Funeral Sermon: The Resurrection of the Dead: Real Balm for Our Grief

Sermon delivered on January 24, 2015.

Lectionary texts: Revelation 21.1-7; 1 Corinthians 15.1-26, 35-38, 42-44a, 53-58; Psalm 23.1-6; John 11.17-27.

In the name of God: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today I want to speak a real word of comfort and hope to you because you have had to endure a long and painful journey as you watched an evil disease rob Deidre of her humanity and ultimately her life. And even when death ends prolonged suffering, it can still make us angry and indignant, the way Jesus was at Lazarus’ tomb (cf. John 11.38) because as Paul reminds us in our epistle lesson, death is our enemy, the last enemy to be destroyed. Death robs us of our human dignity and it separates us from our loved ones, at least for a season. But O how long that season can be! And like Martha in today’s gospel lesson we want to throw our hands up in the air and ask in desperation why God allows this to happen.

But if you paid attention to our gospel lesson, you notice that Jesus gave Martha and us a much more satisfactory answer to her “why” question about evil and death. Jesus did not answer her question directly. Instead, echoing Psalm 23, he acknowledged that while evil and death still exist in God’s good but fallen world, he had come to destroy their power over us. That is why Christian funerals are so important. They serve to remind us that for those who are in Christ, evil and death do not have the final say because of God’s great love for us expressed in the death and resurrection of Jesus. As Paul reminds us in his letters to the Romans and Colossians, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ because on the cross God condemned sin in the flesh so that we could be reconciled to him and enjoy life and peace in the way God intends for us (Romans 8.1-3; Colossians 1.20-21). God’s love for us in Christ is so great that even death itself cannot separate us from it or from God’s life-giving presence.

We see tangible signs of God’s love for us in Christ in two of the symbols that are part of today’s service. First, we see the lighted paschal candle by Deidre’s urn. It is the great visible symbol that reminds us of the pillars of cloud and fire that represented God’s presence with his people as he led them out of their bondage to slavery in Egypt and remained with them during their wilderness wanderings despite their stubborn rebelliousness (Ex.13.20-22; Num.14.13-16). This reminds us that even in death, the ultimate exile, God continues to be with Deidre and that God always remains faithful to us, even when we do not always remain faithful to him. We can therefore trust his promise that on the cross Jesus has conquered sin and death and that resurrection and new life in God’s new creation is Deidre’s destiny (and ours), not death.

But how do we know this? How can we really trust the cross of Christ? Because of Jesus’ resurrection about which we will speak in a moment. The resurrection is why the Church has never looked at Jesus as a failed Messiah but as a victorious one, and the light of the paschal candle also serves to remind us of Jesus’ victory over death and the new life it promises for those like Deidre who live and die in him. Of course we will celebrate a foretaste of that new reality she is now enjoying when we partake of it at the Eucharist in a few minutes.

Second, we note that Deidre’s urn is covered by a pall with its emblem of the cross. This too reminds us that when Deidre was baptized she was buried with Jesus in a death like his so that she could also be raised with him and share in a resurrection like his (Romans 6.3-5). This reminds us that while her mortal body has died and will be buried, even now she is in the direct presence of the Lord of life as she awaits her new resurrection body (cf. Phil 1.23; Luke 23.43).

Paul tells us about the nature of our promised resurrection body in 1 Corinthians 15 that we read today and it is worth our time to see what he has to say. Unlike our mortal body that is subject to disease, decay, and death, Paul tells us the resurrection body with which we will be clothed will be patterned after Jesus’ resurrected body. It will be a spiritual body, that is, it will be animated and powered by God’s Spirit instead of being animated and powered by flesh and blood. This means that our new body will no longer be subject to all the nasty things like Alzheimer’s to which our mortal body is subjected. Whatever that looks like—and surely it will be more beautiful and wonderful than our minds can comprehend or imagine—it will be impervious to death and suited to live in God’s promised new creation, about which our NT lesson speaks.

When the new creation comes, the dimensions of heaven and earth will no longer be separate spheres for God and humans respectively, and which currently only intersect. Instead, as the writer of Revelation reminds us, the new heavens will come down to earth and the two will be fused together in a mighty act of new creation so that evil will be banished and we will get to live in God’s direct presence forever. There will be no more sorrow or sickness or suffering or death or pain or evil of any kind. We will be reunited with our loved ones who have died in Christ and get to live forever with our new body and limitless new opportunities to be the humans God created and always intended for us to be. For folks like Deidre and her family who have had to deal with the affliction of Alzheimer’s and all the evil inherent in the disease, I cannot think of a better hope to embrace than the resurrection of the body and the new creation.

Please don’t misunderstand. I am not suggesting that we should not grieve. That would be cruel nonsense. You don’t love a person for an entire lifetime and then not grieve her loss when an evil disease like Alzheimer’s claims her. But as Paul reminded the Thessalonians, we are to grieve as people who have real hope and not as those who have none at all because we believe that Deidre shares in Jesus’ final victory over evil, sin, and death and will share in his bodily resurrection when our Lord returns in power. If you are not able to hear this truth right now, please do store it for another day and revisit it when you are able because you will find that your hope in the resurrection is the only thing that can really heal you of your grief and hurt.

I want to close by telling you a story that powerfully sums up our Christian hope.

In 1989 Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma, wife of Emperor Charles of Austria died. She was the last Empress of Austria, Queen of Hungary, and Queen of Bohemia—one of the last members of the storied House of Habsburg. Her funeral was held in Vienna, from which she had been exiled most of her eventful life. After the service in St. Stephen’s Cathedral, her body was taken to the Imperial Crypt, where some 145 Habsburg royals are buried. As the coffin was taken to the Crypt, an ancient ceremony took place. A herald knocked at the closed door, and a voice responded, “Who seeks entrance?” The herald answered, “Zita, Empress of Austria, Queen of Hungary.” From within came the response, “I do not know this person.” The herald tried again, saying, “This is Zita, Princess of Bourbon-Parma, Empress of Bohemia.” The same reply was heard: “I do not know this person.” The third time, the herald and pallbearers said, “Our sister Zita, a sinful mortal.” The doors swung open.

And so we return to Jesus’ question to Martha in our gospel lesson. Do you believe that he is the resurrection and the life? Do you believe that those who believe in him will live even though they die? The promise is mind-boggling. But as we have seen, the God we worship is mind-boggling. Jesus’ promise that he is the resurrection and the life is ours, not because we are deserving, but because of who God is, the God who created us to have life with him forever and who is embodied in Jesus Christ raised from the dead. That is why we can rejoice today, even in the midst of our grief and sorrow. Because of her faith in Jesus who loves her and who has claimed her from all eternity, the doors of heaven have swung wide open for Deidre and she is enjoying her rest until the new creation and the resurrection of our mortal bodies comes. And that, of course, is Good News, not only for Deirdre and her family, but also for the rest of us, now and for all eternity.

In the name of God: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

A Prayer from William Barclay

O God, we thank you for all those in whose words and in whose writings your truth has come to us.
For the historians, the psalmists, and the prophets, who wrote the Old Testament.
For those who wrote the Gospels and the Letters of the New Testament;
For all who in every generation have taught and explained and expounded and preached the word of Scripture;
We thank you, O God.
Grant, O God, that no false teaching may ever have any power to deceive us or to seduce us from the truth.
Grant, O God, that we may never listen to any teaching which would encourage us to think sin less serious, vice more attractive, or virtue less important;
Grant, O God, that we may never listen to any teaching which would dethrone Jesus Christ from the topmost place;
Grant, O God, that we may never listen to any teaching which for its own purposes perverts the truth.

O God, our Father, establish us immovably in the truth.
Give us minds which can see at once the difference between the true and the false;
Make us able to test everything, and to hold fast to that which is good;
Give us such a love of truth, that no false thing may ever be able to lure us from it.
So grant that all our lives we may know, and love, and live the truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
—From Prayers for the Christian Year by William Barclay

Carlo Carretto On Knowing God

Only God knows how to speak about himself, and only the Holy Spirit, who is love, can communicate this knowledge to us.

When there is a crisis in the Church, it is always here: a crisis of contemplation.

The Church wants to feel able to explain about her spouse [Jesus] even when she has lost sight of him; even when, although she has not been divorced, she no longer knows his embrace, because curiosity has gotten the better of her and she has gone searching for  other people and other things.

The revelation of a triune God [God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit] in the unity of a sing nature, the revelation of a divine Holy Spirit present in us, is not on the human level; it does not belong to the realm of reason. It is a personal communication which God alone can give, and the task of giving it belongs to the Holy Spirit, who is the same love which unites the Father and the Son.

The Holy Spirit is the fullness and the joy of God.

It is so difficult to speak of these things. We have to babble like children, but at least, like children, we can say over and over again, tirelessly, “Spirit of God, reveal yourself to me, your child.”

And we can avoid pretending that knowledge of God could be the fruit of our gray matter.

Then, and only then, shall we be capable of prayer; borne to the frontier of our radical incapacity, which love has made the beatitude of poverty, we shall be able to invoke God’s coming to us, “Come, creator Spirit!”

—Carlo Carretto, The God Who Comes

On Being Invited to the Ultimate Party

Sermon delivered on Epiphany 3B, Sunday, January 25, 2015, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Genesis 14.17-20; Psalm 128.1-6; Revelation 19.6-10; John 2.1-11.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

What are we to make of that strange story of water turning into wine in our gospel lesson this morning? Why would John include it and what might we learn from it? This is what I want us to look at briefly this morning because after all, who wants to be left out of the ultimate party?

As you probably know, John’s gospel reads differently from the other three gospels. For example, in John’s gospel there are only seven signs or miracle stories, seven being the Jewish number for wholeness or completeness that runs throughout Scripture. These seven signs are far fewer than what we find in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and here John tells us that Jesus turning water into wine is the first of his signs. But why did John choose to tell about this particular sign? What is he trying to tell us about Jesus? The first thing we need to pay attention to is the rich symbolism included in this story. Why, for example, would John start by telling us that this sign happened on the third day? What other significant event in the life of Jesus happened on the third day? Hold on to this as we look at the rest of this story (and by the way, just because a story is symbolically rich doesn’t mean there is no historical basis for it).

Notice too that the story’s setting is a wedding. The OT writers sometimes used weddings to symbolize the intimate and special relationship between God and his people Israel, with God being the husband and Israel being the wife. There is no relationship more intimate and special than the relationship between a husband and wife (Genesis 1.27, 2.18-24) and so the OT writers, especially the prophets, used the symbol of weddings to remind Israel of their special relationship to the God who had called them to be his people as well as their covenantal responsibilities to God and the world, precisely because God had called them to be his people for the sake of the world. And since wine gladdens the heart, they used wine to symbolize the richness and joy that always results when people really make God their God and not something (or someone) else.

And as we saw in our lesson from Revelation this morning, the NT writers adapted this wedding theme slightly. Now the symbolic groom is the Lamb, Jesus himself, and the bride is the newly reconstituted Israel, those who belonged to Jesus the Messiah. And both OT and NT writers used the wedding as a symbol of the great eschatological banquet that would finally come about when the Lord himself returned to put an end to all that was wrong with his good world, especially death (cf. Isaiah 25.6-9).

Returning to our gospel lesson, one of the first things we notice is the extravagance of Jesus’ actions at this wedding feast. Do the math. Since there were six 20-30 gallon jars that held water for purification, Jesus produced anywhere from 120-180 gallons of the finest wine (I know I have Fr. Bowser’s attention at this point). But what might John want us to learn by telling us this? There are several possibilities that we can consider. By saving the best for last, John might be inviting us to see that in his infinite wisdom and eternal plan to rescue his world and us from evil, sin, and death, God saved the best for last. Yes, Moses and the prophets were important and necessary in Israel’s salvation history (and therefore our own), but Jesus was the most important of all because he was the very embodiment of God who would take away the sin and blight of the world and finally restore God’s creation beyond its original goodness.

We also see John hinting at this when he mentions that the water jars were used for purification. When Jews used water to purify themselves the effect was only temporary and had to be repeated regularly. But given that John tells us this was Jesus’ first sign, John hints at a greater purification for God’s people. Even if you do not know the other signs in John’s gospel, what was the seventh sign? It was Calvary and Easter, the death and resurrection of Jesus (remember how John opens this story?)! As Paul would tell us, on the cross God condemned human sin in the flesh as well as the evil behind it so that we no longer have to fear God condemning us and can begin to enjoy a new and reconciled relationship with God the Father who made it possible. Here is purification that lasts forever and it is freely offered to one and all!

We see the same promise in our reading from Revelation in which John tells us about the great end-time wedding feast of the Lamb. It is sandwiched in between the defeat of the great whore Babylon, symbolic of all human sin and evil as well as all human opposition to God, and the defeat of the Satan and his minions. At the root of their defeat stands the cross and God’s condemnation of evil and sin and the powers behind them. They have rejected God’s offer of life and salvation by rejecting Christ and persecuting his followers, thereby bringing God’s righteous condemnation on themselves that will not be reversed.

Not so for the bride of the Lamb, his Church, you and me. We have been invited to the ultimate party of the cosmos, a party that will last forever and celebrates the utter defeat of all things evil that ruin God’s good creation and his image-bearing creatures. We are invited to the wedding feast, not because we are better or more deserving than those who have brought judgment on themselves. We are invited because as John reminds us, we have been clothed with fine linen, bright and pure. And what makes the linen bright and pure? The righteous deeds of the saints. Uh-oh. I guess I’ve been lying to you about the blood of Christ. Busted. Apparently we really do have to earn our invitation to the Lamb’s wedding feast. NOT. Let me explain.

Elsewhere in Revelation (e.g., 1.5, 5.9, 7.14), John has reminded us again and again that we are made pure and righteous in God’s sight by the blood of the Lamb shed for us. This is what makes the linen we wear pure in the first place (cf. Romans 6.3-5, 13.14; Matthew 25.1-13). When we put on Jesus, i.e., when we believe with our whole mind and heart that in Jesus we find forgiveness and rescue and richness and wholeness of life, it changes us so that by the power of the Spirit (symbolized by water in our gospel lesson; think of Jesus’ baptism) who makes our risen Lord present and available to us 24/7, we begin to think and act like him. We begin to become like him. This is a gradual process and if we have lived in the power of the Spirit long enough, we might not even realize that we are being transformed because we have been living the new life for so long. But transformed we are when we give ourselves to Jesus and obey him. We see this illustrated in our gospel lesson. When did the water get turned into wine? Only when someone took Mary’s word’s seriously: Do whatever he tells you. Anytime we do likewise we can expect to be transformed in some way, and for the good.

This is why John tells us the linen we will wear in God’s new world are righteous acts. We received our invitation to the party because we have put our faith and trust in Jesus who is the resurrection and the life. Now we have to act accordingly, like we actually believe it, not to earn our way to the Table but to celebrate the fact that we were invited in the first place because of the mind-boggling love of God shown us in Jesus Christ our Lord! Let the Church say, Amen!

So why am I spending so much time on this? Because I am persuaded that many of us simply do not believe we will be invited to the ultimate party of the Lamb’s wedding feast. Oh, I think that on one level many of us believe that Christ died for us so that we are forgiven by God, at least we believe this in our heads. But in our hearts? Not so much. Consequently I think many of us are busy trying to turn the wine of salvation back into water of self-help and as a result, we limp through life anxious about our eternal destiny and our present standing with the Lord. It goes something like this. We say to ourselves, “Yes, I believe Jesus died for me and I try to be a good person. But I also know all the bad things I’ve done. Jesus surely can’t (or won’t) forgive that affair I had or my addiction to porn or alcohol. He won’t forgive me for all the times I’ve lost my temper or cussed or was selfish or inconsiderate. This forgiveness stuff, this being washed clean by the blood of the Lamb so that I am in good standing before God now and in the future is just too good to be true! That’s not how the real world works!” Well, yes it is and no it doesn’t.

So here is my appeal to you this morning. If you are one who tries to consistently turn the wine of God’s gift of salvation offered to you in the blood of Christ back into the water of good works that is needed in your mind for you to gain an invitation to the party, then this week engage the texts we’ve read this morning. Also read Romans 6.3-5, 8.1-4 and Colossians 1.11-14, 19-23 slowly and carefully (or better yet memorize parts of them and repeat them to yourself regularly) and then take to heart their plain meaning. There are other passages but these are a good place to start.

Ask the Lord to pour out his Spirit on you in a fresh way to affirm and/or reassure you that you are his beloved in Christ. Tell yourself you are loved and forgiven until you actually believe it. And by all means, when you come to the Table every Sunday to receive the body and blood of Christ, remind yourself and/or the person ahead of you that this is a real and tangible foretaste of that great wedding banquet at which you will party for all eternity. If the eucharist is a foretaste of the banquet and you are invited to partake in it right now, why would you not be invited to the great end-time party? They don’t call it thanksgiving (or eucharist) for nothing!

Or if you are weighed down by some past sin that you cannot seem to forgive or rid yourself of, come see one of the priests and participate in the sacrament of the reconciliation of a penitent. There have literally been millions of people who have found healing and forgiveness when they confess their sins in this manner. Perhaps you might join their ranks. Or come to our intercessory stations during communion and ask for healing prayers for forgiveness. Chances are it is you who have not forgiven yourself, not God, so ask to be released from this terrible bondage that is definitely not God’s will for you.

Don’t do any of this for me. Do it for you. Do it so that you stop worrying about having a rightful place at the wedding banquet. Do it so you can start to really enjoy the rich life God always intended you to have as you serve the Lord and embody his love to others, thereby proclaiming the gospel in word and deed. Do it because the Lord loves you too much for you to rob yourself of the Good News that is yours in Jesus Christ. You needn’t doubt he wants you at his party because he has given his very life for you so that your place at Table is assured now and for all eternity, thanks be to God! To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Jesus Creed: To the Church that Baptizes that Baby (Jason Micheli)

To the Church about to Baptize My Baby:

Be warned.

It’s all cuteness and lace now, but in no time at all, my little baby boy- after a brief sojourn in childhood- will hit adolescence. His hormones will kick in and quickly conspire to undo all the good you’ve done in him.

These will be the years that he’ll push you, Church.

He’ll suddenly wonder how Jonah could survive that dark trip in the whale’s belly. He’ll argue that David may have bested Goliath but that he’s no match for Tom Brady and, besides, David’s hardly the unblemished hero his SundaySchool teachers made him out to be. Proud of himself, he’ll point out that Noah never would have had to build the ark had God not decided to flood everything and everyone in the world.

He’ll push you, and if you’re not up to the challenge he’ll be tempted conclude that everything you’ve taught him and everything you teach is, at best, a fairy tale and, at worst, a lie.

And this might be the first time someone he knows or loves dies.

When that happens, Church, you better not resort to clichés. You better be prepared to show him resurrection-of-the-body hope at work among you.

Read and reflect on it all.

Evelyn Underhill Muses on the Working of the Holy Spirit

Those who imagine that they are called to contemplation because they are attracted by contemplation, when the common duties of existence steadily block this path, do well to realise that our own feelings and preferences are very poor guides when it comes to the robust realities and stern demands of the Spirit.

St. Paul did not want to be an apostle to the Gentiles. He wanted to be a clever and appreciated young Jewish scholar, and kicked against the pricks. St. Ambrose and St. Augustine did not want to be overworked and worried bishops. Nothing was farther from their intentions. St. Francis Xavier’s preference was for an ordered life close to his beloved master, St. Ignatius. At a few hours notice he was sent to be the Apostle of the Indies and never returned to Europe again. Henry Martyn, the fragile and exquisite scholar, was compelled to sacrifice the intellectual life to which he was so perfectly fitted for the missionary life to which he felt decisively called. In all these, a power beyond themselves decided the direction of life. Yet in all we recognise not frustration, but the highest of all types of achievement. Things like this—and they are constantly happening—gradually convince us that the overruling reality of life is the Will and Choice of a Spirit acting not in a mechanical but in a living and personal way; and that the spiritual life does not consist in mere individual betterment, or assiduous attention to one’s own soul, but in a free and unconditional response to the Spirit’s pressure and call, whatever the cost may be.

—Evelyn Underhill, The Spiritual Life

Are you kicking against the pricks or surrendering your life to the Will and Choice of the Holy Spirit? Your decision will greatly affect how much joy you have in living, a joy that is not contingent on the fickleness of life and this world, but rather a joy that flows from living in the kind of relationship with your Creator that he created you to have.

Then Jesus said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

Robert A.J. Gagnon: What Newsweek Doesn’t Get About the Bible

I will let the rebuttal in this article speak for itself it destroys the utter bogus thinking used by Eichenwald in the Newsweek story. It’s time to be clear-headed about much of the malarky being used to distort Scripture.

Newsweek, in an article by Kurt Eichenwald, says that Christians who regard homosexual practice as sin (or who—horror!—favor prayer in public school) “are God’s frauds, cafeteria Christians,” “hypocrites,” “Biblical illiterates,” “fundamentalists and political opportunists,” and “Pharisees.” To support his slurs, Eichenwald first tries to undermine reliance on Scripture as a supreme authority for moral discernment and then to show how Christians, oblivious to the problems with biblical inspiration, ignore its clear teaching.

Eichenwald claims that the New Testament Greek text is unreliable, ignoring the fact that no other ancient text comes close to being so well attested. For example, while the oldest surviving manuscript for a significant portion of Plato’s fourth-century B.C. dialogues dates to 895, for the first-century a.d. New Testament the dates are ca. 200 (Paul) and the third century (Gospels, Acts), with over a dozen substantial manuscripts from the fourth–sixth centuries. Only a tiny fraction of the variations among the manuscripts pose any serious problem for scholars in determining the original text. Furthermore, no major Christian doctrine hangs in the balance because of these variations.

Read it all.

Fr. Ric Bowser: True or False?

Sermon delivered on Sunday, Epiphany 2B, January 18, 2015, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

Today Fr. Bowser talks about what is true and what is false in God’s world. Things that are true generally lead to health and well-being. Things that are false generally lead to disease, disorder, dysfunction, and ultimately death. But why is that? Check out what Fr. Bowser has to say in this insightful sermon and see what you think. The answer may surprise you.

Click here to listen to the sermon podcast. There is no text for today’s sermon.

Lectionary texts: 1 Samuel 3.1-20; Psalm 139.1-5, 12-17; 1 Corinthians 6.12-20; John 1.43-51.

The Light and Life That is Christ’s Baptism (and Yours)

Sermon delivered on Epiphany 1B, the Baptism of Christ, Sunday, January 11, 2015 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Genesis 1.1-5; Psalm 29.1-10; Acts 19.1-7; Mark 1.4-11.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

There are several sermons in this morning’s lectionary readings. But since we celebrate the baptism of Christ today, I want us to focus on his baptism and ours. To better understand what we are witnessing in Christ’s baptism—for example, if Jesus was and is sinless, why did he submit to John’s baptism of repentance?—we need to look at the whole narrative of Scripture and what better place to start than in the beginning with Genesis? How convenient this just happens to be our OT lesson this morning (they don’t call me The Sermonator for nothing).

In these beginning verses from Genesis we are told that the Spirit of God, i.e., the Holy Spirit, swept or hovered over the darkness and face of the waters (or nothingness). With a quick reading of this passage combined with our other texts, we are tempted to say that it is the Holy Spirit who creates. But that would not be correct. A careful reading of the text does not warrant this conclusion. God does not create by his Spirit, he creates by his Word. God spoke and then there was light and we need to pay attention here or we will miss an important point about the nature of that light. The light that God spoke into existence is God’s life-giving light that is set over and against the darkness and chaos of nothingness. Just as God did in the beginning, God continues to speak into the nothingness, especially the nothingness of death, to bring order and life and meaning and purpose out of the chaos of darkness. So right from the beginning we see Scripture affirm that when God speaks, he does more than inform. He brings things into existence and gives life.

This is the light biblical writers like Isaiah talk about and which we emphasized during the Advent and Christmas seasons and also now during this season of Epiphany (e.g., Isaiah 9.2, 60.1). Of course, the ultimate manifestation of this light is Jesus himself, the light of the world, the light who shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it (John 8.12; 1.5). And unlike the natural light God created later in Genesis 1.14-19 (sun, moon, stars), a light that falls on everyone whether they are good or evil (cf. Matthew 5.45), this light that God first spoke into existence only shines on those to whom God chooses to give it. That is why only in the creative light of God can we find life out of death, light out of darkness, and that is why we as Christians believe that only in Jesus can we find our way back to the Father.

But what about the Spirit? What role is he playing in this account? When the writer of Genesis tells us that the Holy Spirit hovered over the face of the waters he is reminding us that the Spirit is the creative force who sustains the life and creation found in God’s light as well as the power who restrains the forces of chaos and darkness. So right off the bat we are told that God is not an absent God who is uninvolved or doesn’t care about his good creation. To the contrary, God is present to his creation and creatures all the time and in a very intimate way in and through the power and person of the Holy Spirit. This is consistent with what Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15 when he talks about the resurrection of the body on the last day. Just as God did at the beginning of creation, God spoke and raised our Lord Jesus from the dead (cf. Romans 4.17). And so God will do for us on the last day. In a mighty act of new creation, we will be raised from the dead and our newly transformed bodies will be animated and sustained by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 15.44a). This wonderful symmetry found in Scripture’s beginning and ending narratives surely is no coincidence. Hang on to this as we look at Jesus’ baptism.

And please, before we leave Genesis, let me appeal to you not to read Genesis as a scientific account of how God created the heavens and earth and so engage in irrelevant and fruitless arguments that have very little to do with the actual text. Rather, let us acknowledge Genesis for what it is: a deep and wondrous statement of faith that, “In the beginning God.” In other words, let us as Christians acknowledge that we believe God is our Creator and let the scientists as best they can figure out how his creation works (realizing their findings will always be incomplete because there is a reality in this cosmos that simply cannot be quantified and measured). Doing so will save us a lot of needless doubt and worry about the truth of Genesis’ creation narratives by wrongly using criteria that are not appropriate or equipped to ultimately judge the veracity of statements of faith like the one we find in the creation narratives.

Of course we know the goodness of God’s original creation was corrupted by human sin and the evil it unleashed. That is why God called his people Israel through the patriarch Abraham to embody his healing light and love to the world. But we also know that Israel was part of the problem and so in God’s inscrutable wisdom and according to his plan from all eternity to rescue us, at just the right time God came to us as a human, as Jesus of Nazareth, to rescue us from the ravages of the darkness and chaos of evil, sin, and death (cf. Galatians 4.4-5), and now we are ready to look at the baptism of our Lord.

Given what we have just talked about regarding the goodness, orderliness, and life-giving power of God’s light over against the chaos and darkness of uncreation, and given the presence of God’s sustaining Spirit in the midst of his creation and creatures, it is not hard for us to see that in his account of Jesus’ baptism, Mark is telling us that we are seeing a sign of new creation that God is bringing about in and through Jesus. Everything about John reminds us of the light of God’s word shining in the life of his people to rescue them from the darkness of their exile from God. From John’s dress to his diet (like that of the prophet Elijah) to his location (the wilderness) to what he said and did (the prophetic message of the need to repent or change the course of one’s life to bring it in accord with God’s will for his people and God’s washing of our sin through the waters of baptism), John was playing the role of a prophet, God’s mouthpiece, God’s light. But John wasn’t just any prophet. God was using him to announce the coming of the Messiah who would act on his people’s behalf to finally put an end to the darkness of their exile.

The essential problem we see Jesus being equipped for and affirmed to address here is human sin and the separation it causes from God’s life-giving and sustaining power. Until something was done to overcome the problem of sin, we humans would forever be cut off from God. Oh sure, even the godless and wicked have biological existence by the grace and mercy of God. But this is only a tiny portion of what real life is all about, the kind of life God created us to experience. And of course, once our biological existence ceases, we still remain exiled from God without the real forgiveness of our sins. God, of course, took care of overcoming the darkness of our sin and the death it causes in the death and resurrection of Jesus. As Paul would later write, we who are baptized in Jesus share in a death like his so that we will also share in a resurrection like his (Romans 6.4-5; Colossians 2.12-13).

So here in our gospel lesson we see our Lord receiving his commission from the Father to proceed with his life-saving work. As he rose out of the waters of the Jordan the Holy Spirit descended on him to commission and empower Jesus for his work just as the Spirit hovered over the waters to sustain the light and life of God’s creation. This is emphatically not to say that Jesus became God’s Son at his baptism (the old heresy of adoptionism). That would make a mockery of his birth narratives where the Spirit overshadowed the virgin to produce the Christ child. Neither is it to suggest that the Spirit was not with Jesus before his baptism. That would make a farce of our only account of Jesus’ childhood in Luke in which he asked his frantic parents who were searching for him why they did not know he had to be in his Father’s house (Luke 2.41-52). Nor is it to suggest that Jesus came to be baptized because he needed to be forgiven of his sins. That would make a farce out of the entire NT’s testimony about Jesus!

No, the best way to understand Jesus’ baptism is to see it for what it is: a visible and public demonstration and announcement that Jesus was being commissioned to carry out the work he had been born to do, to announce to Israel and the world that the time had come when God himself would rescue his people from their slavery to the darkness of evil, sin, and death, by becoming human, dying on a cross, and being raised to life again. And Jesus would always have the power and presence of the Holy Spirit to enable him to complete his difficult mission.

But what about us? What does Jesus’ baptism mean for us in the living of our days? Well for one thing, because Jesus is God’s Messiah who represents his people (that would be us), what is true for him is true also for us. If you really want to know why God’s people can find real joy even in the midst of darkness, stop and listen to the words God spoke (there’s that verb again) to Jesus, “You are my beloved in whom I am delighted.” Because we are Jesus’ people, God is speaking these words to us as well. Think about that. Listen to the voice. Realize these words are being spoken to you despite all you might have done, despite all your mistakes and willfulness. “You are my beloved in whom I am delighted.” If we really take these words to heart and believe them, it must change everything for us in terms of how we look at God and our life. It means even though we face sickness and disease and broken relationships and all kinds of hurt in this life, the light of God’s love shines on our darkness to heal and ultimately redeem us. Not only that, we are promised the Holy Spirit to live in us, a promise that was made real for us at or around our own baptism and this is where we now turn to that strange story in Acts.

I don’t have time to lay out fully the context for this story other than to say Luke probably included it here to introduce Paul’s work in Ephesus and to show Paul’s ongoing concern that the Spirit’s powerful presence was actively at work in the lives of individuals and the broader community. Whatever it was in those disciples that made Paul question them about the kind of baptism they received, Paul (and the other church leaders) expected Christians to enjoy the power of the Spirit in their lives so that they would be equipped to embody God’s love for them in Christ to others, i.e., so that they would embody the light of Christ to a hurting and sin-sick world that desperately needed to be exposed to that light. And apparently these disciples were not acting like they were so equipped, a fact they would soon acknowledge. This was a problem for Paul, and it should be a problem for us, because when confronted by the dark powers of this world who hate God and his people and who want to destroy us, we’d better be equipped with a power greater than our own to do the work God calls us to do.

So here is my question to us all. What if Paul were to walk into this room right now and ask us what kind of baptism we had received? How would we respond? Of course we might talk about the critical role of repentance for the forgiveness of our sins that is part of our baptismal liturgy. Among other things, without repentance in which, e.g., we refuse to forgive or we hang on to our anger or refuse to turn away from particular sins to which God directs our attention, we make it more difficult for the Holy Spirit to do his transformative work in our lives. So if we really do want the Spirit to be active and powerful in our lives, repentance prepares the way for that.

And of course we would tell Paul that yes, we’ve been baptized in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit so that we hope we have been given the gift of the Spirit. But Paul presses us a bit and asks us if we are sure that we have the Spirit. We might hesitate at this and tell him we really aren’t sure or that we even want him. After all, most of us don’t laugh or cry or fall down when the power of the Spirit touches us. Neither are most of us full-fledged charismatics who speak in tongues or prophesy and all this can create doubts about the Spirit’s presence in us. But Paul teaches elsewhere that the Spirit gives gifts to everyone who belongs to Jesus, gifts like teaching, service, giving, leadership, and healing to name just a few (1 Corinthians 12.1-31). Some of these gifts are not all that spectacular in nature so that many of us overlook them. And sadly, some of us don’t even realize we are given gifts in the first place.

In a few moments we are going to renew our baptismal vows and this is the perfect opportunity for you to begin to engage in some serious and sustained reflection on the gifts you have been given. If you have not yet discovered your gifts, ask the Spirit to show you what they are because when you discover them you will also discover that when you use them they will make you feel alive to God and help you discover what God wants you to do to be beacons of Christ’s light. So, for example, if you have the gift of service, the next time you take that casserole to a shut-in, instead of seeing it as drudgery, remember you are using the gift of the Spirit and let him work in you to enliven you and fill you with meaning, purpose, power, and joy. There is no better way to settle into the new year and you will be amazed at what this also does for the life of our parish. And speaking of the life of our parish, consider Fr. Ron’s call last week to join our healing team, a gift of the Spirit and a vital ministry I want us to develop. Who among us has been given that gift and why are you not using it to bring power and healing to Christ’s body at St. Augustine’s and elsewhere? In light of all we have said today, it does not compute!

Think on these things, then, and for more than just a few moments. Ask the Spirit to come into your life with power to enliven and equip you to do the work he calls you to do and then learn (or relearn) to rejoice and be amazed. For it means you will have proof beyond a shadow of doubt that you have Good News, now and for all eternity, and that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit is using you to bring honor and glory to his holy Name, thanks be to God! To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Twelve Days of Christmas-Day 12 (2)

By taking on our humanity Christ reduced himself to weakness so that he might gather us under his wings…Christ took on weakness for our sake by becoming human and thereafter being crucified, despised, slapped, scourged, and pierced with a lance as he hung on the cross.

—Augustine, Commentary on Psalm 58

The Twelve Days of Christmas-Day 12

Today concludes the series of Christmas reflections from the Church Fathers. I hope you have enjoyed them and trust that God will use them to enrich you and bring you closer to him. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Christmas is the day on which the Creator of the universe came into this world. This is the day on which the one who is always present through his power became present in the flesh. He came in the flesh with the intention of curing human blindness so that once we were healed we might be enlightened in the Lord. Then God’s light would no longer be shining in darkness but would appear plainly to people who wanted to see it.

—Augustine, Sermon 195, 2

Fr. Ron Feister: Epiphany: Responding to God’s Presence Among Us

Sermon delivered on the second Sunday of Christmas B, January 4, 2015, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

Lectionary texts for the Feast of the Epiphany (transferred to this Sunday) are Isaiah 60.1-6; Psalm 72.1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3.1-12; Matthew 2.1-12.

There is no text for today’s sermon. Click here to listen to today’ sermon podcast.