful as they are, cannot keep us from dying. When a vaccine is developed to help us overcome the virus, we will be protected but we will still die. Only the power of God who creates things out of nothing and raises the dead can give us eternal life and that is exactly what the resurrection of our Lord Jesus proclaims God intends to do! St. Paul put our situation in stark terms when he wrote to the Ephesians that, “You lived in this world without God and without hope. But now you have been united with Christ Jesus. Once you were far away from God, but now you have been brought near to him through the blood of Christ” (Eph 2.12-13). Living in a world without God and hope is an awful thing. It makes us afraid and it slowly kills us. All of us instinctively know that living without hope is not sustainable. Imagine, e.g., what would happen if we found out that a cure or prevention of this virus was never going to come; it would be catastrophic to us and our society. Sadly, however, many choose to find hope in things that do not and cannot give hope and life; it is a symptom of our deep-seated hostility toward God that causes us to rebel against him. Nothing in this life, not power, money, fame, political identity, technology, medicine, or science, to name just a few, can overcome the valley of the shadow of death and putting our ultimate hope in these things is idolatry at its finest, which will result in God’s condemnation and our death. Only our crucified and risen Shepherd can help us overcome our fear of death because only in him are our sins forgiven and we are reconciled to God. Only Christ is the resurrection and the life who promises that those who follow him will live forever, even though our mortal bodies must die (Jn 11.25-26). So let us resolve in this time of pandemic to put our whole hope and trust in the only One who can and will walk with us through the valley of the shadow of death. When we do, we have nothing to fear because we know our greatest enemy, Death, has been defeated and will one day be destroyed forever when God’s new creation comes in full with Christ’s return. Living without fear of death is partly what it means to live as resurrection people. In Christ our ultimate death is abolished. Why should we be afraid?

Second and related to the first point, when we are convinced our Great Shepherd walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death, we are able to die well. Hear me carefully here. Nobody should want to die. Death is our greatest enemy. But we are mortal and despite our denial about this fact, we will all die. Dying without fear, dying a peaceful death when our time comes, are marks of a vibrant and lively resurrection faith rooted in our Great Shepherd. One of the most wicked things about this virus is that it has forced many to die alone without human presence and touch. That in itself should be enough to convince us that it comes from the devil himself. But when our Great Shepherd walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death, we can go without that human touch because he is there with us and we know we are not dying alone. Human senses may not perceive his presence any more than we know when our Lord speaks to babies in the womb at their conception, but that does not make his presence and peace any less real. Again, please do not misunderstand. I deeply lament the fact that some have to die alone. This is not how God intends it. But those who have a lively resurrection faith in Christ have his assurance that they are never alone, not even in death, and that he will welcome them into his loving presence, so that they no longer have to be afraid. How well we die is as important as how well we live, and without a real and lively relationship with Christ, it is impossible to die well, human denial and fantasies about death notwithstanding. Are you prepared to die well in the faith and peace and love of Christ who gave himself for you because he loves you, even in all your unloveliness, so that you can live forever? During this time of pandemic, we as God’s people in Christ have the holy opportunity to proclaim our faith in our Savior by preparing to die a good death whenever it comes.

But as we have seen, the whole of mortal life is lived in the valley of the shadow of death. So how do we cultivate our Lord’s risen presence in the living of our days? To that we turn to our NT lesson for some helpful insights because as all our readings make clear, being people of our Great Shepherd is a collective, not individual, thing. As St. Luke makes abundantly clear in Acts, our life in Christ is to be lived out together as a family. If we ever hope to develop the deep and abiding faith in Christ needed to allow us to live as people without fear who are prepared to live and die well in his risen presence, people who know his great love for them and who stake their very lives on this knowledge, we have to participate in the four marks of the Church: We have to appropriate the apostolic teaching contained in the NT, enjoy a common life together (fellowship), break bread together, and pray together. The history of the Church is littered with various examples of the wreckage of those who failed to participate in these four marks of the Church and if we at St. Augustine’s fail to participate in them fully, we can expect to be part of that wreckage. I appeal to you, my beloved, let us not do that to ourselves!

First, we are to learn the apostolic teaching in the NT because we believe that they were eyewitnesses of our Lord’s life and death who received Christ’s teachings and example directly, and are therefore in a position to pass on to us what we must do/think/say to be his followers. For example, last week we learned how the first Christians became resurrection peeps who believed in the power of Christ’s bodily resurrection that announced the new creation and the resurrection of the dead, filling them with joy and new hope. In our epistle lesson today, we learn from St. Peter that followers of Christ are not to retaliate against their enemies and those who afflict them with suffering. We are to do this because this is what Christ did for us. He did not condemn us for our sins but took them on himself so that we would not suffer God’s just condemnation. As we study the Scriptures together, we learn how to live out hard teachings like this and to identify markers of what real love looks like, the love of God that heals and sustains, not human love that often seeks its own distorted pleasures and goals. As fallen human beings, we are prone to misinterpreting the word of God, so we need the family corrective to help us get it right and keep it right. And as our NT lesson also attests, we can learn from apostolic teaching how we can know Christ’s presence in and among us in the power of the Spirit. St. Luke tells us the Church did the four things at which we are looking and God blessed and grew their numbers because they did, filling them with joy and power. 

Second, we are to enjoy sweet fellowship together because as we have already seen, we all need the human touch. We also need sweet fellowship to help us not be afraid. Think about it. When are we most vulnerable to fear and despair? When we are isolated and feel all alone. We need each other to weep with and celebrate with. When we enjoy the kind of intimate family relationships St. Luke reports in our NT lesson today, we can be real with each other. We will be there for each other and we can be charitable in our agreements and disagreements. We may not always see eye to eye on lesser things in life, but that will not prevent us from being part of the same flock our Great Shepherd leads, and together he helps us help each other in our weaknesses to grow in our relationship with him as well as with each other. As St. Paul reminds us, the Holy Spirit lives in us individually and collectively (1 Cor 6.19), and Christ is made known to us in and through the Spirit’s presence. Families are the glue of a coherent society and God’s family in Christ is no exception!

When we break bread together, especially at the eucharist, we remind each other that we have died and been raised with Christ to new life. We feast on our Lord’s body and blood, literally consuming him, and we are sustained and nurtured by him in the power of the Spirit. If you have ever wondered where Christ is in the midst of darkness, look no further than his Word contained in Scripture and in the sacrament of Holy Communion. There you will find a healed and redeemed people, people who are far from perfect but who have caught a glimpse of what risen life in Christ is like and are refreshed and made whole over time. We will have to wait for God’s new creation to come in full to enjoy perfect healing and health, but we still enjoy the imperfect healing and wholeness made known to us in Christ’s death and resurrection. This is why in the midst of a plague-ravaged world, Christ’s resurrection with its announcement of new creation can be such a healing and stabilizing factor to help us navigate during these desperate times. When we do not participate in the eucharist on a regular basis, we are in clear danger of failing to make Christ’s death and resurrection the center of everything we say and do and believe, and we will suffer badly as a result.

And of course we are to pray together because we are heaven and earth people. We pray for ourselves and for others who are in desperate need because we desire to bring God’s power to bear in our lives and the lives of others so that his kingdom will come on earth as in heaven. It is what loving people do. In prayer we can draw close to Christ himself, who sits at God’s right hand (rules) and intercedes for us out of his great love for us. We can pour out our hopes and fears in prayer, asking for Christ’s guidance, confident that he will guide us—often through his people—because he has promised to be our Great Shepherd. Prayer helps keep us rooted in the reality of God’s Kingdom and reminds us we do not worship an absent or uncaring God. 

This is what St. Luke is describing for us. It is the family of God at work (and play) together. It isn’t a version of primitive communism as some have argued. It is a winsome and wholesome description of the first followers of Christ living together as a true family and it is a far more compelling notion of church than those who see doing church as coming to worship once a week and then going their own way to do their own thing. And I am here to tell you, St. Augustine’s, that we fit this description of church pretty well. Not perfectly, of course, because we are a bunch of ragamuffins. But we have the marks of a vibrant family and so there is no reason for any of us to be afraid or not have a lively resurrection faith. And if you are still skeptical, I would invite you to read or reread Bethany’s testimony of how she came to believe in the resurrection of the body. It wasn’t just apostolic teaching. It was fellowship and breaking bread and prayer as well. She realized you aren’t the total losers she originally thought you were and God used you to help bring her to a healthy faith, thanks be to God! This is how Christ nurtures us and helps us not to be afraid. This is worth celebrating, my beloved, even in the midst of pandemic. I pray we will all do what is necessary to become people of power, resurrection people who know they have the Great Shepherd to walk with them wherever they go, even in the valley of the shadow of death. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. Alleluia! Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

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

Justyn Martyr Explains Why the Eucharist is not Offered to Unbelievers

No one may share the eucharist with us unless they believe that what we teach is true, unless they are washed in the regenerating waters of baptism for the remission of sins, and unless they live in accordance with the principles given us by Christ. 

We do not consume the eucharistic bread and wine as if it were ordinary food and drink, for we have been taught that as Jesus Christ our Savior became a human being of flesh and blood by the power of the Word of God, so also the food that our flesh and blood assimilate for their nourishment becomes the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus by the power of his own words contained in the prayer of thanksgiving. The apostles, in their recollections, which are called gospels, handed down to us what Jesus commanded them to do. They tell us that he took bread, gave thanks and said: ‘‘Do this in memory of me. This is my body.” In the same way he took the cup, he gave thanks and said: ‘This is my blood.” The Lord gave this command to them alone. Ever since then we have constantly reminded one another of these things. The rich among us help the poor and we are always united. For all that we receive we praise the Creator of the universe through his Son Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit.

On Sunday we have a common assembly of all our members, whether they live in the city or in the outlying districts. The recollections of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as there is time. When the reader has finished, the president of the assembly speaks to us urging everyone to imitate the examples of virtue we have heard in the readings. Then we all stand up together and pray.

On the conclusion of our prayer, bread and wine and water are brought forward. The president offers prayers and gives thanks as well as possible, and the people give their assent by saying: “Amen.” The eucharist is distributed, everyone present communicates, and the deacons take it to those who are absent.

The wealthy, if they wish, may make a contribution, and they themselves decide the amount. The collection is placed in the custody of the president, who uses it to help the orphans and widows and all who for any reason are in distress, whether because they are sick, in prison, or away from home. In a word, the president takes care of all who are in need.

We hold our common assembly on Sunday because it is the first day of the week, the day on which God put darkness and chaos to flight and created the world, and because on that same day our savior Jesus Christ rose from the dead. For he was crucified on Friday and on Sunday he appeared to his apostles and disciples and taught them the things that we have passed on for your consideration.

—Justyn Martyr [d. ca. 167 AD], First Apology 66-67