Sermon for Good Friday | 2018
By Fr. Hayden A. Butler
Almighty God, we beseech thee graciously to behold this thy family, for which our Lord Jesus Christ was contented to be betrayed, and given up into the hands of wicked men, and to suffer death upon the cross…
Good Friday reveals there is no life outside of family. Humanity was created to be a family–the Man and the Woman who would bring forth new life to fill the earth. Humanity fell as a family–the Man and the Woman together ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and brought forth death to fill the earth. Beneath all the many identities we use to divide ourselves from one another, all human beings share in the common family identity as those death-born children of the Man and the Woman. In their exile from the Garden, our first parents left behind the life that was to be our birthright, leaving us with an inheritance of death.
On Ash Wednesday we learned the truth of our condition: Remember, O Man, that dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. It is the only possible verdict for our family. We were formed of the dust of the earth and then God breathed into us the breath of life and made us living souls. But we betrayed Him and renounced that life, making for ourselves a world filled with death. The dust is our legacy, our destiny. Yet we became dust that tried in increasingly desperate ways to breathe the breath of life back into ourselves and into one another. But our whole history of trying to evade the verdict of the Garden is the story of dust blowing around dust. Where God made us living things we chose instead to become what we are: we are the family of the dying.
Deep down, we all know that we must face this truth. And yet there are so many ways that we go about trying to deny it or distract ourselves from it or control it. The figures we meet in the Gospel lesson reveal to us some of our most iconic methods to alter the destiny of our dust. Judas is betrayed by his pragmatism and obsession with money, cutting a deal with the higher powers and betraying the life of his friend for a shortsighted return on investment. The chief priests, consumed by monomaniacal religious zeal, cut a deal with their mortal enemies the Romans in order to preserve their costly niche of cultural influence against this itinerant Rabbi who has defeated their every challenge. Pilate, consumed by a gnawing need to assert his authority, preens himself through dramatic and violent symbolic gestures while crippling doubt eats at him in the presence of this prisoner who speaks like a King. But then, if we haven’t found ourselves yet, there is the crowd who in the seeming anonymity of a mob wield shame and rejection as the piety of the high feast melts away to reveal the desperate, frail, and vengeful spirit at the heart of humanity.
We belong to this crowd–this crowd is Adam’s family. This is our part in the story. And suddenly, it comes time to choose whom to condemn. On the one hand we have Jesus, the only begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth. On the other hand we have the man of violent ambition, a failed revolutionary at the head of yet one more short-lived grasp at freedom– Barabbas, Bar-Abbas, meaning son of the father. As we join the crowd in the exultation of mob bloodlust, we are called upon to choose. “Behold the Man!” cries Pilate. Behold Adam, beaten and fragile. Behold Barabbas, cunning and violent. Choose now! The man of sorrows unwilling to save Himself or the man of power? Which son of the father do we want!? Give us power! Don’t make us look at the truth of ourselves! Give us one more chance to establish ourselves on our own terms!
But what about the man who bears our image, brutalized by the power we seek to wield? Crucify him! Crucify Him! And thus the whole world and its grandeur commits collective suicide. At that moment, everyone conspired to kill the life of the world. There is no breath of life but through the true Son of God our Father, and in consigning Him to death, the world killed itself, killed it’s very source of life. For the rest of the Gospel lesson, and for the rest of time, the crowd will forever yell crucify to its own destruction. Behold the family of the dying.
And yet, as all things near their end, if you found your way right to the middle of the crowd, right at the foot of the cross, a small group has formed. Three women and the beloved disciple. As the body weight of the crucified Christ pressed down on His lungs, making it difficult to breathe, you’d have to be close to hear what He said to them. Behold thy Mother. Behold thy Son. And so as the breath of life forever departs from the children of Adam, a new thing comes forth from the new Adam. Behold the Man, behold the Woman, Behold the Son. It is a new family in the midst of the old family. In His final moments, the One through whom all things are made makes for us a new humanity.
This world is dying. All that we share of the family of Adam must die. Only what we have received at the word and breath of the new Adam will live. The way to life begins at the foot of the cross, where all that must die must come to die, and where all that will live will begin to live. For we were created as a family. We fell as a family. The old family is finished. All things have reached their end. We are the family at the foot of the Cross. Today we come back here to die. Today we come back here to live.
Behold, O Lord, your family.
Behold, my sister, my brother, your family.
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.”
Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent | 2018
By Fr. Hayden A. Butler
Our journey in Lent thus far has been about war with the devil. Lent begins with Christ’s victory in His own temptation in the wilderness, and the power of this victory pours out in the second week’s lesson with the healing of the Canaanite woman’s child and the exorcising of the demon afflicting her. This morning, the Gospel lesson begins with Jesus casting out a mute demon and the crowd’s response to this exorcism.
We have to start out by remembering that not all demons are silent when they come face to face with Jesus. At the Synagogue at Capernaum, Jesus drives out a spirit who immediately asks for mercy and immediately calls Him the “Holy One of God.” In facing Legion, the demon afflicting a man near the cliffs of Gadara, the demons submit and ask to be sent out into a local herd of swine, whom they drive over a cliff to drown in the sea. In the seven or so exorcisms that are specifically mentioned in the Gospels, and the many others that are referenced more generally, we get the overall sense that the demons recognize who Jesus is, and while they are reluctant they are always obedient to His word of command.
This brings us to St. Luke’s Gospel this morning. Having exorcised the demon, and finding it to be silent, the crowd fills the silence, and immediately starts to speak, to mutter, to murmur. But this crowd made up of the religious experts of the day and Jesus’ own people all arrive instantly at the completely wrong conclusion, claiming that He was casting out demons through a black magic driven by demonic power. They immediately start in with demands that Jesus prove He is doing good and not evil. They want proof His power is from heaven. We miss it if we don’t look closely here but St. Luke uses the word “seeking” in a sense that these people will always be searching for a proof but never find it–they are unpersuadable. St. Luke doesn’t miss the irony of the situation. Where earlier in the Gospel the demonic enemies of Christ were direct and immediate in identifying Him as the Holy One of God and asking of mercy, this group of Christ’s own people call Him evil and oppose Him. This situates them in a particular place. The very thing they accuse Jesus of being is the thing the demons don’t dare to do. Their scrutiny and endless seeking of a further sign position them in the exact same place where earlier in St. Luke’s Gospel another stood, testing Jesus and asking for signs of His power and origins: of course this was the Devil.
Jesus responds to this scandal by peeling back the veil of the world to show what is really happening there, and also what has always been the case. Heaven and hell are at war. The continuous exorcisms that characterize Jesus’ ministry are a declaration that Satan is losing his grip over the world he has held in reinforced and savagely defended occupation since the Fall. The strongman has met One stronger than him and is about to lose everything. Out of the shattered stronghold of the devil flee away the demons seeking for shelter against the overwhelming onslaught of heaven, finding their only brief refuge in willing human souls. Now, even that small rest is being stripped away through Christ’s unrelenting campaign of exorcism. There is a warning here. No demon can resist being driven out by Christ, but a soul that has been delivered can still be reoccupied unless it is filled with something to replace it. It is not enough to have an absence of evil, but it must be filled with goodness, with the Spirit of God that St. Paul says confirms us as the children of God and fills us with the light of God. This cosmic vision comes to an incisive conclusion as Christ infers that while the unnamed person who had been delivered has been healed, the onlooking crowd has revealed itself to be fitting home for a fleeing devil who gathers others and then returns.
The Gospel then lets us sit for an uncomfortable moment with a burning question in our minds: “how are we to avoid being vulnerable to the repeated intrusions of a restless and brutal fleeing army of devils?” There’s a silence, but then someone else speaks: an unnamed woman in the crowd does just the thing; she prays “Blessed is your mother.” It’s the exactly right thing. For her in the idiom of the day this would have meant something like ‘Your mom must be really proud of you!’ Jesus takes it and immediately brings it forward, extends the sentiment: Yes! “And blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” He sees to the heart of what is in that prayer. St. Luke sees the beauty here because he was so attentive to Mary’s story earlier in the Gospel. The word of the Lord came to Mary and she kept it, and she is blessed for it. Elizabeth hails Mary as the mother of her Lord. Mary, filled with the Spirit, responds by declaring prophetically that all generations will call her blessed, and we see that already proven true in today’s lesson. She who heard the word of God in the Anunciation, who bore the word of God in the Incarnation, who heard and kept the words of Word her Son as she followed Him to His Passion. “Behold,” is ever Mary’s prayer, “the handmaid of the Lord. Be it unto me according to your word.”
We need this at this center of the Lenten pilgrimage because it’s not enough to be emptied of sin. We must become like Mary in hearing and accepting and keeping the word. This means we are faced with a decision. Have we experienced some deliverance in our lives? Have we seen Christ work in others? Are we perhaps still holding something back because we do not think we have seen enough to be convinced? Have we remained lukewarm in our loyalties, delivered but not yet decided?
We have to remember what we have received by the Word of the Lord. We have received the new life and cleansing and exorcism of Baptism, we have received the mind of God and strength in the Spirit through Confirmation, we have received the Body and Blood of Christ in Eucharist, we have received the profundity and wisdom of Scripture delivered to us, we have received the great cloud of testimony from saints whose queen is Mary the mother of God, exalted in the humility that will save us today if we will follow after her as she follows after Christ.
We are the children of God the Father in Christ the Son our brother, the home of the Holy Spirit. We lack nothing. We have received all things. The road to the Cross and the glory of Resurrection is before us.
“Blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it.”