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“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell.” (Mark 9:43)

In the gospel reading last week we learned from Jesus about what it takes to be great in God’s kingdom—become a servant of all. And we learned that so many of the disputes and conflicts that rise up among us come from our own selfishness and envy that resists taking the lowly road of self-giving love.

This morning Mark has us in the very same discourse and Jesus gives us insight into the value of life in God’s kingdom. What is it worth? It is worth everything and anything at all that you might have to give up. Whatever the cost might be to you personally—a hand or a foot!—it is overshadowed to an infinite degree by what you stand to inherit. It’s a no brainer. You want to talk about a smart investment? Cut out of your life whatever stands in the way of your obedience to Jesus Christ, cut it off entirely and kill it, for that loss is nothing compared to the joy and freedom of life with God.

Maybe you’ve heard the story of Aron Ralston. Aron was hiking in a canyon in southeastern Utah in 2003 when a boulder became dislodged pinning his right hand between it and the canyon wall. He had been out hiking by himself and didn’t tell anyone where he was going. With no way to contact anyone he finally ended up freeing himself after six days by using his pocket knife to amputate his right forearm. I’ll spare you the details. When he spoke publicly about the ordeal after the fact he recalled how he did not lose his hand, but gained his life.

It. Is. Better. Somebody say, “It is better.” “It is better,” says Jesus, for who? For you. “It is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.” The risen and living Jesus Christ is in our midst this morning and he stands among us as a good friend who tells the truth. His word to us this morning is a word that warns us of danger and guides us into life. Jesus is saying to us this morning that whatever you have to give up in order to resist sin and obey him is not to your loss but to your gain, and eternally so. It. Is. Better.

What hinders your own obedience to Jesus Christ? What causes your faith to shrink rather than to flourish and grow? What gets in the way of you knowing the joy of the gospel? Hear the compassionate and merciful caution of Jesus Christ: “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell.” Whatever it is, cut it off.

Maybe you’re not sure what it is that’s getting in the way. Moments ago we heard the words of the Psalmist: “But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults,” (Psalm 19:11-12). Often we do not even know the ways that we err and so we need the Holy Spirit to search our hearts and clear out all of those faults that are hidden even to us.

I want you to know that this is no less true for me as your priest. Indeed, the last year or so since I have been here the Lord has been renewing my own heart and my own love for him, bringing to light the sin that I would rather minimize or ignore and gently rooting it out. “It is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell.”

To “enter life” is to submit oneself to God, to receive the kingdom that Jesus has come to bring, and to enjoy life with God both now and forever. That it is possible for you and I to enjoy God and live in his love is entirely God’s agenda and entirely God’s doing. As it is written elsewhere: “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). God’s agenda is life for the world. You were made for life with God.

Sin is anything that hinders this life by drawing our love away from Jesus Christ and fixing it on lesser goods. Sin mustn’t be something obviously evil or wicked. In fact, often it is as subtle as an inordinate love of good things. And so as you know elsewhere in the gospels Jesus himself does not hesitate to call for the renunciation of possessions, family, and of life itself if these good things ever stand in the way of following him. Cut it off, says Jesus. It is better.

Our tendency might be to focus on what we would lose. What it would cost us to cut off whatever it is Jesus is asking us to cut off. Instead, let us consider what we stand to gain by being with Jesus. As the Psalmist proclaims, the law, or the word, of the Lord is perfect. God’s word to us revives the soul and brings wisdom. It enlightens the eyes and rejoices the heart. It is our very life and our sustenance. “In keeping [it] there is great reward,” (Psalm 19:11). To hear it and to obey it is to “enter life” as Jesus says. It’s really important to let that sink in: obedience to Jesus, challenging as it may be, is not intended to burden but to liberate.

I love how the Prayer Book puts it in the Collect for Peace towards the end of Morning Prayer: “O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom.” To know God in Jesus Christ is eternal life. To serve him is perfect freedom.

No temporal pleasure that sin promises is worth forfeiting the eternal pleasure of knowing God. And the stakes are high because the opposite of life with God is life apart from God. To refuse to enter into the joy of his love is to chose instead the insanity and the isolation of sin—to go to hell. Hell is not what you were made for. You were made for God, to know him and to enjoy him forever. Therefore, whatever is causing you to sin, cut it off. “It is better for you to enter life.” It is better.

The opposite of sin is not moral perfection but love. Love covers a multitude of sins writes Saint Peter and Christ’s love has covered our sin. So if you want motivation to cut off whatever it is that is causing you to sin learn to love Jesus. Allow the Holy Spirit to work in you and bring about in you the perfection of Christ’s love.

There is no magical way to learn to love Jesus. But there is a practical way and it comes to us in the form of a Rule of Life handed on to us from the Apostles and the earliest Christians (Acts 2:42). What does it consist of? Basically this: go to church, regularly; read and meditate upon the words of Holy Scripture, the Bible; pray, what a resource we have for this in the Daily Office and in the psalter; and generously serve one another in the church. In all these ways we learn to love Jesus by learning of his love for us and the more we come to know of his love for us the less appealing sin becomes.

“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell.” Let us therefore cast off the sin that ensnares for the sake of life with God. Whatever the cost, it is worth it for the joy and freedom of knowing Jesus Christ.

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“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

In our gospel reading this morning Jesus is on the way with his disciples and as they follow him and stay near to him he teaches them what it means to be great in the kingdom of God. And right away we are reminded of the posture of a disciple: with Jesus; on the move; open and teachable. And what does Jesus tell them but to reiterate the central fact of not only his own ministry but of human history: “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”

And the disciples responded, “Ah, yes. That makes good sense! Carry on.” No, actually what Mark tells us is that the disciples did not understand what he was saying. Not only that, but they had questions that they were afraid to ask.

Maybe you’ve been following Jesus for weeks or maybe you’ve been following him for decades, have you ever had questions? Perhaps even questions that you weren’t quite confident to give voice to? Have you ever wondered? Doubted? Been curious? You are in very good company with Jesus and his band of followers. Indeed, the work of theology—a work that we are all called to, by the way—is to seek to understand that which we believe. The Christian life begins with faith but it does not stop there. It presses deeper, seeking to understand that which it affirms.

Why does Mark include this detail about their lack of understanding and what does he mean by it? I think what he wants us to know is that the life of faith is a process, a life-long process, of re-education. At this moment in the gospel narrative the disciples do not comprehend the fact that the one they have come to believe is the Messiah, the Redeemer of Israel, will have to suffer and die. That reality simply does not fit within the world as they know it.

We can press this point further and say that it wasn’t simply that the disciples failed to understand something that should have otherwise been intelligible to them. It was, rather, that they couldn’t understand that which their present reality gave them no capacity to understand. They knew as well as you and I that dead people, even a dead Messiah, do not simply live again.

But of course you and I know what happens. In fact, you and I are sitting here this morning because of what happened. Those very same disciples that lacked understanding became the Apostles through whom the gospel of Jesus Christ spread throughout the Ancient Roman world and continues to transform people today.

The ultimate fact of Jesus’ death and resurrection did not fit within their world so Jesus had to turn their world upside down. The great Canadian poet Leonard Cohen wrote that there is a crack in everything and that’s how the light gets in. That’s a bit like what Jesus does with his followers then and now. See, Jesus wants to break into your neatly arranged world with the light of God and show you that another way is possible. He wants to clear all of the junk that you’ve been hoarding out of your home and refurnish it, repaint everything so that the colours are deeper and more vibrant, and enliven it with new textures and fabrics.

OK, so the disciples as we have seen did not—could not—understand and naturally they had questions. And I love what Jesus does here. He knows that they are reluctant to question him so he questions them: “So, what were you guys arguing about back there?” It’s not as if Jesus doesn’t know but he is inviting them to bring their questions and arguments out into the open. Because a failure to understand is not cause for shame but rather cause for drawing even nearer to Jesus Christ. There is a sermon in here about the virtue of a good debate and learning to be a community that can disagree well with one another, but that’s a sermon for another day.

So, what were the disciples arguing about? Who was the greatest. They are with Jesus on the way to the Cross where he will lay down his life in love and humility and they are worried about who’s going to get the promotion. His eyes are fixed on his suffering and death for the life of the world while they are preoccupied with the question of status. How unlike you and I!

In our Epistle reading this morning we heard James ask us a question: “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from?” Sounds a bit like Jesus’, “So, what were you guys arguing about back there?” We get the sense that James knows the answer. And indeed, he breaks it down for us.

There are two kinds of wisdom, says James. There is a wisdom that is, “earthly, unspiritual, devilish,” that is characterized by envy and selfish ambition and leads to disorder and wickedness. Then there is a wisdom that, “comes down from above.” This Godly wisdom is, “peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy,” and it leads to a harvest of righteousness says James.

Where do those conflicts and disputes come from? They come from that old wisdom that we are so protective of. But Jesus wants us to know this morning that even now the Holy Spirit is searching your heart and that he wants to root out every last scrap of envy and selfishness and disorder and wickedness and he wants to come in and take up residence in your heart and furnish it instead with the beauty of peace and gentleness and humility and love.

Only Jesus can do this. Only Jesus is gentle and yet loving enough to question us when we fear questioning him and to open us up to a new way of thinking and living in and with and through him.

The disciples are arguing about who is the greatest and they probably think that they know what that means. But again, here Jesus upends their notions of success and greatness. Does he reprimand them for their folly? No, rather, he sat down and invited them to come near and he said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

What makes someone successful or great? Is it the ability to bombastically assert oneself over another and humiliate or steamroll those that disagree with you, as the recent surge of populist politics might suggest? Or, maybe greatness has to do with conspicuous displays of one’s wealth, prestige, and sex appeal like we see in celebrity culture. Or, if you are active on social media platforms, maybe greatness and success is found in living a perfectly curated life or the number of ‘likes’ you receive? Or, depending on what stage of life you are at you might think that greatness is getting into the right school, or having the perfect family, or traveling the world in retirement.

Does becoming the servant of all constitute greatness or success in your world? Of course not. But those who commit to following Jesus Christ are going to have their world turned upside down. If you’re going to be a follower of Jesus you’re going to experience a life-time of re-education. And Jesus Christ demonstrates in word and deed what greatness in the kingdom of God is all about—becoming a servant. Of. All.

Jesus Christ demonstrates his greatness not by making much of himself but by making little of himself. Not by gathering worldly wealth but by living generously in love. Not by clinging to power as the world understands it but by spending his life for the sake of others. He shows us what greatness in the kingdom of God is like by going to the Cross and by bringing us there with him. And Jesus wants you to know this morning that if you want to be great in God’s eyes then you have to give yourself away in love. Because in the kingdom of God greatness is measured by lowly service and indiscriminate love.

So if you want to be a student of Jesus Christ that’s how you’re going to grow, first by a downward, lowly motion. The seed of a tree first goes down, fastening its roots low in the ground, in order then to reach skyward. Do you want to be great in the kingdom of heaven? Become a servant of all.

However. Lest the disciples think that their greatness in God’s kingdom, like their greatness in the world, is a result of their own doing Jesus does one more thing. He takes a little child and places it among them and taking it in his arms he says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Being great in the kingdom of God is not the result of our effort but of faith in Jesus Christ who comes to us and gives himself to us as a helpless child. Because what sinners need is not motivation but resurrection. That’s why the invitation of Jesus to follow him is not, “Come and try harder,” or, “Come and do better,” but rather, “Come and die that you might live.”

If you devoted the rest of your life to contemplating this great mystery you would never want for anything again. God Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth, has come among us in the weakness of a human infant. As Christians have been singing for seventeen centuries in the Te Deum, “Thou are the King of Glory, O Christ. Thou are the everlasting Son of the Father. When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man, thou didst not abhor the Virgin’s womb.” The King of Glory! The everlasting Son of the Father! In the weakness and vulnerability of a human child that we might welcome him yesterday, today, and forever.

Do you want to be great? Do you want your life to be a success in the only way that will matter in the end? Receive Jesus Christ in faith and allow him to transform you from the inside out so that you might go and transform the world by your witness of love and service. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

Feast Day: The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23; James 1:17-27

“Welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.”

In our gospel reading this morning we are listening in on a debate between Jesus and the religious leaders that concerns cleanliness. The religious leaders are concerned with clean hands, not to mention pots and pans as well. But Jesus, knowing what is truly at stake invites us to press deeper. The problem isn’t unclean hands, the problem is unclean hearts. Friends, Jesus knows your heart. He knows it better than you do. And he, and only he, can clean it out if you will welcome him to.

Our reading begins with the Pharisees and the scribes who have come to see Jesus. Some of them, in fact, have come from as far away as Jerusalem and here they are now “gathered around” Jesus. However, noticing that some of his disciples were not observing the traditional purity codes they accuse Jesus of going soft on the tradition of the elders, that is, the complex web of oral traditions and teachings that had built up around the Law of God: “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”

A fair question. What is going on here? Does Jesus think the Law is unimportant? Is he disregarding tradition in favour of innovation? No. In fact, Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees seems to be that their more recent traditions have undermined the eternal and foundational Word of God. The same challenge could be put to us today: does everything we do and teach grow out of Scripture?

How does Jesus respond to the question? “Boy was Isaiah ever right about you guys.” He accuses them of hypocrisy, of play-acting, of honouring God with their lips even while their hearts are far from him. Recall, for example, how our reading began. Here are men that have come from afar to see Jesus. Here they are presently gathered around him. Yet they notice others. They are in the presence of Jesus Christ but their heart is elsewhere. They have come to Jesus and yet they have not really come to him at all.

Are we so different ourselves? Are we not much quicker to notice the sins of others than we are to notice our own sin? Is it not easier to justify ourselves than it is to confess? Do we not prefer to judge others rather than serve them? We fall into these hypocritical patterns when we do not see ourselves as lowly and needy and requiring God’s mercy. You see, it is much easier to ignore my own defiled heart when I am busy looking at someone else’s defiled hands.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer asks a question that we are inclined to resist: can you consider yourself to be the greatest of sinners? Surely I cannot be the greatest of sinners! This must be an exaggeration! It cannot be true! Yet even Saint Paul says this of himself. Shortly after Bonhoeffer poses this question comes my favourite passage in all of his works, at once haunting and hopeful: “There can be no genuine acknowledgement of sin that does not lead to this extremity. If my sinfulness appears to me to be in any way smaller or less detestable in comparison with the sins of others, I am still not recognizing my sinfulness at all.”[1] If my sinfulness appears to me to be in any way smaller or less detestable in comparison with the sins of others, I am still not recognizing my sinfulness at all.

Perhaps that is why the Pharisees and scribes were scanning the room rather than gazing at the one they had come to see? Perhaps they knew that if they fixed their gaze on Jesus Christ then the divine light that comes from him would search their own hearts and reveal what lies therein. And yet this very fear is what prevented them from knowing the mercy of Christ. For when we contemplate the mystery of Christ’s passion yes we are confronted with the reality of our sin but we are confronted even more so with the reality of God’s love that covers our sin. It is only when I personally experience Christ’s mercy for me, the greatest of sinners, that I can let go of judging others and aspire to serve them instead. Because that is what Christ has done for us.

This brings us to the crux of the matter—what Christ has done for us. You see, the religious leaders presume that they can keep themselves pure before God by observing a set of ritual laws. They think that the cleanliness that is required of them is something that they can manipulate and control. But what does Jesus say? “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

What prevents us from being made clean is not out there but rather in here. It’s not that unclean things defile an otherwise good human heart, it’s that the unclean human heart defiles otherwise good things. Christian teaching affirms that the world and everything in it is good because God is good and he made all things. Therefore, there are no bad things only bad uses of things. “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile,” says Jesus.

Consider the list of vices that Jesus mentions at the end of our reading. Are not all these things a consequence of the bad use of good things? Take sex, for example (and everyone sat up in their pews). Sex is good but when you use it badly what do you get? Fornication and adultery, among other things, not to mention more nefarious consequences such as abuse and assault. Likewise, material wealth is a good but when you use it badly what do you get? Things like greed, envy, and pride. “Understand this,” says Jesus. “The rot starts from within not from without.” What we need, therefore, is an internal cleansing of the heart not simply an external cleansing of our hands.

Precisely this is what Jesus Christ has come to do. He has come to cleanse our stained hearts by his blood shed on the Cross and to dwell in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. Is that not what James says in the second reading we heard this morning? The perfect gift from above that has come down from the Father is Jesus Christ, God’s word of truth. And this word of truth has been planted in our hearts by faith making us new creatures.

What then can you do? What does James say? “Welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” God has already planted his word in your heart by faith, welcome it. Get out of the way and let the word of God go to work on your heart. Welcome it with meekness. Not with pride. Be teachable, be patient, submit yourself.

The absolute best thing that you can do for you today—and for your families and neighbours by the way—is to learn to love the Word of God. Husbands and wives, what is the best thing you can do for your spouse? Love God’s Word. Fathers and mothers, what is the best thing you can do for your children? Love God’s Word. Single people, what is the best thing that you can do for your friends, your family, your community, and your self? Love God’s Word.

“But the Bible is so boring.” So what? “But I have a hard time understanding it.” Buy a commentary to help you read. Attend a Bible study and read along with others. “But I’m so busy I just can’t find the time.” Really? How much time have you spent just staring at a screen this week? How many hours this week have you just wasted doing things that are of zero eternal benefit? Never mind the time that we spend on things that are actually harmful for our souls.

So if you don’t already, learn to love the Bible because when you learn to love the Bible you learn to love Jesus. It may be a tough go at first but remember this: reading the Bible has to be a discipline before it can become a desire or even a delight.

Friends, the risen and living Jesus Christ is in our midst this morning and through him God is able to cure the deep-seated impurity in our hearts. Today if you would hear his voice, harden not your hearts but rather welcome him with meekness and allow him to do what only he can do. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

 

Endnotes.
[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 96.

Feast Day: The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69

“Choose this day whom you will serve.”

We have been in the sixth chapter of John for a few weeks now and we’ve been hearing from Jesus’ bread of life sermon. Two weeks ago, we heard that Jesus himself is the bread of life and that anyone who comes to him in faith will have eternal life. Last week we heard Jesus continue down this path: “Whoever eats me will live because of me,” he said. And we explored how Jesus comes to us and gives himself to us as food in the Eucharist.

This week we come to the end of John chapter six and what do we learn? That following Jesus is difficult. His teaching is hard to accept because it challenges our assumptions. And we learn that many disciples—not outsiders but disciples—turn away from Jesus because of this. This is surprising to us. We know that people are attracted to Jesus in the gospel, but people are also repelled by him as well.

To be a follower of Jesus Christ then is to choose him above else. Not choose once and be done with it. But choose each day, each moment even. Not choose only when it is convenient for you, when what he says is pleasing to your ears. But choose when it is difficult, demanding even. “Choose this day whom you will serve.”

The temptation for God’s people to turn away from him and follow lesser gods is, of course, not a new story. Indeed, it is echoed in our first reading from the book of Joshua this morning. Joshua, if you recall, assumed leadership over Israel after the death of Moses. Moses brought Israel out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, through the wilderness, and right up the promised land but died before entering. The mantle then fell to Joshua to lead God’s people into the land of promise, which he did.

Now in the land, Israel must choose. Either, “revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness,” or return to, “the gods your ancestors served.” A decision lies before them: “Choose this day whom you will serve.”

One Biblical commentator says that this story in the twenty-fourth chapter of Joshua is “atemporal.” Meaning, it speaks to every person at every time in every place. The call to, “choose this day whom you will serve,” is a call to the people of God, wherever and whenever they find themselves, to examine themselves and see if they are indeed living up to their identity as God’s people. In other words, those words are addressed to you and I: “Choose this day whom you will serve.”

In our gospel reading Jesus likewise challenges his own disciples. They have just heard Jesus’ teaching about himself, that he is the bread of life come down from heaven, made food for all, and that whoever trusts in him—but only those who trust in him—will inherit eternal life and be raised up on the last day. And how do his disciples respond? “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” they say, and they complained among themselves. A little later on in the same passage John tells us that because of Jesus’ teaching, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” These are not outsiders that are falling away on account of Jesus’ teaching but his own disciples. Sobering words to be sure.

How is Jesus’ teaching difficult? The Anglican New Testament Scholar and Bishop N.T. Wright believes that the teaching of Jesus makes a huge hole in our world-view, and when that happens some people prefer not to think about it anymore.[1] Jesus calls each of us to come to him but when we do we inevitably discover that his words tear down a lot of the assumptions we have about the world and ourselves, and about God, and instead offers us a new way of seeing and understanding. “You do not have to come,” he says. “You can stay where you are with everything arranged to your liking, but if you or anyone at all hungers for more they can come to me. I can show you a better, truer, more beautiful way. But if you come, there are some things you are going to have to leave behind.” When Jesus challenges you, how do you respond? “Choose this day whom you will serve.”

In light of this new reality that Jesus opens up those who want to follow him must choose a way of life that not everyone is willing to embrace, a way of life that in fact no one can embrace except as they are enabled to by the grace of God. It is a way of prayer and fasting, of self-discipline and restraint, of sacrificial love and obedience. In a word, it is the way of the Cross. Followers of Jesus are invited to choose this way not only willingly but with joy.

What regulates your life and gives it it’s shape? Is it the Cross of Christ?  Do you embrace it with joy knowing that it is not an intolerably harsh burden but rather the way of eternal life? Do you embrace it even when it cuts against the grain of worldly wisdom? “Choose this day whom you will serve.”

There is a scene in the 1999 film ‘Dogma’ where, as part of a campaign to renew the image of and interest in the Catholic Church, Cardinal Glick—played by George Carlin—does away with the “wholly depressing” image of the crucifix in favour of a more uplifting image of Jesus—Buddy Christ. Buddy Christ is an image of Jesus, smiling and winking while pointing at passers-by with one hand and giving them a thumbs-up with the other. It is the image of a Christ who is very unlikely to cause offence or challenge us. It is the image of a Christ who fits nicely into our life as we have arranged it, over there on the shelf. But it is not the Christ of the gospel who confronts us with the message of God’s faithfulness and love and invites a decision. “Choose this day whom you will serve.”

Seeing many of his disciples falling away on account of his teaching Jesus turns to the twelve and asks, “Do you also wish to go away?” “Lord, to whom can we go?” responds Peter. “You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Will Peter and the others also fall away from Jesus on account of his teaching? Peter knows there is only really one choice. He knows who Jesus Christ is. He knows the power of his words. He knows that Jesus is the one who has come to bring God to earth so that human creatures might live. Knowing this Jesus where else can he go? Peter’s decision to remain with Jesus is predicated on who Jesus is and what Jesus has done. How can Peter not choose Jesus when Jesus has already chosen Peter?

The very same thing is at work at the end of the book of Joshua as well. It is only after Joshua gathers Israel together and recounts God’s steadfast love towards them over time that Israel is called upon to “choose this day whom you will serve.” They are already God’s people. God has already acted for them in their favour. God has already chosen them and demonstrated his faithfulness to them. How then could they not choose to revere and serve him in faithfulness?

Jesus, like Joshua, has come to remind us of God’s great love for each of us. Only then can God’s people respond in faith. And both Joshua and Jesus courageously lead the way. “But as for me and my household,” says Joshua, “we will serve the Lord.” Likewise Jesus leads us in the way of faithfulness. He takes on human flesh, becoming a man, and lives in total loving obedience to the will of the Father. And in baptism he makes us members of his household. Will we remain with him? Will we follow him in faithfulness and love? “Choose this day whom you will serve.”

And if this day we should choose to serve Jesus Christ let us be ready for all manner of spiritual attacks that will come. Because the spiritual forces of evil that oppose God will take note. That is why Saint Paul councils us to put on the armor of God, “so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” The people of Israel along with Joshua decided to serve the Lord but within one generation of Joshua Israel was caught up with the old gods again. And if you are anything like me then you know the history of your own unfaithfulness as well. The devil is your enemy and he is against you but God is for you. Over and against our history of unfaithfulness stands God’s history of faithfulness to us in Jesus Christ. God has chosen to be faithful to you therefore you can choose to be faithful to God today. “Choose this day whom you will serve…but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

 

Endnotes:
[1] N.T. Wright, John for Everyone, 89.

Feast Day: Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: John 6:51-58

“Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.”

In our gospel reading last week we heard Jesus refer to himself as the “bread of life,” and we learned that this is because Jesus Christ comes to address human hunger. He comes to address it by fulfilling it and he comes to fulfill it by giving us God. All human hunger is finally a hunger for God. This week Jesus gives us one tangible way that we can eat this bread of life: by eating his own flesh and blood in the bread and wine of Holy Communion.

Do you remember a time in your life when you attended a great banquet or feast? Maybe like me you are thinking of a family wedding. What was that like? How did you feel? Probably you were looking forward to the feast with anticipation—the joy of anticipation, the anticipation of joy! As the hour approached perhaps you got all dressed up in your best threads and then off you went for the ceremony and party that followed, sharing in the joy of the happy couple. Feasts and joy tend to go together.

Friends, Jesus Christ has prepared a banquet to end all banquets for us this morning and he is inviting you to come and dine! Every time you come to church, every time we celebrate Holy Communion, you are coming to a feast of great joy beyond all measure. And the food that we feast on is God himself.

John began his account of the gospel by telling us that the eternal Word of God, “became flesh and lived among us,” (1:14). This morning we encounter that eternal Word-made-flesh, Jesus Christ, as he stands in the midst of a crowd and offers himself to them as food: “My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink…So whoever eats me will live because of me.” Jesus Christ is the living bread that has come down from heaven and the bread that he gives us to eat is his flesh. And to all those who feast upon him he grants a share in his life.

The crowds, naturally, are astounded, disputing what Jesus has said. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” they wonder. Indeed, a little bit later the disciples themselves are dismayed: “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” (6:60).

Perhaps you yourself like the crowds in the gospel are skeptical? How can this be? How can Jesus Christ give himself to us in this simple meal of bread and wine? In this world that is a perfectly reasonable objection. How can one man offer himself to other men and women as food? Could anything make less sense? Yet Jesus does not reply to the objection itself. What does he do instead? He doubles down and stresses all the more the utterly indisputable nature of his offer: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.”

I want you to know that the risen and living Jesus Christ stands in our midst this morning as well and he is here to offer himself to us as food. That is, Jesus offers himself to us not just spiritually, to be received by faith, but also physically, to be received by eating and drinking. In the bread and wine of the Eucharist we eat Christ’s body and drink his blood.

This faith, rooted in Scripture, is reflected in our liturgies. Consider, for example, one of my own favourite prayers from the Book of Common Prayer, the prayer of humble access that we pray immediately before receiving Communion. It begins with the familiar words, “We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness,” and continues on ending with, “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. Amen.”

Here is the rather audacious claim that Anglicans along with Christians all over the world have come to affirm: Jesus Christ, the Word-made-flesh, makes himself accessible to us, tangibly, objectively in the Eucharist. Therefore, what Jesus says of himself in the gospel is true of the Eucharist as well: “Whoever eats me will live because of me.” Those who eat and drink at the altar profit from what Jesus Christ has done.

And what has Jesus Christ done? He has offered himself completely to the Father in loving obedience in our place and for our good. In Jesus Christ God takes on flesh and comes down to our level, becoming one of us. Yet he goes further still for as Jesus says his flesh is given, “for the life of the world.” This points to the goal of his whole life and being which is to give himself up to death on the Cross. The Eucharist, therefore, is chiefly a remembrance of the joy of his Passion which was for us. The broken body of Christ on the Cross has become our bread. The blood and water that flowed from his pierced side fills the chalice and has become our drink.

So this earthly bread bears the presence of the risen and living Christ and contains within it the mystery of his Cross and Resurrection and when we eat it his life becomes our life, working itself out in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, Jesus says, “Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.”

This seems like an appropriate place to remember that the word Eucharist comes from the Greek word which means “thanksgiving and praise.” Thanksgiving and praise! Because when we are confronted with the mystery of Christ’s love for us in the sacrament of Holy Communion the most fitting response is an overflow of gratitude and adoration!

And so if you are still with me this morning there is a challenge here for each of us. If Jesus Christ is truly standing in our midst offering himself to us as food then how might we deepen our Eucharistic devotion this year? What is one step you can take this fall to increase your devotion to Jesus Christ hidden in the Eucharist?

Friends, Jesus stands in our midst this morning offering himself to us as food in the bread and wine of this Eucharist. Come hungry one and fall into the arms of God! Come with joy and feast on him! Eat his flesh and drink his blood that his life might be your life. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.


Endnotes.
[1] Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, 268.

Feast Day: 12th Sunday After Pentecost
Lections: John 6:35, 41-51

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Human beings are hungry creatures and in our gospel reading from Saint John this morning we learn that Jesus Christ comes to address humankind’s hunger. What is it that you hunger for? What is it that your body and your soul, your very being, longs for and desires? I want you to know this morning that Jesus has something to say about that and that he has come to address that deepest of needs, that deepest longing, that deepest hunger that lies beneath all human hunger.

Human beings are hungry creatures. The narrative context of John chapter six helps us see this. The chapter began with the crowd following Jesus up a mountain. They are on a pilgrimage with Christ, if you will. And they are hungry. There aren’t any shops nearby and the disciples do not have much but there is a young boy who we learn has a bit of food—five loaves of bread and two fish. Jesus took this food and gave thanks for it and then had the disciples distribute it amongst the people and not only was the hunger of the crowd satisfied but there were leftovers.

When Jesus attempts to leave the crowd they track him down again the next day. Their hunger is starting to grow again, no doubt. Perhaps Jesus can feed them. “Ah,” Jesus says. “You are looking for me because yesterday you ate and had your fill. But you do not yet understand that that was a sign. There is food, you see, that does not perish but endures and God the Father wants to give you that food.” The crowd responds: “Sir, give us this bread always!” Human beings are hungry creatures.

So, the narrative context of our reading this morning places us in the midst of a hungry crowd. But there is a Scriptural context as well and it broadens the scope, placing us in the midst of a hungry Israel. Tucked away there towards the end of our reading Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.”

Manna in the wilderness. This is, of course, a reference to the story of Israel. If you remember, Moses led Israel out of bondage in Egypt. They crossed over the Red Sea and began their forty year pilgrimage through the wilderness. No sooner had they been liberated from Egypt when they began to grumble and complain. “If only the Lord had of let us die in Egypt! At least we had food there. You’ve brought us out into the desert only to kill us with hunger!” So the Lord rained down bread from heaven and fed them. Manna in the wilderness. One theologian reflecting on that story commented: “For a people who often went hungry and struggled to earn their daily bread, this was the promise of promises, which somehow said everything there was to say: relief of every want—a gift that satisfied hunger for all and forever.”[1]

Human beings are hungry creatures but our hunger for bread that perishes is ultimately a hunger for bread that endures. Our hunger—that is our manifold desires and longings for food yes but also for security, for belonging, for meaning and so on—is a sign that points to that which lies behind, below, and beyond our hunger for perishable things. Human beings are hungry creatures but we are hungry for God. All desire is finally a desire for him.

All of your longing is a longing for God, all of your desire is a desire for God, all of your hunger is a hunger for God. As Saint Augustine wrote: “The thought of you stirs [man] so deeply that he cannot be content unless he praises you, because you made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”[2] Our hearts are restless until they rest in God. We are hungry until we eat heavenly bread.

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Jesus Christ comes to address humankind’s hunger. He comes to address it by fulfilling it and he comes to fulfill it by giving us God: “He has brought God, and now we know his face, now we can call upon him. Now we know the path that we human beings have to take in this world.”[3]

When one comes to know Jesus Christ in this way their whole life changes. Indeed, when we trust in Jesus Christ—when anyone trusts in Jesus Christ—he turns their ordinary life of longing and desire and hunger into life with God, abundant life, eternal life. When you have Jesus Christ, when you know his love and his grace, you have everything and lack nothing.

How does one eat of this heavenly bread? How does one receive life that is no longer threatened by death? Listen to what Jesus himself says to us: “Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life… Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.” Whoever believes has eternal life. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever. In other words, faith in Jesus Christ is the way that we eat this heavenly bread and receive the life that he alone can give.

William Temple, once Archbishop of Canterbury, put it this way: “The mediator of the Father’s gift of life is the Son, and to believe on Him, to live by trust in Him, is to possess eternal Life…The life of faith does not earn eternal Life; it is eternal Life. And Christ is its vehicle.”[4] That’s really important: one does not earn or merit eternal life by their faith in Christ; faith in Christ is eternal life. For when we receive the living Lord in faith, into our soul, his life becomes our life and we “live forever,” as Jesus says.

This raises an important question: Who can come and eat of this heavenly bread and receive the life that Jesus Christ gives? Is there some sort of religious test that must first be passed? Some moral rulebook that must first be mastered? Some special qualifications that must first be met? No! It does not matter who you are, it does not matter where you are from, it does not matter what you have done. “Whoever,” says Jesus. Whoever! “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry.”

Are you hungry? Do you long to be filled? Then come to Jesus Christ. And do not think that because you once came to him that you no longer have any need to come. For we must never cease coming to Jesus Christ. Did you come to him as a child? Good. Do not cease to do so as an adult. Did you come to him yesterday? Good. Do not neglect coming to him today and tomorrow as well. For he calls each one of us personally to come to him each day, each moment. “Being a Christian can only take the form of becoming a Christian over and over again.”[5]

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Human beings are hungry creatures and the one that lies behind all of our hunger is God, whom Jesus Christ comes to bring. Are you hungry? Come to Jesus. Come today. Give yourself to him in faith now and always, feed on the bread of life, and you will never be hungry again.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

 

Endnotes.
[1] Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, 265.
[2] Saint Augustine, Confessions I.1.
[3] BXVI
[4] William Temple, Readings in St John’s Gospel, 90.
[5] BXVI

transfiguration-header

Feast Day: Transfiguration
Readings: Luke 9:28-36

“Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

One of the final activities that our family was able to squeeze into our holidays in July was an afternoon in Midland visiting Sainte-Marie among the Hurons as well as the Martyr’s Shrine across the way both of which bear witness to the mission of French Jesuits to the Huron Wendat people.

Those of you who have been—and if you have not it is worth a visit—know that on the hill behind the Shrine is a path that takes one through the Stations of the Cross. And on the field in the middle of that pathway is a small prayer garden dedicated to the Virgin Mary at the foot of which, built into the ground, is a crucifix.

As our family drew nearer to the garden I noticed a woman lying on the ground. She was not moving and seemed to have been there for some time. At first I thought it strange and, in fact, Christina thought that perhaps she was sleeping. But as we drew nearer still I could see that she was praying, lying prostrate with her face pressed against the crucifix. Her flip-flops were off and set neatly to the side no doubt because she understood that she was on holy ground. As she got up and walked towards me our gaze connected and she smiled gently, her eyes full of joy and life. Here is a woman, I thought, who has been with Jesus in prayer. “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

Something like this is going on in our gospel reading this morning. Jesus takes Peter and John and James up on a mountain to pray. And while he was praying Luke tells us that the disciples had an experience with Jesus unlike anything they had experienced before. It was as if for a moment the fleshly veil was pulled back and they were granted a revelation of Jesus’ true identity: “God, of God; Light, of Light; Very God, of very God.” And they kept silent.

What does Jesus want us to know this morning? I think he wants you to know that he is calling you too up the mountain to pray with him. He wants you to know him and experience him as the disciples did that day, to witness with your own eyes the divine light shining forth from him to illumine us and the whole world, to know and be transformed by the love of God.

Let’s have a closer look at this morning’s gospel text: “Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” The Transfiguration is a prayer event.[1] It is in the context of Jesus praying—and the disciples with him—that they see and hear what they do. “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

The setting is also important, they have gone up a mountain. In Scripture mountains are the place of God’s particular closeness and both Moses and Elijah, who appear in our story, each had intimate experiences with God on top of their own mountains.

Therefore, mountains are a place not only of outward ascent but of inward ascent—an “inner peak” on which to stand and behold the beauty and love of Jesus Christ. Like Peter and John and James, Jesus wants you and I to ascend the mountain with him to pray. And prayer is very much an ascent—we are taken up by Jesus as it were into the heavens where with all of the saints we contemplate the mystery of God made man, the mystery of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. In prayer on that mountain Jesus gave his disciples an experience of his glory that confirmed his identity and deepened their faith.

If you want to grow up in Christian faith you have to go up on the mountain to pray. You have to ascend with Christ into the heavenly places detached from the noise and distractions of the world, and enter the silence of God’s presence. And it is from this place of silence, both exterior and interior silence, that we are able to contemplate the beauty of Christ’s face. Prayer is the incubator for the Christian life, it is the very soil in which Christians grow.

In the 14th Century an ordinary woman named Julian of Norwich was given a series of revelations of God’s love. Reflecting on one of them she wrote: “The love of God Most High for our soul is so wonderful that it surpasses all knowledge. No created being can know the greatness, the sweetness, the tenderness of the love that our Maker has for us. By his grace and help therefore let us in spirit stand and gaze, eternally marvelling at the supreme, surpassing, singleminded, incalculable love that God, who is goodness, has for us.”[2] By God’s grace and help let us in spirit stand and gaze at the love that God has for us. For Julian that is precisely what prayer is about—beholding Jesus Christ, fixing our gaze on him. “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

So, Jesus goes up on the mountain to pray. But from this point onwards in the gospel Jesus will go up to Jerusalem (18:31) where he will go up on the cross. Indeed, as Jesus’ appearance is transfigured who appears there with him on the mountain but Moses and Elijah. Much could be said about this but this morning I simply want to draw our attention to one aspect of what Luke tells us: “They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.”

Moses and Elijah are speaking with Jesus about his departure, his exodus, that is about his suffering and death upon the cross. As if to highlight this point, in the telling of the story Luke brackets the Transfiguration with two accounts of Jesus telling his disciples that he must suffer and die (9:21-22; 43b-45). As one theologian put it, the revelation of “Jesus’ divinity belongs with the Cross—only when we put the two together do we recognize Jesus correctly.”[3]

A moment ago I mentioned Julian of Norwich who had a profound revelation of God’s love. It is worth noting how that particular revelation came about for Julian. She was extremely ill and close to death when her priest visited her and brought her a crucifix. Julian recalled the visit saying, “He set the cross before my face and said, ‘I have brought you the image of your Maker and Saviour. Look at it, and be strengthened.”[4] It was as Julian gazed upon the face of the crucified Christ, the blood running down under that crown of thorns, that her heart was set aflame with the love of God.

This is an important point: In prayer it must be the crucified Christ that we contemplate. We must pray, as it were, from the foot of the cross like Mary and the beloved disciple (John 19:25-27). “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

Anglicans, it should be said, are well equipped for this sort of prayer. After all, at the centre of Anglican spirituality is that rhythm of morning and evening prayer—the Daily Office—influenced as it is by the Benedictine habit of soaking one’s day, and life, in prayer. Praying the Office helps us enter into a living and active engagement with Holy Scripture and to better understand God’s love for each one of us in Jesus Christ.

So this fall I am going to make good on a promise that I made in my very first sermon last August on this very feast day, in fact. It is something that we have tried out during both Advent and Lent this past year but beginning this fall our parish will regularly observe a rhythm of morning and evening prayer throughout the week. Whether you yourself are able to be present or not I want you to know that our parish will be open and praying on behalf of us all.

As I mentioned, this Sunday marks the anniversary of my very first Sunday in this parish. My prayer for us as we enter our second year together is that this year, more than the last, each one of us—along with the disciples, along with Julian of Norwich, along with the anonymous woman at the Shrine—would behold the face of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, and be transformed by the divine light and love that radiates out from him.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Endnotes

[1] Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, 310.
[2] Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love (Penguin Classics, 1966), 70-71.
[3] BXVI, 305.
[4] Julian of Norwich, 65.