Feast Day: Holy Cross Day
Readings: 1 Corinthians 18-24; John 3:13-17

“For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:18)

Today we commemorate Holy Cross Day, the day in which the Church recalls with intention and humility that great symbol at the centre of our faith around which the Holy Spirit is gathering a people—the cross.

Holy Cross. The pairing of these two words is familiar to us. Perhaps even comforting. Certainly, they do not strike many of us as odd. But they should strike us as odd for the cross is a great paradox as the Apostle Paul draws out in that magnificent passage that we heard from from 1 Corinthians moments ago: “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

The word of the cross is foolishness says Paul, scandalous as he puts it a little later. My concern as a pastor is that our familiarity with the cross may mean that it’s scandal and foolishness is lost on us. This morning, on this Holy Cross Day, I want us to try to recapture together a sense of the great paradox of the cross.

The reason why the cross appears as foolishness and a scandal to so many, in our day as well as in Paul’s, has to do with the shame associated with this manner of execution.

Years ago in an effort to try and help another church think upon the great shame of the cross I used a rather crass example, Andres Serrano’s photograph Piss Christ. Piss Christ is a photograph that depicts a small, cheap plastic crucifix submerged in a container of the artists own urine mixed with the blood of a cow. The following Sunday after mass had ended a very gentle and well mannered older woman pulled me aside. She told me that she had been greatly disturbed all week by this image of Christ submerged in such a foul liquid and that she took offense to my referencing it in a sermon. In my mind I pictured myself taking her gently by the hand, looking her directly in the eye and saying, “Precisely. Now go and weep for your sins.”

Of course that is not what I said but she got it. That week where she was unable to get away from the disgust of the image, she began to understand what I want us to understand this morning: the utter shame and degradation of the cross. The humiliation, the condemnation, the abandonment, the casting off as less-than-human of all those who were hung up on the wood of the cross.

In her book The Crucifixion, the Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge devotes an entire chapter to trying to help her readers understand just how shameful a thing it was to be crucified by the Romans. The title of that chapter is ‘The Godlessness of the Cross.’ The Cross is Godless. What does she mean by this?[1]

It is not simply the fact that Jesus died that is the scandal, it is rather the manner in which he died that creates offence.

Crucifixion as a method of execution was never used on Roman citizens. It was, rather, reserved almost exclusively for the scum of humanity. The lowest and vilest of creatures. And the point of crucifixion was to degrade, to rob the crucified person of any last shred of dignity. They were hung up there in public, tortured, stripped of their clothing, and subject to the merciless and diabolical ridicule of passersby. Crucifixion was the means by which human beings were made less-than-human and strung up like beasts. “It was a form of advertisement,” writes Rutledge, “this person is the scum of the earth, not fit to live, more an insect than a human being.”[2] It is this stigma associated with crucifixion that we need to try and imagine if we are to comprehend the offensiveness of worshipping a crucified Christ.

To Jews and Greeks alike crucifixion was just about as low and despised as one could get.  And yet it was precisely into this state that Christ entered, and joyfully so. He subjected himself to the shame and degradation of a crucifixion, he was condemned to the death of a beast, not even of a man. He was rejected and despised, deserted even by his own disciples. A nobody.

The Hebrew Scriptures themselves anticipate the shame of Christ’s crucifixion. The prophet Isaiah wrote, “He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account,” (Isaiah 53:3). Moreover it is written in the book of Deuteronomy, “When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon that tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse,” (Deut 21:22-23). Despised. Rejected. Cursed.

This helps us to understand what Fleming Rutledge was getting at when she spoke of the Godlessness of the cross. The cross is Godless because it is totally counter to what we anticipate religious experience is meant to be like. Who would have ever projected their hopes, wishes, longings, and needs onto a crucified man, let alone a crucified God?[3] Christianity is unique in that it is the only religion to have as it’s centre the degradation of its God.[4]

To be executed in such a shameful way was to be rejected by one’s people and cursed by one’s God. Yet from the beginning Christians have worshipped the crucified Christ. This is why Paul said that Christ crucified is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. A shameful death is not the sort of sign that religious people look for when they look for the presence of God. We are like the Jews in that we desire signs from God. God, show me you are real. God, if you are real then remove this suffering from me. Show us some razzle-dazzle Lord! And yet the good news is not that God comes rushing in to save us with a show of flamboyance and strength. But rather that he takes on our human form in Christ, entering into our captivity to sin, only to become nothing, to be weak and powerless, to be mocked and degraded. That Christ helps us in this way, by virtue of his weakness and suffering, turns our expectation of God on it’s head. Folly! Scandal!

Yet this is precisely what God’s love looks like. As we heard in that towering gospel passage this morning: For God so, what? Loved the world. That he? Gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life, (John 3:16). Christ voluntarily and joyfully gave himself up on the cross to be condemned, enslaved, and made subject to death, entering into the deepest darkness of our human condition, and he did so for us—in our place and on our behalf—so that you and I might be liberated from the power of sin and death. Thanks be to God!

A crucifixion is, as Rutledge puts it, totally unsuitable as an object of faith.[5] And yet not only is it an object of faith, for those who are being saved it is the power of God, writes Paul. The love of Christ poured out on that shameful Cross is powerful and accomplishes much. For by the cross we are brought out of darkness into light, out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life. By his suffering and death, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who put their trust in him. Not the cross plus something else. Just the cross. Whatever it is you are facing at whatever moment the cross is sufficient for your weakness. For “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). And, as we come to the altar rail in a few moments we will eat of the fruit of the tree of the cross, Christ’s own Body and Blood.

It is for this very reason that we must resist the temptation to hide our faces from the cross and to esteem it not.[6] In the same letter that we heard read this morning the Apostle Paul writes that he is willing to set everything else aside except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). My prayer is that we as a church would take the same approach. That the one non-negotiable for us would be the proclamation of Christ crucified. That we would hold on to this more fiercely than we would any of our other beloved traditions, no matter how long “we’ve always done things this way.” If we’re going to be absolutely rigid and uncompromising about anything, let it be the cross. May we be a community that is growing, always growing, in it’s knowledge of and trust in the love of God poured out for us and for the world on that shameful cross. May God grant us the courage to draw nearer to this unimaginable act of God’s love for human creatures. And may we come to know more deeply the wisdom and power of God.


Endnotes:
[1] For these few paragraphs on the shame of the crucifixion I am indebted to the work of Fleming Rutledge. Particularly the second chapter of her book The Crucifixion entitled, ‘The Godlessness of the Cross.’
[2] Rutledge, 92.
[3] Rutledge, 75.
[4] Rutledge, 75.
[5] Rutledge, 75.
[6] Rutledge, 82.

Advertisements

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:25)

Sermon in a sentence: The Christian life is both joyful and demanding because at the centre of it stands the Cross.

If you haven’t figured it out already in the month or so we have been together allow me to state it plainly for you: I believe in the joy of the gospel. Isn’t that what the angel of the Lord proclaimed to the shepherds in the field: “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people,” (2:10). Did not Jesus address his disciples saying, “These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full,” (John 15:11). I believe that the good news of Jesus Christ brings believers to a state of deep and profound joy.

Deep and profound, not passing and superficial. Remember the parable of the sower that Jesus tells in the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel According to St. Matthew? A sower is out sowing seed and it falls on different types of ground. The seed that falls on rocky ground, Jesus said, it sprang up quickly but when the sun rose the heat scorched it and because the soil was not deep enough to sustain roots it withered away. Explaining this parable to his disciples shortly afterwards Jesus said that the seed sown on rocky ground, “is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away,” (13:20-21).

So, there is a superficial joy that we can experience in our Christian life, a joy that has only shallow roots and perishes when trouble comes on account of Christ. Perhaps you know people like this who once had a seemingly vigorous and joyful Christian life and now are nowhere to be found among the faithful. Perhaps, even, this describes your own story. Let us never cease to bring these dear ones before the Lord in prayer trusting that he is able to fan into flame that ember of faith that may still be burning.

But there is another joy, deep and profound as I described it moments ago. And we hear about this joy early in Matthew’s gospel in the Beatitudes where we learn that the blessedness, or happiness, of those who are in Christ is not dependent on the “changes and chances of this fleeting world,” but rather upon the “eternal changelessness” of their Father who art in heaven. Here is a joy that can rejoice in the face of persecution and hardship (5:11-12). Here is a joy that knows the challenge and demands of the way of Christ. Here is a joy at the centre of which stands the Cross.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” The Cross is central to the life of the Christian because it is central to the life of Christ. There can be no knowing Christ apart from the Cross. That’s why Paul and the other Apostles so boldly proclaimed Christ crucified: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified,” (1 Cor 2:2). We cannot talk about the joy of the gospel apart from the agony of the Cross.

Peter after having just confessed, rightly, that Jesus is the “Messiah, the Son of the living God,” tries to get in-between Christ and the Cross. Attempts to convince Jesus that it needn’t be that way, that his suffering and death was avoidable: “God forbid it, Lord!”

How are we to account for Peter’s vehement opposition of the Cross here? Perhaps it is because Peter knows that a dead Messiah is a failed Messiah and he’s sold the farm and thrown his lot in with Jesus. Perhaps it is because he is still on the way with Jesus and he is growing in his faith. After all, none of us have ever fully arrived have we? Perhaps it is because he fears that Jesus’ suffering and death would mean a similar fate for himself and the other disciples. Whatever the case may be Peter is met with what might just be the sternest reproach in all of Scripture: “Get behind me, Satan!” To try and get between Christ and the Cross, to think that we can inherit the joy of the gospel apart from the suffering of the Cross is Satanic.

Nevertheless, Jesus is determined to go to the Cross because he knows that his suffering and death will be the event that brings life—eternal life—to those who trust in him. Attentive readers of Matthew’s gospel know that the Cross has been in view the entire time. Recall the proclamation of the angel Gabriel to Joseph in the first chapter: “She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins,” (1:21).

The Cross was not Plan B. It was, for Christ, absolutely necessary that he would demonstrate the love of God in just this way: “Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain,” wrote the Prophet Isaiah (53:10). And again, “But 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…The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities,” (53:5, 11). Jesus was able to bear the suffering of the Cross joyfully because he knew that by it our sinful hearts would be healed and we would live eternally.

Then our gospel reading shifts, from Christ’s Cross to ours, from his suffering to our suffering with him and because of him: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” I believe it was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who said that when Christ calls a man to follow him he bids him come and die. These are hard words but we must hear them. To follow Christ is a way of life that all should reverence and none should likely undertake. Or as Christ himself says elsewhere, we should consider the cost (Luke 14:28). Because there is one.

But notice that this difficult saying of Jesus is invitational in nature: “If any want to become my followers.” Peter and the other disciples have just discovered the challenge of the gospel—to follow Jesus is to follow him to his suffering and death on the Cross. Having just discovered this Jesus does not demand that they continue on but invites them deeper into his life and love if they will it: “If any want to.” Then, “take up” your cross. Jesus is so merciful. He knows that the way to eternal life is difficult yet he does not force it on anyone. The cross is not imposed, it is always “taken up.” In fact, this was one of the reasons that Jesus condemned the religious leaders of his day: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them,” (Matthew 23:4). Woe to those of us who impose burdens on others that we ourselves are not willing to carry!

Nevertheless, following in the way of Christ is both a joy and a challenge and the message of the Church to the world must never neglect this paradox. Do you want to live a happy and full life? Of course you do—in the depth of our being we all want to feel fully alive. In the second century St. Irenaus’ wrote that, “the glory of God is man fully alive.” The great paradox here, however, is that when Irenaus spoke of man being “fully alive” he was speaking about martyrdom. Do you want to see what a human life set ablaze with the glory of God looks like? Observe those martyrs both known and unknown who threw their life away for the sake of Christ and his kingdom.

Most of us are not in danger of actually losing our lives for Christ but the challenge to us is the same: If you want to follow Jesus arise each day and pick up your cross and get behind him. Give up the attempt to secure your life via the mechanisms of this world and rather go low in service to Christ and to one another. Risk your life on the dare that Jesus is it! Throw your life away, worldly ambition, social honor and prestige, the love of wealth and reputation, set your minds not on such things but on Christ and his kingdom. “For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?”

Maybe you know the story of Henri Nouwen, who after nearly two decades of teaching at places like Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard left the comforts of academia behind to live in community with the mentally and physically handicapped people of L’Arche Daybreak just north of Toronto. As he gave himself to this community and received the gift of their friendship, Nouwen experienced a conversion that brought him closer to Jesus Christ.

To throw one’s life away like this may seem like an impossible task. Indeed, more often than not we stumble along. But those who continue, who do not give up at the sign of difficulty or opposition, will find that it is the personal presence of Jesus Christ that makes such a life not only possible but desirable: “take up your cross and follow me.” We can go the way of the cross and even desire to do so because we know that on the way we are with Jesus Christ.

Those who are willing to risk it all on Jesus, to throw their lives away in service to him, to take the low road of humility and love, to embrace the cross and suffer with Christ, will find that the way of the cross is for them the way of life. And in the very end they will discover the truth of that great paradox of the kingdom: that those who lose their life for the sake of Christ end up finding eternal life. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Readings: Romans 12:1-8
Feast Day: Pentecost 12

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”

Sometime in the middle of the 4th century Julian, then Emperor of Rome, wrote a letter to Arsacius, the pagan high priest of Galatia in which he said, “It is [the Christians’] philanthropy towards strangers, the care they take of the graves of the dead, and the affected sanctity with which they conduct their lives that have done the most to spread their atheism.”[1]

As far as Emperor Julian was concerned Christianity was spreading at the rate it was mostly due to the utterly novel practices of showing charity to strangers and a belief in the sanctity of each and every human life, no matter how poor or disfigured. And all because of their allegiance to Jesus Christ rather than to the Emperor, an allegiance which earned the early Christians the reputation of being atheists.

Having had one’s life re-oriented to Jesus Christ, the gospel opens one up to a new moral horizon previously unimaginable. For example, some early Christian practices that confounded their pagan neighbours included fidelity within marriage, treating slaves with respect as brothers and sisters, treating women with dignity as equals, not scorning the poor but seeing in them the face of Christ, and refusing to expose infants, a practice that involved leaving newborn children to the fate of the gods by exposing them to the elements and whatever else may come. For those early Christians in pagan Rome following Jesus entailed resisting and rejecting what were otherwise run-of-the-mill, normal practices of the surrounding culture. And, for many of them, this came at a cost, sometimes an extraordinarily high one—their life. Other times it just meant being peculiar, weird, and unpopular.

The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome, to the same church that boggled the mind of Emperor Julian a few centuries later, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” As the first Christians in pagan Rome, so Christians in every age and in every place have had to learn the meaning and consequence of being a people who present themselves to God as a living sacrifice. As the first Christians in pagan Rome, so Christians in every age and in every place have had to learn the meaning and consequence of being a people who resist being conformed to the present age but are rather transformed by the renewing of their minds. But how can we account for such a transformation in the lives of those earliest Christians such that their lives stood in stark contrast to the norms of the present age? The all-consuming reality of the mercy of Christ.

I appeal to you therefore, says Paul. That is, Paul’s appeal here is based on all in his letter that has come before this point. And what we find in those first eleven chapters is Paul’s articulation of God’s unfathomable mercy that has been lavished upon all those who are in Christ Jesus. As we heard it put last week: “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all. O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways!” (11:32-33). In other words, when Paul makes his appeal to the Christians in Rome he begins with the grace of God that has now been revealed in Christ Jesus and made one new humanity out of both Jew and Gentile.

And you have received God’s mercy. How can I be sure? you ask. Because you have been baptized into Christ Jesus, and in the sixth chapter of Romans Paul argues that to be baptized is to have your life joined to the risen life of Jesus Christ and thus to be set free from the power of sin and death, “so we too might walk in newness of life,” (6:4).

Therefore, on the basis of your having received God’s mercy, on the basis of your being made a new creature in baptism, therefore what? Therefore present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.

Indeed, in baptism you were presented to God either by a sponsor or by your parents and godparents. (And if by chance you have not been baptized then please do speak with me and I would be delighted to explore this possibility with you further) As a part of that baptismal liturgy you took certain vows. For example, to “persevere in resisting evil and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.” To, “proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ.” And again, to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbour as yourself.” In baptism you were presented to God. But one way that we can present ourselves to God each day is by giving thanks for his mercy towards us and humbly striving to live out our baptismal vows by the help of the Holy Spirit who is at work in us. To present yourself to God as a living sacrifice is to awake each day knowing that your life is God’s and to be lived in service to Him alone.

Our pattern for a life that is a living sacrifice offered unto God is Jesus Christ. As Paul writes elsewhere in his letter to the church in Ephesus: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God,” (5:1-2). The “fragrant offering and sacrifice” that Christ offered unto God the Father in heaven was a life of self-giving love wherein he gave himself even into the hands of those who would kill him. To offer our lives in service to God means a willingness to allow the sacrificial love of Christ to work itself out in you so that you too are learning what it means to lay down your life for your brothers and sisters.

“Do not be conformed to this present age,” Paul says to his readers, because he knows that the temptation for those who have been brought from death to life in Christ is always to revert back to the thinking and patterns of life that they were saved from. In Paul’s view the “present age,” or as he calls it elsewhere, “the present evil age,” describes the power of sin and death at work in the world to form us in ways that are counter to what God desires. How does the status quo of our own present age form us in ways that the gospel might present a challenge to?

Holy Scripture talks about another age as well. Not only “the present evil age” but “the age to come,” in which God would give new life to the world and mankind, bringing justice, joy, and peace once and for all.[2] Paul’s argument in Romans and elsewhere is that this “age to come” has already arrived in Jesus Christ. Moreover, those who have been baptized into Christ, whose lives have been joined to his, have been transferred if you will from the present evil age to the age to come, even while living in the midst of the present age. In other words, for those who are in Christ, God’s future has come bursting into the present already. So live accordingly, says Paul. Live as those who have been brought from death to life in Christ, for you have been. Do not be conformed to the present age, because you’re not a resident of that age any longer. Rather, present your bodies as a living sacrifice to God because he has lavished his mercy upon you in his well beloved Son, Jesus Christ.

As for those early Christians in Rome so too for us the gospel demands a reappraisal of our human situation in light of the reality of Christ. A new moral horizon has been opened to us by the mercy of Christ which we ourselves are called to live out of.

The task for Christians, therefore, is to figure out how to think, speak, and act in ways that are fitting for the age to come that is already breaking in. Thinking, speaking, and acting according to the present evil age are no longer fitting ways for Christians to live. How does this happen? Is it about trying to be a “better person”? Is it a matter of “trying” at all?

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” The only way to resist being conformed to the present age is to be transformed by the renewing of your mind. This is not about “the power of positive thinking.” In fact, it is not about anything we can do at all. Notice that the verb “transformed” is in the passive voice—be transformed. We are transformed as we apprehend—or rather, are apprehended by—the unfathomable mercy of Christ. At the centre of a life that is authentically Christian is a mind that is awake, alert, sober, illuminated by the divine light of Christ.

We are transformed to resemble Christ, given the mind of Christ (Phil 2:5), as we set our minds on him, as we consider him, as we meditate upon his Passion, as we contemplate his mercy. Being transformed is a life-long process that the Holy Spirit works out in us beginning in the waters of baptism and subsequently in great and manifold ways: as we hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest Holy Scripture, as we are nourished by his Body and Blood in Holy Communion, as we give ourselves to one another in love, and as we daily present our bodies to Christ for his service.

It is no mystery then why Paul immediately goes on to speak of the Church: “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” We present our bodies as a living sacrifice to God as we present our bodies to Christ’s Body, the Church, of which we are members. As we offer ourselves to one another in love. As gather together to hear the word and receive the sacraments. As we love one another as Christ has loved us.

Brothers and sisters, you have been presented to God in baptism. So each day let us present ourselves anew to Christ as those whom he has brought from death to life. Let us each day pray that the Holy Spirit would renew our minds. Let us ask God to reveal the depth of his mercy to us, that like those early Christians in Rome our common life might come more and more to resemble the life of Jesus Christ and less and less the life of the present age. Amen.

 

Endnotes:
[1] As quoted by David Bentley Hart in Atheist Delusions.
[2] NT Wright, Paul for Everyone: Romans, 69.

Feast: Pentecost 11
Readings: Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28

“Woman, great is your faith!”

In today’s gospel reading we encounter a Canaanite woman—that is, a Gentile, a non-Jewish woman—who confesses great faith in Christ. The main point of this sermon, if I could sum it up in a sentence, is this: the joy of the gospel is for everyone!

Recall with me that in last week’s gospel Jesus sent Peter and the other disciples on ahead of him across the sea. Well today’s reading takes place on the other side, specifically Matthew tells us that Jesus and his disciples came to the region of Tyre and Sidon. Now it’s important to note that this was the land of pagans, not Jews, and in light of Jesus’ own instruction earlier in the gospel to, “go nowhere among the Gentiles,” (10:5) one can imagine a certain discomfort on behalf of the disciples. We’re not in Kansas anymore.

Today’s gospel reading reminds us that the Church is sent out to a world that is broken and calling out for help. To a world that does not yet know the peace and joy that Christ brings. And we’re sent into such places and to such people because the joy of the gospel is for everyone.

So, Jesus leads his disciples on into paganland and no sooner has that happened then a Canaanite woman came out to meet them and started shouting: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”

Now, Matthew is the only gospel writer to tell us that this was a Canaanite woman, and he does so as if to highlight the extent to which she was not part of God’s chosen. Indeed, some of the Church Fathers thought this woman to be the “mother of the Gentiles.” Here in paganland the mother of Pagans runs out to meet Jesus and she cries out for help.

And the disciples seeing this woman come to Jesus crying out for mercy rejoice and are glad and point her right-away to their Lord. Only they do not! Rather they urge Jesus to send her away because she’s a bother to them. Their desire was for their own peace and quiet. This woman here does not display that sort of decency and decorum befitting of a good Anglican. Now I’m sure none of us have ever drawn boundaries in an attempt to sort out what type of people would make good Anglicans but if we were tempted to draw such boundaries we’d learn pretty quickly that Jesus has a tendency to confound these sorts of measures.

That the woman is screaming for help is lost in the disciples’ offense that she is screaming at all. Personally, I wish I could look down upon the disciples for their response but I cannot because it is too often my own response.

Being a priest you are sometimes a magnet for needy people. In my previous parish located on the corner of a busy intersection in a very under-resourced neighbourhood in Toronto there was a fairly regular flow of people just walking in looking for help. One guy in particular, every time I saw him I prayed the prayer of Jesus’ disciples, “O Lord, do sendeth him away for he is a bother.” Ears of faith, however, hear in every cry for help what is ultimately a cry for the Lord.

In our reading from Roman’s last week we heard those wonderful words of St. Paul: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved,” (Romans 10:13). If you’re like me perhaps you hear those words and think, everyone? Indeed, the joy of the gospel is for everyone.

What is this woman’s cry? “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” She has come out to Jesus bearing the suffering of her daughter which is her own suffering. Part of the vocation of the Church is to bring the needs of the world before the Lord and to plead for his mercy. The liturgy helps us to do this in, for example, the prayers of the people. I hope our familiarity with these prayers which we offer each week does not dull their significance and meaning—just here we offer up prayers for the whole wide world and for others in particular. So also in the bread and wine of Holy Communion is the stuff of the whole world taken up into Christ’s own self-offering to the Father in heaven.

So the question is: Who are you bringing to the Lord in prayer? Perhaps it is a child or a neighbour or an old friend? Do not give up, do not grow weary in doing good but persevere for the Lord hears your cry. Let us be encouraged to bring others before Christ in prayer with the confidence that he can help.

Jesus’ response is curious. At first he does not say anything. His compassion prevents him from turning here away like the disciples wish and yet he is silent. Next, he expresses the reality of his mission as one sent to a particular people: to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. The text does not specify who he is talking to here, is it the disciples or the woman? In fact, the text almost makes it seem as if he is speaking to himself (Bruner 99).

I think what we see here is Jesus’ commitment to Israel first. Theologians sometimes refer to this sort of thing as the scandal of particularity. Namely, that God chose to redeem the world in particular ways—through the election of Israel and chiefly through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christ knew that he was sent first to Israel and awaited from them a response.

This is precisely what the Apostle Paul has been wrestling with in Romans which we have heard read, almost in the background, these last few weeks. Part of the issue at stake there is that Israel, at least in part, has rejected their Messiah. This has caused some of the Gentile Christians in the Roman church to suppose that God has cast off Israel. But Paul shuts this down in the eleventh chapter, part of which we heard read this morning: “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!…for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Just as you [Gentiles] were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their [Israel’s] disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy.” In Paul’s view even Israel’s apparent rejection of their Messiah is caught up in God’s redemptive action for it was their rejection that propelled the Messiah into Gentile territory. Where he now stands. And this woman, the mother of the Gentiles, cries out to the Lord on behalf of all Gentiles (Epiphanius the Latin). Because the joy of the gospel is for everyone.

Then, in what I think is the most moving part of this encounter the woman comes and kneels before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” She knows that she is not a member of the people of Israel. She knows that she is an outsider who does not belong at the table with the children. Yet she had come to the end of her resources, every other option and possibility had been exhausted. All that remained was to throw herself at the Lord’s feet in an act of desperate adoration knowing that even but a few crumbs of Christ’s mercy is enough to sustain her and heal her daughter.

I admire the humility of her faith. We would do well to cultivate such humility ourselves and we have the prayers to help us. Consider the Prayer of Humble Access that comes just before we receive Holy Communion in the Prayer Book liturgy: “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, Trusting in our own righteousness, But in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy So much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, Whose property is always to have mercy…”

Let us not presume upon the mercy of Christ nor think that we have no need of his mercy or that we have somehow merited his mercy ourselves. Let us rather practice humility and cast ourselves each day upon Christ’s mercy: “Lord, help me.” And we will find that Christ does not give us a life time supply of mercy all at once but simply enough for this day, this moment. The crumbs that fall from the table of the heavenly banquet are enough to sustain us today. To quell every temptation, forgive every sin, and heal every wound.

Then, finally, Matthew tells us that Jesus answered her: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. Great is your faith! That is, great is your trust in me. Great is your trust that even the crumbs of my mercy are sufficient for you. Great is your faith that I will turn no one away that calls upon me.

Faith is that one necessary thing, that human response to God’s loving action. Our “yes” to who Jesus is and what he has done for us. Our utter and complete trust and hope in him. And as we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this October we should remember that great Reformational emphasis that it is by faith alone that we are saved. Not by any merit of our own but simply by trusting that who Jesus Christ is and what he has done for us is sufficient to absolve us of our sin and reconcile us to God our Father.

Such faith is the fount from which a life of love and service to our Lord and to others flows. As such, the greatest gift that you can give to the world as a Christian is to take responsibility for your own faith, to nourish it and tend to it. After all, the faith of the woman extends to the benefit of her daughter. Christians are those who have received that which the world has not yet received—faith in Christ—and yet are charged with tending it not for their own sake but for the good of the world. Because no one is excluded from the joy of the gospel.

And so as we come to the table of the Lord in a few moments to receive that bread and wine which is our Lord’s Body and Blood may we like the Canaanite woman cast ourselves upon the mercy of Christ, not only for our own sake but for the good of those who are yet to trust in him, because the joy of the gospel is for everyone. And may we like her find that a crumb of Christ’s mercy is sufficient. Amen.

Feast Day: The Transfiguration
Readings: 2 Peter 1:13-21; Luke 9:28-36

“For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” (2 Pet 1:16)

On this feast day of The Transfiguration, when Jesus took Peter, James, and John up the mountain and they saw with their own eyes the unspeakable glory of Christ, we are reminded that the God Christians worship requires witnesses. Which is rather strange because Christian and non-Christian alike tend to assume that any god worth believing in should not have to depend on witnesses to be made known (Hauerwas). That any god worth his or her salt would be obviously known, either through introspection—examining ourselves—or by observing the world around us. Consequently, if the God of Israel who raised Jesus from the dead requires witnesses in order to be known then this God is viewed with suspicion.

Yet the God that Christians worship does, as I’ve said, require witnesses precisely because the God that Christians worship is not some general principle that can be deduced from the created world but is the particular Jesus Christ.

And so St. Peter, writing to a group of new Christians reminds them that the faith they have received is founded upon the testimony of Peter and the other apostles who themselves were “eyewitnesses of his majesty,” (2 Pe 1:16). “For he,” says Peter, “received honour and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain,” (2 Pe 1:17-18).

Peter is here recalling the experience he shared with James and John when Jesus took them up the mountain and they were given a glimpse of Jesus’ true identity. Luke tells us that as Jesus was praying the appearance of his face changed and his clothes became dazzling white—he was, transfigured. And Peter, James, and John, though they were very tired, stayed awake and thus saw his glory revealed.

This vision is then interpreted by the voice from the cloud, the voice of the Father: “This is my Son, my Beloved: listen to him!” (Lk 9:35). And this is really the climax of the whole event. The whole point of this episode is that for a moment the veil is pulled back and the disciples recognize God’s own glory hidden in the flesh of Jesus Christ. This voice of affirmation means that all we need to know about God is discovered in Jesus Christ and that we cannot know God apart from Christ. The voice means that God the Father wants us to reverence and adore His Son more than anything else in the world.

What I want to say to you this morning is that the Christian life is about beholding Jesus Christ in glory and being drawn into that mystery. As Pope Francis wrote in The Joy of the Gospel: “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” To be a Christian is to be made an eyewitness of the glory of Christ and so to be given a new direction and purpose in life.

The question then is how does this happen today for those of us who are so far removed geographically and temporally from that mountain? How is it that we come to see Christ in glory so that we are transformed as individuals and as a community that is then capable of bearing witness to Christ here in the parish of Midhurst and Craighurst?

I believe that our reading from St. Luke points us to two ways in particular that the risen and living Jesus Christ reveals himself to those who seek him by faith: prayer and the reading of Scripture.

Jesus took Peter, James, and John up the mountain to pray. Everywhere in the gospels Jesus is praying: going apart from the crowds to pray, encouraging and teaching his disciples to pray, and the author of Hebrews tells us that even now Christ is at the right hand of the Father in heaven where he “lives to make intercession” for us—praying for us and praying with us.

We cannot know Christ apart from knowing him in prayer. Anglicans should know this because at the centre of our tradition stands one of the greatest written works that the English language has ever known, the Book of Common Prayer. The Prayer Book is not simply a manual for Sunday worship but is rather a whole world of prayer that we are invited to enter into through a living and active engagement with Holy Scripture. The Prayer Book contains prayers for everything, from birth to baptism to rogation days to marriage to death and more. From Holy Communion to the rhythm of the Daily Office—Morning and Evening Prayer. And the backbone of all of this is Scripture, especially the Psalms, but also the reading of vast portions of the Old and New Testament each day. The point is that our whole life is saturated in prayer so that we might know Christ in the 166.5 hours of the week that are not Sunday morning.

My hope for us here at St. Paul’s/John’s is that prayer would more and more inform the rhythm of our daily life. Personally, I say Morning and Evening Prayer every day. It is a priest’s duty to do so but more than that I have come to delight in it. And I want you to know that I will be praying for you all on a regular basis. One of the things that I hope to establish soon in our parish is a schedule of morning and evening prayer at both St. Paul’s and St. John’s. I am not sure what it will look like just yet and attendance will not be required, of course. But I want us to be a church that is known to pray and to pray often. And more than that, to be a church that prays with the faith that in prayer we meet Jesus Christ and come to know him more fully.

I am convinced that this is critical not only for each of us individually but for our parish. I know that there has been a good deal of uncertainty around these parts in the last couple of years. I know that this uncertainty has bred anxiety and even, perhaps, some animosity. I do not know what the future holds but I do know that we have no future apart from prayer, because we have no future apart from Christ who meets us there.

Holy Scripture is another place that we meet the risen Christ and are shown his glory. As Jesus is transfigured on the mountain suddenly Moses and Elijah appeared and were speaking with him about his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. That is, they were speaking about Christ’s Passion, that whole movement of his death, resurrection, and ascension whereby God would save the world from sin and death and begin to renew all things in Christ.

Moses and Elijah are representative of the Law and the Prophets, that is, they represent the Old Testament in its entirety. And here is the point that the earliest Christians knew well, the whole Old Testament speaks of the mystery of Christ’s Passion. Recall that at the end of Luke’s gospel the risen Jesus meets two disciples on the road to Emmaus and what does he do but, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the Scriptures,” (24:27).

We read the Bible for all sorts of reasons. We might approach the Bible as an interesting if not odd (and sometimes embarrassing) piece of ancient history. Or we might read the Bible as if it were a metaphor or allegory, believing that it contains a few nuggets of wisdom for living a moral life. Preachers are not immune from this either which is why so many churches have to bear with insufferable sermons each week.

Partly because we are good Modernists most of us have not been encouraged to come to Holy Scripture to find Christ there. Yet this is precisely how the the earliest Christians, and Christians for most of history came to the Scriptures. Not to learn a bit about ancient history or to hear some encouraging stories or to find a blueprint for a respectable and decent life. No, rather they came to the Scriptures to find the risen and living Christ there. To see him and to hear him. To borrow an image from last weeks’ gospel reading, Christ is the pearl of great price hidden in the field of Scripture. We read Scripture to search for and find him.

What difference would it make to our common life here at St. Paul’s/John’s if we approached prayer and the Bible with the faith that just there we encounter the risen and living Jesus Christ? To pray and to read the Bible with such a faith is what it means to “stay awake,” as Peter, James, and John did. And if we like them are able to resist the temptation to fall asleep we too will be shown Christ’s glory.

Recently Pope Francis said, “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord.”

However long we’ve been around, however much we think we know, Christ Jesus invites us to encounter him anew personally each day. So as we pray and as we read Scripture and hear it proclaimed let us come with the faith that the risen and living Jesus Christ will encounter us there and we will behold his beauty. And let us do this together that we with Peter, James, and John may be made eyewitnesses of his majesty for the sake of a watching world. Amen.

silence

Pax Christi

I
Secular folk simply don’t understand why anyone would bother to take an old book like the Bible seriously let alone be willing to give up ones life for the faith that the Bible creates-out-of-nothing in the hearts and minds of simple folk like you and I.

Perhaps for a good man one might dare to die. But for a wretch? For a thief? For a coward? For an adulterer? Don’t be silly. Our evolutionary instinct to self-preserve puts such an act clearly outside of the bounds of self-interest. Moreover, is there anyone wretched, really?

II
One Toronto critic called the film a failure. A failure! An honest-to-God failure. Why? Because Mr. Scorsese was too thick-in-the-head to recognize that “contemporary audiences” (mind the whiff of chronological snobbery) have trouble picturing faith. Faith, obviously, is not a contemporary virtue. At least not the sort of faith that might lead one to delight in the grotesque forms of self-denial and sacrificial love that Mr. Scorsese forces his viewers to behold. Faith is old and frumpy, inauthentic and unsexy. Best leave that in the past.

I wonder though, are “contemporary audiences” so deficient or was the critics comment a window into her own soul? I’m only asking. Who am I to judge? And if “contemporary audiences” are so deficient, is that the fault of the Director? Should he have made a version of the film more palatable for modern viewers? Are transcendent things—things like Truth, Goodness, and Beauty—meant to be easily discernable and readily available to any critic with an opinion?

III
Once upon a time, Steve Jobs commented on the difficulty of designing products based on focus groups. “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them,” he said.

Perhaps “contemporary audiences” do not know what they want. Perhaps they need to be shown. Focus groups (and critics) be damned!

IV
As I was reading the reviews this morning I realized that not all newspapers were in agreement as to where to file these sorts of things. First of all, is it a “Movie” or a “Film”? And once that has been sorted, is this “Art” or “Entertainment”?

Now I don’t know much about art but I have been reading Sir Roger Scruton on beauty lately and that’s something to digest.

Likewise, I’m unsure of the difference between a “Movie” and a “Film” though I’ve heard it said that a movie is made by a director for others whereas a film is made by a director for himself. In this regard, Silence is a film. It might not be for you. Perhaps “contemporary audiences” (un)naturally expect that these sorts of things are for them, products for their consumption rather than objects to be contemplated.

V
As a priest, I found myself wondering what it would have been like to be sitting there watching this film as someone who is not a member of the Christian religion.

The critic mentioned above might help us in this regard. The portion of the film that Ms. Taylor found most interesting was the latter third in which Fr. Rodrigues finally meets Inoue (“The Inquisitor”) and has a series of conversations with him. In the same final-third Fr. Rodrigues also meets Fr. Ferreria, the Jesuit who trained and mentored Fr. Rodrigues and others but who has now himself apostatized and is living the life of a Japanese.

According to Ms. Taylor, these two characters provide a lesson in “cultural sensitivity” to Fr. Rodrigues and ought thus to be praise. (It should be noted that Fr. Rodrigues was not a member of the “contemporary audience” and thus was lacking in the sort of “cultural sensitivity” that a good modern Westerner is well versed in. Indeed, a “cultural sensitivity” that is legislated and enforced by the State—just ask Professor Peterson).

But this in an interesting way to speak of these two characters. Inoue in particular, “is crucial to the introduction of a more nuanced approach” to the colonial questions raised by Christian missionary work, we are told. “A more nuanced approach”? That’s a curious turn of phrase to attribute to a man who rained down death and a various assortment of brutal persecutions upon thousands of Japanese Christians.

“Now, Silence opens itself to the relativism of the 21st century – removing itself even further from the faith of the 17th.” Really? Does religious fervor for “the relativism of the 21st century” really look more kindly upon the persecution of members of the Christian religion than it does upon said Christians when they willingly, joyfully even, suffer for their (17th century) faith?

VI
The Christian religion has always been a source of discomfort for those who are not of it (and indeed, for those who are of it as well). There are some fair reasons for this, of course—the history of Christianity is not without blemish. However, at the heart of the Christian faith we have Jesus.

Gandhi famously quipped, what was it, “I like your Christ but not your Christians,” or something like that. Nicholas Kristof recently wondered aloud, “Am I a Christian?” “I deeply admire Jesus and his message, but am also skeptical of themes that have been integral to Christianity.”

But this is a load of rubbish.

He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not.”
John 1:10-11

Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, “Behold your King!” They cried out, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” Then he handed him over to them to be crucified.”
John 19:14-16

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.”
1 Corinthians 1:22-23

The story of Jesus is not of his coming to a world that “deeply admires” him. But of him coming to a world that deeply despises and rejects him, even unto death. (And in cases where the world does purport to “deeply admire” Jesus, it is likely a Jesus of their own fashioning that they fancy).

Keller suggested that Kristof might not be. A Christian, that is.

VII
Perhaps it is simply easier then to strip the film of its “religious and philosophical trappings,” as some critics suggest. To rob it of it’s particularity and turn it into more of a universal tale of inclusivity, tolerance, the strength of the human spirit, or something more palatable to the “contemporary audience.”

VIII
The face of Jesus appears throughout Silence. Not only on the fumie where it is trampled upon but also as an object of contemplation for the Padres and the Japanese Christians. In one scene, moments before Fr. Rodrigues is finally apprehended by the authorities, he sees his reflection in a pool of water morph, momentarily, into the face of Christ. The theological point here is clear (too clear, perhaps): the suffering of the Christian missionaries and of the Japanese Christians themselves is a participatio Christi, a participation in the sufferings of Christ.

Onlookers might stand aghast, wondering why Japanese Christians would suffer so? Trample upon the fumie, deny your Christ, “it is only a formality.” And for the Padres who would look on who, we are told, have brought this suffering upon the people—how could they standby and watch the terrible suffering inflicted upon these dear people knowing that all it would take to release them from suffering would be for they themselves to apostatize? (Whether or not this would have actually released the Japanese from suffering is another matter)

What is missed in the assessment of critics here is the way in which the Padres and the Japanese Christians were not so much suffering for their faith in Christ as they were suffering with Christ himself. Or rather, confident that Christ himself was with them in their own (inevitable) sufferings.

IX
“We are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”
Romans 8:17

X
I am speaking the truth in Christ, I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race.”
Romans 9:1-3

It is perhaps this suffering, the suffering of the Apostle, that is the interpretive key to understanding the suffering of Fr. Rodrigues himself.

God be praised.

 

Well, it looks like Canon XXI isn’t going to be changing any time soon.

A little bit of background info for the uninitiated: This July the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada is set to meet and the big debate/vote on the docket has to do with changing our Church Canon (i.e. Church law) on marriage.

You can read the Marriage Canon in its entirety here, but for our immediate purposes I think it sufficient simply to say that Canon XXI affirms that marriage is an indissoluble covenant (“until they are separated by death”) between one man and one woman which is ordered towards, “mutual fellowship, support, and comfort, and the procreation (if it may be) and nurture of children, and the creation of a relationship in which sexuality may serve personal fulfilment in a community of faithful love.” One could spend a good deal unpacking this and indeed we have spent a good deal of time doing so.

It’s important to note that the Anglican Church of Canada affirms this understanding of marriage, “according to our Lord’s teaching as found in Holy Scripture and expressed in the Form of Solemnization of Matrimony in the Book of Common Prayer.” That is, the Anglican Church of Canada believes that our present teaching on marriage is not only faithful to what Anglicans have always believed and taught but is the very teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ himself as we have it in Holy Scripture.

Now, not all Anglicans believe this. So, at the General Synod of the ACoC in 2013 a resolution was passed to draft a motion, “to change Canon XXI on marriage to allow the marriage of same-sex couples in the same way as opposite-sex couples…”

A Commission was struck. They met. They prayed. They studied. They produced the report This Holy Estate. Many people rejoiced at the report. Others were disappointed. My own response was one of concern. I thought the theological and biblical reasoning was, shall we say, insufficient. Ephraim Radner, Professor of Historical Theology at Wycliffe College, said, “It was not a theological report. It was a report that used some theology, but for a non-theological purpose.” I think he is right. Moreover, it raised concerns for me with respect to Catholicity. What does it mean to disregard other churches who are asking us not to go forward with such a change? How can we disregard the majority of our Anglican brothers and sisters from around the world? What would it mean for me as a priest to be subject to a church with whom I disagree doctrinally?

Coinciding with all of this in the Canadian church, the Episcopal Church went ahead and voted to changed their marriage canon in the summer of 2015. In response to this and a growing tension in the Anglican Communion the Primates (leaders of the Anglican Communion) met in Canterbury in January. It was an overwhelmingly successful meeting, though not a pain-free one. Indeed, some lamented their communiqué for in it the Primates overwhelmingly agreed on the traditional Church teaching on marriage as outlined in the BCP and Canon XXI of the ACoC.

OK, back to the Canadian vote this summer. I believe the saying is, “ball in your court,” Canadians.

A quick explanation of what it would take for the motion to change the marriage canon to pass on first reading (if it passed the first time, it would have to pass a second reading in 2019). In July 2016 the motion would be debated and voted on by three different voting bodies: the laity, the clergy, and the bishops. In order for the motion to pass it would have to pass with a two-thirds majority in each of the three houses.

Well, it looks like Canon XXI isn’t going to be changing any time soon.

The Canadian House of Bishops met last week. Many Canadians were praying and fasting for this meeting. Today they released their statement. Here’s the money quote:

In our exploration of these differences it became clear to us that the draft resolution to change the Marriage Canon to accommodate the marriage of same-sex partners is not likely to pass in the Order of Bishops by the canonical requirement of a 2/3rds majority in each Order. Some of us talked of being mortified and devastated by this realisation.

And so we (continue to) pray.

I imagine that the motion will still be debated and voted on but barring any unforeseen circumstances or changes of heart it will not pass. That means that the Anglican Church of Canada will continue to uphold the traditional teaching of Jesus Christ and of the whole Church on marriage.

It’s been interesting to see some of the responses thus far to the Bishops. I think I’ve written enough for now but I’ll try to address one or two of them in another blog post.

Grace and peace.

JT+