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Reading through Hosea last week for our parish bible study I was struck anew by the significance of the marriage imagery.

Clearly, marriage is a central image as far as understanding Hosea goes, and not just any marriage: “When the LORD began to speak through Hosea, the LORD said to him, “Go, take to yourself an adulterous wife and children of unfaithfulness”…So he married Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son,” (1:2-3).

Indeed, marriage is a central image throughout both Old and New Testament. The Bible begins with marriage in Genesis:

“So God created man in his image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it,” (1:27-28).

“But for Adam no suitable helper was found. So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took part of the man’s side and closed up the place with flesh. Then the LORD God made a woman from the part he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man…For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh,” (2:20b-22, 24).

It ends with a great wedding feast in Revelation:

“Let us rejoice and be glad and give [the Lord God Almighty] glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready,” (19:7).

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband…He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” (21:1-2, 5).

In Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus he writes at one point to wives and husbands (5:22ff) regarding the sort of sacrificial love that ought to define their relationships. Paul points back to Genesis quoting 2:24 (5:31, “For this reason…”). And yet, just here, Paul confronts us with a great mystery: “This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church,” (5:32).

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There were a few occasions while reading through Hosea that my mind leaped back to Genesis and the account of the Fall there in ch.3, as well as to various points of Israel’s sordid history. For example, consider some of the language that is used to describe Israel’s sin in Hosea: “They set up kings without my consent; they choose princes without my approval,” (8:4); “My people are determined to turn from me,” (11:7). The language of “unfaithfulness” that permeates the book gets at the same idea. The point is that Israel’s sin had to do with a turning from their God, forsaking his ways for their own ways apart from him.

Was this not the sin of Adam and Eve in the garden? Not a simple act of disobedience but the assertion of the self apart from God. The creature forgetting their creaturely dependence upon (and loving responsibility to) their Creator. The chasm of creation (to borrow a phrase from Ephraim Radner), that is the distinction and separation between Creator and creation, is exaggerated by sin.

A second instance when my mind went to Genesis: “Though Ephraim built many altars for sin offerings, these have become altars for sinning,” (8:11); “Now they sin more and more; they make idols for themselves from their silver, cleverly fashioned images, all of them the work of craftsmen,” (13:2).

Was this not the created destiny of Adam and Eve, only here disfigured and unrecognizable? Were not Adam and Eve, and all human creatures through them, placed in the garden as priests to tend it and work it and offer it all back to their Creator in thanksgiving so that God might be all in all? Is this not the priestly offering of love that human creatures were created to participate in? Yet, what is the LORD’s charge against Israel through Hosea? The altars that were built for sacrifice have become altars for sinning. The human hands which were meant to work the garden and offer it back to God have become twisted up and now take the earth and form it into idols. Priestly hands became whorish hands. Hands meant to offer became hands that take and hold.

And, of course, the result is what? A lack of fruitfulness: “Ephraim is blighted, their root is withered, they yield no fruit. Even if they bear children, I will slay their cherished offspring,” (9:16).

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Eve is born from Adam’s side. So too the church is born from the side of Jesus Christ (“One of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.” John 19:34). Eve was created out of Adam’s side. A distinction. A separation, but a separation for the sake of a union (“one flesh”). And, union for the sake of fruitfulness (“increase in number”). So too with Christ and the church: a separation, an initial movement away, for the sake of a union, a second movement towards. And this union for the sake of life.

This is the gospel, that in Jesus Christ God has come near to that which is totally other than himself, has sacrificially given himself in love to that which is totally other, has taken upon himself that which is alien to him (i.e. human flesh) so that that which is other might be united to him. And why? For the sake of life. Real life. Eternal life.

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God has said no to unfaithful Israel. He has cast them off. God has said no to us. He has cast us off. But how? How has God said no to Israel and to us? How has he cast both them and us off? Is God’s ‘no’ to unfaithful Israel not God’s ‘yes’ to Israel? Has God not cast off Israel in her unfaithfulness precisely in his embrace of Israel in her unfaithfulness (ex. Hosea)? And has not all of this happened in the very person and work of the living Jesus Christ? And has this living and reigning Jesus not grasped us by the wrists and pulled us up out of the pit of despair along with him? Indeed he has!

May we return to the LORD as Hosea exhorted Israel (14:1ff), that we might be united with him in love for the sake of life (14:8, “fruitfulness”).

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This sermon was preached on Sunday, January 19th, 2014 at St. Matthew’s Anglican church in Riverdale. Here is a link to the readings for the day.

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“Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).

Living God, in John’s baptism you reveal Jesus of Nazareth to be your beloved Son, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! May we like sheep who have gone astray follow the Lamb who has led us once and for all out of slavery to sin and death and into the new country which you have prepared for us in advance. Amen.

During my first semester of seminary a friend of mine, a graduate student in the philosophy department, called me up and wanted to get together for lunch. He had some questions about the atonement, that is, Christ’s work on the cross. I was rather chuffed with myself that he had thought to call. As a first year seminary student, clearly I had something to say about the atonement. The brief synopsis of our conversation over burritos is this: He was hung up on the notion of sacrifice that is attached to the death of Jesus. Why the sacrifice? Why the blood? Why not some other means? As it happened, I was ill-equipped at the time to answer these questions. My friend did not say as much, but in hindsight I am curious if it was really the notion of sacrifice that he could not get around, so much as what Jesus’ sacrificial death might mean for him, a sinful human creature, dependent entirely on God for life and for freedom from sin and death.

I suspect this is at one time or another a problem for many of us. Indeed, atonement theories, following in the wake of St. Anselm for example, that highlight the penal nature of the cross, that is, the punishment of sin that is laid upon Christ in our place, are out of fashion these days. I wonder if this way of thinking about the cross makes us uncomfortable, at least on some level, because we don’t like to think that the overcoming of sin would require the shedding of blood. We don’t like to think that it was our sin that led Jesus to the cross. This brings to mind notions of guilt, and guilt means that something is expected of us, and we do not take kindly to the sort of expectations that might hinder the self-directed expression of our own wills and desires. To be fair, these theories are not without their problems, but my point here this morning is that John, in fact, draws a clear connection between Christ’s death and our sin, and he does so by holding up Jesus as the Lamb of God: “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” The very heart of Christ’s sacrifice, said Karl Barth, is the overcoming of sin, both in its character as our rebellion against God, and in its character as the ground of our hopeless destiny in death. In pointing to Jesus as “God’s Lamb” John is indicating, right here at the start of the gospel story, how things are going to end, and why. Jesus is going to die a sacrificial death for the sin of the world, to judge sin and to free us from it and its power which is manifest in all forms of death, including eternal death. Indeed, by the end of the story the meaning has been made clear. John has the death of Jesus take place on the afternoon when the Passover lambs were being killed in the Temple (19:14). Let us now look towards the Old Testament that we might better understand what John is trying to tell us.

The Passover is a Jewish feast that celebrates the Lord’s deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt, and their being spared from death by smearing the blood from a spotless lamb on the frames of their doors. This event developed into a ritualized meal providing the occasion for celebration, reflection, and the formation of community identity. The lamb, once slaughtered, was then roasted and shared by the family with unleavened bread and bitter herbs (12:8-11). This shared household meal provides the context for the head of the family to explain the nature of the observance to the children (12:25-27). Gathered together, the youngest would ask, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” To which the oldest member of the community, seated before the sacrificed lamb, responds by telling of the exodus of the Jewish people, of their departure in the middle of the night under the guidance of the Lord God Himself, present in the pillar of cloud and of fire. He would tell of Moses stretching out his staff over the Red Sea, the waters splitting in two, and of the great passage of Israel between the walls of water. He would tell of the waters coming crashing down on Pharaoh and his armies as the Lord delivered the Hebrews once and for all from their Egyptian oppressors. The “remembrance” of Passover is combined with the “retelling” of the story in such a way that the events of the past are actualized  for every Israelite in the context of the meal. Each family member is caught up in the story, it is their story. As such, Passover came to celebrate not only what God had done in the past but also what God is doing in the present.

After the Hebrews are brought out of Egypt they wander through the desert for 40 years before finally entering the promised land. There, Joshua leads the Hebrews across the Jordan where they stop at a place called Gilgal, and do you know what they did? They celebrated the Passover (5:10-12) and, say the Scriptures, “On the day after the passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain,” (5:11). Thus, Passover not only marks the exit from Egypt, but also marks the entry into the land of promise. Is this not what Isaiah in his own way signifies when he says that the glory of God is made manifest in the servant who is a light to the nations and who spreads the salvation of God to the ends of the earth? Is this not what John the Evangelist means to tell us when the Lamb of God, upon whom the Spirit descends like a dove at his baptism, immediately gathers disciples and who by the end of the gospel will breath on these disciples that they may receive that very Holy Spirit themselves? Indeed it is!

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When John begins his gospel with the proclamation that Jesus is the “Lamb of God” he does so to call all of this to mind. Let me suggest to you that the reason he does so is because John wants us to understand the events concerning Jesus as a new, and better, Exodus story: “Just as God brought the children of Israel out of Egypt, so God was now bringing a new people out of an even older and darker slavery,” (N.T. Wright). The new exodus moves out, wider than just Israel, to embrace all people. This is hinted at already in the Prologue to John’s gospel (1:12-13). Everybody who receives the Word, who believes in his name, can become a newborn child of God. John the Baptist came to testify to this and he did so by quoting from the prophet Isaiah: “I am the voice of one crying out int he wilderness…” (1:23). Let us then hear the word of the Lord to the prophet Isaiah from this mornings’ reading. Speaking of the servant of the Lord who would suffer and die he says: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth,” (49:6). Who is this servant that will bring the salvation of God to the world? It is the “lamb that is led to the slaughter,” (53:7) who was “cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people,” (53:8). That Jesus is the Lamb of God means not only freedom from our slavery to sin and death, it means also that a new future opens up to us right here in the present, in which we are united to God and receive from Him the life which He gives and the light which comes from Him as we are born anew in the Spirit.

This Holy Spirit whom we have received, like the Passover, and like the Suffering Servant, gathers and forms a community. Are we not a testimony to that here this morning and in our common life? The old humanity which created enmity between human creatures and between humanity and God, ruled as it was by sin and sin itself was taken and killed and buried in and with Jesus on the cross. One person, Jesus Christ, has made an end of us as sinners and therefore has made an end of sin itself by going to death as the One who took our place. Should we believe this, should we believe that Jesus is the Lamb of God as proclaimed by John the Baptist, and should we follow him like John’s disciples, then we are joined to him and he to us, for God has established a New Covenant, by the blood of his Son rather than by the blood of an ox. And he has given us His own Spirit, rather than the Law. “He put a new song in my mouth,” says the Psalmist (40:3). At the time of the Former Covenant, Moses alone went up into the holy mountain and his face was illumined with divine light (Exodus 34:35). But with the New Covenant, the veil of the Temple which separated the Holy of Holies from the place where the faithful were assembled is torn in two and all who believe have access to the light of the holy mountain (John 4:20-26), for the blood of the New Covenant was shed for “many for the forgiveness of sins,” (The Living God vl.1).

At the end of John’s gospel in accordance with the Old Testament prophets, rather than Jesus’ legs being broken to hasten his death as he hung on the cross, a soldier pierced his side with a spear and out flowed blood and water. When the Lamb of God is portrayed in artwork it is often with blood and water flowing out of a wound in the Lambs’ side and into a chalice. In the bread and the wine of the Eucharist, all of what we’ve been talking about this morning comes into focus. As we approach the table in a few moments don’t just follow the words on the page as Fr. Ajit prays. Make that prayer your own because it is the prayer of the whole church. “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb,” writes John in Revelation (19:9). Who is invited? What is the bridal feast of the Lamb? Let us seek out the Lamb that comes to us from Moses, is illumined by Isaiah, indicated by John the Baptist, and recognized by John the Evangelist in the thrust of a spear. Let us seek out the Lamb of God and run to his bridal feast. Or rather, may we see that he sought us out before the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8). Let us prepare ourselves to partake of it. As St. Paul exhorts the largely Gentile church in Corinth: “Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth,” (1 Cor. 5:7-8).

God has done that which is sufficient to take away sin, to restore order between the Creator and His creation, to bring us in as new creatures reconciled and therefore at peace with Him, to redeem us from our exile in death. God has done this in Jesus Christ, the Lamb who was slain for the sin of the world. Because of this, our forgiven sin is an old thing—the essence of all that is old, something which is past and done with, which is only the past, which is not the present and has no future (Barth). This is what it means to be made a new creature: “everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor. 5:17). Let us keep the feast. May we rejoice and be glad, may we continue to tell the story, and continue to live the story as our lives are caught up into the ongoing work of Jesus, the light of the nations. Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and who has gone to prepare a feast. May we follow him today and may we find others and invite them to do the same. Amen.

“Yet, when all is said and done, what the world most needs from the church is not so much instruction about the nature of the mystery as a glimpse of the Mystery itself operative in us. It already knows its own passion, and the vastness of the shipwreck of history; it waits for us to show it the power of Christ’s Passion and to lift man’s agony into His.” – Robert Farrar Capon, An Offering of Uncles: The Priesthood of Adam & the Shape of the World (182).

I finally made the time to finish this wonderful little book off tonight. This quote is from the very last page, to which I say, yes and Amen!

Dare I say that this is what the church is most in need of as well, “a glimpse of the Mystery,” that is, the risen and living Jesus. This is essentially what I was trying to say in my sermon from last Sunday.

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This is too good not to share. An excerpt:

“The root of the Hebrew word for glory means weight. In English, girth rhymes with mirth and worth. Everyone loves a fat man.

I remember as a child going to the beach with my uncles and my father. I can still see, glistening in the sun and surf, handsome padded expanses of back. I can still smell the unforgettable reek of salt, sweat and olive oil as I hung on great shoulders and rode fearlessly over the waves. But I am sure that now, if there are any such men left in the world, they are troubled about their weight—that their wives, their physicians and their friends are engaged in a vast and successful conspiracy to worry it off them.

It is the non-historical approach rampant. I remember my uncles as sacred groves, as places in my history, as anointed stones of the city of my being. But the diet-mongers see them only as abstract spaces. They inquire after their height—a dreadful irrelevancy to being with—and, after consultation with a table, they arrive at what they think should be their weight. They refuse the men themselves; they insist upon a diagram of humanity instead. They dwell only upon what they would like a man to conform to; they never come within a hundred miles of knowing what a man is. A curse on them all! If they had their way, there would not be an uncle in all the world worth having.

Ah, you say, but surely you are not about to allow the world to be overrun by fat? Does not even a love of men for themselves—does not even a priestly and historical offering of uncles—impose some canons, some standards? Of course it does. I have nothing against reasonable efforts to remain in human shape. I object to only two things: abstract definitions of that shape, and dieting as the means of achieving it.

The abstractions are wrong because, nine times out of ten, they are based only on fads, social or medical. No chart can tell you how fat my uncles should be. You must spend some time with them before you attempt so delicate an estimate. You must see them swim and dance and carry children on their backs; you must look at them for months of Sunday-night suppers, behold them at plates of braunschweiger and steins of beer, before you dare to decide anything as intimate to their history as their weight.

And the dieting is wrong because it is not priestly. It is a way of using food without using it, of bringing it into your history without letting it get involved with your history. It is non-historical eating. And it is pure fraud. Bring it down to cases. Take an uncle with an embarrassingly low metabolic rate: if he gets more than 1,800 calories a day, his weight goes up out of control. He puts himself in the hands of dietary experts. They oblige him with a program. It works. At 900 calories per diem he becomes an up-to-date, low-budget uncle. But, if you see him in a year, he will have put it all back on again. And why? Because no sane human being can stand living on 1,800 calories every day till the clap of doom. So he nibbles away for a while, and then in desperation surrenders himself to creamed lobster, mashed potatoes, and a proper string of double scotches. He is lost, and he knows it. He just gives up.

The only thing that can save him is historical eating—eating worthy of the priesthood of Adam—eating that alternates as it should between feast and fast. The dieter is a condemned man. Every feast is, ipso facto, a sin. He apologizes for eating my pâté; he abjectly acknowledges his guilt over my wife’s Cake à la Bennich. Good is evil to him, and bounty a burden. But if he would fast! If he would take no food on Wednesday—and none on Tuesday too, if he wills to reign like a king—what prodigies might he not perform at Thursday’s dinner; how, like a giant, go from course to course?

What a poor, benighted age we live in. How we deny ourselves all the sauces but the best. How little of what surrounds us is ever offered either by use or abstinence. And there is a secret. Fasting is an offering, too. The dieter says: Sweets are bad; I cannot have them ever. The faster says: Sweets are good; I will not take them now. The dieter is condemned to bitter bondage, to a life which dares not let food in. But the faster is a man preparing for a feast. His Lent leads to an Easter, and to mirth and weight of Glory.”

Robert Farrar Capon, An Offering of Uncles: The Priesthood of Adam & the Shape of the World (88-90).

The following sermon was preached at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church in Riverdale on the east side of Toronto, ON. on Trinity Sunday, May 26th, 2013.

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A Sermon for Trinity Sunday

Sunday, May 26, 2013

John 16.12-15

I speak to you in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sitting on my desk at home where I do a good deal of my study, indeed, where I wrote the better part of this sermon, sits a copy of a very well known piece of art. It is one of my favourite pieces, the original of which is in a museum in Moscow, Russia. Despite it’s location in a museum, it is not actually primarily a piece of art. To call it art is, in a certain sense, to degrade it entirely. What it is, you see, is an icon, that is a work of prayer. This particular icon is of the Holy Trinity and was prayerfully painted by the 15th C. Russian monk Andrei Rublev. You should have a copy of the icon there in front of you. I would invite you to look at it for a moment, in prayerful silence. This depiction of the Holy Trinity will guide us this morning in the contemplation of the one God in three Persons.

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Let us take the text of the Nicene Creed, which we confess together each week, and set it alongside the icon.[1] The composition of the painting echoes our profession of faith: “I believe in one God.” Rublev expresses this unity through the similarity of the three figures and through the circular formation in which the three are seated. “But how can we say that we believe in one God when there are three persons?” First, let us note that this image is a re-presentation of a prefiguration of the Trinity from the book of Genesis. There, three mysterious angels visit Abraham at the oak of Mamre. Christians have traditionally interpreted this appearance as an image of the one God in three Persons. In this encounter Abraham sometimes addresses the angels in the singular (as Thou) and sometimes in the plural (as You). This variation in language already points us towards the unity in Trinity. Second, this brings out something of a linguistic problem. When speaking of God, we must use language. But language is necessarily bound, it has limits and characters with a particular reach and no more, and we must use this language to speak of a God who is not bound in this same way, who is eternal. When speaking of the Trinity this matter becomes clear. For example, when Christians say that God is one we do not mean a countable oneness, as if God were some sort of simple monad void of differentiation or distinction. When Christians speak of the oneness of God, then, we mean to speak of the unity in God amongst the three differentiated Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. OK, back to the icon and the Creed. Note that the first article of the Creed regarding the Father is the briefest, He is the One about whom we can know almost nothing. In the icon the angel on the left is very pale, indefinable, almost transparent.

The Creed continues and, like the icon, stops the longest at the figure of the Son. The second angel is facing us, manifesting Himself completely to us. As we profess in the Creed, we know a great deal about the Son, for He became incarnate, that is he took on human flesh and dwelt among us allowing Himself to be seen, touched, and known. His garment is of bright and bold colours, blue and brown. This points us towards the two natures of Christ. The blue represents heaven: the divine nature of Christ; the brown is for the earth: the human nature of Christ. Jesus, the Son, is fully God and fully man, as we say in the Creed: “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,” and also, “he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” Behind the central angel stands a tree; its roots are planted in the earth and its branches stretch out toward heaven: “It is the wood of the Cross, which through Christ becomes the tree of life in paradise,” (Living God, 63).

When speaking of the Spirit, like the Father, the Creed is again brief and succinct. Few things can be said of the third Person of the Trinity. It is the Holy Spirit who gives us life as we profess in the Creed. Furthermore, we worship and glorify the Holy Spirit, “with the Father and Son”. Yet, the action of the Spirit remains secret and mysterious. The third angel in the icon, like the first one, is seen from an angle. The dominant green colour of His garment symbolizes the force of life, the sap which allows all thing to exist and grow (LG, 63).

The three angels in the icon form a circle which is not closed. It appears to be open at the spot where the chalice is placed on the table. The final part of the Creed deals with the Church. It is here in the Church where we find the bread and the wine of the Eucharist and where all are united to Christ through baptism that we may take part in the heavenly feast of life eternal. And what is eternal life? It is to enter into and reside in the heart of the Trinity.

And this is the real heart of the matter. The Trinity is not first and foremost a doctrine to be intellectually grasped. The Trinity is not a riddle to be figured out and explained so that it makes sense to our rational capacities. The import of the doctrine of the Trinity for Christians is doxological before it is ever intellectual. That is, the Trinity describes the God that we actually worship. There are many examples I could give here in addition to the Creed but for lack of time I will not. Do note for yourself, however, the Trinitarian shape of our worship. The point is simply that it is perfectly alright if you like I tend to get a headache thinking about this particular mystery. Take for encouragement the words of St. Hilary: “By my regeneration I have received the faith, but I am still ignorant. And yet I have a firm hold on something that I do not understand.” Can I get an ‘Amen’?

In our gospel reading today Jesus addresses his disciples saying, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” However, Jesus continues, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” That is to say, the Spirit is sent to continue the work of Christ Jesus. We should note where in John’s gospel this passage occurs. Prior to our passage Jesus has begun to talk to his disciples about his departure from the world. For example, back in the middle of chapter 12 Jesus announces, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified,” (12.23). What does this mean? Jesus continues: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit,” (12.24). The crucifixion is Jesus’ glorification, for in his death much fruit is produced. This is why despite the fact that Jesus’ departure would have sounded like a crushing sorrow to the disciples it turns out to be a real blessing. I’ll say that again: the fact that Jesus is no longer with us like he was with his disciples in the first century is a blessing. This is somewhat counter-intuitive at first, is it not? I mean, when Jesus was here walking the earth his disciples were with him in the flesh! They were able to embrace him, talk with him, share a meal with him, witness all sorts of miraculous happenings. How wonderful! Were not the hearts of the disciples filled with sorrow at the news of Jesus’ departure (16.6)? Would not life be so much better and easier if Jesus were with us now like he was then? Furthermore, do we not eagerly look forward to and anticipate the return of Jesus? In what sense then can we say that Jesus’ going away is a good thing? Hear the words of Jesus to his disciples: “Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you,” (16.7). Indeed, earlier Jesus had told his disciples, “If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father,” (14.28). Thus, it is good that Jesus has gone away, for then the Holy Spirit is sent to dwell in the hearts of believers and to continue in the mission of Jesus, that is, to establish His kingdom over which the ascended Jesus reigns. Indeed, this has been the shape of the two Sundays prior to this one, that is Ascension Sunday and Pentecost Sunday.

When a seed falls to the earth and dies, it produces much fruit. What is the fruit that is produced in the wake of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension? Is it not the sending of the Holy Spirit into our hearts? His bodily presence could be only in one place at one time, but his Spirit is everywhere, in all places, at all times, wherever two or three are gathered together in his name (Matthew Henry). “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.” Shortly before our gospel reading today Jesus spoke these words to his disciples: “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live,” (14.18-19). “Because I live, you also will live.” Jesus continues, “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you,” (14.20). And again: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them,” (14.23). All of this is to say that those who in baptism receive the Holy Spirit receive the very life of the Triune God. By the Holy Spirit, the Father and the Son come and make their home with us. Or, as the Apostle Paul put it in our reading from Romans: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us,” (5.5). The love that has been poured into our hearts though the Holy Spirit is the love of God that was most fully made manifest in Jesus, in his sacrificial self-offering for us. The sort of love that pours itself out and suffers for another. This love, God’s love, the love which the Father and Son share with each other is poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit so that, and this is important, we enter into and participate in the very life of God. Recall Rublev’s icon, the circle is open. The life of God is not closed in on itself but is open to the world, open to our participation in it until the day when God will finally and fully be all in all (1 Cor. 15.28). But why? I mean, this all sounds quite lovely but why be filled with the love of God? Why be taken up into the very life of the Trinity? To be sure, this is not a means to an end. This is the end itself. But in the context of the world we live in, in the context of a world under the power of sin and death, under the reign of a temporary ruler, that is, Satan, there exists a particular community, namely, Christ’s Body, the Church. And, until Christ returns the Church has been given the Spirit who leads us into the ongoing work of the ascended Jesus, enabling us to participate in and continue this work, that is the work of God reconciling all things to Himself in Jesus (cf. 2 Cor. 5.11-21). During his time on earth Jesus demonstrated that he was indeed the Messiah, the king of the universe, and we saw with our eyes and heard with our ears the shape of this kingship, one marked by humility and suffering love. With Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension He takes His place on the throne as Lord of all Creation and with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit He forms a people who begin to live under His reign in His kingdom all the while in the midst of the old, decaying world. But, from the very beginning, this kingdom was meant to go out, to include all nations, all peoples.

Immediately after the portion of John we heard read this morning one of the final things Jesus does for his disciples before he leaves is to pray for them. Jesus is going to the Father but he does not pray that the disciples would come with him. Quite the opposite, actually: “I am not asking you to take them out of the world,” (17.15). Instead Jesus prays that the disciples would be protected. Why? Jesus’ prayer continues: “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world,” (17.18). And why are the disciples being sent into the world? “So that the world may believe that you have sent me,” (17.21). Indeed, at the end of the gospel after the resurrection Jesus appears to his disciples and says to them, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” (20.21-2). We receive the Holy Spirit not only so that we may enjoy the life of God but so that we may enjoy the life of God for the good of the world. This is why the disciples receive the Spirit as Jesus sends them out. Have you been baptized into Christ Jesus? Then you are no longer your own. You are Christ’s, and he is yours, and he has given you along with all of your brothers and sisters the gift of the Holy Spirit. And together, as the Church, we are not our own, we are Christ’s Body. He prays for us and sends us into the world, into Toronto, into Riverdale, into our work places, into our homes. He sends us out to live as members of a new world, a new creation, to continue the work of Jesus in the power of the Spirit. To pour our lives out in love, to be broken, to suffer for others, and in so doing to make the love of the Holy Trinity known to human creatures.

Glory be to the one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

[1] The following reflection on the icon of the Holy Trinity is taken in large part from the Orthodox catechism, The Living God vl.1, p.59-64.

“Since he who saves already existed, it was necessary that he who would be saved should come into existence, that the one who saves should not exist in vain.” – St Irenaeus

 

That is to say, we begin with the Savior. After all, despite some apologetic attempts, one knows nothing of sin until they are confronted with Christ the Savior. Apologetic attempts to convince folks that they are sinners in need of a Savior tend to hold creation and salvation apart as two separate events. However, when we look backwards at creation from Christ the Savior we see that creation and salvation are anything but two distinct actions, they are rather “the continual process of God’s activity in his handiwork, bringing the creature, when he allows himself to be skillfully fashioned, to the stature of the Savior, by whom and for whom all creation has come into being,” (John Behr, The Mystery of Christ, 86).

St Athanasius extends this to the very being of creation. He affirms that creation has been brought into being from nothing; but the creation with which he is concerned is that of the cosmos and of human creatures by the Word of God, “our Savior Jesus Christ”. The world and everything in it was created by our Savior. Furthermore, the reason for the coming of the Word to created being shows us, “that things should not have occurred otherwise than as they are.” Athanasius pushes this to its limit when he asks what God was to do in the face of human apostasy:

“Be silent before such things, and let humans be deceived by demons and be ignorant of God? But then what need would there have been for the human being to have been created in the image from the beginning?…And what advantage would there be to God who made him, or what glory would he have, if humans who had been created by him did not honour him, but thought that others had made them?” (as quoted by Behr, 87).

Athanasius begins with the fact of the revelation of God in Christ and on this basis develops a theology in which Jesus Christ is very truly the beginning and the end. Thus, Paul can speak of our election “before the foundation of the world”. If these statements were to be made in any other way other than retrospectively it would make God into an arbitrary despot, who before creation decides who will be saved and who will not (unfortunately, based on a misunderstanding of God’s providence, there are those who see no problem with this). But when we begin with the fact of the Savior Jesus Christ what else can we conclude but that it is by him and for him that we have been brought into being?

Thus, we are able to see human sinfulness embraced within the whole scriptural economy of God, “in a simultaneous movement of conviction and forgiveness, revealing our fallenness…and yet in the same movement offering us the means by which our brokenness may be healed,” (Behr, 89). Retrospectively then, we can speak of the “Fall” as being “blessed”, and see the “curse” of Adam and Eve as a “blessing”.

When we encounter Christ, the one who called, and calls, us into being and life, we encounter ourselves as sinful creatures. Christ provides the diagnosis of our condition and simultaneously provides the remedy: “The proclamation of the crucified and risen Lord brings together all the brokenness of our life, unifying it, as it were, so that it can now be seen as a whole, recapitulated in a single vision, as our own salvation history in which he has led us to himself,” (Behr, 92).

One of the things that I’ve found myself in wonder at in recent months is the degree to which the New Testament stresses the union of Christ and His Church. A central metaphor in the Scriptures that points us in this direction is that of the Church as the Body of Christ. As a result, therefore, Christianity is never a solitary endeavour. Once Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey explains in The Gospel and the Catholic Church:

“It is never true to say that separate persons are united to Christ, and then combine to form the Church; for to believe in Christ is to believe in One whose Body is a part of Himself and whose people are His own humanity, and to be joined to Christ is to be joined to Christ-in-His-Body; for “so is Christ” and Christ is not otherwise. S. Paul shows us that the Christian is confronted by the one Body at their conversion, in their experience of justification by faith, and at every stage in their growing knowledge of Christ. (a) Saul himself was converted by no solitary Jesus. The voice on the road to Damascus, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” declares that the disciples are His own risen humanity in whom He suffers. The moment therefore that Saul turns to Christ he turns to the fact of the Body of Christ. (b) Similarly, justification by faith is never a solitary relationship with a solitary Christ. The one who is justified is an individual, but the Christ who justifies is one with His people as His Body; and the act of faith, in releasing a person from self, brings them into dependence upon their neighbours in Christ. Faith and justification are inseparable from initiation into the one Body (1). (c) Similarly also the Christian’s growth in Christ is a part of the growth of the one Body and all its members. Their knowledge of Christ grows, as the one Body grows by the due working of all its parts, and as Christ is made complete in all His saints (2). From the Church therefore the Christian never escapes; it is a part of his/her own existence since it is a part of the Christ Himself. And without the Church the Christian does not grow, since the Christ is fulfilled in the totality of all His members,” (36-38).

Wait! Is this to say that individual Christians loose their particularity in their unity with Christ and His Body? No, it is not. Ramsey continues on to say that Christianity means the extinction of “individualism”,

“Yet through the death of “individualism” the individual finds themselves; and through membership in the Body the single Christian is discovered in new ways and becomes aware that God loves them, in all their singleness, as if God had no one else to love…In the Body the self is found, and within the “individual experience” the Body is present. Thus the losing and the finding are equally real,” (38)

(1) Gal 3:26-28; 1 Cor 12:18.

(2) Eph 4:13-16.