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This sermon was preached in the parish of St. Matthew’s Anglican Church in Riverdale, on the east side of Toronto, on the second Sunday of Lent, February 24, 2013.

The Scripture readings for the day were Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3.17-4.1; Luke 13.31-35.

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“He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory,” (Philippians 3.21).

Living God,

Open my mouth, that I may proclaim your Word

Open our eyes and ears, that we may see and hear you

Open our hearts and minds, that we may joyfully receive you.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Amen.

“How then can I blaspheme my King and Saviour? Bring forth what thou wilt.” These were some of the final words of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, before his hands were bound and his body thrown on the fire in the mid-second century for refusing to burn incense to the Roman Emperor. Yesterday was his feast day which Christians have celebrated for more than 1,850 years. The faithful who witnessed his death tell us that there was no stench of burning flesh from the fire but only that of baking bread, “a sweet odour…as if frankincense or some such precious spices had been smoking there,” (The Martyrdom of Polycarp, Chapter 15). Ignatius was a friend and contemporary of Polycarp who too was martyred. As he was being taken to Rome to die he wrote a number of letters one of which pleaded: “My birth pangs are at hand. Bear with me, my brothers. Do not hinder me from living: do not wish for my death…Allow me to receive the pure light; when I arrive there I shall be a real man. Permit me to be an imitator of the Passion of my God.” “When I arrive there,” speaking of his martyrdom, “I shall be a real man”. That is to say, in death we shall be made fully human. Life in death. Is this not the mystery of Christ that we are confronted with and confounded by during Lent? As we journey with Jesus towards the Cross this Lent, as we consider the call of discipleship to pick up one’s cross and follow Jesus, to come and die along with him, may we pray along with Ignatius, “Permit me to be an imitator of the Passion of my God.”

polycarpmartyrdom

In our epistle reading from this morning the Apostle Paul exhorts the recipients of his letter to “stand firm in the Lord” (4.1) for the Lord Jesus Christ will return from heaven to rescue us and, “He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself,” (3.21). This is the ultimate destiny of human creatures, to receive glorious bodies like the risen Jesus and to love God and live in Him forever. To say that our bodies will be conformed to the body of his glory is to say that human creatures were made for immortality. Fr. John Behr, an Orthodox priest and theologian, notes that “Adam and Eve are not presented in Genesis as being immortal beings who by sin fell into mortality, but as mortal beings who had the chance of attaining immortality” but failed to do so. The Early Church Father Irenaeus used the example of human growth to illustrate this same truth. Adam and Eve were, says Irenaeus, like infants in the garden and like infants they were to grow up in maturity and stature. Grow up into immortality. That is, grow up to be partakers in the Divine life. Irenaeus looks to the Apostle Paul for this. He points, for example, to Philippians which we heard this morning, where just before our lesson Paul writes, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead,” (3.10-11). In the person of Christ Jesus, and the resurrection attests to this, the human project is complete. Humanity is finally taken up to partake in the very life of God. The mortal puts on immortality. This was always the goal for human creatures and in Christ, being fully human and fully Divine, it is fulfilled. While all of this happens in Christ’s own person, he will return and raise us up with him so that what he has done for us will be done in us and we will be transformed. We will become, finally, truly human creatures.

OK, so human creatures were made for immortality, made to be partakers in the very life of the Triune God. This is what it is to be fully human. But how does this happen for us, how is it that we put on immortality? It happens, quite paradoxically, in death as was the case for Jesus. Earlier in the letter Paul writes of Christ, “who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross,” (2.6-8). This is the power of God made manifest in human weakness. And by his death Christ Jesus tramples down death and transforms it. This is the mystery of Christ, the mystery of life in death. We know this because Paul continues, “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name…” and so on (2.9-11). The point is this, Christ emptied himself, he suffered and died, therefore God exalted him. The resurrection of Christ Jesus is not the victory over what is the defeat of the cross. No, the resurrection of Jesus is the proof that the suffering way of the cross is the victory, that the way of Jesus is life. And so Paul can pray as he does with such incredible longing to share in the sufferings of Jesus by becoming like him in his death (3.10). Indeed, for Paul, that we can suffer for Christ is a privilege that he graciously grants us (1.29). Can we pray this along with Paul? To be sure this is a difficult way, hence Paul’s constant exhortations to “stand firm” and “hold fast” that occur over and over again in the letter. Can we not follow Jesus without all of this talk of suffering and death? I thought being a Christian was simply about trying to be a nicer person? Can we not have Jesus but leave the cross, leave our cross, behind? No, says Paul. For those who would desire to save their lives, those who would desire to preserve their lives and store up for themselves all sorts of trinkets on this earth are “enemies of the cross of Christ…and their end is destruction…their minds are set on earthly things,” (3.18-19).

As for us, “our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” That is, the Lord Jesus Christ who humbled himself unto death on the cross. The Lord Jesus Christ of whom Paul exhorts us: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” (2.5). That is, the same mind which does nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regards others as better than oneself. The same mind that looks not to one’s own interests, but to the interests of others (2.3-4). The same mind which led Christ Jesus to willingly lay down his life in suffering love for the world. S. John Chrysostom asks, “Was not thy Master hung upon the tree?…Crucify thyself, though no one crucify thee…If thou lovest thy Master, die His death,” (Homily XII, Philippians 3.18-21). In other words, even though no one may be crucifying you, crucify thyself. Even though you may not be dragged out into the streets and thrown upon the fire, daily throw thyself upon the fire. Chose the way of suffering, self-emptying love, and do so willingly.

None of this is, properly speaking, our own work. We do not faithfully follow the way of the Cross simply by trying really hard to do so! No, this work is accomplished in us as we open our lives up to the working of the Spirit: “for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure,” (2.13). Are we willing to open ourselves up to the Spirit in this way, knowing full well that we will be led to pour out our lives unto death? Of one thing we can be sure, that if we journey with Jesus to the Cross we will die, but we will find life there in death because God raised Jesus from the dead and his corruptible body put on incorruptibility, his mortal body put on immortality, and he will return to do the same for us.

Some of you will know that I am hoping to be ordained in the Diocese of Toronto. I have been working on my application these last few months and one of the short essay questions is something like, “What is your hope for the future of the church?” Well, I suppose my hope for the future of the church is that she would die. Now don’t worry, I didn’t write that on the application of course. But is this not the calling of the church? We are Christ’s Body, but why? To be broken for the world. That we may be poured out as a libation, to use Paul’s terminology. That we might be as a grain of wheat, ground up to become bread for the good of the world. So, this Lent as we journey with Jesus, may we take the time to remind one another just where we are headed, namely, to a lonely hill outside of Jerusalem where our Savior will die and we along with him. And may we St. Matthew’s, right here in Riverdale, may we pour out our lives in suffering love for our neighbours right here in this place so that in our dying we become like the sweet odour of baking bread, to the glory of God.

As we eagerly await the return of our Savior, who will transform our body of humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, may our prayer be that of Polycarp as he waited for the fire to be lit: “Lord God Almighty, Father of your blessed and beloved child Jesus Christ, through whom we have received knowledge of you, God of angels and hosts and all creation, and of the whole race of the upright who live in your presence: I bless you that you have thought me worthy of this day and hour, to be numbered among the martyrs and share in the cup of Christ, for resurrection to eternal life, for soul and body in the incorruptibility of the Holy Spirit. Among them may I be accepted before you today, as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, just as you, the faithful and true God, have prepared and foreshown and brought about. For this reason and for all things I praise you, I bless you, I glorify you, through the eternal heavenly high priest Jesus Christ, your beloved child, through whom be glory to you, with him and the Holy Spirit, now and for the ages to come. Amen.”

Here’s a new series that will no doubt be ongoing. I think it will prove to be a fun one! In it I will simply cut and paste a very small portion of the exegetical work I do to prepare for a sermon. OK, it may not be purely exegetical, it may simply be a note or something else. However, the point is that it will be a “behind-the-scenes” look. A thought or a bit of research that may not explicitly be in the final sermon but has influenced the sermon in some fashion. Enough preamble…

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On Philippians 3.21

“He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.”

  • When Christ was resurrected his physical body was transformed into a spiritual body. This does not mean that Christ no longer had any part in the corporeal, rather, he was freed from the weakness and limitations and humiliation of the flesh, so that the new mode of his existence could be identified with that of the Spirit (2 Cor 3:17; 1 Cor 15.45) – Christ vanishes from the sight of His disciples on road to Emmaus once they recognize him – once knew Christ according to the flesh, now according to the Spirit
    • in Christ’s resurrection, the human project is complete. Humanity is finally taken up to partake in the very life of God. The mortal puts on immortality. This was always the goal for human creatures, to grow up into the fullness of Christ, to become partakers of the Divine life. In Christ this has happened and it happened via suffering and death whereby death itself is swallowed up. Suffering and death are transformed in Christ. Suffering is the glory of the Christian. Life is hidden in death, so that death becomes for us the way to incorruptible life. While all of this happens in Christ’s own person, he will return and raise us up with him, so that what he has done for us will be done in us and we will be transformed. We will become, finally, truly human creatures. We will, in the fullness of our humanity, be taken up into the life of God so that God will be all in all.

I tend to feel a bit out of my depths in matters of Creation and evolution. I’m not an evolutionary biologist, and I’m no Old Testament scholar. So, in both cases, I tend to have to rely on the expertise of others. I have to trust others. May they be wrong? Yes. May I be wrong? Certainly.

How we are to read the first few chapters of Genesis is one of these sorts of matters for me. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how we’re to read it. I do know that the Church hasn’t ever really had “a position” on Genesis 1 (for example). S. Augustine interpreted Gen. 1 literally*. Other of the Fathers interpreted it allegorically or spiritually.

Personally, I’m uncomfortable with a “literal” reading, because I just do not think that is the thrust of the passage. To try to argue that we ought to read Genesis 1 historically, as it were (that is to say, God created in 6 24-hour days etc.), is to impose a particular view on the text. It feels rather uncomfortable to me, like a shoe that fits too tightly. I would take a similar sort of approach to the question of whether or not Adam and Eve were “real” historical figures. Certainly Adam plays a significant role in Paul’s theology for example. But does this mean that Paul must have understood Adam to be an actual historical figure? I may be less convinced than others on this point.

At any rate, I watched this short video clip today:

 

This reminded me of an Orthodox catechism I picked up recently. The authors took what I thought was an interesting approach to these sorts of questions:

[…]

Seeker: Then divine time and human time are not the same?

Sage: Of course not. God does not live in time, because it is He who created time, just as He created space. God exists “before all ages” and beyond time and space. That is why it is impossible to compare the discoveries of science and the revelations of the Bible, as some naive minds have tried to do, imagining that the author of Genesis wanted to write a treatise on geology or paleontology.

Seeker: Then who is right, science or the Bible?

Sage: The truth of the biblical revelation is not the same as the fragmentary and relative truths studied by science. Science studies the world of appearances, of fleeting phenomena, which can be measured in minutes and in meters, and which unfold in human time and space and Biblical revelation rises above time and space to God. For it is He who has created time, space, and everything which science discovers, just as He has created the human intelligence which has invented science itself.

Seeker: Then what is the truth we learn from the account of the creation of the world?

Sage: After studying the biblical account of creation, the faithful see nature with new eyes. We discover with wonder the beauty of the created order, the splendor of the Creator’s work, which is itself only a pale reflection of the ineffable beauty of the Creator Himself…

[…]

Seeker: You tell us that man was created by God in His image. But I am told that we are descended from apes.

Sage: That which God created “in the beginning,” as we said earlier, He created from nothing. But God did not create man from nothing; He created him “out of the earth” and everything which it contains. That is to say that in order to create man, God made use of nature as a whole, including its evolution. The ape and the fish are also of the earth, for man is the culmination of all creation, and in him all creation is summed up and recapitulated. But, in addition, He has given mankind life through His own breath, His own Spirit. It is this presence of God Himself illuminating humanity, making the light of His face shine upon us, which distinguishes human beings from apes and all other creatures. This presence of God, this breath of God, projects the image of God upon us and gives us a beauty and “crown of glory.” It makes us the ruler of all creation and responsible for it (see Gen 1:28-29; 2:19-20).

 

*There are problems with the term “literal”. This point is drawn out a bit in the embedded video.

Welcome to the second in what is likely to be a blog series that will last me the rest of my life (should blogs still be a thing in the future). This is a series where I freak out at the prospect of having to raise a real-life human creature! This is also a series in which I take my expensive theological education and figure out what that looks like on the ground, in real life, as a parent.

Youth group was a formative time for me, despite my absenteeism. Before I was ever married I accepted a job as a youth pastor at a church. All of this to say, the formation of children and young people is something that I thought about before ever having children. With marriage, comes talk of children. And with talk of children, comes talk of how you will raise said creatures and this of course involves matters including but not nearly limited to education.

Christina and I have spoken at decent length about education and what we’ll do when Charlotte and our other children reach that age. We’ve had similar conversations with our parents and family members. We have friends who homeschool, un-school, send their kids to private Christian school, send their kids to montessori school…the list goes on. For someone unfamiliar with options other than regular old public school these other methods may seem strange and scary. There are, however, some significant philosophical and methodological questions being asked here. There are significant advantages to pursing a non-public-school education for your children. Furthermore, for the Christian, there are really important issues to be grappled with here.

***

I got into a discussion, of sorts, with some folks on facebook (where else?) the other day on the subject of what Christian parents ought to do about their children’s education. It was sparked by the video embedded above. The video is of Gary DeMar, founder (I think) of an organization called American Vision whose mission is to, “Restore America to its Biblical Foundation” by “Exercising Servanthood Dominion”. Then, when America “recognizes the sovereignty of God over all of life…America will be again a ‘city on a hill’ drawing all nations to the Lord Jesus Christ and teaching them to subdue the earth for the advancement of His Kingdom.” Phew. That was a mouthful.

At any rate, this is a growing opinion in some Reformed circles (though, I hesitate to even attribute the term “Reformed” to these groups as I’m not sure they’re getting the Reformers right…but I digress!). Here in Ontario, Christian parents are increasingly concerned about the public school curriculum (and for good reason, I might add). We are told all sorts of things about said curriculum: you’re child will learn about same-sex marriage in the 2nd grade; anal sex in the 7th grade; evolution (!); and so on and so forth. Worst of all, we’re told that parents have no say in the matter, perhaps because it may well be the case that parents do not have the right to control how their children will be educated. Now, some of this is indeed problematic and is worth challenging, but how?

Some of my brothers and sisters argue that Christian parents should withdraw their children from the public school system entirely. Indeed, this is touted as not only a Christian response but the Christian response. Listen to Gary in the video above: “If you really really believe in a Christian worldview and you really want to believe that you can make fundamental changes in the world, you’re not going to be able to do it with someone educating your children 6 hours a day 5 days a week 10 months out of the year for 12 years.” And again: “Every aspect of your life has to be awash in the things of God’s word, you can’t do that if you’re sending your kids off to a completely different worldview.”

Did you catch that? (I hope you did, I italicized it.) “You’re not going to be able to do it”. “You can’t do that if…”.

Removing one’s children from the public system is held up as the only fitting Christian response to this current crisis. This, I argue, is at best fear-mongering rooted in ignorance. And, (perhaps) well intentioned but ultimately irresponsible leaders like Gary here are having a negative impact on everyday Christians (surprise!). I recently had a sister in the Lord tell me that if I sent my daughter to public school that she would come home dressed as a boy and confused about her gender (!). I had another conversation with a university professor at a Christian institution who attempted to convince me that not only was the public school system “at odds with the Christian faith” but that Christians in N. America are a persecuted people group and that the public school system is out to teach our children that “white, male, heterosexual, evangelicals” are “archetypal oppressor(s)”. Thus, Christian children will be educated within a system that considers them “structural oppressors”. As a result, our children will be unable/unwilling to self-identify as a Christian in the public system. When I was unconvinced by this gentleman’s arguments he proceeded to tell me that I was naive, irresponsible, and putting my children’s innocence at risk.

I sincerely wish I was making this up.

The new face of "structural oppression", according to concerned Christian parents and their understanding of the public school curriculum.

The new face of “structural oppression”, according to concerned Christian professor and his understanding of the public school curriculum.

This post is already getting long-winded. My point here is simply to suggest that (1) Christians have nothing to fear from the public school system because Christians have nothing to fear, and (2) there is not a Christian response to this matter only varied responses from varied Christians whose ultimate desire is the same — faithfulness to Christ in the midst of a watching world. These matters take wisdom, patience, and much prayer. I’ll try to make a point of writing a follow-up post in which I will offer another possible option for Christian parents that differs from the one expressed in the video above. In conclusion, I leave you with the words of Michael Ramsey:

“Let me add one final counsel. Beware of attitudes which try to make God smaller than the God who has revealed himself to us in Jesus…Whenever exponents of the Christian faith treat it as something which we have to “defend” like a beleaguered fortress or a fragile structure they are making God to be smaller than he is…(c) So too there is a spirit of fearfulness which thinks that no good can ever come of movements which are outside the camp of Christendom, forgetting that God could use a Cyrus, an Assyria, or an altar-to-an-unknown-deity in his great purpose in history. We are not indeed to confuse what God does as redeemer in the unique sphere of gospel and Church with what he does as illuminator through the light that lighteth every man (sic); but to be blind to the latter is not to enhance the former or to understand it better.”

And again: “But certain distinctions can be drawn. It is one thing to state main Christian principles, or to denounce a particular downright evil. It is another thing to commend a particular programme, on which the technical skills and wisdom of competent Christians may differ, and to say “This is the Christian programme”, as if to unchurch or label as second-grade any Christians who might for good reasons dissent.

I welcome input and even push-back on this matter! Thoughts?!

Lord, grant us wisdom. Amen.

A group of persecuted Christians praying outside of the Canadian Parliament, Ottawa.

A group of persecuted Christians praying outside of the Canadian Parliament, Ottawa.