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Feast Day: The Reign of Christ (A)
Readings: Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

I’m going to begin this morning’s sermon with an exercise that may make the introverts among us very uncomfortable—I want you to turn and talk with one of your neighbours, beside, in front, or behind you. I’m going to give you about 30 seconds and in that time I want you both—you have about 15 seconds each—to attempt to explain the gospel to one another in as concise a way as possible. This is the elevator pitch, if you will. And at the end, depending on how you have done, we will separate the sheep from the goats and well you know what happens from there. Alright, ready? Go.

Now, how was that? Raise your hand if you had some difficulty with that exercise. I suppose there are a few ways you could have gone about it and if you had something to say about the cross and the forgiveness of sin well then you’re off to a very good start. Yet, as central as the cross and forgiveness of sin is to the gospel I want to suggest this morning that the gospel is even bigger than that. I want to suggest that the gospel is ultimately about the authority of Jesus Christ over all things, seen and unseen.

The early Christians had a way of summing up the gospel in just three words: Jesus is Lord. Jesus. Is. Lord. That is a good shorthand for the gospel but what does it mean? The Apostle Paul, in our reading from Ephesians (and one of my own favourite passages in the Epistles), puts it in a remarkable way. Close your eyes for a moment and really listen to these words.

“God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his 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,” (1:20-23).

The gospel, the good news, is that Jesus is Lord. To say this is to say that Jesus Christ is risen and living and at this very moment has authority over every square inch of the universe, you and I as well.

We live on one planet that is part of one solar system that rotates around one star in one galaxy in the known universe. In our galaxy alone it is estimated that in addition to our own sun there are 100-400 billion other stars. Moreover, it is estimated that the observable universe contains 200 billion to 2 trillion galaxies. We think that the observable universe is approximately 90.68 billion light-years across. Now if the speed of light is 299,792,458 m/s then in order to travel across the known universe it would take you approximately…and that is where I say a number that just makes your brain melt and your central nervous system shut-down. And that’s just the part of the universe that we think we know.

Your body is composed of roughly 37.2 trillion cells. Give or take a few trillion. Each cell contains molecules that are made up of even smaller components called atoms. There are approximately 100 trillion atoms in a human cell. So, to re-cap, that’s 37.2 trillion cells each of which is composed of roughly 100 trillion atoms. Again, give or take. I’m a theologian not a micro-biologist. But you’ll remember from high school that atoms are made up of even smaller particles, electrons, protons, and neutrons. And protons and neutrons are made up of particles called hadrons which themselves are made up of quarks.

Here’s the point. There is no square-inch of the universe, no star burning somewhere at the edge of a galaxy that we do not even know exists yet, no square-inch of you, no single cell, no subatomic particle known or unknown to man, over which Jesus Christ does not rule as Lord. To sum it up using Paul’s words from Ephesians: “And he has put all things under his feet.” All things.

Paul wants his hearers to come to know the truth of this gospel more fully. “I pray,” he says, “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.”

Let me just summarize by saying that Paul wants this young Christian community to know more deeply the hope that is theirs in Christ, the hope that comes from being called into relationship with the God who made them. And, moreover, he wants them to know the “immeasurable greatness” of the power of God that is available to those who believe.

That’s a really important point and I want you to know it as well. The very same power that raised Jesus Christ from the dead and seated him above all other powers is available to you. It is the power of the Holy Spirit at work in you even now. And that divine power is not like human power except greater. It is of an entirely different category altogether. Human power cannot raise the dead. But God’s power, God’s power raised Jesus Christ from the dead and raised you up with him in baptism, dwells in you presently and will give you all that you need, all that we need, to grow in Christian maturity.

This is my prayer for us here at St. Paul’s/John’s as well. I want us to be a church that is growing, always growing, in our knowledge and love of Christ. I doesn’t matter how long you’ve been going to church, you are never finished growing. If you think you have arrived, if you think you have exhausted all that there is to know about God, if you think that you’ve grown as much as you can in your faith let me tell you that you are only just beginning. The Holy Spirit wants to continually enlighten your heart and mind with the light that you received in baptism and lead you even deeper into the love of Christ Jesus that can never be exhausted. He is not finished with you yet.

So, the Apostle Paul might say something like, growing in Christian maturity begins with the knowledge that Jesus Christ has been exalted as Lord over all but that Christian growth continues as we willingly and joyfully submit ourselves to Christ and appropriate this power for ourselves.

I recently heard one preacher say that Jesus makes a really bad accessory. He’s not good at being an addition to whatever else it is you’ve got going on. Like, here’s the career part of my life, and here’s my relationship part, and here’s my retirement part, and here’s my God part. God is not good with that. He doesn’t play nice being relegated to Sunday morning. See, the problem is that he wants it all.

“But Father Jonathan I just don’t know that I like the sound of that. It sounds a little extreme.” Well, in the immortal words of Bob Dylan, you gotta serve somebody. There is no un-ruled life. Everybody submits to something, some idea, some guiding philosophy or worldview. In our time and place we generally submit to the tyranny of self. To relinquish control of our life to Christ is the duty of Christians, yes, but it is a joy to know that the one who has all things under his control and authority holds your life in those same loving hands. Behold Christ, his love and goodness and beauty. Why wouldn’t you trust him over everything else?

And this isn’t just for our benefit. It is for the sake of Christ’s mission to reconcile all things to God. A little later in the same letter Paul will say that the grace and power of God has been given to Christians, “so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places,” (3:10).

In other words, God gives us the Holy Spirit so that the Church can be a visible sign in the world of the joy and freedom of a life that lovingly obeys Jesus Christ. To be a visible sign of a community in which everyone matters and is named, including the weakest. You are not an insignificant gathering of people. You have been brought into relationship with the exalted Christ and he has given you a share in his power to live by a new set of rules, governed by the grace and mercy of God, so that our neighbours might know his great love.

So, this Advent I am inviting you to go deeper, to grow in your knowledge and love of Christ. In addition to Sunday we will gather right here at St. Paul’s/John’s on Thursdays/Wednesdays for a noon mass. I encourage you to make this simple and short (30 minute) service a part of your lunch break. Then from 2:00pm-4:00pm the church will be open for Confession. I will have information about this available next week and if you have any questions please ask. Finally, at 7:30pm we will say Evening Prayer together after which the church will remain open for an hour for prayer and stillness.

And may the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him more fully. Amen.

Feast Day: All Saints’ Day (A)
Readings: Revelation 7:9-17; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12

“Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

Today we celebrate the feast of All Saints’ Day. This is an important feast especially for us modern Western Christians. Our temptation is to be good materialists. That is, to live as if the material world is all that there is. But on a feast day like today, even if just for a moment, the veil is pulled back and we are granted a view into the throne room of God in heaven. And we are reminded that the Church on earth and the saints who are in heaven have been “knit together…in one communion and fellowship.” Moreover, we are reminded that this vision of the happiness of the saints with God is the goal for us as well and that in order to get there we must follow in their footsteps of godly living and virtue.

In our reading from Revelation this morning we with St. John are granted spiritual insight, a view into heaven. And what do we see? “A great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” Just as in the gospels crowds of common people gathered excitedly around Jesus so too in heaven the innumerable sea of saints find their centre in Christ, the Lamb of God.

And what are they doing, this crowd that cannot be counted? They are crying out in a loud voice, all their distinct voices now joined into one chorus of insatiable praise: “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

There is more. Joining in with the saints are all the angels and heavenly creatures who fall on their faces and lend their voices also: “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” This is undoubtedly a scene of festive joy. These are those who have entered into the unspeakable joy of the Lord.

Here’s the thing, St. John wants us to know that this is happening right now. If somehow the Lord could pull back the veil that separates heaven and earth, this is what you would see. And if you could be granted a momentary glimpse into the never ending adoration of Christ that is happening in the throne-room of heaven at this very moment, I guarantee that you would be changed forever. Everything would suddenly fall into place and things that matter very much to you now would fade in the light of this incomparable joy.

Actually, we do get a glimpse of this every time we come to church. When we participate in the liturgy we are participating in this very heavenly chorus. Take for example, the Sanctus which we sing each week: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts, Heaven and earth are full of thy glory.” The Bible tells us that this is precisely the unbroken song of praise that the saints and heavenly creatures sing (Isaiah 6:3; Revelation 4:8). And our own liturgy instructs us: “Therefore with Angels and Archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious Name.”

When we pray, and read Scripture, and sing, and break bread, we are not just a small group of believers gathered together in a church north of Barrie. When we do this we ourselves are caught up into the throne-room of God Almighty. When we do this our voices are taken up into the unbroken chorus of praise that is offered to the Lamb by that uncountable number of saints, surrounded by every single angel that ever was. With angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven! Whenever we gather for worship there is God’s will being done “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Who are these saints in John’s vision anyways?And where did they come from? “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal/tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb,” (7:14).

The saints in heaven, who forever sing God’s praise, are those who have endured the great tribulation. Whatever else that might mean it means at least this: the blessedness of the Christian life does not preclude suffering. In fact, to be a Christian is to suffer with Christ. We cannot enter into his joy apart from entering into his suffering. And yet Christ’s suffering transforms our own suffering. His suffering was the beginning of a new creation. He died that we might live. So to suffer with Christ is to live with Christ, to rejoice with Christ over the power of sin and death.

That our life is hidden in Christ’s death is one of the great paradoxes of the faith but it is a truth that the lives of the saints attest to. Take St. Ignatius of Antioch for example. Ignatius was a first century bishop of Antioch. En route to Rome as a prisoner, where he would meet his martyrdom by being fed to lions, he wrote a series of letters to the Christian Church in Rome. In one of those letters he begs the Christians in Rome not to interfere and try to save him from his impending death. “My birth pangs are at hand,” he writes. “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.”

What paradox! For St. Ignatius, to suffer and die for Christ is to live. To suffer with Christ in this way is to be made “a real man.” Even in the face of death he senses birth pangs, new life. Now I have no interest in holding martyrdom up as an ideal nor do I think that the only way to be a saint is to literally lose your life for Christ.

However, there is a way in which each and every Christian suffers and dies with Christ in order to be made “a real man.” I’m talking about the sacrament of holy baptism wherein we are washed and made clean by the blood of the Lamb. That is to say, in baptism human creatures are made clean by the Cross and brought from death into life, sin into righteousness in and with and through Christ.

In baptism you are made a saint. Now, if you truly know yourself you might think otherwise. Can I really be called a saint? Even I? Well, listen to the words of St. John in the epistle that was read this morning: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are,” (1 John 3:1). If you are baptized then you have objectively been made a child of God. And as such you have been invited to enter into the fullness of joy that is yours in Christ. And as such you are one with the saints, you are a saint indeed.

The task for us now is to persevere. To endure. To walk in the way of blessedness that we might enter into the eternal blessedness of our Lord. To receive that crown of glory that fadeth not away. Because here’s the thing, everything else in your life is fading away, even now. In the end nothing will last except for the love that you have for Christ and for one another. That alone will last. Not your career, not your reputation, not your net-worth, not your family name. Your love of Christ and of one another, that will last. That will never fade away.

And therein lies the catch of Christian endurance. The secret to persevering with the saints and entering into the joy of the Lord fully and finally. The only way to follow the saints in godly living is to fall deeper in love with Christ Jesus. Only those who have tasted the joy of the Lord can withstand the trials and tribulations that will come their way.

If you are here because you really love the music, or the preaching (hopefully you don’t mind the preaching), or because you really love the community, let me say that you are most welcome here and I sincerely hope you continue to come but let me say that that is not enough. Because when push comes to shove, when the rubber meets the road, when your faith is really put to the test and adversity and trouble come your way on account of Christ, no love of music, or preaching, or community will sustain you. You will stand or fall on the basis of your love for Christ Jesus, the Lamb upon the Throne. If you adore Christ, if his beauty and goodness and love is what feeds and sustains you then there is nothing that you cannot endure for his sake.

So let me finish by asking: have you yourself tasted and seen the goodness of the Lord? Do you know the joy of being one of Christ’s beloved? Has your faith become stale? Cold perhaps? Today, may the witness of the saints in heaven reignite your own love of Christ. May you look up with St. John and be granted a glimpse of that heavenly chorus to which we join our voices even now. And may the joy of that scene, the joy of the Lamb, flood your heart and mind and enable you to follow in the footsteps of the saints and come to those unspeakable joys that God has prepared for those who love him. Amen.

Feast Day: Reformation Sunday
Readings: Isaiah 35; Psalm 85

“Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us,” (85:4).

Today we commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. On October 31st, 1517 a Roman Catholic monk by the name of Martin Luther wrote a list of ninety-five theses and nailed it to the Cathedral door in Wittenberg where he was professor of moral theology. He had hoped to provoke debate about corruption in the Church which he did and it spread throughout Europe like wildfire. Archbishop Justin Welby called it “the viral content of its day.”[1] Within two decades the Reformation rent Europe in two between Protestants and Catholics.

Anglicans are those who are indebted to the Reformation and yet committed to a Catholic vision of the Church. As heirs of the Reformation we give thanks for the emphatic proclamation that it is Christ alone who heals our sinful hearts. Christ alone who brings us home to God. Christ alone. Yet in our commitment to the Church Catholic we ought to lament the fragmentation of the church and commit ourselves to pursing unity wherever possible.

The words of the prophet Isaiah which we heard proclaimed this morning help us, I believe, to honestly assess our present reality and see our way through to the promise of God into which live by hope.

First of all it is important to provide a bit of context. The prophet Isaiah lived in the 8th Century BC during what is considered to be one of the most tumultuous times in Israelite history.[2] Israel herself was a nation cut to the heart by division with a number of tribes combining to form the northern kingdom of Israel and the remaining tribes left to form the southern kingdom of Judah. One people, divided.

In the mid-8th century BC the northern tribes were besieged and carried off by the Assyrians. By the turn of the century the southern tribes had met much the same fate at the hands of the Assyrian king Sennacherib, leaving the kingdom of Judah—home to Jerusalem/Zion—ravaged.

It is into this context—one of a people divided and torn asunder by strife and foreign powers—that Isaiah speaks the word of the Lord. The passage that we heard read signals a note of hope. Despite the fact that Israel is at present cut to the heart by division and under God’s judgement it remains true that God is using all of this, their stubbornness and all of the calamity that has befallen them, to refine them and bring them into a future that he has not only promised but is preparing.

The whole passage speaks of Israels return from captivity to Zion, to that great city where they will be at home with their God. Yet it is held up as a promise, as a reality that they are not currently experiencing but towards which they are being brought: “They shall see the glory of the Lord.” “He will come and save you.” “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened.” “A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way.” “And the ransomed of the Lord shall return.” All of this shall be but is not now. For now it is a promise. A promise that Israel is to cling to and not forget.

Israel’s present is like a parched desert in which nothing much can grow. But when the Lord their God comes to bring them home then that arid and dull land will burst forth with life and beauty: “Like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly.”

Another figure of God’s promise to Israel is that of a disordered body being made whole again. Weak hands and feeble knees will be strengthened and made firm. Fearful hearts are made courageous and at peace. Blind eyes and deaf ears will be opened. The speechless tongue will sing for joy. The lame shall leap like a deer (35:3-6a).

It is no accident that one of the primary figures the Apostle Paul uses for the Church is that of a body and indeed we are Christ’s Body. And yet at present this body, like Israel in Isaiah’s time, is disordered, out of whack, disfigured, bearing the scars of our division.

Archbishop Justin Welby wrote a piece for a British newspaper last week in which he recalled being at a service of Holy Communion in the Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral. Knowing that Anglicans and Roman Catholics are unable to receive communion together when Archbishop Welby went forward at the time of communion he knelt down to be prayed for by Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster. Recalling what happened next the Welby wrote: “He took my hand and lifted me to my feet. Both of us had tears in our eyes. We are the closest of friends, and being reminded of the divisions in the global Church pains us both very deeply.”[3]

Here is the point: the wounds of our division obscure our witness to the world. Recently a faithful Roman Catholic woman visited St. John’s on a week when we used the liturgy for Holy Communion from the Book of Common Prayer. After the liturgy had ended she made a comment about how familiar it all felt. “Why are we divided?” she wondered. If this is what people of faith wonder we can only imagine the ways in which our division trips up those who are not yet believers. In this way our division is literally a scandal to the gospel.

Yet the wounds of our division cut deeper still. If you know your Church history you know that ecclesial division has very often led to brutal violence and murder. A Professor and mentor of mine from seminary wrote a book a few years ago about Church division which was initially titled Division is Murder. Murder in the sense that we kill one another but even more-so in the sense that division tears apart the one Body of Christ. The title of his book was later changed by the editors to A Brutal Unity, indicating that the way to unity, the overcoming and healing of our division is a costly enterprise. It comes at the cost of Christ’s own life.

“A highway shall be there,” proclaimed Isaiah, “and it shall be called the Holy Way.” “And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing.” This is true for the Church as well. At present we are divided and this division is a scandal. Yet Christ is bringing us home, calling us into a future in which the wounds of our division are healed and we are made one. And that highway, the Holy Way, upon which we the broken and divided Body of Christ travel is the broken body of Christ himself, once offered upon the cross and now in this Eucharist. As Isaiah writes elsewhere: “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,” (53:5).

We cannot heal the wounds of our division, that alone Christ can do and he begins to do so as he heals our sinful hearts. This is the great emphasis of the Reformation. That our salvation is bound up in Christ alone and our trust in him. Yet in the Gospel According to St. John Christ himself prays prays for his followers saying: “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one,” (John 17:11). We like Jesus to answer our prayers but I want to end with a petition that we be a church that strives to answer his prayer, that we be one.

I believe that one of the gifts of Anglicanism is to help us to see how we can be heirs of the Reformation in a way that conforms to a Catholic vision of the Church. So let me end with a few modest proposals.

First, and chiefly, submit yourself to the Word of God in every area of your life. Let the Bible stand at the centre of your life and feast upon it daily. Plumb the depths of Scripture which can never be exhausted and approach it with the faith that the living and risen Jesus is waiting there to meet and address you.

Second, submit yourself to the Sacraments. Approach the Eucharist with the faith that Christ gives himself to you in the form of bread and wine. Trust that God really gives you a share in his life and love in these seemingly ordinary things.

Third, as you do this, submit yourself to Christ’s judgement. For the Christian, every day is judgement day. Let the light of his word and his presence shine into the recesses of your heart and mind and let him purify any dark way that is in you. Let his love heal your sinful heart.

Forth, study the faith. Be not content simply to have faith but seek understanding as well. Read broadly. Pick up something by Irenaeus, Chrysostom, Augustine or any of the Church Fathers. Read something by the contemporary Eastern Orthodox theologian John Behr or by Pope Benedict XVI. Heck read some Calvin while you’re at it and some Richard Hooker too.

Fifth, bear with one another in love. Recognize that the baptismal bond we share makes us brothers and sisters and this should make us slow to sow dissension. Also, be quick to reconcile with one another. Do not withhold from others the mercy Christ has given you.

Finally, pray for unity. Really pray. Pray for other churches. Pray for persecuted Christians. Pray that Christ would give us the will and ability to do all we can to work for the unity of the Church.

May the words of the Psalmist be ever on our lips: “Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us,” (85:4). Amen.

Endnotes
[1] Justin Welby, www.standard.co.uk/comment/comment/justin-welby-luther-s-historic-act-did-so-much-to-shape-the-world-we-live-in-a3669686.html
[2] Old Testament Survey, 279.
[3] Welby.