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).
Sermon for the Second Sunday After Easter | 2018
By Fr. Hayden A. Butler
The Scriptures reveal that God has always declared Himself to be the Shepherd of His people. The Psalmist prays: “Hear us, Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock. You who sit enthroned between the cherubim, shine forth.” The prophet Isaiah declares that “the Lord God will come with strong hand, and his arm shall rule for him: behold, his reward is with him, and his work before him. He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.” Similarly, the prophet Ezekiel conveys the Lord’s words as He declares Himself to be “a shepherd [who] looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness.” Without fail, God stands as a shepherd who leads His people with gentleness and also strength, who is endlessly attentive to their needs while defending them with a fierce love against their enemies.
So too, God has always called certain people into service as shepherds, and required them to act in such a way that truthfully revealed the identity of God as Shepherd. The Psalms reveal how God acts through His under-shepherds, recounting how God “led [His] people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.” Then Jeremiah delivers the words of God who promises to His people “ shepherds […] who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any be missing.” We remember Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, shepherds of sheep called to serve and lead.These were good shepherds, those who despite their many imperfections stood as living icons of God, leading His people toward the fulfillment of God’s covenant promise of peace and rest.
But this did not always go so well. There were many supposed shepherds of Israel who utterly failed in their calling. Of these, God declared through Isaiah: They are dogs with mighty appetites; they never have enough. They are shepherds who lack understanding; they all turn to their own way, they seek their own gain.” Against these God would summarily declare judgment through Ezekiel the prophet, saying “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them.”
Far from leading the people to rest and peace, these shepherds exploited and went astray through selfishness, negligence, ignorance, and immorality. They falsely represented God and they brought ruin and destruction as the people of God were scattered across the world. Everyone suffered because of bad shepherds; everyone suffered because of hirelings pretending to be shepherds.
And so at the end of Israel’s long history of shepherds and hirelings, Christ stands face-to-face with the religious leaders of the day. The God of Israel has taken on humanity to regather the scattered sheep of the people of God from both Israel and from among the Gentiles and to lead them into God’s peace. He has condemned in His opponents their misguided religiosity, their opportunistic political maneuvering, their short-sighted revolutions against their enemies. Then our Lord makes a dramatic statement–Christ makes a claim to own the sheep. They are His own. He is their Creator. He lays down His life for the sheep. It is by the sacrifice of His own life that the sheep will be gathered together into one flock. From henceforth God Himself will stand as One with His people and lead them as their shepherd. Through His Passion and Resurrection, Christ has made one flock under Himself the Chief Shepherd. He is the One who now gathers, tends, sustains, and leads his sheep to their promised rest. Christ is the fullness of God as Shepherd.
So too, Christ has continued to call shepherds to live as icons of the Good Shepherd over His flock, the Church. One such pastor is the author of our Epistle lesson: St. Peter. After the Resurrection, Christ takes St. Peter aside and restores him. “Peter, feed my sheep” he says. This was the same Peter who betrayed Him, denied knowing Him at His darkest hour. When St. Peter ends his Epistle by saying: “all ye were as sheep who went astray” he is speaking from personal experience as one who had run away from His Shepherd. But in the Resurrection, Christ brought him back with gentleness and grace and appointed him as a shepherd to His people. This is the foundation of the pastoral presence in the church. Christ has given us icons of Himself to lead, to teach, to direct, to bring the sacraments. These Shepherds are good insofar as they represent Christ truly in the laying down of their lives for the sheep. These pastors become the accursed hirelings when they exploit, mislead, and neglect the sheep for their own interest.
As we continue to live in Easter-time we begin to explore what it means to live this new life we have received in Christ. The Good Shepherd has made us His people, gathered through His sacrifice for us. The Good Shepherd knows each of us, loves each of us, lays down His life for each of us. The Good Shepherd calls the pastors of His people to be good like He is good as they care for His sheep by watching over them, loving them, giving everything for them. But as we will see in time, God calls us all to life patterned after the Good Shepherd. We are all called to love one another by giving ourselves for one another, laying down our lives in humility before one another, and diligently seeking out those scattered sheep for whom He died and to bring them into the flock. Having come to the glory of Easter, our Shepherd now leads us forward. The Good Shepherd lays down His life to give life. We His sheep have been given life; so we may give life, too.
“I am the good shepherd; and know my sheep, and am known of mine, even as the Father knoweth me, and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one flock, and one shepherd.”
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).