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Monthly Archives: September 2017

Feast Day: Michaelmas
Readings: Revelation 12:7-12

“But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death,” (Revelation 12:11).

When you think about what it means to be a Christian what sort of things come to mind? Perhaps living a moral life. Or, maybe, working to make the world a better place. Or raising our children to love Christ. How about cosmic warrior? Let me frame it in a way that you may not have heard before: Christians have a vocation along with the angels to participate in Christ’s defeat of Satan and the powers of darkness. To be a Christian is to be enlisted in a cosmic battle. It is to have one’s eyes opened to the reality of the unseen world that God has made and the reality of evil and darkness, and to fight with the weapons that Christ himself has given us.

Turning to this morning’s reading from the twelfth chapter of Revelation we cast our collective gaze up with John: “And war broke out in heaven.” Michael, the General of God’s army, and his angels fought against the dragon and his angels who fought back but were defeated and subsequently cast down from heaven to earth for, “there was no longer any place for them in heaven.” I love that line. Evil has not a home nor a future with God. There is literally no place for them.

The feast of St. Michael and All Angels is, “explosive and gritty,” cutting to the heart of what is real: “It does not offer escape. It offers blood and sweat and tears, the great struggle for all that is good against the dark desire to destroy it. And it offers the sure and certain hope of victory. This is the feast of the battle won.”[1]

St. Michael and the angels are victorious in this battle but how? “They have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb.” That is to say, this is the victory of the Lamb over all that which would oppose him. It is worth noting that this battle scene is inserted into the middle of another scene in the twelfth chapter of Revelation, one in which a woman “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars,” is in the midst of the agony of childbirth and there in front of her stands the dragon, “so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born,” (12:4).

And this firstborn child we are told is a son, “who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron.” This language hearkens back to one of the great messianic Psalms (Psalm 2), and this child is of course Jesus Christ, the great shepherd of his people. And yet, here he is, vulnerable, the dragon waiting to consume him.

Lest we think that good and evil confront one another as equals the tension is resolved almost immediately as the baby is taken up to the throne of God (12:5). There is an element of risk here to be sure, but this child is the Son of God and as such is sovereign over every enemy. The dragon’s jaws snap shut, and come up with nothing but air.

The curious thing about this birth scene, however, is that it is followed immediately by an ascension. Which begs the question, when is it that Christ ascends to God’s right hand? Not at his birth but rather after his crucifixion and resurrection. That is to say, the birth in this story is a metaphor for Jesus’ death, “his entry into the only true life, the life of God.”[2] Satan seeks to devour Christ, and thinks that in the cross he has succeeded, but as we heard in our other readings this morning, the cross becomes the ladder which unites heaven and earth and the body of Christ himself is the Way on which the world may walk back to God.[3]

“But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb.” This is a battle that Christians as well as the angels are enlisted in. Just because the Lamb has conquered, those who have been washed in his blood too can conquer. Just because the woman’s firstborn has conquered, so too, “the rest of her children,” (12:17) may conquer. Indeed, some interpreters see in Michael and his angels a figure for Christ and his followers. To be a Christian is to become a participant in a cosmic battle with Christ and the angels against the forces of evil.

This is not, however, reason to perpetrate violence. We take our cues from the Lamb, who conquered his enemies not by the shedding of their blood but by the shedding of his own blood. So too those who are marked by the Lamb (14:1) conquer not by violence but by self-giving love. As the Apostle Paul writes elsewhere: “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness,” (Ephesians 6:12).

How are Christians to take up arms then in this cosmic battle against the Devil and the powers of darkness? “But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.” As followers of Jesus we participate in his once-for-all-decisive victory over the powers of sin and death by “the word of our testimony,” that is by bearing witness to the Lamb that was slain.

For Christians, this starts in baptism for it is here that we are confronted by Jesus Christ the true witness, the one who tells us the truth about ourselves by claiming us as God’s own. And so in baptism we follow Christ into his death that we might follow him into the very life of the triune God.

From there we take up arms and bear faithful witness as we gather around the table and eat and drink Christ’s flesh and blood. And we bear faithful witness as we sing “holy, holy, holy.” And as we pray, “thy kingdom come.” And as we pray for our enemies. And as we live lives of Christian charity and love, giving ourselves in sacrificial love to one another. And as we read and meditate upon God’s word. And as we proclaim the good news of God’s love in Christ to those who are unaware. Each of these Christian practices and more is a blow struck against the devil and your ordinary life of daily faithfulness to Christ in the little things, your struggle to resist temptation and to flee from sin, your struggle to pray and to love one another, all of this is a testimony to the victory of Christ over the powers of darkness.

So do not give up but persevere. And believe not the lies of that conquered devil, the original bearer of false witness, who spreads the false rumor that the Christian life and witness mean nothing to God, that a life devoted to God is a life wasted. For this is how Christians conquer—loving God and loving neighbour, even enemy—by taking the humble road of self-giving, the giving of our whole life as an offering unto God in Christ. This is how Christians conquer because this is how Christ conquered—and we in him—for the life of the world.

“Bless the LORD, all you works of his, in all places of his dominion; bless the LORD, O my soul,” (Psalm 103:22). Amen.

 

Endnotes:

[1] Catherine Sider-Hamilton, http://feastfastferia.wordpress.com/2014/09/26/st-michael-and-all-angels/
[2] Joe Mangina, Brazos Theological Commentary: Revelation, 152
[3] Sider-Hamilton

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Feast Day: Holy Cross Day
Readings: 1 Corinthians 18-24; John 3:13-17

“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 Corinthians 1:18)

Today we commemorate Holy Cross Day, the day in which the Church recalls with intention and humility that great symbol at the centre of our faith around which the Holy Spirit is gathering a people—the cross.

Holy Cross. The pairing of these two words is familiar to us. Perhaps even comforting. Certainly, they do not strike many of us as odd. But they should strike us as odd for the cross is a great paradox as the Apostle Paul draws out in that magnificent passage that we heard from from 1 Corinthians moments ago: “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

The word of the cross is foolishness says Paul, scandalous as he puts it a little later. My concern as a pastor is that our familiarity with the cross may mean that it’s scandal and foolishness is lost on us. This morning, on this Holy Cross Day, I want us to try to recapture together a sense of the great paradox of the cross.

The reason why the cross appears as foolishness and a scandal to so many, in our day as well as in Paul’s, has to do with the shame associated with this manner of execution.

Years ago in an effort to try and help another church think upon the great shame of the cross I used a rather crass example, Andres Serrano’s photograph Piss Christ. Piss Christ is a photograph that depicts a small, cheap plastic crucifix submerged in a container of the artists own urine mixed with the blood of a cow. The following Sunday after mass had ended a very gentle and well mannered older woman pulled me aside. She told me that she had been greatly disturbed all week by this image of Christ submerged in such a foul liquid and that she took offense to my referencing it in a sermon. In my mind I pictured myself taking her gently by the hand, looking her directly in the eye and saying, “Precisely. Now go and weep for your sins.”

Of course that is not what I said but she got it. That week where she was unable to get away from the disgust of the image, she began to understand what I want us to understand this morning: the utter shame and degradation of the cross. The humiliation, the condemnation, the abandonment, the casting off as less-than-human of all those who were hung up on the wood of the cross.

In her book The Crucifixion, the Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge devotes an entire chapter to trying to help her readers understand just how shameful a thing it was to be crucified by the Romans. The title of that chapter is ‘The Godlessness of the Cross.’ The Cross is Godless. What does she mean by this?[1]

It is not simply the fact that Jesus died that is the scandal, it is rather the manner in which he died that creates offence.

Crucifixion as a method of execution was never used on Roman citizens. It was, rather, reserved almost exclusively for the scum of humanity. The lowest and vilest of creatures. And the point of crucifixion was to degrade, to rob the crucified person of any last shred of dignity. They were hung up there in public, tortured, stripped of their clothing, and subject to the merciless and diabolical ridicule of passersby. Crucifixion was the means by which human beings were made less-than-human and strung up like beasts. “It was a form of advertisement,” writes Rutledge, “this person is the scum of the earth, not fit to live, more an insect than a human being.”[2] It is this stigma associated with crucifixion that we need to try and imagine if we are to comprehend the offensiveness of worshipping a crucified Christ.

To Jews and Greeks alike crucifixion was just about as low and despised as one could get.  And yet it was precisely into this state that Christ entered, and joyfully so. He subjected himself to the shame and degradation of a crucifixion, he was condemned to the death of a beast, not even of a man. He was rejected and despised, deserted even by his own disciples. A nobody.

The Hebrew Scriptures themselves anticipate the shame of Christ’s crucifixion. The prophet Isaiah wrote, “He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account,” (Isaiah 53:3). Moreover it is written in the book of Deuteronomy, “When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon that tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse,” (Deut 21:22-23). Despised. Rejected. Cursed.

This helps us to understand what Fleming Rutledge was getting at when she spoke of the Godlessness of the cross. The cross is Godless because it is totally counter to what we anticipate religious experience is meant to be like. Who would have ever projected their hopes, wishes, longings, and needs onto a crucified man, let alone a crucified God?[3] Christianity is unique in that it is the only religion to have as it’s centre the degradation of its God.[4]

To be executed in such a shameful way was to be rejected by one’s people and cursed by one’s God. Yet from the beginning Christians have worshipped the crucified Christ. This is why Paul said that Christ crucified is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. A shameful death is not the sort of sign that religious people look for when they look for the presence of God. We are like the Jews in that we desire signs from God. God, show me you are real. God, if you are real then remove this suffering from me. Show us some razzle-dazzle Lord! And yet the good news is not that God comes rushing in to save us with a show of flamboyance and strength. But rather that he takes on our human form in Christ, entering into our captivity to sin, only to become nothing, to be weak and powerless, to be mocked and degraded. That Christ helps us in this way, by virtue of his weakness and suffering, turns our expectation of God on it’s head. Folly! Scandal!

Yet this is precisely what God’s love looks like. As we heard in that towering gospel passage this morning: For God so, what? Loved the world. That he? Gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life, (John 3:16). Christ voluntarily and joyfully gave himself up on the cross to be condemned, enslaved, and made subject to death, entering into the deepest darkness of our human condition, and he did so for us—in our place and on our behalf—so that you and I might be liberated from the power of sin and death. Thanks be to God!

A crucifixion is, as Rutledge puts it, totally unsuitable as an object of faith.[5] And yet not only is it an object of faith, for those who are being saved it is the power of God, writes Paul. The love of Christ poured out on that shameful Cross is powerful and accomplishes much. For by the cross we are brought out of darkness into light, out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life. By his suffering and death, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who put their trust in him. Not the cross plus something else. Just the cross. Whatever it is you are facing at whatever moment the cross is sufficient for your weakness. For “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him,” (John 3:17). And, as we come to the altar rail in a few moments we will eat of the fruit of the tree of the cross, Christ’s own Body and Blood.

It is for this very reason that we must resist the temptation to hide our faces from the cross and to esteem it not.[6] In the same letter that we heard read this morning the Apostle Paul writes that he is willing to set everything else aside except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). My prayer is that we as a church would take the same approach. That the one non-negotiable for us would be the proclamation of Christ crucified. That we would hold on to this more fiercely than we would any of our other beloved traditions, no matter how long “we’ve always done things this way.” If we’re going to be absolutely rigid and uncompromising about anything, let it be the cross. May we be a community that is growing, always growing, in it’s knowledge of and trust in the love of God poured out for us and for the world on that shameful cross. May God grant us the courage to draw nearer to this unimaginable act of God’s love for human creatures. And may we come to know more deeply the wisdom and power of God.


Endnotes:
[1] For these few paragraphs on the shame of the crucifixion I am indebted to the work of Fleming Rutledge. Particularly the second chapter of her book The Crucifixion entitled, ‘The Godlessness of the Cross.’
[2] Rutledge, 92.
[3] Rutledge, 75.
[4] Rutledge, 75.
[5] Rutledge, 75.
[6] Rutledge, 82.

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:25)

Sermon in a sentence: The Christian life is both joyful and demanding because at the centre of it stands the Cross.

If you haven’t figured it out already in the month or so we have been together allow me to state it plainly for you: I believe in the joy of the gospel. Isn’t that what the angel of the Lord proclaimed to the shepherds in the field: “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people,” (2:10). Did not Jesus address his disciples saying, “These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full,” (John 15:11). I believe that the good news of Jesus Christ brings believers to a state of deep and profound joy.

Deep and profound, not passing and superficial. Remember the parable of the sower that Jesus tells in the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel According to St. Matthew? A sower is out sowing seed and it falls on different types of ground. The seed that falls on rocky ground, Jesus said, it sprang up quickly but when the sun rose the heat scorched it and because the soil was not deep enough to sustain roots it withered away. Explaining this parable to his disciples shortly afterwards Jesus said that the seed sown on rocky ground, “is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away,” (13:20-21).

So, there is a superficial joy that we can experience in our Christian life, a joy that has only shallow roots and perishes when trouble comes on account of Christ. Perhaps you know people like this who once had a seemingly vigorous and joyful Christian life and now are nowhere to be found among the faithful. Perhaps, even, this describes your own story. Let us never cease to bring these dear ones before the Lord in prayer trusting that he is able to fan into flame that ember of faith that may still be burning.

But there is another joy, deep and profound as I described it moments ago. And we hear about this joy early in Matthew’s gospel in the Beatitudes where we learn that the blessedness, or happiness, of those who are in Christ is not dependent on the “changes and chances of this fleeting world,” but rather upon the “eternal changelessness” of their Father who art in heaven. Here is a joy that can rejoice in the face of persecution and hardship (5:11-12). Here is a joy that knows the challenge and demands of the way of Christ. Here is a joy at the centre of which stands the Cross.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” The Cross is central to the life of the Christian because it is central to the life of Christ. There can be no knowing Christ apart from the Cross. That’s why Paul and the other Apostles so boldly proclaimed Christ crucified: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified,” (1 Cor 2:2). We cannot talk about the joy of the gospel apart from the agony of the Cross.

Peter after having just confessed, rightly, that Jesus is the “Messiah, the Son of the living God,” tries to get in-between Christ and the Cross. Attempts to convince Jesus that it needn’t be that way, that his suffering and death was avoidable: “God forbid it, Lord!”

How are we to account for Peter’s vehement opposition of the Cross here? Perhaps it is because Peter knows that a dead Messiah is a failed Messiah and he’s sold the farm and thrown his lot in with Jesus. Perhaps it is because he is still on the way with Jesus and he is growing in his faith. After all, none of us have ever fully arrived have we? Perhaps it is because he fears that Jesus’ suffering and death would mean a similar fate for himself and the other disciples. Whatever the case may be Peter is met with what might just be the sternest reproach in all of Scripture: “Get behind me, Satan!” To try and get between Christ and the Cross, to think that we can inherit the joy of the gospel apart from the suffering of the Cross is Satanic.

Nevertheless, Jesus is determined to go to the Cross because he knows that his suffering and death will be the event that brings life—eternal life—to those who trust in him. Attentive readers of Matthew’s gospel know that the Cross has been in view the entire time. Recall the proclamation of the angel Gabriel to Joseph in the first chapter: “She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins,” (1:21).

The Cross was not Plan B. It was, for Christ, absolutely necessary that he would demonstrate the love of God in just this way: “Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain,” wrote the Prophet Isaiah (53:10). And again, “But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed…The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities,” (53:5, 11). Jesus was able to bear the suffering of the Cross joyfully because he knew that by it our sinful hearts would be healed and we would live eternally.

Then our gospel reading shifts, from Christ’s Cross to ours, from his suffering to our suffering with him and because of him: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” I believe it was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who said that when Christ calls a man to follow him he bids him come and die. These are hard words but we must hear them. To follow Christ is a way of life that all should reverence and none should likely undertake. Or as Christ himself says elsewhere, we should consider the cost (Luke 14:28). Because there is one.

But notice that this difficult saying of Jesus is invitational in nature: “If any want to become my followers.” Peter and the other disciples have just discovered the challenge of the gospel—to follow Jesus is to follow him to his suffering and death on the Cross. Having just discovered this Jesus does not demand that they continue on but invites them deeper into his life and love if they will it: “If any want to.” Then, “take up” your cross. Jesus is so merciful. He knows that the way to eternal life is difficult yet he does not force it on anyone. The cross is not imposed, it is always “taken up.” In fact, this was one of the reasons that Jesus condemned the religious leaders of his day: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them,” (Matthew 23:4). Woe to those of us who impose burdens on others that we ourselves are not willing to carry!

Nevertheless, following in the way of Christ is both a joy and a challenge and the message of the Church to the world must never neglect this paradox. Do you want to live a happy and full life? Of course you do—in the depth of our being we all want to feel fully alive. In the second century St. Irenaus’ wrote that, “the glory of God is man fully alive.” The great paradox here, however, is that when Irenaus spoke of man being “fully alive” he was speaking about martyrdom. Do you want to see what a human life set ablaze with the glory of God looks like? Observe those martyrs both known and unknown who threw their life away for the sake of Christ and his kingdom.

Most of us are not in danger of actually losing our lives for Christ but the challenge to us is the same: If you want to follow Jesus arise each day and pick up your cross and get behind him. Give up the attempt to secure your life via the mechanisms of this world and rather go low in service to Christ and to one another. Risk your life on the dare that Jesus is it! Throw your life away, worldly ambition, social honor and prestige, the love of wealth and reputation, set your minds not on such things but on Christ and his kingdom. “For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?”

Maybe you know the story of Henri Nouwen, who after nearly two decades of teaching at places like Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard left the comforts of academia behind to live in community with the mentally and physically handicapped people of L’Arche Daybreak just north of Toronto. As he gave himself to this community and received the gift of their friendship, Nouwen experienced a conversion that brought him closer to Jesus Christ.

To throw one’s life away like this may seem like an impossible task. Indeed, more often than not we stumble along. But those who continue, who do not give up at the sign of difficulty or opposition, will find that it is the personal presence of Jesus Christ that makes such a life not only possible but desirable: “take up your cross and follow me.” We can go the way of the cross and even desire to do so because we know that on the way we are with Jesus Christ.

Those who are willing to risk it all on Jesus, to throw their lives away in service to him, to take the low road of humility and love, to embrace the cross and suffer with Christ, will find that the way of the cross is for them the way of life. And in the very end they will discover the truth of that great paradox of the kingdom: that those who lose their life for the sake of Christ end up finding eternal life. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.