Feast Day: Advent I
Readings: Mark 13:24-37; Isaiah 64:1-9

“And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” (Mark 13:37)

Well today is the first Sunday of Advent. You can walk into just about any store and find that they are in Christmas mode. It’s the one month when Mariah Carey and Michael Bublé get more airtime than they do in the eleven other months combined. And if you’re like our family, regrettably, you may even have your Christmas decorations up at home already.

But this is Advent. You’re not going to get Advent in the shops but hopefully we can have Advent in our homes and churches. Because Advent is really important. Christmas is all about fulfillment, the promise of God to be with his people fulfilled in the flesh of that newborn babe. The wrapping paper on the presents under the tree finally torn open so that we can possess what we have been given.

That’s Christmas. But this is Advent. Advent is about promise not fulfillment. It’s not about ripping the paper off the gift but about the promise that one day a gift will be given. And so Advent, fittingly, is a season of expectation and anticipation for what is coming. Indeed, the word “Advent” means coming.

“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.”

Jesus Christ is coming again in glory to judge the world. Now, granted, that may sound strange. Certainly it is difficult to get our heads around just what that might look like. But we needn’t worry about the particularities we simply need concern ourselves with the fact of the matter that he is indeed coming.

It’s a central claim of the gospel. We prayed it together moments ago in the Collect of the Day: “…that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the quick and the dead…” We confess it weekly in the Creed: “And he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead.” And it forms our Eucharistic sensibilities as well, as we pray in the Great Thanksgiving: “…we thy humble servants, with all thy holy Church, remembering the precious death of thy beloved Son, his mighty resurrection, and glorious ascension, and looking for his coming again in glory…” And, as should always be the case, this faith is based on the words of Holy Scripture. Remember at the beginning of The Acts of The Apostles when Jesus Christ ascends into heaven leaving the disciples with strained necks, to which the angelic messengers responded, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven,” (1:11).

Jesus Christ is coming again in glory to judge the world, and the Church believes this. As such we are an Advent people. He will come and decisively appear and decisively act and decisively gather His people unto Himself. Holy Scripture has different names for this day: the Day of the Lord, the Last Day, the eschaton. So, when you find yourself crying out along with the prophet Isaiah, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” (64:1) know that He will do so.

The Church lives and exists in the time between Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension and his coming again. We live in that space. We are a people who know Jesus primarily as the One who is coming to us. Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord. Jesus Christ is coming again in glory to judge the world. This is certain. But there is more, we have no idea when.

“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Nothing you or I or anyone can do can hasten that day or delay that day. That day will spring up suddenly and unexpectedly like a thief in the night (1 Thessalonians 5:2). That day is conditioned by nothing other than the sovereign decision of the Father in heaven. He alone knows. He alone will act and send His Son.

Jesus Christ is coming again in glory to judge the world, and we do not know when. This is the witness of Holy Scripture and of the Church. So, while that day will come about suddenly and unexpectedly it will not come as a surprise. Because we know the Scriptures and we know that God’s word to us in Jesus Christ is faithful and true.

So then, because we know this, because Jesus Christ has said he is coming again suddenly and unexpectedly our life as Christians ought to be characterized by what? Vigilance. Look at how many times in those few verses in Mark Jesus councils his followers to be vigilant: “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come,” (13:32-33). “It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly,” (13:34-36). “And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake,” (13:37).

Jesus Christ is coming again. We do not know when. Therefore, keep awake. Watch. Be vigilant. Be alert. Be sober-minded. Be ready. Be expectant. I want you to really catch this. Here we are on the first day of the Christian year, the First Sunday in Advent, and what is the command? Keep awake! Some of you may have been drifting for a while now. Perhaps you’re getting a little bit drowsy and slowly drifting off to sleep. I want you to hear the words of Jesus Christ to you this morning: Keep awake.

Now there are lots of different examples I could give about what this vigilance looks like on the ground in realtime but I’m going to pick just one: confessing your sin. This is a good example because maybe at some point in your life, like me, you have thought that you have the time to play around with sin. Maybe that’s you now. But if the sort of vigilance that Jesus calls us to is going to characterize your own life then you need to be done with that. You cannot mess around with sin thinking that you have the time and can turn it around later on.

So then, when we confess our sin—when we acknowledge that we have sinned against God and feel sorrow for our sins—we are practicing the sort of vigilance, the sort of awakeness, that Jesus wants us to practice as we await his coming. Now, it is true that the General Confession is a part of our liturgy and we say it together every time we gather. However, you and I are not general sinners. You and I are particular sinners and so, from time to time, it is desirable that we might confess our particular sins particularly.

Every single Thursday/Wednesday for the next three weeks this church will be open from 2:00pm-4:00pm for Confession. If that time does not work for you please speak to me and we can make an appointment for some other time. Now the general wisdom in Anglicanism when it comes to the Sacrament of Reconciliation—where you confess your particular sins to a priest and receive absolution—is that all may, none must, but some should. This Advent I am inviting you to practice vigilance by naming your particular sins particularly and to know the joy of forgiveness. All may avail themselves of this sacrament of great joy and indeed some should.

If this sounds difficult or overwhelming to you know that you need not rely on your own strength to practice this sort of vigilance. As St. Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth: “[God] will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ,” (1 Cor. 1:8). Christ Jesus himself equips us to practice the sort of vigilance that he has called us to.

In your bulletin you will find a pamphlet that I put together with more information about this. Please read it. In it I walk you through the very brief liturgy so that you know what to expect. And if you feel the Lord calling you to confess your sins in this way then pay special attention to the section entitled “Preparing for Confession.”

This Advent, let us prepare our hearts and minds for Jesus Christ who is coming again as judge. “And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” Amen.

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Feast Day: The Reign of Christ (A)
Readings: Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

I’m going to begin this morning’s sermon with an exercise that may make the introverts among us very uncomfortable—I want you to turn and talk with one of your neighbours, beside, in front, or behind you. I’m going to give you about 30 seconds and in that time I want you both—you have about 15 seconds each—to attempt to explain the gospel to one another in as concise a way as possible. This is the elevator pitch, if you will. And at the end, depending on how you have done, we will separate the sheep from the goats and well you know what happens from there. Alright, ready? Go.

Now, how was that? Raise your hand if you had some difficulty with that exercise. I suppose there are a few ways you could have gone about it and if you had something to say about the cross and the forgiveness of sin well then you’re off to a very good start. Yet, as central as the cross and forgiveness of sin is to the gospel I want to suggest this morning that the gospel is even bigger than that. I want to suggest that the gospel is ultimately about the authority of Jesus Christ over all things, seen and unseen.

The early Christians had a way of summing up the gospel in just three words: Jesus is Lord. Jesus. Is. Lord. That is a good shorthand for the gospel but what does it mean? The Apostle Paul, in our reading from Ephesians (and one of my own favourite passages in the Epistles), puts it in a remarkable way. Close your eyes for a moment and really listen to these words.

“God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all,” (1:20-23).

The gospel, the good news, is that Jesus is Lord. To say this is to say that Jesus Christ is risen and living and at this very moment has authority over every square inch of the universe, you and I as well.

We live on one planet that is part of one solar system that rotates around one star in one galaxy in the known universe. In our galaxy alone it is estimated that in addition to our own sun there are 100-400 billion other stars. Moreover, it is estimated that the observable universe contains 200 billion to 2 trillion galaxies. We think that the observable universe is approximately 90.68 billion light-years across. Now if the speed of light is 299,792,458 m/s then in order to travel across the known universe it would take you approximately…and that is where I say a number that just makes your brain melt and your central nervous system shut-down. And that’s just the part of the universe that we think we know.

Your body is composed of roughly 37.2 trillion cells. Give or take a few trillion. Each cell contains molecules that are made up of even smaller components called atoms. There are approximately 100 trillion atoms in a human cell. So, to re-cap, that’s 37.2 trillion cells each of which is composed of roughly 100 trillion atoms. Again, give or take. I’m a theologian not a micro-biologist. But you’ll remember from high school that atoms are made up of even smaller particles, electrons, protons, and neutrons. And protons and neutrons are made up of particles called hadrons which themselves are made up of quarks.

Here’s the point. There is no square-inch of the universe, no star burning somewhere at the edge of a galaxy that we do not even know exists yet, no square-inch of you, no single cell, no subatomic particle known or unknown to man, over which Jesus Christ does not rule as Lord. To sum it up using Paul’s words from Ephesians: “And he has put all things under his feet.” All things.

Paul wants his hearers to come to know the truth of this gospel more fully. “I pray,” he says, “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.”

Let me just summarize by saying that Paul wants this young Christian community to know more deeply the hope that is theirs in Christ, the hope that comes from being called into relationship with the God who made them. And, moreover, he wants them to know the “immeasurable greatness” of the power of God that is available to those who believe.

That’s a really important point and I want you to know it as well. The very same power that raised Jesus Christ from the dead and seated him above all other powers is available to you. It is the power of the Holy Spirit at work in you even now. And that divine power is not like human power except greater. It is of an entirely different category altogether. Human power cannot raise the dead. But God’s power, God’s power raised Jesus Christ from the dead and raised you up with him in baptism, dwells in you presently and will give you all that you need, all that we need, to grow in Christian maturity.

This is my prayer for us here at St. Paul’s/John’s as well. I want us to be a church that is growing, always growing, in our knowledge and love of Christ. I doesn’t matter how long you’ve been going to church, you are never finished growing. If you think you have arrived, if you think you have exhausted all that there is to know about God, if you think that you’ve grown as much as you can in your faith let me tell you that you are only just beginning. The Holy Spirit wants to continually enlighten your heart and mind with the light that you received in baptism and lead you even deeper into the love of Christ Jesus that can never be exhausted. He is not finished with you yet.

So, the Apostle Paul might say something like, growing in Christian maturity begins with the knowledge that Jesus Christ has been exalted as Lord over all but that Christian growth continues as we willingly and joyfully submit ourselves to Christ and appropriate this power for ourselves.

I recently heard one preacher say that Jesus makes a really bad accessory. He’s not good at being an addition to whatever else it is you’ve got going on. Like, here’s the career part of my life, and here’s my relationship part, and here’s my retirement part, and here’s my God part. God is not good with that. He doesn’t play nice being relegated to Sunday morning. See, the problem is that he wants it all.

“But Father Jonathan I just don’t know that I like the sound of that. It sounds a little extreme.” Well, in the immortal words of Bob Dylan, you gotta serve somebody. There is no un-ruled life. Everybody submits to something, some idea, some guiding philosophy or worldview. In our time and place we generally submit to the tyranny of self. To relinquish control of our life to Christ is the duty of Christians, yes, but it is a joy to know that the one who has all things under his control and authority holds your life in those same loving hands. Behold Christ, his love and goodness and beauty. Why wouldn’t you trust him over everything else?

And this isn’t just for our benefit. It is for the sake of Christ’s mission to reconcile all things to God. A little later in the same letter Paul will say that the grace and power of God has been given to Christians, “so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places,” (3:10).

In other words, God gives us the Holy Spirit so that the Church can be a visible sign in the world of the joy and freedom of a life that lovingly obeys Jesus Christ. To be a visible sign of a community in which everyone matters and is named, including the weakest. You are not an insignificant gathering of people. You have been brought into relationship with the exalted Christ and he has given you a share in his power to live by a new set of rules, governed by the grace and mercy of God, so that our neighbours might know his great love.

So, this Advent I am inviting you to go deeper, to grow in your knowledge and love of Christ. In addition to Sunday we will gather right here at St. Paul’s/John’s on Thursdays/Wednesdays for a noon mass. I encourage you to make this simple and short (30 minute) service a part of your lunch break. Then from 2:00pm-4:00pm the church will be open for Confession. I will have information about this available next week and if you have any questions please ask. Finally, at 7:30pm we will say Evening Prayer together after which the church will remain open for an hour for prayer and stillness.

And may the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him more fully. Amen.

Feast Day: All Saints’ Day (A)
Readings: Revelation 7:9-17; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12

“Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

Today we celebrate the feast of All Saints’ Day. This is an important feast especially for us modern Western Christians. Our temptation is to be good materialists. That is, to live as if the material world is all that there is. But on a feast day like today, even if just for a moment, the veil is pulled back and we are granted a view into the throne room of God in heaven. And we are reminded that the Church on earth and the saints who are in heaven have been “knit together…in one communion and fellowship.” Moreover, we are reminded that this vision of the happiness of the saints with God is the goal for us as well and that in order to get there we must follow in their footsteps of godly living and virtue.

In our reading from Revelation this morning we with St. John are granted spiritual insight, a view into heaven. And what do we see? “A great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” Just as in the gospels crowds of common people gathered excitedly around Jesus so too in heaven the innumerable sea of saints find their centre in Christ, the Lamb of God.

And what are they doing, this crowd that cannot be counted? They are crying out in a loud voice, all their distinct voices now joined into one chorus of insatiable praise: “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

There is more. Joining in with the saints are all the angels and heavenly creatures who fall on their faces and lend their voices also: “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” This is undoubtedly a scene of festive joy. These are those who have entered into the unspeakable joy of the Lord.

Here’s the thing, St. John wants us to know that this is happening right now. If somehow the Lord could pull back the veil that separates heaven and earth, this is what you would see. And if you could be granted a momentary glimpse into the never ending adoration of Christ that is happening in the throne-room of heaven at this very moment, I guarantee that you would be changed forever. Everything would suddenly fall into place and things that matter very much to you now would fade in the light of this incomparable joy.

Actually, we do get a glimpse of this every time we come to church. When we participate in the liturgy we are participating in this very heavenly chorus. Take for example, the Sanctus which we sing each week: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts, Heaven and earth are full of thy glory.” The Bible tells us that this is precisely the unbroken song of praise that the saints and heavenly creatures sing (Isaiah 6:3; Revelation 4:8). And our own liturgy instructs us: “Therefore with Angels and Archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious Name.”

When we pray, and read Scripture, and sing, and break bread, we are not just a small group of believers gathered together in a church north of Barrie. When we do this we ourselves are caught up into the throne-room of God Almighty. When we do this our voices are taken up into the unbroken chorus of praise that is offered to the Lamb by that uncountable number of saints, surrounded by every single angel that ever was. With angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven! Whenever we gather for worship there is God’s will being done “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Who are these saints in John’s vision anyways?And where did they come from? “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal/tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb,” (7:14).

The saints in heaven, who forever sing God’s praise, are those who have endured the great tribulation. Whatever else that might mean it means at least this: the blessedness of the Christian life does not preclude suffering. In fact, to be a Christian is to suffer with Christ. We cannot enter into his joy apart from entering into his suffering. And yet Christ’s suffering transforms our own suffering. His suffering was the beginning of a new creation. He died that we might live. So to suffer with Christ is to live with Christ, to rejoice with Christ over the power of sin and death.

That our life is hidden in Christ’s death is one of the great paradoxes of the faith but it is a truth that the lives of the saints attest to. Take St. Ignatius of Antioch for example. Ignatius was a first century bishop of Antioch. En route to Rome as a prisoner, where he would meet his martyrdom by being fed to lions, he wrote a series of letters to the Christian Church in Rome. In one of those letters he begs the Christians in Rome not to interfere and try to save him from his impending death. “My birth pangs are at hand,” he writes. “Bear with me, my brothers. Do not hinder me from living: do not wish for my death…Allow me to receive the pure light; when I arrive there I shall be a real man.”

What paradox! For St. Ignatius, to suffer and die for Christ is to live. To suffer with Christ in this way is to be made “a real man.” Even in the face of death he senses birth pangs, new life. Now I have no interest in holding martyrdom up as an ideal nor do I think that the only way to be a saint is to literally lose your life for Christ.

However, there is a way in which each and every Christian suffers and dies with Christ in order to be made “a real man.” I’m talking about the sacrament of holy baptism wherein we are washed and made clean by the blood of the Lamb. That is to say, in baptism human creatures are made clean by the Cross and brought from death into life, sin into righteousness in and with and through Christ.

In baptism you are made a saint. Now, if you truly know yourself you might think otherwise. Can I really be called a saint? Even I? Well, listen to the words of St. John in the epistle that was read this morning: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are,” (1 John 3:1). If you are baptized then you have objectively been made a child of God. And as such you have been invited to enter into the fullness of joy that is yours in Christ. And as such you are one with the saints, you are a saint indeed.

The task for us now is to persevere. To endure. To walk in the way of blessedness that we might enter into the eternal blessedness of our Lord. To receive that crown of glory that fadeth not away. Because here’s the thing, everything else in your life is fading away, even now. In the end nothing will last except for the love that you have for Christ and for one another. That alone will last. Not your career, not your reputation, not your net-worth, not your family name. Your love of Christ and of one another, that will last. That will never fade away.

And therein lies the catch of Christian endurance. The secret to persevering with the saints and entering into the joy of the Lord fully and finally. The only way to follow the saints in godly living is to fall deeper in love with Christ Jesus. Only those who have tasted the joy of the Lord can withstand the trials and tribulations that will come their way.

If you are here because you really love the music, or the preaching (hopefully you don’t mind the preaching), or because you really love the community, let me say that you are most welcome here and I sincerely hope you continue to come but let me say that that is not enough. Because when push comes to shove, when the rubber meets the road, when your faith is really put to the test and adversity and trouble come your way on account of Christ, no love of music, or preaching, or community will sustain you. You will stand or fall on the basis of your love for Christ Jesus, the Lamb upon the Throne. If you adore Christ, if his beauty and goodness and love is what feeds and sustains you then there is nothing that you cannot endure for his sake.

So let me finish by asking: have you yourself tasted and seen the goodness of the Lord? Do you know the joy of being one of Christ’s beloved? Has your faith become stale? Cold perhaps? Today, may the witness of the saints in heaven reignite your own love of Christ. May you look up with St. John and be granted a glimpse of that heavenly chorus to which we join our voices even now. And may the joy of that scene, the joy of the Lamb, flood your heart and mind and enable you to follow in the footsteps of the saints and come to those unspeakable joys that God has prepared for those who love him. Amen.

Feast Day: Reformation Sunday
Readings: Isaiah 35; Psalm 85

“Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us,” (85:4).

Today we commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. On October 31st, 1517 a Roman Catholic monk by the name of Martin Luther wrote a list of ninety-five theses and nailed it to the Cathedral door in Wittenberg where he was professor of moral theology. He had hoped to provoke debate about corruption in the Church which he did and it spread throughout Europe like wildfire. Archbishop Justin Welby called it “the viral content of its day.”[1] Within two decades the Reformation rent Europe in two between Protestants and Catholics.

Anglicans are those who are indebted to the Reformation and yet committed to a Catholic vision of the Church. As heirs of the Reformation we give thanks for the emphatic proclamation that it is Christ alone who heals our sinful hearts. Christ alone who brings us home to God. Christ alone. Yet in our commitment to the Church Catholic we ought to lament the fragmentation of the church and commit ourselves to pursing unity wherever possible.

The words of the prophet Isaiah which we heard proclaimed this morning help us, I believe, to honestly assess our present reality and see our way through to the promise of God into which live by hope.

First of all it is important to provide a bit of context. The prophet Isaiah lived in the 8th Century BC during what is considered to be one of the most tumultuous times in Israelite history.[2] Israel herself was a nation cut to the heart by division with a number of tribes combining to form the northern kingdom of Israel and the remaining tribes left to form the southern kingdom of Judah. One people, divided.

In the mid-8th century BC the northern tribes were besieged and carried off by the Assyrians. By the turn of the century the southern tribes had met much the same fate at the hands of the Assyrian king Sennacherib, leaving the kingdom of Judah—home to Jerusalem/Zion—ravaged.

It is into this context—one of a people divided and torn asunder by strife and foreign powers—that Isaiah speaks the word of the Lord. The passage that we heard read signals a note of hope. Despite the fact that Israel is at present cut to the heart by division and under God’s judgement it remains true that God is using all of this, their stubbornness and all of the calamity that has befallen them, to refine them and bring them into a future that he has not only promised but is preparing.

The whole passage speaks of Israels return from captivity to Zion, to that great city where they will be at home with their God. Yet it is held up as a promise, as a reality that they are not currently experiencing but towards which they are being brought: “They shall see the glory of the Lord.” “He will come and save you.” “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened.” “A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way.” “And the ransomed of the Lord shall return.” All of this shall be but is not now. For now it is a promise. A promise that Israel is to cling to and not forget.

Israel’s present is like a parched desert in which nothing much can grow. But when the Lord their God comes to bring them home then that arid and dull land will burst forth with life and beauty: “Like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly.”

Another figure of God’s promise to Israel is that of a disordered body being made whole again. Weak hands and feeble knees will be strengthened and made firm. Fearful hearts are made courageous and at peace. Blind eyes and deaf ears will be opened. The speechless tongue will sing for joy. The lame shall leap like a deer (35:3-6a).

It is no accident that one of the primary figures the Apostle Paul uses for the Church is that of a body and indeed we are Christ’s Body. And yet at present this body, like Israel in Isaiah’s time, is disordered, out of whack, disfigured, bearing the scars of our division.

Archbishop Justin Welby wrote a piece for a British newspaper last week in which he recalled being at a service of Holy Communion in the Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral. Knowing that Anglicans and Roman Catholics are unable to receive communion together when Archbishop Welby went forward at the time of communion he knelt down to be prayed for by Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster. Recalling what happened next the Welby wrote: “He took my hand and lifted me to my feet. Both of us had tears in our eyes. We are the closest of friends, and being reminded of the divisions in the global Church pains us both very deeply.”[3]

Here is the point: the wounds of our division obscure our witness to the world. Recently a faithful Roman Catholic woman visited St. John’s on a week when we used the liturgy for Holy Communion from the Book of Common Prayer. After the liturgy had ended she made a comment about how familiar it all felt. “Why are we divided?” she wondered. If this is what people of faith wonder we can only imagine the ways in which our division trips up those who are not yet believers. In this way our division is literally a scandal to the gospel.

Yet the wounds of our division cut deeper still. If you know your Church history you know that ecclesial division has very often led to brutal violence and murder. A Professor and mentor of mine from seminary wrote a book a few years ago about Church division which was initially titled Division is Murder. Murder in the sense that we kill one another but even more-so in the sense that division tears apart the one Body of Christ. The title of his book was later changed by the editors to A Brutal Unity, indicating that the way to unity, the overcoming and healing of our division is a costly enterprise. It comes at the cost of Christ’s own life.

“A highway shall be there,” proclaimed Isaiah, “and it shall be called the Holy Way.” “And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing.” This is true for the Church as well. At present we are divided and this division is a scandal. Yet Christ is bringing us home, calling us into a future in which the wounds of our division are healed and we are made one. And that highway, the Holy Way, upon which we the broken and divided Body of Christ travel is the broken body of Christ himself, once offered upon the cross and now in this Eucharist. As Isaiah writes elsewhere: “he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed,” (53:5).

We cannot heal the wounds of our division, that alone Christ can do and he begins to do so as he heals our sinful hearts. This is the great emphasis of the Reformation. That our salvation is bound up in Christ alone and our trust in him. Yet in the Gospel According to St. John Christ himself prays prays for his followers saying: “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one,” (John 17:11). We like Jesus to answer our prayers but I want to end with a petition that we be a church that strives to answer his prayer, that we be one.

I believe that one of the gifts of Anglicanism is to help us to see how we can be heirs of the Reformation in a way that conforms to a Catholic vision of the Church. So let me end with a few modest proposals.

First, and chiefly, submit yourself to the Word of God in every area of your life. Let the Bible stand at the centre of your life and feast upon it daily. Plumb the depths of Scripture which can never be exhausted and approach it with the faith that the living and risen Jesus is waiting there to meet and address you.

Second, submit yourself to the Sacraments. Approach the Eucharist with the faith that Christ gives himself to you in the form of bread and wine. Trust that God really gives you a share in his life and love in these seemingly ordinary things.

Third, as you do this, submit yourself to Christ’s judgement. For the Christian, every day is judgement day. Let the light of his word and his presence shine into the recesses of your heart and mind and let him purify any dark way that is in you. Let his love heal your sinful heart.

Forth, study the faith. Be not content simply to have faith but seek understanding as well. Read broadly. Pick up something by Irenaeus, Chrysostom, Augustine or any of the Church Fathers. Read something by the contemporary Eastern Orthodox theologian John Behr or by Pope Benedict XVI. Heck read some Calvin while you’re at it and some Richard Hooker too.

Fifth, bear with one another in love. Recognize that the baptismal bond we share makes us brothers and sisters and this should make us slow to sow dissension. Also, be quick to reconcile with one another. Do not withhold from others the mercy Christ has given you.

Finally, pray for unity. Really pray. Pray for other churches. Pray for persecuted Christians. Pray that Christ would give us the will and ability to do all we can to work for the unity of the Church.

May the words of the Psalmist be ever on our lips: “Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us,” (85:4). Amen.

Endnotes
[1] Justin Welby, www.standard.co.uk/comment/comment/justin-welby-luther-s-historic-act-did-so-much-to-shape-the-world-we-live-in-a3669686.html
[2] Old Testament Survey, 279.
[3] Welby.

Feast Day: Pentecost 20
Readings: Matthew 22:15-22

“Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21)

Perhaps the most important part of our gospel reading this morning is not what Jesus says but rather what he does not say. “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” We know what belongs to Caesar but what belongs to God? What are we to render unto God?

Our reading this morning asks to be understood in light of what has just come before in Matthew’s account of the gospel: “Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.” Then. Their attempt to ensnare Jesus, to back him into a corner and force him to indict himself, comes on the heels of that reading we heard last week. The parable about the wedding banquet. The story Jesus tells to highlight the incomprehensible mystery of God’s grace and his desire to have the company of each and every human creature. The Pharisees—the religious leaders—had just heard this and what is their response? They conspire against him. That is, they embody those who were invited to the feast but who shrug it off as if it were of no interest to them. Not only that but they even plan to do-in the Son himself.

And so that Pharisees send their own disciples to him, along with the Herodians. The Herodians and the Pharisees were unlike in many ways except they were united in their opposition to Jesus. Here it is the Pharisees and Herodians plotting against Jesus but in a few chapters on the morning after his arrest just before he is taken to stand before Pontius Pilate Matthew writes that, “all the chief priests and the elders of the people conferred together against Jesus in order to bring about his death,” (27:1).

In the gospels, opposition to Christ begins as a small seed planted in the hearts of some religious leaders but by the end it has grown into a full-fledged resistance. It is the crowd, that mass of humanity aligned in opposition to Christ, that cry out, “crucify him!” (27:23). And during the tumult of Holy Week we find that even we ourselves are caught up with the crowd.

So they go to try and catch Jesus up in his own words and after buttering him up a little bit they hit him with it: “Tell us, then, what do you think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” They’ve got him now. The matter of Jews paying taxes to Caesar was one of the hot topics of the day. How Jesus responds matters greatly.

If Jesus says “yes” then it appears as if he is colluding and collaborating with the enemy which would anger those Jews who sought liberation from Rome’s oppression. On the other hand, if Jesus says “no” then it looks like he himself is signing up to be the next in a line of renegades that would take up the case of Israel’s liberation with the sword and lead a violent rebellion against Rome.

The books of I and II Maccabees tell the story of Judas Maccabeus whose revolt against the civil authorities when Jesus himself would have been a boy was mercilessly crushed and left bodies hung up on crosses along the roadside. For the Pharisees it did not matter whether Jesus answered “yes” or “no” for either answer would have accomplished the goal of alienating Jesus from the people.

In every age the Church faces similar temptations to the hot topics of the day. Lean too far in one direction and we are in danger of capitulating to the culture altogether. Lean too far in the other direction and we are in danger of forming a holy huddle, forgetting that we are called to love the world that Christ has made and to work for it’s flourishing. Yet Christ calls us each in our own time to walk that narrow path between both of these ditches. The narrow path of being a distinctive people that have been set apart, with our own strange practices and languages that nourish our faith in Christ, while at the same time working for the good of the world that Christ loves and gave himself for and inviting others to find their life in following him.

A contemporary example might be the matter of human sexuality which if you pay attention to Anglican insider-baseball you know is a live debate in the global Anglican Communion as well as here at home in the Canadian church. This week a new website was making the rounds in my social media circles. It’s a website that literally scores churches on whether or not they are LGBTQ affirming and how clearly their website communicates this. “We believe,” states the website, “that ambiguity is harmful.”

I imagine that there are those of us who would like to get Jesus on record with that question. “Tell us, Jesus, what do you think? Should the church be affirming of the LGBTQ community or not? Yes or no?” And I imagine that Jesus would have a way of turning the question back on us to both challenge our unspoken motives while calling us deeper into our commitment to him and him alone. Because the way of Jesus does not line up all that well with any particular party or worldview. You cannot hijack Jesus to serve your own ends, try as we might. And when we do Jesus simply calls us deeper, calls us to set aside our political maneuvering and rest in him alone.

As we heard Jesus settles the debate by pointing out the fact that the Roman currency used to pay the tax had the likeness of Caesar imprinted upon it. In essence what he says is, “This is the property of Caesar so go on and give it back.”

Christians have commented here on the relationship between the Church and the State and on the Christian duty to the State, within reason. In Jesus’ words here he both dignifies and limits the State. Limits, because sometimes the State is hungry for more. Sometimes the State wants everything and the 20th century provides a litany of one murderous dictator after another that over-stepped the boundaries of the State.

Even now we hear concerning rhetoric coming from down south. Talk of, “respecting the flag,” and so on. Suddenly the most powerful man on earth is very concerned with how football players conduct themselves on the sideline and demands total and unflinching allegiance to country. Yet as one New Testament scholar has said, “the State becomes demonic in the measure that it asks for itself, “the things of God,” such as total commitment, unconditional obedience, or uncriticizing allegiance.”[1]

Here we are now back at the question with which we began: What are “the things of God” which we are to render unto him? As noted Jesus leaves that question hanging out there for the Pharisees and more importantly for you and I.

However, by the end of the chapter Jesus will say two things that point us in the right direction: “He is God not of the dead, but of the living,” (22:32) and, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” (22:37). That is to say, God gives life and sustains it only to invite us to offer it back to him in love.

That this scene takes place during Holy Week as Christ is on his way to the cross where he will offer his life unto the Father for the sake of the world only underscores this. And in calling us to follow him you and I are invited to take the same leap into the merciful arms of God, casting aside all else.

Why? Because we belong to God. The Roman denarius may bear the image of Caesar but each and every human creature bears the image of God and those who are in Christ are being transformed into his likeness. It is therefore God and God alone who can claim you as his own. Only God can claim your total allegiance and obligation and he does indeed do so. You are his and he fashioned you that you might learn to render unto him the love that he has given unto you.

In our Tuesday small group study we have been reading Rowan Williams’ book Being Disciples. Along the way we have come face to face with the challenge of following Jesus. If you’re going to be with Jesus the bar is very high. There is no area of your life that he does not claim as his own. He is not interested just in your Sunday morning worship but in you yourself. He wants to invade every square inch of your life with his love and invites you to relinquish control of yourself to him. There is no middle ground. You’re either in or your out.

Needless to say not many of us who gather on Tuesdays feel particularly qualified. And yet those who struggle to give themselves to God will find that he is rich in mercy. As the Lord says to Moses: “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest,” (33:14). They will also find that if they give their life to God he will return it 100-fold in his Son Jesus Christ. Render unto God the things that are God’s. Render unto God your very self. Amen.

 

Endnotes
[1] Frederick Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, 400

Feast Day: Pentecost 19
Readings: Matthew 22:1-14; Philippians 4:1-9

“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.”

The parable that Jesus tells in our gospel reading this morning is a challenging one. And it ought to be. Jesus told parables not to comfort and console but rather to jolt his hearers out of their slumber with startling news. Sometimes that’s what we need. We need the Holy Spirit to grab us by the collar on occasion and give us a good shake so that we stay alert and sober, rather than drifting off to sleep.

This morning Jesus tells a parable about the kingdom of heaven. He wants us to know what life with God is like. So Jesus tells this story about a wedding banquet to highlight the great love and mercy of God and his desire to lavish that love upon his creatures. There is a lot going on in this parable but the king is the real actor. In fact, he’s the one with all of the speaking lines. So it would be fitting for us to focus our attention this morning on the figure of the king.

What does Jesus tell us about the king? Three things: the king invites, the king clothes, and the king judges. Let’s look at each of these briefly this morning.

“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.” Here is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity, and he’s giving us an image of what life with God is like and what does he pick? Is it the image of a hermit hidden away in the woods? Is it the image of a classroom full of students with their noses in the books? No. It’s the party of the century. A royal wedding.

Now, I don’t know what you think life with God is supposed to be like. I don’t know what your parents told you when you were young or what others have since told you about the Christian life. But if you think about following Jesus Christ and the joy of a good party doesn’t come to mind then you’re missing something.

And we Christians are often to blame! A few years back Pope Francis lamented the fact that many Christians leave mass looking as if they were coming from a funeral. May that not be so for us! May we leave here each week, faces aglow with the glory of God as was the case for Moses when he descended the holy mountain.

Alright, now that I’ve got that out of my system let’s move on. So the kingdom of heaven is like a king who throws the party-to-end-all-parties for his son who is getting married. And what does the king do? The king invites.

He sends his servants out to everyone who’d received the save-the-dates months back. But they wouldn’t come. So he sends out his servants again to say what a grand affair it is. Everything is ready! The food is piping hot! Please, come! But still they refused to come. “They made light of it and went away,” Jesus says. In other words, they didn’t give a damn.

Some of the invitees simply went off about their own business. But others seized the king’s messengers and killed them. As a professor of mine once said, “This is not only refusing to attend Mom’s thanksgiving dinner, but going on a senseless rampage when she says to turn off the TV and blowing up the car in the driveway.”[1] Enraged, the king himself sends out the troops to destroy the murderers and torch their city.

A brief comment about the violence in this parable which surely strikes us as irrational. First, some commentators have said that it is exaggerated in order to get our attention. Second, the violence within this parable has to be understood within the context of Jesus’ last days. Matthew has this story told during Holy Week. Jesus is on the way to the cross where he will suffer terribly and unjustly. So this parable anticipates, tragically, the treatment that Jesus will receive from his own people as from the pagan rulers. The great banquet is ready but Jesus knows what is in store for him.

So, those who had received the first round of invites refused to show up. Yet the banquet is still set and the tables still spread and laden with food and drink. A third time then the king sends out messengers: “Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” Previously it was, “Go and call those who have been invited.” Now it’s, “Go and call everyone and anyone at all, whoever you can find.”

The servants hit street and round up every one with a pulse, both bad and good, and in the end the wedding hall was filled with guests. Because the kingdom of God is totally indiscriminate. It doesn’t matter what sort of shape your marriage is in. It doesn’t matter if you’re not married at all and you’re shacked up. It doesn’t matter if your mental health isn’t in top shape. It doesn’t matter if you’re not in top shape. It doesn’t matter if you’re addicted to God-knows-what and it doesn’t matter if you have a past that any decent person would consider questionable. Because God doesn’t give a damn about decency. He loves you and he wants you and he refuses to be God without you and he’ll suffer death to make it happen. Because the joy of the gospel is for everyone.

So, the king invites and what else? The king clothes. Because those of us who have been invited to take their place at the table alongside those who did show up cannot enter into the joy of the feast without a wedding garment. What’s that about and where do we get it?

It’s worth saying that actually Matthew does not tell us and that the wedding garment has been interpreted in various ways. Is it holiness? Is it faith? Is it Christian love? To which I would say, yes. The point is that when Christ calls you to share in his life and joy he himself will renew you by the power of the Holy Spirit. When Christ calls you he clothes you with his love and releases you from the fear and anxiety associated with having to pick out your own outfit. Indeed, he clothes you with himself.

“Put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” says the Apostle Paul (Romans 13:14). And elsewhere, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ,” (Galatians 3:27). And again the passage from Philippians that we heard this morning: “Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any virtue and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you,” (4:8-9).

In other words, when we are baptized Jesus himself gives us a change of clothes and in committing ourselves to love him in return, in setting our minds on him, we enter into that heavenly banquet dressed for the occasion. I like the way one theologian put it: Christ clothes us in his love without measure, that we might absorb his love, understand it, and implement it.[2]

The king invites, the king clothes, and the king judges. In fact, this is a parable of judgement. Just as the Church is constituted by the grace of God’s call so we ought to be sobered by the justice of God’s judgement.[3] But let me ask you, what is the principal judgement in this parable? What’s the judgement in light of which all the other judgements are rightly understood? Is it not the divine invitation with which we began? The invitation is God saying, “I want you at my party.” That’s the principal judgement, that in Jesus Christ every single person—from every street corner and alleyway, bad as well as the good—has been invited to the banquet. This is “a judgement filled with grace, and it never once, through the whole parable, loses its status as such.”[4]

But when this invitation is refused either in distrust, disinterest, or disregard then it simply caves in all around you. It remains grace, however, all the way down. God still wills nothing but the party and he still invites everyone and anyone at all. But if I’d rather sit out in the lobby sulking and complaining about the noise than enter into the warmth and joy of the banquet hall where there is food and drink for all then he’ll simply go and find others who know what a good deal is when they hear it. Notice, however, that no one, absolutely no one finds themselves excluded at the end of the parable that wasn’t invited in the first place. We are judged simply by our acceptance of a party that is already underway and that Christ has paid for at the price of his own death.[6] All that counts in the end is his grace and our trust in it.

You and I are invited to this kind of banquet every single day of our life and even now in this Eucharist. Christ himself has fashioned garments for us and he has spent all he has on this outlandish banquet so that by his love and poverty we may be made rich. Will you join in? Will you say ‘yes’ to the feast? Will you put on the beautiful garment of love that he has made just for you and in your size?[7] In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

Endnotes
[1] Christopher Seitz, http://stmatthewsriverdale.org/01/the-parable-of-the-wedding-feast/
[2] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Light of the World, 135.
[3] Frederick Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, 386.
[4] Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgement, 461.
[6] Ibid 459.
[7] Seitz.

Feast Day: Harvest Thanksgiving (A)
Readings: Deuteronomy 8:7-18; 2 Corinthians 9:6-15; Luke 17:11-19

“You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you.” (Deuteronomy 8:10)

Harvest Thanksgiving is a time when we celebrate and give thanks for the giftedness of life, the abundant goodness of God’s creation, and above all for the love of God in sending his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, to reconcile us to God. “You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you.” Or to use the language of Paul in the Epistle: “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” (2 Cor 9:15).

Thanksgiving, or gratitude, is a virtue that ought to mark the life of God’s people. This was the case for Israel as we heard in our reading from Deuteronomy but it is also the case for us today. How do we become a community that is growing in gratitude to God? Like Israel we remember and we eat.

Remembering and eating cultivate the sort of thankfulness that Christians are called to embody in the world.

In our reading from Deuteronomy Israel has been liberated from slavery in Egypt and we hear something about the home that God is going to give them: “For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper. You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you.” (8:7-10)

There are two things I want us to notice about the land here. First of all, the land is pure gift: “For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land.” Israel is being brought to the land. The promise of land, of a home, is not based on Israel’s good behaviour but rather on the faithfulness of God and their arrival in the land will be God’s own doing.

The second thing for us to notice about the land is just how fruitful and good it is. Everything about it is utterly gratuitous. It is bursting with life and beauty. Listen to how the author of Deuteronomy describes it: “a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up.” The land is dynamic. The waters flow and well up. Furthermore, there is wheat and barley yes, but what else? Fig trees and pomegranates, olive trees and honey, and of course vines for the production of wine. No hum-drum melba toast here. No what we have are all the fixins for a banquet.

And what are the Israelites to do once they arrive in the land? Two things. Eat: “a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing…You shall eat your fill.” All the world is a gift that we are called to take into ourselves and offer back to God in praise and thanksgiving. And remember: “Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God…When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God…Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth.”

Remember, because it is so easy for us to forget. In our day and time we have a certain name for this forgetfulness. We call it being “busy.” “We’d love to get out to church more but you know, we’re just so busy.” “I wish I could pray more but I just don’t have the time.” And please don’t get me started about the activities we commit our children to on a Sunday morning! We’re all just so busy running around the place from point A to point B that we forget. We forget who God is and the great love that he has lavished upon us in Jesus Christ. We’re so busy we hardly even notice the giftedness and beauty of all that he has made. In order to remember we need to slow down and take the time to notice.

Take those leperous beggars St. Luke told us about this morning. They stretched out their hands, crying out to Jesus for mercy and he saw them and sent them away healed. Yet only one of the ten lepers seemed to notice. Only one saw that he had been given a great gift in Jesus Christ. And this leper turned back and praised God “with a loud voice.” He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.

In times of plenty remember. Remember the pit that God has saved you from. Remember how he stooped down to your level and poured the fullness of his life and love into your heart. Remember how he cleaned and bandaged your wounds. Remember how he clothed your shame with this righteousness. Remember how he has led you and protected you on your spiritual journey through the wilderness. Remember his loving provision. Remember that every good thing comes to you from his loving and merciful hand. Remember that you do not live purely by physical sustenance but by the sustenance of the Holy Spirit who upholds you in every moment.

Remember and eat. Eat of Christ’s body in the Eucharist. “Eat your fill and bless the Lord your God.” I began by saying that remembering and eating cultivate the sort of thankfulness that Christians are called to embody in the world. I want to end by suggesting that the Eucharist—Holy Communion—is capable of doing this in a unique way because in the Eucharist we not only remember the loving kindness of God in Christ but we eat of it too: “…and, when he had given thanks, he brake it; and gave it to his disciples, saying, Take, eat: this is my Body which is given for you: Do this in remembrance of me.” It is, therefore, in loving the Eucharist that our lives reap a harvest of thanksgiving unto God. Indeed, the word “Eucharist” itself means “thanksgiving.”

The remembrance that Christians engage in during the Eucharist is not simply the remembering of some distant and past event. It is rather a re-membering, a re-presentation of the sacrifice of Christ once for all on the cross. We are brought into that very moment and stand in awe before Jesus as he gives himself in love for each one of us. In the Eucharist the risen and living Jesus is looking at you.

And we eat. This is my Body. It is not simply a piece of bread that you are eating, it is Christ’s own flesh. When you come to the communion rail and stretch out your hands, as a beggar would, what you receive into your palm or onto your tongue is not simply a scrap of bread to feed your hungry stomach but Jesus himself to feed your hungry soul.

And receiving the very presence of Jesus into your life in the Eucharist you receive forgiveness of your sins and all other benefits of his passion and are filled with the grace and blessing of God the Father. Recall those wonderful words from the Prayer of Humble Access: “Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, So to eat the Flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, And to drink his Blood, That our sinful bodies may be made clean by his Body, And our souls washed through his most precious Blood, And that we may evermore dwell in him, And he in us.” Thanks be to God!

I want us together to cultivate a profound Eucharistic piety. What do I mean by this? I mean that I want us to be growing in our awareness that Jesus himself is really present to us in the Eucharist. That we truly meet him here in a unique way. That if we listen he really speaks. That as we are open to receiving him he really gives himself to us. That we would love the Eucharist and along with the Psalmist we would enter the house of the Lord with great rejoicing and thanksgiving for the opportunity to really be with Jesus.

We can begin to take small steps to cultivate such a love of Christ in the Eucharist even now. For example, whenever we gather for worship let us come with a sense of awareness and expectation; let us still our hearts and minds before the liturgy so that we are prepared to meet with Jesus; let us kneel down in our pews after we have received Communion and listen to what Jesus may have to say to us. During Advent we are going to introduce some practices as a way of trying to cultivate this sort of devotion and love for the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. In the meantime, let us remember God’s abundant love for us in Christ. Let us eat of his body. And let us be thankful. Amen.