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Feast Day: Pentecost 19
Readings: Matthew 22:1-14; Philippians 4:1-9

“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.”

The parable that Jesus tells in our gospel reading this morning is a challenging one. And it ought to be. Jesus told parables not to comfort and console but rather to jolt his hearers out of their slumber with startling news. Sometimes that’s what we need. We need the Holy Spirit to grab us by the collar on occasion and give us a good shake so that we stay alert and sober, rather than drifting off to sleep.

This morning Jesus tells a parable about the kingdom of heaven. He wants us to know what life with God is like. So Jesus tells this story about a wedding banquet to highlight the great love and mercy of God and his desire to lavish that love upon his creatures. There is a lot going on in this parable but the king is the real actor. In fact, he’s the one with all of the speaking lines. So it would be fitting for us to focus our attention this morning on the figure of the king.

What does Jesus tell us about the king? Three things: the king invites, the king clothes, and the king judges. Let’s look at each of these briefly this morning.

“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.” Here is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity, and he’s giving us an image of what life with God is like and what does he pick? Is it the image of a hermit hidden away in the woods? Is it the image of a classroom full of students with their noses in the books? No. It’s the party of the century. A royal wedding.

Now, I don’t know what you think life with God is supposed to be like. I don’t know what your parents told you when you were young or what others have since told you about the Christian life. But if you think about following Jesus Christ and the joy of a good party doesn’t come to mind then you’re missing something.

And we Christians are often to blame! A few years back Pope Francis lamented the fact that many Christians leave mass looking as if they were coming from a funeral. May that not be so for us! May we leave here each week, faces aglow with the glory of God as was the case for Moses when he descended the holy mountain.

Alright, now that I’ve got that out of my system let’s move on. So the kingdom of heaven is like a king who throws the party-to-end-all-parties for his son who is getting married. And what does the king do? The king invites.

He sends his servants out to everyone who’d received the save-the-dates months back. But they wouldn’t come. So he sends out his servants again to say what a grand affair it is. Everything is ready! The food is piping hot! Please, come! But still they refused to come. “They made light of it and went away,” Jesus says. In other words, they didn’t give a damn.

Some of the invitees simply went off about their own business. But others seized the king’s messengers and killed them. As a professor of mine once said, “This is not only refusing to attend Mom’s thanksgiving dinner, but going on a senseless rampage when she says to turn off the TV and blowing up the car in the driveway.”[1] Enraged, the king himself sends out the troops to destroy the murderers and torch their city.

A brief comment about the violence in this parable which surely strikes us as irrational. First, some commentators have said that it is exaggerated in order to get our attention. Second, the violence within this parable has to be understood within the context of Jesus’ last days. Matthew has this story told during Holy Week. Jesus is on the way to the cross where he will suffer terribly and unjustly. So this parable anticipates, tragically, the treatment that Jesus will receive from his own people as from the pagan rulers. The great banquet is ready but Jesus knows what is in store for him.

So, those who had received the first round of invites refused to show up. Yet the banquet is still set and the tables still spread and laden with food and drink. A third time then the king sends out messengers: “Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” Previously it was, “Go and call those who have been invited.” Now it’s, “Go and call everyone and anyone at all, whoever you can find.”

The servants hit street and round up every one with a pulse, both bad and good, and in the end the wedding hall was filled with guests. Because the kingdom of God is totally indiscriminate. It doesn’t matter what sort of shape your marriage is in. It doesn’t matter if you’re not married at all and you’re shacked up. It doesn’t matter if your mental health isn’t in top shape. It doesn’t matter if you’re not in top shape. It doesn’t matter if you’re addicted to God-knows-what and it doesn’t matter if you have a past that any decent person would consider questionable. Because God doesn’t give a damn about decency. He loves you and he wants you and he refuses to be God without you and he’ll suffer death to make it happen. Because the joy of the gospel is for everyone.

So, the king invites and what else? The king clothes. Because those of us who have been invited to take their place at the table alongside those who did show up cannot enter into the joy of the feast without a wedding garment. What’s that about and where do we get it?

It’s worth saying that actually Matthew does not tell us and that the wedding garment has been interpreted in various ways. Is it holiness? Is it faith? Is it Christian love? To which I would say, yes. The point is that when Christ calls you to share in his life and joy he himself will renew you by the power of the Holy Spirit. When Christ calls you he clothes you with his love and releases you from the fear and anxiety associated with having to pick out your own outfit. Indeed, he clothes you with himself.

“Put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” says the Apostle Paul (Romans 13:14). And elsewhere, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ,” (Galatians 3:27). And again the passage from Philippians that we heard this morning: “Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any virtue and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you,” (4:8-9).

In other words, when we are baptized Jesus himself gives us a change of clothes and in committing ourselves to love him in return, in setting our minds on him, we enter into that heavenly banquet dressed for the occasion. I like the way one theologian put it: Christ clothes us in his love without measure, that we might absorb his love, understand it, and implement it.[2]

The king invites, the king clothes, and the king judges. In fact, this is a parable of judgement. Just as the Church is constituted by the grace of God’s call so we ought to be sobered by the justice of God’s judgement.[3] But let me ask you, what is the principal judgement in this parable? What’s the judgement in light of which all the other judgements are rightly understood? Is it not the divine invitation with which we began? The invitation is God saying, “I want you at my party.” That’s the principal judgement, that in Jesus Christ every single person—from every street corner and alleyway, bad as well as the good—has been invited to the banquet. This is “a judgement filled with grace, and it never once, through the whole parable, loses its status as such.”[4]

But when this invitation is refused either in distrust, disinterest, or disregard then it simply caves in all around you. It remains grace, however, all the way down. God still wills nothing but the party and he still invites everyone and anyone at all. But if I’d rather sit out in the lobby sulking and complaining about the noise than enter into the warmth and joy of the banquet hall where there is food and drink for all then he’ll simply go and find others who know what a good deal is when they hear it. Notice, however, that no one, absolutely no one finds themselves excluded at the end of the parable that wasn’t invited in the first place. We are judged simply by our acceptance of a party that is already underway and that Christ has paid for at the price of his own death.[6] All that counts in the end is his grace and our trust in it.

You and I are invited to this kind of banquet every single day of our life and even now in this Eucharist. Christ himself has fashioned garments for us and he has spent all he has on this outlandish banquet so that by his love and poverty we may be made rich. Will you join in? Will you say ‘yes’ to the feast? Will you put on the beautiful garment of love that he has made just for you and in your size?[7] In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

Endnotes
[1] Christopher Seitz, http://stmatthewsriverdale.org/01/the-parable-of-the-wedding-feast/
[2] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Light of the World, 135.
[3] Frederick Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, 386.
[4] Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgement, 461.
[6] Ibid 459.
[7] Seitz.

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Feast Day: Harvest Thanksgiving (A)
Readings: Deuteronomy 8:7-18; 2 Corinthians 9:6-15; Luke 17:11-19

“You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you.” (Deuteronomy 8:10)

Harvest Thanksgiving is a time when we celebrate and give thanks for the giftedness of life, the abundant goodness of God’s creation, and above all for the love of God in sending his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, to reconcile us to God. “You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you.” Or to use the language of Paul in the Epistle: “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” (2 Cor 9:15).

Thanksgiving, or gratitude, is a virtue that ought to mark the life of God’s people. This was the case for Israel as we heard in our reading from Deuteronomy but it is also the case for us today. How do we become a community that is growing in gratitude to God? Like Israel we remember and we eat.

Remembering and eating cultivate the sort of thankfulness that Christians are called to embody in the world.

In our reading from Deuteronomy Israel has been liberated from slavery in Egypt and we hear something about the home that God is going to give them: “For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper. You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you.” (8:7-10)

There are two things I want us to notice about the land here. First of all, the land is pure gift: “For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land.” Israel is being brought to the land. The promise of land, of a home, is not based on Israel’s good behaviour but rather on the faithfulness of God and their arrival in the land will be God’s own doing.

The second thing for us to notice about the land is just how fruitful and good it is. Everything about it is utterly gratuitous. It is bursting with life and beauty. Listen to how the author of Deuteronomy describes it: “a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up.” The land is dynamic. The waters flow and well up. Furthermore, there is wheat and barley yes, but what else? Fig trees and pomegranates, olive trees and honey, and of course vines for the production of wine. No hum-drum melba toast here. No what we have are all the fixins for a banquet.

And what are the Israelites to do once they arrive in the land? Two things. Eat: “a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing…You shall eat your fill.” All the world is a gift that we are called to take into ourselves and offer back to God in praise and thanksgiving. And remember: “Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God…When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God…Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth.”

Remember, because it is so easy for us to forget. In our day and time we have a certain name for this forgetfulness. We call it being “busy.” “We’d love to get out to church more but you know, we’re just so busy.” “I wish I could pray more but I just don’t have the time.” And please don’t get me started about the activities we commit our children to on a Sunday morning! We’re all just so busy running around the place from point A to point B that we forget. We forget who God is and the great love that he has lavished upon us in Jesus Christ. We’re so busy we hardly even notice the giftedness and beauty of all that he has made. In order to remember we need to slow down and take the time to notice.

Take those leperous beggars St. Luke told us about this morning. They stretched out their hands, crying out to Jesus for mercy and he saw them and sent them away healed. Yet only one of the ten lepers seemed to notice. Only one saw that he had been given a great gift in Jesus Christ. And this leper turned back and praised God “with a loud voice.” He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.

In times of plenty remember. Remember the pit that God has saved you from. Remember how he stooped down to your level and poured the fullness of his life and love into your heart. Remember how he cleaned and bandaged your wounds. Remember how he clothed your shame with this righteousness. Remember how he has led you and protected you on your spiritual journey through the wilderness. Remember his loving provision. Remember that every good thing comes to you from his loving and merciful hand. Remember that you do not live purely by physical sustenance but by the sustenance of the Holy Spirit who upholds you in every moment.

Remember and eat. Eat of Christ’s body in the Eucharist. “Eat your fill and bless the Lord your God.” I began by saying that remembering and eating cultivate the sort of thankfulness that Christians are called to embody in the world. I want to end by suggesting that the Eucharist—Holy Communion—is capable of doing this in a unique way because in the Eucharist we not only remember the loving kindness of God in Christ but we eat of it too: “…and, when he had given thanks, he brake it; and gave it to his disciples, saying, Take, eat: this is my Body which is given for you: Do this in remembrance of me.” It is, therefore, in loving the Eucharist that our lives reap a harvest of thanksgiving unto God. Indeed, the word “Eucharist” itself means “thanksgiving.”

The remembrance that Christians engage in during the Eucharist is not simply the remembering of some distant and past event. It is rather a re-membering, a re-presentation of the sacrifice of Christ once for all on the cross. We are brought into that very moment and stand in awe before Jesus as he gives himself in love for each one of us. In the Eucharist the risen and living Jesus is looking at you.

And we eat. This is my Body. It is not simply a piece of bread that you are eating, it is Christ’s own flesh. When you come to the communion rail and stretch out your hands, as a beggar would, what you receive into your palm or onto your tongue is not simply a scrap of bread to feed your hungry stomach but Jesus himself to feed your hungry soul.

And receiving the very presence of Jesus into your life in the Eucharist you receive forgiveness of your sins and all other benefits of his passion and are filled with the grace and blessing of God the Father. Recall those wonderful words from the Prayer of Humble Access: “Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, So to eat the Flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, And to drink his Blood, That our sinful bodies may be made clean by his Body, And our souls washed through his most precious Blood, And that we may evermore dwell in him, And he in us.” Thanks be to God!

I want us together to cultivate a profound Eucharistic piety. What do I mean by this? I mean that I want us to be growing in our awareness that Jesus himself is really present to us in the Eucharist. That we truly meet him here in a unique way. That if we listen he really speaks. That as we are open to receiving him he really gives himself to us. That we would love the Eucharist and along with the Psalmist we would enter the house of the Lord with great rejoicing and thanksgiving for the opportunity to really be with Jesus.

We can begin to take small steps to cultivate such a love of Christ in the Eucharist even now. For example, whenever we gather for worship let us come with a sense of awareness and expectation; let us still our hearts and minds before the liturgy so that we are prepared to meet with Jesus; let us kneel down in our pews after we have received Communion and listen to what Jesus may have to say to us. During Advent we are going to introduce some practices as a way of trying to cultivate this sort of devotion and love for the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. In the meantime, let us remember God’s abundant love for us in Christ. Let us eat of his body. And let us be thankful. Amen.

Feast Day: Pentecost 17 (A)
Readings: Matthew 21:23-32; Philippians 2:1-13

“Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure,” (Phil 2:13).

In our gospel reading this morning we are confronted with two questions, one pertaining to the source of Christ’s authority and the other having to do with the way in which this authority extends into the lives of those who would follow him.

First of all we read that when Jesus entered the temple and as he was teaching he was approached by the religious leaders who tried to trap him with a question: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Throughout the gospels people are drawn towards the power and authority of Jesus’ teaching and actions. For example, at the end of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7 we are told, “Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes,” (28-29). And again after calming the stormy sea his own disciples wonder amongst themselves, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” (8:27).

It would seem that everyone in Scripture who meets Jesus is confronted by the question of his authority and power. “What sort of man is this?” is an important question for everyone, then and now, who are drawn towards Christ. There is something different about Jesus but people cannot really put their finger on it, at least not until after the resurrection when they can look back and see and understand finally that his power and authority come from the fact that he is God. To use the language of one of the three creeds of the church, he is co-eternal and co-equal with the Father in heaven.

As Jesus says elsewhere in Matthew: “All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him,” (11:27).

If this is true, that the source of Jesus’ authority comes from the fact that he is God and not just a religious teacher or holy man then the implications of this for us and for the world begin to come to the surface. We begin to understand why the disciples left everything to follow him. We begin to understand why many in the history of the Church, including the apostles, are willing to die for their faith. We begin to understand why so many even in our own time are willing to submit their whole lives to Jesus Christ, to give up worldly pursuits and goods for the sake of knowing him—because they see in Jesus, and especially in him crucified, the power and wisdom and love of God at work in the world.

We also begin to understand why some reject Christ, submit him to a mock trial, and have him strung up and killed. Notice that when Jesus flips the question on the religious leaders they are afraid of the answer. Because they know that if they were to answer the question truthfully then they would be faced with a second question: Why then did you not believe him? So what do they do instead? They pretend that they do not know the answer because they fear the implications.

Are we not tempted likewise? How often does the living word of Christ penetrate our hearts and we know what he wants us to do, or we know the answer to the question that he is asking us, but we fear the implications for our own life so we respond as if we simply have no idea? We plead ignorance though we know full well! For those of us with something to lose—power, privilege, wealth, reputation—it can be difficult to submit to the authority and power of Christ. This was the case with the religious leaders in Jesus’ own days. But for those with nothing or little to lose—usually because they have already lost it—the power and authority of Christ is compelling. That is why Jesus said to the religious leaders that the tax collectors and the prostitutes were entering the kingdom of heaven ahead of them! What a thing to say!

This is the scandal of grace. We are judged not on the basis of our moral accomplishments or our moral failings. Being a “good person” does not qualify you for the kingdom of heaven and being a “bad person” does not disqualify you. No, we are judged solely on our response to the mercy and love of Christ. The grace of God is indiscriminate. To quote one commentator, “it lets rotten sons and crooked tax farmers and common tarts into the kingdom, and it thumbs its nose at really good people.”[1] Will you trust in Christ along with the tax collectors and whores or trust in yourself along with the religious leaders?

Continuing on in our gospel reading, Jesus tells a parable about two sons and what we learn here is that for Matthew faith is more than simply an intellectual exercise. Faith is obeying. Faith is going out to work in the vineyard. This morning’s reading, about the authority of Christ and the obedience of faith that gets to work in the vineyard, maps nicely onto the very last words of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel. There the risen and living Jesus meets his no-doubt-bewildered disciples and says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age,” (28:18-20).

Every single person who recognizes the authority and power of Jesus and places their trust in him is sent: “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” Not tomorrow. Go today. And this is the task of the whole church. You know, when I was being interviewed to be your priest the committee asked me a few questions along the lines of, “What are you going to do to grow our church?” Because you see, the assumption is that evangelism is the work of “paid professionals.” But brothers and sisters, let me tell you, it is a holy task entrusted to us all. Do you trust in the authority of Christ Jesus? Then hear his words to you: “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.”

I had two experiences within the last few weeks that made me stop and pray. The first was a conversation I had with someone who was recalling to me the ministry of another priest. This priest, I was told, had been at the church for about 15 years and when he left the church was at about the same attendance level as it was when he started. And this was heralded as a victory in light of the more common narrative of church decline.

The second experience I had was at a gathering of clergy. Part of the conversation was about how the growth and decline in their area was due in part to Anglicans moving from one Anglican church to another.

Friends let me tell you, our task is not simply to stem the tide of decline. Our task is not simply to recruit Anglicans that are new to our area. Rather our task is to make new disciples of Jesus Christ. To nourish our own children in the faith and life of the church and to proclaim the gospel to people who have never heard it before.

Of course, this is ultimately a work of the Holy Spirit but we need to recognize that if we are not going to be about the business of making new disciples then we might as well close up shop. “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” I was so pleased that our little church had such a big presence at Autumnfest yesterday. Meeting families and pet owners and inviting them to church. You’ll have another opportunity to do this soon. On October 15th we’re going to mark Back-to-Church Sunday. Think now about one person you can invite to church that day. Someone who either hasn’t been before or hasn’t been in a long time. Invite them. Pick them up. Drop them home. Buy them coffee. Do whatever you can to extend the welcome of Christ to them so that they can be with us on October 15th and hear the gospel preached for perhaps the first time.

Let us end with those incredible words from the Apostle Paul that tie all of this together: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure,” (Phil 2:13). Work out that gift which you have already received in Christ Jesus by faith. Work it out and take it seriously for it is a high calling. And as you work it out recognize that in fact it is God at work in you. You do not have to muster up the will to get out there in the vineyard. The Holy Spirit is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Amen.

[1] Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgement: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus, 447.

Feast Day: Michaelmas
Readings: Revelation 12:7-12

“But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death,” (Revelation 12:11).

When you think about what it means to be a Christian what sort of things come to mind? Perhaps living a moral life. Or, maybe, working to make the world a better place. Or raising our children to love Christ. How about cosmic warrior? Let me frame it in a way that you may not have heard before: Christians have a vocation along with the angels to participate in Christ’s defeat of Satan and the powers of darkness. To be a Christian is to be enlisted in a cosmic battle. It is to have one’s eyes opened to the reality of the unseen world that God has made and the reality of evil and darkness, and to fight with the weapons that Christ himself has given us.

Turning to this morning’s reading from the twelfth chapter of Revelation we cast our collective gaze up with John: “And war broke out in heaven.” Michael, the General of God’s army, and his angels fought against the dragon and his angels who fought back but were defeated and subsequently cast down from heaven to earth for, “there was no longer any place for them in heaven.” I love that line. Evil has not a home nor a future with God. There is literally no place for them.

The feast of St. Michael and All Angels is, “explosive and gritty,” cutting to the heart of what is real: “It does not offer escape. It offers blood and sweat and tears, the great struggle for all that is good against the dark desire to destroy it. And it offers the sure and certain hope of victory. This is the feast of the battle won.”[1]

St. Michael and the angels are victorious in this battle but how? “They have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb.” That is to say, this is the victory of the Lamb over all that which would oppose him. It is worth noting that this battle scene is inserted into the middle of another scene in the twelfth chapter of Revelation, one in which a woman “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars,” is in the midst of the agony of childbirth and there in front of her stands the dragon, “so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born,” (12:4).

And this firstborn child we are told is a son, “who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron.” This language hearkens back to one of the great messianic Psalms (Psalm 2), and this child is of course Jesus Christ, the great shepherd of his people. And yet, here he is, vulnerable, the dragon waiting to consume him.

Lest we think that good and evil confront one another as equals the tension is resolved almost immediately as the baby is taken up to the throne of God (12:5). There is an element of risk here to be sure, but this child is the Son of God and as such is sovereign over every enemy. The dragon’s jaws snap shut, and come up with nothing but air.

The curious thing about this birth scene, however, is that it is followed immediately by an ascension. Which begs the question, when is it that Christ ascends to God’s right hand? Not at his birth but rather after his crucifixion and resurrection. That is to say, the birth in this story is a metaphor for Jesus’ death, “his entry into the only true life, the life of God.”[2] Satan seeks to devour Christ, and thinks that in the cross he has succeeded, but as we heard in our other readings this morning, the cross becomes the ladder which unites heaven and earth and the body of Christ himself is the Way on which the world may walk back to God.[3]

“But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb.” This is a battle that Christians as well as the angels are enlisted in. Just because the Lamb has conquered, those who have been washed in his blood too can conquer. Just because the woman’s firstborn has conquered, so too, “the rest of her children,” (12:17) may conquer. Indeed, some interpreters see in Michael and his angels a figure for Christ and his followers. To be a Christian is to become a participant in a cosmic battle with Christ and the angels against the forces of evil.

This is not, however, reason to perpetrate violence. We take our cues from the Lamb, who conquered his enemies not by the shedding of their blood but by the shedding of his own blood. So too those who are marked by the Lamb (14:1) conquer not by violence but by self-giving love. As the Apostle Paul writes elsewhere: “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness,” (Ephesians 6:12).

How are Christians to take up arms then in this cosmic battle against the Devil and the powers of darkness? “But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.” As followers of Jesus we participate in his once-for-all-decisive victory over the powers of sin and death by “the word of our testimony,” that is by bearing witness to the Lamb that was slain.

For Christians, this starts in baptism for it is here that we are confronted by Jesus Christ the true witness, the one who tells us the truth about ourselves by claiming us as God’s own. And so in baptism we follow Christ into his death that we might follow him into the very life of the triune God.

From there we take up arms and bear faithful witness as we gather around the table and eat and drink Christ’s flesh and blood. And we bear faithful witness as we sing “holy, holy, holy.” And as we pray, “thy kingdom come.” And as we pray for our enemies. And as we live lives of Christian charity and love, giving ourselves in sacrificial love to one another. And as we read and meditate upon God’s word. And as we proclaim the good news of God’s love in Christ to those who are unaware. Each of these Christian practices and more is a blow struck against the devil and your ordinary life of daily faithfulness to Christ in the little things, your struggle to resist temptation and to flee from sin, your struggle to pray and to love one another, all of this is a testimony to the victory of Christ over the powers of darkness.

So do not give up but persevere. And believe not the lies of that conquered devil, the original bearer of false witness, who spreads the false rumor that the Christian life and witness mean nothing to God, that a life devoted to God is a life wasted. For this is how Christians conquer—loving God and loving neighbour, even enemy—by taking the humble road of self-giving, the giving of our whole life as an offering unto God in Christ. This is how Christians conquer because this is how Christ conquered—and we in him—for the life of the world.

“Bless the LORD, all you works of his, in all places of his dominion; bless the LORD, O my soul,” (Psalm 103:22). Amen.

 

Endnotes:

[1] Catherine Sider-Hamilton, http://feastfastferia.wordpress.com/2014/09/26/st-michael-and-all-angels/
[2] Joe Mangina, Brazos Theological Commentary: Revelation, 152
[3] Sider-Hamilton

Feast Day: Holy Cross Day
Readings: 1 Corinthians 18-24; John 3:13-17

“For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:18)

Today we commemorate Holy Cross Day, the day in which the Church recalls with intention and humility that great symbol at the centre of our faith around which the Holy Spirit is gathering a people—the cross.

Holy Cross. The pairing of these two words is familiar to us. Perhaps even comforting. Certainly, they do not strike many of us as odd. But they should strike us as odd for the cross is a great paradox as the Apostle Paul draws out in that magnificent passage that we heard from from 1 Corinthians moments ago: “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

The word of the cross is foolishness says Paul, scandalous as he puts it a little later. My concern as a pastor is that our familiarity with the cross may mean that it’s scandal and foolishness is lost on us. This morning, on this Holy Cross Day, I want us to try to recapture together a sense of the great paradox of the cross.

The reason why the cross appears as foolishness and a scandal to so many, in our day as well as in Paul’s, has to do with the shame associated with this manner of execution.

Years ago in an effort to try and help another church think upon the great shame of the cross I used a rather crass example, Andres Serrano’s photograph Piss Christ. Piss Christ is a photograph that depicts a small, cheap plastic crucifix submerged in a container of the artists own urine mixed with the blood of a cow. The following Sunday after mass had ended a very gentle and well mannered older woman pulled me aside. She told me that she had been greatly disturbed all week by this image of Christ submerged in such a foul liquid and that she took offense to my referencing it in a sermon. In my mind I pictured myself taking her gently by the hand, looking her directly in the eye and saying, “Precisely. Now go and weep for your sins.”

Of course that is not what I said but she got it. That week where she was unable to get away from the disgust of the image, she began to understand what I want us to understand this morning: the utter shame and degradation of the cross. The humiliation, the condemnation, the abandonment, the casting off as less-than-human of all those who were hung up on the wood of the cross.

In her book The Crucifixion, the Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge devotes an entire chapter to trying to help her readers understand just how shameful a thing it was to be crucified by the Romans. The title of that chapter is ‘The Godlessness of the Cross.’ The Cross is Godless. What does she mean by this?[1]

It is not simply the fact that Jesus died that is the scandal, it is rather the manner in which he died that creates offence.

Crucifixion as a method of execution was never used on Roman citizens. It was, rather, reserved almost exclusively for the scum of humanity. The lowest and vilest of creatures. And the point of crucifixion was to degrade, to rob the crucified person of any last shred of dignity. They were hung up there in public, tortured, stripped of their clothing, and subject to the merciless and diabolical ridicule of passersby. Crucifixion was the means by which human beings were made less-than-human and strung up like beasts. “It was a form of advertisement,” writes Rutledge, “this person is the scum of the earth, not fit to live, more an insect than a human being.”[2] It is this stigma associated with crucifixion that we need to try and imagine if we are to comprehend the offensiveness of worshipping a crucified Christ.

To Jews and Greeks alike crucifixion was just about as low and despised as one could get.  And yet it was precisely into this state that Christ entered, and joyfully so. He subjected himself to the shame and degradation of a crucifixion, he was condemned to the death of a beast, not even of a man. He was rejected and despised, deserted even by his own disciples. A nobody.

The Hebrew Scriptures themselves anticipate the shame of Christ’s crucifixion. The prophet Isaiah wrote, “He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account,” (Isaiah 53:3). Moreover it is written in the book of Deuteronomy, “When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon that tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse,” (Deut 21:22-23). Despised. Rejected. Cursed.

This helps us to understand what Fleming Rutledge was getting at when she spoke of the Godlessness of the cross. The cross is Godless because it is totally counter to what we anticipate religious experience is meant to be like. Who would have ever projected their hopes, wishes, longings, and needs onto a crucified man, let alone a crucified God?[3] Christianity is unique in that it is the only religion to have as it’s centre the degradation of its God.[4]

To be executed in such a shameful way was to be rejected by one’s people and cursed by one’s God. Yet from the beginning Christians have worshipped the crucified Christ. This is why Paul said that Christ crucified is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. A shameful death is not the sort of sign that religious people look for when they look for the presence of God. We are like the Jews in that we desire signs from God. God, show me you are real. God, if you are real then remove this suffering from me. Show us some razzle-dazzle Lord! And yet the good news is not that God comes rushing in to save us with a show of flamboyance and strength. But rather that he takes on our human form in Christ, entering into our captivity to sin, only to become nothing, to be weak and powerless, to be mocked and degraded. That Christ helps us in this way, by virtue of his weakness and suffering, turns our expectation of God on it’s head. Folly! Scandal!

Yet this is precisely what God’s love looks like. As we heard in that towering gospel passage this morning: For God so, what? Loved the world. That he? Gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life, (John 3:16). Christ voluntarily and joyfully gave himself up on the cross to be condemned, enslaved, and made subject to death, entering into the deepest darkness of our human condition, and he did so for us—in our place and on our behalf—so that you and I might be liberated from the power of sin and death. Thanks be to God!

A crucifixion is, as Rutledge puts it, totally unsuitable as an object of faith.[5] And yet not only is it an object of faith, for those who are being saved it is the power of God, writes Paul. The love of Christ poured out on that shameful Cross is powerful and accomplishes much. For by the cross we are brought out of darkness into light, out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life. By his suffering and death, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who put their trust in him. Not the cross plus something else. Just the cross. Whatever it is you are facing at whatever moment the cross is sufficient for your weakness. For “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him,” (John 3:17). And, as we come to the altar rail in a few moments we will eat of the fruit of the tree of the cross, Christ’s own Body and Blood.

It is for this very reason that we must resist the temptation to hide our faces from the cross and to esteem it not.[6] In the same letter that we heard read this morning the Apostle Paul writes that he is willing to set everything else aside except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). My prayer is that we as a church would take the same approach. That the one non-negotiable for us would be the proclamation of Christ crucified. That we would hold on to this more fiercely than we would any of our other beloved traditions, no matter how long “we’ve always done things this way.” If we’re going to be absolutely rigid and uncompromising about anything, let it be the cross. May we be a community that is growing, always growing, in it’s knowledge of and trust in the love of God poured out for us and for the world on that shameful cross. May God grant us the courage to draw nearer to this unimaginable act of God’s love for human creatures. And may we come to know more deeply the wisdom and power of God.


Endnotes:
[1] For these few paragraphs on the shame of the crucifixion I am indebted to the work of Fleming Rutledge. Particularly the second chapter of her book The Crucifixion entitled, ‘The Godlessness of the Cross.’
[2] Rutledge, 92.
[3] Rutledge, 75.
[4] Rutledge, 75.
[5] Rutledge, 75.
[6] Rutledge, 82.

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:25)

Sermon in a sentence: The Christian life is both joyful and demanding because at the centre of it stands the Cross.

If you haven’t figured it out already in the month or so we have been together allow me to state it plainly for you: I believe in the joy of the gospel. Isn’t that what the angel of the Lord proclaimed to the shepherds in the field: “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people,” (2:10). Did not Jesus address his disciples saying, “These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full,” (John 15:11). I believe that the good news of Jesus Christ brings believers to a state of deep and profound joy.

Deep and profound, not passing and superficial. Remember the parable of the sower that Jesus tells in the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel According to St. Matthew? A sower is out sowing seed and it falls on different types of ground. The seed that falls on rocky ground, Jesus said, it sprang up quickly but when the sun rose the heat scorched it and because the soil was not deep enough to sustain roots it withered away. Explaining this parable to his disciples shortly afterwards Jesus said that the seed sown on rocky ground, “is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away,” (13:20-21).

So, there is a superficial joy that we can experience in our Christian life, a joy that has only shallow roots and perishes when trouble comes on account of Christ. Perhaps you know people like this who once had a seemingly vigorous and joyful Christian life and now are nowhere to be found among the faithful. Perhaps, even, this describes your own story. Let us never cease to bring these dear ones before the Lord in prayer trusting that he is able to fan into flame that ember of faith that may still be burning.

But there is another joy, deep and profound as I described it moments ago. And we hear about this joy early in Matthew’s gospel in the Beatitudes where we learn that the blessedness, or happiness, of those who are in Christ is not dependent on the “changes and chances of this fleeting world,” but rather upon the “eternal changelessness” of their Father who art in heaven. Here is a joy that can rejoice in the face of persecution and hardship (5:11-12). Here is a joy that knows the challenge and demands of the way of Christ. Here is a joy at the centre of which stands the Cross.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” The Cross is central to the life of the Christian because it is central to the life of Christ. There can be no knowing Christ apart from the Cross. That’s why Paul and the other Apostles so boldly proclaimed Christ crucified: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified,” (1 Cor 2:2). We cannot talk about the joy of the gospel apart from the agony of the Cross.

Peter after having just confessed, rightly, that Jesus is the “Messiah, the Son of the living God,” tries to get in-between Christ and the Cross. Attempts to convince Jesus that it needn’t be that way, that his suffering and death was avoidable: “God forbid it, Lord!”

How are we to account for Peter’s vehement opposition of the Cross here? Perhaps it is because Peter knows that a dead Messiah is a failed Messiah and he’s sold the farm and thrown his lot in with Jesus. Perhaps it is because he is still on the way with Jesus and he is growing in his faith. After all, none of us have ever fully arrived have we? Perhaps it is because he fears that Jesus’ suffering and death would mean a similar fate for himself and the other disciples. Whatever the case may be Peter is met with what might just be the sternest reproach in all of Scripture: “Get behind me, Satan!” To try and get between Christ and the Cross, to think that we can inherit the joy of the gospel apart from the suffering of the Cross is Satanic.

Nevertheless, Jesus is determined to go to the Cross because he knows that his suffering and death will be the event that brings life—eternal life—to those who trust in him. Attentive readers of Matthew’s gospel know that the Cross has been in view the entire time. Recall the proclamation of the angel Gabriel to Joseph in the first chapter: “She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins,” (1:21).

The Cross was not Plan B. It was, for Christ, absolutely necessary that he would demonstrate the love of God in just this way: “Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain,” wrote the Prophet Isaiah (53:10). And again, “But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed…The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities,” (53:5, 11). Jesus was able to bear the suffering of the Cross joyfully because he knew that by it our sinful hearts would be healed and we would live eternally.

Then our gospel reading shifts, from Christ’s Cross to ours, from his suffering to our suffering with him and because of him: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” I believe it was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who said that when Christ calls a man to follow him he bids him come and die. These are hard words but we must hear them. To follow Christ is a way of life that all should reverence and none should likely undertake. Or as Christ himself says elsewhere, we should consider the cost (Luke 14:28). Because there is one.

But notice that this difficult saying of Jesus is invitational in nature: “If any want to become my followers.” Peter and the other disciples have just discovered the challenge of the gospel—to follow Jesus is to follow him to his suffering and death on the Cross. Having just discovered this Jesus does not demand that they continue on but invites them deeper into his life and love if they will it: “If any want to.” Then, “take up” your cross. Jesus is so merciful. He knows that the way to eternal life is difficult yet he does not force it on anyone. The cross is not imposed, it is always “taken up.” In fact, this was one of the reasons that Jesus condemned the religious leaders of his day: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them,” (Matthew 23:4). Woe to those of us who impose burdens on others that we ourselves are not willing to carry!

Nevertheless, following in the way of Christ is both a joy and a challenge and the message of the Church to the world must never neglect this paradox. Do you want to live a happy and full life? Of course you do—in the depth of our being we all want to feel fully alive. In the second century St. Irenaus’ wrote that, “the glory of God is man fully alive.” The great paradox here, however, is that when Irenaus spoke of man being “fully alive” he was speaking about martyrdom. Do you want to see what a human life set ablaze with the glory of God looks like? Observe those martyrs both known and unknown who threw their life away for the sake of Christ and his kingdom.

Most of us are not in danger of actually losing our lives for Christ but the challenge to us is the same: If you want to follow Jesus arise each day and pick up your cross and get behind him. Give up the attempt to secure your life via the mechanisms of this world and rather go low in service to Christ and to one another. Risk your life on the dare that Jesus is it! Throw your life away, worldly ambition, social honor and prestige, the love of wealth and reputation, set your minds not on such things but on Christ and his kingdom. “For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?”

Maybe you know the story of Henri Nouwen, who after nearly two decades of teaching at places like Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard left the comforts of academia behind to live in community with the mentally and physically handicapped people of L’Arche Daybreak just north of Toronto. As he gave himself to this community and received the gift of their friendship, Nouwen experienced a conversion that brought him closer to Jesus Christ.

To throw one’s life away like this may seem like an impossible task. Indeed, more often than not we stumble along. But those who continue, who do not give up at the sign of difficulty or opposition, will find that it is the personal presence of Jesus Christ that makes such a life not only possible but desirable: “take up your cross and follow me.” We can go the way of the cross and even desire to do so because we know that on the way we are with Jesus Christ.

Those who are willing to risk it all on Jesus, to throw their lives away in service to him, to take the low road of humility and love, to embrace the cross and suffer with Christ, will find that the way of the cross is for them the way of life. And in the very end they will discover the truth of that great paradox of the kingdom: that those who lose their life for the sake of Christ end up finding eternal life. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Readings: Romans 12:1-8
Feast Day: Pentecost 12

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”

Sometime in the middle of the 4th century Julian, then Emperor of Rome, wrote a letter to Arsacius, the pagan high priest of Galatia in which he said, “It is [the Christians’] philanthropy towards strangers, the care they take of the graves of the dead, and the affected sanctity with which they conduct their lives that have done the most to spread their atheism.”[1]

As far as Emperor Julian was concerned Christianity was spreading at the rate it was mostly due to the utterly novel practices of showing charity to strangers and a belief in the sanctity of each and every human life, no matter how poor or disfigured. And all because of their allegiance to Jesus Christ rather than to the Emperor, an allegiance which earned the early Christians the reputation of being atheists.

Having had one’s life re-oriented to Jesus Christ, the gospel opens one up to a new moral horizon previously unimaginable. For example, some early Christian practices that confounded their pagan neighbours included fidelity within marriage, treating slaves with respect as brothers and sisters, treating women with dignity as equals, not scorning the poor but seeing in them the face of Christ, and refusing to expose infants, a practice that involved leaving newborn children to the fate of the gods by exposing them to the elements and whatever else may come. For those early Christians in pagan Rome following Jesus entailed resisting and rejecting what were otherwise run-of-the-mill, normal practices of the surrounding culture. And, for many of them, this came at a cost, sometimes an extraordinarily high one—their life. Other times it just meant being peculiar, weird, and unpopular.

The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome, to the same church that boggled the mind of Emperor Julian a few centuries later, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” As the first Christians in pagan Rome, so Christians in every age and in every place have had to learn the meaning and consequence of being a people who present themselves to God as a living sacrifice. As the first Christians in pagan Rome, so Christians in every age and in every place have had to learn the meaning and consequence of being a people who resist being conformed to the present age but are rather transformed by the renewing of their minds. But how can we account for such a transformation in the lives of those earliest Christians such that their lives stood in stark contrast to the norms of the present age? The all-consuming reality of the mercy of Christ.

I appeal to you therefore, says Paul. That is, Paul’s appeal here is based on all in his letter that has come before this point. And what we find in those first eleven chapters is Paul’s articulation of God’s unfathomable mercy that has been lavished upon all those who are in Christ Jesus. As we heard it put last week: “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all. O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways!” (11:32-33). In other words, when Paul makes his appeal to the Christians in Rome he begins with the grace of God that has now been revealed in Christ Jesus and made one new humanity out of both Jew and Gentile.

And you have received God’s mercy. How can I be sure? you ask. Because you have been baptized into Christ Jesus, and in the sixth chapter of Romans Paul argues that to be baptized is to have your life joined to the risen life of Jesus Christ and thus to be set free from the power of sin and death, “so we too might walk in newness of life,” (6:4).

Therefore, on the basis of your having received God’s mercy, on the basis of your being made a new creature in baptism, therefore what? Therefore present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.

Indeed, in baptism you were presented to God either by a sponsor or by your parents and godparents. (And if by chance you have not been baptized then please do speak with me and I would be delighted to explore this possibility with you further) As a part of that baptismal liturgy you took certain vows. For example, to “persevere in resisting evil and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.” To, “proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ.” And again, to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbour as yourself.” In baptism you were presented to God. But one way that we can present ourselves to God each day is by giving thanks for his mercy towards us and humbly striving to live out our baptismal vows by the help of the Holy Spirit who is at work in us. To present yourself to God as a living sacrifice is to awake each day knowing that your life is God’s and to be lived in service to Him alone.

Our pattern for a life that is a living sacrifice offered unto God is Jesus Christ. As Paul writes elsewhere in his letter to the church in Ephesus: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God,” (5:1-2). The “fragrant offering and sacrifice” that Christ offered unto God the Father in heaven was a life of self-giving love wherein he gave himself even into the hands of those who would kill him. To offer our lives in service to God means a willingness to allow the sacrificial love of Christ to work itself out in you so that you too are learning what it means to lay down your life for your brothers and sisters.

“Do not be conformed to this present age,” Paul says to his readers, because he knows that the temptation for those who have been brought from death to life in Christ is always to revert back to the thinking and patterns of life that they were saved from. In Paul’s view the “present age,” or as he calls it elsewhere, “the present evil age,” describes the power of sin and death at work in the world to form us in ways that are counter to what God desires. How does the status quo of our own present age form us in ways that the gospel might present a challenge to?

Holy Scripture talks about another age as well. Not only “the present evil age” but “the age to come,” in which God would give new life to the world and mankind, bringing justice, joy, and peace once and for all.[2] Paul’s argument in Romans and elsewhere is that this “age to come” has already arrived in Jesus Christ. Moreover, those who have been baptized into Christ, whose lives have been joined to his, have been transferred if you will from the present evil age to the age to come, even while living in the midst of the present age. In other words, for those who are in Christ, God’s future has come bursting into the present already. So live accordingly, says Paul. Live as those who have been brought from death to life in Christ, for you have been. Do not be conformed to the present age, because you’re not a resident of that age any longer. Rather, present your bodies as a living sacrifice to God because he has lavished his mercy upon you in his well beloved Son, Jesus Christ.

As for those early Christians in Rome so too for us the gospel demands a reappraisal of our human situation in light of the reality of Christ. A new moral horizon has been opened to us by the mercy of Christ which we ourselves are called to live out of.

The task for Christians, therefore, is to figure out how to think, speak, and act in ways that are fitting for the age to come that is already breaking in. Thinking, speaking, and acting according to the present evil age are no longer fitting ways for Christians to live. How does this happen? Is it about trying to be a “better person”? Is it a matter of “trying” at all?

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” The only way to resist being conformed to the present age is to be transformed by the renewing of your mind. This is not about “the power of positive thinking.” In fact, it is not about anything we can do at all. Notice that the verb “transformed” is in the passive voice—be transformed. We are transformed as we apprehend—or rather, are apprehended by—the unfathomable mercy of Christ. At the centre of a life that is authentically Christian is a mind that is awake, alert, sober, illuminated by the divine light of Christ.

We are transformed to resemble Christ, given the mind of Christ (Phil 2:5), as we set our minds on him, as we consider him, as we meditate upon his Passion, as we contemplate his mercy. Being transformed is a life-long process that the Holy Spirit works out in us beginning in the waters of baptism and subsequently in great and manifold ways: as we hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest Holy Scripture, as we are nourished by his Body and Blood in Holy Communion, as we give ourselves to one another in love, and as we daily present our bodies to Christ for his service.

It is no mystery then why Paul immediately goes on to speak of the Church: “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” We present our bodies as a living sacrifice to God as we present our bodies to Christ’s Body, the Church, of which we are members. As we offer ourselves to one another in love. As gather together to hear the word and receive the sacraments. As we love one another as Christ has loved us.

Brothers and sisters, you have been presented to God in baptism. So each day let us present ourselves anew to Christ as those whom he has brought from death to life. Let us each day pray that the Holy Spirit would renew our minds. Let us ask God to reveal the depth of his mercy to us, that like those early Christians in Rome our common life might come more and more to resemble the life of Jesus Christ and less and less the life of the present age. Amen.

 

Endnotes:
[1] As quoted by David Bentley Hart in Atheist Delusions.
[2] NT Wright, Paul for Everyone: Romans, 69.