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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.”

Last night I got to see one of my favourite (is “favourite” a theological category?) living theologians deliver a lecture at Regis College at the Toronto School of Theology on the topic, “Suffering Presence: Twenty-Five Years Later.” The lecture consisted of a number of insights and reflections 25 years after the publications of this book.

As someone who enjoys theology and hopes to be engaged in both pastoral ministry as well as chaplaincy in the medical community I found the lecture really great. I won’t summarize the whole talk for you but below are a few points that stood out to me in particular.

(1) I think the overarching theme that Hauerwas wanted us to wrestle with was how we approach suffering. Hauerwas rightly noted that we live in a culture that avoids suffering at all costs. Heck, we even try to avoid aging at all costs because, well, the older you get the closer you come to death (no offense, mom). Hauerwas mentioned that when he gives these sorts of talks to students and professionals he usually begins by asking people how they want to die (!). The usual response is something along the lines of, “quietly and in my sleep.” “Quietly”, because we don’t want to be a burden to our family and friends and, “in my sleep” because we don’t want to know that we’re dying. What does this tell us about how we view life, death, and humanity?

Hauerwas suggested that we want to die in such a way as to not be a burden to our families and friends because we have a view of the human body that is isolated from others (so, we wouldn’t want the suffering of our bodies to encroach on the lives of other bodies). Part of the reason for this view, argues Hauerwas, is that we lack an understanding of the telos of the human body. This is evident in the fact that for most medical students their first patient (in med school) is a corpse. Literally. This has shaped and is shaped by a particular philosophy of the human body. It is essentially a machine. From examining a corpse we can learn all about the human body, how it functions, what it looks like and so on. But a dead body is very different from a living body. Thus, it is a fundamental mistake of medicine to understand the body as mechanistic. Living bodies are storied bodies. Rooted in a complex web of narratives and experiences. Therefore, a malfunctioning liver isn’t simply a malfunctioning liver and how you treat such a liver may differ based on whether the liver in question belongs to Mr. Jones or Ms. Smith. Why? Because these are storied people and health and medicine fails us if we simply view them as mechanistic and proceed accordingly.

(2) It is possible to be ill and yet healthy. Likewise, one could be free of illness and be unhealthy. For Hauerwas, this is because, “health is membership in a community,” (quoting Wendell Berry). A medical system which understands the human body as fundamentally mechanistic and autonomous is concerned with delivering a product to consumers (Dr.’s want to keep their patients happy, after all) and fails to understand the storied nature of the body. Here, there can be no hard distinction (as often can be in the medical community) between the physical and the spiritual for then we’re back to understanding the body as mechanistic, as a corpse rather than living. We could be deathly ill and at the same time healthy because, as Hauerwas argues, who we are is most determined by the relationships of our bodies to other bodies (I would think here of other human creatures, the non-human creature, and Jesus and his Body). This has obvious implications for the church. One of the implications Hauerwas chose to draw out was the need for morally formed ministers. He said, and I think rightly, that people don’t generally believe that an ill trained priest can damage their eternal salvation but they do believe that an ill trained doctor can damage their health. Here, Hauerwas contrasted seminaries with medical schools arguing the medical schools form more moral people (Dr.’s are trained to offer unconditional care to their patients. Even if the person before them with a heart condition is a scum-of-the-earth child molester the Dr. is obliged to care for them. This, says Hauerwas, is a true moral commitment to the health of the other). Hauerwas argued that the Psalmists plea to be saved from death was because they feared God. They wanted to stand before God as righteous. Contrast this with our plea to be saved from death today, which comes not from a fear of God but from a fear of death. The significance of this shift should not be lost on us.

(3) The body that the church presents to be cared for is not the isolated body but the baptized body. Here is where I thought the real crux of Hauerwas’ argument lay, in the statement: “Suffering can be a gift that makes more intimate our connection with God and one another.” The church presents a body to be cared for that understands suffering in a fundamentally different way than the isolated body. Suffering and death do not need to be avoided at all costs and prolonged so that we can “die without knowing it”. Rather, we can face suffering as a gift that draws us deeper into communion with others and with God. Because it is the baptized body death is no longer feared for our deaths have been united in baptism with Christ’s death. Death has been transformed so that it is no longer to be seen as the end of life but rather entrance in a new, eternal, resurrection life with Christ. Our hope is therefore not to avoid suffering and die in peace but rather our hope is resurrection life.

(4) This view of health (as, “membership in a [Christian] community”) can form patients differently than the dominant understanding of health (as illness free, or health as cure). The Christian view of health forms patients who want to be cured but do not seek the cure at all costs. Quite literally, it forms patients who are patient. The greatest gift that could be given here is not a cure but presence. To be present with someone, to offer them the gift of friendship, in their illness or as they journey through death is a gift that far outweighs a cure. We can offer the gift of friendship when there is no cure to offer. Christian health, thus, means reliance on Christ and his church even in the face of suffering and death. Human finitude can be welcomed as a gift. We must learn, then, to suffer without losing hope. We must learn to sit with one another in the shadow of the valley of death.

(5) The ways that Christians pray (for health, healing etc) reveals how we approach illness and health the same as the world. So often, Christian prayers for health and healing are prayers for a cure, prayers to avoid suffering or even death. Ours prayers, however, are determined not by the valley of the shadow of death but by the presence of the one who walks with us in the valley of the shadow of death. With Christ we have already died. As noted above, our hope is not to get through life unscathed but the hope of resurrection. To be a Christian is to undergo the training to know how to live out of control. Thus, we need a type of medicine that, “for God’s sake, respects the body that is storied by the cross.”

It really was a fantastic lecture and there is much to dwell on there. If you have not yet read “Suffering Presence” (as I haven’t) you really should!

Now, as an aside, my favourite part of the evening came during the question and answer at the end. The first person to come to the microphone praised Hauerwas as a man of great stature and then proceeded to criticize him by asking something to the extent of, “This all sounds very dualistic, where is the Christianity here?!!” The gentleman wanted a more Christianized version of whatever it was Hauerwas was selling. Hauerwas’ response was, basically, “I hope I didn’t do what you say I did,” (funny!). The second person to ask a question was a very nice and gentle young man from Trinity College (“niceness” is especially prized in certain circles!). This young man proceeded to ask a question that was exactly opposite to the first questioner. His question was basically, “How can we take what you’ve said here and talk about it more rationally?” In other words, he wanted to de-Christianize the talk and make it more palatable for secular professionals. The poor guy. I can only presume that he hadn’t read much Hauerwas prior to coming to the lecture because if he had he would have known that if there is one thing that Hauerwas hates it is liberal Protestantism which does just that, rob Jesus of his particularity and soften the offensive blow of the gospel to make it more palatable. Hauerwas’ response was, in my opinion, an instant classic (and made me literally laugh out loud…sorry questioner): “I have no idea. Run it up the flagpole and see if you can get anyone to salute. The body has a telos, sorry.” Hilarity!

 

***UPDATE – See the video of the full talk here.

Damnation.

Some like to yell about it. Others can’t stand the thought of even mentioning it.

But what’s the deal exactly? Who the hell (pun intended, hey-o!) am I supposed to listen to? Obviously different theological traditions will come at this differently but what are some things that we can all agree on? What are some things that, in light of revelation, we can say about that God awful topic, damnation (the reason I say “can” is because it’s my opinion that both extreme’s, those that yell about it and those that are silent, are saying things that we can’t say if we’re to be faithful to the whole of the Biblical narrative)?

It is here, yet again, that I must turn to a gentleman that is quickly becoming one of my favourite living theologians, David Yeago. In the final chapter of Apostolic Faith, ‘The Four Last Things’, Yeago highlights 5 constraints that our teaching on damnation should be bound by. I found these immensely helpful so I thought I’d take the time to share them and expound just a wee bit. If we are to be faithful to the apostolic legacy then these must guide what we say/don’t say in regards to damnation.

1. We have no right to teach with certainty either that some will be damned or that none will be damned, that many will be damned or that few will be damned.
A most important point about the Last Judgment is that it is yet to come. It has not yet happened. When this happens it will happen in the utter freedom of God, who is the judge, not us human creatures who are most certainly not the judge (we are, rather, the object of this judgment!). So then, to assume with any degree of certainty and detail the way in which God will execute his judgment is to “usurp his prerogative”, as Yeago says. Just as the coming of the Messiah totally surprised and subverted Israel’s expectations so too the course of God’s judgment is sure to surprise us. We must say then that all people everywhere are in God’s hands and that whatever happens to them/us will, in the end, prove to be entirely consistent with God’s character. This is all we can say about outcomes.

2. We cannot deny with certainty that the God who has conquered death has ways of bringing the gospel to the dead.
Once in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (4:7-10) and twice in 1 Peter (3:18-20; 4:6) reference is made to Christ descending to the place of the dead to preach the gospel: “For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does,” (1 Pet 4:6). The result of Jesus enduring death and descending to the place of the dead is not only that he was able to preach there but that he, in fact, defeated the powers of sin and death utterly exhausting them beyond their last breath. And so elsewhere in Scripture Jesus is described as he who holds “the keys of death and Hades” (Rev 1:18). Jesus’ preaching to the dead is in no way portrayed as a one-time event. Like the crucifixion, which transcends time and confronts each and every person, it is possible that his descent into Hell may transcend time and confront each and every dead person. Given that Jesus holds the keys of death and Hades (the door is open) this is entirely possible.

3. We can and must say, however, that no human being will find a final fulfillment of his/her existence apart from Jesus of Nazareth and those who gather round him.
In Yeago’s words, “the Church does not claim simply that Jesus is a meaningful symbol; it claims that this particular person, as a particular person, is in reality the Lord of all, the one whom all go to meet, the active centre of meaning for the whole universe. He is in person the fulfillment of human destiny, and there simply is no other fulfillment than participation in his risen life. Indeed, the fulfillment is his risen humanity, into which he gathers his brothers and sisters.” Salvation, then, is not something which God has “attached” to Jesus which is unattainable unless you “believe in Jesus”. Rather, salvation is simply the “name for what it means to gather around Jesus and share in his life.” To be sure there is, nor can there be, any human fulfillment apart from Jesus the Christ.

4. If Jesus is the fulfillment of human destiny, then the way to that fulfillment for every human being must be the way of repentance and faith.
“Repentance” simply means to turn from a life without Christ and “faith” means to join our lives with his. So then, repentance and faith are of ultimate importance for each and every human being. Since he is the fulfillment of human destiny then turning to him and entering into shared life with him matters infinitely. Therefore, any sort of “wider hope” or “universalism” must be the hope that those who do not know Christ in this life will nevertheless be brought to repentance and faith in him (This is important to note. Proponents of a “wider hope” or “universalism” are all too often accused of pluralism. However, to be sure, one can hold to a “wider hope” and not be guilty of pluralism if they maintain that it is only in Christ that salvation is possible).

5. We must confess that in all God’s dealings with creatures, in mercy and in judgment, his aim remains the same: communion in love.
God’s aim always and everywhere and in every situation with regard to his creatures is “communion in love”. However, God is not coercive, so his love is nor forced upon anyone, now or after death. So then, because God is not coercive we cannot exclude the possibility of damnation even though we may hope it never becomes an actual reality. We cannot say that Jesus’ warnings are simply empty threats rather than real life-or-death warnings. However, before hurling these warnings at anyone else we must realize that they are first directed towards us.

Well then, what are we to do? On this basis, the most appropriate way in which to entertain a wider or universal hope is in prayer. “If it is not impossible that those who have not believed in Christ in this life may nonetheless be received into his fellowship in death, then it is certainly permissible to pray that it may be so”.

Amen.

*The image featured above is a painting from the Chora Church in Istanbul depicting Christ’s victory in the place of the dead. I believe that is Adam and Eve whom he is pulling up out of Hades.