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Monthly Archives: August 2017

Readings: Romans 12:1-8
Feast Day: Pentecost 12

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”

Sometime in the middle of the 4th century Julian, then Emperor of Rome, wrote a letter to Arsacius, the pagan high priest of Galatia in which he said, “It is [the Christians’] philanthropy towards strangers, the care they take of the graves of the dead, and the affected sanctity with which they conduct their lives that have done the most to spread their atheism.”[1]

As far as Emperor Julian was concerned Christianity was spreading at the rate it was mostly due to the utterly novel practices of showing charity to strangers and a belief in the sanctity of each and every human life, no matter how poor or disfigured. And all because of their allegiance to Jesus Christ rather than to the Emperor, an allegiance which earned the early Christians the reputation of being atheists.

Having had one’s life re-oriented to Jesus Christ, the gospel opens one up to a new moral horizon previously unimaginable. For example, some early Christian practices that confounded their pagan neighbours included fidelity within marriage, treating slaves with respect as brothers and sisters, treating women with dignity as equals, not scorning the poor but seeing in them the face of Christ, and refusing to expose infants, a practice that involved leaving newborn children to the fate of the gods by exposing them to the elements and whatever else may come. For those early Christians in pagan Rome following Jesus entailed resisting and rejecting what were otherwise run-of-the-mill, normal practices of the surrounding culture. 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.

The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome, to the same church that boggled the mind of Emperor Julian a few centuries later, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” As the first Christians in pagan Rome, so Christians in every age and in every place have had to learn the meaning and consequence of being a people who present themselves to God as a living sacrifice. As the first Christians in pagan Rome, so Christians in every age and in every place have had to learn the meaning and consequence of being a people who resist being conformed to the present age but are rather transformed by the renewing of their minds. But how can we account for such a transformation in the lives of those earliest Christians such that their lives stood in stark contrast to the norms of the present age? The all-consuming reality of the mercy of Christ.

I appeal to you therefore, says Paul. That is, Paul’s appeal here is based on all in his letter that has come before this point. And what we find in those first eleven chapters is Paul’s articulation of God’s unfathomable mercy that has been lavished upon all those who are in Christ Jesus. As we heard it put last week: “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all. O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways!” (11:32-33). In other words, when Paul makes his appeal to the Christians in Rome he begins with the grace of God that has now been revealed in Christ Jesus and made one new humanity out of both Jew and Gentile.

And you have received God’s mercy. How can I be sure? you ask. Because you have been baptized into Christ Jesus, and in the sixth chapter of Romans Paul argues that to be baptized is to have your life joined to the risen life of Jesus Christ and thus to be set free from the power of sin and death, “so we too might walk in newness of life,” (6:4).

Therefore, on the basis of your having received God’s mercy, on the basis of your being made a new creature in baptism, therefore what? Therefore present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.

Indeed, in baptism you were presented to God either by a sponsor or by your parents and godparents. (And if by chance you have not been baptized then please do speak with me and I would be delighted to explore this possibility with you further) As a part of that baptismal liturgy you took certain vows. For example, to “persevere in resisting evil and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.” To, “proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ.” And again, to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbour as yourself.” In baptism you were presented to God. But one way that we can present ourselves to God each day is by giving thanks for his mercy towards us and humbly striving to live out our baptismal vows by the help of the Holy Spirit who is at work in us. To present yourself to God as a living sacrifice is to awake each day knowing that your life is God’s and to be lived in service to Him alone.

Our pattern for a life that is a living sacrifice offered unto God is Jesus Christ. As Paul writes elsewhere in his letter to the church in Ephesus: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God,” (5:1-2). The “fragrant offering and sacrifice” that Christ offered unto God the Father in heaven was a life of self-giving love wherein he gave himself even into the hands of those who would kill him. To offer our lives in service to God means a willingness to allow the sacrificial love of Christ to work itself out in you so that you too are learning what it means to lay down your life for your brothers and sisters.

“Do not be conformed to this present age,” Paul says to his readers, because he knows that the temptation for those who have been brought from death to life in Christ is always to revert back to the thinking and patterns of life that they were saved from. In Paul’s view the “present age,” or as he calls it elsewhere, “the present evil age,” describes the power of sin and death at work in the world to form us in ways that are counter to what God desires. How does the status quo of our own present age form us in ways that the gospel might present a challenge to?

Holy Scripture talks about another age as well. Not only “the present evil age” but “the age to come,” in which God would give new life to the world and mankind, bringing justice, joy, and peace once and for all.[2] Paul’s argument in Romans and elsewhere is that this “age to come” has already arrived in Jesus Christ. Moreover, those who have been baptized into Christ, whose lives have been joined to his, have been transferred if you will from the present evil age to the age to come, even while living in the midst of the present age. In other words, for those who are in Christ, God’s future has come bursting into the present already. So live accordingly, says Paul. Live as those who have been brought from death to life in Christ, for you have been. Do not be conformed to the present age, because you’re not a resident of that age any longer. Rather, present your bodies as a living sacrifice to God because he has lavished his mercy upon you in his well beloved Son, Jesus Christ.

As for those early Christians in Rome so too for us the gospel demands a reappraisal of our human situation in light of the reality of Christ. A new moral horizon has been opened to us by the mercy of Christ which we ourselves are called to live out of.

The task for Christians, therefore, is to figure out how to think, speak, and act in ways that are fitting for the age to come that is already breaking in. Thinking, speaking, and acting according to the present evil age are no longer fitting ways for Christians to live. How does this happen? Is it about trying to be a “better person”? Is it a matter of “trying” at all?

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” The only way to resist being conformed to the present age is to be transformed by the renewing of your mind. This is not about “the power of positive thinking.” In fact, it is not about anything we can do at all. Notice that the verb “transformed” is in the passive voice—be transformed. We are transformed as we apprehend—or rather, are apprehended by—the unfathomable mercy of Christ. At the centre of a life that is authentically Christian is a mind that is awake, alert, sober, illuminated by the divine light of Christ.

We are transformed to resemble Christ, given the mind of Christ (Phil 2:5), as we set our minds on him, as we consider him, as we meditate upon his Passion, as we contemplate his mercy. Being transformed is a life-long process that the Holy Spirit works out in us beginning in the waters of baptism and subsequently in great and manifold ways: as we hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest Holy Scripture, as we are nourished by his Body and Blood in Holy Communion, as we give ourselves to one another in love, and as we daily present our bodies to Christ for his service.

It is no mystery then why Paul immediately goes on to speak of the Church: “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” We present our bodies as a living sacrifice to God as we present our bodies to Christ’s Body, the Church, of which we are members. As we offer ourselves to one another in love. As gather together to hear the word and receive the sacraments. As we love one another as Christ has loved us.

Brothers and sisters, you have been presented to God in baptism. So each day let us present ourselves anew to Christ as those whom he has brought from death to life. Let us each day pray that the Holy Spirit would renew our minds. Let us ask God to reveal the depth of his mercy to us, that like those early Christians in Rome our common life might come more and more to resemble the life of Jesus Christ and less and less the life of the present age. Amen.

 

Endnotes:
[1] As quoted by David Bentley Hart in Atheist Delusions.
[2] NT Wright, Paul for Everyone: Romans, 69.

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Feast: Pentecost 11
Readings: Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28

“Woman, great is your faith!”

In today’s gospel reading we encounter a Canaanite woman—that is, a Gentile, a non-Jewish woman—who confesses great faith in Christ. The main point of this sermon, if I could sum it up in a sentence, is this: the joy of the gospel is for everyone!

Recall with me that in last week’s gospel Jesus sent Peter and the other disciples on ahead of him across the sea. Well today’s reading takes place on the other side, specifically Matthew tells us that Jesus and his disciples came to the region of Tyre and Sidon. Now it’s important to note that this was the land of pagans, not Jews, and in light of Jesus’ own instruction earlier in the gospel to, “go nowhere among the Gentiles,” (10:5) one can imagine a certain discomfort on behalf of the disciples. We’re not in Kansas anymore.

Today’s gospel reading reminds us that the Church is sent out to a world that is broken and calling out for help. To a world that does not yet know the peace and joy that Christ brings. And we’re sent into such places and to such people because the joy of the gospel is for everyone.

So, Jesus leads his disciples on into paganland and no sooner has that happened then a Canaanite woman came out to meet them and started shouting: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”

Now, Matthew is the only gospel writer to tell us that this was a Canaanite woman, and he does so as if to highlight the extent to which she was not part of God’s chosen. Indeed, some of the Church Fathers thought this woman to be the “mother of the Gentiles.” Here in paganland the mother of Pagans runs out to meet Jesus and she cries out for help.

And the disciples seeing this woman come to Jesus crying out for mercy rejoice and are glad and point her right-away to their Lord. Only they do not! Rather they urge Jesus to send her away because she’s a bother to them. Their desire was for their own peace and quiet. This woman here does not display that sort of decency and decorum befitting of a good Anglican. Now I’m sure none of us have ever drawn boundaries in an attempt to sort out what type of people would make good Anglicans but if we were tempted to draw such boundaries we’d learn pretty quickly that Jesus has a tendency to confound these sorts of measures.

That the woman is screaming for help is lost in the disciples’ offense that she is screaming at all. Personally, I wish I could look down upon the disciples for their response but I cannot because it is too often my own response.

Being a priest you are sometimes a magnet for needy people. In my previous parish located on the corner of a busy intersection in a very under-resourced neighbourhood in Toronto there was a fairly regular flow of people just walking in looking for help. One guy in particular, every time I saw him I prayed the prayer of Jesus’ disciples, “O Lord, do sendeth him away for he is a bother.” Ears of faith, however, hear in every cry for help what is ultimately a cry for the Lord.

In our reading from Roman’s last week we heard those wonderful words of St. Paul: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved,” (Romans 10:13). If you’re like me perhaps you hear those words and think, everyone? Indeed, the joy of the gospel is for everyone.

What is this woman’s cry? “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” She has come out to Jesus bearing the suffering of her daughter which is her own suffering. Part of the vocation of the Church is to bring the needs of the world before the Lord and to plead for his mercy. The liturgy helps us to do this in, for example, the prayers of the people. I hope our familiarity with these prayers which we offer each week does not dull their significance and meaning—just here we offer up prayers for the whole wide world and for others in particular. So also in the bread and wine of Holy Communion is the stuff of the whole world taken up into Christ’s own self-offering to the Father in heaven.

So the question is: Who are you bringing to the Lord in prayer? Perhaps it is a child or a neighbour or an old friend? Do not give up, do not grow weary in doing good but persevere for the Lord hears your cry. Let us be encouraged to bring others before Christ in prayer with the confidence that he can help.

Jesus’ response is curious. At first he does not say anything. His compassion prevents him from turning here away like the disciples wish and yet he is silent. Next, he expresses the reality of his mission as one sent to a particular people: to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. The text does not specify who he is talking to here, is it the disciples or the woman? In fact, the text almost makes it seem as if he is speaking to himself (Bruner 99).

I think what we see here is Jesus’ commitment to Israel first. Theologians sometimes refer to this sort of thing as the scandal of particularity. Namely, that God chose to redeem the world in particular ways—through the election of Israel and chiefly through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christ knew that he was sent first to Israel and awaited from them a response.

This is precisely what the Apostle Paul has been wrestling with in Romans which we have heard read, almost in the background, these last few weeks. Part of the issue at stake there is that Israel, at least in part, has rejected their Messiah. This has caused some of the Gentile Christians in the Roman church to suppose that God has cast off Israel. But Paul shuts this down in the eleventh chapter, part of which we heard read this morning: “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!…for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Just as you [Gentiles] were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their [Israel’s] disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy.” In Paul’s view even Israel’s apparent rejection of their Messiah is caught up in God’s redemptive action for it was their rejection that propelled the Messiah into Gentile territory. Where he now stands. And this woman, the mother of the Gentiles, cries out to the Lord on behalf of all Gentiles (Epiphanius the Latin). Because the joy of the gospel is for everyone.

Then, in what I think is the most moving part of this encounter the woman comes and kneels before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” She knows that she is not a member of the people of Israel. She knows that she is an outsider who does not belong at the table with the children. Yet she had come to the end of her resources, every other option and possibility had been exhausted. All that remained was to throw herself at the Lord’s feet in an act of desperate adoration knowing that even but a few crumbs of Christ’s mercy is enough to sustain her and heal her daughter.

I admire the humility of her faith. We would do well to cultivate such humility ourselves and we have the prayers to help us. Consider the Prayer of Humble Access that comes just before we receive Holy Communion in the Prayer Book liturgy: “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, Trusting in our own righteousness, But in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy So much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, Whose property is always to have mercy…”

Let us not presume upon the mercy of Christ nor think that we have no need of his mercy or that we have somehow merited his mercy ourselves. Let us rather practice humility and cast ourselves each day upon Christ’s mercy: “Lord, help me.” And we will find that Christ does not give us a life time supply of mercy all at once but simply enough for this day, this moment. The crumbs that fall from the table of the heavenly banquet are enough to sustain us today. To quell every temptation, forgive every sin, and heal every wound.

Then, finally, Matthew tells us that Jesus answered her: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. Great is your faith! That is, great is your trust in me. Great is your trust that even the crumbs of my mercy are sufficient for you. Great is your faith that I will turn no one away that calls upon me.

Faith is that one necessary thing, that human response to God’s loving action. Our “yes” to who Jesus is and what he has done for us. Our utter and complete trust and hope in him. And as we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this October we should remember that great Reformational emphasis that it is by faith alone that we are saved. Not by any merit of our own but simply by trusting that who Jesus Christ is and what he has done for us is sufficient to absolve us of our sin and reconcile us to God our Father.

Such faith is the fount from which a life of love and service to our Lord and to others flows. As such, the greatest gift that you can give to the world as a Christian is to take responsibility for your own faith, to nourish it and tend to it. After all, the faith of the woman extends to the benefit of her daughter. Christians are those who have received that which the world has not yet received—faith in Christ—and yet are charged with tending it not for their own sake but for the good of the world. Because no one is excluded from the joy of the gospel.

And so as we come to the table of the Lord in a few moments to receive that bread and wine which is our Lord’s Body and Blood may we like the Canaanite woman cast ourselves upon the mercy of Christ, not only for our own sake but for the good of those who are yet to trust in him, because the joy of the gospel is for everyone. And may we like her find that a crumb of Christ’s mercy is sufficient. Amen.

Feast Day: The Transfiguration
Readings: 2 Peter 1:13-21; Luke 9:28-36

“For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” (2 Pet 1:16)

On this feast day of The Transfiguration, when Jesus took Peter, James, and John up the mountain and they saw with their own eyes the unspeakable glory of Christ, we are reminded that the God Christians worship requires witnesses. Which is rather strange because Christian and non-Christian alike tend to assume that any god worth believing in should not have to depend on witnesses to be made known (Hauerwas). That any god worth his or her salt would be obviously known, either through introspection—examining ourselves—or by observing the world around us. Consequently, if the God of Israel who raised Jesus from the dead requires witnesses in order to be known then this God is viewed with suspicion.

Yet the God that Christians worship does, as I’ve said, require witnesses precisely because the God that Christians worship is not some general principle that can be deduced from the created world but is the particular Jesus Christ.

And so St. Peter, writing to a group of new Christians reminds them that the faith they have received is founded upon the testimony of Peter and the other apostles who themselves were “eyewitnesses of his majesty,” (2 Pe 1:16). “For he,” says Peter, “received honour and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain,” (2 Pe 1:17-18).

Peter is here recalling the experience he shared with James and John when Jesus took them up the mountain and they were given a glimpse of Jesus’ true identity. Luke tells us that as Jesus was praying the appearance of his face changed and his clothes became dazzling white—he was, transfigured. And Peter, James, and John, though they were very tired, stayed awake and thus saw his glory revealed.

This vision is then interpreted by the voice from the cloud, the voice of the Father: “This is my Son, my Beloved: listen to him!” (Lk 9:35). And this is really the climax of the whole event. The whole point of this episode is that for a moment the veil is pulled back and the disciples recognize God’s own glory hidden in the flesh of Jesus Christ. This voice of affirmation means that all we need to know about God is discovered in Jesus Christ and that we cannot know God apart from Christ. The voice means that God the Father wants us to reverence and adore His Son more than anything else in the world.

What I want to say to you this morning is that the Christian life is about beholding Jesus Christ in glory and being drawn into that mystery. As Pope Francis wrote in The Joy of the Gospel: “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” To be a Christian is to be made an eyewitness of the glory of Christ and so to be given a new direction and purpose in life.

The question then is how does this happen today for those of us who are so far removed geographically and temporally from that mountain? How is it that we come to see Christ in glory so that we are transformed as individuals and as a community that is then capable of bearing witness to Christ here in the parish of Midhurst and Craighurst?

I believe that our reading from St. Luke points us to two ways in particular that the risen and living Jesus Christ reveals himself to those who seek him by faith: prayer and the reading of Scripture.

Jesus took Peter, James, and John up the mountain to pray. Everywhere in the gospels Jesus is praying: going apart from the crowds to pray, encouraging and teaching his disciples to pray, and the author of Hebrews tells us that even now Christ is at the right hand of the Father in heaven where he “lives to make intercession” for us—praying for us and praying with us.

We cannot know Christ apart from knowing him in prayer. Anglicans should know this because at the centre of our tradition stands one of the greatest written works that the English language has ever known, the Book of Common Prayer. The Prayer Book is not simply a manual for Sunday worship but is rather a whole world of prayer that we are invited to enter into through a living and active engagement with Holy Scripture. The Prayer Book contains prayers for everything, from birth to baptism to rogation days to marriage to death and more. From Holy Communion to the rhythm of the Daily Office—Morning and Evening Prayer. And the backbone of all of this is Scripture, especially the Psalms, but also the reading of vast portions of the Old and New Testament each day. The point is that our whole life is saturated in prayer so that we might know Christ in the 166.5 hours of the week that are not Sunday morning.

My hope for us here at St. Paul’s/John’s is that prayer would more and more inform the rhythm of our daily life. Personally, I say Morning and Evening Prayer every day. It is a priest’s duty to do so but more than that I have come to delight in it. And I want you to know that I will be praying for you all on a regular basis. One of the things that I hope to establish soon in our parish is a schedule of morning and evening prayer at both St. Paul’s and St. John’s. I am not sure what it will look like just yet and attendance will not be required, of course. But I want us to be a church that is known to pray and to pray often. And more than that, to be a church that prays with the faith that in prayer we meet Jesus Christ and come to know him more fully.

I am convinced that this is critical not only for each of us individually but for our parish. I know that there has been a good deal of uncertainty around these parts in the last couple of years. I know that this uncertainty has bred anxiety and even, perhaps, some animosity. I do not know what the future holds but I do know that we have no future apart from prayer, because we have no future apart from Christ who meets us there.

Holy Scripture is another place that we meet the risen Christ and are shown his glory. As Jesus is transfigured on the mountain suddenly Moses and Elijah appeared and were speaking with him about his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. That is, they were speaking about Christ’s Passion, that whole movement of his death, resurrection, and ascension whereby God would save the world from sin and death and begin to renew all things in Christ.

Moses and Elijah are representative of the Law and the Prophets, that is, they represent the Old Testament in its entirety. And here is the point that the earliest Christians knew well, the whole Old Testament speaks of the mystery of Christ’s Passion. Recall that at the end of Luke’s gospel the risen Jesus meets two disciples on the road to Emmaus and what does he do but, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the Scriptures,” (24:27).

We read the Bible for all sorts of reasons. We might approach the Bible as an interesting if not odd (and sometimes embarrassing) piece of ancient history. Or we might read the Bible as if it were a metaphor or allegory, believing that it contains a few nuggets of wisdom for living a moral life. Preachers are not immune from this either which is why so many churches have to bear with insufferable sermons each week.

Partly because we are good Modernists most of us have not been encouraged to come to Holy Scripture to find Christ there. Yet this is precisely how the the earliest Christians, and Christians for most of history came to the Scriptures. Not to learn a bit about ancient history or to hear some encouraging stories or to find a blueprint for a respectable and decent life. No, rather they came to the Scriptures to find the risen and living Christ there. To see him and to hear him. To borrow an image from last weeks’ gospel reading, Christ is the pearl of great price hidden in the field of Scripture. We read Scripture to search for and find him.

What difference would it make to our common life here at St. Paul’s/John’s if we approached prayer and the Bible with the faith that just there we encounter the risen and living Jesus Christ? To pray and to read the Bible with such a faith is what it means to “stay awake,” as Peter, James, and John did. And if we like them are able to resist the temptation to fall asleep we too will be shown Christ’s glory.

Recently Pope Francis said, “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord.”

However long we’ve been around, however much we think we know, Christ Jesus invites us to encounter him anew personally each day. So as we pray and as we read Scripture and hear it proclaimed let us come with the faith that the risen and living Jesus Christ will encounter us there and we will behold his beauty. And let us do this together that we with Peter, James, and John may be made eyewitnesses of his majesty for the sake of a watching world. Amen.