2nd Sunday in Advent

In Church we say that Advent is the season to “prepare our hearts” for the coming of Jesus at Christmas. At home, the reality is, that Advent is a time to “prepare our stomachs” for food, lots and lots of food. If your household is anything like mine, you are either baking food to take somewhere, or buying food to prepare for a dinner party, or the whole family, young and old is gathered in the noisy kitchen, elbow to elbow, chopping vegetables, washing potatoes and peeling carrots. The season between Thanksgiving and New Years eve could almost be described as an Anti-Lent in terms of our intake of food and merriment. While this is not an Advent ideal, it is not necessarily a bad thing. Many of our memories and friendships are built around the preparation of meals, and we see this in the life of Jesus and his disciples as well.

 

Today, the second Sunday in Advent is traditionally referred to as Bible Sunday because of the emphasis on the Word of God in the Collect, Epistle & Gospel.  You might be wondering what the connection is between the Word of God and food. Both are life giving and both take preparation if they are going to be truly edifying. As Jesus said, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” (Matthew 4:4, ESV) and the Psalmist says that God’s word is sweet to the taste, even sweeter than honey (Psalm 119:103). Likening God’s Word to food that we digest, our Collect says what we are to “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” the Scriptures, to the end that we may both have patience and comfort in God’s Word, which gives us “the blessed hope of everlasting life” in the person of Jesus Christ.

 

There is a lot of theology in that last sentence, which ties together God’s Word and the Christian Hope in the person of Jesus. This is another way of saying, that Jesus Christ is at the center of our faith, 

at the center of the Scriptures, at the center of our Liturgy 

and is at the beginning and end of the church year, as Revelation says, he is both the Alpha and the Omega. Jesus is not just the “reason for this season” but he is the reason for All Seasons. In this particular season of Advent, on this particular Sunday, we are preparing to receive and digest the Scriptures which give us Jesus Christ, the Word of God.

Two questions arise from this directive. 

 

First, what is the hope that gives us comfort, and, second, what are best practices for reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting God’s Word?

The Christian Hope is everlasting life rooted in Jesus Christ. This includes eternal life in a renewed creation, but this does not mean we have to wait until we are dead to start living. Everlasting life begins now. While hope looks to the future, it is rooted in the past: in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. As first Peter chapter one cheerfully states, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 1:3-4, ESV)

There is also an aspect of the Christian hope that longs for justice and peace in this world and the next. If you have been following the news, there are cries all of the world for justice from people who hurt. Not just in far away places, but right here in America. Racial tensions are high, economic pressures do not seem to go away and anxiety about the future seems constant. In the midst of these tensions, we are celebrating the coming of the Prince of Peace, and this peace cannot be separated from righteousness and justice. When we see injustice in the world, we long for the day when all wrongs will be made right. The peace that comes from the hope of Jesus is best understood in the hebrew word Shalom. To experience God’s Shalom is to experience total salvation, which includes justice and peace in all areas of life.

 

Too often we are putting off the reality of the Christian hope for the next life, instead of incarnating it ourselves in this life. Living with hope means living with the tension of God’s eternal promises, in the midst of injustice and brokenness. Part of our mission as Christians is be agents of hope, bringing God’s Shalom to the world.

 

We learn to fulfill our mission of hope by regularly partaking of God’s word, as the collect says, by inwardly digesting it. We do this through simply reading the bible, or hearing it in the Liturgy, or taking part in Morning and Evening Prayer. This is not always easy, because the Word of God is bitter yet sweet. References to eating God’s words are found in Ezekiel, and in Revelation where John says, “So I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll. And he said to me, “Take and eat it; it will make your stomach bitter, but in your mouth it will be sweet as honey.” (Revelation 10:9, ESV) When God’s word confronts us of our sin, and tells us things we do not want to hear, it is bitter to the taste. But when God’s word gives us hope and new life, it is sweeter than honey. 

 

As we approach Holy Communion today we see Jesus, the Word of God at the center. We come to the altar rail with faith and hope that the Birth of Jesus means new life. We are also confronted with our sins, which can be a bitter experience. This is why we confess our sins and commit to a new way of living each week. At the communion, we take and eat the Living Bread which came down from Heaven to give Life to the World (John 6:51). As we go out into the world this Advent season preparing our homes for all the parties and festivities of the season, let us remember to renew our commitment to prepare our hearts by incorporating the Word of God, the Scriptures into our daily lives.

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Twenty Third Sunday After Trinity

A. The liturgical change of seasons

1. A change of seasons is upon us. The seasonal changes in the calendar add texture and depth to our spiritual disciplines. They take us through the life of Christ in an annual cycle and through the various moods of faith: from penitence to forgiveness; from expectation to incarnation and revelation; from death to resurrection, ascension and life in the Spirit.

2. This is the last Sunday in Trinity season. Advent begins next week. The prayer book calls today, “The Sunday next before Advent.” It often goes by the name of “Stir up” Sunday” in our tradition, after the collect for the day (BCP 225). As we end the long green season, we ask God to “stir up” our wills—to get us ready to get ready for coming of Christ.

B. The prayer book lectionaries

1. The seasonal changes are highlighted by the lectionaries in the Book of Common Prayer. The lectionaries are the ways the prayer book arranges for us to read the Bible. We follow two lectionaries. One is the Sunday Eucharistic lectionary. This consists of the epistles and gospels appointed for each Sunday, which are complemented by thematically connected Morning Prayer lessons. The other is our Daily Office lectionary. This is the way the prayer book arranges for us to read through the Bible at Morning and Evening Prayer on Monday through Saturday of each week.

2. We read the Bible as a story rather than as a series of isolated passages. In the Eucharistic lectionary, we work our way through the life of Christ. In the Daily Office lectionary we read through the whole Bible story from creation to redemption. Knowing the story is important because it is our new story in Christ. If we do not read the Bible we get lost. We forget our new story of forgiveness and redemption, which leads to joy and peace, and we digress into the world’s old story of sin and death, which lead to guilt, anxiety, fear and despair.

C. The theme of exile and return

1. In the late Trinity season, our lectionaries highlight the theme of exile and the promise of return or re-gathering. The Bible describes the consequences of sin as exile from God’s presence, and describes redemption as the promise of return to God’s presence. Adam and Eve sinned and were exiled from the Garden of Eden as a consequence (Genesis 3:23-24). Then God called Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and brought their descendents to the Promised Land, a place where God’s redeemed people were to live in harmony with God (Genesis 12:1-3). The exile of sin was ended when God gathered his people back to him in the land (1 Kings 8:56-60).

2. This pattern was repeated when Israel became unfaithful to the covenant. The consequence of Israel’s sin was that God sent the people into exile in Babylon and throughout the world. The Old Testament readings for Morning Prayer last week told how the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar invaded Jerusalem, destroyed the temple and carried the people away (2 Kings 25:1-21). God promised to redeem his people once again by sending the Messiah to re-gather Israel. This is the focus of the lesson for the epistle from Jeremiah. God promised that his chosen king would do a new work of re-gathering that would replace the Exodus from Egypt as the focus of Israel’s faith: 

They shall no more say, The Lord lives, who brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt; But, The Lord lives, who brought up and who led the seed of the house of Israel out of the north country, and from all countries whither I had driven them; and they shall dwell in their own land (Jeremiah 23:7-8).

3. The Gospel for today picks up this theme. Jesus, the promised king, re-gathers and feeds Israel with the loaves that symbolize the Bread of Life. At the end of the feeding, Jesus says, “Gather up the fragments that remain that nothing be lost.” St. John tells us that they gathered up twelve baskets, which represent the re-gathering of the twelve tribes of Israel.

4. By the time of Jesus, the exile of Israel had, in one sense, ended. Israel lived once again in the Promised Land. However, something was not right because the fullness of God’s blessing had not yet been restored to the nation. Jesus revealed to Israel that exile was not merely a matter of geography. It was quite possible to live in the land, claim membership in the people of God, attend the place of worship and, nonetheless, remain distant from God. As God said through Isaiah, “This people draw near to me with their mouth, and honor me with their lips, but have removed their heart far from me” (29:13).

5. Jesus revealed that things were not as they appeared in Israel. Many religious leaders, whose positions presumed a certain status with God, were, in fact, distant from God. And many of those labeled “sinners” were, in fact, closer to God because they were willing to acknowledge their sin and change. As Jesus went about Israel preaching the gospel and re-gathering the remnant of Israel, it was a rather motley crew of people who actually responded to the call to repent and return to God. The new Israel looked different than the old one.

D. The lesson for us

1. There are important lessons here for us. Our identity is rooted in the experience of having been called by Jesus to return from the exile of our sins back into union with God. We are part of the new Israel, the new people of God created by Jesus. Yet, our day to day experience reveals to us that it is not as simple as that. Exile and return are recurring themes and movements in the Christian life. We who have been re-gathered by Jesus are prone to drift away yet again. When we drift away, Jesus calls us again to return—again.

2. The long season of Trinity can be just such a time of drifting. After the concentrated spiritual exercises of Lent and the celebration that stretches from Easter through Pentecost, we enter into a long green season of ordinariness. There is a tendency to lose zeal and fall into bad habits. We can enter into a kind of spiritual malaise, in which there is, perhaps, no flagrant violation of the commandments, but also, perhaps, no profound experience of God’s presence and glory.

3. We repeat the pattern of exile and return in the Eucharist. Each week we leave church and enter back into the world where we face temptation and sometimes fall. Each week we return to Christ and participate again in the New Exodus. Each week we re-enact the pattern of the feeding miracle in the gospel. Jesus, the Messiah and King, re-gathers the remnant of Israel in fulfillment of the promise of Jeremiah.

4. Our part is this drama is to remember that we must return inwardly as well as outwardly. We must return to God “spirit and in truth” (John 4:23-24). We are not close to God just because we come to church, or because we’ve been Christians for a long time, or because we are leaders in the church, or because we have a good reputation in the world. We are close to God, we return from the exile of sin, only when we hear the word of God as it applies to various circumstances of our lives, repent for our failures and begin to live in a new way. Thus, as we get ready to get ready for the coming of Christ, we pray, 

Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may, by thee be plenteously rewarded.

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Twenty Second Sunday After Trinity

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Following the celebration of All Saints Day at the beginning of November, our Trinity-tide lessons begin to examine the four last things – death, judgment, heaven and hell, and direct us to a more particular examination of those things we have done and those things we have left undone.

 

This morning’s Gospel lesson opens with St. Peter asking Jesus, how many times do you have to forgive someone who has sinned against you? The short answer to St. Peter, and by extension to us as well, is that we must always forgive others. It is one of God’s non-negotiables.

 

Jesus then illustrates this short answer by teaching a parable of a King and his servants. The King represents God and the servants represent humanity; all those who have been created in the image of God. Jesus next fast-forwards the parable to a future day of reckoning – a day of judgment. We find a servant brought to account for his debts – sins committed against the King. 

 

There is of course, Original Sin inherited from Adam, as well as the myriad of sins we chose to commit over the course of our lifetime. This should come as no surprise as St. Paul reminds us, (Rom. 3:23) “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” 

 

The Scriptures teach us that sin is a debt that we are incapable of paying and reminds us that (Rom. 6:23) “the wages of sin is death.” It is not a situation from which we can extricate ourselves. The first sin recorded in the Bible, that of Adam’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden, occurs in the third chapter of Genesis. In the same chapter, we have the first promise of God, that the seed of the woman, the Messiah, will crush the serpent, sin, and death. This promise is called the ‘Proto-evangelium,” the very beginning of the good news of the Gospel. All creation patiently awaited this redemption (Rom. 8:22).

 

“When the fullness of time was come, God sent forth His Son.” (Gal. 4:4) Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son of God, became man. He lived a perfect and sinless life. Upon the Cross, He took upon Himself, every sin that had been or would be committed in the history of the world. Jesus has paid the debt of our sins in full. It is only through faith in Him that that we receive mercy and forgiveness from God.

 

The first servant in the parable received the grace of his enormous debt being forgiven by the king but was still incapable of forgiving a fellow servant who owed him a mere pittance. The living out of our faith within our families, our church, and our community is never an easy task. 

 

How does forgiveness work in our relationship with others? Are there guidelines we should follow in attempting to extend mercy to those who have wronged us? Pop psychologists and talk radio would have us believe that forgiveness should not be extended unless the awareness of fault exists, guilt is admitted, and responsibility taken to make amends. Following these guidelines, mercy and forgiveness is proffered in a business-like contractual manner. Would that life were always that simple and straightforward!

 

How would God want us to deal with those who wound us deeply and then go blithely along on their merry way unaware or uncaring? Worse yet, how do we respond to someone who deliberately does us wrong and plans to inflict the worst scenario possible? To take a phrase from many Christian youth, “What would Jesus do?”

 

For answers, our faith instructs us to look at the Cross and our Lord’s Passion which preceded it. On the night He was betrayed, Jesus readily engaged in dialogue when the person might potentially grow in his understanding of God’s purposes, as with Pilate. But Jesus remained silent in the presence of Herod who had already hardened his heart toward God.

 

When someone hurts us, there may be times when they are open to discussions about what happened. At other times, dialogue is useless. We need to pray for discernment and guidance in how to approach each opportunity for reconciliation. Sometimes we are called to unilaterally forgive, regardless of the response or lack of it from another.

 

Jesus ultimately forgave his oppressors from the Cross. Quote, (Luke 23:34) “Father forgive them; for they know not what they do.” This did not happen at the beginning of the Passion, but only at the end, after enduring much suffering, solitude, and repeated acts of cruelty.

 

We are all too aware of the violence and brutality in our country and the world, but see too few instances of what forgiveness looks like in real life.

 

Recently in the news, in a small western Pennsylvania rust-belt community, adjacent to where I went to seminary, a heinous crime was committed. One morning last December, an eighty-five year old nun was severely beaten and sexually assaulted behind her Church. 

 

At the sentencing hearing of the young perpetrator earlier this month, one of the sisters in the victim’s religious order read a statement to the court, prepared by this innocent elderly nun.

 

In part, it read, “You are my brother, and you, like me, are a beloved child of our heavenly Father. And our Father asks of his children to love one another and forgive one another. And this I do, by God’s merciful grace. I pray that one day both of us can look back upon what happened and understand more truly, that as Scripture says: ‘All things work together unto good for those who love God.’”

 

Despite her very real pain, this nun continues to live her faith and teach by example what forgiveness should look like in our lives.

 

Forgiveness is an act of the will. It is not a one time decision, but an ongoing and continuous commitment as we process through our pain, our anger, and occasional thoughts of revenge. Our willingness to continue the struggle, our hope in the healing power of God’s love, and our efforts to grow more “Christ-like”, is the mark of a true Christian.

 

May each of us respond to the challenge of God’s calling to us – His explicit commandment that we forgive those who have offended us from our heart today, as we remember how much He has forgiven us.  

 

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Twenty First Sunday After Trinity

A Sermon on the Twenty-first Sunday after Trinity, November 9, 2014

The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett

The Epistle, Ephesians 6:10-20 – The Gospel, St. John 4:46-54

A. Money and St. Matthew’s Church

1. Our ministry is supported by the tithing and giving of our members and friends. For the last twenty-eight years it has been our pattern to talk about giving this time of year as we prepare our next annual budget. Our mission statement calls us each to “work and pray and give for the spread of [God’s] kingdom” (BCP 291). In this trinity, giving money has a sacramental value. It is an outward and visible sign of our inward commitment to Christ. As Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:21).

2. Giving money in the right way requires faith. Hebrews says, “Without faith it is impossible to please [God], for he who comes to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who diligently seek Him” (11:6). We give, not because we are buying God’s favor, or because we want a building named after us, or because we are afraid of what God might do to us if we don’t give; we give because we believe in God and his promises.

B. Faith and the story of the nobleman’s son

1. Today’s gospel illustrates what faith looks like. The nobleman in the gospel story asked Jesus to come to his house and heal his son. Jesus’ response shows he perceived a lack of faith in the man, the crowd that followed him, or both. Consequently, Jesus did not agree to come. Rather, he required that the nobleman believe his word. Jesus said, “Go home. Your son will live.” We are told, “The man believed the word that Jesus has spoken.” Jesus required that the man trust his verbal promise without the assurance and comfort of Jesus’ physical presence.

2. This is the challenge of faith. People often say, “If God will show me a sign, then I will believe.” Jesus says to us, instead, “If you will believe, if you will do what I say first, then I will show you a sign.” Miracles do not lead to faith. Faith leads to miracles.

C. Giving and faith

1. Biblical giving begins with the tithe. Tithe means tenth. To literally tithe is to return the first tenth of our income to God. Giving the first part of our incomes back to God is the way we acknowledge that all of our money is his; the first part represents the whole. Tithing is also the way God provides for his church.

2. Tithing requires faith. When we give to God first we must trust that God will fulfill his promise to take care of our needs. Faith in Christ always involves this kind of obedience. Jesus says things like, “Follow me” (Matthew 9:9), “Go show yourself to the priest” (Luke 17:14), and “Go your way, your son lives.” The hearer is called to obey without any tangible evidence other than God’s word and promise.

3. Tithing scares us because faith involves risk. We are afraid that if we tithe we won’t have enough left for our other needs. We are afraid to give because we have accepted the devil’s math. The devil teaches us that giving is a zero sum game. If I give, someone is richer and I am poorer. This leads people to be stingy and selfish. They think they will be richer because they keep things for themselves. 

4. In God’s economy, there is enough for everyone; all who give in faith end up with more. Those who give generously of money, time, and talents are the most enriched and fulfilled. Those who are miserly and self-centered end up poorer in the ways that really matter. As Jesus said, “Give and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you” (Luke 6:38).

D. Faithful giving and the mission of the church

1. The mission of any church depends upon the faith and faithful giving of its members. A church characterized by nominal faith and meager commitment struggles financially. It always seems to be behind in its budget. It is always cutting here and there to make ends meet. A church that is characterized by committed faith begins to get ahead. Because our treasure follows our hearts, the financial trajectory of the church begins to change as the life of Christ takes root and grows within us. A financial cushion develops. New missionary ideas can be entertained. New staff can be hired. God blesses both the church and those who give.

2. This has been the story of St. Matthew’s Church for the last twenty eight years. We began with a group of about twenty people meeting in rented room and a budget that was upside down. As the faith of our community began to grow, so did its giving. This enabled us to move to larger facilities, hire additional staff, buy property and build a church. The church building is not important as thing in and of itself; it is important as an outward and visible sign of our inward faith. It is a witness to this community that our faith is real—that our treasure and our hearts are in God’s kingdom.

3. We have had many financial heroes. The most important are the faithful tithers. Our ministry has been built on the foundation of those who, year in and year out, continue to support the ministry of this church with the offering of the firstfruits of their income. This faithfulness is more or less invisible. The more faithful people are, the less they are noticed. But, God see all things.

4. The growth of our ministry has also been made possible by periodic special gifts. There have been years when one or more of our members experienced some significant profit and shared their good fortune with the church. This has enabled us to build a financial margin and expand our ministry in new directions. I am extremely grateful for the faithfulness of our people.

E. The current mission of our church

1. Our ministry is expanding in new directions. God has given much to our church and we are being called to share it with other churches. My election as bishop was a part of this call, but it involves our whole church. We have experienced spiritual growth as a community through a commitment to the life of prayer and spiritual disciplines. We are being called to share with others what God has given to us.

2. In our culture Christian faith has too frequently been understood as a system of belief rather than as a way of life and prayer. The focus of faith has too frequently been on learning propositional truths and arguing about theology rather than on spiritual formation through the practice of spiritual disciplines. This cognitive emphasis has not succeeded in changing people. It has created many debates, but not many saints.

3. We have experienced something different in our community. Our experience is rooted in a three-fold emphasis. First, we emphasize the life of prayer lived according to a communal pattern or rule. Second, we emphasize knowledge of self; you should know who you are, how you have been formed by your family and the various things you have experienced in life, what your particular personality and gifts are, and how God is working in all of this to change you. Third, we emphasize that this spiritual work must take place in a community, in relationship with others.

4. The preeminence we place on prayer does not mean that theology is unimportant. It means that theology is in its right place. Theology explains our experience. For example, the doctrine of the Trinity explains our prayer. We pray to the Father through his Son by means of the Holy Spirit. Unless we are being changed by God the Father through the revelation of his Son by means of the work of the Holy Spirit within us, it won’t matter how skilled we are at proving Trinitarian doctrine. We are called to know God, not merely know about God.

5. The transformative work of the life of prayer is the essence of our mission. This is the foundation of our life together in this church and this is what we are bringing others into. This is what you are supporting with your tithes and gifts. This is what I talk about when I travel to speak to other people in other places. People are listening and the direction of our movement is being changed by us. Your support allows our mission to move forward.

F. Practicalities of giving.

1. Committed Christians should be committed and faithful givers. Most of you are. I am very grateful for your faithfulness. For those who are not yet financially committed to the kingdom of God, this sermon is an invitation. I invite you, not just to give money, but to become a committed follower of Jesus Christ in this church. Giving is simply an outward and visible sign of the larger work of God in your life.

2. Join us in working and praying and giving for the spread of the kingdom. Embrace our common rule of prayer. Make good confessions and cultivate new virtues. Discover your gifts and use them to serve Christ. Tithe to support our work. The discipline of tithing is two-fold. First, God should be given the first part of our income; when we receive our income, the first check should be an offering back to God. Second, what we give should be significant and sacrificial. 

3. This pattern of offering God our first and best is highlighted by the Bible’s first story about giving. In Genesis 4 Abel gave God an offering “of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions.” Cain gave God “an offering”—some of his extra grain. The Bible tells us that God accepted Abel’s offering, but rejected Cain’s offering. Hebrews says, “By faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained witness that he was righteous (11:4). The Bible calls us to give back to God, in faith, the first and best of what he gives to us. This is the way we commit all we have to God. This is how we show that we are trusting God to provide for us. 

4. Tithing will not solve problems of financial irresponsibility. We may need to get our financial house in order in other ways. However, the right ordering of our finances always begins with giving the first and best to God, to dedicate our money to him. We can tithe no matter how large or small our income is. What is important to God is the faith of the giver, not the amount of the offering (cf. Mark 12:42-44).

5. God is faithful to provide for those who trust him. As 2 Corinthians says, “He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God” (9:7-11).

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Nineteenth Sunday After Trinity

Sermon for Trinity XIX: 2014
By Rev’d Hayden A. Butler

 

+In the Name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Amen.

“Be ye kind one to another, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.”

 

In the Gospel lesson, the paralyzed man has no power to approach Jesus on his own, and has to rely on the charity of his friends for assistance. Jesus reveals that for this man, there is a spiritual and a physical component to his sickness – he is paralyzed physically but also spiritually. In healing this man, Christ shows that He possesses the divine authority to forgive sins and has brought this power into action in the world. He comes to provide ultimate healing, but healing in the proper order of things. The paralyzed man represents all of us. We come before Christ as broken and weak, in great need of His mercy and healing. We experience the forgiveness of Jesus through a personal encounter with Him, and by reliance on our community. Sometimes the reason for which we come to Jesus is not the most profound reason for why we need Him. He cares about all of our needs, but He primarily cares about the health of our souls. This is salvation. Christ heals first soul then body, and in so doing, reveals the healing that all will receive in the Resurrection.

 

The Epistle elaborates on this theme’s communal sense by declaring that God has overcome the ancient divisions in humanity between Jew and Gentile and made a new people that will erase old sources of contention and enmity. St. Paul reminds the churches that as members of that new humanity through baptism, they are stop believing and behaving according to what they used to be and start doing so according to their new identity. In short, they are to stop doing things that will jeopardize the peace and unity among believers, and instead to pursue whatever will build and cultivate healthy and edifying relationships among the faithful. St. Paul’s exhorts the church thusly because unity within the church is a sign to the world that we belong to God and that the Spirit is actually working among us. It sets us apart from fake religiosity, from cults, and from being mere do-gooders. It shows that we actually believe that God forgave us and sent His Son to die for us, thereby overcoming the chasm of sin and alienation so to save us. God heals our relationship with Him so that we might participate in this healing, and calls us to participate by experiencing His forgiveness and by forgiving each other.

 

Forgiveness is a decision and a habitual practice. When we are wronged and seek to forgive someone, we are called to enter into a process of releasing the debt of guilt that they owe us and then work to place the hurt of that wrong within a framework of grace so to find how it can be redeemed and to live that out. Sometimes this is a quick process. Sometimes, we spend years learning how to forgive our enemies. Either way, forgiveness is the essential activity of reconciliation, which is the central fact of Christian identity.

 

Reconciliation is the process by which the order of our lives and relations progresses in similarity to the order of the relations within the Trinity. It is ordained and founded by the Father, enabled through the Son, and performed by the Holy Spirit. It is the primary relational experience of our life in God, not just a legal fact, it has less to do with a status of culpability than it does with possessing a relationship marked by charity. So too, it is the identifying activity of the Church, through the community of the penitent to the lost. It is the primary duty of all Christians to be reconcilers, first amongst themselves and then to the world.

 

Even so, reconciliation is often challenged by habits that work against unity and healthy relationships. This often takes the form of quiet and passive bitterness rather than open confrontation; we often fall into the temptation to be “good” or “nice.” This does not prevent us from exercising vices, but it does change their means of delivery. Instead of being loud and boisterous about our impatience, discord, and animosity toward others, we do so in passive ways through gossip and sullenness. Open anger and impatience could almost, but not quite, be excused as instinctive or perhaps a fault in our self-control. Gossip and sullenness, the smiling-on-the-outside but seething within type of anger takes a lot of thought and deliberation, and consume more of us. It’s probably worse, and this is typically what we do at church. We smile and shake hands, while yet being two feet and a thousand miles away from others in our hearts. As the Epistle shows, though, the Christian life cannot be lived in isolation from our duty to love our neighbor. We cannot mature in the faith if we habitually live in discord with others.

 

To counter these habits, reconciliation in the Church serves to establish a powerful threefold unity: with God, with each other, and with the lost. All of these form a symbiotic relationship; take one out and the others are inhibited in the way they manifest in our lives. If we lack the central fact of our identity, then everything else will feel that lack. As we practice unity, we participate in the activity of God, and are drawn by grace into the life of God so to dwell with Him.

 

Reconciliation is worked out through community. By the virtue of our baptisms we are the family of God; we cannot change that even if sometimes we’d like to do so. What we then have to do is to pursue unity. Our experiences of living amongst each other over time means that there are times I will need the forgiveness of others and they’ll need mine, too. Though it is at times awkward and sometimes painful, the more we forgive, the stronger our community gets and the more that God dwells among us.

 

We practice reconciliation through confession (in private prayer, in the Offices, in the Mass, and in confessions made to a priest). It is more than just saying the words. We have to self-examine, come to a knowledge of the ways that we fail God and one another, feel the weight of this failure, and then earnestly apologize and try to turn away from those things. Moreover, we not only have to confess sin, but we also have to practice receiving forgiveness. This second activity is a discipline and a habit of soul that begins to see past mistakes in the light of grace as those things that bring us back to God, as part of the story that, though it may seem broken, nevertheless has become the means by which God has enacted His mercy and love.

 

Reconciliation reaches its proper end in evangelism, as our experience of forgiveness from God and within community changes our lives and provides something attractive for others on the outside. There is a brokenness at the heart of being human, and all of us are agents of God’s healing, exercised by the faithful use of gifts and means, but above all by being those who are always on the lookout for those who are hurting or lost so that we might bring them back here to our Lord where He can heal them.

 

Sin paralyzes and alienates; holiness reconciles and liberates. Eventually, habitual discord and strife arrive at their final destination—the unrepentant and angry person gets what they really want: a life all to themselves, untouched by the troublesome presence of others, in the waste places outside of the city of God. Habitual concord and peace, however, has its ultimate home as well: they lead us through a lifetime of practicing reconciliation into the peace of God, the healing of the nations, and the life of the world to come.

 

As our Lord says: “Be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee.”

 

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Amen. 

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Eighteenth Sunday After Trinity

 

A. The Second Coming and blamelessness.

1. Today epistle ends with the goal of the Christian life:  “that you may be blameless in the Day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The “Day of our Lord Jesus Christ” is the moment when he shall come again in glory to judge the quick and the dead.” The New Testament teaches us that Jesus will judge “the world”—those who do not believe in him—but will come to save and justify his elect. We are saved by Christ from the judgment that is coming on the world. To be saved from judgment means to be declared blameless by the judge.

– The concept of blamelessness is illustrated in the gospel. Jesus stands blameless before his adversaries, who try to get him to say something wrong to discredit him. In the cosmic scene of judgment and redemption, the devil is our adversary and constant accuser—the cosmic prosecuting attorney. Jesus Christ is the one who justifies us, who defends us and declares us to be innocent when we put our faith in him. This is the central them of Job, which we are currently reading as the first lesson in Evening Prayer.

2. We cannot be blameless in the sense that we never commit sin. We can be blameless because Jesus died for our sins and our sins are forgiven when we repent and believe in him. Maintaining our state of blamelessness is the central work of the life of prayer. Blamelessness is not a fixed, static condition. Because we encounter temptation each day and sometimes we fall, we must continually labor in faith and love to maintain our blamelessness. This involves three essential things.

a. We must continually confess our sins. Confession is how we process and get rid of sin. Confession removes sin from us and leads us to forgiveness. The practice of confession changes forgiveness from a mental concept into an experiential reality. Our confessions mature as we consider not just what we do wrong but also the motives for our behavior.

b. We must reconcile with others. Blamelessness means being willing to be reconciled with those from whom we have been estranged through sin. This means forgiving those who have wronged us, asking forgiveness of those we have wronged and restoring the relationship as much as it is within our power to do so.

c. We must always be about the business of doing the good the Holy Spirit has prepared for us. We have a vocation. God made each of us and gave us certain gifts to be used for a purpose in his new creation. We confess and remove our sin so that we can do the good. Too many people think of the Christian life chiefly in term of trying not to sin. Christ removes our sins only so that we may begin to love. In the gospel Jesus teaches us that love fulfills the law. The two great commandments are not a list of prohibitions; the two great commandments are to love God and love our neighbor. We cannot love without forgiveness, but we must go beyond mere confession to positive good if we want to please God.

d. The invitation to confession in the liturgy summarizes these points. The requirement for communion are as follows: “Ye who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love an charity with your neighbors, and intend to lead a new life following the commandments of God, draw near with faith and take this sacrament…” (BCP 75). This is a weekly reminder of what we must do to remain blameless. 

B. The collect: The sources of temptation that threaten our blamelessness

1. The world, the flesh and the devil explained: The world is external to us. It it is fallen humanity in its corporate rebellion against God. It is the rewards of money, status and please that draw us away from the worship of God. The flesh is our internal fallen nature. Sin directs our desires away from the God and towards the things the world offers to us. The devil is the chief of the fallen angels who aids in our temptation and tempts us to despair when we fall. We renounced these three “enemies of the soul” in baptism (BCP 276-277).

2. We combat these by spiritual disciplines: Tithing and generosity help us to resist “the vain pomp and glory of the world.” Fasting helps us to overcome and subdue “the sinful desires of the flesh.” Prayer gives us the supernatural power to conquer the evil one.

3. This requires a commitment to a life or rule of prayer. If we do not actively engage the spiritual battle through prayer and spiritual disciplines, the enemies of the soul will overcome us. The world will make us desire its wealth and status unless we actively resist it by almsgiving and service. The desires of the flesh will conquer us unless we tame them by fasting. Prayer is necessary to strengthen our faith, keep us connected to God and guard us against fear, anxiety and despair.

4. We will lose our blamelessness unless we fight the good fight to maintain it (cf. Ephesians 6:10-18). This is why we talk so much about “the life of prayer.” The life of prayer IS the Christian life; without it we cannot live “in Christ,” for we will become distracted and tempted and we will fall. The only way of return is to resume the life of prayer. As Jesus said, “I am the vine and you are the branches. He who abides in me and I in him bears much fruit; for without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5, emphasis added).

C. Blamelessness means fighting the right battle.

1. To remain blameless, faithfulness must be more important to us than results. We want to accomplish things in life—the good things God calls us to do. But if the choice is between getting something we want and being faithful, faithfulness must take precedence. This is the nature of the tests we face in life. God tests us to see if it is more important to us to be faithful than it is to be successful or satisfied. Will we endure the cross the leads to resurrection?

2. God’s intention is to give us all things, just as Jesus endured the cross and is now King of Kings and Lord of Lords. But first he had to pass the test and prove himself faithful. This is the purpose of this life. This life is our wilderness of testing. Its purpose is to refine us and purify us for God’s kingdom. It is our vocation to persevere in faith and obedience so that we can stand blameless before God and receive our inheritance on that day.

D. Eucharist and the Last Day

1. We anticipate our final encounter with Christ when we celebrate the Eucharist each Sunday. The Lord’s Day anticipates the Day of the Lord. As begin and end the week at the altar of God (for Sunday is both the first and the eighth day) our time begins and ends “in Christ.” All the elements of the future event are present here. We have an encounter with Christ that changes us—our sinful bodies are made clean and souls are washed. We enter into union with God. We stand blameless before Christ right now. 

2. The goal as we leave the altar is to maintain our blamelessness through our daily life of  prayer: to confess our sins each day, to reconcile with each other each day, to fulfill our vocation to love God and neighbor each day. Constant prayer keeps us from falling to far away; it helps us nip sin in the bud. Prayer moves us to reconcile before minor spats become major arguments. Prayer keeps us focused on the good works that God has prepared for us. We live this life with one pre-eminent goal in mind: “that you may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

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