A Sermon for Pentecost, May 20, 2018
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
I. Spiritual gifts and the gift of the Spirit
Our stated mission includes the charge to “work and pray and give for the spread of [God’s] kingdom” (BCP 291). We regularly instruct people, with some detail, about how to pray and give. What about our spiritual work? Pentecost is an appropriate time to begin a discussion about spiritual gifts, which are the unique ways the gift of the Spirit is manifested in each believer.
Before we can understand our unique spiritual gifts, we must first understand how the gift of the Spirit reorients our lives. The gift of the Spirit is the remedy for sin. The spiritual death that resulted from the first sin was the loss of communion with God through the Spirit of God (Gen. 2:17). As the Holy Spirit is given to the church on Pentecost, this life-giving connection is restored.
The objective sign of the gift of the Spirit, the way Pentecost comes to us, is the water of baptism (1 Cor. 12:13). From the beginning of church, the water of baptism was completed by the laying on of the Bishop’s hands—what we now call Confirmation (Acts 8:14-17, Hebrews 6:1-2). God conveys the gift of the Spirit through sacramental signs so that you can know that we have been given this gift.
But receiving a gift does guarantee we will use it. Planting a seed does not guarantee growth into a tree. Baptism is the beginning. The question is, “What is God doing in your life now? The Bishop prays over those being Confirmed that they will “daily increase in the Holy Spirit more and more” (BCP 297).
II. The gift of the Spirit as a reorientation of Life
The first sin and the spiritual death of Genesis led to notable consequences. The first humans blamed someone else for their own sinful behavior. Then they began to hurt each other. Cain killed his brother Abel. The first murder was tied to worship. Cain made an unacceptable offering to God (Genesis 4:4-5). When God rejected his worship, Cain took it out on his brother (Gen. 4:8).
Sin disconnects us from God and leaves us in a state of emptiness and neediness. We try to meet our needs at the expense of others. We deny our guilt by blaming others. We deal with our pain by hurting others. This is our inheritance “in Adam” (1 Cor. 15:22). Our emptiness must be filled by something. That something ends up being the various idolatries and addictions of the human condition.
The gift of the Spirit reorients our lives away from the patterns of sin and towards love for God and others. When we stop blaming others, take responsibility for our own behavior, and turn back to God in faith, God gives us his Spirit and restores to us relationship with him. As Jesus said in the gospel,
If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him (Jn. 14:23).
As the Father and the Son make their home within us through the Spirit, our lives produce a different kind of fruit. The Spirit fills the empty places of our hearts and begins to heal the wounds of sin. Our interior experience of God’s love and grace is manifested outwardly in love for others. Instead of inflicting our pain on others, we share our experience of grace. As St. Paul says in 2 Corinthians,
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God (2 Cor. 1:3-4).
The word for “comfort” in this passage is the verbal form of the noun “paraclete,” the word Jesus used to describe the Holy Spirit (cf. John 14:16-18). We are comforted, strengthened, and healed by the Spirit so that we can be agents of comfort, strength, and healing for others through the Spirit.
III. Worship and prayer as the foundation for love of neighbor
Worship and prayer are the foundation of our love for others. God fills our emptiness and heals our wounds in a progressive manner—not unlike the way an antibiotic slowly kills an infection in our bodies. In the liturgies of the Christian life, we continually bring our disordered selves to God, who continually forgives, heals, and strengthens us. As we “daily increase in the Holy Spirit more and more” we grow in both our interior healing and the love for others that results from it.
The sin of Cain, the Bible’s first murder, was rooted in his refusal to worship God with his whole being. Our ability to love others is dependent upon our worship. When we neglect worship, we lose our ability to love with the love that come from God. The first and great commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind. Our ability to fulfill the second commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves is dependent upon our obedience to the first commandment (cf. Matt. 22:37-40). Mere philanthropy can never reach the heights of agape love.
There are errors in the other direction. Our prayer can be self-centered. Interior peace can become the goal with the result that we have no concern for the brokenness of the world. Thus, there are two errors. One occurs when the church neglects its worship and life of prayer and gets caught up in various forms of activism. The church reflects the anxiety and “busy-ness” of the world rather than the peace of God. The other error occurs when the church becomes absorbed in its own spirituality and has no ministry outside of itself. In its authentic pattern, the Christian life begins in worship and prayer. This experience of God’s love is then manifested in good works done for others in love. The absence of either part is a serious defect—even heresy.
IV. Our ministries and the use of our gifts
We often approach the topic of ministry by focusing on what “the church” is doing. The church develops a “program” and recruits its member to give their time and labor. However, ministry works best in the other direction. You are the church. As you pray and experience the love and grace of God through the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit will naturally move you into loving behavior towards others. This is not just volunteer work at church. Your “ministry” is your total life “in Christ.” It is what you do at home, work and leisure. Your most significant ministry may be the way you manifest the presence of Christ in a challenging work environment or in a difficult marriage; doing what is right and encouraging others in response to harsh treatment or dishonesty. The worst kind of ministry occurs when we do wonderful things at church but are dishonest and unkind in the other areas of our lives.
The ministry of the church is the sum of the work of the members of the body of Christ. Some of that work takes place at church, but most of that work takes place in the world. The best ministry in the church occurs when there is a pooling of our spiritual gifts for the sake of efficiency; when we can do something better together than we can separately. The worst ministry is when the church decides it should do something and then pressures reluctant volunteers to do things they do not have the gifts, time, or desire to do. Of course, there is also sloth. You must be willing to use your gifts, and this will take time and effort.
Your spiritual gifts are the unique form that love takes in your life. Some people have a gift for quiet service. Some have the gift for giving encouragement or wise counsel. Some people have a gift for giving money. Some have gifts for prayer and intercession. What are your gifts? What form does love take in your life? What is the shape of your ministry? What new things might God be calling your to do? These are questions to ask on Pentecost. You experience God’s love in the sacraments and prayer. How do you share that love with others? In Eucharistic terms, as you receive the body and blood of Jesus at the altar, consider, what are the good works that God has prepared for you to walk in? (BCP 83, Eph. 2:10).
A Sermon for the Sunday after Ascension, May 13, 2018
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
The end of all things is at hand; therefore be sober and watchful in your prayers (from the epistle, 1 Peter 4:7).
I. The end or telos of all things.
I remember a seminary professor who said that if you use Greek or Hebrew in a sermon, all you are doing is trying to show people how much you know. Often, when the preacher says that a word means this or that in the original Greek, it turns out that it means the same thing in the English word as well.
However, some English words miss an aspect of the original meaning or convey a meaning to us that is foreign to the Greek or Hebrew word. Today’s epistle is a case in point. When St. Peter says that “the end of all things is at hand,” it sounds to us like a message of doom. Oh no, the end is coming! With this sense, we will be motivated by fear. You never know when God is going to come and destroy everything, so you better make sure you are doing what you are supposed to do!
The Greek word for end in this passage is “telos.” Interestingly, telos has also become an English word. It is used in philosophy to refer to “an ultimate object or aim.” This is its meaning in this passage. St Peter is saying, “The ultimate object or aim of all things is at hand.” With this sense, the motivation is not fear, but expectation. God will soon complete his work of New Creation. Stay focused in your prayers because your prayers will soon be answered.
II. Telos in John 19 and Matthew 5
A form of telos is used two other passages that can highlight its meaing. The last words of Jesus on the cross were, “It is finished” (John 19:30). The word finished is a verbal form of telos. When St. Peter refers to the telos of all things, he means that the work Jesus finished on the cross will be applied to the whole created order. As Romans 8:21 says, “The creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). Jesus will finish his work of New Creation.
In Matthew 5:48, Jesus said, “You shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” The word perfect in this passage is an adjective form of telos. “Perfect” conveys to us a sense of unattainable or insufferable flawlessness. However, Jesus is saying something a little different. “Be therefore complete,” be “whole,” attain the end toward which you were made.
We are being recreated in Christ through the Spirit. Telos conveys a sense of the completion of this creative process—the positive end toward which we are moving. Now we strive, by grace, against the testing influences of the world, the flesh, and the devil. We stumble and on occasion fall. This is part of the messy creative process by which God is bringing his order and beauty out of the chaos of human sin. The end is not gloom and doom. The end is wholeness, completion, resurrection.
III. The Ascension
The Ascension of our Lord marked a new stage in the process of the New Creation. The first stage was all the Jesus accomplished in the Incarnation through the Resurrection. In the Incarnation, God who exists in eternity, who fills all things everywhere, became human. He entered the limitations of time and space. He who exists outside of time was born at a moment in time, died at a moment in time, and rose from the dead at a moment in time. Through his work in time, Jesus fulfilled the covenant, conquered sin, Satan and death, and established a new form of humanity in the Resurrection.
In the Ascension, the Risen Christ left the dimension of time and space and reentered the dimension of eternity. The effect of the Ascension is to make the victory Christ won in one temporal moment, at one earthly place, applicable and accessible to all moments and all places. As Ephesians says, “He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things” (Eph. 4:10). The Risen and Ascended Christ exists in eternity. He can intercede for us at all moments of our time, wherever we may pray. He can rule over our heart always and everywhere.
The Eucharist is a bridge between time and eternity. We ascend in the Spirit, with Christ, from time into eternity. The Risen and Ascended Christ comes from eternity to meet us right now at this moment, in this place. We experience again our union with him as we grow towards our true end, our telos.
IV. Our gifts
The New Testament teaches us that the current age, the age of the Spirit, is the Last Days. Jesus completed the work of the New Creation on the cross when he said, “It is finished.” The Spirit was sent on Pentecost to do the work of New Creation within us. All that remains is for Jesus to appear again in person and finish the New Creation—to bring the life has planted in us to its completed form in the Resurrection. This is what we are waiting for in the life of faith. At the Second Coming of Jesus, time will be swallowed up into eternity. This temporary, disordered, and decaying world will become the eternal and holy kingdom of God.
This helps us to make sense of judgment. Our possession of the baptismal gift of the Spirit makes us eternal beings, whose telos is in the coming kingdom of God—whose true end is in the New Creation. But only that which is eternal can enter the eternal kingdom. Judgement will not be an arbitrary sentence. It will reveal each person’s interior reality.
Because the telos is near, the epistle exhorts us to use our spiritual gifts. “As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (1 Pet. 4:10). The Bible teaches us that each believer has been given at least one spiritual gift or “charisma” with which to serve others in the Body of Christ and bear witness to Christ in the world. This is our work in time, in this world, as we wait for the telos of all things.
During the season of Ascension, from last Thursday until Pentecost next Sunday, we wait and pray for the Holy Spirit to come. Of course, the Holy Spirit came on the first Christian Pentecost and was given to us in Baptism and Confirmation. However, as we experience again the story of our redemption in the church year, we wait and pray for the Holy Spirit to come to us in new ways. As our collect says, “Leave us not comfortless, but send to us Thine Holy Ghost to Comfort us and exalt us” (BCP 179).
Thus, let us prepare for the celebration of Pentecost next Sunday by praying that God will send the Holy Spirit to us in new ways. Let us pray that the Spirit will come to renew our experience of grace and union with God. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will come to renew our spiritual gifts and give us new zeal for worshiping God and serving others. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will come to further the work of New Creation in us. “For telos of all things is near.”
A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Easter, April 28, 2018
The Epistle, St. James 1:17-21 – The Gospel, St. John 16:5-15
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
I. The Paraclete
In today’s gospel Jesus explains why his Ascension into heaven will be good. The disciples were sad because Jesus said he was going away to the Father. Jesus explained,
Now I go away to Him who sent Me, and none of you asks Me, `Where are You going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. Nevertheless I tell you the truth. It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you (Jn. 16:5-7).
The word “Helper” in this passage translates the Greek word “paraclete.” The King James version translated paraclete as “Comforter.” Other translations have rendered paraclete as “advocate” or “counselor.” None of these are really accurate and a good case can be made for always keeping this word in its original Greek, the paraclete.
The world paraclete means “called to one’s side.” Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father. Then the Holy Spirit was sent to us to walk alongside us; to comfort, counsel, strengthen, convict, and advocate for us; to draw us into the experience of God’s love.
Jesus said this is a better arrangement than his in-person presence. There are two reasons for this. First, Jesus’s personal presence was exterior to his disciples. The Holy Spirit dwells within us. Sometimes we think how great it would have been to walk with Jesus in person, but Jesus teaches us here that the interior gift of the Holy Spirit brings us closer to Jesus than the disciples were before Pentecost.
God reconciles the world to himself in three stages. The first stage was the Incarnation, Cross and Resurrection of Jesus. The second stage is the Ascension and the sending of the Holy Spirit. Our sins are forgiven we live in union with God in Christ through the Spirit. The third and final stage be when Christ comes. The New Creation will be completed, and heavenly marriage will be consummated. Jesus is saying that step two in this process brings us closer to God than the disciples were in step one.
The second reason the gift of the Spirit is better than the personal presence of Jesus is practical. Within the limits of time and space, few people could be with Jesus at any given moment in time. In the Ascension, Jesus left the dimension of time and space and entered back into the dimension of eternity. Through the gift of the Spirit, Jesus’ presence with us transcends the limitations of time and space. He can be with each one of us always.
II. The Spirit of Truth and the church
Jesus said that, “When… the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth” (Jn. 16:13). The Holy Spirit led the church into a right understanding of who God is and who Jesus is. Various heresies or wrong beliefs surfaced in the early centuries of the church. The church, led by the Holy Spirit, responded to error by clarifying the truth.
The earliest heresies denied the Incarnation, that God really became human. This gave way to subsequent heresies that denied that Jesus was really God. This gave way to errors about the Spirit that led the church to clarify its belief in the Trinity. Then there were various errors about worship that resulted in iconoclasm, the smashing of pictures and images. Against this, the church affirmed that it was okay to use pictures and images in worship. Because the “Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1), physical things can point us to spiritual realities.
The Nicene Creed is the church’s authoritative summary of the truth into which the Holy Spirit led the church. To say “amen” to it is an action of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. It reveals the Spirit has led us to the truth. To deny its truths is to reject the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the whole church. This highlights an important principle. The Holy Spirit will never lead an individual into truth that is different from the truth the Spirit revealed to the whole church. Thus 1 John exhorts us, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 Jn. 4:1). We test the spirits by the teachings of the Bible as summarized in the Creeds.
III. Love and the truth about ourselves
The Creeds are not all there is to know about God. The Creeds are foundational. One danger of the Creeds is the implication that knowing the truth about God is primarily a cognitive or thinking thing. The Creeds describe our relationship with God. We know God the Father through the Son in the Spirit. To love another person, you must know who the other person is. However, a summary of facts is not a relationship. Love involves many unspoken and unspeakable relational truths that are known only through experience. If we asked someone to describe his beloved and that person produced a resume, this would reveal that the person did not know the truth about love.
We grow in our experience of love as the Holy Spirit reveals to us the truth about ourselves. We have many false beliefs about ourselves that keep us from fully experiencing God’s love. We believe the gospel in our heads, but we have emotional barriers that keep it from penetrating our hearts. For example, many people believe in their heads that Jesus died for the sins of the entire world but have emotional barriers in their hearts that keep them from experiencing the reality of forgiveness and grace for their own real sins.
We come to know the truth about God’s love only by experiencing it. This is revealed in our liturgy of Word and Sacrament. In the Liturgy of the Word, we learn the truth about God. In the liturgy of Sacrament, we experience the reality of God’s love. “This is my Body which is given for you.” “This is my Blood which is shed for you.” As you receive Christ into your mouth and heart, the Holy Spirit leads you into the truth about yourself—that you are loved, deeply and personally, by the One through whom all things were made.
The Christian life is a process of surrender to the experiential truth that we have been redeemed by Christ and that we are loved. It is a progressive operation by the Spirit of truth, through which we come to know more and more about God and more and more about ourselves. Our defenses are slowly broken down, sin is washed away, our hearts grow in love (Romans 5:5), and we are changed by grace.
We are led into all truth through the experience of love in the life of prayer. This is how we learn that it was good for Jesus to go away. As Jesus said, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (Jn. 8:31-32).
A Sermon for the Third Sunday after Easter, April 22, 2018
The Epistle, 1 St. Peter 2:11-17 – The Gospel, St. John 16:16-22
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
I. The gospel and labor pains
In the gospel Jesus describes the emotions the disciples experienced in the transition from Good Friday to Easter as labor pains.
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).
Jesus is picking up a theme of biblical prophecy. It began with the punishment God gave to Eve in Genesis. “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing” (3:16). 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 (cf. Romans 16:20).
Isaiah 26 develops this image and connects it to the resurrection. Isaiah describes the tribulation of Israel; the hopeless condition of the nation in captivity. Isaiah 26:17-18 says,
As a woman with child is in pain and cries out in her pangs, when she draws near the time of her delivery, so have we been in Your sight, O LORD. We have been with child, we have been in pain; We have, as it were, brought forth wind; We have not accomplished any deliverance in the earth, nor have the inhabitants of the world fallen.
God promises that Israel’s labor pains will lead to life through resurrection: Isaiah 26:19 proclaims the results of Israel’s labor:
Your dead shall live; Together with my dead body they shall arise. Awake and sing, you who dwell in dust; For your dew is like the dew of herbs, And the earth shall cast out the dead
Revelation further develops the image of Israel’s labor pains and connects them with the Messiah. Revelations 12 describes Israel as “a woman clothed with the sun” who is giving birth to a child. “She was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery…. And she brought forth a male child…who is to rule all nations with a rod of iron” (12:2, 5).
When we think of childbirth in the Bible we usually think about Christmas, but the biblical imagery here focuses on Good Friday and Easter. The passion and death of Jesus are the labor pains of Israel. On Easter a new humanity is born. Revelation describes Jesus as “the firstborn of the dead” (1:5). The connection between birth and resurrection continues in baptism. We participate in Good Friday and Easter. We are born again; that is, we are raised from the dead.
II. The continuous nature of our birth pangs
Baptism is the beginning of our labor pains. New life is conceived in us in baptism, but this life is not yet fully formed. We experience labor pains as this life struggles to grow within us. Often the most painful things cause the most growth—and few people experience profound spiritual growth without significant struggle and pain. As St. Paul wrote in exasperation to the Christians in Galatia: “My little children, for whom I labor in birth again until Christ is formed in you” (Gal. 4:19).
Just as 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. As 1 Corinthians says,
Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed (1 Cor. 15:50-52).
Too often, the Christian hope is reduced to a vague idea that we will “go to heaven” when we die. Heaven, in this sense, is thought of as purely spiritual existence, as though to be saved meant to somehow escape from our bodies. The image of childbirth helps us to understand the error. We do not want to be free from our bodies; we want to be free in our bodies. Freedom in the body is the completed form of human life that we will experience in the Resurrection.
III. The Expectant nature of the Christian life.
The image of childbearing helps us to understand the expectant nature of the Christian life. The life that has been conceived in us in baptism cannot be satisfied with anything in this world. As the epistle exhorted us, “Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul” (1 Pet. 2:11). To call us sojourners and pilgrims means that this present world is not our true home. We are waiting for the Resurrection and the life of the world to come.
Some explanation is needed to understand the meaning of “fleshly lusts” because these words can give the false impression that all bodily desire is wrong. Fleshly lusts are the disordered desires of our fallen nature. Apart from the redemption we experience through the gift of the Holy Spirit, we pursue the things of this world as though they were the source of ultimate fulfillment. We make them idols. Since the things of this world are not ultimate, they can never fulfill us. Thus, the desire to find fulfillment in this world wars against the new life within us that longs for ultimate fulfillment in the world to come.
However, as we live in Christ in the Spirit in this world we can enjoy created things. The Holy Spirit purifies and redirects our desires so that we can enjoy things in the way that God intended. We enjoy things sacramentally. We see created things as gifts from God, as signs that point us to the kingdom of God. When we enjoy the creation sacramentally, we give thanks to God for his good gifts, and we use them in ways that honor him, in accordance with his commandments.
We discipline our desires so that created things will not control us and make us slaves to our appetites. The birth pangs we experience include the way the Holy Spirit works to subdue our disordered desires. There is a struggle because our disordered desires fight back. In the Resurrection, the conquest of our disordered desires will be complete. Our desire will be in harmony with God’s will. We will experience freedom in the body and peace within ourselves and with all people—indeed with all creation.
For now, some conflicts, or birth pangs, remain. This is the reason the Christian life requires a balance of fasting and feasting. We fasted during Lent to learn to discipline our desire and direct them towards God. We feast during Easter to celebrate the gift of resurrection life. The regular practice of our faith requires a balance of feasting and fasting; feasting to celebrate the redemption of life in the body and fasting to practice subduing our appetites to the Holy Spirit. Both feast and fast point beyond this world to the Resurrection and the life of the world to come. For we are sojourners and pilgrims here. 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).
A Sermon for the First Sunday after Easter, April 8, 2018
The Epistle, 1 St. John 5:4-12 – The Gospel, St. John 20:19-29
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
This is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life (1 Jn. 5:11-12).
I. Spiritual death
Easter is the culmination of the biblical story that began in Genesis. The life that St. John proclaims in the epistle and Jesus bestows in the gospel is the answer to the death that was the consequence of sin.
The first mention of death in the Bible is in Genesis 2:17. God warned Adam of the consequence of disobedience: “In the day that you eat the fruit thereof, you shall surely die.” We naturally think that this passage refers to physical death. However, if God meant that the first humans would suffer physical death the day they sinned, then God did not speak truthfully. For in the day they ate the fruit thereof they did not suffer physical death. In fact, except for Abel, who was killed by his brother, most of the first humans lived long lives. Genesis 2:17 is taking about spiritual death; the severing of the bond of communion between God and Adam.
Adam was created in a state of union with God. The first humans lived in God’s presence and walked with God in the garden. Sin broke the communion between God and Adam. In the place of peace and harmony that results from union with God, sin introduced guilt, shame, and fear. Adam and Eve hid from God in the bushes. The first sin also produced disharmony between the first humans. Rather than taking responsibility for their actions, they blamed others.
This is the natural state into which human beings are born. To say we are born as sinners does not mean that every baby is desperately wicked. It simply means that we are born into the condition of separation from God that results from the disordered condition of humanity. We are like branches cut off from the trunk of the tree. A branch will retain the appearance of life for a time, but the minute you cut it from the tree it is dead.
II. The Gospel. Jesus raises the dead.
The action of Jesus in the gospel is meant to be understood in the light of Genesis. There are three things of note. First, Jesus proclaimed, “Peace.” This is not just a casual way of saying, “Hi.” This is the Jewish “Shalom,” the word that describes the result of God’s covenant with his people. Sin brought hostility between God and man, and between human beings. Now Jesus, having fulfilled the covenant in his life, death and resurrection, proclaims peace. As Ephesians says, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace” (Eph. 2:13-14).
Jesus breathed on the apostles and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” This is an echo of Genesis 2:7. “The LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7). The living being of Genesis 2:7 died the day he ate the fruit of the forbidden tree. Sin severed the bond of the Spirit that united God to man. Now, Jesus, the new Adam, rises as the first born of the New Creation and restores humanity to life through the gift of the Spirit. Through the gift of the Spirit, man is, once again, a living being.
The gift of the Spirit is integrally connected to the forgiveness of sins. Life can be given only after the barrier to life is removed. Jesus gave the apostles the authority to forgive sins, which means he gave them the authority to give to others the same life he has just given to them.
The life that comes through the forgiveness of sins is given to us in baptism. As we just said in the Creed, “I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins.” The water of baptism is an outward and visible sign of the inward gift of the Spirit. In baptism our sins are washed away, and we are restored to union with God through the Spirit. We who were dead in our sins are given life.
In the epistle, St. John tells us, “Whatever is born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith (1 Jn. 5:4). We receive the life that God gives us in baptism through faith. When we repent, when we give up our attitude of rebellion against God and his commandments and put our trust in Jesus Christ, we receive the baptismal gift of forgiveness and life. The water of baptism is the objective sign of the gift of life; our interior attitude of faith and trust is how we receive the gift.
IV. Eucharist and life of prayer
We misunderstand this gift of life when we reduce it to a static possession; when we over-emphasize either the moment of our baptism or the moment of our conversion when we opened our hearts to the gift of life. The church has never believed that merely having been baptized at a point in time or merely having had an experience of conversion at a point in time is a guarantee that the life we have been given will come to its full form in the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.
The life we have received from Jesus is organic, not static. It grows, or does not grow, according the principles by which all forms of life grow or do not grow. If we plant a seed in soft and fertile ground, it begins to grow. But if we fail to water the plant and if we do not pull the weeds from the soil and keep the soil soft, the plant may stop growing. If the life that is planted within us in baptism is not fed by the sacrament and sustained by prayer and connection to other believers in the Body of Christ; if we do not pull the weeds that grow in our heart through confession and do not keep our hearts open to God’s love by continual prayer, the life that has been planted within us in baptism will stop growing.
In the Eucharist we renew and grow into our baptism. We come to Jesus again to receive the objective gift of life through the Spirit. We come to clean out, through confession, the sin that has begun to grow in our hearts. We come to experience grace and receive life again. As Jesus said, “Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him” (Jn. 6:54-56). The faith that overcomes the world is the faith that continues to believe in Jesus and continues to feed on the Bread of Life.
What we call “the life of prayer” is not merely a series of activities we engage in. The life of prayer is the privilege to which we have been restored in Christ. Because our sins are forgiven, and because we have been raised to life through the gift of the Spirit, we have the privilege of living in communion with the Father through the Son in the Spirit. We do not pray so that we will not sin. Rather, we avoid sin so that we can maintain our prayer, our experience of union with God in Christ through the Spirit. As we persevere in the life of faith and prayer, as we continue to come to Christ with repentance and faith to receive life, we experience a gradual, but sure and certain conquest of the world, the flesh, and the devil. The life we have been given bears the fruit of holiness and good works; and we experience God’s peace.
For, “This is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 Jn. 5:11-12).
If you then were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory
-The Easter Epistle
I. Easter and remembrance
The concept of remembrance is central in the Bible because we are forgetful people. We were created in God’s image and given dominion over the creation, but we forgot the goodness and generosity of our maker. We believed the serpent’s lie, forfeited our throne, and became servants of the creation rather than its rulers. Whenever God intervened in history to save his people and restore them to their former dignity, he commanded his people to remember. “Remember this day when God led you out of Egypt” (Ex 13:3). Remember how God led you through the wilderness to test you (Deut. 8:2). “Do this in Remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19).
To remember in the Bible is not just to think about some past thing. To remember means to experience God’s saving power again, right now. The ancient rabbis taught that when each generation of Jewish people celebrated the memorial feast of the Passover (Ex 13:3), it was as if they set their own feet on the bottom of the Red Sea. During Holy Week, we remember, and experience again, the Passover deliverance of Israel as it was fulfilled by Jesus in the new Exodus. We freed from the tyranny of Satan, sin and death through the cross and resurrection of Jesus.
On Easter, we remember our baptism. Baptism is the historical moment when each of us participated in the events of Good Friday and Easter. As St. Paul explains in Colossians (a few verses before the Easter epistle), you were “buried with [Christ]in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith” (Col. 2:12). In Lent we focused on remembering one part of baptism; our death to sin through renewed repentance. Easter calls us to remember the other part of our baptism; rising again to new life through renewed faith.
As we remember that we died and rose with Christ in baptism, we remember that baptism gives us a vocation. The Easter epistle exhorts us, “If you then were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above.” “Seek” is a present tense verb that implies constant activity. Easter is not just a day. Easter is a forty-day season and a way of life.
We adopted certain practices for Lent. Easter calls for its own unique disciplines and practices. So, what will we do for Easter? How will we seek those things which are above? One answer is simple. We will do all the things we weren’t doing for Lent! However, there a danger of turning the Lent/Easter baptismal experience into a kind of purge/binge disorder. We fasted to detach ourselves from things and make more room in our lives for Christ. We feast now to embrace the life for which we made more room. What does that life look like?
The first discipline of Easter is to establish prayer as the foundation of our lives. We do not fast and pray in Lent so that we can feast and not pray in Easter. In Easter the focus of prayer shifts from the penitence and preparation of Lent to praise and thanksgiving for the life we have received. The central act of Christian prayer is called the Eucharist, which means thanksgiving. We gather around the altar to give thanks for all that Christ has done for us. Easter is a Eucharistic season, a season to leave behind the murmuring and grumbling of the wilderness and give thanks for our entry into the Promised Land of God’s New Creation.
But someone might object: “My life is difficult and painful. How can I give thanks?” Consider this. Apart from the experience of baptism into Christ, the pain and the challenges of life remain. We are just alone in them. We give thanks that Christ is present with us; that our pain is united with his pain through the cross in the hope of resurrection. We give thanks because “Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor. 4:17).
During Easter, practice giving thanks to God each day. When you are tempted to grumble and complain, give thanks instead. Give thanks for the good things he has given you. Give thanks for his presence with you in your tribulations. During Easter, cultivate a Eucharistic heart.
During the season of Easter, practice reconciliation. Our sins have been washed away in baptism. Now, let us forgive those who have sinned against us. In a world full of lust for revenge, let us be agents of grace. Reconciliation in not possible in all our relationships. However, in Easter, let that not be because we are unwilling.
During Easter, let us seek the things which are above is by cultivating the virtue of detachment from the world. The witness of the church is handicapped by the captivity of its member to temporal causes and goals that overshadow their faith. Christ becomes the means to getting something in this world. Detachment means not being enslaved to temporal goals and to the false promises and anxieties of the world—the very things we renounced in baptism.
Detachment is not a lack of concern for the world. Rather detachment remembers that this world cannot be perfected, and death cannot be conquered, apart from the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus. Our goal is not to “make this world a better place” or end hunger, poverty, or injustice, or create the perfect economic system. Our aim is to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind and to love our neighbor as ourselves; to grow into the people God made us to be in baptism as we “look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” Our aim is to be faithful witnesses for Christ and for kingdom.
Mother Theresa is arguably the most notable saint of the last two generations. She provides an example of detachment. Mother Theresa did not aim to end poverty in Calcutta. Her aim was to love and serve the image of Christ in the poor. She said on one occasion. “We are not social workers. We do it Christ.” Detachment focuses on the acts of love themselves, not the goals that may or may not be achieved. Detachment seeks first the kingdom, and trusts God to add the things to us, or not, as he pleases.
III. Conclusion: Remembrance and the goal of life
On Easter we rise from the dead with Christ as we remember and renew our baptism. Therefore, during Easter, let us seek those things which are above. Let us practice giving thanks, let us practice reconciliation, and let practice detachment from the goals and anxieties of this world. “For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.”
A. Intro to Passiontide
We call the final two weeks of Lent “Passiontide.” We focus on the Passion or suffering of Jesus. We veil the statues and pictures in the church. As Jesus hid himself from his adversaries in the gospel, so the image of the life-giving crucifix is hidden from us until Good Friday. The holiness of the saints, which results from the Passion, is, likewise, taken from view. We do not say Gloria Patri after the Psalms and canticles during Passiontide. This makes our meditation on the Passion more austere and solemn.
The gospel tells us who Jesus is: “Before Abraham was, I am.” The epistle tells us what he came to do: “By his own blood he entered in once into the Holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us.” Together, they express the essence of Passiontide. It is an encounter with Jesus the Son of God that reveals our sins and leads us to repentance, forgiveness and new life through the cross.
B. The tension between grace and authority
The lesson highlights the tension between the attraction we feel to God’s grace and the contrary reticence and fear we feel about the authority of Jesus as God. We are drawn to the promise of mercy and forgiveness. But we are made uneasy by the truth that confession is required. “I am” is not a consumer choice.
Martin Thornton describes this as the tension between succor and demand. Succor: “Come to me all ye that travail and are heavy laden and I will refresh you” (Mt. 11:28). Demand: “Whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple” (Lk. 14:33).
People avoid the demand by attacking the identity of Jesus. Some try to prove that Jesus isn’t who the Bible says he is. The twentieth century saw “the search for the historical Jesus,” who always turned out not to be the biblical one. Some people try to explain that Jesus didn’t really say or mean all the difficult things recorded in the Bible. It is revealing that people always try to explain away the challenging statements of Jesus. No one ever doubts that Jesus said all the things that make us feel good.
Some people object, “How can Jesus be Lord when there is so much suffering in the world?” This is overplayed. After all, the Bible portrays God’s people as a suffering community, gives us Job and the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, among other things, and comes to fruition with the Passion of God’s Son. The doctrine of the Fall of Man remains the most plausible explanation of human suffering, and the cross remains the most plausible answer.
C. The reasons people deny Jesus is God
We attack the claim that “before Abraham was, I am” because it threatens our autonomy. If he is truly the Son of God, then we must do what he says to do. It is easier to deny his identity and authority than it is to repent. Most of our intellectual doubts are moral doubts in disguise. We are comfortable with our unfaithful patterns of living and we don’t want to change. So, we offer intellectual objections to avoid the challenge presented by the authority of the Son of God.
A promiscuous culture is threatened by Jesus’ call to sexual purity. It is easier to claim that Jesus is just one great religious voice among many than it is to repent and glorify God with our bodies (1 Cor. 6:20). A wealthy culture is threatened by the claim that Jesus is owner of everything. It is easier to complain about suffering and injustice in the world that it is to repent of our service to mammon and make sure what we do and make glorifies God and is good, and then give to help those in need.
D. The authentic struggle of the life of faith
If we are honest we will admit that we are in the process of becoming obedient to Son of God and his commandments. We have made progress is some areas and are not quite there yet in others. This is the reason we practice spiritual disciplines and observe Lent. We are growing into the people God made us to be in baptism. We “look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come” when that process will be completed.
However, if we are honest, we will admit that the issue is our weakness and not any ambiguity about who Jesus is and what he requires of us. It is honest when we confess our struggles and pray for God’s grace to help us change and grow. However, it is quite another thing when we try to justify our disobedience by claiming there is some lack of clarity about who Jesus is or what he wants us to do.
E. A good confession
We will only desire God will when we believe it is best for us. We are, generally, most discontented in the very areas of life where have we resisted God’s will the most. We know by experience that our own way isn’t working, but we are determined to stay our course of rebellion nonetheless. God lets us have what we want until we are ready to let him change us.
The central issue is trust. Do we really trust Jesus? Do we really believe that God is good and that what he commands us to do is for our good? Disobedience is distrust. Distrust takes us back to the old conversation in the garden with the serpent (Gen. 3). Did God really say not to do that? He only keeps that from you because he doesn’t want you to have some good thing. It was and is a lie. We will remain captive to our disordered patterns of behavior, and to our fallen state of guilt, shame, fear, and hiding from God, as long we continue to believe it.
We complete our Lenten disciplines by making a good confession. A good confession acknowledges the areas of life where we do not yet say with full conviction, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.” In Lent, we ask Jesus to reveal to us what is really going on in our hearts and listen for the answer. In Passiontide, we turn what we have heard into a narrative of confession. The point of confession is not the confession per se. The point is that honesty about ourselves combined with a renewed trust in Jesus opens the door for us to experience the power of his resurrection in new ways.
The good news is that the whole purpose of the authority and sacrifice of Jesus is to lead us through the cross to Easter. As the epistle says, “How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your consciences from dead works to serve the living God?”
A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 10, 2018
The Epistle, Galatians 4:21-31 – The Gospel, St. John 6:1-14
The Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
I. A sacramental perspective on life
A sacrament, by definition, is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace” (BCP 292). This definition is rooted in the principle that the things we see point us to things we can’t see. The creation is a sign that points us to the creator. Jesus, the Son of God, is the sign that reveals the invisible Father. The bread and wine are signs that reveal Jesus.
The church is sacramental. The Bible calls us “the Body of Christ”—the same language that is used of the Sacrament. Each Christian is a sign of the presence of Jesus in the world. Jesus’ standard of judgment will be, “Inasmuch as ye did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it unto me” (Matthew 25:40). This means that our interactions with each other always have a deeper meaning and larger implications.
Fallen humanity is not able to see the sacramental meaning of life. Fallen humanity sees the creation as just a physical reality, and life in this mortal body in this world as the ultimate thing. This is what the Bible calls living according to the “flesh.”
II. The Gospel and the signs
In today’s gospel, a large crowd was following Jesus. St. John tells us that the people were attracted by “the signs that he performed on those who were diseased.” The word “sign” reflects the sacramental character of the miracles of Jesus. When Jesus turned water into wine, healed the sick, and created bread, these actions pointed to the truth that Jesus is the Son of God, “by whom all things were made.”
In John 6 after the feeding miracle, St. John tells us that the crowd did not understand the signs. They followed Jesus because they saw him as a source of free food and health care. They wanted to make him their ruler so that he would free them from the afflictions of life. They lacked sacramental vision—the ability to see what the signs pointed to.
After the event of today’s gospel, Jesus tried to escape from the crowd. When the people finally caught up with him, Jesus picked a fight with them. He said, “You seek Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled. Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you (6:27).
Jesus contrasted the food he would give with manna God gave to Israel in the Old Testament. “Your fathers ate manna in the wilderness and are dead. This is the bread which comes down from heaven that a man may eat thereof and not die” (John 6:48-50). God gave the people of Israel miraculous food in the wilderness. But they all died anyway. Jesus will give himself as a kind of food that imparts and sustains eternal life, life that will never die. This is the meaning of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Jesus. As Jesus said, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood hath eternal life and I will raise him up at the Last Day” (John 6:54).
III. The union of flesh and spirit
Sacramental food is not merely “spiritual” as opposed to physical food. We were created as a union of matter and spirit. God gave man sacramental food in the beginning, the fruit of the Tree of Life. This food was intended to sustain humans in their union with God. Through sin, the first humans partook of the creation without regard to God’s will, with ingratitude for the life God had given. Their union with God was severed. The result was a loss of sacramental vision. Humanity came to live on a merely physical level. We began to pursue the physical creation as an end in and of itself. We began to pursue the food that perishes. We became idolaters.
By his life and death, Jesus restored us to the union with God that we lost through sin. We no longer live merely “in the flesh.” We live in bodies, but we also live in the Spirit in union with God. Our lives are now sustained by the Bread of Life. The Bread of Life is the same food as the fruit of the Tree of Life. After the first sin, man was forbidden to eat this food (Genesis 3:24). Now, in Christ, this food is accessible to us. We may eat and live.
The feeding of the multitudes reveals the pattern of life for God’s New Creation. Jesus took the loaves and offered them back to God in Thanksgiving. God multiplied the loaves so that they were sufficient to meet the need. This was man’s original priestly vocation; to take the creation that God had given and offer it back to God in thanksgiving. All that man offers to God in thanksgiving is given back to man to use with God’s blessing.
Sin is ingratitude. When we sin we say to God, “I will do as I please with the gifts you have given me.” When we sin we partake of the creation without regard to God’s will, without regard to the deeper meaning of created things and without giving thanks. Our non-Eucharistic partaking lacks the blessing and presence of God. We use the creation wrongly because we are blind to the sacramental meaning of created things. Our lives become disordered and discontented because we live only in the flesh. We are cut off from eternal life. This is the pattern of life from which Christ has saved us.
IV. The Eucharist as the restoration of our priestly vocation
We exercise the priestly vocation to which we have been restored in Christ when we gather around the altar. We offer bread and wine to God. Like the loaves in the feeding, the bread and the wine represent the creation and our participation in it. We offer the creation back to God in thanksgiving. We offer ourselves, our souls, and bodies to God in Christ and through Christ. The miracle of consecration is two-fold; ordinary food that perishes becomes the bread from heaven; and ordinary mortal people become the body of Christ.
The pattern of the Eucharist is the pattern for life. We are called, as St. Paul says, to give thanks in everything (Ephesians 5:20, 1 Thessalonians 5:18). We give thanks for the eternal life that God has given us by obeying the commandments; by honoring the image of Christ in other people; by using our gifts in service to the kingdom. As all of life is offered to God in this manner, Christ becomes present in all things to sustain us, to bring the order and beauty of his New Creation out of our chaos of our sin.
V. Implication of this perspective for life
This perspective changes the way we look at life. We can never focus merely on the visible events and results. Instead sacramental vision leads us to focus on what God is accomplishing in and through visible things. Thus, while the world focuses on how much money a person or a company makes, a sacramental perspective focuses on whether what the person or company does is good. Is the work itself worthy? Does it provide something that is good for people?
The world focuses on how much we accumulate for ourselves. A sacramental perspective focuses on what we are giving to others; for “We brought nothing into this world and it is certain we can carry nothing out” (1 Timothy 6:7). And, “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).
The world tries to avoid the pain of life. A sacramental perspective focuses on what God accomplishes in us through the pain. The world tried to avoid death at all costs. A sacramental perspective is always preparing for a good death, always preparing for life in the coming kingdom of God… “For or our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor. 4:17).
Thus, as Jesus said, “Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you.” And, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.”