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

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

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

Living God,

Open my mouth, that I may proclaim your Word

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

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

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

Amen.

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

polycarpmartyrdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I remember when I first realized that the Christian life was not about doing. Up until that point, and even now I find myself reverting ever-so-often to this line of thinking, I was convinced that we had to do things in order to be reconciled and to live in relation with God. Now, while there is certainly some truth to this it is vital that we get the emphasis on the right note. Any “doing” of the Christian life is secondary and derivative of Christ’s own doing. This is one of the greatest lessons which I have learned over the last few years from the likes of T.F. Torrance, the great Scottish theologian and student of Karl Barth. Torrance is known, among other things, for working out in much detail the vicarious nature of Christ’s humanity. Of course, we are familiar that in Christ God is acting towards us, in forgiving our sin and reconciling humanity and all of creation to Himself. That is but one side of the coin, however. The other side of the very same coin is that Christ Jesus is the true human who lives in proper and full obedience to God on our behalf. In other words, Jesus Christ fulfils the God-human covenant from both sides, from the side of God and the side of humanity. He is ultimately for us what we cannot be for ourselves and this is just as much a part of God’s redemptive work as any reconciling that Christ does from God’s side. Torrance puts it this way:

The act of God in Christ for us, and the act of man in Christ for us, are inseparable, in an atonement of substitutionary nature. It is not only that as Son of God, or Apostle from God, Christ has done for us what we could not do, but that as High Priest in our humanity He has done for us what we could not do. He has once and for all offered to God our obedience, our response, our witness, our amen. He became our brother man and He offered on our behalf a human obedience, a human response, a human witness and a human amen, so that in Him our human answer to God in life, worship, and prayer is already completed. He is in the fullest sense our homologia.

We do have a response of course. But our response is secondary to Christ’s. Indeed, Christ’s response displaces our response so that all we have to rely on is Christ acting in obedience on our behalf. Torrance again is helpful:

It can only be ours, therefore, if it involves the setting aside of the obedience, response, witness, amen, and even the worship and prayer which we offer on our own. The radical significance of Christ’s substitutionary Priesthood does not lie in the fact that His perfect Self-offering perfects and completes our imperfect offerings, but that these are displaced by His completed Self-offering. We can only offer what has already been offered on our behalf, and offer it by the only mode appropriate to such a substitutionary offering, by prayer, thanksgiving and praise.

Another way of thinking about all of this would be to say that Christ Jesus is both God’s Word to us and our Amen to that Word.

Human creatures are not left with nothing to do, of course. However, our doing finds it’s place in response to Christ’s doing for us. Thus, our doing is primarily a thank-offering. Our response is to say Amen to Christ’s Amen on our behalf. So, next time we gather together for worship, be that a meal with friends or the celebration of the Eucharist on a Sunday morning, may we recall Christ’s life of obedience lived for us and be thankful that Christ is risen and his life and ministry continues on in our midst and that we are invited to participate in the very life of the risen Christ in our offering of thanks.

Amen.

 

*Both quotes taken from T.F. Torrance, Royal Priesthood: A Theology of Ordained Ministry.

**The picture is of St. Athansius’ who Torrance relied on for much of his theology in this area.

For the Apostle Paul the life of the believer is both supported and guided by the will of God. Thus, says New Testament scholar V.P. Furnish, “the life yielded to God is the life dedicated to the discovery of God’s will (Rom. 12:1-2) and responsive to the divine “call” (cf. I Thess. 4:3, 7; 2:12),” (Theology and Ethics in Paul, 227-8). Since Paul does not think of God’s will in the sense of a list of duties or a systematic ethical program the important question becomes how is it to be discerned in particular instances.

How is one to discern God’s will in one’s own life? To be sure, for Paul, this is possible (and urgent!) because the Christian is a “new creature” whose life has been taken over by Christ (Gal. 2:20; Phil. 3:12). Life in Christ is life in the Spirit and thus life in the community of the Spirit, the church. The communal aspect here is key. For Paul, one cannot discern God’s will apart from the community of the Spirit. In the Christian community we speak the truth to one another in love and learn to hear the voice of the Spirit together. To quote Furnish at length,

“Paul never pictures the believer as confronting alone the bewildering complexity of various possible courses of action. The believer’s life and action are always in, with, and for “the brethren” in Christ. For him, moral action is never a matter of an isolated actor choosing from among a variety of abstract ideals on the basis of how inherently “good” or “evil” each may be. Instead, it is always a matter of choosing and doing what is good for the brother and what will upbuild the whole community of brethren,” (233).

In other words, discernment is not a matter that individuals engage in by themselves but rather a matter that requires the community of faith for whom we act in love. So, in Corinth when the matter of meat offered to idols surfaces what is important is not who is “strong” and who is “weak” but how this decision will effect one’s brother (1 Cor. 8:9, 11). “Build one another up!” says Paul in 1 Thess. 5:11. For Paul, mutual upbuilding is central to the life of the church: “Within this context and standing under this claim the Christian is called to discover and do the will of God,” (234).

The following is a short five-minute homily I preached during morning prayer in the Wycliffe College chapel on Tuesday, March 13, 2012. The New Testament reading, from which I preached, was 1 Corinthians 7:32-40.

Funny side-note. Prior to preaching at 8:30am I had not eaten anything nor had I drank anything. Further, when I got up to preach in what was a very warm chapel I was wearing a heavy knit sweater. As I preached, I became very hot and began to feel light-headed, dizzy, and yes even nauseous. I figured I had three options: I could try to tough it out but then I would risk passing out in the middle of my short sermon. On the other hand, I could make a dash for the open door at the side of the chapel where I would no doubt vomit. Those two options would have proven rather embarrassing (and gross) so I opted for the third option and excused myself as I stopped preaching to take off my sweater. Crisis averted.

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It makes all the difference in the world how one regards the end of the world. By “end” I do not mean a temporal point beyond which we cannot venture but rather the goal, the purpose, the telos of the world. Talking about the end of the world may seem like an odd way to begin a short homily on a portion of Scripture addressed to virgins. Yet this is precisely the context in which we are to hear Paul’s seemingly odd relational advice. If the Apostle had a “Dear Paul,” column in the local paper his advice to a young engaged couple may have gone something like this: “Dear Young-and-in-love: Marriage? The time is near, the world as we know it is passing away! Perhaps there are other things you may want to consider such as, I don’t know, concerning yourself with the affairs of the Lord in what little time you have left. Plus, marriage will bring you great distress so, you’re welcome.”

Of course, Paul isn’t writing a general treatise on marriage here and given his expectations his opinion on the matter makes more sense. Paul’s advice is conditioned by his belief that the day of the Lord is immanent. In the few verses prior to this mornings reading Paul says that “the appointed time has grown short,” (7:29a) and that “the present form of this world is passing away,” (7:31b). Later on Paul will refer to himself and the recipients of his letter as “us, on whom the ends of the ages have come,” (10:11). Indeed, nothing less than this has happened in the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus. In Jesus, the ends of the ages have come upon us. The old age, ruled as it was by sin and death has passed away and the new age, the fullness of God’s reign in Christ, has come. The tension, of course, is that while this new reality has indeed altered the present world it has not yet arrived in all of it’s glory and splendor. In the present we have a foretaste, a downpayment. But, when Christ returns (any moment now, for Paul) he will once and for all judge evil and wickedness and set the world aright.

Thus, Paul’s powerful apocalyptic expectation shaped his advice to the young virgins, that they remain single. Because, for Paul, the time is short ordinary temporal matters dwindle in significance or rather they “assume the significance that is properly theirs in the light of God’s eschatological judgment”[1]. Whether married, single, or engaged Christians ought to live as people who know that all these things are made sense of and find their fulfillment in Christ. Since the future is impinging upon the present Paul simply thought it illogical to undertake such long-term commitments as marriage.

However, Paul was also concerned that marriage presents many distractions that hinder service to the Lord. At best, marriage will produce divided interests as the husband considers how to please his wife (and rightly so!). For Paul, the potential danger of marriage is that it will hinder the Christian’s singleminded devotion to the mission of the church. Paul thinks it urgent that we be about the affairs of the Lord, proclaiming the gospel in the short time that remains, and singleness simply frees up time, attention, and energy to do this crucial work.

Alright, so Paul’s eschatological expectations were off a bit (two millennia or so and counting). What now? We along with Paul are indeed those upon whom the ends of the ages have come. In Christ, we are re-socialized into a pattern shaped by the gospel and illuminated by our eschatological setting between the cross and the final day of the Lord. As Christians our stories are caught up into the story God is telling and has told, the story which culminates in Christ Jesus who is coming again soon to judge the world and subject all things to the Father, “so that God may be all in all,” (15:28). Whether married or single, this story makes sense of our lives and reveals that we are a people on a journey.

Our society has lost good reasons for getting married and having children. We appear even more-so to have lost good reasons for staying single. “Ultimately,” says Stanley Hauerwas, “for the believer there is only one good reason to get married or to stay single, namely, that this has something to do with our discipleship”[2]. In light of Christ’s return marriage and singleness help to cultivate those virtues needed to keep us on the journey. So then, let us not be anxious but instead pursue wholehearted service of the Lord who has authority over our lives be we married or single. Amen.

Footnotes:

[1] Richard Hayes, Interpretation: First Corinthians (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1997), 127.

[2] Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, Resident Aliens (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), 66.

Robert Jenson writes in Visible Words,

“All aspects of Jesus’ presence to us are the same as of any other person; but they work together very differently. When I hear the gospel, I am addressed with the implicit or explicit claim that it is Jesus with whom I have to do. When I say I do not see him, that our communion lacks an object on one side, I am referred to the objectivity of the speaking and hearing community. If I then suppose that “Jesus” is here just a label for the community he founded, I am corrected and referred to the historical personage. And when I then ask how these two—the objectivity of the community and the historically objective Jesus—can be the same, the answer is that the gospel address, in which all these realities appear, is an eschatological promise and therefore beyond the divisions and incompletions of time,” (48).

In other words, Jesus really is present with the community gathered round him (and inseparably so). He is present with us as we are present with one another and yet as one who is distinct from our “one another”. And because the gospel is an eschatological (a present reality with a future fulfillment) proclamation and promise these two realities (Jesus’ presence in the objective community and his own historically objective body) must be held in tension.

This is helpful for me at least because I am often left feeling as if Jesus doesn’t really bother with us. The historical disconnect between Jesus’ life 2000 years ago and our life today is a real disconnect and yet there is something truer still, so that we can proclaim Christ’s presence with us. Christ is truly present with us as we bother with one another and allow others to bother with us. Christ is truly present with us as we eat the bread and drink the wine and as we are washed in the waters of baptism.

Are humans sinful beings? Are they a doomed creature? Are they ultimately good? Well, I suppose it would depend on who you ask.

But, the final word has already been spoken about human creatures and to human creatures and that final word is Christ Jesus. On the resurrection of Jesus, T.F. Torrance says:

“Thus the resurrection means that the Word which God sent forth in creation, and sent forth in a new way in the incarnation, did not return void but accomplished what it was sent to do. In creation and the affirmation of creation, in recreation and the finalising of creation, the resurrection is the establishing of the creature in a reality that does not crumble away into the dust or degenerate into nothingness or slip into the oblivion of the past. This is a reality that arises and endures, for it is positively and faithfully grounded in its own ultimate source of reality in God,” (Atonement, 239).

The last word has already been spoken.

Or, as Torrance says, the resurrection is the actualisation of human reality, the humanizing in Jesus of dehumanized man. Humanity in Christ is the creation God made it to be and may not now cease to be what it is (239).

During this season of Advent, may we remember the coming of this Word into the world, made flesh. And, may we long for the day when this Word will come again to fully and finally usher in the kingdom of God. Until then, may we live in this world but play by the rules of that future world which has already begun to dawn. For that final word has already been spoken. It is already real.

Amen.

Most Christians are familiar with the language of “covenant”, particularly with the language of “new covenant”. In this context, covenant language denotes a particular (strong) relation between God and human creatures that carries weight and responsibility on both ends. Throughout the Old Testament we see that despite Israel’s frequent unfaithfulness God remains faithful to his covenant with them and continually renews it on the day of Atonement.

The new covenant, is generally understood by Christians to mean a renewed covenant between God and human creatures which is not based on the law but on the gospel. To remain faithful to this covenant from the human end of the deal means then to accept Jesus and to live accordingly. However, what many of us fail to recognize is that Jesus isn’t simply the mediator of new covenant (although he is that), Jesus is the new covenant, and he is so for us.

In other words, both the promises and the commands of the covenant are fulfilled in Christ. The following quote from T.F. Torrance puts it quite beautifully:

“That covenant is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, for in him God’s faithfulness realizes his will for his people. The promises of the covenant are fulfilled in him, in the ultimate gift of God’s very self to man; the commands of the covenant are fulfilled in him, in the obedience of the son of man. This realization of the covenant will and faithfulness of God in Christ is atonement – atonement in its fullest sense embracing the whole incarnate life and work of Christ. It involves the self-giving of God to man and the assuming of man into union with God, thus restoring the broken communion between man and God. It involves the fulfillment of the divine judgement on the sin of humanity and the removal of that obstacle or barrier of sin between God and humanity, but that barrier is removed precisely by the complete fulfillment of the covenant, in which God kept faith and truth with humanity in its sin by its complete judgement – therefore it is in this complete judgement alone that men and women can be justified before God and have a just and true place in the covenant-communion with God. That whole work of atonement, of establishing covenant communion, Christ fulfilled in himself, by incarnation and atonement. He fulfilled it in himself as mediator, God and man in one person, acting from the side of God as God and from the side of man as man,” (Atonement, 9).