Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, 2015 – Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 116:1-8; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

Crucifixion.andreas.pavias

“Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Mark 8:35

It seems a truism that people generally want to live happy and full lives. In fact, we might take it one step further and say, at least in the late-Modern West, that if we take all of the right steps we deserve to have happy and full lives. Furthermore, even if we haven’t done anything in particular that makes us feel as if we deserve just such a life, we feel entitled to a happy and full life anyways—it is our right, we might say. Documents like The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms or The Declaration of Independence uphold this right in various ways. In the depth of our being we all want to feel fully alive. In the second century St. Irenaeus wrote that, “the glory of God is man fully alive.” “Yes!” comes our response. “Indeed!”

We all have a picture of what the good life is and the ambitions that we have and the goals that we set for ourselves tend to follow from that picture. I recently reconnected with a childhood friend online. He comes from a wealthy family and after graduating from university was given a job in the family business. The photographs that he shares on social media are really something. He drives an expensive car, he just bought a home in a wealthy part of the city, he is fit and athletic, all of his friends seem to be beautiful and young, he is constantly traveling to places like New York and Los Angeles. And all of this in his early 30s. The good life!

OK, perhaps I’m being uncharitable. Maybe I ought to examine myself. What are my own ambitions in life? Obviously to have a family, a large one. If it were up to me we might well have 6 or 7 children. I hope to be ordained a priest one day soon, maybe be involved in some sort of exciting ministry. I don’t aspire to much in the way of financial gain, but I do want my family and I to be comfortable, to be able to pay the bills and have some left over for savings, or a trip to somewhere warm or the occasional wardrobe update, to own a house—though in Toronto that seems like an increasingly fleeting ambition. But why all of this? Why any of it? I want to be loved by my family and friends, respected and admired by my colleagues and parishioners, remembered after I am gone and so on. I think we could all agree that these are good things. But even the pursuit of good things can become twisted if they become an end in themselves.

“While there is much in the world to love,” wrote one of the early Christians, “it is best loved in relation to the One who made it. The world is beautiful, but much fairer is the One who fashioned it,” (Caesarius of Arles). Therein lies the problem. We have been given all things as a way of ordering our love towards God, the One in whom all things have their being. However, when we love the good things of this world in themselves, then this love becomes the way of death rather than the way of life which we suppose it to be. “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” asks Jesus (8:36).

Perhaps then, the various ambitions and plans and desires that we have for ourselves function in some way as an attempt to save our life, if you will. However, we often fail to realize the ways in which our attempts to save our life spell death not only for ourselves but for others as well. Then when their lifeless little bodies wash up on our shores, or their lifeless black bodies wind up in our streets, we are shocked and appalled. Yet these stark images with which we are confronted are a revelation from which we must not avert our eyes: life is abundant, yet we fill it with death.

This is a great mystery, is it not? The mystery of iniquity. Yet, when it comes to the matter of life and death there is a greater mystery still. The mystery of Christ—life in death. That the place we come to discover life in all of its fullness, is in the figure on the cross. In our gospel reading, as soon as the disciples began to grasp that Jesus was the Messiah, they came face to face with something most unexpected, the great paradox of the Christian faith and life which pushed back on all of their, and our, expectations of who Jesus is and what he would do and how he would do it: “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again,” (8:31).

On the basis of what we think we know about the divine, who of us would ever think to look for the truth of God in the man Jesus Christ, hanging on the cross? “God forbid it!” cried Peter in his rebuke of Jesus, and the disciples and we along with them are similarly confounded. And yet, indeed, it is just here where we come to find life in all of its fullness, on the cross where Christ Jesus gives himself wholly for the life of the world. And this same Jesus gives himself to us still—in the presence of his Holy Spirit, in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, in the word preached and received, in the face of the neighbour.

Furthermore, if it is through the self-giving sacrifice of Jesus Christ that we enter into the fullness of God’s life and love then it is only when our own lives are transformed and marked by a similar sort of self-giving love that we truly begin to taste life in all of its abundance. “If any want to become my followers,” says Jesus, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” (8:34).

At the beginning of this sermon I quoted Irenaeus saying, “The glory of God is man fully alive.” As I said, this saying resonates with us because we all desire to live a full and happy life. The great irony, however, is that when Irenaeus was talking about being “fully alive” he was talking about martyrdom—that we are most fully alive when we lose our life for the sake of Christ and for the gospel. If you want to see an image of human creatures set ablaze with the fire of life recall the image of 21 of our Egyptian Christian brothers as they knelt on a beach somewhere in the Middle East this past year moments before they were beheaded by the Islamic State.

People of the cross, indeed.

People of the cross, indeed.

Or, perhaps you know the story of Henri Nouwen, who after nearly two decades of teaching at places like Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard left the comfort of academia behind to live in community with the mentally and physically handicapped people of L’Arche Daybreak just north of Toronto. As he gave himself to his friends and received the gift of their presence, Nouwen experienced a conversion that brought him closer to Jesus Christ. And I’m sure his friends there experienced the same.

And what about us, here at St. Cuthbert’s? The Greek word from which we get the English word “martyr” means, literally, “to bear witness.” So, while we must be open to the possibility of actual martyrdom, in the absence of death there are other ways in which we might bear witness to Christ by losing our lives. And where we cannot give our lives we can give our money. I won’t give a whole list of examples, save one: I am very pleased that we are considering sponsoring a Syrian refugee or refugee family and I would urge us all to take this step together and do so. More generally though, what if the sort of friendships that were nurtured in this place were formed by the same sort of self-giving fidelity and longevity as marriage? And what if we looked outwards, inviting others to follow Jesus along with us? If we committed to being a community so marked, bearing with one another through time, till death do us part, we might soon discover very practical ways in which we would be called to give ourselves sacrificially to one another, for the sake of the gospel.

“Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it,” (8:35). To cling to the things of this life, the things which we naturally desire and value most, is the way to forfeit true life. On the other hand, Jesus is clear—when are we most fully alive? Not when we accomplish all of our goals; not when we are surrounded by all that we could possibly desire; but when we give ourselves away in love. Do you want to find your life? Then lose your life for the sake of the gospel. Do you want to be fulfilled? Then empty yourself. This isn’t about “doing more.” This isn’t even primarily about us. It is about having our eyes opened to the mystery of Jesus Christ, and to hear his call to deny ourself, pick up our cross, and follow him. This is not an easy way, to be sure, but the one who calls us to follow him in this way will help us in carrying it out and along the way we may just discover life in all of its fullness. Amen.

Sermon was preached by the Rev’d Jonathan R. Turtle at St. Cuthbert’s Leaside on the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 13th, 2015.

creation of Adam

The church of my teenage years was large (1,000+ Sunday attendance), nondescript (the vague usage of the word “Community” in the title did little to betray any sort of denominational allegiance), suburban, and evangelical. Don’t get me wrong, I still consider myself to be an evangelical (what I mean by this is that I place a high-priority on things like, for example, personal conversion and the authority of the Bible. I admit, however, that having to employ the term “evangelical” to signify these sorts of things is somewhat unfortunate), but this church was a part of an evangelical subculture of which I am no longer a member nor of which do I have much of an interest. For some helpful parsing of the term “evangelical” see here.

One of the memories that has stuck with me from my time there was an experience I had attending an adult Sunday school class. The class was on the subject of Intelligent Design, or Creationism, or something along those lines and was taught by a woman vastly under-qualified for such a thing—she was not, to my knowledge, a Biblical scholar or theologian nor was she an physicist or evolutionary biologist. For example, she took a hard line on things like a literal reading of the creation accounts in Genesis. “Literal” is a somewhat clumsy term. I simply mean that she understood and taught that the first two chapters of Genesis were a documentary-like account of how God created. To my memory, I was one of the only people in a class of nearly 100 who ever, regularly (yes, I was a bit boisterous) pushed back and thought to ask questions pertaining to the content of the course and the soundness of our dear teacher’s logic. She never much liked answering my questions and it got the point where she would see my hand raised and just continue on talking as if no one had any questions. (On one account, I had the woman in front of me raise her hand and when the teacher acknowledged the woman I piped up with my question, much to the teachers dismay). Later, she would ask my mother to ask me not to return to the class.

In the first chapter of his book, The Experience of God, David Bentley Hart goes in on this sort of fundamentalism and rightly calls it what it is, “a thoroughly modern phenomenon,” and an attempt on the part of some Christians, “to imitate the evidentiary methods of modern empirical science by taking the Bible as some sort of objective and impeccably consistent digest of historical data,” (24-25). As Hart notes, this simply isn’t the way that the Bible has been read by Christians for most of the last 2,000 years (nor was it the approach Israelites took to Scripture before that).

Most of the Church Fathers, for example, took it for granted that the creation narratives of Genesis could not be read literally but rather must be read allegorically. That is, “read as stories whose value lies in the spiritual truths to which they can be seen as pointing,” (25). Origen of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil of Caesarea, John Chrysostom, and Augustine are all Fathers which Hart cites on this point. They read these narratives not as “historical fact” but figurally as “communicating spiritual mysteries.” This is why, among Darwin’s contemporaries, even the likes of John Henry Newman could find nothing to suggest that evolution and the doctrine of creation were mutually exclusive. It simply wasn’t until the modern period that a small minority of Christians became convinced that the truth or validity of their faith was dependant upon a strictly literalistic interpretation of Scripture and then staked everything on just such a ludicrous wager (Hart’s words!). And they really did stake everything. For example, the Sunday school teacher I mentioned above argued that if we did not accept a literal 6 24-hour day creation account that everything in the Bible was called into question including the gospel. Nonsense.

Why/how did this happen? Hart argues that it was largely the result of a certain cultural impoverishment on the side of the fundamentalist Christians, but it also “followed from the triumph of a distinctly modern concept of what constitutes reliable knowledge; it was the strange misapplication of the rigorous but quite limited methods of the modern empirical sciences to questions properly belonging to the realms of logic and of spiritual experience,” (27). Captive to this modern empirical rationality many of these Christians (and many of their opposing atheists as well) genuinely believed that there was a logical contradiction between the doctrine of creation and the idea that earthly life had evolved over time. So, they’d better double-down on creationism. Even as a young, over-confident and boisterous 18 year old I just knew that these things needn’t be mutually exclusive. There must be another way.

There is another way and Hart presents it in the form of a rather simple argument:

Premise 1: Christians believe that God is the creator of every person.

Premise 2: Christians believe that each person is also the product of a spermatozoon and ovum.

Conclusion: Therefore, God’s creative act needn’t be framed as a “distinct causal agency” which in some way rivals the natural process of conception but may rather be understood “as the whole event of nature and existence.”

The reason why many of these Christians see an irreconcilable gap between evolution and the doctrine of creation is because they understand God as”a kind of supreme mechanical cause located somewhere within the continuum of nature.” But this simply isn’t what Christians have traditionally meant when we speak of God. It’s a modern rendering thoroughly subject to modern epistemological concerns. Hart sees a way through the impasse by (presumably) reading the Bible with the whole Church and coming to understand that God creates through “‘donating’ being to a natural order that is complete in itself,” (28).

Does this sound a bit like a “watchmaker” God? Perhaps. I’m sure that’s not the case as I’ll find out when I continue reading. These were some initial thoughts. My guess is Hart is simply here maintaining the traditional Christian doctrine of the transcendence of God.

I’ll try to post more as I read. What say you?

Preached at St. Cuthbert’s Leaside on the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, August 16th, 2015.

Summer Ephesians Series: Ephesians 5:15-20

christ_wisdom

“Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise people but as wise,” (Ephesians 5:15).

I want us to reflect this morning on wisdom and what it means to walk wisely. “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise people but as wise,” writes Paul. What is this wisdom that Paul refers to? And, moreover, how do we attain it? Well, allow me to give you the answer upfront: “You can’t get the wisdom you need simply by digging up more facts. You get it by worshipping the God whose facts they are,” (NT Wright).

To Paul’s Jewish readers, talk of wisdom would have rung familiar, for it is a theme that runs through the Old Testament. Essentially, wisdom in early Judaism can be summed up as a longing to know the will of God which gives life its true orientation and thus results in blessing. Recall our Old Testament reading moments ago wherein Solomon asks the LORD for, “an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil,” (1 Kings 3:5, 9). To which the LORD responds, “Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind…If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life,” (1 Kings 2:14). Wisdom is this desire to know God’s will, to discern what is good in all areas of life.

One other thing we should know about wisdom in the Old Testament is that it was later personified. From Proverbs: “Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?” (8:1). In fact, Lady Wisdom speaks: “And now, my children, listen to me: happy are those who keep my ways…For whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the LORD; but those who miss me injure themselves; all who hate me love death,” (8:32, 35-6). Love of wisdom is life; hatred of wisdom is death.

Now let’s fast forward a wee bit to the early Church. Listen to how Paul and the earliest Christians spoke about the risen Jesus: “I want you to have the knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,” (Col 2:2-3). Listen also, how they spoke of the gospel of Jesus: “But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory,” (1 Cor 2:7). And here again, more explicitly: “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God,” (1 Cor 1:24). Here’s the point:

As the early Christians drew together all of these threads of wisdom from the treasure-house of the Old Testament they found, and we with them, that the rich tapestry they form takes the shape of the Crucified One.

Christ is the wisdom of God. We walk in wisdom, then, by becoming like Christ. Or, as Paul put it at the beginning of Ephesians 5, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us,” (1-2). This of course begs the question, how do we become like Christ? Is this a decision we make? Be it resolved: today I am going to be like Christ. I want to suggest rather, to quote St. Clare of Assisi, that we become what we love; who we love shapes what we become. If we’re still tracking together, we can see that the logic works like this then: wisdom begins with worship.

Of course, worship is the primary task of the church. Above all else, we are first-and-foremost a community which worships Jesus Christ in Spirit and in truth. But how do we come to know the risen Jesus Christ, that we might love and worship him? I want to suggest that it is primarily through the Bible that we come to know Jesus in this way. And yes, no doubt, we read the Bible communally every Sunday when we gather for worship—our whole liturgy is steeped in Scripture. But what I want to leave us with this morning is the importance of individually immersing ourselves in the Scriptures as a way of nurturing our faith and love of Christ, and thus as the primary way in which we learn to walk in wisdom.

As it happens, this is one area where Western Anglicans have been traditionally weak in modern times—Biblical literacy. I sometimes wonder why this is? Do we shy away from a life devoted to the Bible because we think that’s reserved for the crazy uncle of the Christian family—fundamentalists? Or, perhaps it’s because we think, rightly, that the Bible is a challenging book to read. Boring, even! Whatever the case, here is the great irony: at the very heart of the Anglican tradition is a desire for people all over the world to have access to the Bible in a language that they can understand. The Anglican church is all about this!

At one point in Ephesians when Paul is talking about the mystery of Christ he says, “In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit,” (3:5). The gospel of Jesus Christ has been revealed to Christ’s holy apostles and prophets. This is another way of talking about the Bible—the teaching of the holy apostles and prophets as handed down to us. And while Paul likely didn’t have the New Testament in mind the point certainly applies: we come to know—and love and worship—Jesus Christ as we read the Bible with the help of the Holy Spirit and the whole Church. This is why, about 300 years after Paul, Saint Jerome can say, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.”

We cannot know Jesus Christ apart from the deposit of faith that we have in the Bible.

Moreover, the only way to make sense of the Christian life is to be ever more deeply rooted and grounded in Jesus. And we become just so deeply rooted as we immerse ourselves in a prayerful reading of the Bible, both communally and individually. Those of you who know the Book of Common Prayer will be familiar with Cramner’s exhortation to “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” the Holy Scriptures. We simply cannot attempt to inhabit the divine wisdom which overcomes the world apart from this.

A friend of mine wrote recently, “Your responsibility to your own faith, your own cultivation of it, your own openness to its vigour and truth, your life with God, is your greatest gift of love to another person, to any person, to all those around you,” (Ephraim Radner). Here we see that our own cultivation of our own faith is not just for our own good but for the good of our neighbour, for the good of our child or our spouse, for the good of the world. That is to say, our life as a people immersed in the Scriptures is always for the sake of mission.

“Look carefully then how you walk,” writes Paul, “not as unwise people but as wise.” Wherever you are and whatever it is that you put your hand to, when it comes to walking in wisdom, when it comes to understanding the will of the Lord and discerning what is good and beautiful and true, we cannot do this as Christians apart from discovering Jesus Christ in Holy Scripture. Would you consider committing yourself, in whatever capacity you are able, to the reading of the Bible consistently over time? With the help of the Holy Spirit you will be challenged, prodded, made uncomfortable and at other times comforted and encouraged. You will know that from birth to death your life is in the hands of God and thus every single aspect of your life is filled with His presence and divine purpose—and you will learn what to do. You will discover that your faith is actually part of a much larger story, beginning with Israel and culminating in Christ Jesus and his Church. Most of all, I hope, you will come to see Christ in new and fresh ways as his light and love penetrate your heart and mind.

“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path,” writes the Psalmist. Indeed, may the light of God’s word lighten our path as we learn to daily walk in wisdom with Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Pope Francis gives his thumb up as he leaves at the end of his weekly general audience in St. Peter's square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013. (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)

Thumbs up for evangelism!

I have been meaning to read Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) for some time now but have only just got around to making time for it. Even before I began, I was convinced that this was a very important document for the life of the Church at this moment. Lot’s of folks from different churches are talking about the need for a re-evangelization, especially in the West, and I appreciate much from these conversations: joy as the root of evangelization; understanding worship as central to mission; and, the need for our lives to correspond to the faith we proclaim (i.e. witness).

Here are four characteristics of an evangelizing community, according to Francis (from Evangelii Gaudium, p.21-23).

An evangelizing community…

  1. …knows that the Lord has taken the initiative. He has loved us first (1 Jn 4:19) and therefore we can move forward, boldly take the initiative, go out to others, seek those who have fallen away, stand at the crossroads and welcome the outcast. Let us try a little harder to take the first step and become involved.
  2. …gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives. Evangelizers thus take on the “smell of the sheep.”
    1. …is also supportive, standing by people at every step of the way, no matter how difficult or lengthy this may prove to be. Evangelization consists mostly of patience and disregard for constraints for constraints of time.
  3. …is always concerned with fruit, because the Lord wants her to be fruitful. It cares for the grain and does not grow impatient at the weeds. The goal is always and everywhere to see God’s word accepted and its capacity for liberation and renewal revealed.
  4. …is filled with joy; it knows how to rejoice always. It celebrates every small victory, every step forward in the work of evangelization.

What say you? Do these resonate with you? Is there anything you’d add?

Grace and peace.

Preached at St. Cuthbert’s Leaside on the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 2nd, 2015.

Summer Ephesians Series: Ephesians 4:1-16

deification

“But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,” (Ephesians 4:15).

Last week Beth asked the question: Why go to church? I want us to hold up that question again this morning and look at another way that Paul begins to answer it. Why go to church? Because it is in the Church that we come to understand the truest dynamic of life. That our life has a goal, an end, towards which it is being pulled by God and thus an end towards which God orders it. The theological term for this is providence: “the ordering of historical particularities by God for a single divine purpose,” (Aquinas) That is to say, God’s good and true purpose is comprehensive and encompasses all of creation and all of time. And that everything that is, all the particularities of life, are pieces in the mosaic of history that, together, reveal the great picture of God’s purpose (Radner).

In light of this purpose, Christians are called to a certain type of life. “I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord,” writes Paul, “beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” Therefore. It’s as if Paul is saying, “Up until now I’ve told you the truth of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, how he brought us from death to life, and of His great plan to gather up all things in Christ. Now here is the sort of life that corresponds to that good news.”

One of the things that jumps out at me here is how the gospel loads grace up on the front end. The gift of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ is not something we earn, it is not the reward for a life well-lived. Not at all! The gift is not the reward but the seed which, when planted in our hearts and minds, grows up into a life that bears a certain fruit.

And so, this grace of God in Jesus Christ calls us to a different sort of life. Not our old life, improved. But our old life, dead and in the grave with Jesus, that we might rise with him to new life. Immediately after the portion of Ephesians that we heard read Paul writes, “put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and…clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness,” (4:22, 24). Christians are called to a new life which begins with Jesus, and ends with Jesus: “We must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” Consequently, in light of what Jesus reveals about life, the Church is everywhere called to resist all lesser interpretations of life—resist them in love, but with firmness and consistency, hoping that God might use just such a community of resistance to turn the world away from destruction and towards Jesus Christ (B.I. Bell).

We begin to see here a glimpse of the vocation of the Church. God calls the Church to a peculiar life so that He might use it to achieve His purposes in and for the world. As Paul wrote earlier in the letter: “[God] has put all things under [Christ’s] feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all,” (1:22-23). That is to say, God is gathering up all things into Christ, and He is using the Church, the body of Christ, to accomplish this in some way. Indeed, we have received the Holy Spirit in order to be just such a people (4:7ff).

There is a certain distinction to our common life in Christ which confronts the society around it and stands in opposition to it. In every age this is part of the Church’s calling. Yet the Church has often forgotten this, preferring instead popularity and if not that then at least respectability. But we cannot compromise our opposition to the world without ceasing to be Christian.

Consider the strangeness of the early Christian community as it grew and spread throughout the Roman Empire in places like Ephesus to which Paul wrote. The gospel opened these early Christians  up to a new moral horizon, previously unimaginable, which forever changed the world. Among some of the practices which the early Christians held to that confounded their pagan neighbours were fidelity within marriage, treating women with dignity as equals, treating slaves with respect as brothers/sisters, not scorning and excluding the poor but seeing in them the face of Christ, and refusing to expose infants—a practice that involved leaving new born children to the fate of the gods by exposing them to the elements and whatever else may come (if you’ve been paying attention to all of this Planned Parenthood news over the last week, well then you know that we live in a culture that is still fond of exposing our infants only we are more intentional about determining their fate). My point is that for those early Christians in pagan Rome, following Jesus entailed resisting and rejecting what were otherwise run-of-the-mill, normal practices. And, for many of them, this came at a cost, sometimes an extraordinarily high one—their life. Other times it just meant being peculiar, weird, and unpopular.

Are we living in very different times now? Does following Jesus for us, like our brothers and sisters before us, not demand a similar sort of reappraisal of our lives in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ? I’m thinking of some cultural norms that we perhaps may take for granted: consumerism, the pursuit of power and social prestige, a sexual ethic with no end other than our own gratification and self-realization, racism, and confusion about the purpose of marriage. Does following Jesus disrupt any of this? Should it? Have our imaginations been formed in such a way that we think even to ask these sorts of questions?

And so, the life which Christians are called to live—one rooted in God’s grace in opposition to the wisdom of the world—this is a life that must be willing to suffer. Remember Paul’s exhortation with which we began: “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” Paul is writing this letter from prison. And, of course, the life of the One who calls us was marked by the sort of self-giving love that results in crucifixion at the hands of the State and the religious leaders. The life that is worthy of the calling to which we have been called is not Your Best Life Now. It is a life of faithfulness to the crucified Christ and thus a life marked by suffering.

In this mornings’ passage from Ephesians that means at least two things. First, it means a willingness to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters in Christ. “Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called,” writes Paul, “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” One cannot grow up into maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ, apart from the humility, gentleness, and patience required to love one another as Christ has loved us. This is especially the case when we have to suffer one another. For it is just here, as members of Christ’s body, that we are equipped with every grace to be just such a patient people.

Second, it means a willingness to suffer for the sake of right doctrine. Paul warns the Ephesians, “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine,” (4:14). What we believe matters. It matters so much to Paul that he is willing to suffer for it (2 Tim 1:11-12). Elsewhere he encourages his friend Timothy to, “hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me…Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us,” (2 Tim 1:13-14). And then immediately after this Paul encourages Timothy to endure the suffering that will come as a result (2 Tim 2:3). Indeed, towards the end of Ephesians we’ll see that Paul counsels us to, “put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil,” (6:11). Walking in a way that is worthy of the One who called us means a willingness to suffer for the gospel.

Yet, we’re so unwilling to suffer for either of these reasons. For example, rather than bear with one another in love, we’ll readily leave the church. Or, one church will make important decisions by itself, refusing to submit to their brothers and sisters elsewhere who might be asking them not to proceed. And when it comes to our unwillingness to suffer for the teaching we have received, well there are numerous examples. They all involve the re-tailoring of the one faith we have inherited to better suit the tastes and preferences of the surrounding culture. However, if we are willing instead to share in the suffering of Christ, to find our life hidden there in his death, we might find that God is able to use even such suffering and affliction to achieve His purposes.

And with that we return to where we began—the purposes of God which order our life, both individually and as a community of faith. In Jesus Christ, we have been brought from death to life. Now, in this new life, we are called to grow up from infancy to maturity: “we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” May we own and embrace the resulting weirdness rather than be embarrassed or feel the need to apologize for it. Because following Jesus is weird—it opens us up to a new life. May we allow the Holy Spirit to work in us, giving us the courage to give our lives over to the good and true purposes of God, that our life, and the life of the world, might be drawn ever deeper into the mystery of the fullness of Christ. Amen.

Sandra Bland

I was reading something about Sandra Bland this afternoon when my 4-year-old daughter walked up, saw her picture, and asked, “Daddy, who is that lady?”

For the first time that I can recall in her 4 years of life I didn’t know how to immediately respond. What should I tell her? What can she handle at such a young age? Do I have a responsibility to tell her the truth? Do I have a responsibility to protect her from the truth, for now, until she is older and has the rational capacity to process the truth?

I took a deep breath.

“That lady is Sandra Bland.”

“Oh. What is she doing?”

“Well, Sandra has a very sad story,” I replied as my mind raced through all of the things I could say next. “I’ll tell you about her when you’re older.”

And just then I realized one of the ways in which I benefit from white privilege: I had the luxury to defer explaining to my 4-year-old daughter the tragedy of lifeless black bodies at the hands of police.

Eric Garner’s children don’t get to defer the trauma of life without their father.

Mike Brown’s family don’t get that privilege either.

Black lives matter.

Preached at St. Cuthbert’s Leaside on the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 19th, 2015.

Summer Ephesians Series: Ephesians 2:11-22

TheEmbraceofElizabethandtheVirginMary

“So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near,” (2:17).

Every Sunday there comes a time in the liturgy when the priest standing with arms outstretched proclaims to the people, “The peace of the Lord be always with you.” To which we all respond, “And also with you.” And then what happens? We all move about and greet one another with the peace of Christ. We pass the peace, as it were: “The peace of Christ,” “Christ’s peace,” “peace be with you.” Why do we do this? Why bother to pass the peace at all? What underlying condition do we suffer from that the peace of Christ is the remedy?

In his book Mere Christianity the great Anglican saint, Clive Staples Lewis, wrote that “fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.” An interesting image, isn’t it? Human beings as rebels who have taken up arms against God. And this rebellion it alienates, creates hostility and division between human creatures and God and at the same time creates a hostility and division between and amongst human creatures. See for example the opening chapters of Genesis. The sin of Adam, the basic human sin, is to try to set up on our own, to act as if we belong to ourselves, as if we are our own masters, writers of our own destiny. And as a result of this sin of Adam his relationship with God is cut through with enmity and they are exiled from Eden. How quickly the enmity spreads for in the very next chapter of Genesis what do we witness but Eve’s eldest son Cain kill his younger brother Abel. Division is murder. Hostility arises even between the human and the non-human creation: “cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life.”

My point is simply that these divisions and hostilities are all caught up with each other. Hostility between human creatures because hostility characterizes our relationship with God apart from Christ. We rarely see this connection, though. I mean, we know well the hostility and divisions between human creatures and even between human creatures and the non-human creation. Turn on the news, the examples they are legion. Charleston; Sarah Bland; Tina Fontaine and the thousands of other missing and murdered indigenous women across Canada. But rarely do we see this hostility as a sign which points towards a greater hostility yet, that which sin creates between human creatures and the God whose love creates and sustains us.

Interestingly, though, Pope Francis made just such a connection in his recent Encyclical, Laudato Si, about the divine mandate to care for creation. Quoting Benedict XVI, Francis writes, “The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast.” For Francis, the reason for the hostility between humans and the rest of the created order is the hostility between human creatures and God. We might say, in a similar fashion, that the hostility and divisions are so great between human creatures because we persist in rejecting God’s way in favour of forging our own path.

We lack peace, we long for peace, we need peace. What then is the remedy for the division and hostility that cuts to the heart of the universe? It is Christ and his church. First, it is Jesus Christ. Just prior to our reading from Ephesians Paul wrote, “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived,” (2:1). That is, sin brings not only division and hostility, but also death. “But,” Paul continues, “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ,” (2:4-5).

The way of the world is not the only way, there is another way to live that has been opened up to us in Jesus Christ. And this way begins as we are brought near to God: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” We are not called to set ourselves free from the division and sin that so ensnares. We cannot. This reconciling work is Christ’s, who in the mystery of his cross and his passion put to death the hostility which marks us so deeply.

Behold, in the vertical and the horizontal axis’ of the cross, the extent of Christ’s reconciling love—which at once overcomes the hostility between humans and God and the hostility amongst and between human creatures. These are not separate acts, they are the one act of the reconciling God, accomplished in the flesh of Jesus Christ. Remove one or the other axis and you do not have the cross.

And in the shadow of the cross the Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead gathers us, begins to work in us, creates in us and through us that which we cannot become on our own—a community reconciled, to God, and to one another, liberated from the old way of sin and death and set on a new course with Jesus, where we, together by the power of the Spirit, begin to live into this new reality in which we are no longer divided, but one.

Life in Christ, then, means two inseparable things: it means coming into a new relationship with God and it means coming into a new relationship with others, a relationship characterized by, among other things, peace. “For he is our peace,” writes Paul, “in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”

I said earlier that the remedy for the division and hostility that cuts to the heart of the universe is Christ and his church. If Jesus is the obvious answer then I hope by now that it is becoming apparent how the Church factors into this. If it’s true that you can’t be reconciled to God in Christ apart from being reconciled to one another in Christ, then it’s true that you can’t ever meet Christ in all of his glory without also having to meet the common, everyday, not-always-particularly glorious Church. Christ is the head of the body, after all. Paul gives us a visual image for this at the end of our passage this morning. Christ is the cornerstone of the holy temple which is being built up out of those who are in Christ, a dwelling place for God (2:19-22).

Part of what Paul is saying in Ephesians, I think, is that the Church is a community which, by God’s grace, has been set apart, called to order our lives in a distinct sort of way around the risen Jesus. To be in Christ then, is to be in the Church, for it is just here in this community of imperfect people that the love of the reconciling God is poured out in a tangible way in the sacraments and witnessed to as we are reconciled one to another and joined to those whom we previously would have been alienated from. When we think of what we do here at St. Cuthbert’s, all of the groups and various meetings that take place, all of the money and other resources that we spend—is this all ordered towards the mission of the reconciling God?

Of course, the church itself is imperfect and marked by all sorts of division and hostility (that’s a whole other sermon), and so we need to always be confessing our sin as we live into this unity which is a gift to the Church in Christ, for the sake of the world.

And on that note, it’s worth returning to where we began, with the passing of the peace. If we are to be a community that passes the peace of Christ to one another and further extends this peace out into the world then let us note just where the peace comes in the liturgy. In both the BCP and the BAS the peace comes after we confess our sin and receive absolution and before we share the bread and the wine of the Eucharist. In other words, the passing of the peace is situated in just such a way that our gaze is drawn to the cross, where in Christ’s own self-giving we see the fullness of grace: the result of our sin but also the means of forgiveness; the result of our hostility but also the means of our peace; Christ’s body given and blood shed for us, through which the Spirit gathers us into one body that we might be a community of God’s reconciling love in the world. Amen.