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Feast Day: The Second Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Mark 2:23-3:6; Deuteronomy 5:12-15

“The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.” (Mk 2:27-28)

The Christian life has a certain goal—to know God in and through and with Jesus Christ. To know and love and adore the One from whom all goodness, truth, and beauty are derived. And so Christians are called daily to let go of our attempts to be our own masters so that the Holy Spirit might begin to re-order our lives in light of Christ’s love. This is why human creatures are given life at all, so that our life can be taken up into God’s life.

Yet the Christian life is challenging, difficult even. For example, there are so many things that a Christian ought to do. Consider one of my favourite portions of the Prayer Book, the Rule of Life tucked away on the bottom half of a page towards the back. It basically says that every now and then Christian men and women ought to examine their lives and consider if they are living in accordance with the gospel. Here is basically what the Prayer Book counsels: go to church, make a practice of praying, reading the Bible, and disciplining yourself, integrate the teaching of Christ into your daily life, share your faith with others, serve others both in the Church and in the community, and offer your hard-earned coin to support the work of the Church both at home and abroad. Do these things and you will live a Christian life says the Prayer Book.

Now, here’s my point. From one vantage these can seem simply like a rather long list of to-dos and quickly become burdensome and constraining, like some sort of spiritual straigh-jacket. But from another vantage, the Holy Spirit can open your eyes to see these disciplines for what they truly are, things that help you grow in your life in Christ by connecting you to the life of Christ.

It’s not that you were made for these various Christian practices and disciplines, as if you have to uncomfortably try and squeeze yourself into some mold and if you don’t then you’ve failed. Rather, these disciplines and practices were made for you that you might know the love of God in Christ and be set free and transformed by it. “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.”

Yesterday afternoon I took our eldest out to learn how to ride a two-wheeler. She has been wanting to learn for a while now but was always a bit timid so we didn’t press the issue. She wasn’t made for that bike, after all. But let me tell you that bike, with the handlebar streamers and all, that bike was made for her. And when it all came together and clicked yesterday she must have done one-hundred laps of the basketball court down the street. Smile ear-to-ear as she proclaimed, “I feel like I’ve been riding for years! I love the feel of the wind on my face!”

See, the goal for us was never simply to get her riding a bike. The goal was the joy and freedom that learning to ride a bike can unlock for a child. In a similar way, the goal of the Christian life is to experience the joy and freedom of knowing God. The goal isn’t simply to pray more, to read your Bible more, to be more generous with your time and money. Those are just the practices that get us there. And once you begin to get a glimpse of that let me tell you the feel of the wind on your face, it is good. “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.”

This is what is at the crux of the conflict that we encounter this morning between Jesus and the Pharisees. It’s the sabbath day and what is Jesus doing but plucking grain with his disciples in one instance and performing an act of healing on the other. Doesn’t Jesus know there are six other days in the week in which he can work? Doesn’t Jesus know the Law of Moses? We heard it ourselves this morning: “Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you.” And the Pharisees are furious. Because the Pharisees are very. serious. people. They know the rules and they’re going to hold people to them.

But the question must be asked, did Jesus break the sabbath law here by, for example, healing a crippled man’s hand? And if he did break the Law, does that mean that the Law has been done away with altogether, abolished?

It is possible, I think, in a very narrow sense to say that Jesus violated the law. After all, the Pharisees would have made the point that this was not an emergency and the man could have been healed the following day. So, say Jesus did violate the sabbath law. Was it because he simply disregarded the law? Jesus isn’t one to act quite so carelessly. One of the keys to understanding this passage lies elsewhere in the gospels and those of us who have been reading the Bible together on Tuesday nights read this a few weeks ago. Towards the beginning of Matthew’s gospel Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill,” (Mt 5:17).

Jesus does not disregard the law rather he fulfills it, perfects it, brings it to its true and proper end. Jesus reveals that to which the Law points: human life incorporated into Divine joy. That’s why the sabbath and the law of Moses is there, to remind human creatures of the grace of God’s saving love that has now appeared in Jesus Christ.

The Pharisees missed this. They had become so weighed down in the minutia of the Law that they somehow forgot about the intention of the Law. The sabbath is about life with God, the joy of eternal life. Yet the Pharisees had managed to twist it into an instrument for stifling life: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” Jesus asks. The sabbath is for life.

So here is Jesus, a man longing to be healed standing in front of him, and he looks around at the Pharisees and Mark tells us that he was grieved at the hardness of their hearts. He sees that though they are scrupulous with respect to the Law they have lost sight of the kindness of God. And now here they would actually hinder this man from knowing the healing love of God. And Jesus is angry.

Now, I know that none of this sort of thing ever happens in church anymore. And let me say, quite honestly, that I rejoice and give thanks for the last ten months since I have arrived in this parish. I love serving you as your pastor and I hope we get to do this together for a while yet. These last ten months I have been inspired by your faith and love of Christ. By your generosity and warmth. By your patience, not least of all with me! I love how you seek to serve those who are outside the walls of this church and welcome every one who walks through those doors.

But like I said, I know that a church like this one probably doesn’t suffer much from church politics. Let me tell you though that in other churches there can be a complex set of rules that build up over time, sometimes spoken but more-often-than-not unspoken. And these rules, they mark out and distinguish who is in and who is not yet in. They determine what is and what is not appropriate. They determine who has power and who doesn’t and who gets to make decisions and who gets to veto the decisions of others and so on and so forth

This is all well and good and frankly unavoidable but I think Jesus wants us to keep something in mind—this church community exists for the glory of his name and for the good of his people. The end goal is not simply to make good and respectable members of St. Paul’s/John’s. The goal is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. Therefore, let us not ever get so caught up in our own little rules that we lose sight of the wideness and beauty of Christ’s love. Let us never hinder people coming to know the love of Christ here in this place. Let us never discourage anyone who comes here seeking Christ. Let us never heap burdens on others that we would not willingly help them carry. Let us not lose sight of the joy of the gospel and let us not dampen the joy of others. Let us make every effort to widen the circle and invite some of those folks that are out on the edges into the middle. Let us go out of our way and bend over backwards to extend the same hospitality to others that God has extended to each one of us in his well beloved Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Because the sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath. And when we fix our eyes on the Lord of the sabbath we begin to see what it’s all about. And the feel of that wind on your face, let me tell you. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Feast Day: Trinity Sunday
Readings: Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

“So then, brothers and sisters, we are in debt—but not to the flesh…” (Romans 8:12)

Trinity Sunday is a wonderful, if not tricky, feast. Tricky because preachers can sometimes be lured into trying to explain or articulate the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Some of you will know that we explored this in our Lenten series on the Apostles’ Creed and while it has its merits this morning I want to focus instead upon the wonder of the Holy Trinity—that God’s very own life and love is open to the world, to you and I. We see this visually depicted in the icon of the Holy Trinity by Andrei Rublev. Much could be said in contemplation of this icon but the one thing I want to note is that the circle which the three figures form is not closed, but open. There is space there at the table where the chalice sits.

“So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—for if you live according to the flesh, you will die…For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.”

In these words from Romans we learn that the opposite of being spiritually enslaved is to be adopted into God’s family, to find our place at the table so-to-speak. Enslaved to what? To the “flesh” or, we might say, to sin. We often think about sin in terms of personal guilt or culpability and thus there is the need for forgiveness. While this is certainly true Saint Paul famously draws out another aspect of sin. You’ll notice, for example, that Paul hardly ever frames sin in terms of guilt and he hardly ever actually mentions forgiveness. Rather, what we see in Paul’s letters, is an understanding of sin and evil in terms of that which exercises force (6:14) and thus enslaves (6:6, 15-23).

And, from evil’s power to enslave one needs to be set free. We see a figure for this in the life of Israel who were themselves enslaved in Egypt. The Lord heard their cry and liberated them from slavery, leading them through the Red Sea and through the wilderness in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night towards the promised land. And if you know the story you know how often Israel complained and wanted to give up and go back to Egypt where they had been enslaved. Nevertheless, God is faithful and at the very heart of their liberation was God’s summons near the start of the book of Exodus: “Israel is my firstborn son. Let my son go that he may worship me,” (4:22). In other words, so long as Israel is enslaved they cannot possibly live as God’s children. In order to truly live as God’s children they need to be liberated from Egypt.

As I said this is a figuration of the greater reality of what God has done in Christ. In unconditional love the Father sends the Son who assumes our enslaved human nature and in dying on the cross extinguishes this old nature entirely (Romans 6:6). And in his resurrection from the dead Jesus reconstitutes a new humanity which is set free from the powers of sin and death. Just as Israel’s liberation creates the space for them to truly live as children of God so too our liberation from sin in and with and through Christ creates the space for us to truly live as children of God. But how does this reality of what God has done in Christ for us begin to work itself out in us?

Listen to what Saint Paul has to say about baptism elsewhere in Romans: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life,” (Romans 6:3-4). In other words, just as Israel’s liberation from slavery involved their crossing of the Red Sea so too your liberation from the powers of sin and death involves a passing through water. Sin no longer has dominion over all you who have been baptized into Christ. The Holy Spirit has taken you and grafted you onto Jesus Christ. You are now in Christ and he is in you.

I love the end of that quote from Romans I just read: “so we too might walk in newness of life.” In the waters of baptism the Holy Spirit has given you a new life as a child of God! This is what Jesus means when he speaks of being born again, of being born by water and Spirit (John 3:1ff). Every human creature has a natural birth. But in order to be set free from sin for life with God we are in need of a second birth whereby we become sons and daughters of God not by nature but by grace. The grace of the Holy Spirit poured into your heart to lead you in the way of Christ unto everlasting life.

Welcomed thus into the family of God, God nourishes us with his very self. I noted at the start that in Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity the circle is not enclosed but is rather open at the spot where the chalice is placed. This is the cup of wine that we share in the Eucharist each Sunday. Or, rather, this is the cup that God shares with us. It is, of course, the faith of the Church that by the Holy Spirit the bread and wine of the Eucharist become for us the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Therefore, when we come to the altar rail we come to receive Christ, the one who shares the very life and love of God with us and gives us a seat at the table of the Holy Trinity.

This is wonderful indeed. Yet, Saint Paul continues with these sobering words: “So then, brothers and sisters…when we cry “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”

In Christ we have been liberated from slavery to sin and adopted into God’s own family, yet our deliverance and adoption also has a future tense. Only a few verses later in Romans Paul will write of our waiting for adoption and liberation (8:22-24a). That is to say, while we are indeed God’s children now we remain part of a world which still awaits its ultimate liberation at Christ’s return.

We know this well, don’t we?—the tension and pain of living in hope. The waiting, the present suffering, the creeping power of sin which seems to be ever crouching at our door. This is why Saint Paul exhorts us by the Spirit to, “put to death” the deeds of the flesh as we live as God’s children. Saying “no” to the power of sin where it shows up in our daily lives is a kind of “putting to death” by which the Spirit leads us into life. This is difficult but the life of Christian freedom as God’s children requires just such struggle.

Even still, brothers and sisters, the Triune God has begun something very wonderful in you, indeed. And I do mean begun, for having been freed from the power of sin you owe your old life nothing at all and are invited rather to live as children of God, for that is what you are. And the same God who began this good work in you will bring it to completion. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Feast Day: Rogation Sunday

Readings: Matthew 6:25-33

“But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33)

At first glance this gospel reading is difficult to understand. “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.” Yet who among us can avoid being concerned with putting food on the table unless they want to starve? It is a difficult passage but the verse immediately before it provides a helpful interpretive key: “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Mammon.”

“Mammon” here is wealth personified. In other words, you cannot be devoted both to God and to the pursuit of worldly wealth and comfort. You cannot have two ultimate goods, or two final goals, at the same time. To put an even finer point on it, one can serve God only whole-heartedly or not at all. The lack of wiggle-room here, the all-or-nothing, black-or-white, yes-or-no, may be a difficult and challenging word for you this morning. If it’s any consolation I’ve been hearing this text all week.

“Therefore,” says Jesus, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” In other words, in light of the fact that human creatures cannot serve two masters, cannot have two ultimate goals, give up worrying about the pursuit of wealth and worldly security. After all, doesn’t life amount to more than that?

“Do not worry about your life,” Jesus says. What does it mean to worry about your life? It means to think that you are self-sufficient and that your life has meaning only insofar as you are useful and able to decisively secure a future for yourself. I think what Jesus is doing here is exposing the frailty of this way of thinking. It is no wonder that the Church has always cared especially for those people that the world deems useless: the poor, the sick, children and the elderly.

In our culture creating a meaningful life and securing your future is generally attached to material things. We possess some things but we fear losing them so we work more to gain more, to achieve more. To have something to point at and say, “Look, my life is worth this much!” And we accept this as inevitable, as just the way things are. Yet cracks have been evident for some time now. For example, we know that modern economies are creating people that are increasingly distressed, lonely and isolated from one another.[1] But what if this isn’t inevitable? What if this is a burden that we arbitrarily inflict upon ourselves?

“Do not worry about your life…Consider the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” Jesus invites you to quit worrying about your life and to consider how God the Father provides for and sustains the life of all things. The birds of the air, the flowers of the field, the bees of the hive, they do not worry, they are not anxious, they simply are, they simply receive life as gift. 

Some of you need to take some time each day to consider. Some of you need to wake up each morning and before you complain you need to consider. Some of you need to stop for a moment and before you cave-in you need to consider. Some of you need to quit thinking that everything is just one big coincidence and consider.

Consider that life is a gift. You did not make it. You did not work for it. You simply are because God is. God the Father is the giver and sustainer of life. He cares for the flowers and the birds. How much more does your heavenly Father care for you?

I think of my own children who spend a total of zero minutes in the day worrying about their life. It is the job of the parents to concern themselves with putting food on the table and clothes on little bodies. Children, meanwhile, play and laugh and concern themselves with much more important things such as joy and wonder and exploration. Even as I wrote this sermon I watched my daughters fashion shields and swords out of old cardboard boxes!

It isn’t until we grow older that our view of the world begins to shift. It ceases to be a place of abundance and wonder and becomes a place of scarcity and anxiety. One of the things that Jesus wants to do is help us recover a sense of the giftedness of the world and a strong and lively sense of the goodness of your heavenly Father, the creator of the world. Perhaps this is in part what Jesus means when he encourages us to come to him as little children. Jesus is inviting you to give up worrying and share in his happiness.

Rather than frantically and anxiously trying to add to or secure our lives by pursuing material wealth Jesus invites us to concern ourselves with a greater matter: “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” We might translate this, “Be seeking first,” to highlight the fact that this is an ongoing commitment, a life that is daily oriented towards God as first priority and ultimate good, for our life not only comes from God but is going to him as well.

So, it’s not as if followers of Jesus are simply to live unconcerned about anything at all. Rather, we are invited to have our lives re-oriented so that we concern ourselves daily with that which is ultimate: Do I have a sense of the giftedness of the world? Does God have my whole heart? How am I growing in holiness? Am I open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit? Who can I be praying for more diligently? Who is the Lord leading me to share his life-giving gospel with?

This morning Jesus is inviting you to give up worrying and share in his happiness. He is inviting you to orient your life towards God, your heavenly Father, and make him your first priority. To be thankful and generous and full of the joy of the Holy Spirit knowing that God cares for you and keeps you now and always.

Endnotes:

[1]https://www.cardus.ca/comment/article/not-meant-to-be-alone/

Feast Day: The Fourth Sunday of Easter
Readings: John 10:11-18

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

Our gospel reading this morning gives us insight into the compassion of Jesus Christ and we learn that he cares for us. That’s one of those truths near the heart of the gospel that is easy to lose sight of because maybe we think first of the various duties that come with being a Christian: praying, tithing my income, feeding the hungry, and so on. Or maybe we think that because we are just one person the Lord is busy caring for others. So it is worth remembering: Jesus Christ cares for you.

This week I was visiting with someone in hospital and a short verse from the first epistle of Saint Peter came to mind. It says, “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you,” (5:7). Jesus Christ is the good shepherd who cares for each one of his sheep. How does he care for them? He lays down his life to guard them and to gather them. This is what defines the good shepherd.

As we heard, Jesus contrasts the good shepherd with the hired hand. What do we learn about the hired hand? Basically, that he has no skin in the game. These sheep are not his sheep. So then, when trouble threatens, when the wolf approaches, the hired hand cuts his losses, turns tail, and is out of there. The hired hand abandons the sheep in the face of danger and leaves them vulnerable to the wolf who snatches them and scatters them.

As an aside here it is worth asking who Jesus has in mind when he speaks of the wolf that comes to wreak havoc on the flock. He does not explicitly say. It could be that he has in mind the Pharisees and religious leaders that are spiritually blind and lack compassion for the people of Israel (Jn 9:40). It could be that he has in mind false teachers that distort the gospel for their own ends (Mt 7:15).

After all, it matters greatly what the Church teaches. For example, in the book of Acts Paul is headed to Rome and he calls the leaders of the church in Ephesus together to say good-bye and to exhort them: “Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son. I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them,” (Acts 20:28-30). Here, wolves are those teachers that shamelessly distort the One Faith [point upwards at St. John’s] that shepherds are tasked with guarding and passing on.

Being a good pastor is about learning the importance of both of these things: genuine compassion for God’s people and uncompromising fidelity to the Apostolic Faith.

Nevertheless, Jesus is not overly concerned with the wolf here. Rather, he wants us to know what the good shepherd is like. As we heard, when the going gets tough and the hired hand gets going but not the good shepherd. While the hired hand takes flight the good shepherd stays and fights. And what does the good shepherd do in order to protect the sheep? He lays down his life. Four times in this short passage we hear this. This is the central characteristic of the good shepherd: “I lay down my life for the sheep.”

The good shepherd guards the sheep even at his own peril. Jesus does not flee at the first sign of danger. He himself does not avoid the cross but faces it head on and by his resurrection is victorious over sin and death. Jesus Christ knows what it is to suffer. He knows your suffering and he is very near to you. He has taken hold of you, do not break from his grasp. As Christ says only a few verses later: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand,” (John 10:27-29).

The good shepherd is willing to suffer for the sake of the sheep because they are exceedingly valuable to him. They belong to him therefore he is personally invested in them. If those sheep are in danger you better believe the good shepherd will put himself in harms way, even putting his own life on the line. This should tell you something about the value of the sheep in the eyes of the good shepherd. How valuable are they to him? Infinitely valuable! Of more value even than his own life!

There is a psychological phenomenon that might help us understand this, what behavioral scientists call the “sunk costs fallacy.” Basically, the sunk costs fallacy says that people are more likely to make irrational decisions on account of “sunk costs,” money already spent that you are not getting back either way.

For example, say you have a pair of Leafs’ play-off tickets valued at $200 each. The night of the game rolls around and there is a big snow storm. I know that is a terribly unlikely scenario because it is April but humour me. Studies show that you will be more likely to risk traveling through perilous conditions if you paid the $400 for the tickets yourself. On the contrary, had you received the tickets for free you would be much more likely to stay in and watch re-runs on Netflix. Objectively the value of the tickets remains the same but their worth to you personally changes. Why? Because of the cost. In the one scenario the tickets cost you nothing. In the other scenario the tickets cost you personally, perhaps greatly. Therefore you are willing to incur other costs.

Likewise, we can say that because the good shepherd owns the sheep he is willing to incur the cost of their safe-keeping. When the sheep are in danger the good shepherd goes to meet it and takes upon himself the fate that would otherwise befall them. Even laying down his life. Because, “our salvation is dearer to the Son than his own life.”[1]

So, the good shepherd guards the sheep but he also gathers the sheep: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also.” Historically this refers to the inclusion of Gentiles in the covenant that God had established with Israel. And of course, from the very beginning the Church included both Jew and Gentile together, one flock with one shepherd.

Yet the point remains true today. The risen Jesus continues to bring many sons and daughters into God’s family, making it bigger and richer than ever. Those who once did not know his voice now know his voice. How does Jesus accomplish this? Again, by his cross and resurrection. Saint Peter interprets this mystery for us as we heard in Acts. The stone that was rejected has become the cornerstone that holds the whole building together. The name that was wiped out from the earth has become the name by which we are saved! He was struck down yet in rising again he brings many with him.

“I must bring them also,” says Jesus. I must. Do we share Christ’s sense of urgency? Do we share his conviction that right now there are people out there who he knows and loves and wants to bring into the fellowship of his church?

You here this morning are witnesses of these things. You are here because Jesus Christ the good shepherd has brought you here. You may have been here your whole life or you may have been here but a few weeks. Regardless, the truth remains: Christ has drawn you in by the beauty of his love and mercy, by the beauty of his cross and resurrection, and he cares for you. And in the pasture of the Church he nourishes you and feeds you with his very life and love in the proclamation of the Scriptures and the breaking of bread.

I believe that Jesus is still doing this. In fact, my prayer is that he would continue to gather people into this very church community. I pray that this time next year there are people in our midst that are not here right now. I pray that this time next year we will have baptized more men and women into the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. Because that’s what the good shepherd is about. Therefore it had better be what we are about.

Sisters and brothers, Jesus Christ is the good shepherd. You are his. He cares for you. He lays down his life for you. He guards you and he gathers you into friendship with the living God. Let us therefore contemplate the mystery of the cross! Let us therefore contemplate the mystery of his resurrection! Let us therefore contemplate his great love for us and for those he is still gathering into the flock.

“Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen.” (Jude 24-25)

Endnotes

[1] John Calvin.

Feast Day: Easter Day
Readings: Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; John 20:1-18

Alleluia! Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Dawn has broken! Awake! Christ is risen! The entire Christian faith stands or falls on the veracity of these words. Last Easter the English newspaper The Guardian published a piece by New Testament scholar Dr. Simon Gathercole that posed the question: Is there historical evidence that Jesus Christ lived and died? The conclusion was yes, in fact, there is a good deal from Jewish, Christian, and Roman sources.

Our reading from the Gospel According to Saint John this morning picks up where it left off on Good Friday. After Jesus had died Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus went to Pilate to ask if they could take the corpse away in order that they might give it a proper burial. Pilate conceded so they took the lifeless body of their old teacher and they wrapped it with various spices in linen cloths, according to Jewish burial custom (19:40). Then they found a garden with a tomb in it, a new tomb that had never been used, and they laid the body of Jesus there.

We cannot overstate the point that for the disciples of Jesus Christ his death and burial was absolutely undeniable. They were there at the cross and we were there with them on Good Friday. They witnessed his last breath, his final words, his pierced side. They held his limp flesh in their arms and laid it in the tomb themselves. Those first disciples had more than enough “historical evidence” that Jesus Christ lived and died.

Yet Dr. Gathercole ends his piece in The Guardian with what he considers to be a more interesting question: not whether Jesus lived and died but whether Jesus died and lived. This is the crucial point—whether Jesus merely was or whether he also is.[1] Everything hinges on this. The Christian faith is only as alive as Jesus Christ. If he has not been raised then our faith is in vain (1 Cor 15:14-15).

It was, “early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark,” and Mary Magdalene has come to the grave of her friend and teacher. For the Jewish people the seventh and final day of the week is Saturday, the Sabbath. The day on which God rested from his work of Creation. On Friday Jesus Christ is killed and his body laid in a new tomb. On Saturday, the Sabbath day, his body rests. On Sunday morning, the first day of the week, Mary shows up while it is still dark.

As the light of this new day begins to dawn on Mary and the disciples the truth of what has happened to their Lord will dawn on them and illuminate their hearts and minds with faith, hope, and love and birth in them a brand new courage and faithfulness that is inexplicable apart from the event that is about to unfold. This is the first day alright. The first day of God’s new creation.[2]

As Mary arrives at the tomb she notices that the stone had been removed from the entrance so she runs back to tell Peter and John: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” As if the death of Jesus was not crushing enough now the knife is twisted one last time—the body is gone and we do not know where it is. Grief upon grief.

Peter and John take off running to the tomb to see for themselves. Soon enough they both end up in the tomb and there they discover a peculiar sight. The body is gone, indeed, but the grave clothes are still there. The linen cloth that had wrapped Jesus’ head was even folded up neatly. If someone had taken the body would they have gone to the trouble of such decorum?

At this point none of the earliest witnesses know what has happened. All they can say for sure is that the body that was there is there no longer. They do not yet understand the Resurrection and yet the seed of faith that had been planted in them by the word of Christ now seems to be germinating. At any rate, the disciples returned to their home in a state of uncertainty.

But not Mary. Mary stayed. She remained there, abiding, and she wept. Israel’s grief, the world’s grief, your grief, concentrated in Mary’s grief.[3] And peering into the tomb she saw two angels who asked, “Woman, why are you weeping?” “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him,” comes her reply. The opening lines of George Herbert’s poem The Dawning come to mind:

Awake, sad heart, whom sorrow ever drowns;
Take up thine eyes, which feed on earth;
Unfold thy forehead, gathered into frowns;
Thy Saviour comes, and with him mirth.

“Woman, why are you weeping?” Mary turned around and saw the risen Jesus standing there but did not know that it was him. In fact, she thought it was the gardener. In one sense she is correct. Here is Jesus, the new Adam, the gardener, whose task it is to uproot the thorns and thistles and replace them with blossoms and harvests.[4]

Nevertheless, Mary recognizes him not. Why? Because she has no frame of reference for what she is experiencing. Like us, Mary and the first witnesses knew that dead people do not rise again. And yet there he stands. Like Mary and the first witnesses we who gather on this first day of the week 2,000+ years later cannot assume that we know what “rising from the dead” means.

We can say what it does not mean. It does not mean that Jesus was simply resuscitated, like Lazarus who after dying was revived and came back to life as he previously knew it only to definitively die at some later point. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead was not a return to the same old. He is the same, but he is different. He is alive, but he has not simply come back from death into the same condition he was in before. Rather he has entered upon a qualitatively different life, a new life in and with and through God himself.

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is an entirely new thing altogether that far exceeded the limits of Mary’s knowledge and experience. Jesus’ body was laid in a brand new tomb, Mary shows up on a brand new day, in a brand new week, and what she is made witness to is, say it with me, brand new.

This begs the question, how then did Mary and the disciples come to be witnesses to the Resurrection? They come to know and understand, as we do, only by encountering the reality itself. Easter faith is born of an encounter with the risen and living Jesus Christ: “Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).”

Jesus is the Good Shepherd who knows his sheep and calls them by name and his sheep know his voice (10:3-4). This one word, Mary’s own name, spoken by the risen Christ changed her whole life. One second before this there is a woman in the deepest human despair in the agonizing presence of death. One second after and there is a woman in the deepest possible human joy.[5]

For Mary and the disciples, this event was unfathomable and yet it was so overwhelmingly real that they could not ignore it. It is truly he. He is alive; he has spoken to us; he has allowed us to touch him. And this reality confronted them so powerfully that every doubt was dispelled and they stepped forth into the world with a new courage to bear witness: Christ is truly risen.[6]

The risen and living Jesus Christ knows your name as well. He knows every single thing about you, he knows your fear and your pain, he knows the sin that you conceal, he knows you better even than you know yourself. And this morning on the first day of the week he is right there in front of you, calling you by name. Because he wants to raise Mary and Peter and John and you and I up to new life with him.

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ, you see, is a universal event that effects everyone. The risen Christ is the first fruits of those who have died (1 Cor 15:20). As in Adam all die so in Christ all will be made alive in Christ. The new dimension of life that Christ has entered he has entered to prepare for us. And we come to experience this new found union with God, this new communion with one another, even now. For in the Eucharist Christ gives himself to us as food and makes us to share in his life, in life itself. Herbert’s poem, which I quoted earlier continues:

Arise, sad heart; if thou dost not withstand,
Christ’s resurrection thine may be;
Do not by hanging down break from the hand
Which, as it riseth, raiseth thee.

Jesus Christ has taken hold of you in his Resurrection and is indeed raising you up with him. Do not break from the hand that raiseth thee!

Finally, Mary having encountered the risen Christ is sent off bearing a message. “Go,” Jesus says. Here is Mary, the apostle to the apostles. And indeed she does go and what does she say? “I have seen the Lord.” Because when you meet the risen and living Jesus Christ you are given a mission. Or rather, you are incorporated into Christ’s mission. “I have seen the Lord. I know it sounds crazy, but I have seen him and he has spoken my name and allowed me to touch him. I have seen him!” Herbert ends his poem The Dawning with the words,

Arise, Arise;
And with His burial linen drie thine eyes.
Christ left his grave-clothes, that we might, when grief
Draws tears or blood, not want a handkerchief.

Alleluia! Christ is risen! And we have seen him! And he has spoken to us! And we have touched him! And he has made himself food to nourish us! Awake, sad heart! Dry thine eyes! His Resurrection is yours as well! To him be the glory and power for ever and ever. Amen.

Endnotes
[1] Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, 242.
[2] Frederick Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, 1140.
[3] N.T. Wright, The New Testament for Everyone: John, 146.
[4] Bruner, 1152.
[5] BXVI, 248.
[6] BXVI, 274.

[The following is a reflection on 1 John 4:7-12 that was delivered at Trinity Anglican Church in Barrie, Ontario as part of their 2018 Lenten Series exploring the theme of Sacrificial Love]

“In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 Jn 4:10)

Crucifixion.andreas.pavias

I want to thank Canon Donald for inviting me to deliver this reflection today as part of the Trinity Lenten Series this year, the theme of which as you know is Sacrificial Love. We have just heard that magnificent passage from the First Epistle of Saint John which proclaims so clearly the love of God that has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ, a love that we are invited into and called to live out of as Christian people.

This is, however, a challenging passage. There are two ditches, if you will, that we are prone to falling into if we are not careful but through which Saint John paves a way for us to tread upon. The ditch on the one side is moralism, the ditch on the other side is sentimentality, and the way through is the Cross of Christ.

“Beloved, let us love one another,” writes John. “Whoever does not love does not know God,” he continues. “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.” And again, “if we love one another, God lives in us.” Now the temptation here is to place the accent on us. Let us love one another. We also ought to love one another. If we love one another. This is precisely where moralism is waiting at the door.

I would submit to you that many Christians suffer from an unruly case, often undiagnosed, of Pelagianism. Pelagianism is the belief that original sin did not taint human nature and that the human will is therefore still capable of choosing good without any special divine aid. In such a view, God sent his Son into the world and upon his arrival he looked around and said, “Hmmm, this is pretty good.” All that’s left is for us to be nicer to one another and make the world a better place.

That’s what I mean by moralism. We hear Saint John say, “let us love one another,” and we assume that whatever John means by “love” comes naturally to us and that, in fact, we have a pretty decent handle on it already. In other words, we assume that we are basically good people and that what the gospel amounts to is good advice to help us to be a better version of ourself.

Related to this, the ditch on the other side is sentimentality. By sentimentality I mean the sense in which we rely on our often shallow feelings as a guide to discerning goodness and truth, often at the expense of reason. In philosophy this names the view that morality and ethics are grounded in our emotions. In other words, if a thing elicits positive feelings within us then it must be good and/or true.

For example, I recently attended a local workshop for Anglicans and at one point in our conversation we were sharing our images of God. How do we understand who God is and what he is like? As people chimed in I was struck by one thing in particular: a lack of appeal to Scripture. People were happy to suggest that we can come to know God as we embrace our grandchildren or take a walk down by the lake. No one seemed to think, however, it was important that if we’re going to talk about God we had better begin with the Bible—God’s own self-revelation.

We hear Saint John say something like, “God is love,” and we assume that God’s love is like whatever our experience of love is. Or, worse yet, we might believe that whatever our experience of love is, is God. That is what I mean by sentimentality—when it comes to a truthful knowledge of God things like Scripture, reason, and tradition take a back seat to my own feelings and experience.

The theologian Stanley Hauerwas, not one for mincing words, once said that the greatest enemy of the Christian faith is not atheism but sentimentality: “You begin by singing some sappy, sentimental hymn, then you pray some pointless prayer, and the next thing you know you have murdered your best friend.” Part of his point here, overstated as it is, is that bad liturgy leads to bad ethics. Liturgy matters. The hymns we sing matter. The prayers we pray matter. The sermons we preach matter. The language we use matters. The reverence with which we come to Holy Communion matters. You wouldn’t want to end up murdering your best friend now would you?

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” So, as I said, we hear this passage from Saint John and we are prone to both sentimentality and moralism. Sentimentality because we think we know what love is from our own experience and moralism because we think loving one another comes naturally to us and that we’re already off to a good start.

Both of these ditches lead to our peril. But Saint John makes a way through for us and that way is the Cross of Jesus Christ. “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

If we want to understand what sacrificial love is, if we want to begin to talk at all about what Christian love looks like, we begin not by talking about ourselves but by talking about the God who loves and whose love looks like Jesus Christ and him crucified for the remission of our sins. If we want to contemplate sacrificial love as Christians we must begin with the Cross in view. For it was on the Cross that the Son of God emptied himself taking on the form of a despised and damned criminal. It was on the Cross that the Son of God gave himself over into the hands of those who would betray, mock, and kill him. It was on the Cross that the Son of God humbled himself and became obedient even unto to the point of death.

And why? Saint John tells us why. He gave himself up on the Cross so that our sin might be put away, blotted out, and removed from us. He gave himself up on the Cross so that we who were dead in our sin might live through him. He gave himself up on the Cross so that he might change our status from within. He gave himself up on the Cross so that everyone who calls on his name shall be saved. He gave himself up on the Cross so that the sacrificial love of God might be made known to men and women everywhere.

It is on the Cross that the hidden love of God which created and sustains all things is made manifest. Think of the image of a freshly felled tree. The rings that are revealed on the cut face are the visible cross-section of lines that run right up the trunk, from top to bottom, normally hidden from our view by the bark but now made manifest at this moment in time. So the Cross of Jesus Christ is the visible appearance in this world of the love of God that stretches back beyond our memory and forward beyond our vision, into eternity itself.[1]

And as we enter more fully into the mystery of the Cross, as we do during the season of Lent, the twin threats of sentimentality and moralism are kept at bay. Sentimentality because we discover that divine love is not some general principle or abstract idea the knowledge of which we arrive at based on our own experience but is actually and concretely Jesus Christ and him crucified. And moralism because in the mystery of the Cross we discover that it was precisely our poverty of love, our refusal to love, that put Christ there.

In other words, the Cross is not a pep talk designed to make us feel good about ourselves before we go out and make the world a better place. Rather, the Cross is both the revelation that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, that we are helpless to save ourselves, and also the unfathomable love of God that is made known to us in Jesus Christ who has intervened for us, on our behalf, to accomplish our salvation. “Beloved, in this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

You will no doubt notice that I have not made much in this brief reflection of Saint John’s commendation to believers to love one another. In the end I suppose that is because I am thoroughly convinced that the only way we even become capable of the sort of sacrificial love we are called to as Christians is as the mystery of Christ’s love works itself out in us. As we, “live through him,” as John put it. No doubt that is why just a few verses later John tells us precisely how we become capable of loving one another sacrificially: “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments,” (5:2).

Earlier I quoted Stanley Hauerwas who said that bad liturgy leads to bad ethics. Well I think that the inverse is true also, good liturgy leads to good ethics because good liturgy helps us to enter more fully into the mystery of God’s love made known in the passion of Jesus Christ. In the Eucharistic mystery we behold Christ’s sacrifice that atones for our sins and the sins of many not as distant observers but as ones who are taken up by Christ and with Christ as he offers himself in loving obedience to the Father. We then eat of his flesh and drink of his blood and ourselves become partakers in the mystery of his love.

If, therefore, we want to be a community that is capable of loving one another as Saint John exhorts us to we could do worse than committing ourselves to entering into the liturgy of the Church with greater reverence for and adoration of the One who meets us there. “Beloved, in this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

Endnotes

[1] I. Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John, 214.

Feast Day: The First Sunday in Lent
Readings: Mark 1:9-15

“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”

In our gospel reading this morning we are confronted with that most unscrupulous figure Satan and the temptation of our Lord in the wilderness. The devil and temptation. Both of which are worth attention for different reasons. It is worth paying attention to the devil because he is the one who seeks to undermine, disrupt, and distort the good work and good plans of God. As such he is the enemy of human creatures. However, it is worth paying attention to him only to the extent that we understand that we shouldn’t pay him too much attention. As my Professor of Systematic Theology would say, we should remember that the devil is a character in God’s story and not the other way around.[1] And it is worth paying attention to temptation because we all face it and yet it tends to function in a much more subtle and cunning manner than we might expect.

This morning then, I want us to consider both the devil and temptation as Christ himself encounters them in the wilderness. And my hope is that we find there in Christ’s weakness—in our weakness—God’s power to save.

As we read Mark’s account of this event surely one of the most striking aspects is its brevity. Matthew and Luke’s accounts are significantly longer. It is there that the we hear of the content of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness and his discourse with the devil. By contrast, Mark’s account is two short verses and he tells us nothing of the content of the temptation just that it happened.

In Mark the temptation of Christ in the wilderness comes immediately on the heels of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan and precedes the beginning of his ministry in Galilee. When he steps into the waters of the Jordan the Spirit descends upon him and we hear those words of affirmation from the Father in heaven. Here Christ is disclosed to us as the Son of God, the promised Messiah.

Immediately,” Mark tells us, “the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness.” The same Spirit who descended upon Christ at his baptism immediately expelled him further into the wilderness. Mark wants us to know that these two events are connected. That is to say, Christ’s temptation in the wilderness is the necessary consequence of his baptism.

Indeed, for Mark, the temptation of Christ in the wilderness is not just restricted to this moment but is rather definitive of Christ’s entire life and ministry from this point onwards. In both Matthew and Luke the temptation of Christ ends and he is victorious over the devil who departs. But that is not the case in Mark. Here there is no end to the temptation that Christ faces. Rather, these forty days of testing in the wilderness following his baptism anticipate the struggle that Christ will endure every step of the way to the cross.

There is something really important for us here and it is the sober reminder that our life in Christ necessarily includes testing and temptation. Christ himself, who is revealed as God’s Son in baptism, enters into a journey that is going to end with the outpouring of God’s love on the cross. Yet every step of the way he is faced with the subtle but demonic temptation to take a slightly different direction that will not need to have the cross as its end goal.[2]

That’s part of the cunning nature of the devil and the subtly of temptation. We might expect a devil who is obviously godless or dangerous and who tempts people to do spectacularly wicked things. However, in the temptation of Christ as Matthew and Luke tell it the devil is a figure who even quotes Scripture all in an effort to divert Christ from the will of the Father.

The very same thing is true of your life in Christ. When Jesus took you and made you a child of God in baptism and set you on the narrow road with him, demonic forces took note. And every single step that you take with Christ in accordance with the will of God is accompanied by the demonic temptation to go in a slightly different direction. What is that next step that you sense Christ is calling you to take with him but that you have been resisting or ignoring?

Let me give you an example. The Screwtape Letters is a novel by C.S. Lewis that is a series of letters from a senior demon named Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, a less experienced tempter. And so his uncle Screwtape is mentoring him, teaching him how to more successfully tempt a character that we know only as “the Patient,” thus securing his damnation.

In one letter Screwtape counsels Wormwood not to discount more cunning efforts: “You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all junior tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”

“It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing.” Temptation is the devil’s way of trying to drive even the slightest wedge in-between God and man. Most of the time that is as simple as convincing us that our way is better than God’s way and that to live in a world of our own fashioning is infinitely more interesting than life with God in the world that he has fashioned.

It is into this reality that Christ entered upon his baptism and temptation in the wilderness. He enters into solidarity with us and becomes like us in every respect, even facing temptations and trials at every step. Yet where we so often yield to temptation he obeys in order to lift us up with him. He enters into our weakness in order to show forth God’s power to save. He steps into the space that the devil attempts to create between God and man and he closes it up and seals it in his own flesh.

As the Scriptures say elsewhere, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin,” (Heb 4:15). Whatever temptation you might face Jesus Christ knows it fully and, “he is able to help those who are being tested,” (Heb 2:18). Therefore, you are never alone.

Lent is a season when the Church is invited to enter more profoundly into the way of Jesus Christ, a way that ends with the cross where we encounter most fully the mystery of God’s love. And we are invited, as we journey with him and with one another, to feel more deeply the agony of his temptation wherein Christ learned to submit himself entirely to the will of the Father, because that is the way of love.

And as we journey with Christ towards the cross we are invited likewise to empty ourselves and give ourselves over entirely to the will of God as we prepare to celebrate the joy of Christ’s resurrection. Therefore Lent begins with that great exhortation that we heard on Ash Wednesday part of which I recall for us again on this The First Sunday in Lent: “I invite you therefore, in the name of the Lord, to observe a holy Lent by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and by reading and meditating on the word of God.”

In all of these practices we learn the virtues of self-denial and obedience. We learn of our own weakness, that we are prone to wander. We learn of the power and love of God in Christ and the beauty of life with him. And we also learn that it is possible to grow-up in our life with Christ if we are willing to stick with him and obey him.

This is a difficult way. It is almost always easier to give into temptation than it is to resist it. In another one of his letters Screwtape tells his nephew about a previous patient of his who, upon arriving in hell came to a sudden realization: “I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.”

Sin is not actually all that it is cracked up to be, in fact, we do not truly like it at all. Perhaps you have had moments in your life when you were overwhelmed with the beauty and goodness of Christ. No one, in those moments, ever thinks to themselves, “I really wish I chose to go my own way more often.” You were made for God and the life of freedom and beauty that you long for can only be found in obedience to his will, in going in the way that he has set for you with Jesus Christ.

This Lenten season, may you find strength in Christ who by obedience, fasting, and prayer withstood temptation. May he give you grace to discipline yourself in submission to the leading of the Holy Spirit. And may you find that your closeness with God deepens and matures as his will works itself out in you. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Endnotes
[1] Joseph Mangina, homily for the First Sunday in Lent 2017, The Church of St. Mary and St. Martha.
[2] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics Index, 348.