A Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Trinity, July 29, 2018
The Epistle, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 – The Gospel, St. Luke 15:11-32
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
A. The connection between the Exodus story and our story in Christ
The epistle teaches us that the Christian life is to be understood in the light of the Exodus of Israel from Egypt. Israel was “baptized into Moses” as we were baptized into Christ. Israel was fed in the wilderness by manna from heaven and water from a rock as we are fed by the body and blood of Jesus in the Eucharist. However, despite these gifts and graces the Israelites were overcome by temptation in the wilderness. This teaches us that our baptism and reception of the Sacrament do not guarantee that we will inherit the kingdom of God. We also can be overcome by temptation and overthrown. St. Paul writes,
These things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore, let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall (1 Cor. 10:11-12).
The wilderness was time of testing that prepared Israel to enter the Promised Land. The Christian life is a time of testing that is preparing us to live in the coming kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is already here through the gift of the Holy Spirit. But it is not yet fully here. The central task of the Christian life is to follow the Holy Spirit through the wilderness as the Israelites followed the fire and the cloud—and not to be distracted and thrown off course by temptation and sin (John Bunyan’s book, The Pilgrim’s Progress comes to mind here). The goal is to remain faithful through testing and make it to God’s New Creation.
B. The Pursuit of Happiness vs. the Pursuit of the Kingdom
This framework of understanding teaches us that nothing in this world is ultimate. We can be content with things in this world only inasmuch we enjoy them as gifts from God and foretastes of his kingdom. This is a sacramental perspective. We receive Christ in the Sacrament. However, the Sacrament also points beyond itself to the Coming of Christ in person. What we receive now is meant to sustain us as we await its fulfillment.
The sacramental perspective stands in contrast with the perspective of the world. The world offers us the creation as the end and goal. The world sells us non-sacraments. Get this thing—the relationship, the sex, the fulfillment of appetite, money, power, luxury—and you will be happy.
This purpose of the wilderness is to wean us from this idolatry. Someone observed that it took God a week to lead Israel out of Egypt, but it took forty years to remove Egypt from the Israelites. Baptism and conversion of the heart may occur in short seasons of time, but the reformation of our disordered desires takes a lifetime. The Israelites who died in the wilderness represent our fallen nature that must die so that our new human nature, remade in the image of Christ, can grow towards its fulfillment in the Kingdom of God. The key to resisting temptation is perceiving the lie that is being presented to us. Temptations promise us what they can never give us. God wants more for his children in his kingdom.
Many Christians struggle with their faith because they do not understand that this life is a wilderness of testing. Many Christians have embraced the world’s idea that we should pursue happiness right now above all else and that all pain should be avoided in the pursuit of happiness. If we try to follow God through the wilderness and aim at happiness in this world, these two vocations will clash; one will eventually give way to the other.
C. The Discipline of Fasting
The wilderness highlights the importance of the spiritual discipline of fasting. We must learn to say no things if we want to say yes to God. Fasting is the way we practice saying no. Many Christians have a fear of fasting—for two reasons. First, if you believe that you will be made happy by having everything you want, it sounds senseless to give up something you want. Won’t that make you unhappy? Second, fasting calls to mind extreme forms of asceticism. For example, St. Simon the Stylite, who lived his life atop a pillar, ate food only occasionally, and never bathed. Does God want us to be like him?
The first fear is overcome by learning that having everything we crave does not make us happy—it makes us miserable. Learning to say no is essential to living a contented life in Christ. However, we are often unable to say no. Thus, we must practice saying no if we want to get spiritually stronger. The fear of asceticism can be overcome by realizing that God probably won’t call you to live on a pole, eat little, and never bathe. But God will call you to practice saying so to things.
We have seasons of fasting, Advent and Lent, where we say no to things for an extended period to prepare to receive Christ in new ways at the feasts of Christmas and Easter. A good regular discipline is to practice some form of fasting at least a day a week. Whatever you are too attached to—food, electronics, entertainments, you know what it is for you—go without it for at least a day a week. One day a week—at least—practice saying no. Start small. For most people simply eating nothing between meals will be a good start. Practice that.
It is unfortunate that in the most overindulged culture in human history most Christians have no regular practice of fasting. It is one reason so many Christians are overcome by so many things, including discontentment. We can’t resist temptation just by trying to say no when the moment of trial is upon us. Jesus fasted forty days and forty nights before he faced temptation. An athlete practices before the game. We must prepare for the spiritual battle by fasting and praying before we face temptation. The epistle says,
No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it (1 Cor. 10:12-13).
The way of escape may be the regular practice of fasting, combined with prayer, that increases our ability to say no to things and yes to God.
A Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Trinity, July 22, 2018
The Epistle, Romans 8:12-17 – The Gospel, St. Matthew 7:15-21
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
“As many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God” (Rom. 8:14).
I. The epistle and the ongoing experience of Baptism
We have had a series of epistles from Romans. Today’s epistle can be understood in the light of the epistle from Trinity 6 about baptism. Romans 6:3-4 says,
Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore, we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father even so we also should walk in newness of life.
The epistles from Romans last week and this week emphasize that Baptism initiates us into an ongoing experience of dying and rising with Christ. The death of baptism becomes the ongoing activity of putting to death the deeds of the body, which is how we share in the sufferings of Christ.
We often think of spiritual experience as mystical and peaceful. However, one of the main things we experience because of our baptism is interior conflict. Today’s Epistle is the source of a term in the spiritual life called “mortification.” St. Paul writes, “If you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death (or mortify) the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13).
In the New Testament the word “flesh” refers to the disordered desires of our fallen human nature—the human nature we were born with. The baptismal gift of the Holy Spirit puts the flesh to death. However, the Spirit also redeems and recreates our human nature in the image of Christ’s new humanity. The Spirit leads us to do new things that are oriented towards love for God and love for others rather than merely self-gratification.
II. How we mortify the deeds of the body
We put to death the past deeds of the body by making good confessions that take stock of both our actions and our motives; by receiving the grace of forgiveness that removes the guilt, shame and fear caused by sin; and by establishing new patterns of faithful and loving behavior in the place of the old selfish habits of sin.
We put to death the deed of the body each day by avoiding and turning away from the temptations that come upon us. For example,
Something provokes us to anger and we are tempted to strike out and strike back. Instead, we take a deep breath, pray, remember who we are in Christ and, by the grace the Spirit gives us, we do not react in anger—we mortify our selfish anger. Then, after we calm down, we respond to those who provoked with some action of love. As Jesus said,
“Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:44-45).
Or, something visual may tempt us. It may be something sexual, or it may be something that we tempted to covet. Rather than entertaining the thought and embracing the lust or the greed, we immediately turn our eyes away from the temptation, using the grace the Spirit gives us. We use this circumstance of our temptation to pray for the grace of contentment and self-control.
Because prevention is better than cure, we examine our habits and identify the places and circumstances that cause us to face repeated temptation. We reorganize our schedule and so that we avoid those places and circumstances in the future.
III. The results of mortification.
Sin tempts us because it promises us things we want right now, but when we give in to it we experience guilt, shame, fear and death instead. We replay the scene of Genesis 3, the pattern of the original sin. This is what it means to be slaves of sin. We are stuck following impulses that never produce anything good in our lives.
We live “in the Spirit” when we establish a foundation of prayer in our lives and practice following the impulses of the Spirit each day, saying no to “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16). As we practice this pattern of life over time, we experience new results. The experience of grace and forgiveness replaces the experience of guilt. The experience of being accepted by God replaces the experience of shame. Fear is replaced by trust in God and his provision and providence.
The experience of life in the Spirit involves conflict, but the long-term result of the conflict is peace. It is a necessary battle. The battle of the Spirit against the flesh is the cross we are called to bear in the Christian life. Our suffering in Christ, our cross bearing, is not merely our share of the general pain of the world. We take up our cross when we persevere in God’s will against the influences that pull us away from God and our prayer and back into the patterns of sin and the false and temporal hopes of the world.
It is here that authentic Christian faith stands in the clearest contrast with the promises of our consumer and therapeutic culture. The implication of our culture is that pursuing what you want will make you happy. This leads people to try to gratify themselves apart from God and his will. This is the cause of the discontentment of our culture. People are committed to finding fulfillment in that which cannot provide it.
The Spirit fills us we a deeper desire; the desire for God, who alone can satisfy us. The Spirit teaches us that our disordered desires must be put to death if we are to get what we really want. Thus, as we mortify the flesh and persevere in our pursuit of God and our deep spiritual longings, we confirm our status as God’s children. As our Epistle says,
For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together (Rom. 8:14-17).
A Sermon on the Third Sunday after Trinity, June 17, 2018
The Epistle, 1 St. Peter 5:5-11 – The Gospel, St. Luke 15:1-10
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
A. Two tax collector meals
There are two gospel stories about meals with tax collectors. One comes after the call of Matthew the tax collector to be an apostle. The other is in today’s gospel. In both cases certain religious leaders, the scribes and Pharisees, objected. They believed that those who faithfully observed the Torah would be made unclean by contact with those who did not. For Jesus, the infection worked in the other direction. He was not being drawn into the sin of the sinners. Rather, he was inviting them into his pathway of healing and wholeness.
The punch lines in the two stories are similar, but each has a different focus. After the call of Matthew, Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Lk. 5:30-32). In today’s gospel, Jesus said, “There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Lk. 15:10). In other words, the sick need a doctor named Jesus, and God and the angels are happy when they find him.
B. The parable of the prodigal son and the reconfigured community
In St. Luke’s Gospel, today’s gospel story leads into the Parable of the Prodigal Son, which concludes with a model for a reconfigured community. In the old community, the lost son, the sinner, was on the outside and the obedient son was on the inside. After the lost son returned, he was on the inside celebrating with his father and the household, and the obedient son was on the outside refusing to come in and join the party.
In the old Israel the Pharisees were on the inside; those viewed as sinners were on the outside. In the New Israel, all who repent and follow Jesus are on the inside and many who were considered righteous are now on the outside. Repentance is now the mark of genuine faith and membership in God’s people. As Romans says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Rom. 3:23-24). Repentance and faith in Jesus make us members of the new Israel.
Over time religious communities are tempted to drift back into the error of the scribes and Pharisees. Human nature constructs an “in” group that consists of me and those like me, and an “out” group that consists of everyone else. This kind of division permeates our culture. Jesus reconfigured Israel. The “in” group, the Israel of God, is everyone who repents and follows him. The “out” group is everyone else. The key to healthy and evangelistic ministry is to build the church according to the new pattern that Jesus established.
C. The paradox of repentance
Repentance involves a kind of paradox—like most Christian doctrines. On the one hand, Jesus welcomes all regardless of their sins. On the other hand, Jesus never lessens the demands of the law for those who come to him. On the one hand, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). On the other hand, “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell” (Matt. 5:29).
Repentance is an orientation rather than an event. We grow in our repentance over time. As we come to see Christ, the Light of the world, more clearly and we come to see ourselves more clearly in his light. We make better confessions. Our experience of grace grows. In contrast, those who refuse to repent continue to justify their disobedience. They ignore their own sins and pick on the sins of others—certain others. They argue they are better than most—or they argue that everyone is okay as is.
To be faithful to the teaching of Jesus and carry out a genuine healing ministry in his name, we must cling tightly to both sides of the paradox. We must insist that Jesus invites sinners, like you and me, to eat with him. We can come even though we have done what we ought not to have done and left undone what we ought to have done. We can come even though our desires are disordered, and we are still in the process of being made whole. But we must equally insist that Jesus has not reduced on jot or tittle of his moral requirements for any of us (Matthew 5:18). After we receive his grace and forgiveness, his command is always the same: “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11).
Jesus tells us to sin no more because our sins do not make us whole. We can have compassion for the addict, but we lie to him if we tell him he can be healed by continuing to use his drug of choice. If the church is just one big pot of acceptance with no moral demand, it keeps people stuck in spiritual sickness and in a state of separation from God. However, if the church is just one big message of moral demand without accepting people where they are, the sick will never find the Great Physician.
D. A community of repentance and invitation
The liturgy teaches us to grow in our repentance. Repentance is a requirement for communion. “Ye who do truly and earnestly repent…” We confess that we have sinned in “thought, word and deed.” Jesus communes with us sinners in the Sacrament to make our bodies clean and wash our souls. Then he sends us out to sin nor more and, instead, to do the good works he has prepared for us to walk in.
We will be back next week to repent all over again. But this is a progressive cycle, not an endless loop. We are being made whole and holy. We return to the altar of God each week, and to our prayer each day, to grow in holiness. The end of the process is the resurrection. As 1 Corinthians says, “The trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality” (1 Cor. 15:51-53).
The greatest miracle that takes place in this world is the process by which sinful mortals because holy and immortal. The central task of the Christian life is to persevere in the life of repentance and prayer so that God will continue to work this miracle of change in us. The central task of evangelism is to invite other sinners to join us in the process of being made whole. For “Those who are well have no need of a physician but those who are sick.” And, “There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”