Feast Day: The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe
Readings: John 18:33-37; Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; Revelation 1:4b-8

“For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” (John 18:37)

Today the Church all around the world commemorates the Feast of Christ the King. Although I have to say I much prefer it’s official title: The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. Just what does it mean to say that Jesus Christ is king? It means, in the words of the great Dutch Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”

Today we proclaim that all power and authority in heaven and on earth belong to the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. Today we proclaim that his rule knows no beginning or end. Today we proclaim that he has come into the world to reveal the truth of God’s love for all. Today we proclaim that every human creature must submit to his “sweet and saving yoke.”[1]

Surely this claim is easy to scoff at. Jesus Christ is king of the universe? Really? Look around. Read the headlines. What sort of kingdom is this? Consider the global political and economic climate. Across Europe and elsewhere nationalist and far-right parties have made significant electoral gains, stoking racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric. Just last month to the south of us the Orange-Man-with-the-Little-Hands openly declared himself a nationalist, flaunting his ignorance of the historical usage of the term, and that in the days leading up to the centenary celebration of the end of WWI.

Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that the feast we celebrate today was established during a similar time of increasing secularization and nationalism. On the eleventh of December 1925, in the aftermath of WWI, Pope Pius XI established the Feast of Christ the King to point to a king, “of whose kingdom there shall be no end.” In his encyclical he wrote that the many evils in the world, “were due to the fact that the majority of men had thrust Jesus Christ and his holy law out of their lives.” Until men and women and nations submitted themselves to the loving rule of their Saviour there can be no real hopeful prospect of lasting peace either between nations or between people. We must look for the peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ, he said. And so, despite all appearances to the contrary, today’s feast is meant to announce the reality of the reign of Jesus Christ over every square-inch of the universe.

Jesus Christ is king, yes, but not like any king we’ve ever known. His kingdom is of a different sort altogether. Standing before Pilate what does Jesus say? “My kingdom is not from this world.” We should not make the mistake of assuming that this means Jesus’ kingdom is of no earthly good. After all, Jesus teaches us to pray, “thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” The kingdom of Jesus isn’t about escaping this world but rather transforming this world.

So, when Jesus says that his kingdom is not of this world he does so to stress the total difference between himself and earthly rulers. How is King Jesus different from worldly kings? Our text this morning names three ways: First, he rules by suffering love not by might. Second, he rules eternally not just for a time. Third, he rules in absolute truth.

The rule of King Jesus is characterized not by force but by suffering love. Consider the context of our gospel reading. Jesus has been arrested and is standing before Pilate. It is that mockery of a trial mere hours before his crucifixion when his throne will be a Cross and his crown made of thorns. Prior attempts by people to make Jesus king were misunderstandings and Jesus was able to slip away (John 6:15). But now as he approaches the Cross he reveals himself for who he really is: “the Alpha and Omega,” as the Book of Revelation names him—the origin and goal of the world.

And because Jesus rules by suffering love his kingdom cannot be imposed or maintained by the mechanisms of worldly power and wealth. “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over.” Jesus does not need servants armed to the teeth to fight for him because his rule is characterized by the sort of love that lays down and dies for the sake of others. So if you’re going to follow Jesus you’re going to have to be brave sometimes. Brave enough not to fight. Brave enough not to hold a grudge. Brave enough to forgive even your enemies. Brave enough to love, really love. And if you really want to fight then get on your knees and pray.

Second, the rule of King Jesus is eternal, that is to say it is not restricted by time and space: “His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed,” prophesied Daniel. This is obviously different from earthly rulers who can only rule in one place at one time for which we should be very grateful though I do have some Episcopal clergy friends in the States who long to be subjects of Her Majesty the Queen. But to say that Jesus’ rule is eternal is to say that Jesus rule everywhere, always. There is no place in the universe and no moment in time over which Jesus Christ does not rule as Lord. Before the universe was, Jesus reigns. From the Cross in first century Palestine, Jesus reigns. In this parish today, Jesus reigns. Jesus Christ is Lord, everywhere and always.

Finally, Jesus’ kingdom is unique because it is characterized by the truth. “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth,” says Jesus. Truth is humanity’s greatest quest. We long to know the truth and to live in. We want to be our truest selves and to live with the grain of the universe. “What is truth?” Pilate asks Jesus in the next verse. We want to know as well.

The truth that Jesus has come to reveal is not a truth but the truth. It is not one truth among many but the ultimate truth upon which heaven and earth are founded. It is not a truth whose meaning is determined by how we think about or experience it but rather the truth that exists independently of our mind and experience. In fact, it is the truth that enables us to think and experience. It is the truth that Jesus handed on to his Apostles. It is the same truth that we ourselves have received from them and are charged with passing on to the next generation of believers.

It is chiefly the truth of the Father’s love for the world. A love that called the whole world into being. A love that sustains the whole world at every moment. A love towards which the whole world is being drawn in and through and with Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ himself is the truth, the truth of God’s love for the world and for each one. Do you want to live more fully in the truth? Do you want to be more truly yourself? Then contemplate the love and mercy of Jesus Christ and allow the Holy Spirit to conform you to his image.

When the early Christians went from place to place announcing the reign of Jesus over all they were accused of “turning the world upside down,” (Acts 17:6-7). There is the rub. Jesus has come to turn your world upside down. He has come to enlighten your heart and mind with the light of God’s love but first he invites you to come down off the throne. That’s really hard to do. But if you want Jesus to do the work in you that he wants to do, if you want to live more fully in the truth, then you’re going to have to let him rule in your life. And you can’t keep anything back because not one part of you is exempt. He must rule in your mind that you may truly believe the gospel. He must rule in your will that you may truly obey his law. He must rule in your heart that you may love God above all things and cling to him alone. He must rule in your body that you may serve as an instrument of his justice and love.[2]

Jesus Christ is Lord of all and his kingdom is a kingdom of everlasting love. You are no longer your own for he has purchased you by his blood. And this morning, and every morning, he invites you to give up the claim to run your own life and to submit to his loving rule.

Endnotes:
[1] Quas Primas, §3
[2] ibid, §33

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Feast Day: Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Mark 10:46-52

“Take heart; get up, he is calling you.”

In our gospel reading this morning Jesus is with his disciples and a large crowd and they are leaving the city of Jericho. There sitting at the edge of the road is a blind man named Bartimaeus and as Jesus was passing by he wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to have his sight restored. Jesus wants you to know that he is passing by this morning so that we might shout out to him and have the eyes of our hearts enlightened.

Bartimaeus is an interesting figure. In Matthew and Luke’s telling of the story the blind man is anonymous but here in Mark he has a name. This is not just some anonymous blind man or beggar but someone—Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus. Right away this tells us something important. There are no numbers in the kingdom of God. There are people with names and faces. There are individuals, each unique and bestowed with dignity from God himself. Each one worthy of respect and love. Each one with inherent value and beauty to God. Each one with a story that Jesus Christ knows in-and-out.

And Bartimaeus, we are told, is blind. Though Saint John Chrysostom, that great fourth century bishop, asks does not Bartimaeus see better than many? Indeed, Jesus Christ the light of the world has come to restore our spiritual sight, to illumine the eyes of our hearts with the divine light that we might see and know him truly as he is and love and obey him now and always. That is what all of the healings of blind people in the gospel are ultimately signs of.

So there sits blind Bartimaeus begging by the side of the road and when he heard that Jesus was passing by he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” It is unlikely that Bartimaeus knew the full weight of his confession of faith. Yet he had at least a rudimentary understanding of who Jesus is and the ability of Jesus to meet a basic and fundamental need that he had. In this already his spiritual sight was being restored.

Maybe you can identify with Bartimaeus. Maybe you don’t know all the ins-and-outs of theology or of the Scriptures, maybe you can’t articulate your faith winsomely, and yet you sense some deep need or lack within yourself and are drawn towards Jesus Christ in the hope that maybe he can address that. Well this morning Jesus Christ is passing by in the proclamation of the Word and in the Sacrament of Holy Communion and I believe that even now the Holy Spirit is beginning to open the eyes of your heart.

The cry of Bartimaeus is a cry of desperation is it not? Given his position as a beggar we might reasonably assume that Bartimaeus had exhausted all of his resources and was relegated to casting himself entirely on the mercy of others. And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth passing by he cried out in total desperation. He was not concerned how he appeared to others. He was simply desperate to be near Christ. When the crowd “sternly ordered” him to quiet down and relax he did not apologize and settle down rather he cried out even louder. Do you long for Jesus Christ with the same desperation as Bartimaeus? Are you so desperate for his mercy that you are willing to even maybe lose some respectability in the sight of others? Jesus is looking for people who are not ashamed to look a little foolish in the eyes of some.

Bartimaeus was so willing but that was because he knew he had nothing to lose and everything to gain. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” was his cry. Understanding his own need he threw himself entirely on the mercy of Christ. If you’re anything like me then maybe sometimes you have trouble recognizing and owning your own need or sinfulness. After all we are pretty nice. Surely that gets us somewhere with God. Bartimaeus invites us to get off that treadmill of trusting in our own righteousness and entrust ourselves entirely to the mercy of Jesus. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

The cry of Bartimaeus reminds me of the Jesus Prayer. It’s very simple and maybe you know it: Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. It’s an important prayer for Eastern Orthodox Christians who are encouraged to pray it daily. In fact, you can say it quietly in such a way that it matches the rhythm of your breath: [inhale] Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, [exhale] have mercy on me a sinner. The idea is that as you pray this simple prayer throughout the day it reorients your inner disposition towards God and we begin to hunger for his mercy. It is precisely this sort of humility, says Saint Ambrose, by which God lifts us up. Indeed, Jesus is about to lift Bartimaeus up.

I love what happens next in the story. Mark emphasizes the fact that Jesus stopped and stood still. Despite the noise and festivity of the crowd the simple cry of Bartimaeus was not lost to Jesus. He heard it and he stopped. Because Jesus is the good shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to go after the 1 that is in need. And Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who sits enthroned in the heavens, who holds the universe in his hands, hears your cry. Hears every cry.

“Call him here,” says Jesus. So the disciples go to Bartimaeus and say, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” This is what disciples do. This is what we are called to do. Simply this: to bring men and women and children into a living relationship with Jesus Christ. There are people in our community right now that Jesus Christ is calling to himself but they might not ever know it unless somebody that is already following Jesus goes and tells them. Jesus is looking for people who are paying attention to what is going on around them and are not afraid to go to their neighbour or their family member or their colleague and say, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.”

So Bartimaeus threw off his cloak, sprang up and came to Jesus. Because when you get up to follow Jesus you’re going to have to leave something behind. Maybe you think you can have everything and Jesus. But Jesus is saying if you’re going to come after me then you’re going to have to throw that old cloak aside. I don’t know what that old cloak is for you but you probably know yourself and if you don’t ask the Holy Spirit to show you and when he does throw it off. Do not be afraid to leave it behind. It could be a habit, or it could be a relationship, or it could be a mindset or a way of thinking. Throw it off.

Now Bartimaeus is standing there and Jesus asks him, “What do you want me to do for you?” Wow. Imagine that. And here’s the thing. I really believe that Jesus is asking you that same question: “What do you want me to do for you?” What would you say to him this morning? He has stopped, he has stood still, he has called you to himself, and he is listening. “What do you want me to do for you?”

“My teacher, let me see again.” Bartimaeus longs for light. To be made whole. To be restored. To be healed. And Mark tells us that his sight was restored and that he, “followed [Jesus] on the way.” One theologian commenting on this sees here evidence that Bartimaeus’ longing for light was ultimately a longing for something more basic: a longing for the path that leads to God, a path whose direction one must see if they are to embark upon it.[1] Bartimaeus longs for light, for divine light, and when his eyes are opened the first thing he sees is Jesus Christ, the way—and he followed him.

This is my whole prayer for us. That we would know that Jesus Christ has come near, and that knowing this we would cry out for his mercy, and that crying out for his mercy we would see, and that seeing we would love and follow.

 

Endnotes
[1] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Light of the World, 247.

Feast Day: The 22nd Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

“For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

In our readings this morning we are granted insight into a way of understanding the person and work of Jesus Christ. Namely, through the figure of the high priest. And we learn that Jesus is the high priest par excellence. He is the high priest of which the priesthood of ancient Israel was but a shadow and a type. This image of Jesus as high priest helps us to understand a critical aspect of his ongoing life and ministry that continues even now, specifically, that he has entered into the very throne-room of the Father in heaven and he lives there to intercede for us, to pray for us, to represent us.

The high priest had a particular role within ancient Israel especially pertaining to their cultic or religious life in the Temple. The author of Hebrews tells us that, “Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.” So, the high priest was a sort of bridge, if you will, between the people and God. Chosen from among the people to offer “gifts and sacrifices” to God on their behalf, especially sacrifices for their sins.

In ancient Israel when the Temple was still intact and the sacrificial system in effect all of this would culminate with a certain magnitude on the holiest day of the year, the Day of Atonement. By the way, this remains the holiest day for contemporary Jews as well, you may have heard it referred to as Yom Kippur.

The Day of Atonement was the one day of the year when the high priest would enter the innermost and most sacred place in the Temple where the arc of the covenant was kept, known as the “holy of holies.” According to Rabbinic tradition it was such a holy place that before entering the high priest would have a rope tied around his ankle so that, should he drop dead in the presence of the living God due to his own sin, then the other priests could pull him out. And here on this one day the high priest would ritually sprinkle the arc with the blood of a sacrificial animal in order to atone for the sins of Israel.

Furthermore, we read in Hebrews that the high priest, “is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness.” The high priest cares for the people, has compassion on them, because he himself knows their weakness, he shares in it with them, he comes alongside of the people and suffers with them and the sacrifice the he offers to God on their behalf is taken up along with his own sacrifice. And so, as I said, the high priest was a sort of bridge—chosen by God from among the people, able to sympathize with their weakness, representing them to God and God to them.

Hopefully now we are beginning to comprehend the importance of the high priest for Israel because it is here that the author of Hebrews points us to make the key part of his argument: that whole system at the centre of which stands the high priest is but a shadow of Jesus Christ who is the high priest. And as high priest Jesus is both like and unlike the priests of old.

He is like them in that he embodies the two qualities of every high priest. First, he is chosen by God. Not just chosen by God but is himself very God. He is the light of the world but he is, as the Creed instructs, “light from light.” In faith we proclaim that he was sent by the Father out of love and as such did not take upon himself the dignity of the role but rather received it from his Father who forever has begotten him. And he seeks never to glorify himself but only to glorify the one who sent him.

Second, he is able to sympathize with our weakness. The witness of the Church tells us that he was truly human, that he truly lived, that he truly was tempted as we are (though without sin), that he truly suffered as we do. He knows what it is to be clothed with weakness so when he represents us before the Father as he is doing at this very moment he isn’t looking down on us patronizingly from some great height. He can truly sympathize. He has been here. He knows exactly what it is like.

Hear me, whatever it is you are going through, whatever challenge you are currently facing, whatever suffering you may be presently enduring, Jesus Christ knows exactly what that is like and he sees you right now and he is standing before the Father in heaven offering up prayers for you and making atonement for your sin.

But Jesus is also unlike the old high priests. He is our high priest but in a totally unique way for as the author of Hebrews says he is, “a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” We meet Melchizedek in Genesis 14. He was the King of Salem, which means “peace.” Moreover, the name Melchizedek means, literally, “King of Righteousness.” This obscure figure, the King of Peace, the King of Righteousness, appears in the Old Testament and greets Abraham—with bread and wine, interestingly—as he is returning from war. And Abraham gave him one tenth of everything he had.

But what is notable for the author of Hebrews is that there is no record of Melchizedek’s birth or death. As we read later on in Hebrews the author describes Melchizedek as, “Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever,” (Hebrew 7:3). So, when the author of Hebrews says that Jesus is a priest in the order of Melchizedek what he means is that Jesus’ priesthood has no beginning and no end.

Earlier priests lived and died but Jesus Christ lives eternally and therefore he is able to be that eternal bridge, coming alongside of us and representing us before the Father in heaven forever, without ceasing. He is that great high priest who does perfectly and eternally what those earthly high priests could do only in part and imperfectly. Therefore, you can rely on Jesus totally and forever. Do we dare put all of our faith and all of our hope on Jesus?

Just where is this eternal high priest now? Immediately before the passage we read the author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus, our great high priest, “has passed through the heavens,” (4:14). Ancient Jewish writings sometimes speak of different levels of “the heavens.” For example, when Solomon built the Temple he declared that, “heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain God,” (1 Kings 8:27). So one is left with the impression that within heaven—that is, God’s space— there are layers, with God’s own dwelling place being the innermost one.[1] Which is precisely what the holy of holies in the temple was fashioned after. And what the author of Hebrews is saying is, listen, having died and been raised from the dead Jesus then ascended through all the different layers of “the heavens” right to the very heart of it all, to the very throne of the Father himself. And in his human flesh he has, in a very real sense, taken us there with him.

Friends, Jesus Christ lives to intercede for us. He delights in doing this. The former priests would enter the holy of holies in the Temple one day a year. But Jesus Christ has gone into the Father’s inner room not with the blood of animals but with his own blood and he lives there, representing us, continuing the work that he accomplished here in his suffering and death on the cross, a work that was for us. His entire life was a prayer of love poured out for you and now that prayer continues forever before the Father in heaven.

This morning Jesus wants you to know that this is how he has come to serve you. He has gone into that most holy place and he is holding all of your suffering with his own suffering, all of your fear with his own fear, all of your weakness with his own weakness, all of your sin with his own loving obedience, and he is offering it up to the Father who is full of grace and mercy. O come, let us adore him.

Endnotes:
[1] N.T. Wright, Hebrews for Everyone, 45.

“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell.” (Mark 9:43)

In the gospel reading last week we learned from Jesus about what it takes to be great in God’s kingdom—become a servant of all. And we learned that so many of the disputes and conflicts that rise up among us come from our own selfishness and envy that resists taking the lowly road of self-giving love.

This morning Mark has us in the very same discourse and Jesus gives us insight into the value of life in God’s kingdom. What is it worth? It is worth everything and anything at all that you might have to give up. Whatever the cost might be to you personally—a hand or a foot!—it is overshadowed to an infinite degree by what you stand to inherit. It’s a no brainer. You want to talk about a smart investment? Cut out of your life whatever stands in the way of your obedience to Jesus Christ, cut it off entirely and kill it, for that loss is nothing compared to the joy and freedom of life with God.

Maybe you’ve heard the story of Aron Ralston. Aron was hiking in a canyon in southeastern Utah in 2003 when a boulder became dislodged pinning his right hand between it and the canyon wall. He had been out hiking by himself and didn’t tell anyone where he was going. With no way to contact anyone he finally ended up freeing himself after six days by using his pocket knife to amputate his right forearm. I’ll spare you the details. When he spoke publicly about the ordeal after the fact he recalled how he did not lose his hand, but gained his life.

It. Is. Better. Somebody say, “It is better.” “It is better,” says Jesus, for who? For you. “It is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.” The risen and living Jesus Christ is in our midst this morning and he stands among us as a good friend who tells the truth. His word to us this morning is a word that warns us of danger and guides us into life. Jesus is saying to us this morning that whatever you have to give up in order to resist sin and obey him is not to your loss but to your gain, and eternally so. It. Is. Better.

What hinders your own obedience to Jesus Christ? What causes your faith to shrink rather than to flourish and grow? What gets in the way of you knowing the joy of the gospel? Hear the compassionate and merciful caution of Jesus Christ: “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell.” Whatever it is, cut it off.

Maybe you’re not sure what it is that’s getting in the way. Moments ago we heard the words of the Psalmist: “But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults,” (Psalm 19:11-12). Often we do not even know the ways that we err and so we need the Holy Spirit to search our hearts and clear out all of those faults that are hidden even to us.

I want you to know that this is no less true for me as your priest. Indeed, the last year or so since I have been here the Lord has been renewing my own heart and my own love for him, bringing to light the sin that I would rather minimize or ignore and gently rooting it out. “It is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell.”

To “enter life” is to submit oneself to God, to receive the kingdom that Jesus has come to bring, and to enjoy life with God both now and forever. That it is possible for you and I to enjoy God and live in his love is entirely God’s agenda and entirely God’s doing. As it is written elsewhere: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him,” (John 3:17). God’s agenda is life for the world. You were made for life with God.

Sin is anything that hinders this life by drawing our love away from Jesus Christ and fixing it on lesser goods. Sin mustn’t be something obviously evil or wicked. In fact, often it is as subtle as an inordinate love of good things. And so as you know elsewhere in the gospels Jesus himself does not hesitate to call for the renunciation of possessions, family, and of life itself if these good things ever stand in the way of following him. Cut it off, says Jesus. It is better.

Our tendency might be to focus on what we would lose. What it would cost us to cut off whatever it is Jesus is asking us to cut off. Instead, let us consider what we stand to gain by being with Jesus. As the Psalmist proclaims, the law, or the word, of the Lord is perfect. God’s word to us revives the soul and brings wisdom. It enlightens the eyes and rejoices the heart. It is our very life and our sustenance. “In keeping [it] there is great reward,” (Psalm 19:11). To hear it and to obey it is to “enter life” as Jesus says. It’s really important to let that sink in: obedience to Jesus, challenging as it may be, is not intended to burden but to liberate.

I love how the Prayer Book puts it in the Collect for Peace towards the end of Morning Prayer: “O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom.” To know God in Jesus Christ is eternal life. To serve him is perfect freedom.

No temporal pleasure that sin promises is worth forfeiting the eternal pleasure of knowing God. And the stakes are high because the opposite of life with God is life apart from God. To refuse to enter into the joy of his love is to chose instead the insanity and the isolation of sin—to go to hell. Hell is not what you were made for. You were made for God, to know him and to enjoy him forever. Therefore, whatever is causing you to sin, cut it off. “It is better for you to enter life.” It is better.

The opposite of sin is not moral perfection but love. Love covers a multitude of sins writes Saint Peter and Christ’s love has covered our sin. So if you want motivation to cut off whatever it is that is causing you to sin learn to love Jesus. Allow the Holy Spirit to work in you and bring about in you the perfection of Christ’s love.

There is no magical way to learn to love Jesus. But there is a practical way and it comes to us in the form of a Rule of Life handed on to us from the Apostles and the earliest Christians (Acts 2:42). What does it consist of? Basically this: go to church, regularly; read and meditate upon the words of Holy Scripture, the Bible; pray, what a resource we have for this in the Daily Office and in the psalter; and generously serve one another in the church. In all these ways we learn to love Jesus by learning of his love for us and the more we come to know of his love for us the less appealing sin becomes.

“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell.” Let us therefore cast off the sin that ensnares for the sake of life with God. Whatever the cost, it is worth it for the joy and freedom of knowing Jesus Christ.

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

In our gospel reading this morning Jesus is on the way with his disciples and as they follow him and stay near to him he teaches them what it means to be great in the kingdom of God. And right away we are reminded of the posture of a disciple: with Jesus; on the move; open and teachable. And what does Jesus tell them but to reiterate the central fact of not only his own ministry but of human history: “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”

And the disciples responded, “Ah, yes. That makes good sense! Carry on.” No, actually what Mark tells us is that the disciples did not understand what he was saying. Not only that, but they had questions that they were afraid to ask.

Maybe you’ve been following Jesus for weeks or maybe you’ve been following him for decades, have you ever had questions? Perhaps even questions that you weren’t quite confident to give voice to? Have you ever wondered? Doubted? Been curious? You are in very good company with Jesus and his band of followers. Indeed, the work of theology—a work that we are all called to, by the way—is to seek to understand that which we believe. The Christian life begins with faith but it does not stop there. It presses deeper, seeking to understand that which it affirms.

Why does Mark include this detail about their lack of understanding and what does he mean by it? I think what he wants us to know is that the life of faith is a process, a life-long process, of re-education. At this moment in the gospel narrative the disciples do not comprehend the fact that the one they have come to believe is the Messiah, the Redeemer of Israel, will have to suffer and die. That reality simply does not fit within the world as they know it.

We can press this point further and say that it wasn’t simply that the disciples failed to understand something that should have otherwise been intelligible to them. It was, rather, that they couldn’t understand that which their present reality gave them no capacity to understand. They knew as well as you and I that dead people, even a dead Messiah, do not simply live again.

But of course you and I know what happens. In fact, you and I are sitting here this morning because of what happened. Those very same disciples that lacked understanding became the Apostles through whom the gospel of Jesus Christ spread throughout the Ancient Roman world and continues to transform people today.

The ultimate fact of Jesus’ death and resurrection did not fit within their world so Jesus had to turn their world upside down. The great Canadian poet Leonard Cohen wrote that there is a crack in everything and that’s how the light gets in. That’s a bit like what Jesus does with his followers then and now. See, Jesus wants to break into your neatly arranged world with the light of God and show you that another way is possible. He wants to clear all of the junk that you’ve been hoarding out of your home and refurnish it, repaint everything so that the colours are deeper and more vibrant, and enliven it with new textures and fabrics.

OK, so the disciples as we have seen did not—could not—understand and naturally they had questions. And I love what Jesus does here. He knows that they are reluctant to question him so he questions them: “So, what were you guys arguing about back there?” It’s not as if Jesus doesn’t know but he is inviting them to bring their questions and arguments out into the open. Because a failure to understand is not cause for shame but rather cause for drawing even nearer to Jesus Christ. There is a sermon in here about the virtue of a good debate and learning to be a community that can disagree well with one another, but that’s a sermon for another day.

So, what were the disciples arguing about? Who was the greatest. They are with Jesus on the way to the Cross where he will lay down his life in love and humility and they are worried about who’s going to get the promotion. His eyes are fixed on his suffering and death for the life of the world while they are preoccupied with the question of status. How unlike you and I!

In our Epistle reading this morning we heard James ask us a question: “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from?” Sounds a bit like Jesus’, “So, what were you guys arguing about back there?” We get the sense that James knows the answer. And indeed, he breaks it down for us.

There are two kinds of wisdom, says James. There is a wisdom that is, “earthly, unspiritual, devilish,” that is characterized by envy and selfish ambition and leads to disorder and wickedness. Then there is a wisdom that, “comes down from above.” This Godly wisdom is, “peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy,” and it leads to a harvest of righteousness says James.

Where do those conflicts and disputes come from? They come from that old wisdom that we are so protective of. But Jesus wants us to know this morning that even now the Holy Spirit is searching your heart and that he wants to root out every last scrap of envy and selfishness and disorder and wickedness and he wants to come in and take up residence in your heart and furnish it instead with the beauty of peace and gentleness and humility and love.

Only Jesus can do this. Only Jesus is gentle and yet loving enough to question us when we fear questioning him and to open us up to a new way of thinking and living in and with and through him.

The disciples are arguing about who is the greatest and they probably think that they know what that means. But again, here Jesus upends their notions of success and greatness. Does he reprimand them for their folly? No, rather, he sat down and invited them to come near and he said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

What makes someone successful or great? Is it the ability to bombastically assert oneself over another and humiliate or steamroll those that disagree with you, as the recent surge of populist politics might suggest? Or, maybe greatness has to do with conspicuous displays of one’s wealth, prestige, and sex appeal like we see in celebrity culture. Or, if you are active on social media platforms, maybe greatness and success is found in living a perfectly curated life or the number of ‘likes’ you receive? Or, depending on what stage of life you are at you might think that greatness is getting into the right school, or having the perfect family, or traveling the world in retirement.

Does becoming the servant of all constitute greatness or success in your world? Of course not. But those who commit to following Jesus Christ are going to have their world turned upside down. If you’re going to be a follower of Jesus you’re going to experience a life-time of re-education. And Jesus Christ demonstrates in word and deed what greatness in the kingdom of God is all about—becoming a servant. Of. All.

Jesus Christ demonstrates his greatness not by making much of himself but by making little of himself. Not by gathering worldly wealth but by living generously in love. Not by clinging to power as the world understands it but by spending his life for the sake of others. He shows us what greatness in the kingdom of God is like by going to the Cross and by bringing us there with him. And Jesus wants you to know this morning that if you want to be great in God’s eyes then you have to give yourself away in love. Because in the kingdom of God greatness is measured by lowly service and indiscriminate love.

So if you want to be a student of Jesus Christ that’s how you’re going to grow, first by a downward, lowly motion. The seed of a tree first goes down, fastening its roots low in the ground, in order then to reach skyward. Do you want to be great in the kingdom of heaven? Become a servant of all.

However. Lest the disciples think that their greatness in God’s kingdom, like their greatness in the world, is a result of their own doing Jesus does one more thing. He takes a little child and places it among them and taking it in his arms he says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Being great in the kingdom of God is not the result of our effort but of faith in Jesus Christ who comes to us and gives himself to us as a helpless child. Because what sinners need is not motivation but resurrection. That’s why the invitation of Jesus to follow him is not, “Come and try harder,” or, “Come and do better,” but rather, “Come and die that you might live.”

If you devoted the rest of your life to contemplating this great mystery you would never want for anything again. God Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth, has come among us in the weakness of a human infant. As Christians have been singing for seventeen centuries in the Te Deum, “Thou are the King of Glory, O Christ. Thou are the everlasting Son of the Father. When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man, thou didst not abhor the Virgin’s womb.” The King of Glory! The everlasting Son of the Father! In the weakness and vulnerability of a human child that we might welcome him yesterday, today, and forever.

Do you want to be great? Do you want your life to be a success in the only way that will matter in the end? Receive Jesus Christ in faith and allow him to transform you from the inside out so that you might go and transform the world by your witness of love and service. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

Feast Day: The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23; James 1:17-27

“Welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.”

In our gospel reading this morning we are listening in on a debate between Jesus and the religious leaders that concerns cleanliness. The religious leaders are concerned with clean hands, not to mention pots and pans as well. But Jesus, knowing what is truly at stake invites us to press deeper. The problem isn’t unclean hands, the problem is unclean hearts. Friends, Jesus knows your heart. He knows it better than you do. And he, and only he, can clean it out if you will welcome him to.

Our reading begins with the Pharisees and the scribes who have come to see Jesus. Some of them, in fact, have come from as far away as Jerusalem and here they are now “gathered around” Jesus. However, noticing that some of his disciples were not observing the traditional purity codes they accuse Jesus of going soft on the tradition of the elders, that is, the complex web of oral traditions and teachings that had built up around the Law of God: “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”

A fair question. What is going on here? Does Jesus think the Law is unimportant? Is he disregarding tradition in favour of innovation? No. In fact, Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees seems to be that their more recent traditions have undermined the eternal and foundational Word of God. The same challenge could be put to us today: does everything we do and teach grow out of Scripture?

How does Jesus respond to the question? “Boy was Isaiah ever right about you guys.” He accuses them of hypocrisy, of play-acting, of honouring God with their lips even while their hearts are far from him. Recall, for example, how our reading began. Here are men that have come from afar to see Jesus. Here they are presently gathered around him. Yet they notice others. They are in the presence of Jesus Christ but their heart is elsewhere. They have come to Jesus and yet they have not really come to him at all.

Are we so different ourselves? Are we not much quicker to notice the sins of others than we are to notice our own sin? Is it not easier to justify ourselves than it is to confess? Do we not prefer to judge others rather than serve them? We fall into these hypocritical patterns when we do not see ourselves as lowly and needy and requiring God’s mercy. You see, it is much easier to ignore my own defiled heart when I am busy looking at someone else’s defiled hands.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer asks a question that we are inclined to resist: can you consider yourself to be the greatest of sinners? Surely I cannot be the greatest of sinners! This must be an exaggeration! It cannot be true! Yet even Saint Paul says this of himself. Shortly after Bonhoeffer poses this question comes my favourite passage in all of his works, at once haunting and hopeful: “There can be no genuine acknowledgement of sin that does not lead to this extremity. If my sinfulness appears to me to be in any way smaller or less detestable in comparison with the sins of others, I am still not recognizing my sinfulness at all.”[1] If my sinfulness appears to me to be in any way smaller or less detestable in comparison with the sins of others, I am still not recognizing my sinfulness at all.

Perhaps that is why the Pharisees and scribes were scanning the room rather than gazing at the one they had come to see? Perhaps they knew that if they fixed their gaze on Jesus Christ then the divine light that comes from him would search their own hearts and reveal what lies therein. And yet this very fear is what prevented them from knowing the mercy of Christ. For when we contemplate the mystery of Christ’s passion yes we are confronted with the reality of our sin but we are confronted even more so with the reality of God’s love that covers our sin. It is only when I personally experience Christ’s mercy for me, the greatest of sinners, that I can let go of judging others and aspire to serve them instead. Because that is what Christ has done for us.

This brings us to the crux of the matter—what Christ has done for us. You see, the religious leaders presume that they can keep themselves pure before God by observing a set of ritual laws. They think that the cleanliness that is required of them is something that they can manipulate and control. But what does Jesus say? “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

What prevents us from being made clean is not out there but rather in here. It’s not that unclean things defile an otherwise good human heart, it’s that the unclean human heart defiles otherwise good things. Christian teaching affirms that the world and everything in it is good because God is good and he made all things. Therefore, there are no bad things only bad uses of things. “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile,” says Jesus.

Consider the list of vices that Jesus mentions at the end of our reading. Are not all these things a consequence of the bad use of good things? Take sex, for example (and everyone sat up in their pews). Sex is good but when you use it badly what do you get? Fornication and adultery, among other things, not to mention more nefarious consequences such as abuse and assault. Likewise, material wealth is a good but when you use it badly what do you get? Things like greed, envy, and pride. “Understand this,” says Jesus. “The rot starts from within not from without.” What we need, therefore, is an internal cleansing of the heart not simply an external cleansing of our hands.

Precisely this is what Jesus Christ has come to do. He has come to cleanse our stained hearts by his blood shed on the Cross and to dwell in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. Is that not what James says in the second reading we heard this morning? The perfect gift from above that has come down from the Father is Jesus Christ, God’s word of truth. And this word of truth has been planted in our hearts by faith making us new creatures.

What then can you do? What does James say? “Welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” God has already planted his word in your heart by faith, welcome it. Get out of the way and let the word of God go to work on your heart. Welcome it with meekness. Not with pride. Be teachable, be patient, submit yourself.

The absolute best thing that you can do for you today—and for your families and neighbours by the way—is to learn to love the Word of God. Husbands and wives, what is the best thing you can do for your spouse? Love God’s Word. Fathers and mothers, what is the best thing you can do for your children? Love God’s Word. Single people, what is the best thing that you can do for your friends, your family, your community, and your self? Love God’s Word.

“But the Bible is so boring.” So what? “But I have a hard time understanding it.” Buy a commentary to help you read. Attend a Bible study and read along with others. “But I’m so busy I just can’t find the time.” Really? How much time have you spent just staring at a screen this week? How many hours this week have you just wasted doing things that are of zero eternal benefit? Never mind the time that we spend on things that are actually harmful for our souls.

So if you don’t already, learn to love the Bible because when you learn to love the Bible you learn to love Jesus. It may be a tough go at first but remember this: reading the Bible has to be a discipline before it can become a desire or even a delight.

Friends, the risen and living Jesus Christ is in our midst this morning and through him God is able to cure the deep-seated impurity in our hearts. Today if you would hear his voice, harden not your hearts but rather welcome him with meekness and allow him to do what only he can do. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

 

Endnotes.
[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 96.

Feast Day: The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69

“Choose this day whom you will serve.”

We have been in the sixth chapter of John for a few weeks now and we’ve been hearing from Jesus’ bread of life sermon. Two weeks ago, we heard that Jesus himself is the bread of life and that anyone who comes to him in faith will have eternal life. Last week we heard Jesus continue down this path: “Whoever eats me will live because of me,” he said. And we explored how Jesus comes to us and gives himself to us as food in the Eucharist.

This week we come to the end of John chapter six and what do we learn? That following Jesus is difficult. His teaching is hard to accept because it challenges our assumptions. And we learn that many disciples—not outsiders but disciples—turn away from Jesus because of this. This is surprising to us. We know that people are attracted to Jesus in the gospel, but people are also repelled by him as well.

To be a follower of Jesus Christ then is to choose him above else. Not choose once and be done with it. But choose each day, each moment even. Not choose only when it is convenient for you, when what he says is pleasing to your ears. But choose when it is difficult, demanding even. “Choose this day whom you will serve.”

The temptation for God’s people to turn away from him and follow lesser gods is, of course, not a new story. Indeed, it is echoed in our first reading from the book of Joshua this morning. Joshua, if you recall, assumed leadership over Israel after the death of Moses. Moses brought Israel out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, through the wilderness, and right up the promised land but died before entering. The mantle then fell to Joshua to lead God’s people into the land of promise, which he did.

Now in the land, Israel must choose. Either, “revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness,” or return to, “the gods your ancestors served.” A decision lies before them: “Choose this day whom you will serve.”

One Biblical commentator says that this story in the twenty-fourth chapter of Joshua is “atemporal.” Meaning, it speaks to every person at every time in every place. The call to, “choose this day whom you will serve,” is a call to the people of God, wherever and whenever they find themselves, to examine themselves and see if they are indeed living up to their identity as God’s people. In other words, those words are addressed to you and I: “Choose this day whom you will serve.”

In our gospel reading Jesus likewise challenges his own disciples. They have just heard Jesus’ teaching about himself, that he is the bread of life come down from heaven, made food for all, and that whoever trusts in him—but only those who trust in him—will inherit eternal life and be raised up on the last day. And how do his disciples respond? “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” they say, and they complained among themselves. A little later on in the same passage John tells us that because of Jesus’ teaching, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” These are not outsiders that are falling away on account of Jesus’ teaching but his own disciples. Sobering words to be sure.

How is Jesus’ teaching difficult? The Anglican New Testament Scholar and Bishop N.T. Wright believes that the teaching of Jesus makes a huge hole in our world-view, and when that happens some people prefer not to think about it anymore.[1] Jesus calls each of us to come to him but when we do we inevitably discover that his words tear down a lot of the assumptions we have about the world and ourselves, and about God, and instead offers us a new way of seeing and understanding. “You do not have to come,” he says. “You can stay where you are with everything arranged to your liking, but if you or anyone at all hungers for more they can come to me. I can show you a better, truer, more beautiful way. But if you come, there are some things you are going to have to leave behind.” When Jesus challenges you, how do you respond? “Choose this day whom you will serve.”

In light of this new reality that Jesus opens up those who want to follow him must choose a way of life that not everyone is willing to embrace, a way of life that in fact no one can embrace except as they are enabled to by the grace of God. It is a way of prayer and fasting, of self-discipline and restraint, of sacrificial love and obedience. In a word, it is the way of the Cross. Followers of Jesus are invited to choose this way not only willingly but with joy.

What regulates your life and gives it it’s shape? Is it the Cross of Christ?  Do you embrace it with joy knowing that it is not an intolerably harsh burden but rather the way of eternal life? Do you embrace it even when it cuts against the grain of worldly wisdom? “Choose this day whom you will serve.”

There is a scene in the 1999 film ‘Dogma’ where, as part of a campaign to renew the image of and interest in the Catholic Church, Cardinal Glick—played by George Carlin—does away with the “wholly depressing” image of the crucifix in favour of a more uplifting image of Jesus—Buddy Christ. Buddy Christ is an image of Jesus, smiling and winking while pointing at passers-by with one hand and giving them a thumbs-up with the other. It is the image of a Christ who is very unlikely to cause offence or challenge us. It is the image of a Christ who fits nicely into our life as we have arranged it, over there on the shelf. But it is not the Christ of the gospel who confronts us with the message of God’s faithfulness and love and invites a decision. “Choose this day whom you will serve.”

Seeing many of his disciples falling away on account of his teaching Jesus turns to the twelve and asks, “Do you also wish to go away?” “Lord, to whom can we go?” responds Peter. “You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Will Peter and the others also fall away from Jesus on account of his teaching? Peter knows there is only really one choice. He knows who Jesus Christ is. He knows the power of his words. He knows that Jesus is the one who has come to bring God to earth so that human creatures might live. Knowing this Jesus where else can he go? Peter’s decision to remain with Jesus is predicated on who Jesus is and what Jesus has done. How can Peter not choose Jesus when Jesus has already chosen Peter?

The very same thing is at work at the end of the book of Joshua as well. It is only after Joshua gathers Israel together and recounts God’s steadfast love towards them over time that Israel is called upon to “choose this day whom you will serve.” They are already God’s people. God has already acted for them in their favour. God has already chosen them and demonstrated his faithfulness to them. How then could they not choose to revere and serve him in faithfulness?

Jesus, like Joshua, has come to remind us of God’s great love for each of us. Only then can God’s people respond in faith. And both Joshua and Jesus courageously lead the way. “But as for me and my household,” says Joshua, “we will serve the Lord.” Likewise Jesus leads us in the way of faithfulness. He takes on human flesh, becoming a man, and lives in total loving obedience to the will of the Father. And in baptism he makes us members of his household. Will we remain with him? Will we follow him in faithfulness and love? “Choose this day whom you will serve.”

And if this day we should choose to serve Jesus Christ let us be ready for all manner of spiritual attacks that will come. Because the spiritual forces of evil that oppose God will take note. That is why Saint Paul councils us to put on the armor of God, “so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” The people of Israel along with Joshua decided to serve the Lord but within one generation of Joshua Israel was caught up with the old gods again. And if you are anything like me then you know the history of your own unfaithfulness as well. The devil is your enemy and he is against you but God is for you. Over and against our history of unfaithfulness stands God’s history of faithfulness to us in Jesus Christ. God has chosen to be faithful to you therefore you can choose to be faithful to God today. “Choose this day whom you will serve…but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

 

Endnotes:
[1] N.T. Wright, John for Everyone, 89.