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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.

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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.

Feast Day: The Nativity of Saint John the Baptist
Readings: Luke 1:57-80

“What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him. (Luke 1:66)

Our gospel reading this morning tells of the birth of St John the Baptist which is where our feast day today takes its name. And here is what I think Jesus is saying to us this morning: that God can do extraordinarily gracious things with those who in faith yield to his word and even with those who falter. And so we like the neighbours in the story are left wondering: “What then will this child become?” if indeed the hand of the Lord is with him?

The beginning of Luke’s gospel is unique in that it tells the birth narratives of John and Jesus side by side. It’s as if the story of John is woven into the one tapestry that shows forth the glory of God in Jesus Christ to the world. And there are a lot of similarities. The birth of both John and Jesus is announced and foretold by the angel Gabriel. When Mary visits Elizabeth John leaps for joy in Elizabeth’s womb at the drawing near of Christ in Mary’s womb. Both John and Jesus elicit songs of praise from their parents which interestingly enough have shaped Christian prayer for centuries in the Benedictus and the Magnificat.

But their development and birth also differ in certain ways. Mary receives God’s word in faith whereas John’s father Zechariah falters and as a result is made mute by the angel until the time of the birth. Then there are the births themselves. Jesus’ as you will recall from our celebrations at Christmas has hosts of angels praising God in the heavens and shepherds traveling by night. By contrast when it comes time to tell of the birth of John Luke simply recalls the fact that it happened: “Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son.” Done.

It’s like right from the start Luke is telling us that even though John’s story is caught up with the story of Jesus it will be subordinate to it. The same is true for this church dedicated to St Paul/John. We have been pulled in by the gravity of Christ’s love. Our story has been caught up into the story of God’s salvation at the centre of which stands Jesus Christ. But our work is to always be pointing one another and others to him, to decrease so that he might increase in us.

After John is born Elizabeth’s relatives rejoiced with her because of God’s great mercy. Earlier in the story we learned that not only was Elizabeth well past child-bearing age (1:18) but that she was also barren and without children (1:36). Nevertheless, God promises a child and the arrival that child into the world results in joy. Because God can do extraordinarily gracious things with those who in faith yield to his word and even with those who falter.

This is a theme that we see over and over again in the gospels. Think of all of the healing accounts: He opens blind eyes, unstops deaf ears, loosens mute tongues, and here enlivens a barren womb. Because the word of God brings life wherever it is met with faith and even in some places where it is not. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a gospel of life. Which as an aside is why Christianity, unlike many other faiths and philosophies, has always cared deeply for the sanctity and dignity of human life from conception right through to death and at every point in between.

Like John’s birth we might say that the birth of faith, no matter how small, in men and women and children is a sign of the great mercy of Jesus Christ. Whenever faith comes alive in a person, rejoice! Whenever faith deepens in a person, rejoice! Wherever faith in Christ is found, rejoice! Because the mercy of Jesus Christ is always cause for deep and profound joy. And let me tell you that many-a-time these last eleven months I have rejoiced at your faith.

“What then will this child become?” The Lord opens the mouth of Zechariah and frees his tongue and he begins to praise God. His praise is the response to God fulfilling God’s promise. It’s significant that Luke tells us Zechariah was “filled with the Holy Spirit” because the Holy Spirit not only fulfills God’s promise but enables our praise. As it is written elsewhere, “no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit,” (1 Cor 12:3). I was thinking about that this week and it made me wonder, what difference would it make if we had a regular habit of starting each day by asking the Holy Spirit to fill us up that we might praise God not only with our lips but in our lives?

And here is the content of Zechariah’s proclamation: That God has looked favourably upon his people and that the mercy long promised has now come to pass in and through and with Jesus Christ. Blessed be God! The God of Israel, the God who spoke through the prophets, the God whose mercy extends across generations, the God who made a covenant with Abraham, the God who called John the Baptist to prepare the way, the God who took on human flesh and was born in Bethlehem, the God who raised Israel from Egypt and Jesus Christ from the dead.

Blessed be God! For this same God has delivered us from sin, has gathered us together here in Midhurst/Craighurst so that we too might be caught up into this grand story, so that our lives too might be woven into the fabric of God’s salvation, so that we too might shine like a light in our communities drawing people to Jesus Christ.

“What then will this child become?” The latter part of Zechariah’s proclamation answers this question. John will become the one who is sent by God ahead of Jesus Christ to announce his coming. To prepare people to meet him by proclaiming the forgiveness of sins. John’s ministry is entirely for the sake of others. For heaven’s sake he wore camel’s hair and ate locusts he wasn’t concerned with himself just with telling other people about the salvation that is theirs in Jesus Christ.

One theologian sums up the birth, life, and ministry of John the Baptist this way: “Because he comes from God in this special way, he belongs completely to God, and hence he also lives completely for men, in order to lead them to God.”[1] Part of what I’m wanting to say this morning is that like John the Church comes entirely from God, belongs entirely to God, and lives entirely for human creatures in order to lead them to God.

At the very end of our gospel reading Luke tells us a seemingly peculiar though important piece of information: “The child,” that is John, “grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.” You see, before John can carry out his ministry in public he has to be in the wilderness because it’s in the wilderness where he is going to grow and become strong in spirit. Let me say that again: John’s public ministry began long before he was ever in public. It began in the wilderness.

So often we want the public ministry without having to put in time in the wilderness. But without putting in time in the wilderness we can not grow and become strong in spirit and be ready for the public ministry. Do you think the courage and faith that led to John losing his head simply came from within? It ain’t so. So if we want to be like John and prepare hearts and minds for Jesus Christ then we have got to head into the wilderness.

Let me just say it straight, the wilderness is prayer. You can’t say what you don’t pray. I want us to be a church that prays. And not just on Sundays but a church that has a rhythm of prayer throughout the week. And not just together but apart: at home, on the drive to work, in the waiting room. I want us to be a church that prays because I want us to be a church that is growing and becoming stronger in the Holy Spirit and that has the courage to tell people about the saving love of Jesus Christ.

“What then will this child become?” What then will we become? Will we become God’s people here in Midhurst/Craighurst? Will we together become the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit? Will we become the Body of Christ working together for the glory of God and the good of our neighbours? Will we become a light in the darkness? Will we become a community of reconciliation and renewal? Will we become a voice that tells out the gospel of Jesus Christ and calls people to believe in him? We will become just such a people, and indeed we are just such a people, as we open our hearts and minds to receive the word of God in faith, as we ask the Holy Spirit to fill us up, and as we give ourselves over to God in prayer. “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.”

Endnotes
[1] Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, p.22.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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