Archives for 2014
A Sermon for the Ascension
Given on the Sunday within the Octave of Ascension, June 1, 2014 For the Epistle, Acts 1:1-11 – The Gospel, St. Luke 24:49-53
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
A. The meaning and implications of the Ascension
1. The season of Easter has given way to the ten day season of Ascension. In the language of the Nicene Creed, the Son of God who “came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary” has now “ascended into heaven and sitteth on the right and of the Father.” The words “came down” and “ascended” provide a physical image for truths that transcend the limitations our language. Heaven is not a geographic location. In the Incarnation Jesus left the realm or dimension of eternity and entered into the physical creation, which is bounded by time and space. In the Ascension, he went back from time and space into eternity.
2. The Son of God took his humanity and his accomplished sacrifice with him back into heaven. Thus, the Ascension effects a change in the very nature of reality. In the person of Jesus humanity has been raised from the dead and glorified. “In Christ,” humanity now lives and rules in heaven with the Father; and the sacrifice once offered for sin is now an eternal fixture in heaven.
3. The implications of the ascension for us result from the fact that we have been baptized “into Christ.” All that happened to him happens to us “in” him. Ephesians says,
God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (2:5-6 NKJ).
We experience this most profoundly in the Eucharist. We lift up our hearts—we ascend— to join in the angelic Sanctus. We experience again our union with God through the sacrifice of Jesus. We rule with Christ over the world through our prayers. As Revelation says, Jesus “loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, and has made us kings and priests to His God and Father” (1:5-6).
B. Ascension as experience before doctrine
1. Ascension is the central experience of our life in Christ. As our Easter epistle said, our “life is hid with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). Whenever we pray we move from time and space into eternity. We go from the world that is passing away, where we feel fearful, guilty and anxious, into the kingdom of heaven, where our sins are forgiven and Jesus rules as Lord of the creation.
2. The experience of ascension is different than believing in the doctrine of the ascension. We often think of faith as a list of doctrines to which we give intellectual assent. Consequently, we may believe in the ascension, but we may not actually experience it. This is to get the Christian life backwards. Experience comes before doctrine in authentic faith. Our doctrine explains our prayer. The truths of the Catholic and Apostolic faith are merely
the right explanation and articulation of what the church experiences when she prays to the Father through the Son in the Spirit.
3. We can observe this order in the Bible. Jesus first actually died, rose and ascended. Then the Holy Spirit led the church to rightly describe what happened. The church first experienced union with God in Christ through the Spirit on Pentecost. Then the church explained the experience by writing gospels, epistles and creeds. When we “believe” that Jesus is the ascended Lord and Savior but do not habitually experience his power and forgiveness, we are like a man who becomes an expert in the mechanics of an airplane, but who never actually flies.
C. Prayer as Ascension
1. To ascend with Christ through prayer is the central activity of faith. Through prayer we move from this fallen world into the kingdom of God. Through prayer we remember again the truth that the world constantly denies: Jesus is Lord. Through prayer we experience again the truth the world makes us forget: Our sins are forgiven and we the children of God.
2. As we return to prayer again and again—at the altar of God, in daily prayer and in constant contemplation—these truths take ever greater root in us. We experience Jesus as Lord, more and more, through his sovereign ordering of our lives. We experience, more and more, the truth that our sins are forgiven and we are accepted by God. Through our practice of prayer over time, faith moves more and more from the head to the heart. As faith takes deeper root in the heart, it produces in us the fruit of joy and peace and fills us with a confident hope.
E. Growth in prayer
1. Our progress in the faith is directly linked to our progress in prayer. We don’t need to be convinced that Jesus is Lord. We need to experience his power in our lives. If I prove to you that Jesus is Lord using various Bible verses and philosophical arguments, you may come to believe that Jesus is Lord. But if, through your practice of prayer over time you begin to see and experience how Jesus is bringing order and beauty out of the chaos in your life; if you begin to overcome temptation through the power Jesus gives you; if Jesus directs you to use your gifts in new and fulfilling ways, then you will know Jesus as Lord.
2. We don’t need to be convinced that our sins are forgiven. We need to experience the grace of God. If I convince you that the sacrifice of Jesus fulfills the various Old Testament rituals and the cross is the once for all time sacrifice for sin, you may belief that Jesus is the savior of the world. But if, through your practice of prayer over time the grace of God begins to touch and heal the deep wounds in your life, then you will know Jesus as savior.
3. For most people today growth in the life of prayer means making time for stillness and silence. We need to establish a pattern of living through which we regularly get off the treadmill and ascend with Christ. A prayer book prayer expresses it this way:
By the might of thy Spirit, lift us, we pray thee, to thy presence, where we may be still and know that thou are God (595).
4. The Risen Christ has ascended into heaven where he rules as Lord and Savior. It is our great privilege, as those who have been baptized into Christ, to ascend with him. It is our great privilege, not just to believe in our heads that Jesus is Lord and Savior, but to know and experience his power and grace each day through prayer.
The Fifth Sunday after Easter
The Reverend David A. Brounstein
St. Matthew’s Church
25 May 2014
The Book of Common Prayer notes that this fifth and last Sunday in Eastertide is commonly called Rogation Sunday.
The word “rogation” is derived from the Latin word “rogare” which means “to ask or to beseech” and is taken from our Gospel text, quote, (John 16:23-24) “Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you. Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my name: ask and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full.”
We frequently think of seedtime, planting, and prayers for an abundant harvest as the main emphasis of rogation. Rogation Days began in fifth century France after a series of natural disasters. The Bishop instituted a solemn three-day observance where the people were to petition God for forgiveness of their sins, for protection from further calamities, and for bountiful crops. Old Ordo Kalendar’s reflected that this Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, the last three days of Eastertide, were purple or penitential rather than the usual Eastertide white indicating celebratory feast days or seasons.
Over the years, the rogation days have lost most of their penitential attributes. Few of us living in Orange County pray that there will be enough rain for agriculture or to provide feed for what will eventually appear in the meat counter at the market. We assume that agricultural abundance will continue unabated and grocery shelves will always be well stocked.
If you have ever listened to the radio while driving through the Central Valley, your perspective would probably change. The mainstay of programming is a non-stop discussion of the daily crop report, current temperatures, expectations of rain, pest problems and the sale of farm equipment. For farmers, these matters are of primary importance on a daily basis. In these rural areas, some churches continue the rogation tradition of liturgical processions out to the fields to bless crops and young livestock. In doing so, it provides a tacit reminder that God and humanity cooperate in the creative process of agriculture.
This theme first appears immediately after the Creation narrative in the second chapter of Genesis. We read that (Gen 2:8,15), “The Lord planted a garden and took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to dress and keep it.” In effect, at the beginning, God established a unique partnership with man. As in every partnership, there are duties and expectations of both parties.
Rogation Days remind us that all agriculture, be it a garden or farming endeavor, remains a collaborative effort. To obtain a bountiful harvest, human effort is required in addition to what God provides. A field needs to be prepared, seed needs to be planted, irrigation provided, and workers to gather the crop and “separate the wheat from the chaff.”
In his Epistle to the Church at Corinth, St. Paul employed a similar metaphor and applied it to the preaching of the Gospel, quote, (1 Cor 3:6-8) “I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase. So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase. Now he that planteth and he that watereth are one: and every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labor.”
St. James, oft maligned by numerous Reformation theologians, practically applied a similar metaphor to God’s Word that has been planted in the garden of our heart. In his Epistle, he exhorts us to, (James 1:22) “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.” St. James was primarily addressing matters in his local first century worship community that, not surprisingly, continues to persist and impact the Church some twenty centuries later. Then as now, there are people who regularly come to Church each week, people who hear the Scriptures read aloud, and people who hear the homily and its application to their lives. They truly believe in their heart that Church attendance, adherence to right doctrine, a donation in the plate, and prayerful listening is sufficient to make them a faithful Christian. All of these things are good, yet, St. James calls this limited response self-deception.
Implicit in the Jewish worldview, assumed by every writer in both the Old and New Testament, was that there is a unity, a holistic connectedness, in each person among their body, soul and spirit. St. James teaches us that a Christian is required to incorporate God’s Word and what they have heard and learned in Church into every aspect of how they live out their life. It is putting theory into practice. It is how one becomes a “doer of the word and not a hearer only.”
There is a Jewish parable that tells the story of a rabbi who was coming from the house of his teacher. He was riding leisurely on his donkey and was happy and elated because he had studied much Torah, the first five books of the Bible. By chance he met an exceedingly ugly man who greeted him saying, “Peace be unto you.” The rabbi did not return his greeting but instead, said to him, “You are good for nothing. How ugly you are. Is everyone in your town as ugly as you are?” The man replied, ‘I do not know, but go and tell the craftsman who made me ‘how ugly is this vessel you have made.’ The rabbi immediately realized that he had sinned, dismounted from his donkey, and prostrated himself on the ground begging to be forgiven by both the man and by God.
We too, come to Church and hear the Word of God – but then, like the rabbi, when we go on our way, we begin to encounter all those people and situations in our lives we consider to be ugly. Some are family members or co-workers. There are the multitudes on our streets and freeways who provide empiric evidence that they are unable drive a vehicle, especially if they are talking or texting on their cell phone; there are people who continually aggravate or frustrate us and waste our time. They greatly test our patience. Others still, who are street corner beggars or homeless. They remind us of human needs that we would prefer to ignore.
We can laugh at the human foibles in the parable and at the same time be somewhat troubled. The rabbi in this tale could well be described as a hearer of the Word but not a doer of the Word. To his credit, he immediately confessed his sin and acknowledged his lack of charity. The rabbi learned that his study of Torah was not solely for his personal edification, but was something to be lived out in every aspect of his life and with his community. That is the point of the tale and why it has been preserved in rabbinic teaching.
The rabbi knew that there was no real way he could effectively help the ugly man, but came to the sudden realization that this person was made in the image of God, and at a minimum, deserved to be treated with dignity.
We cannot help all those we encounter in our lives who cause us difficulty, many of whom do not want to be helped. Still, Christ calls us to treat them with respect. In addition, we are to earnestly pray that God would begin a new work in their lives as He has done in ours so that they would be made whole. In this Eastertide season we remember that God loves us and brings the gift of healing, of redemption and the promise of resurrection to all those who come to Him. We are also to remember to look for concrete ways in our everyday lives to extend those gifts to others.
May God strengthen and empower us through the Holy Ghost to be doers of the word and not hearers only.
A Sermon for the Third Sunday after Easter, May 11, 2014
The Epistle, 1 St. Peter 2:11-17 – The Gospel, St. John 16:16-22
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
A. The lows and highs of faith
1. From time to time I hear the criticism that the worship of our church is not “upbeat” enough. Sometimes the lessons and prayers have serious themes, and sometimes the music has complex emotional tones. Some say they prefer a more continuously positive note. In fact, the liturgical mood will depend upon the season or day. Lent is heavy. Easter is joyful. Trinity season has mixed notes, which is to say that the rhythm of the liturgy and the calendar are sort of like real life—or the real life of Christ.
2. The mood of worship mirrors the high and lows of Christ’s life; we must live through all of it to fully experience what it means to live “in Christ.” Most importantly, the pattern of Christ’s life teaches us that the pathway to joy goes through the cross. If there is no confrontation of sin and no mournful repentance, then we cannot have forgiveness and a new creation. The temptation to skip the cross is what Jesus resisted in the wilderness.
3. In today’s gospel, Jesus describes the emotional shift the disciples would experience in the transition from crucifixion to resurrection:
Ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice: and ye shall be sorrowful but your sorrow shall be turned into joy.
The disciples wept and mourned during the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. But their sorrow changed into joy when they saw the risen Christ. This is the same emotional transition we live through again in our Holy Week observances. The weeping and lamenting are necessary because there must be a death to atone for our sins. Yet, the necessary death leads to the resurrection of Jesus and to forgiveness and new life for us—in other words, death leads to us to real joy.
B. The changed nature of our mourning
1. We do not mourn in the same way as the first disciples. Their mourning was devastation over what they believed to be the end our Lord’s life and their hope. We mourn because we meditate again on our sinfulness, which requires “such a price to be paid by such a saviour.” Some of their mourning bordered on despair. Our mourning is always seasoned with optimism. We are sorry for our sins and try to make good confessions, but we know that Easter is coming and our sins are forgiven. As 1 Thessalonians says, “We do no mourn as others who have no hope” (4:13).
2. This is to say that “in Christ” the pain of life has become the pain of birth. This is why the Bible describes the pain of the cross as labor pains. As Jesus said in the gospel:
A woman, when she is in labor, has sorrow because her hour has come; but as soon as she has given birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. Therefore you now have sorrow, but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice and your joy no one will take from you (John 16:21 NKJ).
3. The image of childbirth recalls the punishment and promise God gave to Eve in Genesis. “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing” (3:16). Yet God also promised that the seed of the woman–the product of painful childbearing–would “bruise the head” of the serpent (3:15). This has been interpreted in the Christian tradition as Jesus crushing Satan under his feet.
4. This imagery continues throughout the Bible. The prophet Isaiah says of the trials of Israel,
Like a woman with child, who writhes and cries out in her pangs, when she is near her time, so were we because of thee, O Lord (26:17).
Revelation says of Israel (“the woman clothed with the sun”) that,
She was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery….And she brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all nations with a rod of iron (12:2, 5).
Thus, the labor pains caused by sin produce the joy of Israel’s Messiah—and we can’t have that joy unless we first have that labor pain.
C. Easter as birth
1. When we think of childbirth in reference to Jesus we usually think about Christmas, but the imagery of childbirth here focuses on Good Friday and Easter. The passion and death of Jesus are the labor pains. Easter is the birth of a new humanity. Revelation describes Jesus as “the firstborn of the dead” (1:5); when we participate in Good Friday and Easter through baptism, we are born again.
2. We are born again, but we are also being born again. New life is planted in us in baptism, but this life is not yet fully formed. As this life grows we experience labor pains; often the most painful things cause the most growth. Just at the child within a pregnant mother is destined to break free from the confines of the womb, so the life within us is destined to break free from the confines of our mortal bodies in the Resurrection on the Last Day.
3. This helps us to understand why worship and our life in Christ cannot be merely one continuous positive thinking motivational seminar. If you never think about pain and death and only focus on the positive aspects of life, your subjective emotional state may be more upbeat. But you haven’t solved the problem of death; you have merely avoided it. Christian faith results in genuine positive thinking because, while it forces us to face our sin and mortality, it also enables us to actually conquer both.
D. The characteristic attitude of hope: Joy in the midst of struggle
This is why the most characteristic Christian attitude is joy in the midst of our current temporary tribulation. Jesus endured his suffering with the full assurance that he would rise from the dead as Lord of all. We face our tribulations “in Christ” with the full assurance that we have already conquered the world through faith in Jesus Christ. We have eternal life within us, and it will come to its glorious full birth when Jesus comes again to raise the dead and renew the creation. As Romans says,
We…who have the firstfruits of the Spirit groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies (8:23).
The Good Shepherd, John 10:11-16
2nd Sunday after Easter. Blake Schwendimann
Few images are more comforting to the Christian than the Good Shepherd. One of the most well known verses of Scripture, Psalm 23 begins, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” When I hear these words, I am transported back to my earliest memories of a Christian Funeral, sitting in a pew as a young child, where I knew something sad had happened, but I didn’t quite know how to experience it. I remember there being sadness, and yet, hope. I remember hearing someone read the 23rd Psalm, and even at a young age, those words brought me comfort, as they still do. Though we don’t always understand the journey that is set before us, we know that we have a Good Shepherd leading us through the dark valleys. Even when we get thrown off course, either in the face of tragedy or from falling into sin, our Good Shepherd will patiently and lovingly bring us back home.
As we enter more fully into the Easter Season, we begin to focus on what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ and what discipleship looks like. We are learning what it means for us to be sheep. Out of all the steps there are to look at in discipleship I want to focus on two. First, we are to learn who Jesus is, and, second, we learn who we are, and what the relationship between us and Jesus looks like.
When we think of following Jesus, we often think of imitating his good deeds, his kindness, meekness and patience. We think, “It would be great if I was more like Jesus”, only in regards to all the positive and helpful things he did. We don’t immediately think of the passion and the crucifixion as part of what it means to follow Jesus, but that is part of the cost of discipleship too. As Jesus tells us, “Pick up your cross and follow me.” In this morning’s Epistle, Peter tells us that following Jesus includes enduring suffering. Not merely suffering for a just and worthy cause, but also enduring unjust suffering, and having patience in it. As Jesus said in Matthew 5, when someone strikes you, turn the other cheek. Being a disciple of Jesus has many great privileges and rewards, but it is also can be an arduous journey. As Christians on this side of Easter, we follow the conquering Lamb of Revelation chapter seven, who yet wounded, stands amongst his sheep, leading them as a Shepherd to the springs of living water, wiping away every tear from their eyes.
The relationship we develop with Jesus is one of complete and utter dependence as sheep are to a shepherd. Jesus tells us that he is not a false shepherd; he’s not a rent-a-shepherd, but rather, a Good Shepherd who knows his sheep and whose sheep know him.
In southern California, we don’t have much interactions with animals, except maybe our dogs and cats. But in the ancient near East, the Shepherd was a well-known figure in society, and people knew good shepherds from bad ones. Jesus hearers would have been very familiar with his comparison of hired shepherds versus shepherds who personally own sheep. A good shepherd was one whose primarily obligation was to his sheep. He spent his life with the sheep, feeding them, protecting them, cleaning them and traveling with them daily. Because this Good Shepherd took his livelihood from his own sheep, he would do anything to ensure their wellbeing. He was fully invested in the life of his sheep. If a family only had a couple of sheep on their property and but had a trade to manage in the daytime, they would hire a ‘rent a shepherd’ who would take care of their sheep, along with others on a very part time basis. These ‘rent-a-shepherds’ were never as good as a true shepherd, and they certainly would not go out of their way searching for a lost sheep, or even think about giving up their life for the sheep in face of danger. If the wolf came, the hired hand would flee, leaving the sheep in harms way. But this type of Shepherd is not the One whom we follow. Our Shepherd has searched us out, called us by name, and in the face of danger, He laid down His life for us.
Because Jesus is our Good Shepherd, what is our role as His sheep in this journey of discipleship? In John 10:14 &15 Jesus says that he knows His sheep and His sheep know him. This is an image of mutual intimacy leading us to ask the question, do we know Jesus? Does He know us? Have we experienced His leading in our life? We are not going to be proficient Christian disciples or effective sheep if we have no idea who our Shepherd is and what He has done for us.
Thankfully, Jesus has not left us all alone to figure it out how to be disciples. We do not experience the Christian life as solitary individuals. We are called to be part of his Body, of his One Flock, where we are known. As modern Christians, we have almost unlimited resources available to us to learn who Jesus is and what it means to be his disciple. We have the Bible in our own language, we have 2,000 years of Christian wisdom and reflection, we have the Church and it’s Sacraments, which continually nourish and feed our souls, and we have other Christians who are walking with us, encouraging and challenging us to grow in the grace and knowledge of God. In last week’s Gospel, we learned that Jesus breathed on his disciples, giving them the power and authority to continue his ministry. In Scripture, the breath of God refers to His Holy Spirit. When our pastors and bishops were ordained and consecrated, they received the same Holy Spirit empowering them to be the Shepherds of Christ’s flock, continually pointing and leading us back to Christ, who is the Bishop and Shepherd of our souls.
A Sermon for the First Sunday after Easter, April 27, 2014
The Epistle, 1 St. John 5:4-12 – The Gospel, St. John 20:19-29
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
A. Low Sunday and conquest
1. Easter is a glorious day, but part of me prefers what is sometimes called “Low Sunday,” the First Sunday after Easter, which is the eighth or octave Day of the feast. The crowd has thinned, but we are still just beginning the forty day season; we still proclaim, just as truly, “He is risen! And today’s lighter crowd has larger share of those for whom Easter is way of life and not merely a day.
2. In the epistle, St. John tells us, “Whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world. And this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.” “Overcome” is too weak of a translation—filled as it is with the therapeutic overtones of our time. The word being translated means victory. St. John is saying that Easter faith conquers the world.
3. In the gospel, the Risen Christ appears as the Conqueror. The scars of Good Friday defeat are now the marks of Easter victory. The One who humbled himself at Christmas to become man has taken on the world, the flesh, the devil and death itself; he has thoroughly crushed them all. He is now the Risen Lord of the New Creation.
4. The Risen Christ shares his victory with his followers through the gift of the Spirit. In Genesis, God formed man from the dust of the ground and “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (2:7). Now, Jesus breathes on the apostles the breath of new, resurrection life so that those who are dead in sin can be restored to life in union with God—and can begin to conquer as Jesus has conquered.
The breathing of the Spirit also calls to mind Ezekiel 37, where God showed Ezekiel a valley full of dry bones and told Ezekiel,
Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, `Thus says the Lord GOD: “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.”
Ezekiel did what he was told and “breath came into them, and they lived, and stood upon their feet, an exceedingly great army” (37:9-10). This is an image of our baptism. By the gift of the Spirit we, who were dead because of sin, are raised up as the new Israel, as an exceedingly great army, to conquer our enemies in imitation of our Risen Lord.
- The conquest of the world, the flesh and the devil.
1. Our conquest begins with forgiveness: “Whosesoever sins you remit they are remitted unto them.” Jesus gave the church authority to forgive so we can know we are forgiven. Forgiveness is not an opinion. It is a fact that results from the resurrection of Christ.
2. We free, not just from the guilt of sin; we are also free from captivity to sinful patterns of behavior and thought. In Lent, we battled the world, the flesh and the devil through spiritual disciplines. In Easter, as we rise anew with Christ through faith, the Spirit fills us with new graces, gifts and virtues. We are able to love and serve in new ways.
3. We fasted in order to conquer the flesh. Now, we retain the fruit of the fast in the gift of self-control and through a new detachment from things. We are free to enjoy the good things that God has given us, but we are also free from slaves to our appetites.
4. By almsgiving we combated the world. Now, we celebrate our victory over the world with the renewed virtues of contentment and generosity. We are not captive to the covetousness of the world. We do not have to live greedy lives in continual pursuit of more like those who do not know God. We are free to do good work to the glory of God, to tithe and give and enjoy the blessings God bestows in his kingdom upon those who are generous.
5. By prayer, we combated the devil. We confessed our sins and interceded for various needs. While confession and intercession do not stop with Lent, we celebrate the victory of Easter with the prayer of praise and thanksgiving for what Christ is doing in us. Now we cultivate, through constant prayer, the experience God’s joy and peace.
- The conquest of death
1. And, of course, death itself has been conquered. We live in Christ as immortal beings who eat eternal food and whose destiny is resurrection and life in the world to come. As Jesus said, “This is the bread which comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and die.” And, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:50, 54).
2. The Lord is risen indeed. He has breathed on us the breath of new, resurrection life. Our sins are forgiven. We now live as new people in God’s new creation. There is literally nothing that can defeat us—not even death—if we persevere in faith and faithfulness; for “Whatsoever is born of God conquers the world: and this is the victory that conquers the world, even our faith” (1 John 5:4).
A Sermon for Easter Day, April 20, 2014
The Epistle, Colossians 3:1-4 – The Gospel, St. John 20:1-18
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
A. The vindication of the Jesus in the Resurrection
1. Why should we worship God and love our neighbor? Why should we respond to evil with good? Why should we pick up our cross daily and follow Jesus? Some say we should do the right thing because we will feel better, others will think better of us, or things will go better for the larger society. But these motives all break down at some point. I may feel better doing the wrong thing; I may not care about what you think, and the larger good of society is debatable. Ultimately there is only one compelling reason to persevere in faith and the practice of righteousness: Easter and the hope of resurrection. Easter is the vindication of Jesus, the righteous servant of God; and Easter is the promise that all who put their faith in Jesus and do what is right will also be vindicated and raised from the dead on the Last Day.
2. Jesus was tried and found guilty by two courts, the Jewish and the Roman. The verdicts of these courts represent the verdict of all humanity. The Son of God became man and lived righteously and faithfully. In response, humanity—Jew and Gentile—weighed him in the balance, found him wanting and sentenced him to death. Jesus made no effort to appeal the verdict or escape his sentence. His whole manner and purpose of life was to argue his case before another judge.
3. On Easter Day that other judge—God—announced his verdict. God declared his Righteous Servant to be innocent, justified and vindicated. The sign of God’s verdict is the Resurrection. Guilt brings with it the sentence of death, with its dual consequences of separation from God and bodily decay. Innocence or justification brings with it restoration to God’s presence and resurrection to new life in a glorified body.
4. Jesus fulfills the biblical pattern of the righteous servant who is rejected by men but vindicated by God. We see this pattern in Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his brothers. We see it is David who, as God’s chosen king, had to run away for years from Saul who wanted to kill him. We see it is Job, who was afflicted precisely because he was righteous. All these were rejected by the world, but vindicated by God.
5. The righteous servant lives innocently in the face of opposition because he trusts that God will judge in his favor. As the servant says in Isaiah,
I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I hid not my face from shame and spitting. For the Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been confounded; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near (50:5-8 RSV).
B. Our vindication in Christ
1. This the pattern for our lives “in Christ.” As 1 Peter says,
Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: “Who committed no sin, Nor was deceit found in His mouth”; who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously (2:20-24 NKJ).
2. We renew the vows of our baptism on Easter to remember who we are and what our story is. In Christ, we have become righteous servants of God; we worship God and love our neighbor because we are justified through faith in Jesus Christ, and we are looking for our ultimate vindication when Jesus comes to judge the living and the dead at the end of time.
3. When we forget who we are and what our story is we fight the wrong battles and plead our case to the wrong judges. We act falsely to get others to approve of us. We refuse to forgive and let go of the past. We make moral compromises to avoid temporary pain. However, our forgetfulness does not enable us to avoid the pain of life. Our attempts to please the wrong judges fill us with anxiety. The wrong battle takes just as much effort as the right one, but it never brings enduring victory. The compromise that avoids temporary pain merely causes greater pain in the long run.
4. Pain is unavoidable in a fallen world; but there are two kinds of pain: the pain of death and the pain of birth. The pain of death is what we experience as fallen creatures whose lives are bounded by time. We pursue hopes and dreams that can only be enjoyed for a short season—if we achieve them. We pursue fleeting pleasures that become less pleasurable with age. Underlying every dream and pleasure is the great unspoken secret of fallen man. Death is going to take everything away. As the preacher says, “All is vanity.”
5. However, our baptismal participation in the resurrection of Christ redeems our pain. When we put our faith in him and obey his commandments, our lives in this world become part of a larger, eternal story; and the pain of death becomes the pain of birth. In Christ, time is no longer the futile arena in which everything in lost. Rather, time becomes the opportunity to serve Christ in anticipation of our own vindication and resurrection.
6. In Christ, we come to see that even small acts of faithfulness have eternal consequences. Inasmuch as we do it to the least of Christ’s brethren, we do it to him (Matthew 25:40). We are given new food, the Bread of Life and Medicine of Immortality that feeds and grows the eternal life that is within us. We have become members of the Body of Christ—God’s chosen people—the one community in which our membership cannot be ended by death.
7. And we are given the spectacular, transcendent hope that exactly what happened to Jesus on Easter Day will happen to us, as 1 Corinthians says,
In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality…then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.
So, why should we worship God and love our neighbor? Why should we respond to evil with good? Why should we pick up our cross daily and follow Christ? Because we are looking for God to vindicate us, and Jesus has given us the sure and certain hope that he will. As Jesus himself said, “This is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:40 NKJ).
A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, April 6, 2014
The Epistle, Hebrews 9:11-15 – The Gospel, St. John 8:46-59
The Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
A. The Epistle: Jesus is God.
1. I remember when I first began read the Bible in a serious way. I was drawn to Jesus and his teaching. But I also felt threatened. Jesus never said or did anything in a manner that suggested my opinion about it mattered. He wasn’t calling for a vote. He was making a claim and demanding a response—from me.
2. This stands in contrast with every other person I’d ever read about. When I read biographies of famous people, I’m often impressed by their accomplishments, wisdom or courage. But I always ended up thinking, “I don’t really agree with what he did there.” Or, “I don’t agree with her opinion on that.” Somehow the life and teaching of Jesus don’t provide this same wiggle room. Somehow, when Jesus acts and speaks, the question is not, “What do I think?” Somehow, the question is, “Will I be a follower or a rebel?”
3. This is the issue in today’s gospel. Certain people felt threatened by the teaching of Jesus. Because they were not willing to submit to him, they resorted to a personal attack—essentially calling him a demon possessed bastard. Jesus responded by making an even greater claim. “If anyone listens to what I say and does it, he will never die.” This highlights the distinction between Jesus and everyone else. We’ve all said something like, “If you do what I say things will go better for you.” But no one other than Jesus can say, “If you do what I say you will live forever.”
4. The climax of the argument is when Jesus identified himself with the name of God. “Before Abraham was, I am.” In other words, I am the God who called Abraham out of ancient Babylon. I am the God spoke to Moses on Mt. Sinai. I am the Torah in human form. This claim must be met with repentance, faith and full submission. Or else it must be strongly rejected. This is why the enemies of Jesus picked up stones to throw at him.
5. We accept this claim every week in the Creed. We say we believe that Jesus is “the only begotten Son of God; begotten of his Father before all worlds. God of God, light of light, very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.” The danger of the Creed is this; it can lead us to think that faith is merely assent to a theological statement rather than a challenge to our whole way of life.
B. The Epistle: Jesus fulfills the Old Covenant
1. Where the gospel proclaims who Jesus is, the epistle summarizes what he did. “By his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us.” The Old Covenant God made with Israel provided temporary sacrifices and a temporary, external covering for sin. Jesus fulfilled all the stipulations of that Covenant. His death is the eternal sacrifice for sin; and it makes us inwardly clean from all sin.
This is related to who Jesus is. If Jesus is not God then his death cannot have this cosmic and eternal impact on death. When a good teacher or heroic individual dies, we might say that the “spirit” of his life and work endure. But their teaching of accomplishments won’t allow us to escape death. A merely human death cannot abolish death forever.
2. This is why we look at the death of Jesus differently. Our mourning on Good Friday is not so much sadness over the death of Jesus. Our mourning is for our own sin that makes his death necessary. He will die for us and for our sins. He can only do this because he is the Son of God who became man for us and for our salvation. Jesus does for us what we cannot do for ourselves; all we can do is mourn our sins, repent and receive the gift he came to give us. But we must do that, or else we will remain stuck in the cycle of sin and death.
3. This is why Jesus is threatening. The life and teaching of the Son of God highlight the truth that we have rebelled against God. He reminds us that we are sinners; that the way we are living is not okay; that apart from him we do not have eternal life; and that he represents the only answer for our sin. We must put our faith and trust in him; we must do what he says, or else we will confirm our separation from God.
4. We now begin what we call Passiontide, the last two weeks of Lent. The penitential tone of the season is intensified. Our lessons today set the table for what will begin to happen next Sunday when Jesus enters Jerusalem for the last time. They tell us that Jesus is the Son of God whose death is the answer for our sin.
5. Like all of Lent, Passiontide is an opportunity to respond to Jesus with repentance and faith and experience grace in new ways. It is time to begin to bring our Lenten disciplines to fruition with a good confession. In what area of life are you still among the stone throwers rather than the disciples? Passiontide is opportunity to let the blood of Christ, “purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”
A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 30, 2014
The Epistle, Galatians 4:21-31 – The Gospel, St. John 6:1-14
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
A. The Epistle: “We are not children of the bondwomen, but of the free”
1. We are just past the midway point in Lent. There is light at the end of the tunnel. The mood today is less dark. Today is the first Lenten Sunday gospel in which there is no devil or demon.
2. The epistle tells us that we are free. Freedom means different things to different people. For some, freedom means the ability to do whatever they want to do without regard to law or principle. Christian freedom means something else. It means that we are free to obey the law of God because we are no longer slaves to our fallen and disordered desires.
3. Someone once said, “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” This is usually applied to the topic of political and civic freedom. But it is equally true of inner, spiritual freedom. We have to fight for our freedom. This is why we observe Lent and practice spiritual disciplines. Without the purposeful and habitual practice of the disciplines of almsgiving, fasting and prayer we will slowly and subtly be conquered by the enemies of the soul: the world, the flesh and the devil.
4. The person who thinks he is free to do whatever he wants is really a slave to his desires. He is free to do what he wants, but he is not free to deny himself in order to serve God or other people. He is free to say yes, but he is not free to say no. As 2 Peter says of the apostles of false freedom, AThey promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption; for whatever overcomes a man, to that he is enslaved@ (2:19 RSV).
5. In Lent, we do without things in order to gain new freedom by gaining new control over our desires. Wisdom teaches us that we are not free to say yes unless we are also free to say no. We say no to things for a while through fasting; then we return to those things with greater detachment and freedom and, thus, with greater genuine pleasure—“for we are children, not of the bondwoman, but of the free.”
B. The Gospel: Christ is the goal of the fast
1. However, abstaining from things is only half of the Lenten equation. We deny ourselves so that our desires may be directed towards God, who alone can truly satisfy us. This is the point of our gospel. In the feeding miracle, Jesus purposely led the people to a place where there was no food so that he could reveal himself to them as the source of all food.
2. The point of the multiplication of the loaves is not the bread. The point is the presence of the One who is able to create the bread. It is a common error in the life of prayer to focus on the thing given rather than the One who gives it. As Brother John Charles used to exhort us, “Seek the Giver and not the gift.” When our prayer is answered, we often focus on the answer rather than the source of the answer. We conclude that since God gave us this one thing, we can ask him for more things—since God’s job is, obviously, to give us what we want, just as our job is, obviously, to ask for things and complain when we don’t get them!
3. The Lenten wilderness teaches us not to be spoiled children. In the wilderness, in the dry times, the visible gifts are removed and we become more dependent upon God. We pray with more faith and greater urgency; and Christ is revealed to us in new ways. We learn that the true gift is Christ himself and that visible gifts are merely signs that point us to him. We develop sacramental vision. We learn to see through the gift to the Giver.
4. This is why Lent is always a profound time of spiritual growth for those who fast and pray during the season. In Lent, Jesus leads us to the place where there is no food in order to reveal himself to us as the source of all food. As Jesus said in explanation of the feeding miracle, AI am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall never hunger and he who believes in me shall never thirst@ (6:35).
C. Why fasting is necessary
1. If we were to look at the world with perfect eyes of faith, we would see Christ in everything. We would partake of God=s good gifts with thanksgiving and we would reject any use of any created thing that was not in his will.
2. However, because our desires are disordered and we don’t always see with sacramental vision, the world and the things in it become the goal. We lose sight of the Giver and start to worship the gift. This is the root of idolatry. We pursue money, power, success, fame or pleasure without regard for God=s will. These are all variant forms of idol worship.
3. Our various idols promise much but give back little. We are invited to come, indulge and be filled. However, the result of our worship and devotion is that we become emptier—and even though idol worship leaves us emptier, we still are drawn to do it again. This is what it means to be a slave to sin.
4. Thus, the heart of the Christian year is the Lenten fast that prepares us for a worthy celebration of the Easter feast. We willingly empty ourselves so that we may discover a new sense of freedom and fulfillment in Christ. The goal of Lent is not an extreme asceticism in which we come to abhor the creation. The goal is to find contentment in Christ. The goal is an inner peace and joy which enable us to rejoice both in Lent and Easter, In Lent we rejoice that Christ is present in the wilderness. In Easter, we rejoice that Christ is present in the feast.
5. St. Paul describes the ideal in Philippians: AI have learned in whatever state I am, to be content…I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me@ (4:11-13).