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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.

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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.