ascension

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 5 of 6 videos—the 6th has yet to be published. 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).

From here:

In 2013 the General Synod passed a resolution directing the drafting of a motion “to change Canon XXI on marriage to allow the marriage of same-sex couples in the same way as opposite-sex couples, and that this motion should include a conscience clause so that no member of the clergy, bishop, congregation or diocese should be constrained to participate in or authorize such marriages against the dictates of their conscience.” Such a motion will be considered by the 2016 General Synod. 

The General Synod stipulated that the preparation of this motion should, among other things, demonstrate that a “broad consultation” has taken place. To that end, a Commission on the Marriage Canon was established, and an important part of its mandate includes inviting “signed written submissions on the matter of amending Canon XXI (“On Marriage in the Church”) so as to provide for same-sex marriage in our church from any member of the Anglican Church of Canada who wishes to make such a submission.”

As members of the Anglican Church of Canada, your input is vitally important as we enter this process of discernment together, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

This is an important moment in the life of the Anglican Church of Canada, so, I decided to add my voice to those who are taking the Commission on the Marriage Canon up on it’s request for input. You can see all of the responses here (updated regularly).

My own submission, which I have just sent in, will no doubt be posted there in the next day or two. For now I offer it here.

 

***

 

“If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…” (Philippians 2:1-5)

To begin, a question: Why is it that in situations of conflict Christians often find themselves accomplices in war, rather than agents of peace? I offer this answer: It is because we find it difficult to distance ourselves from our selves and our own culture and so we echo its reigning opinions and mimic its practices. When North American Christians can so easily kill their brothers and sisters in, for example, Iraq, we fail to keep the vision of God’s future alive. In times of war, we need our brothers and sisters on the other side to pull us out of the enclosure of our own culture and its own peculiar set of prejudices so that we can hear afresh the “one Word of God.” In this way, and only in this way, we might once again become salt to a world ravaged by strife.[1]

To my brothers and sisters in the Anglican Church of Canada, and to those who have been selected to serve the church by getting to work on the Commission on the Marriage Canon: I urge you not to go forward with the proposed changes to Canon XXI, “to allow the marriage of same-sex couples in the same way as opposite-sex couples.” There are, to be sure, theological, historical, sociological, and Biblical reasons not to do so. Some of these, which centre on procreation and the rearing of children, the condemnation of same-sex intercourse in Scripture and Tradition, and the Scriptural and theological significance of created difference (including male-female differentiation) as a part of the good ordering of creation and a sign of Christ and the church, are ones by which I am personally persuaded. But I will leave it to others to articulate them for your study. In this case, my primary purpose is to urge you to maintain our traditional canon on the basis of love. Namely, love for our sisters and brothers in Christ not only throughout the world but also throughout time, that great cloud of witnesses! I urge you on the basis of Christ’s own love (“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ…”): that is, the laying down of one’s self for the sake of others.

It is clear that Canadian society at large has moved on in this matter: two people of the same sex, our civil law now affirms, ought to be able to get married in the same way as two people of the opposite sex. Some in the Anglican Church of Canada regard our arriving late to the party as a terrible tragedy, “Why is the church always behind the times?!” they cry out. Much has been written about the relationship between church and culture but my question is this: To whom do Christians owe their allegiance? I should hope that the obvious answer is, to the risen and living Jesus.

There is a less obvious though no less important answer, however: Christians owe their allegiance to one another. You and I are bound to Christ and because we are bound to Christ we are bound to one another. The vast majority of the church (Anglican or otherwise) is for the traditional understanding of marriage as currently outlined in Canon XXI. It is important to realize, though, that this majority is not some powerful bastion of rich entrenched interests; just the opposite. Those we are bound to are the poor church of the majority world, not only materially deprived but often politically beleaguered. We are also bound to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters as well, a reality that requires compassionate, loving, and truthful, pastoral care. But we must not rush ahead in these matters and stress further the tensions between wealthy Western churches and our poor brothers and sisters that compose the majority of our own Anglican Communion. “But that’s restrictive and confining!” some would say. Yes, it is. But there is no other way to be Christian because this is the way that God in Christ has loved us—by giving Himself, all of Himself, entirely to us. And God’s self-sacrificial love in Christ bears fruit—us. The church grows out of and is sustained by this very love, and we are called to participate in it as well: “be of the same mind, having the same love…” May we be so willing as to sacrifice our conscience on this matter, at this time, for the good of the whole church.

It is no secret that the creation of liturgical rites for the blessing of same-sex unions in the Diocese of New Westminster and the consecration as bishop of Gene Robinson in the Diocese of New Hampshire were catalysts for significant stress and fracturing within our Anglican Communion. In hindsight, were these the sort of self-sacrificially loving acts by which we regard our global sisters and brothers in Christ as better than ourselves? I wouldn’t want to be the one charged with making that case. When you make an agreement with someone—as bishops did at Lambeth 1998, for example—we are not then free to go our own way. This destroys trust and disrupts the entire processes necessary for discerning our future.

The blood of Christ that binds us together as brothers and sisters is greater and more precious than the blood, the language, the customs, political allegiances, or economic interests that may separate us. We belong to Christ and as such we belong to one another. For the sake of love, the Anglican Church of Canada must reject, therefore, the false doctrine that would have us give allegiance to the culture and the nation which we inhabit above the commitment to our brothers and sisters from other cultures and nations, servants of the one Jesus Christ, our common Lord.

Thus, I would urge the Anglican Church of Canada and the Commission on the Marriage Canon to listen to the voices of our sisters and brothers in the Anglican Communion and to keep Canon XXI as is. Perhaps we have become unaware of the ways in which our culture has subverted our faith and have thus lost a place from which to judge our own culture. This may be of no fault of our own, but in order to maintain our allegiance to Jesus Christ, we need to nurture our love and commitment to the multicultural community of Anglicans (not to mention other Christian churches) throughout the world. May we, in love, refuse to abandon that which we together with our brothers and sisters discerned, until we together discern another way forward.

We cannot be committed to Christ apart from a commitment to the community of Christ. Yet, by changing the marriage canon, the Anglican Church of Canada would be declaring itself sufficient to itself and to its own culture. We should resist this and be open to all other churches and on this very important matter we would do well to slow down and listen to our brothers and sisters whom we so desperately need. This would require sacrifice indeed, because this is love.

Grace and peace,

Jonathan R. Turtle

Parish Assistant, St. Matthew’s First Avenue

Diocese of Toronto

jonathan@stmatthewsriverdale.org

 

[1] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, p.54.

“May your table be graced with lovely women and good men. May you drink well enough to drown the envy of youth in the satisfactions of maturity. May your men wear their weight with pride, secure in the knowledge that they have at last become considerable. May they rejoice that they will never again be taken for callow, black-haired boys. And your women? Ah! Women are like cheese strudels. When first baked, they are crisp and fresh on the outside, but the filling is unsettled and indigestible; in age, the crust may not be so lovely, but the filling comes at last into its own. May you relish them indeed. May we all sit long enough for reserve to give way to ribaldry and for gallantry to grow upon us. May there be singing at our table before the night is done, and old, broad jokes to fling at the stars and tell them we are men.

We are great, my friend; we shall not be saved for trampling that greatness under foot. Ecce tu pulcher es, dilecte mi, et decorus. Lectulus noster floridus. Tigna domorum nostrarum cedrina, laquearia nostra cypressina. Ecce iste venit, saliens in montibus, transilens colles. Come then; leap upon these mountains, skip upon these hills and heights of earth. The road to Heaven does not run from the world but through it. The longest Session of all is no discontinuation of these sessions here, but a lifting of them all by priestly love. It is a place for men, not ghosts—for the risen gorgeousness of the New Earth and for the glorious earthiness of the True Jerusalem.

Eat well then. Between our love and His Priesthood, He makes all things new. Our Last Home will be home indeed.”

—Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb, 180-1.

The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, 2014 – Genesis 29:15-28; Psalm 105:1-11, 45b; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

NB: I am greatly indebted to Fr. Robert Farrar Capon and his work on the parables of Jesus, for which I am deeply grateful.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” (Matthew 13:47-50).

There was no shortage of material from which to preach this week. Our gospel reading alone contains no less than five distinct parables about the kingdom. Nevertheless, I’ve chosen to preach mostly on this final parable of the net, because it is the last of the kingdom parables in Matthew’s gospel which Catherine has been preaching on these last two weeks. As such, it serves in many ways to sum up, if you will, the kingdom parables that precede it — the sower, the weeds and the wheat, the mustard seed, the yeast, and so on.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea.” This isn’t just any kind of net, though. No this net, this is a particular kind of net. In fact, this is the only place in the New Testament that this particular Greek word (sagēnē) shows up and it describes a dragnet — one that reaches to the very bottom and, as it is dragged through the water, indiscriminately takes everything in its path.

As the dragnet gathers up everything in its path so too the kingdom of heaven indiscriminately gathers up everything in its path.

Now, you and I picture the net containing fish and the fish being representative of people but, in fact, the word “fish” does not actually occur here. We naturally supply it and perhaps that is just what Jesus had in mind but since it is not present maybe something can be made of its absence. Indeed, the net of the kingdom touches everything in the world — not just souls, but bodies; not just people, but all things. Not only is the whole human race gathered into the kingdom, the entire physical order of the world, the whole cosmos, is drawn into the kingdom by the mystery of the Word — “and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things,” (Colossians 1:20). Just as the net gathers all things it meets in the sea and brings them to shore so too the kingdom gathers home to God everything in the world: “When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all,” (1 Corinthians 15:28). The redeemed order is not the created order forsaken; it is the created order, all of it, raised and glorified (Capon).

From this parable we can already begin to see revealed two things about the kingdom, what we might call it’s catholicity and its actual working. The parables of the yeast and the mustard seed enlighten here. Regarding catholicity, just as all things are caught up into the net, so too the whole loaf has been leavened. The hiding of the yeast in the dough is both more mysterious and more pervasive than any of the hidings Jesus has used thus far to illustrate the kingdom. For example, seeds, if you are willing, can be found and dug up again. Not so with yeast.

Just as the yeast, once it is in the dough, is so intimate a part of the lump as to be indistinguishable from it, undiscoverable in it, and irretrievable out of it, so is the kingdom in this world (Capon). The Word, who is the yeast has left not one scrap of this lump of a world unleavened.

On the actual working of the kingdom, just as the net does its job and brings all that it has gathered to the shore so too the small mustard seed grows up into the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree. This parable reveals the wonderful discrepancy between the hiddenness of the kingdom at its sowing and the lush manifestation of it in its final successful fruition. Notice that in the parable of the mustard seed there is no element of a response, either hostile or receptive, lest we think the kingdom might need our cooperation in order to come out right. Like the mustard seed and the net, the kingdom of heaven will accomplish all that it will accomplish.

Alright, back to the net. If the kingdom is like the net, gathering every kind and rejecting nothing, then the church as a sacrament of the kingdom — that is, a visible sign of a presently invisible mystery — should avoid the temptation to act like a sport fisherman who is only interested in this or that particular prize fish. Specifically, the church should not get itself into the habit of rejecting as junk the human equivalents of the old boots, bottles, and beer cans that such a dragnet would inevitably dredge up (Capon). At the very least, we should definitely not attempt, in this world, to do the kind of sorting out that the kingdom quite clearly refuses to do until the next. But alas, excommunication has been a favourite past-time of the church since the very beginning. In the words of Capon, “the practice of tossing out rotten types while the net is still in the water has been almost everybody’s idea of a terrific way to further the kingdom — everybody’s, that is, except Jesus’”. The church, not least the Anglican church, would do well to keep this in mind especially in light of our present and ongoing struggles within the Communion. To be sure, a sorting, a day of judgement, is quite clearly on the way, but it does not take place before then, not least by our hands.

I was speaking with someone just the other day who had no real issue with division in the church because some matters were simply worth dividing over. “What about reform?” this person might ask. Well, like everything else about the kingdom, reform comes not when we decide to enforce it but only when God brings it about in his own good time. If he is willing to wait for it, why should the church be in such a rush (Capon)?

Of course, Jesus does indeed get around to the subject of judgement. In the parable we hear: “when [the net] was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad.” However, the text does not suggest that the “good” and “bad” are so judged based on theirown inherent goodness or badness. In fact, “good” and “bad” are rather confusing translations. The word translated “good” (kalos) has overtones of “beautiful,” “fine,” or “fair” and as such is not as narrowly moralistic as the other common Greek word for “good” (agathos). The distinction is blunt rather than sharp, but the distinction is nevertheless there. The word translated “bad” (sapros) means, “rotten, putrid, corrupt, worthless, useless.” Thus, the criterion is not the innate goodness or badness of the fish themselves, but their acceptability to the fisherman — whatever serves the fisherman’s purpose is kept; whatever does not is tossed out.

There is always the possibility, note, that some of the damnedest things might be saved: old rusty anchors and hunks of driftwood might just make the cut if somebody took a shine to them. Anyone who is married to a garage-saler knows this well — one person’s junk is another person’s treasure, sort of.

The net contains many things, but there is nothing, however weak and feeble in and of itself, that absolutely has to be gotten rid of. Whatever sorting is done depends entirely on the the disposition of the sorters — goodness is in the eye of the Beholder (Capon).

And just as the fishermen, not the fish, set the standard for the day of judgement on the beach so it is the King of the kingdom who sets the standard for the Last Day of the world. Note first that this occurs after the general resurrection so that every last person who arrives at it arrives in the power of Jesus’ reconciliation, that is his death and resurrection: “The only sentence to be pronounced as far as the Judge himself is concerned is a sentence to life, and life abundant,” (Capon).

No one has to accept that acceptance, of course, but nobody goes to hell because they had a bad track record, at least not any more than anyone goes to heaven because they had a good one. The point is that we are not judged based on our performance — if that were the case, who could stand? Rather, we are judged by what Jesus has accomplished on the cross for us, when he pronounced an ultimately authoritative “good” (kala) over the whole wide world that he has caught in the net of his reconciliation. Only those who would rather argue with that gracious word are pronounced “bad” (sapra). Or as Capon put it:

“Both heaven and hell are populated entirely and only by forgiven sinners. Hell is just a courtesy for those who insist they want no part of forgiveness.”

And if on the cross King Jesus has reconciled every last sinner to himself should the church — the sign to the world of this kingdom forgiveness — not pronounce this same “good” (kala) over sinners? Everybody is somebody for whom Christ died. What a catastrophic misrepresentation then when the church chases questionable types from its midst. If indeed all people and all things have been caught up in this pervasive net then may the church resemble less a refined group of folks who are happily married and never get drunk and just be what we really are, “a random sampling of the broken, sinful, half-cocked world that God in Christ loves, dampened by the waters of baptism but in no way necessarily turned into perfect peaches by them,” (Capon). And if this reality should at times tempt us to despair, may we be patient and trust knowing that the kingdom is, and has never not been, at work in the world and in us and that its successful fruition does not depend on our cooperation — though let us hear the call to come and repent and really participate in the work of the kingdom as we really are. Let the Pharisees take care of whatever judging they want to, but let the church stay a million miles away. But no matter what we do — like the seed, the yeast, and the net — the kingdom works anyway, and that’s something to be joyful about. Thanks be to God.

Sermon was preached at St. Matthew’s Riverdale on the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 27th, 2014.

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