Preached at St. Cuthbert’s Leaside on the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, August 16th, 2015.

Summer Ephesians Series: Ephesians 5:15-20

christ_wisdom

“Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise people but as wise,” (Ephesians 5:15).

I want us to reflect this morning on wisdom and what it means to walk wisely. “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise people but as wise,” writes Paul. What is this wisdom that Paul refers to? And, moreover, how do we attain it? Well, allow me to give you the answer upfront: “You can’t get the wisdom you need simply by digging up more facts. You get it by worshipping the God whose facts they are,” (NT Wright).

To Paul’s Jewish readers, talk of wisdom would have rung familiar, for it is a theme that runs through the Old Testament. Essentially, wisdom in early Judaism can be summed up as a longing to know the will of God which gives life its true orientation and thus results in blessing. Recall our Old Testament reading moments ago wherein Solomon asks the LORD for, “an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil,” (1 Kings 3:5, 9). To which the LORD responds, “Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind…If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life,” (1 Kings 2:14). Wisdom is this desire to know God’s will, to discern what is good in all areas of life.

One other thing we should know about wisdom in the Old Testament is that it was later personified. From Proverbs: “Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?” (8:1). In fact, Lady Wisdom speaks: “And now, my children, listen to me: happy are those who keep my ways…For whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the LORD; but those who miss me injure themselves; all who hate me love death,” (8:32, 35-6). Love of wisdom is life; hatred of wisdom is death.

Now let’s fast forward a wee bit to the early Church. Listen to how Paul and the earliest Christians spoke about the risen Jesus: “I want you to have the knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,” (Col 2:2-3). Listen also, how they spoke of the gospel of Jesus: “But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory,” (1 Cor 2:7). And here again, more explicitly: “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God,” (1 Cor 1:24). Here’s the point:

As the early Christians drew together all of these threads of wisdom from the treasure-house of the Old Testament they found, and we with them, that the rich tapestry they form takes the shape of the Crucified One.

Christ is the wisdom of God. We walk in wisdom, then, by becoming like Christ. Or, as Paul put it at the beginning of Ephesians 5, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us,” (1-2). This of course begs the question, how do we become like Christ? Is this a decision we make? Be it resolved: today I am going to be like Christ. I want to suggest rather, to quote St. Clare of Assisi, that we become what we love; who we love shapes what we become. If we’re still tracking together, we can see that the logic works like this then: wisdom begins with worship.

Of course, worship is the primary task of the church. Above all else, we are first-and-foremost a community which worships Jesus Christ in Spirit and in truth. But how do we come to know the risen Jesus Christ, that we might love and worship him? I want to suggest that it is primarily through the Bible that we come to know Jesus in this way. And yes, no doubt, we read the Bible communally every Sunday when we gather for worship—our whole liturgy is steeped in Scripture. But what I want to leave us with this morning is the importance of individually immersing ourselves in the Scriptures as a way of nurturing our faith and love of Christ, and thus as the primary way in which we learn to walk in wisdom.

As it happens, this is one area where Western Anglicans have been traditionally weak in modern times—Biblical literacy. I sometimes wonder why this is? Do we shy away from a life devoted to the Bible because we think that’s reserved for the crazy uncle of the Christian family—fundamentalists? Or, perhaps it’s because we think, rightly, that the Bible is a challenging book to read. Boring, even! Whatever the case, here is the great irony: at the very heart of the Anglican tradition is a desire for people all over the world to have access to the Bible in a language that they can understand. The Anglican church is all about this!

At one point in Ephesians when Paul is talking about the mystery of Christ he says, “In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit,” (3:5). The gospel of Jesus Christ has been revealed to Christ’s holy apostles and prophets. This is another way of talking about the Bible—the teaching of the holy apostles and prophets as handed down to us. And while Paul likely didn’t have the New Testament in mind the point certainly applies: we come to know—and love and worship—Jesus Christ as we read the Bible with the help of the Holy Spirit and the whole Church. This is why, about 300 years after Paul, Saint Jerome can say, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.”

We cannot know Jesus Christ apart from the deposit of faith that we have in the Bible.

Moreover, the only way to make sense of the Christian life is to be ever more deeply rooted and grounded in Jesus. And we become just so deeply rooted as we immerse ourselves in a prayerful reading of the Bible, both communally and individually. Those of you who know the Book of Common Prayer will be familiar with Cramner’s exhortation to “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” the Holy Scriptures. We simply cannot attempt to inhabit the divine wisdom which overcomes the world apart from this.

A friend of mine wrote recently, “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,” (Ephraim Radner). Here we see that our own cultivation of our own faith is not just for our own good but for the good of our neighbour, for the good of our child or our spouse, for the good of the world. That is to say, our life as a people immersed in the Scriptures is always for the sake of mission.

“Look carefully then how you walk,” writes Paul, “not as unwise people but as wise.” Wherever you are and whatever it is that you put your hand to, when it comes to walking in wisdom, when it comes to understanding the will of the Lord and discerning what is good and beautiful and true, we cannot do this as Christians apart from discovering Jesus Christ in Holy Scripture. Would you consider committing yourself, in whatever capacity you are able, to the reading of the Bible consistently over time? With the help of the Holy Spirit you will be challenged, prodded, made uncomfortable and at other times comforted and encouraged. You will know that from birth to death your life is in the hands of God and thus every single aspect of your life is filled with His presence and divine purpose—and you will learn what to do. You will discover that your faith is actually part of a much larger story, beginning with Israel and culminating in Christ Jesus and his Church. Most of all, I hope, you will come to see Christ in new and fresh ways as his light and love penetrate your heart and mind.

“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path,” writes the Psalmist. Indeed, may the light of God’s word lighten our path as we learn to daily walk in wisdom with Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Pope Francis gives his thumb up as he leaves at the end of his weekly general audience in St. Peter's square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013. (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)

Thumbs up for evangelism!

I have been meaning to read Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) for some time now but have only just got around to making time for it. Even before I began, I was convinced that this was a very important document for the life of the Church at this moment. Lot’s of folks from different churches are talking about the need for a re-evangelization, especially in the West, and I appreciate much from these conversations: joy as the root of evangelization; understanding worship as central to mission; and, the need for our lives to correspond to the faith we proclaim (i.e. witness).

Here are four characteristics of an evangelizing community, according to Francis (from Evangelii Gaudium, p.21-23).

An evangelizing community…

  1. …knows that the Lord has taken the initiative. He has loved us first (1 Jn 4:19) and therefore we can move forward, boldly take the initiative, go out to others, seek those who have fallen away, stand at the crossroads and welcome the outcast. Let us try a little harder to take the first step and become involved.
  2. …gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives. Evangelizers thus take on the “smell of the sheep.”
    1. …is also supportive, standing by people at every step of the way, no matter how difficult or lengthy this may prove to be. Evangelization consists mostly of patience and disregard for constraints for constraints of time.
  3. …is always concerned with fruit, because the Lord wants her to be fruitful. It cares for the grain and does not grow impatient at the weeds. The goal is always and everywhere to see God’s word accepted and its capacity for liberation and renewal revealed.
  4. …is filled with joy; it knows how to rejoice always. It celebrates every small victory, every step forward in the work of evangelization.

What say you? Do these resonate with you? Is there anything you’d add?

Grace and peace.

Preached at St. Cuthbert’s Leaside on the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 2nd, 2015.

Summer Ephesians Series: Ephesians 4:1-16

deification

“But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,” (Ephesians 4:15).

Last week Beth asked the question: Why go to church? I want us to hold up that question again this morning and look at another way that Paul begins to answer it. Why go to church? Because it is in the Church that we come to understand the truest dynamic of life. That our life has a goal, an end, towards which it is being pulled by God and thus an end towards which God orders it. The theological term for this is providence: “the ordering of historical particularities by God for a single divine purpose,” (Aquinas) That is to say, God’s good and true purpose is comprehensive and encompasses all of creation and all of time. And that everything that is, all the particularities of life, are pieces in the mosaic of history that, together, reveal the great picture of God’s purpose (Radner).

In light of this purpose, Christians are called to a certain type of life. “I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord,” writes Paul, “beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” Therefore. It’s as if Paul is saying, “Up until now I’ve told you the truth of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, how he brought us from death to life, and of His great plan to gather up all things in Christ. Now here is the sort of life that corresponds to that good news.”

One of the things that jumps out at me here is how the gospel loads grace up on the front end. The gift of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ is not something we earn, it is not the reward for a life well-lived. Not at all! The gift is not the reward but the seed which, when planted in our hearts and minds, grows up into a life that bears a certain fruit.

And so, this grace of God in Jesus Christ calls us to a different sort of life. Not our old life, improved. But our old life, dead and in the grave with Jesus, that we might rise with him to new life. Immediately after the portion of Ephesians that we heard read Paul writes, “put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and…clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness,” (4:22, 24). Christians are called to a new life which begins with Jesus, and ends with Jesus: “We must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” Consequently, in light of what Jesus reveals about life, the Church is everywhere called to resist all lesser interpretations of life—resist them in love, but with firmness and consistency, hoping that God might use just such a community of resistance to turn the world away from destruction and towards Jesus Christ (B.I. Bell).

We begin to see here a glimpse of the vocation of the Church. God calls the Church to a peculiar life so that He might use it to achieve His purposes in and for the world. As Paul wrote earlier in the letter: “[God] has put all things under [Christ’s] feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all,” (1:22-23). That is to say, God is gathering up all things into Christ, and He is using the Church, the body of Christ, to accomplish this in some way. Indeed, we have received the Holy Spirit in order to be just such a people (4:7ff).

There is a certain distinction to our common life in Christ which confronts the society around it and stands in opposition to it. In every age this is part of the Church’s calling. Yet the Church has often forgotten this, preferring instead popularity and if not that then at least respectability. But we cannot compromise our opposition to the world without ceasing to be Christian.

Consider the strangeness of the early Christian community as it grew and spread throughout the Roman Empire in places like Ephesus to which Paul wrote. The gospel opened these early Christians  up to a new moral horizon, previously unimaginable, which forever changed the world. Among some of the practices which the early Christians held to that confounded their pagan neighbours were fidelity within marriage, treating women with dignity as equals, treating slaves with respect as brothers/sisters, not scorning and excluding the poor but seeing in them the face of Christ, and refusing to expose infants—a practice that involved leaving new born children to the fate of the gods by exposing them to the elements and whatever else may come (if you’ve been paying attention to all of this Planned Parenthood news over the last week, well then you know that we live in a culture that is still fond of exposing our infants only we are more intentional about determining their fate). My point is that for those early Christians in pagan Rome, following Jesus entailed resisting and rejecting what were otherwise run-of-the-mill, normal practices. 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.

Are we living in very different times now? Does following Jesus for us, like our brothers and sisters before us, not demand a similar sort of reappraisal of our lives in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ? I’m thinking of some cultural norms that we perhaps may take for granted: consumerism, the pursuit of power and social prestige, a sexual ethic with no end other than our own gratification and self-realization, racism, and confusion about the purpose of marriage. Does following Jesus disrupt any of this? Should it? Have our imaginations been formed in such a way that we think even to ask these sorts of questions?

And so, the life which Christians are called to live—one rooted in God’s grace in opposition to the wisdom of the world—this is a life that must be willing to suffer. Remember Paul’s exhortation with which we began: “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” Paul is writing this letter from prison. And, of course, the life of the One who calls us was marked by the sort of self-giving love that results in crucifixion at the hands of the State and the religious leaders. The life that is worthy of the calling to which we have been called is not Your Best Life Now. It is a life of faithfulness to the crucified Christ and thus a life marked by suffering.

In this mornings’ passage from Ephesians that means at least two things. First, it means a willingness to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters in Christ. “Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called,” writes Paul, “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” One cannot grow up into maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ, apart from the humility, gentleness, and patience required to love one another as Christ has loved us. This is especially the case when we have to suffer one another. For it is just here, as members of Christ’s body, that we are equipped with every grace to be just such a patient people.

Second, it means a willingness to suffer for the sake of right doctrine. Paul warns the Ephesians, “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine,” (4:14). What we believe matters. It matters so much to Paul that he is willing to suffer for it (2 Tim 1:11-12). Elsewhere he encourages his friend Timothy to, “hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me…Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us,” (2 Tim 1:13-14). And then immediately after this Paul encourages Timothy to endure the suffering that will come as a result (2 Tim 2:3). Indeed, towards the end of Ephesians we’ll see that Paul counsels us to, “put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil,” (6:11). Walking in a way that is worthy of the One who called us means a willingness to suffer for the gospel.

Yet, we’re so unwilling to suffer for either of these reasons. For example, rather than bear with one another in love, we’ll readily leave the church. Or, one church will make important decisions by itself, refusing to submit to their brothers and sisters elsewhere who might be asking them not to proceed. And when it comes to our unwillingness to suffer for the teaching we have received, well there are numerous examples. They all involve the re-tailoring of the one faith we have inherited to better suit the tastes and preferences of the surrounding culture. However, if we are willing instead to share in the suffering of Christ, to find our life hidden there in his death, we might find that God is able to use even such suffering and affliction to achieve His purposes.

And with that we return to where we began—the purposes of God which order our life, both individually and as a community of faith. In Jesus Christ, we have been brought from death to life. Now, in this new life, we are called to grow up from infancy to maturity: “we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” May we own and embrace the resulting weirdness rather than be embarrassed or feel the need to apologize for it. Because following Jesus is weird—it opens us up to a new life. May we allow the Holy Spirit to work in us, giving us the courage to give our lives over to the good and true purposes of God, that our life, and the life of the world, might be drawn ever deeper into the mystery of the fullness of Christ. Amen.

Sandra Bland

I was reading something about Sandra Bland this afternoon when my 4-year-old daughter walked up, saw her picture, and asked, “Daddy, who is that lady?”

For the first time that I can recall in her 4 years of life I didn’t know how to immediately respond. What should I tell her? What can she handle at such a young age? Do I have a responsibility to tell her the truth? Do I have a responsibility to protect her from the truth, for now, until she is older and has the rational capacity to process the truth?

I took a deep breath.

“That lady is Sandra Bland.”

“Oh. What is she doing?”

“Well, Sandra has a very sad story,” I replied as my mind raced through all of the things I could say next. “I’ll tell you about her when you’re older.”

And just then I realized one of the ways in which I benefit from white privilege: I had the luxury to defer explaining to my 4-year-old daughter the tragedy of lifeless black bodies at the hands of police.

Eric Garner’s children don’t get to defer the trauma of life without their father.

Mike Brown’s family don’t get that privilege either.

Black lives matter.

Preached at St. Cuthbert’s Leaside on the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 19th, 2015.

Summer Ephesians Series: Ephesians 2:11-22

TheEmbraceofElizabethandtheVirginMary

“So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near,” (2:17).

Every Sunday there comes a time in the liturgy when the priest standing with arms outstretched proclaims to the people, “The peace of the Lord be always with you.” To which we all respond, “And also with you.” And then what happens? We all move about and greet one another with the peace of Christ. We pass the peace, as it were: “The peace of Christ,” “Christ’s peace,” “peace be with you.” Why do we do this? Why bother to pass the peace at all? What underlying condition do we suffer from that the peace of Christ is the remedy?

In his book Mere Christianity the great Anglican saint, Clive Staples Lewis, wrote that “fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.” An interesting image, isn’t it? Human beings as rebels who have taken up arms against God. And this rebellion it alienates, creates hostility and division between human creatures and God and at the same time creates a hostility and division between and amongst human creatures. See for example the opening chapters of Genesis. The sin of Adam, the basic human sin, is to try to set up on our own, to act as if we belong to ourselves, as if we are our own masters, writers of our own destiny. And as a result of this sin of Adam his relationship with God is cut through with enmity and they are exiled from Eden. How quickly the enmity spreads for in the very next chapter of Genesis what do we witness but Eve’s eldest son Cain kill his younger brother Abel. Division is murder. Hostility arises even between the human and the non-human creation: “cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life.”

My point is simply that these divisions and hostilities are all caught up with each other. Hostility between human creatures because hostility characterizes our relationship with God apart from Christ. We rarely see this connection, though. I mean, we know well the hostility and divisions between human creatures and even between human creatures and the non-human creation. Turn on the news, the examples they are legion. Charleston; Sarah Bland; Tina Fontaine and the thousands of other missing and murdered indigenous women across Canada. But rarely do we see this hostility as a sign which points towards a greater hostility yet, that which sin creates between human creatures and the God whose love creates and sustains us.

Interestingly, though, Pope Francis made just such a connection in his recent Encyclical, Laudato Si, about the divine mandate to care for creation. Quoting Benedict XVI, Francis writes, “The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast.” For Francis, the reason for the hostility between humans and the rest of the created order is the hostility between human creatures and God. We might say, in a similar fashion, that the hostility and divisions are so great between human creatures because we persist in rejecting God’s way in favour of forging our own path.

We lack peace, we long for peace, we need peace. What then is the remedy for the division and hostility that cuts to the heart of the universe? It is Christ and his church. First, it is Jesus Christ. Just prior to our reading from Ephesians Paul wrote, “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived,” (2:1). That is, sin brings not only division and hostility, but also death. “But,” Paul continues, “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ,” (2:4-5).

The way of the world is not the only way, there is another way to live that has been opened up to us in Jesus Christ. And this way begins as we are brought near to God: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” We are not called to set ourselves free from the division and sin that so ensnares. We cannot. This reconciling work is Christ’s, who in the mystery of his cross and his passion put to death the hostility which marks us so deeply.

Behold, in the vertical and the horizontal axis’ of the cross, the extent of Christ’s reconciling love—which at once overcomes the hostility between humans and God and the hostility amongst and between human creatures. These are not separate acts, they are the one act of the reconciling God, accomplished in the flesh of Jesus Christ. Remove one or the other axis and you do not have the cross.

And in the shadow of the cross the Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead gathers us, begins to work in us, creates in us and through us that which we cannot become on our own—a community reconciled, to God, and to one another, liberated from the old way of sin and death and set on a new course with Jesus, where we, together by the power of the Spirit, begin to live into this new reality in which we are no longer divided, but one.

Life in Christ, then, means two inseparable things: it means coming into a new relationship with God and it means coming into a new relationship with others, a relationship characterized by, among other things, peace. “For he is our peace,” writes Paul, “in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”

I said earlier that the remedy for the division and hostility that cuts to the heart of the universe is Christ and his church. If Jesus is the obvious answer then I hope by now that it is becoming apparent how the Church factors into this. If it’s true that you can’t be reconciled to God in Christ apart from being reconciled to one another in Christ, then it’s true that you can’t ever meet Christ in all of his glory without also having to meet the common, everyday, not-always-particularly glorious Church. Christ is the head of the body, after all. Paul gives us a visual image for this at the end of our passage this morning. Christ is the cornerstone of the holy temple which is being built up out of those who are in Christ, a dwelling place for God (2:19-22).

Part of what Paul is saying in Ephesians, I think, is that the Church is a community which, by God’s grace, has been set apart, called to order our lives in a distinct sort of way around the risen Jesus. To be in Christ then, is to be in the Church, for it is just here in this community of imperfect people that the love of the reconciling God is poured out in a tangible way in the sacraments and witnessed to as we are reconciled one to another and joined to those whom we previously would have been alienated from. When we think of what we do here at St. Cuthbert’s, all of the groups and various meetings that take place, all of the money and other resources that we spend—is this all ordered towards the mission of the reconciling God?

Of course, the church itself is imperfect and marked by all sorts of division and hostility (that’s a whole other sermon), and so we need to always be confessing our sin as we live into this unity which is a gift to the Church in Christ, for the sake of the world.

And on that note, it’s worth returning to where we began, with the passing of the peace. If we are to be a community that passes the peace of Christ to one another and further extends this peace out into the world then let us note just where the peace comes in the liturgy. In both the BCP and the BAS the peace comes after we confess our sin and receive absolution and before we share the bread and the wine of the Eucharist. In other words, the passing of the peace is situated in just such a way that our gaze is drawn to the cross, where in Christ’s own self-giving we see the fullness of grace: the result of our sin but also the means of forgiveness; the result of our hostility but also the means of our peace; Christ’s body given and blood shed for us, through which the Spirit gathers us into one body that we might be a community of God’s reconciling love in the world. Amen.

Preached at St. Cuthbert’s Leaside on the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, July 5th, 2015.

Lections: 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10; Psalm 48; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13

And they took offense at him.”

There’s a great scene in the 1999 film ‘Dogma’ where, as part of a campaign (“Catholicism Wow!”) to renew the image of and interest in the Catholic Church, Cardinal Glick—played by George Carlin—retires the “wholly depressing” image of the crucifix in favour of a more uplifting image of Jesus—Buddy Christ. Buddy Christ is a statue of Jesus, smiling and winking while pointing at onlookers with one hand and giving them a thumbs-up with the other. This is the image, essentially, of an impotent Christ, a Christ who comes to be our cheerleader—a Christ who is on our side and agrees with us on pretty much everything. Not a Christ who is very likely to cause offense.

Come with me now into our gospel text where just prior Jesus had been bouncing around the Sea of Galilee doing all sorts of miracles. He calmed the storm, he liberated a man possessed by demons, he healed the woman who had been suffering from a hemorrhage for 12 years, and he raised up a young girl from death. And now he has come to his hometown, to the people who would have known him from childhood and he begins to teach in the synagogue on the sabbath. And Mark tells us that those who heard him were astounded: “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands!”

These are good questions, questions having to do with the source and authority of Jesus’ deeds and teaching. Earlier in the gospel some of the teachers of the law from Jerusalem suggested that Jesus must be getting his power and authority from Beelzebub (3:22). Mark, however, tipped his hand in the very first words of the gospel: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” (1:1).

The Son of God. And yet, the hometown crowd could see only the son of Mary: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.” These questions are set up to be answered with a yes—yes this is Mary’s boy, the carpenter, and yes these are his friends and family here with us. But the answer is more complicated than that for Jesus has already made it clear that only those who do the will of his Father are his mother and brothers and sisters (3:34-35).

And they took offense at him. The Greek word here translated “took offense” is the word from which we get our English word “scandalized”. It means, literally, to place a stumbling block or impediment in the way. The hometown crowd perceived the powerful words and deeds of Jesus but refused to admit the source of his wisdom and power. They tripped up upon him.

I wonder if there isn’t a double offense going on here? From one angle, is part of the offense not that God would appear in someone so common as a carpenter’s son? That in the Incarnation—that is, the Son of God’s assumption of our flesh—God leaves absolutely no part of our humanity unclaimed. On the landscape of our human experience, there is no stone which God leaves unturned. He takes all of it, every last cell, every last desire, every last thought, he takes our beginning and our ending and every second of our human life therein and claims it as his own. As some early Christians put it, “that which he has not assumed he has not healed.” And so, in his very flesh Jesus takes all that it means to be human and heals it, fulfills it, perfects it, brings it to its proper end in God. And so Christians understand life, not as something which we can claim ownership of, but as a gift given to us by God in Christ Jesus, to be lived unto God.

So then, this is what is finally determinative of who we are. What matters, ultimately, is not who your mother is or who your father is, who your family is, where you came from or wherever you think you’re going. What matters, first-and-foremost, is that you are a creature of God and in Christ Jesus you have been reconciled to God and made God’s own, forever. If we want to talk about our identity, or the orientation of our life, let us begin here—Jesus Christ, the carpenter’s son, Mary’s boy.

From another angle, is part of the offense not that God would appear in someone so common as a carpenter’s son? That in the familiarity of human flesh we find something most unfamiliar—the very fullness of God. Who would have thought that the strength and wisdom of God would be made known in the life of one man, born of Mary, a life marked by humility and self-giving love, especially unto those who would reject him? Who would have thought that no where do we come closer to the face of God than in the face of Christ on the cross? Just here we find the great paradox of the Christian faith, for the strength and wisdom of God appear here, to the world, as weak and foolish: “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 Cor. 1:18).

Here, in Jesus Christ, God makes a particular claim on us—that we are, you and I, loved of God and thus creatures of His own fashioning. Creatures who sinned and who suffer the pain of our self-inflicted isolation from God, but creatures for whom Christ took this very suffering upon himself because this particular act, the self-giving of the Son for the life of the world, this is what God’s love looks like, and thus He proves it on the cross (Romans 5:8).

The God of the gospel, who we come to know in Jesus, is no Buddy Christ. Rather, he disrupts our lives, turns them upside down, and asks us to trust him in the process. Is it any wonder then that we might trip up, just here, upon Jesus himself? And so, in an effort to mitigate the discomfort, to soften the blow, what do we do? We domesticate Jesus, we shrink him down so that he fits nicely into whatever little vacant cubbyhole we want to place him in. We polish him up so that he’ll be more reasonable, more palatable, to the logic and tastes of the world. And I think when we do this Jesus is amazed at our unbelief.

If you are here this morning and you feel yourself drawn towards Jesus in some fashion, for one reason or another, but you are hesitant because there’s just something about the gospel that makes you feel uncomfortable, well then, thanks be to God. This may just be a sign that the Jesus you find yourself attracted to isn’t merely a Jesus that you’ve made in your own image. Take that sense of awe, that holy curiosity, and ask the Holy Spirit to nurture it. For Jesus says, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me,” (Matthew 11:6). Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ! Even if right now all you can do is cry out like the father who brought his son to Jesus to be healed: “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). Trust him! And let us see what God will do. Amen.

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

saints.peter.and.paul.v2

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.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 37 other followers