Archives for 2012
The Second Coming as Endpoint of the Human Life.
Today’s epistle consists of some opening verses from St Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth. Its sounds like a mere prelude to the points that are developed later in the letter; but it ends with a significant and consequential statement of purpose: “that ye may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” That is to say, the entire purpose of all the instruction St. Paul is about to give in 16 chapters of 1 Corinthians has this goal: that the Corinthians might be ready for the coming of Jesus.
The future event St. Paul is talking about is described in different ways in the New Testament. It is called the Second Coming of Jesus, the revealing of Jesus and the Day of Judgment. The purpose of looking forward to this “day” is frequently misunderstood. To say that our goal is to be blameless in the Day of our Lord Jesus Christ is not a call to try to figure out when it will happen. It does not give us a vocation to be doomsayers who constantly and gloomily predict the end of the world. Nor is it a call to become escapists who always talk about “heaven” but have nothing to contribute to this world. It is, rather, a call to change the way we look at time.
Life in this world is temporary. It has an end. The movement of time always lets us know that we are moving forward toward something. From the stand point of the world apart from God, that something is death. But Christ has conquered death. And we share in that conquest through faith. As Jesus said, “whoever…believes in me shall never die” (John 11). Our bodies will die, but, through the gift of the Spirit we have been given a new kind of life that will continue beyond the death of the body. So, we understand that death is not the “end” of life.
Death is the separation of the spirit from the body. Our hope is resurrection, which is to be restored to eternal life in our bodies. We bury the body in the ground “in sure and certain hope of resurrection” (BCP 333) because the fullness of human life and the biblical hope require a body. We do not know much about the state of the spirit after death and before resurrection other than that it is an intermediate state and not a final state. We “look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” And so do the faithful departed.
The Day of Resurrection, when our spirits will be reunited with our bodies, is the “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” of which St. Paul speaks in the epistle. It is the endpoint of our hope. It is the day when the life planted in us in baptism will be brought to completion. It is the day when “the creation itself will be delivered from its bondage to decay” (Romans 8:21).
We don’t know exactly what it will look like when Christ is revealed, the dead are raised and the creation is renewed. There is no way we can envision it. It will involve opening up dimensions of reality that are now hidden from us. It will involve the end of the current continuum of time and space as we know it. But if we believe in an omnipotent God who created the world in the beginning with meaning and purpose, it only makes sense that he also plans to bring the world he made to the glorious conclusion he intended for it. The Christian faith makes no ultimate sense without a day when all that is promised will be fulfilled.
Thus, the day of our Lord Jesus Christ is necessarily the focus of our hope, no matter when it may occur or whether or not we live to see it. It is not a chronological goal. It is, rather, the endpoint of human existence, the thing that everything else points to and without which nothing makes sense.
The Future Anticipated in the Present through the Life of Prayer.
However, the Christian hope is not merely to wait for something that that is entirely in the future. The future is experienced in the present through the life of prayer. We desire the future fulfillment in the body because we already experience that fulfillment in part right now.
We can see this in the language the New Testament uses about the Kingdom of God. Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15). The kingdom of God was present in the person of Jesus. It had not yet fully arrived, but it was beginning to break into time and space, into human history in the life and ministry of Jesus.
Through the gift of the Spirit on Pentecost, the kingdom of God came to be present in and through the church. The church is the extension of the Incarnation. As the church proclaims the gospel in word and deed, as her members use their gifts is service, the future kingdom becomes present in time. We can also say, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is here.”
We experience the Kingdom of God right now through the life of prayer in the community of the church. As we pray to the Father through the Son in the Spirit, and as we celebrate life together in the Body of Christ, we experience the future kingdom now. Nonetheless, each way in which we experience makes us want more and points us to the future consummation. The kingdom is here, but not fully here.
We see this tension between fulfillment and expectation in the Eucharist. We come to the altar to enter into union with God in Christ through the sacrament. This experience fulfills us, on one level, but it leaves us with a longing for something more. Or, to put it another way, we experience a taste of the future fulfillment in the present moment. This taste puts within a perpetual longing to fully experience the future feast of the kingdom.
In fact, the gathering of the faithful around the altar on the Lord’s Day anticipates the gathering of the faithful by Jesus on the Day of The Lord. 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 are restored to the wholeness in the body.
And we leave the altar to live in the new time of the new creation. For us, time does not begin at birth and end at death. Rather, time begins in baptism and ends in resurrection. We gather of the Lord’s Day, Sunday, the Day of Resurrection, which is both the first and eighth day of the week. It signifies both the beginning and the fulfillment of time in Christ, who is the alpha and the omega. For us, time begins and ends “in Christ.” Our experience of time involves the continual interplay between fulfillment and expectation.
Consequently, we work at being blameless on the Day of our Lord Jesus Christ not by predicting the day, or being afraid of judgment or what may happen in the world. We work at getting ready for that Day by entering into the kingdom through the life of prayer now; by “truly and earnestly repenting now”; by being “in love and charity” with our neighbor now; by doing the good works God has prepared for us now; by honoring the image of Christ in the least of his brethren now. The future kingdom is already here and we experience it now in part, even as we wait for it to arrive in its fullness.
The epistle talks about unity and the work that is necessary to maintain it: “With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:2-3).
The cause of disunity and the means of unity.
Unity and peace are popular and sentimental topics, but they are extremely hard to achieve and maintain. It is easier to sing songs about unity, to wax poetic about the prospect of all people being one, than it is to actually be united with other people in a real and enduring way.
As Christians, we understand that unity is a work of restoration and reconciliation. God is three in one. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit exists from eternity is as a peaceful, ordered and beautiful unity. God created the world to reflect this unity. Genesis tells us that rebellion against God by angels and man destroyed the unity of the creation. This is Christianity 101. God made the world good and unified. That goodness and unity was destroyed by sin. The Son of God became man to redeem the world and restore the creation to union with God.
This is a basic point, but it requires emphasis in our time. Many Christians, who ought to know better, end up supporting schemes for peace and unity that ignore the basic truths of the biblical revelation. If the problem with the creation is sin, then any scheme for unity that does not address the reality of sin can never fully and finally solve the problem.
Fallen humanity attempts to achieve a unity that ignores human sin. The Tower Babel is the earliest recorded effort. We will erect a monument to ourselves; by human labor we will build a pathway to heaven so that we may all be one. The end result was a confusion of languages and people were “scattered abroad over all the face of the earth” (Genesis 11:1-9). Pentecost is God’s answer to Babel: God came down to us by means of the Spirit. God unified the different languages so that all proclaimed the wonderful works of God. God made the many to be one (Acts 2).
Of course, there is need for temporary solutions. Treaties, military alliances and court ordered settlements are needed to protect people and maintain some kind of external unity and peace. We ought not to oppose provisional means of keeping people from killing each other. But we must always know these are not the final answer. Ultimately, unity will be achieved when the prayer, “Thy kingdom come thy will be done” is fully answered.
We must work for unity right now.
However, this is not an excuse to be content with things as they are. We are called to work, pray and give for the spread of the kingdom now. We are called to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Notice that we work to maintain, not create unity. Unity is God’s gift to us in Christ. By the gift of the Spirit, we have been restored to union with God, and we have been united with each other in the Communion of the Saints. We must fight to maintain this unity and bring others into it.
We have a universal hope, but a local and personal vocation. Sometimes the quest for unity is presented as a policy decision. If we can establish the right plan and make everyone to follow it, all will be one. The biblical model for unity is Incarnation. God became man. God did not begin the work of reuniting the world to himself by making a policy statement. He began the work by entering into the human story. Unity began in a Bethlehem manger and spread outward from there. Jesus called people to enter into the unity of the kingdom by calling people to repentance and faith. His followers, in turn, called more people into that unity.
What about the complaint that the church itself is divided? The answer is the same. We can’t solve the large picture policy problem. We can only work for unity in the places we actually have influence: in our actual church, family, friendships and work. Debating how to reunite east and west, or trying to figure out how to reunite the churches that were divided in the Reformation never really promotes unity. However, being faithful Christians who labor with longsuffering, forbearance and love to maintain unity in our actual churches, families and relationships does further the work of unity. Being a faithful Christian who interacts with Christians from other churches in charity and truth does actually promote unity.
There are certain foundations for unity that we must fight for if we want to maintain and spread the unity that comes from God.
The first foundation is Truth. There is one faith, one Lord, one baptism. This truth is enshrined in the Creeds. We are one because we all profess a common faith. We face a common altar. We say all say “amen” together to the prayers.
Heresy and false teaching undermine unity. Heresy results when one rejects God’s revelation and says: “I choose to believe my own doctrine.” One cannot experience the Trinitarian unity if one rejects the Trinity! This is why promoting unity sometimes involves contention. We must fight against false belief. Priests take a vow in ordination to “be ready with all faithful diligence to banish and drive away from the church all erroneous and strange doctrine contrary to God’s word” (BCP 542). The idea that everyone can have his or her own truth is attractive in our time; but it is false and undermines genuine biblical unity.
Another foundation for unity is repentance: We must recognize, and continue to confess, that we are all sinners in the process of being saved. We are forgiven and we are being changed. We are unified in our common opposition to sin within ourselves. If a member of the church refuses to acknowledge his sin, or regularly practices something that is contrary to God revealed will, that person undermines the unity of the church. Willful disobedience promotes disunity.
Repentance means that I will always be aware that my own sin is always a threat to unity. It means that whenever there is a dispute that threatens unity, I will begin by asking what my own actions and faulty motives have contributed to it. Reconciliation that restores unity almost away involves mutual confession.
Another foundation of unity is a common mission. We are all working towards the same thing: We all follow Christ, worship God and work and pray and give for the spread of his kingdom. We each use our gifts in service towards that common goal and aim. Together we discuss our mission, share our strong opinions and reach a common sense of what the Holy Spirit wants us to do. Then we work together with others in the church so that more can be accomplished together than by any one of us alone.
Personal agendas and lack of commitment undermine unity. When someone wants to accomplish something other than the mission of the church and when work with faulty motives, it undermines the unity of the church. When someone gossips or privately sows seeds of discord among brethren, it undermines the unity of the church. When people lack the commitment to live the life of prayer, be faithful stewards or use their gifts in service, it undermines the unity of the church. That is to say, the non-committed undermine the army of God in the same way that uncommitted soldiers undermine the unity of a regular army.
A final foundation for unity is simply putting up with each other—loving each other as we actually are. The great and attractive idea of unity and peace most often fails because petty animosities and personality differences fester and become cancerous. Promoting unity means being willing to love the people in church that I have the hardest time loving; it means putting up with them, forbearing them and suffering long with them. It means desiring what is best for them. It may be helpful to remember that “I” may be the person that someone else has trouble loving!
–A rule of engagement. Be quite about anything that you are not willing to openly and lovingly confront with the other person.
Unity requires humility. Humility, like unity, is a divine attribute. It can only be fully developed by those who know God and are being made whole by him. Genuine humility has nothing to prove and does not need the approval of others. It is able to serve and take the lowest place because it is confident of its gifts and standing with God. Thus, it is able to freely give itself for others.
We work for the goal of unity and peace when each of us strives, to “walk worthy of the vocations with which you were called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
Jesus saw a man named Matthew and said to him, “Follow me.”
The apparent problem with the call of Matthew and others (cf. Matthew 4:18-22). Jesus seems to come by as a stranger at some random time and require people to leave everything on the spot. However, that is probably not what happened. Those Jesus called to follow him knew about Jesus and his ministry. They had heard him teach and were likely all considering the implications of that teaching for their own lives. Jesus came by at just the right moment and “asked for the order.”
If we began to follow a perfect stranger the first time he told us to leave all and follow, our relatives might, with justification, call the police. But our own call to discipleship follows the biblical pattern. We come to know about Jesus. We begin to be aware of the implications of who he is and what he taught. Then, at just the right moment, we hear the call to make a significant behavioral decision or to sacrifice something or be faithful in some new way.
To be honest, I’ve had a problem with leaving everything to follow Jesus. I think I’ve left one thing behind at a time at maybe a dozen significant moments—and maybe there are few things left to discard. But, again, this is always the way it works. We follow Jesus and begin to head in a new direction of obedience and service. As we head in that new direction, we discover more and more of the implications of discipleship. We are continually called to follow Jesus in new ways. In fact, one danger of “mature” faith is that we might cease to hear the voice of God; we might no longer be open to doing the new and sacrificial things Christ calls us to do.
As the apostles began to follow Jesus, they met new challenges and decisions along the way. Judas eventually opted out. And the others had their moments of questioning. One of these occurs at the end of John 6. Jesus gave an unpopular sermon about eating his body and drinking his blood that managed to drive away the entire crowd that had gathered for the feeding of the multitudes. After everyone else left, Jesus turned to the Apostles and said, “Do you want to go also?” It is likely that at least a few entertained the thought.
In one passage, “A certain scribe” came to Jesus and said “Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go.” Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” (Mat 8:19-20). Jesus meant, “I’m not leading you to a fixed destination, or on any well-mapped out pathway.” If you are expecting certainty, or if you have expectations, you will be disappointed. Peter followed Jesus and was prepared to fight and die for him. Then, at the very moment when Peter thought it was it was time to fight, when Peter drew his sword for battle, Jesus told him to put it away. Peter anticipated heroic battle and, perhaps, martyrdom. Instead he was told to surrender and run (John 18:10-11). Of course, the martyrdom came later, after Peter learned the kind of battle he was called to fight.
There are things we can expect from following Jesus: Joy and mission.
Matthew became a missionary. He went and told his friends about his decision and invited them all to a party with Jesus and his followers. Here we begin to see why St. Matthew is our patron saint! One thing that motivated Matthew to tell others was the mere fact that he qualified to be a disciple. Matthew was a tax collector, hated by the religious leadership because he was an agent of the hated Romans and a symbol of Israel’s submission to Roman rule. Plus, tax collectors typically cheated people. When Jesus said, “Follow me,” there had to be a little voice inside Matthew saying: “Are you sure? Me?” We can imagine Matthew running off to his friends and saying, “Guess who told me to follow him?” And we can imagine any witnesses to the event saying, “Guess who that crazy rabbi accepted as a disciple?”
There are people who believe they are saved by their own virtue or merit, or who believe they don’t need to be saved at all from sin, death and separation from God. But I think most people, even those who maintain an outward appearance of respectability, have inner doubts in the other direction. We know what is in our hearts. We know the thoughts we sometimes think. We know the things that we have done that we ought not to have done, and the things we have left undone that we ought to have done. Outwardly, we may pretend. But inwardly, we know.
This is why the call to follow Jesus necessarily involves an experience of grace. Jesus says, “YOU follow me.” We respond, “You don’t understand who I am or what I’ve done.” Or, “I’ve got to get all kinds of things organized and fixed before I am can come.” Or, “Can I think about it for a while?” And Jesus says, “No. YOU follow me, now. The faith that is necessary to follow Jesus is willing to trust that the ambiguities and doubts will be worked out along the road.
If we will accept the grace of God, we will experience joy. Biblical joy does not come from human achievement or victory. It comes from the experience of being accepted by God as we are, warts and all. People do not experience joy because they won’t accept grace; because they won’t come and follow Jesus as they are; because they cling to their excuses and doubts. As someone once said, “I refuse to be a part of any club that is willing to have me as a member!” But this is the good news. There is nothing about you or your life that disqualifies you from being disciple, other than your unwillingness to come when Jesus calls you.
Holiness and obedience are the fruit of grace and joy. Matthew became a saint. He didn’t start out that way. When we experience grace, we begin to obey God because we want to, not because we are afraid of being punished. St. John says that “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). They more we experience God’s perfect love for us, the more faithful our response will be. This is what we learn through the liturgy. We gather on Sunday, the first day of the week, to remember that Jesus has us to follow him. We gather to receive grace: the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for “thee.” The whole of the Christian life, pursing holiness and doing the good works that God has prepared for us to walk in, are nothing more—or less—than our response to grace: the good news that God accepts us as we are.
If we want to be faithful imitators of our patron, we ought to celebrate our election and calling—and today seems like a good day for just such a party! Though we may laugh about eagerness to make merry, the habit of celebrating redemption is deeply rooted in the Bible. Consider this passage from Deuteronomy which details one purpose for the tithe of the grain:
You shall spend that money for whatever your heart desires: for oxen or sheep, for wine or similar drink, for whatever your heart desires; you shall eat there before the LORD your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your household (14:26).
There are several passage like this that, essentially, command God’s people to celebrate what God has done for them. The party of God’s people is not like the party of the world. We do not celebrate to drown our sorrows, kill our pain or escape our misery. We gather to celebrate the life we have together in Christ. We gather to rejoice in the grace of God. It is the party of the New Creation. And, as with Matthew, there is a missionary component to our party. We want invite others to come and meet this Savior, who is willing to have people like us as followers. We want to new open doors of entry through which other sinners can enter. We want to make seats available at the table so that other sinners may come and eat with us in the kingdom of God.
As Jesus said, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice. For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” (Mathew 9:13).
One problem with the King James Version is that it makes difficult teaching sound beautiful. We might be tempted to admire the beauty of the verse and not take the heart the difficulty of the teaching. So, today, we might be so busy meditating on the birds of the heaven, who do not sow or gather in to barns; we might be caught up in admiring the lilies of the field who neither toil nor spin but are arrayed more fabulously than Solomon in all his glory, that we miss that main point. Jesus is attacking our very way of life.
You can’t serve God and Mammon. So, don’t worry about what you are going to wear and what you are going to eat. Focus on what God wants you to do and trust God to take care of all of these things for you. Does that describe your approach to life? How many of you have worried about some financial matter in the past week? In the past week, how many of you have spent an inordinate amount of time before the mirror or in the closet, worrying about you appearance?
Mammon is money. You can’t serve God and money. Yet, we live in world that is thoroughly committed to doing just that. Just about every measure of well-being that is put before us is rooted in money. The Dow Jones average; the unemployment rate, inflation, one’s net worth, the value of one’s retirement plan; etc., etc. etc. Can you think of a publicly posted barometer of well-being that is not economic?
Now, do not go home and say that St. Matthew’s Church has an impractical priest who doesn’t think it is important for people to have jobs or for our country to prosper. But I am saying this: There are other questions that are not asked very frequently. For example, is a rise in the Dow Jones Average always an unmitigated good? When stock prices rose because of housing prices were artificially inflated by loose and dishonest lending practices, was that good? Is there ever a need to ask whether the things that were sold were actually good things? Is there ever a need to ask whether the work being done is good work? Is there ever a need to ask how people, who are made in the image of God, are faring in the enterprise?
However, most of us live in a micro world. We may enjoy gathering with our friends, with a supply of our favorite beverage, to solve the problems of the world. But those who are actually making the very large decisions do no usually consult us. For most of us, our vocation is to faithful in the smaller world where we actually live. On the Day of Judgment, most of us won’t be asked to give a Christian critique of modern economic theory. But there probably will be some discussion of what we actually did in those situations where the intrinsic worth of a product, or the quality of work, or the treatment of people actually depended on us.
The gospel is a critique of the human tendency to be anxious and full of worry about things. Jesus mentions worry or anxiety four times. Twice Jesus commands us, saying, “Do not be anxious,” or “Do not worry.” The two other references are practical. Jesus points out that worrying does not make us taller, stronger, richer or more able to handle the issues that are before us. Therefore, he says, why do it?
Now, if you ever been full of anxiety about something, you know that the least helpful things someone can do in to walk in the room and say, “Don’t worry.” We cannot turn worry or anxiety on and off like a switch. Jesus is saying that serving Mammon produces anxiety. When money, or any temporal thing, is the goal of our life, we will necessarily worry. For nothing temporal is certain. We do know what direction the economy will go. We don’t know whether the job we do will, in fact, be needed; or if it is needed, whether we will be the one hired to do it.
Even those who have lots of money are not free from anxiety. For they worry about losing their money, or how much of it they have in comparison with others, or whether people like them only for their money. And then, of course, there is death, when money and all temporary things are lost. A story is told about the death of a very wealthy man. As the accountants were going over the estate, someone asked, “How much did he leave?” Another replied, “He left all of it.”
Jesus does not merely prohibit anxiety. He gives us an alternative lifestyle. Be not anxious, but seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. This means that rather than worrying about what we shall eat, drink and wear, or the direction of the economy or our net worth, we should ask different questions: “What does God want me to do?” “What does the kingdom of God look like in my particular life and vocation?” “Am I doing what I am called to do to the best of my ability?” “Am I treating others as those who bear God’s image?”
To seek first the kingdom of God is not an easy command. It is not a simple answer to anxiety. It is hard to wrestle in prayer with God over the questions like: What we should do in this or that particular situation? What is God’s will for those we love and what are we supposed to do for them? When are we called to act and when are we called to wait? And, while we know that we supposed to love others, even our enemies, just how, exactly are we supposed to do that?
This is why we talk about the “The life of prayer.” We cannot seek first the kingdom, unless prayer is the foundation of our lives; unless the ongoing conversation of prayer is part of everything we do; unless we live by some kind of rule of life that makes prayer, the reading of Scripture, praise, confession, supplication and thanksgiving part of the very fabric of our daily lives. We must necessarily be pre-occupied with something. Jesus is saying we should be pre-occupied with the implications of serving God.
When we commit ourselves to prayer, to seeking first the kingdom of God as a way of life over long seasons of time, a strange thing begins to happen. We experience a decrease in anxiety, and an increase in faith. We find ourselves worrying less and trusting God more. This is not because the future becomes any more certain; it is because we come to learn that God is good and trustworthy. We learn how to be faithful creatures, and we learn how to let God be God.
Seeking first the kingdom gives us the privilege of trusting God. When we pursue money or any temporal things as the goal of life; when we make compromises and take shortcuts in order to make it in the world, we are on our own. But when commit all of our life and money to God in prayer; when we commit ourselves to doing his will in every circumstance; we have the privilege of trusting him for the results. And, as Jesus said, we discover that “All these things” are indeed, added unto us.
St. Paul sums it up in Philippians when he says, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (4:6-7).
At first glance, the gospel parable seems to present one thankful person, and nine who were ungrateful. However, the dilemma of the Samaritan: The nine who went to the priest were being obedient to Jesus and the Torah, but the Samaritan couldn’t go to the priest because he wasn’t a pure Jew. So he turned back to Jesus.
The Old Testament required an elaborate routine for the cleansing of lepers: bathing, washing of clothes, shaving of the head and the offering of sacrifices (Leviticus 13-14). But Jesus pronounces the Samaritan clean on the basis of his faith. This shows that Jesus is acting in the place of the temple and the priesthood. Jesus is the new Temple and the fulfillment of the OT priesthood.
This was the thing that most scandalized the religious authorities. Jesus claimed to be able to do on his own, by his word and command, what the Torah said had to be done by through the temple and the priesthood. Jesus acted as one whose authority superseded that of Torah and Temple. Examples elsewhere in the New Testament:
Forgiving sins. The paralytic, Mark 2:5
Sabbath Rules. John 5:2-16, Luke 13:10-16
On the one hand, the nine Jewish lepers could be forgiven for going to the priest as instructed. That was what they were supposed to do. On the other hand, to be healed by Jesus and then to immediately depart from him without further acknowledgement was to miss the main point. The point was not, “I am healed.” The point was, “Who is this guy?”
New Testament miracles are “signs,” not ends in and of themselves. They point to the presence of God. Those who “get it” don’t hurry back into life as it was before; they “see” the presence of God, are grateful for his gift and begin to live in a new way as a result.
The Samaritan returned to give thanks. He returned to acknowledge the giver—not just the gift. The Greek word for giving thanks is Eucharist. Thus, the gospel Samaritan provides a model for our worship. We return each week to give thanks. For us, thanksgiving, Eucharist, is not merely an act; Eucharist is a way of life. Eucharist is the restoration of the human vocation that was lost through sin: To take all that God gives and offer it back to him in thanksgiving.
Our thanksgiving prayer in the daily offices says, “We bless thee for our creation, preservation and all the blessings of this life; but, above all, for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace and hope of glory” (BCP 33)
St Paul writes, “In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thess. 5:18). Is it really possible to give thanks to God in everything? If someone punches us in the mouth, or hurts us in some substantial way, it is hard to say, “God, thanks for that.” We don’t thank God for evil things, but we do thank God for his presence in all things. If we did not know Christ, we would still have pain; but we would not have the hope and promise that God will use the pain for good. Without Christ, there is Good Friday, but there is no Easter.
Thus, we give continual thanks in everything for the miracle of new creation; God continually brings the order and beauty of his new creation of our chaos. “In everything God works for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
We return each week to offer Eucharist. We offer bread and wine to God, which represent the creation and our participation in the creation. We offer ourselves, our souls and our bodies to God in union with the sacrifice of Christ. Because Jesus is both priest and temple, our sinful bodies are made clean by his body, and our souls are washed by his blood. As return in thanksgiving to acknowledge the giver of the gift, Jesus says to each of us, “Arise, go thy way; thy faith hath made thee whole.”
In the Christian tradition, Pride is considered the most grievous of all sins. The prophet Isaiah tells us that Lucifer (also known as Satan) was a great and mighty angel, and in his desire to exalt himself above God, he was cast out of heaven. In comparing pride to other sins, CS Lewis says, “Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison”; “Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind” (Lewis, Mere Christianity). Pride usually does not come in bursts, like anger, but it is a slow accumulation of thoughts about how great we think we are. The Biblical antidote to this disease is humility.
This morning’s Gospel of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector could be called “A Tale of Two Worshippers.” It is a tale that involves two radically different people, attempting to do the same very same thing. In ancient Palestine, there were certain days and hours of prayer where the temple was open to the public; so actually getting there did require some effort and planning. In our modern society where church attendance is rather sparse, we believe the fact that we are even showing up is something to celebrate! While it is something to celebrate, the parable teaches us that even the best intentions can lead us astray.
The Pharisee is the obviously holy man in Jesus’ first century audience. He would be the person you were most comfortable with, the person you would trust with your deepest secrets, and he was the person whose advice would be the the most respected.
The other man in in our tale is the Publican; a Roman Government official who was responsible to collect taxes. It is significant to remember he represented political Rome. It’s not simply the fact that he collected taxes, and since no one likes to pay taxes, he’s the “bad guy” in the parable. The publican in the mind of the ancient Jewish people was a co-conspirator with the occupying Roman forces who betrayed and cheated his own people.
Fr. Scarlett often mentions that heresy, or false belief, happens when we abuse or overemphasize a a very good aspect of the faith, at the expense of the whole of the faith. In this regard, heresy is very subtle, and often goes unnoticed.
The same is true of pride; it can be very subtle. Spiritual disciplines such as prayer, fasting, and tithing can and should form us into mature Christians. They are routines we should be consciously praying for the power to do. But they could also be the very things that destroys us. From all outward and objective criteria, the Pharisee was a holy man. Then why are we told that it was the Tax Collector, and not the pharisee, whom went home justified in the eyes of God?
It is because the first step towards a right relationship with God is humility. The Tax Collector had enough self awareness to see himself in light of who God is. This takes us back to the two of the most basic theological doctrines – the knowledge of God – the creator and sustainer of the universe and the knowledge of ourself – created by God. The Pharisee’s pride made it seem as if he was doing God a favor by worshipping in him, and letting God know that there was someone doing it wrong behind him. The tax collector realized that he had nothing to bring to God except himself, and the acknowledgement that he was a sinner looking for mercy.
In Orthodox iconography, the Pharisee is depicted as standing up close to the altar, raising his arms towards heaven, where he is thanking God he is not like all the other bad people out in the world – “the extortioners, the unjust, the adulterers, and even people like this publican.” The Icon shows the publican standing a few steps below, with arms slightly outstretched, as if he is unsure about the offering of praise he is about to make. He stands in the lower place, and has a sense of humility and openness towards God’s will for his life.
When we approach God in worship, what is going through our minds? Do we think that because we are not like all the other bad people out in the world, we have earned a special place in God’s house? Do we keep a better record of other people’s sins than our own? Often, we walk around like the man who has a plank of wood in his own eye, working meticulously to get the splinters out of their neighbors eye.
The liturgy works to form us against false hopes of self righteousness. Just before the reception of holy communion, we pray that we “would not presume to come to God’s table, trusting in our own righteousness, but trusting in God’s manifold and great mercies.”
Our culture has taught us to believe that we are extra special, that we are unique – not like the rest of humanity. This philosophy can be a road block to humility. At times, we may have subconsciously prayed the words of the Pharisee, thinking, “O God, I thank you I’m not like everybody else.” But to move towards Christlikeness, we must begin to adopt the prayer of the publican, who went home justified, saying “O God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
The Transfiguration is a significant feast that is obscured by its mid-summer date. We frequently move it to the nearest Sunday to give it its deserved prominence. There are similarities between the Transfiguration of Jesus and his baptism. In both events, the Holy Spirit is visibly present. In baptism, the Spirit descends in the form of a dove. In the Transfiguration, the Spirit alters the appearance of Jesus, and descends in the form of a cloud. In both events, the Father speaks, declaring Jesus to be his beloved Son. These two events present the clearest New Testament pictures of the Trinity.
Both events are witnessed by recognized prophets. John the Baptist was present at the baptism as the prophet who declared to Israel that Jesus is the Messiah. In the Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah are present to bear witness that the cross fulfills the law and the prophets. Both events mark a transition. Baptism was the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry of calling Israel to repent. The Transfiguration marks a change in direction. Now, Jesus is headed for the cross.
The feature of the story that best explains it is hidden in the language. Moses and Elijah appeared to Jesus and spoke of what the King James Version translates as “his decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem.” The Greek word being translated as “decease” in this passage is literally “exodus.”
With Moses present and talking about an exodus, the meaning becomes clear. The death of Jesus on the cross will be the new exodus. In the first exodus, the blood of the Passover Lamb saved the people from death in Egypt; then Moses led Israel out of slavery through the Red Sea to freedom. Jesus is the Passover Lamb, whose blood will conquer death. And Jesus, the New Moses, will lead Israel to freedom through his death and resurrection.
The freedom that God’s people experience through this new exodus is expressed by St. Peter in the epistle. Peter used the same word used to describe his own death—“decease” or “exodus”—that was used to describe the death of Jesus. In the light of the cross, St. Peter saw his own death as a passage to a place of greater freedom.
Since there is so much misunderstanding about the nature of life after death, it is important to clarify exactly what St. Peter is saying, and not saying, about it. He describes his death as “putting off this my tabernacle.” A tabernacle is a tent, a temporary dwelling place. It corresponds to the tent God dwelt in during Israel’s years of wilderness wandering. When Israel reached the Promised Land, God eventually dwelt in the temple, which was a permanent structure. Thus, Peter will put off his temporary dwelling through his death/exodus, with the hope that God will give him a permanent dwelling, a new and glorified body.
The meaning of this is explained by St. Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:1-4:
For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven, if indeed, having been clothed, we shall not be found naked. For we who are in this tent groan, being burdened, not because we want to be unclothed, but further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up by life.
St. Peter did not hope for a purely “spiritual” existence as a result of his exodus. Rather, he put off his temporary dwelling in the hope that God would give him a permanent habitation in the Resurrection.
This follows the pattern established by Jesus. Jesus died on Good Friday. He put off his mortal body, his earthly tent, and his spirit went to the place where departed spirit go. On the third day, his spirit was reunited with his body and his body was transformed and glorified. He received his “habitation which is from heaven.” So, Peter would put off his mortal body, his tent. He would go to the place where the departed faithful go (to be “with Christ” “In paradise”—Philippians 1:23, Luke 23:43) to wait for the day of resurrection, when he will be given a new and glorified body, a house not made with hands.
Like Christ, we will die. We will put off this tent.. Like Christ, we will rise. We will be given a new, immortal habitation from heaven. For Jesus, the intermediate state of existence, the time between putting off the earthly tent and receiving the habitation from heaven, consisted of parts of three days; or a day and half if we are timing it on a watch. The intermediate state for us in elongated. The departed faithful now live in the intermediate state. Having put off the tent of their temporary existence, they live in expectation of the day when “the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised incorruptible” (1 Corinthians 15:52).
The Transfiguration teaches us that death is a necessary part of our progress towards resurrection. Jesus received a taste of the future glory to sustain him through the suffering that was necessary to attain to that future state. In the same way, our experience of union with God in Christ through the Spirit in this life is a temporary taste of future glory that is meant to sustain us through own, necessary share of the cross.
The great temptation—which Jesus faced in the wilderness and we face constantly in life—is to hold on to the temporary as though it were permanent; to seek complete fulfillment here and now; to act as through this world and what it has to offer is the goal of life. When we give into that temptation, we sacrifice the future hope for the promise of present glory—and we end up losing both.
This is why the world is afraid of suffering and death. The illusion of the world is that we can build a permanent city here. Death is the constant reminder that this is a lie. Thus, the world attempts to stay perpetually young, avoid the reality of death and eliminate all pain. Authentic Christian faith does not promise that we will not age, suffer or die. It promises us that our suffering and death have been redeemed by Christ. They are part of our own pathway to glory.
This does not diminish life in this world. It makes it better. As Jesus said, “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matt. 16:25). It is only when we let go; it is only when we stop clinging to the temporary as through it were permanent, that we are able to enjoy the temporary for what it is: a taste, a glimpse, a shadow of the future, eternal glory that lies on the other side of our own cross and exodus.