Preached at St. Cuthbert’s Leaside for the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, Sunday, June 28, 2015.

Lections: Ezekiel 34:11-16; Psalm 87; 2 Timothy 4:1-8; John 21:15-19

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When you are confronted with the risen and living Jesus your life changes forever, one way or another. Both St. Peter and St. Paul who we remember today knew this well and were martyred — that is, killed for their faith in Jesus — in Rome. It is said of St. Peter that he was crucified, upside down. St. Paul? Beheaded. What do the deaths of these two saints many years ago have to do with our life here today?

What made Peter and Paul apostles wasn’t simply that they knew and walked with Jesus during his earthly ministry — Paul didn’t, after all. It was rather, that they were both confronted by the risen Jesus and were given by him a task to do. This is what apostle means — messenger, or sent one. This is, therefore, what it means to be the Church also.

How they came to meet the risen Jesus is telling. Paul, though he was named Saul then, was knocked off his horse and blinded as he rode to Damascus: “suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” (Acts 9:3-5). Similarly with Peter. Immediately prior to our gospel reading this morning the risen Jesus stood on the beach and called out to the disciples as they were fishing. Upon seeing him they came rushing onto the beach where Jesus had breakfast waiting. But they saw him, John tells us, only because the risen Jesus “showed himself” to them (21:1, 14). And this is an important point—we come to know the risen Christ not because we are particularly bright or insightful, in fact, it has little to do with us at all. Rather, we come to know the risen Christ only as he reveals himself to us by his Spirit, as he pulls back the veil, as it were, opening our eyes to know and love him. That is to say, faith is a gift not a virtue.

Furthermore, as a result of their confrontation with the risen Christ both Peter and Paul were entrusted with a task. Witness Peter in our gospel reading from this morning who is asked by Jesus three times, “Do you love me?” and three times Peter responds, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Of course, Peter’s threefold profession of love for Jesus corresponds to his threefold denial of him earlier in the gospel. And so, by way of forgiveness Jesus gives Peter a job to do. When Peter professes his love Jesus doesn’t say, “Well, good then!” He says, “Well, then: feed my sheep.” Each time Peter answers the question he earns, not a pat on the back, but a command, a fresh challenge, a new commission.

And so this is what makes both Peter and Paul apostles: they met the risen Jesus and he gave them a job to do, which he in turn empowered them to carry out. This is the very thing that runs through the heart of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church still: the risen Jesus has revealed himself to us in our midst, by his Spirit, in the Eucharist and the Word proclaimed, and as a result our whole lives have been swept up into the life of Jesus, in a sort of divine confiscation, and we’ve been sent on a mission.

Now it’s worth noting that Jesus says to Peter, “Feed my sheep.” Not only does Jesus trust Peter to get back to work after his earlier denial of him — which, by the way, ought to be a great encouragement to us all in light of the many and varied ways in which we too deny Jesus — but here Jesus shares his own work, his own ministry with Peter. Jesus entrusts his sheep to Peter just as the Father had entrusted them to him, and thereby gave Peter a share in his own authority. It is, after all, Jesus who is the Good Shepherd (John 10; cf. Ezekiel 34:11-16).

This is the secret of all Christian ministry—all ministry is primarily a participation in the ministry of the risen Jesus Christ, in the power of the Spirit. This is as true of Peter and Paul as it is true of the Church today. This is true of all of our work from preaching to bell ringing, from teaching our children the faith to being with the sick. All our doing is rooted in and taken up into Christ’s own doing, all our work flows forth from our being sent by Jesus in the same way that the Father sent the Son. It’s not our ministry, it’s Christ’s, though we really do have a part to play in it and it’s really us who play that part.

And because the work that we have been entrusted with is a participation in Jesus’ own ministry, it is continuous with the work that Peter and Paul were given to do. So, Paul’s exhortations and warnings to Timothy from this morning’s reading serve us well. In light of the risen and returning Jesus Paul urges Timothy to faithfully and boldly proclaim the gospel of Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 4:1-2). Like the parable of the sower who generously sows the seed regardless of what sort of ground it lands on, Timothy must continue in this work whether the moment seems “favourable or unfavourable.” Is there a greater temptation for the church than the temptation to give up preaching and teaching the gospel when the time seems unfavourable? And are we not now, like Peter and Paul then, situated in just such a time today?

In good Modern democratic societies such as ours the proclamation that “Jesus is Lord” is unfashionable if not entirely jarring and subversive, not unlike in Paul’s day, actually. Is it any wonder that he refers to the gospel as foolishness and as a stumbling block? In a climate such as ours then, it may well be tempting for the church to bend the word of truth to suit our own expectations — how can we fill these pews? — or the expectations of others — people just don’t like to hear that stuff today! “For the time is coming,” says Paul, “when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.”

Strong words—aimed first at those in the church. Paul isn’t lamenting those outside of the church who have “itching ears” but those inside the church who neglect and even reject the “healthy teaching” that the likes of Peter and Paul have handed on to us in Holy Scripture, and died for, and have instead “accumulated for themselves teachers to suit their own desires.” Like people being instructed by their doctors to follow a particular diet, they will discover that half of their favourite foods aren’t on it, and so will look for different doctors who will advise them to eat and drink what they like (N.T. Wright).

In contrast to this, Timothy is to persevere, and we must as well. The best thing that the church can do for the world is to faithfully and persistently proclaim and embody the gospel of Jesus Christ. Whether the time is favourable or unfavourable, whether the message is received or rejected, whether we are embraced or excluded—proclaim the message; be persistent. Both Paul and Peter were killed, remember. They knew a thing or two about unfavourable conditions.

Like saints Peter and Paul before us, the whole church is called to participate in the ongoing work and mission of the risen and living Christ Jesus. Take heart, for God is with us, even if we be despised. And take courage, for what is required of us is not success — not as the world regards success — but loyalty, perseverance, and trust. And so may our life together bear witness to Christ Jesus our Lord, as did the lives of Peter and Paul, our brothers and fathers in the faith. Amen.

Third Sunday after Pentecost—June 14, 2015. 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13; Psalm 20; 2 Corinthians 5:6-17; Mark 4:26-34

“From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.” 2 Cor. 5:16

Recently the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, began a talk on evangelism with these words: “I want to start by saying just two simple sentences about the church. First, the church exists to worship God in Jesus Christ. Second, the Church exists to make new disciples of Jesus Christ. Everything else is decoration.” I want us to dwell on this for a moment.

I submit that the Apostle Paul is saying something very similar in our New Testament reading this morning: “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.” Let us first concentrate on the latter part of that sentence: once we knew Christ from a human point of view but we know him no longer in that way. We might then say that there are two ways of knowing Christ—according to the flesh and according to the Spirit.

Islam, for example, has a rather high view of Jesus as a prophet of Allah but no more than that. Others look at Jesus and see a revolutionary who attempted to overturn the social order and was thus executed by the State. Others still see Jesus as a peaceful and loving fellow who perhaps we ought to try and emulate so the world turns out just a wee bit of a better place. And, of course, there is truth in all of this but taken alone these views of Jesus remain, simply, according to the flesh. For Jesus is a prophet, he speaks the word of God, yet he is also the Word of God. Not only is he a revolutionary, but he is also Israel’s Messiah and will usher in God’s kingdom in rather unexpected ways. And he is someone we will become like but only because he first became like us. And so the journey to Christian faith begins as the Spirit of God opens our eyes to behold the beauty and mystery of Jesus Christ and in-so-doing illumines our hearts and minds to his true identity. And the journey of Christian faith continues as we are drawn ever deeper into the mystery of Christ and our whole lives start to be transformed in the process.

Just what is the beauty and mystery of Christ? That hidden in the agonizing death of Christ on the cross, there is life, resurrection life. And, furthermore, that our life with Christ is bound up in our willingness to suffer with him. Listen to how the Apostle Paul put it: “He died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.”

Those who come to know the love of God in Christ in this way, they are changed. This is why we gather in worship, to sing and to pray, to hear the gospel proclaimed through the Old and New Testaments, to receive the bread and the wine of the Eucharist. All of this shows forth the risen and reigning Christ who takes away the sin of the world that we might live. And the Spirit takes all of our doing, all of our singing and praying, and joins our offering to Christ’s own self-offering, and works in us that which we cannot work in ourselves—the transformation of our hearts and minds to know and love God more fully—that he might work through us to accomplish that which we cannot accomplish on our own—the transformation of the whole wide world in Jesus Christ.

Let us now turn to examine the first part of the verse we began with. “From now on, therefore,” writes Paul, “we regard no one from a human point of view.” Just as the Spirit of God opens our eyes to behold the beauty and mystery of the risen Christ, so too this same Spirit opens our eyes that we might see all others from God’s perspective—that is, people for whom Jesus died. Every single person you know or can imagine, family, estranged family, friends, strangers, enemies, colleagues, neighbours and on and on, every single person is one for whom Christ gave his life so that they might live anew in him. And so, as those who have received the goodness of God in Jesus Christ, it becomes a priority for us as his Church to let others know of what God has done for them.

This is the other main task of the Church which Archbishop Justin mentioned in his talk: the Church exists to make new disciples of Jesus Christ—inviting people to change their minds (repent) and believe in Christ, to know and trust that he died for all so that all might live for him and with him in newness of life. “Everything old has passed away,” writes Paul. “See, everything has become new!” This is the joy of the gospel, a joy which cannot be contained! In Jesus Christ, God has summoned every single person He has made. And the Church is called to extend this invitation to all, excluding no one. However, before we can go about joyfully proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ and calling everyone to follow him, you and I must be those who have heard the call. We can only share the love of God if we have first received this gracious gift.

This requires our daily conversion. Or, as Saint Cyprian put it, we are to receive daily “one great gulp of grace.” To be a disciple is, literally, to be a learner. We could say then that the Christian life is ultimately about being a student of Jesus. So then, calling people to follow Jesus isn’t the finish line, it is really the beginning. Being a Christian is about becoming Christian. In other words, Christians are those who are learning what it means to say that Jesus is Lord. A friend of mine recently put it this way: “Your responsibility to your own faith, your own cultivation of it, your own openness to its vigour and truth, your life with God, is your greatest gift of love to another person, to any person, to all those around you,” (Radner).

And so we come to see others not from a human point of view but from God’s point of view, as those for whom, like us, Christ has died and calls to follow him. In his same talk on evangelism the Archbishop went on to say, “The best decision anyone can ever make, at any point in life, in any circumstances, whoever they are, wherever they are, whatever they are, is to become a disciple of Jesus Christ. There is no better decision for a human being in this life, any human being.” Christ died for all, and there is no one, absolutely no one, that wouldn’t be better off knowing Jesus.

And on this note, let me finish by saying that I have such great hope for us here at St. Cuthbert’s, that God will use all of us, in one way or another, to invite people to follow Jesus. Just one of the reasons I am so hopeful is because of some of the wonderful conversations that are currently taking place thanks to Joanne and those of you who have been participating in the Invited! series over the last few weeks, dreaming and praying about how we might share the joy of the gospel of Christ with others. We’re all called to this wonderful work—it isn’t just the job of the outreach committee and it certainly isn’t left up to the clergy! If you feel the Holy Spirit nudging you in this direction, however uncomfortable it may feel, do not resist! In fact, come and talk to Joanne or Beth or myself. Or, better yet, during coffee hour this morning forget about the usual conversation points and strike up a conversation about sharing the joy of our faith with others. This is kingdom work, and we’re all invited to be co-workers with Christ.

May God’s Spirit ever open our eyes to behold the beauty and majesty of Christ. And may the love of Jesus continue to transform the way we see others, as those whom he has called unto himself. And may the Spirit embolden us to extend the invitation. Amen.

Preached on Trinity Sunday, May 31st, 2015 at St. Cuthbert’s Leaside.

Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

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“So then, brothers and sisters, we are in debt—but not to the flesh…” (Romans 8:12)

Today, as perhaps you know, is Trinity Sunday. A wonderful, if not tricky, feast in the Church year. Tricky because preachers can often be lured into trying to explain or articulate the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. While this has its, I hope obvious, merits, I will not attempt such an articulation here this morning. I want to focus instead upon the wonder of the Holy Trinity–that God’s very own life and love is open to the world, to you and I. We can see this visually depicted in the icon of the Holy Trinity by Andrei Rublev. Much could be said in contemplation of this icon but the one thing I want to note is that the circle which the three figures form is not closed, but open. There is space there at the table where the chalice sits.

“So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh–for if you live according to the flesh, you will die…For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.”

To be adopted into God’s family then, to find our place at the table of the Triune God so-to-speak, is the opposite of being enslaved. Enslaved to what? To the “flesh” or, we might say, to sin. We often think about sin in terms of personal guilt or culpability and thus there is the need for forgiveness, for the verdict to be rendered innocent. While this is certainly true Paul draws out another aspect of sin that is more central in his writings. You’ll notice, for example, that Paul hardly ever frames sin in terms of guilt and he hardly ever mentions forgiveness. Rather, what we see in Paul’s letters, is an understanding of sin and evil in terms of that which exercises force (6:14) and thus enslaves (6:6, 15-23).

And, from evil’s power to enslave one needs to be set free. We see a figure for this in the life of Israel who were themselves enslaved in Egypt. The Lord heard their cry and liberated them from their oppressors, leading them through the Red Sea and through the wilderness in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night towards the promised land. And if you know the story you know how often Israel complained and wanted to give up and go back to Egypt where they had been in slavery. But at the very heart of their liberation was God’s summons near the start of the book of Exodus: “Israel is my firstborn son. Let my son go that he may worship me,” (4:22). That is to say, the Exodus from Egypt opens up space for Israel to truly live as God’s children.

This points to the greater reality of what God has done in Christ. In His unconditional love the Father sends the Son who assumes our enslaved human nature and in dying on the cross Christ Jesus extinguishes this old nature entirely (Romans 6:6). And in his resurrection from the dead Jesus reconstitutes a new humanity which is set free from the powers of sin and death. As followers of Christ, sin no longer has dominion over us for our lives have been caught up into Christ’s own life by the Holy Spirit who has bound us  wholly to our risen Lord. That is to say, humankind’s liberation from our enslavement to sin, in Christ, has opened up space for us to truly live as God’s children. But how does the reality of what God has done in Christ for us, begin to become the reality of what God has done, and is doing, in us by the power of the Holy Spirit?

Just as Israel’s liberation from slavery involved their crossing of the Red Sea so also our liberation from sin and death involves a passing through water: baptism. “Do you not know,” writes Paul, “that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life,” (Romans 6:3-4). In baptism by the power of the Spirit, we are joined to the very life of Christ who died and rose again, and in this way we are liberated from the powers of sin to new life in Christ—life as God’s sons and daughters. This is what John means when he writes of being born again, of being born by water and Spirit (John 3:1ff). God pours His very Spirit into our hearts to lead us in the way of Christ unto everlasting life. And just as the Israelite mothers and fathers brought their children with them through the Red Sea so we bring our children with us through the waters of baptism into the freedom of Christ.

Next week during the 10:00am service little Emily and Madeline will be brought forward by their parents and godparents to be baptized. And as we gather around the font together we will witness something familiar, yet quite simply astounding. What’s going to happen to Emily and Madeline when we do this is they’re going to be made, by adoption, sisters to Jesus. By God’s grace they will become daughters of God in a very special way. We aren’t going to see all of this happening of course, except in the water and oil, but it’s really happening.

And this very same thing is true of all of you who have been baptized—God has joined our life to Christ’s, has set us free from the enslaving power of sin and death by the Holy Spirit, and graciously leads us by this same Spirit into a new life of liberty as sons and daughters of God. In just this way the love of the Triune God flows out into the world, transforming us and empowering us to share God’s love for the world with the world. This is an awesome thing, indeed. Remember that as you leave here today.

Yet, all is not rosy for the sons and daughters of God. “So then, brothers and sisters…when we cry “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ–if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”

In Christ we have indeed been liberated from slavery to sin and adopted into God’s own family, yet our deliverance and adoption also has a future tense. Later in Romans Paul will write of our waiting for adoption and liberation (8:22-24a). That is to say, our adoption as God’s children is in the realm of the “now-and-not-yet”. We are God’s children and yet we are part of the world which still awaits its ultimate liberation at Christ’s return. We know this well, don’t we?— the tension and pain of being a people who live in hope. The waiting, the present suffering, the creeping power of sin which seems to be ever crouching at our door. This is why Paul exhorts us to, by the Spirit, “put to death” the deeds of the flesh as we live into God’s new world. Saying “no” to the power of sin as it encroaches in our lives is a kind of “putting to death” by which the Spirit leads us into life. This is hard, but the life of Christian freedom as God’s children requires just such struggle.

Even still, brothers and sisters, the Triune God has begun something very wonderful in you, indeed. And I do mean begun, for having been freed from our enslavement to sin we owe our old lives nothing at all and are invited rather to live as slaves of righteousness. And having been made God’s children we are invited to live as God’s children, in God’s new world. And the same God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—who began this good work in you will bring it to completion. Amen.

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Ascension Day—Sunday, May 17, 2015. Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

“God is king over the nations; God sits on his holy throne.” Psalm 47:8

On occasion I like to try and get away for a personal retreat at Mount Savior Monastery in Pine City, New York. Nestled away in the hills the brothers of Mount Savior follow the Benedictine rule of prayer and work. One of the things that has struck me in my time with the brothers is the monastic virtue of obedience, especially as it is related to the abbot. As superior of the monastery all of the other monks subject themselves in obedience to this man who stands in the place of Christ, as St. Benedict said, and obey him “as if the order came from God himself.”

Likewise, two weeks ago when I was ordained a deacon by Archbishop Colin he asked myself and my fellow ordinands: “Will you, in accordance with the canons of this Church, obey your bishop and other ministers who may have authority over you and your work?” To which we all made our vow in the affirmative.

I want to preach this morning on the good of obedience and how the gift and virtue of Christlike obedience might serve to make us one and thus enable us to faithfully bear the gospel into the world. There is a classic text on this from the early 20th century called Christ the Ideal of the Monk.[1] In it the author describes this virtue of obedience, or mutual subjection, in terms of becoming like Christ. The monk is to follow in the footsteps of Christ himself whose “whole existence is summed up in love for the Father.” And what form does Christ’s love of the Father take? “The form of subjection [obedience]: Lo, I have come to do your will.”

The monk is obedient because Christ is obedient. Remember, for example, how moments before he was arrested Jesus prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” And then immediately Jesus submits himself to those who have come to arrest him and a little bit later to Pilate and to the religious leaders who would have him killed. Jesus’ love for and obedience to the Father took the form of submission to and obedience to others, deeply trusting the Father, even unto death.

For the monk, it is this exercise of mutual subjection that joins him to Christ in this way. Here then is the point—obedient submission is a figure of Christ. It reveals the gospel in some way.

Today we celebrate the ascension of the risen Jesus. Moments ago we heard the very last words of Luke’s account of the gospel: “Then [Jesus] led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” This is curious, is it not? Why must Christ ascend? Was the resurrection not enough? Well, we get a glimpse of the answer in Ephesians. God the Father, writes Paul, “raised [Jesus] 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.”

The ascension reminds us that the heart of the gospel is not simply that—contrary to all reasonable expectations—Jesus came back to life after being dead for a few days. But that in doing so he defeated that last great enemy, death, and thus God the Father raised him up, seated him at his right hand, and placed all things under his authority. Paul uses no uncertain terms here: “He has put all things in submission under his feet.” Jesus is Lord over all things. This is not just a personal opinion, for Paul this corresponds to the reality of what God has done in Christ Jesus—the gospel.

The gospel is the truest thing in the world and the sole reason for the Church’s existence is to proclaim and embody this gospel—that God, to use Paul’s language, has adopted us into His family making us sons and daughters, inheritors with all the saints of his glorious riches. That God has given us His very life. And that all of this has happened in Jesus Christ who was obedient to the Father’s will and has now been raised up to have dominion over all things.

Thus, Christianity begins not with what we must do but with what God has done in His Son Jesus Christ. Christianity is the religion of grace. Rejoice! Be glad! This is what the word gospel means, after all—joyful news; glad tidings. This is why the disciples upon witnessing the ascension of their friend and Lord, Jesus, are filled with great joy (Luke 24:52). Hear again the words of the Psalmist: “Clap your hands, all you peoples; shout to God with loud songs of joy. For the Lord, the Most High, is awesome, a great king over all the earth,” (Psalm 47:1-2).

“And [God the Father] has put all things in submission under [Jesus’] 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.” Jesus has authority over the whole world, yet this authority and rule begins in the Church from whence he is working to draw all people to himself. That is why the centre of Paul’s prayer for the church is that we will come to realize that the immeasurably great power of God which raised Jesus from the dead is available to us who believe and is in fact at work in us (Ephesians 2:17-19). How different would our life at St. Cuthbert’s be if we daily sought to walk and pray in this power? Where do you see this power at work already? Where might we see it moving forward?

The Church, then, is a community of folks, dampened by the waters of baptism, who are learning what it means to say that Jesus is Lord. We are a people who are living into the kingdom of God. And this life, our common life, has a shape to it.

Let us return now to the monastic virtue of obedience. The monk is obedient to the abbot because Christ lived a life of obedient submission himself and because the abbot is as Christ to the monk. In light of our salvation then, Paul argues that our life of obedient mutual submission is precisely how we faithfully embody the gospel in a broken and divided world. Being the church isn’t about being nicer people, it isn’t even about making the world a better place, it is about becoming like Christ by living lives of obedient submission as he did. As Paul writes towards the end of this same letter: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ,” (5:21). We obey Christ, and are made like Christ, as we submit to one another. So then, our common life of obedient submission, one to another, is a figure of the gospel itself—it reveals something of Christ himself and the way in which God has given Himself to us in Christ. Oh that we daily would open our lives up to his reordering, and there find joy, hope, and true freedom.

But this is a hard thing and if you’re anything like me you don’t like the sound of this. Is this really what we’ve gotten ourselves into? Does my love for Christ really demand that I subject myself to you? Indeed, this is the shape of Christian duty, because as I have said in a few different ways already, mutual subjection offers us the means of our conformance to Christ. A conformance that is given especially when we suffer the burdens of these relations unjustly. Jesus suffered patiently and our submission one to another provides fertile ground for us to suffer patiently as well and in-so-doing to be conformed to Christ by joyfully sharing in his suffering. For faith discovers Christ hidden beneath the imperfections and weaknesses of the human creature, to whom we offer ourselves in self-giving love.

This is why division in the church is so tragic, because our refusal to humbly, gently, and patiently bear with one another in love, distorts the unity of the gospel—“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all,” (Eph 4:1-6). Division obscures the truth of the gospel itself.

And so this is our challenge and, I believe, our hope here on Ascension Day. That the world has forever changed in Christ Jesus—all things have been subject to him, and he rules over all. So then, “Sleeper, awake!” writes Paul. “Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you,” (Ephesians 5:14). And again elsewhere he writes, “When [Jesus] ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people,” (Ephesians 4:7-8). Wake up! Christ is risen—he lives! Christ is ascended to the right hand of the Father—he rules over all! May the light of Christ shine upon us, may the Spirit of God awaken us to this new reality, and may we live into the kingdom of God as we submit one to another, that we may be one. For he has given us grace to do so. Come, and let us together find true freedom in submission to Christ Jesus who is head over all things for the church, and who blesses us and sends us out for the good of the world. Amen.

[1] For a more in-depth engagement with this work by Dom Columba Marmion see the chapter titled ‘Bad Bishops’ in Ephraim Radner’s, Hope Among the Fragments.

We began a new tradition at the hospice for which I serve as chaplain. That is, the annual memorial service. I had the task of delivering a short reflection for our time together. I wanted to honour and respect the variety of traditions that we all brought with us while speaking authentically from within my own tradition—I hope I accomplished that. Below is the reflection I gave, to a crowd who had lost a loved on in the previous year.

I

It is truly humbling and an honour to be able to say a few words at a gathering such as this. Some of you I know personally, others perhaps not at all. But I know from my own experience—having recently watched my grandmother stricken with cancer and wrestling with dementia—how difficult these sorts of journeys are, not only for our loved one but for those of us who witness their deterioration and must face the often overwhelming prospect of life without them.

And so there is a tension inherent in a memorial like this one. We remember with fondness and joy the life we shared with our loved ones, and yet we feel the sting of their loss. This is a tension that was drawn out in some of the readings and songs we have heard already this afternoon. For example, we heard read these words from the Irish poet John O’Donohue: “Though we need to weep your loss…Your love was like the dawn; Brightening over our lives/Awakening beneath the dark; A further adventure of colour.” He spoke also of the mysterious discovery of hope, even in grief: “May this dark grief flower with hope, in every heart that loves you,” (On The Death Of The Beloved). We heard also the words of James E. Miller: “I believe in the promising paradoxes of loss; In the midst of darkness, there can come a great Light. At the bottom of despair, there can appear a great Hope. And deep within loneliness, there can come a great Love,” (An Affirmation For Those Who Have Lost).

II

What is this tension we feel, between despair and hope, sadness and joy, darkness and light? It is, I think, a very human tension—that is, a mortal tension. That we have bodies brings us great joy. Our bodies enable us to embrace one another; to love and to be loved; to enjoy food with friends and family. Our bodies allow us to run and to play and to work. This is very good. And yet, at the same time, our bodies can be a source of grief and frustration—we have physical limitations; we fall ill; our bodies begin to physically deteriorate as we age; we die. We are mortal, yet it is precisely our mortality that is the fertile ground in which a deeply meaningful life may grow.

III

We see this deep truth contrasted in the rather joyful—playful, even—song we sang together earlier, O Christmas Tree. I’ll spare you my own rendition of the song, but note the lyrics of the first verse: “O Christmas Tree! O Christmas Tree! Thy leaves are so unchanging; Not only green when summer’s here, but also when ‘tis cold and drear. O Christmas Tree! O Christmas Tree! Thy leaves are so unchanging!” We see here the unchanging nature of coniferous trees especially when compared with deciduous trees which lose their leaves seasonally. The Oak tree, grand and beautiful as it is, knows not the constancy of the mighty Redwood.

It is not until the final verse of the song that the veil is pulled back, so to speak: “O Christmas Tree! O Christmas Tree! How richly God has decked thee! Thou bidst us true and faithful be, and trust in God unchangingly.” That is to say, the unchanging leaves of the Christmas Tree, point us towards a God who is unchanging, and thus to a God whom we can trust even in the midst of our lives which are subject to change, often unwelcome change.

Together we in this room represent many different religious and faith traditions. And in different ways each of our traditions speak to the beauty and frailty of human life. Speaking from within my own tradition, I think the Psalms have something to offer in this regard which may, perhaps, resonate with us all.

IV

In Psalm 102, the psalmist cries out in lament: “My days pass away like smoke, and my bones burn like a furnace.” And again, “My days are like an evening shadow; I wither away like grass.” Our life is fleeting, and the older we get the more obvious this appears to us—“It feels like just yesterday when…” Time, especially time with those we love, can seem to go so quickly—“My days are like an evening shadow.” Moreover, our humanity is fragile. Whether we lost our loved ones in childhood, in the prime of their life, or at the end of a life of many years, we know the pain of witnessing those we care most deeply about bump up against the limitations of their condition or illness—“I wither away like grass.”

The psalmist continues, however: “But you, O LORD, are enthroned for ever; your name endures to all generations.” And also, “Long ago you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you endure.” Here the psalmist contrasts the frailty of human creatures, bound by time, with the eternal life of the Creator. Generations come and go, yet somehow, God’s own life embraces all people in all places at all times: “Your name endures to all generations.”

The psalmist goes on to say with confidence, “He will regard the prayer of the destitute, and will not despise their prayer.” That is to say, the difference between the Creator and creation is not a distance. Indeed, it is precisely this difference that means God is free to come to us, free to hear our deepest cries from our deepest depths. Surely, in one way or another for us all there is the hope of a God who cares, who listens, and who responds.

In the Christian faith that is the person of Jesus Christ, in whom we witness the coming together of these seemingly opposing realities—temporal constraints and eternity; sadness and joy; life and death; human flesh and the Living God; cross and resurrection. In Christ, death is not the end—there is life even in death. And this births hope, even in the darkness of death.

V

We are gathered here today to remember our loved ones, whose lives—no matter how short or how imperfect—mattered. They mattered because they were a gift, a gift in which we shared, and thus a gift which left an indelible mark on the world and, more profoundly, on us. We are who we are in part because of them. Thus, the great joy of loving and being loved, a joy that we could never have fathomed, is also marked with a deep pain at their loss. May the same love which you shared with your loved one continue to draw your family together. And may you trust in the unchanging God, who holds our whole life—tensions, paradoxes, and all—in his hands.

From here:

“The Complementarity of Man and Woman: An International Colloquium is a gathering of leaders and scholars from many religions across the globe, to examine and propose anew the beauty of the relationship between the man and the woman, in order to support and reinvigorate marriage and family life for the flourishing of human society.”

There might not be a more important conversation that needs to be happening right now than this. The moral failures of a society which attempt to erase or suppress the sexual difference of man and woman, and refuses to acknowledge the naturally apparent complementarity therein are only becoming more apparent and glaring.

If only in religious communities natural marriage and family life is upheld as morally significant and beautiful, then so be it. But I hope this will not be the case (and as we know, even in religious communities this is not always the case).

At any rate, this colloquium is happening now (November 17-19) and it will be very interesting to see what comes out of it. It ought to be of particular interest to those of us who are a part of the Anglican Communion wherein the nature of marriage and human sexuality is becoming less, so some would have us think, naturally (leave aside, biblically) self-evident.

I commend to you the following 6 videos. These videos and whatever comes out of the colloquium will no doubt be controversial—this is a good thing.

Grace and peace.

I’ve been thinking and praying a lot this summer about my Christian brothers and sisters in Iraq and Syria that are being attacked, raped, and beheaded by ISIS for their faith in Christ. My thinking and praying has become more concentrated this week as I have been studying Revelation 12:7-12 in preparation for preaching on Sunday. In particular, I’ve been meditating a good deal on what John means when he writes that Christians “have conquered [the devil] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death,” (12:11). The word there translated “testimony” is the Greek word from which we get “martyr.” That is, martyrs testify/bear witness to Christ, and in this way martyrdom, though it appears to be a defeat, is in fact a victory. It is a participation in the once-for-all-decisive victory of the Lamb who was slain.

And so I think of my brothers and sisters in northern Iraq, and while it looks like a staggering defeat be not fooled, theirs is a victory: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church,” (Tertullian). This evening I read this vision of John’s which rings eerily close to present earthly realities: “Then I saw thrones, and those seated on them were given authority to judge. I also saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus and for the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years…This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. Over these the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him a thousand years,” (Revelation 20:4-6).

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