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The Way

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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John Behr gave an excellent and challenging lecture today at Wycliffe College. It was on ‘Becoming Human’. Basically, it was a run down on theosis or divinization: God became man that man might become God. The premise being that man was created for participation in the divine life. OK, if that’s confusing, never mind. He of course relied heavily on the patristics, particularly Irenaeus for much of this. There is much I could reflect on from his lecture, however, one of the matters that stood out to me most was a hermeneutical point from the gospel of John.

One of the underlying themes of the lecture was that to be human is to die. Christ tramples down death by death and in so doing transforms death into a entrance to life. Baptism, initiation into the Christian community, is itself a baptism into the death of Christ. The call of the disciple is to pick up ones cross and follow Christ. Christ is the true Adam, the spiritual man. We see what God is really like in the death of the man Jesus, and thus we see what it is to be truly human.

OK, to John. The synoptics all have Jesus crying out to the Father on the cross, “Why have you forsaken me?” (ex. Mark 15:34). John does not have this. Instead, John has Jesus calling out, “It is finished!” (19:30). This of course begs the question, what is finished? Behr here makes an interesting note that relates to theosis, and the point that to be human is to die. As noted above, Jesus is the second Adam, the true man. In John, just prior to the crucifixion Pilate proclaims, “Here is the man!” (19:5). Now, the gospel of John has clear allusions to Genesis (i.e. see 1:1 of John – in the beginning…). Behr believes that the proclamation “it is finished!” harkens us back to Genesis 1:26-27, the divine project, the human creature. In the beginning God made man but man was not perfect. Man was an infant and infants need milk. Infants cannot handle meat. Thus, the human creature had to grow up into perfection, into participation in the divine life. For Behr, in Christ’s death on the cross the human project is complete.

To be human is to die, and in death to enter into true life, eternal life. In baptism, in discipleship, the Christian dies and learns to die daily as the apostle Paul says.

Forgive me if this seems incomplete, it probably is. There is much more that could be said here!

Premise: Judgment as “speaking the truth in love” is the way we discern together what the Spirit is doing in our midst so that we can be a people shaped by the truth living together in such a way that we may witness to Christ Jesus in the midst of a world of untruth.

Read 2 Samuel 11:27b-12:14

A Word About Babies and the Cosmos.
It’s no secret that Christina and I are expecting our first child in a little over a month. We are both extremely excited and overjoyed at the prospect of meeting little Charlotte and at the very same time utterly terrified! At first she will be this fragile, delicately beautiful little girl, totally dependent on us for her survival. But, time will pass, the days will turn into months and years and Charlotte will grow. She will become a toddler that runs around on her chubby little legs awkwardly bumping into things and falling over. She will become a young girl and go to school where she will learn amazing things and wonder at the world. She will become a teenager and dye her hair and slam doors and, at some point, dabble in romance. She will grow into a young woman full of a healthy dose of both optimism and wisdom. As her parents we will, of course, have dreams for our daughter. Not short sighted goals such as a university education and a stable but respectable income. But goals related to her person: that she would know what it means to love and be loved, that she would treasure relations and see them as fundamental to who God made her to be, that she would rejoice in the Lord and nurture and respect his good and beautiful creation, that she would live simply and know the abounding richness of life with God, with other human creatures and with the rest of creation. However, the road will not be smooth. As she grows she will make mistakes. She will falter and go off track. As her parents, this will require us to discipline her at times. It may be a smack on the bottom or perhaps a stern but graceful “no”. None of this will be because we despise her, no, it is because we love and cherish her and we want her to grow up into a mature and graceful woman.

This is a bit like creation. In fact, it’s similar to an analogy of sorts that one of the early Church Fathers, Irenaeus, used. Irenaeus started to talk about the idea that while creation was made good it was not made perfect. Creation had a telos, a goal. In this view, creation is not a static enterprise. Rather, it is dynamic and mobile. Creation is made to go somewhere. Genesis starts in a garden but Revelation ends in a city. God’s plans and purposes for creation are very good. The problem with all of this, of course, is sin. Because God is not coercive but genuinely desires a reciprocal relation of mutual giving and receiving with his human creatures the door was left open to the possibility of us saying ‘no’ to God’s good ways and choosing to go our own way instead. God’s way leads to life. Our ways, to death.

And so, in the midst of a world that has gone astray, God choses a people. This may seem odd. Why did God seemingly arbitrarily chose one people over another? I’m not sure that’s the right question. I think rather our question must be “why did God chose a people, period?” When God calls Abram he says to him, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:2-3). God did not chose a particular people because he preferred them. He chose a particular people so that “all of the families of the earth” could know his blessing. In a world that had gone astray Israel was to live in such a way that they pointed to the goodness of God. Their life together was meant to scream “God has blessed everyone”. As such, Israel was called to live a peculiar sort of life together.

Nathan & David.
But, here we are in 2 Samuel with a king who is in many ways the idyllic king of Israel and in other ways a total train-wreck. In chapter 11 David says “no” to God’s way and choses his own way: “In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war…David remained in Jerusalem”. Already we see that David is in a precarious position, he’s not where he should be. The rest of the chapter tells the tragic story of David, Bathsheba and Uriah. To make a long story short, David rapes Bathsheba. She becomes pregnant so David sends for her husband Uriah. Who is out at battle. Where David should be. Uriah returns from battle but refuses to go home and sleep with his wife while the other men are out sleeping in the fields and fighting (David even tries to get him drunk). When Uriah refuses David sends him back out to war and has him placed on the front lines where he is killed. Murder is added to rape. David then takes Bathsheba as his wife. The chapter ends with these words: “But the thing David had done displeased the Lord” (11:27). This was not God’s way. This was not the way of life. God did not create David to be this sort of king. God intended David to be a different sort of king and because God’s intentions were different than David’s actions David’s actions were rejected. They had to be. David had so rejected the word of God that Nathan accuses him of despising the word of the Lord (v9). Rape and murder, the destruction of relations, has no part in God’s good created order. So then, God must judge these death-dealing actions and this, my friends, is good news.

Because David’s actions displeased the Lord, “the Lord sent Nathan to David”. Nathan tells David a parable about a rich man who took advantage of and stepped upon a poor man. David is outraged at the rich man. The NRSV says that his “anger was greatly kindled”. Anger just bubbles up within David until he cannot contain it any longer: “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” David is fuming. Then comes the truth: “You are the man!” David’s actions come to light and the truth is revealed, he is the rich man. Nathan continues on to pronounce judgment on David for his actions. Notice the contrast between what God has done and what David has done. God: “I anointed you king, I rescued you, I gave you your master’s house, your master’s wives, and the house of Israel and of Judah…Oh, and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more.” In other words, everything you have is from me and it’s way more than you need. David: “You despised the word of the Lord, you have struck down Uriah, you took his wife for yourself.” Here, David is confronted with the truth about himself. When he looks at the rich man in the parable he hates what he sees. He becomes outraged and cries out to the Lord for justice. But what David does not realize is that when he sees the rich man he is really seeing himself. When he looks at the rich man he is looking into a mirror and he hates what he sees.

About one year ago I was confronted with my own sinfulness. I had someone who was courageous enough and humble enough to speak the truth to me in love. For a long time I had justified my sinful action but it only led me deeper into lies and deceit, into insanity. Then one evening, when this person confronted me, it clicked. I saw the pain I was causing. I saw the damage I was doing to my relationships, to myself. And I remember having a surreal out-of-body type of experience. It was as if I saw myself as a character in a movie. I saw a man who was living my life, who was living the lie that I was living, who was rejecting the truth of God for his own insane lie. And when I saw this character, I hated him. He was not a character that I wanted to root for. He was not a character who I wanted to see win. He was a character who I looked at and mourned. I became angry at him and wanted justice. Suddenly the surreal out-of-body experience ended and I was back in the real world, and it clicked. The guy in the movie was me. I was looking at myself. If we could step back and see ourselves as a character in a story, what would we think? What kind of character would we be? What sort of story are we writing with our lives? And, more importantly, does our story line up with the one that God is telling?

You can almost sense David’s stomach drop when the truth about him is brought to light, can’t you? Suddenly going from a sense of righteous anger and a longing for justice to guilt and shame. And it doesn’t stop there. Nathan continues on to name the consequences of David’s sin. Because he murdered Uriah by the sword the sword will never leave David’s house, his family will experience the same pain only it will come from within his own house. His wives will be taken and given to someone close to him (Absalom). The son that he had with Bathsheba will be killed. And all of this will happen in the open “before all Israel.” David’s sin will bring upon him real consequences. He will experience great shame because of what he has done. This shame and humiliation are, for David, inescapable. There is no going around it, only through it, and here’s why it is unavoidable. Because judgment is God’s “no” to sin. Judgment is God’s “no” to that which would seek to thwart his good purposes for creation. Judgment means that sin and death have an expiration date. The world will not continue on forever in this pattern of death and decay. Humans will not forever reject God for their own ways and continually bring death upon their relationships with one another and with the non-human creation. Judgment means that there is a point beyond which sin and death cannot venture. Judgment means that sin and death will not have the last word. Judgment means that God’s good purposes for his creation will not lose out to the powers of sin and death. Judgment means that one day the truth will be spoken and all things will be set right. Because God has particular purposes for his creation, whatever does not resemble these good purposes must be rejected. Judgment is rooted firmly in the abundant love of God for each and every square inch of that which he has made.

A Choice.
But judgment is not the end of the story. At this point David has two options. He can, on the one hand, deny the truth once it is brought to light. But what would this mean? What would it mean for David to be confronted with the truth about himself and to deny it. As king he could have Nathan killed, reject the truth and continue on in the lie. Surely though this would lead him further down the death-dealing spiral that is denial and insanity. Further, to reject the truth would be to reject life with God which can only be truthful. One cannot rejoice with the Lord in a lie. To embrace a lie is to reject God. To reject the truth is to freely chose insanity and damnation in the very grip of mercy. David, if he were to chose this path, and it would be his own choosing, would surely end up like Saul who came before him, rejected by God and without the Spirit of the Lord. On the other hand, David could accept the truth and confess what he has done. This would be to embrace judgment rather than reject it. This would be to live with God rather than reject life with God. It is here, in verse 13 that we are presented with David’s response, what has to be one of the most humbling lines of scripture: “David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” There it is. David is confronted with the truth about himself, it all comes out into the light and there can be no denying it, there can be only a rejection or an embrace of the truth. But David cannot deny the truth. Rather, he humbly submits himself to the prophet Nathan and to the word of the Lord. Psalm 51 was written by David in and around this time. As I read the Psalm pay attention to David’s tone [Read Psalm 51]. Wow. When God’s word confronts us and the truth is told about who we are, are we the sort of people who justify ourselves, do we reject the truth, or do we embrace it and call out to God for mercy?

Notice Nathan’s response: “Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die.” There can be no skirting the matter here, sin brings with it real consequences. There are consequences to choosing our death-dealing ways over God’s life-giving way. Nathan is clear on this. David will experience public shame. He will experience great loss. His cry in Psalm 51 alludes to this. Notice v8 and v17 in particular: “Let the bones that you have crushed rejoice…the sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit.” David’s bones are still crushed, his spirit is still broken. Yet, in the midst of this come the words, “the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die.” You shall not die. Repentance means that David choses to accept the truth rather than a lie. It means that he choses to live with God in the truth rather than live without God in his own twisted reality. To be the sort of community that God intends us to be will require that we humbly submit ourselves to the truth and embrace it.

The Church.
Just as Israel were meant to be a particular sort of community so too the renewed Israel, the Church, is meant to be a particular sort of community. One which lives in the midst of this dying world in such a way as to point towards Christ Jesus and God’s redemptive work of salvation in and through him for the whole world. By God’s great mercy through the gift of the Spirit we are empowered to be a witnessing community, one which lives now in anticipation of God’s future reality which is indeed bursting forth into the present. In order to be this sort of people, in order to live as a faithful witness to Christ Jesus for the sake of God’s mission in the world, we need judgment, we need the truth.

Paul writes in Ephesians: “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love” (4:14-16). Speaking the truth in love. We must reject the one unless it is coupled with the other. Truth without love can be devastating. Love without truth can be confusing. If we are to be the people that God desires us to be then we must cultivate a culture here in Toronto, Ontario where love means a commitment to the growth of the other in Christ.

David Fitch, pastor, writer and teacher wrote in a recent blog post, “We start by admitting we are incapable of telling the truth to ourselves apart from a community of the Spirit.” Apart from a community of the Spirit we are incapable of telling the truth to ourselves. We see this in our passage in Samuel: “But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord, and the Lord sent Nathan to David.” Who sent Nathan to David? The Lord did. Nathan did not come to David from a position of power and superiority but from a position of humble submission to the Lord, and submission to David. The church can often be a place where the truth is spoken in judgment but there is no love. We must never claim that this is from the Lord. Likewise, the church can often be a place where love and acceptance are preached at the expense of truth-telling and submission to one another and the Spirit. This also we must never claim is from the Lord. To speak “the truth” “in love” is a work of the Spirit not a human work. Without a community of the Spirit we are incapable of telling the truth to ourselves. We need one another. We need to be committed to the growth of one another in Christ Jesus. We need to speak truthfully to one another in love so that we can discern what the Spirit is saying in our midst and be built up in love so that we may be a community of truth in the midst of a world of untruth.

Grace goes all the way down.
Now perhaps at this point there are some of us who are sitting here thinking to ourselves, “see, I was justified in what I said to her. I knew it!” Maybe we think we now have a card to play that enables us to freely judge others. To these folks I would lovingly say, “You are the man!” Perhaps there are others of us who are sitting here thinking to ourselves, “I don’t know JT, this language of judgment still sounds sketchy to me. It’s just so darn unfriendly.” To these folks I would lovingly say, “You are the man!” See, God has good and beautiful plans for that which he has made and we are hurtling through history towards the fulfillment of these plans. However, while God invites us to join him in his mission in and for the world our hands are dirty. I am like David, “I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me” (Ps 51:5). I had no choice in the matter. I did not ask to be born. I am a victim of sin and death. Sin has had its way with me and with my mother before me. But like David I am not only a victim of sin and death, I am a perpetrator of sin and death. My hands are dirty. They are complicit in the rebellion against their Maker for I too have sinned and said “no” to God’s way. For me to be “born again” and enter into a new reality I must first face the truth about myself. I must embrace judgment.

I’d like to finish with a word about the Last Word. Jesus is, for us, both Nathan and David. Jesus is Nathan in that to be confronted by the truth is to be confronted by Jesus. To be confronted by Jesus is to be confronted by the truth. The gospel is confrontational. It is an affront to our modern sensibilities. It insults our evangelical piety.  When Christ confronts us the truth about ourselves is brought to light. Nothing is left hidden, all is exposed. We cannot avoid this. To embrace the truth about ourselves and to call out for mercy as David did is to embrace Jesus. To reject the truth about ourselves, to chose instead a lie, is to reject Jesus. Christ Jesus is he who lovingly and compassionately sees us in our mess and death and speaks to us the truth, beckoning us to live.

Yet at the very same time and paradoxically without conflict Jesus is for us David. Jesus is he who, as the Apostle Paul writes, was made to be sin even though he knew no sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:21). As he hung on a Roman cross, the God-man Jesus of Nazareth suffered the shame, humiliation and exclusion of the sin of the world. If you were to somehow add up the total amount of sin in the world and could somehow bottle up all of the shame and humiliation and exclusion that this sin could cause Jesus suffered infinitely more shame, was infinitely more humbled and infinitely more excluded than that. He hung there, naked and utterly forsaken. Shamed. Humiliated. Excluded. For the sin of the world. Not only that, but in this act he took the powers of sin and death all the way down with him. In his death Jesus utterly exhausted the powers of sin and death, drawing them to the point of breathlessness and then, in his resurrection from the grave he destroyed them once and for all, shattering them beyond recognition, and sealing their fate once and for all. Jesus is he who experienced the full weight of judgment. God’s “no” to sin, his “no” to that which would seek to thwart his good purposes, was the nails that held the Son to the cross. The cross is the ultimate act of truth telling. For there the truth is told about us and there the truth is told for us and we are made new. The shame and despair that we feel when the truth is told and our sin is exposed and judged for what it is is not the last word. The last word is the word spoken to you in Christ Jesus. The last word is Christ Jesus. So may this always be our last word to one another, and the word by which all our other words are measured.

Just as there is no Messiah without a people there is no Jesus without a community, a Body. We are that Body and as we humbly submit ourselves to one another and to the word of the Lord we are gifted to discern what the Spirit is saying and empowered to embrace the truth. May we be a community that embraces judgment. May we not resist the truth. May we submit to one another and be committed to one anothers growth as the Body built up in love. And may we know, that Christ our head is for us what we cannot be for ourselves and that we need only embrace him. Amen.

Some of you may know that for the past while I’ve been working/volunteering with an organization here in Toronto called the Philip Aziz Centre (PAC). From the website:

Philip Aziz was an art teacher living in Toronto who died of an AIDS related illness in 1991. Due to the stigma related to AIDS he lived alone and isolated with his illness.  In the final year of his life Philip found the spiritual, emotional and practical support along with acceptance, faith and love, amidst a caring church community in downtown Toronto.  He bequeathed his estate to “Church in the City” with the request that his gift be used to begin a hospice that would offer the same type of unconditional love and support he received, to others living with the challenges of a life-limiting illness.  Philip Aziz Centre continues this legacy of love, support and compassion, through trained volunteers and staff who are committed to helping make a difficult life journey more meaningful and manageable for persons facing a life-limiting illness.

My experience with PAC has been varied. For almost a year now I have been volunteering with a particular client, a gentleman living with AIDS. This past summer I was hired and came on staff to help out around the office and get some hands on training in the area of chaplaincy/spiritual care. That was a great experience and I’m still meeting with a young boy from that time. Now that I am back at school I’m down to one day a week with PAC helping them in regards to the next big and exciting step along the way, namely, the opening of Toronto’s first Children’s Hospice.

Currently, families in Toronto have only two options for their sick children, house or hospital. Emily’s House will serve as a middle ground between the two with the comfort of a home environment and all of the medical/technical advancements and professionalism of a children’s hospital. This home will be the first of it’s kind in Toronto and one of six in Canada. Programs will include respite care for family caregivers, acute end of life care, pain and symptom management, transitional care and spiritual, grief and bereavement support.

The new Home will be in the wonderful Governor’s House (Heritage building) at the Don Jail (Broadview/Gerrard). There will be a beautiful addition built on the back of the existing structure to meet the necessary standards. Additionally, the surrounding area will be public park space giving the Home a “house in the park” feel. The Home will be managed by professional staff with round the clock supervision. Check out our recent article in the Toronto Star about Emily’s House!

All in all this will be a fantastic addition to the city of Toronto and a place of beauty and hope in the midst of extremely difficult life circumstances.

And guess what? You can play a part in making this happen!

For the rest of the month of January at 100 LCBO’s across the GTA you can make donations to the Home. So why not take that extra fiver and put it to some good use?!

If you feel so urged to give directly to PAC you can do so here and by specifying that you want to donate towards Emily’s House you can rest assured that every penny will help build this great place.

Over the last 2-3 years there has been a particular theme that has had a tremendous amount of impact on my thinking and has/is (I hope) shaping my life accordingly.

Grace.

Grace is hard to pin down, though we often think we have is sequestered. Then we begin to talk and in our attempts to describe grace we begin to realize it’s out of our grasp. Describing grace is a bit like Barth’s description of theology as tracing a bird in flight: as soon as you have a particular image of the bird it has already flown off and the image has changed.

Grace is surprising. If there is one thing I can be certain about when it comes to grace it is that. It’s surprising because it’s big enough to include those we would rather not include (We look around the banquet table only to realize we’re surrounded by folks we never would have invited!). And yet, it’s also surprising because it’s elusive enough that we’re never really able to lay claim to it (grace is not something you own, like an iPod or a Costco membership).

Grace is a gift given. It is God’s doing. As my professor Joseph Mangina said, grace can be “summed up with a verb that has God as its subject. God creates. God rules. God overcomes evil and sin. God calls the church into being. God justifies and sanctifies. God makes all things new.”

I can hear the objections already. But what what about us? What about our responsibility? A gift cannot be enjoyed unless it is first received! We humans are so quick to want to have something to do with grace. We so desire to be able to claim some sort of responsibility for it (“I responded and thus received God’s grace!”). I can’t help but think this is putting the cart before the horse. Grace is much bigger than the forgiveness of sins (although this is certainly an important, if not central, aspect). Grace is the fact that you’re breathing right now. Grace is the fact that you’re able to participate in this strange mystery we call life: “God is gracious all across the board. It is all grace,” (Mangina).

Now, to be sure, grace beckons us to respond, as Mangina stresses, “While grace does not depend on our response (if it did, it would not be grace), it certainly cries out for our response–it demands to be “lived into,” to be inhabited, so that it more and more comes to define who and what we are.” Grace demands our response because it is only by grace that we are able to be shaped and formed into the sort of humans we are meant to be. If God is the potter then grace is the potter’s wheel, and thus we are formed. In fact, part of God’s graciousness is that His kingdom, as He has so chosen, can be furthered here on earth by our participation and obedience to His will. And so, becoming human is a process. We must learn to be God’s creatures.

I am still learning to respond appropriately. I often chose death rather than life, my own way rather than the way of grace. Yet, I think I am becoming more thankful. Surely, as Mangina notes, this is where we ought to be led: “The Christian life, in short, is radically marked by gratitude–a continual discovering of how our lives are constituted by gifts.”

I will leave you with the following quote from The Peaceable Kingdom by Stanley Hauerwas:

Not only is knowledge of self tied to knowledge of God, but we know ourselves truthfully only when we know ourselves in relation to God. We know who we are only when we can place our selves–locate our stories–within God’s story.

This is the basis for the extraordinary Christian claim that we participate morally in God’s life. For our God is a God who wills to include us within his life. This is what we mean when we say, in shorthand as it were, that God is a God of grace. Such shorthand can be dangerous if it is mistaken for the suggestion that our relationship with God has an immediacy that makes the journey of the self with God irrelevant. Grace is not an eternal moment above history rendering history irrelevant; rather it is God’s choice to be a Lord whose kingdom is furthered by our concrete obedience through which we acquire a history befitting our nature as God’s creatures.

To learn to be God’s creature’s, means we must learn to recognize that our existence and the existence of the universe itself is a gift. It is a gift that God wills to have our lives contribute to the eschatological purposes for creation. As creatures we cannot hope to return to God a gift of such magnitude. But we can respond with a willingness to receive. To learn to be God’s creature, to accept the gift, is to learn to be at home in God’s world. Just as we seek to make a guest feel “at home” in our home, so God seeks to have us feel “at home” by providnig us with the opportunity to appropriate the gift in the terms it was given–that is, gratuitously (p.27).

I’m part of a community of addicts that meet on Tuesday evenings here in Toronto. This has already been one of the most formative experiences I’ve had and I’m looking forward to (and terrified of) the next 20 weeks or so. The difference between our room and other 12 step rooms is that our room is centred on the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, this week we began step three which is traditionally worded, “[We] made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” In our room we have intentionally changed the wording of step three to, “[We] made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God.” We dropped the “as we understood Him” because we’re not just interested in submitting our lives to any old deity. Rather, we’re interested in submitting our lives to the One True God of the Gospel as He has revealed Himself in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. And so, the name of our group is Spiritual Journey. The goal of Spiritual Journey is not sobriety, but rather, to connect with Jesus (sobriety may or may not be another result of this). This is a place where the gospel is planted and takes root.

There are folks in our community that are at all different stages of life. Some have come through their substance addictions and are now professing Christians (although many have mentioned they wouldn’t feel comfortable in a church…Tuesday evenings are church for us). Others are in detox centres right now. However, there is one thing that everyone one of us in there has in common and that is we have all reached the end of our ropes, so to speak. Everyone in our community is there because we are desperate. Some of us have been in an out of treatment centres. Others have been in and out of jail. Some have lost everything. Others have attempted to take their own lives. Many have committed unspeakable acts and have reached the pinnacle of dehumanizing behaviour as slaves to various substances. In fact, this is a theme that has come up over the past number of weeks, that in the insanity of our addictions we become less human.

Perhaps you’re reading this and you wouldn’t identify as an addict. The reality is, we’re all addicts. There are very real things in each of our lives that we have lost control of, that we are powerless to. It may not be crack cocaine or alcohol maybe instead it’s lust (of all sorts) or anger or pride. I’m not trying to trivialize substance addictions here, rather, I’m suggesting that there are real ways in which we are all powerless.

The first step in 12 step is, “we admitted we were powerless over our addictions – that our lives had become unmanageable.” The language that we use in Spiritual Journey is that of sanity. Addictions literally make us insane and unreasonable. “Powerless”. “Unmanageable”. These are things we generally hate to admit. Humans are the sort of folk who would much rather think they have their shit together. One of the reasons why submitting our lives to Christ is so difficult is because we must first admit that we are “powerless” and that our lives are “unmanageable”. We have a hard time with this because most of us live bourgeois lives and like to think we’re really not all that “powerless”. That we sort of do a pretty good job of life. But in reality, each and everyone one of us is corrupted to the core. We engaged in activities each day that are dehumanizing, to ourselves and others. We have no idea what it means to really love another because our ideas of love are so utterly bastardized.

Last night I sat and listened as my friend who is currently in detox shared that just 8 weeks ago he had no idea God had any interest in speaking to him (or having anything to do with his life). But today, 8 weeks later, my friend is truly a different man. He shared how he now realizes that all along God was trying to speak to him in different ways but that he just “never had the ears to hear Him” (his words). Now, he is devouring the scriptures and anything else he can get his hands on. His desire for the knowledge of God is unlike anything I’ve seen in a long time and just 8 weeks ago he was at the end of his rope, checking himself into detox.

Another man who has submitted his life to Christ shared that most of the people he meets in 12 step groups are becoming “born again Christians” (his words). Yet, many of these folks you probably won’t see in your church on Sunday morning singing sentimental songs to Jesus. Rather, these are people who have *actually* realized that they are powerless and insane. Our middle-class Christianity actually works against ever coming to this realization in many ways. I would venture to say that most folks in churches on Sunday morning never come to know each other “as sinners” (Bonhoeffer). Most of us struggle with admitting we’re utterly powerless and helpless (and I’m not talking about the condescending bullshit we spout off that we’re [theoretically] “sinful” and “depraved”. No, I’m talking about coming to the realization of just how utterly messed up we all are). However, until we come to this place we can never truly follow in the way of Jesus. And so truly, the crack addicts and prostitutes, the heroine junkies and the hustlers are entering the kingdom of God ahead of Christians. Why? Because they know the way of righteousness. They have come to the end of themselves.

And so we end with a parable of Jesus (Matthew 21:28-32):

28 “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’
29 “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.
30 “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.
31 “Which of the two did what his father wanted?”
“The first,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.