Will You Follow This King?

Sermon delivered on Passion (Palm) Sunday B, March 29, 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: Isaiah 50.4-9a; Psalm 31.9-16; Philippians  2.5-11; Mark 11.1-11, 14.1-15.47.

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

Today we celebrate the triumphal entry of our Lord into Jerusalem. It was (and remains) a bittersweet moment for him and us. On the one hand, we see Jesus’ followers proclaiming him as Israel’s long-awaited Messiah. On the other hand, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem marks the beginning of his last week on earth. Some in the crowds who had proclaimed him as Messiah would be calling for his death a mere five days later. How could this happen and what does it have to do with us some 2000 years later? This is what I want us to look at this morning.

There can be little doubt about Jesus’ intentions as he entered Jerusalem that Sunday. In typical fashion, he acted out his understanding of what kind of Messiah God had called him to be for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. Mark tells us that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey that had never before been ridden, thus acting out the prophecy found in Zechariah 9.9:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

The fact that the donkey had never been ridden is significant because such animals were always reserved for someone who held a special place of honor, usually kings. Indeed, Solomon had ridden his father David’s mule into Jerusalem as he was proclaimed king (1 Kings 1.32-48). And Mark invites us to see that the crowd also perceived that Jesus was entering Jerusalem as Messiah or God’s special and anointed leader. He reports that people cut palm branches, presumably to wave, and placed their cloaks in the road, something they would only have done to welcome a king. Not only this, in their shouts of acclamation they made reference to the kingdom of David, from whose lineage the Messiah would come. These actions suggest that the crowd following Jesus saw him as the promised Messiah as he rode into Jerusalem.

But what kind of Messiah? Here things get tricky because what the crowds expected of God’s Messiah and how Jesus saw his role as Messiah were not necessarily the same thing. While there was no uniform conception of what God’s Messiah (or Christ) would do and be when he came, most Jews of Jesus’ day believed that the Messiah would do at least two things. First, many believed (or at least hoped) that Messiah would come as a military hero to expel the hated Romans and reestablish their independence. This is what most Jews had in mind when they talked about God’s salvation, thus their use of the term hosanna, which means to save. Second, most first-century Jews expected the Messiah to cleanse the Temple and reestablish right religious order in the land.

But this is not how Jesus conceived his Messiahship as evidenced by his actions that day and later in the week. While he would indeed cleanse the Temple, the fact that he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey in the manner of Zechariah’s prophecy suggests that Jesus in no way intended to be a conquering military hero. Rather, it suggests that Jesus had in mind the role of the humble and obedient Suffering Servant about whom we read in our OT lesson this morning. Jesus had come to Jerusalem, not to conquer and expel the Romans by military force, but to suffer and die for the sake of his people and the world, Romans included! He would free us from the ravages of evil, sin, and death by taking the weight of our collective sin on himself, thereby reconciling us to God. If you want to know definitively what God’s justice looks like, look no further than the cross. Jesus would defeat the power of evil by allowing the dark powers to gather and do their worst to him. Their wicked and evil fury would become dreadfully apparent as he hung naked and pierced on a cross, condemned as a false king and mocked by the very people he had come to save. We need to pay careful attention to this because in Jesus’ death we are given a glimpse of the very heart of God and his intentions for us as his people.

As Paul would tell us in his great hymn about Christ that we read in our epistle lesson this morning, Jesus did not consider his equality with God as a thing to be exploited. This was in stark contrast with Adam and Eve and the rest of us since, who try to become like God by attaining a knowledge of good and evil and acting like we know better than God in matters of life and how to live as fully human beings. How many of us desire to do God’s will at every turn, even when it becomes quite distasteful, even when it requires us to suffer actively and sometimes to give our lives for his sake? Not me and and I suspect not many of you. No, we want to be God’s equals and exploit that equality so that we will have an upper hand in all that we do and over those with whom we must interact. And we all know how that has turned out. War and terrorism rage on unabated and innocent people continue to be killed and murdered. We love to hate our enemies and wish them harm. Look at the various social media. We refuse to forgive those who wrong us, typically out of some sense of self-righteous indignation. We insist on our own way and seek to demonize those who oppose us. We look the other way at injustice, especially when we benefit from it. We are indignant when we cannot figure out the mysterious ways of God, especially when it involves human suffering, to name just a few.

But this is not the path our Lord took. This is not the kind of Messiah he would be. This is not the way of humble obedience, the way of the cross. Jesus chose this route because this was the only way the Father could rescue us from evil, sin, and death without destroying us in the process. Jesus had to bear our sins on the tree so that we could live. Jesus had to allow the powers and principalities to do their worst to him so that they could be defeated instead of defeating and destroying us. He had bigger fish to fry than just expelling Rome from Israel. Jesus had a world to rescue so that God’s good creation would ultimately be healed and restored, and the only way to accomplish that was to go to the cross and die for us.

This meant that Jesus had to humble himself and obey his Father’s will as we read in our passion narrative and as Paul observes. The means of our rescue is humble obedience, even to the point of death. It is evident in everything that Jesus did during Holy Week, especially at the Last Supper, timed to coincide with the great Jewish celebration of the Exodus that commemorated God’s dramatic rescue of his people from their slavery in Egypt. Jesus would explain the meaning of his death by giving them a meal and by his death and resurrection he would accomplish the ultimate rescue of rescues, the ultimate Passover of Passovers.

And in Gethsemane we see Jesus shrink from the fearsome task that God called him to do by asking that the cup be taken from him. But if God took the cup from Jesus, if God refused to take the sins of the world on himself, your sins and mine, we would still be dead in our sins and without hope. And then of course we hear the terrible cry of dereliction on the cross, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?”, and we see the appalling cost of actually bearing our sins. God help us if we ever become so familiar with this story of God’s rescue that we become complacent when hearing it. God help us. Had Jesus counted his equality with God as something he should exploit, if he had refused to humble himself and obey the Father’s will to bring healing, forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace with the Father by dying for the world, for you and me, we would now be lost. As our own Augustine observed in his Confessions, “Proud humans would have died had not a lowly (humble) God found them.” This is the kind of king who entered Jerusalem on Passion Sunday all those years ago. Are we ready to follow?

Maybe. Maybe not. Let us be honest and acknowledge this humble obedience thingy gets very tricky for us when it comes to following Jesus because we generally want no part of it. Neither did the crowds of Jerusalem that week. They thought their idea of salvation was better than God’s. They wanted a conquering hero who was in line with their proud grasping to be equal with God. They couldn’t conceive of a suffering Messiah, let alone a crucified one, even though they had the basis for such a Messiah in the Servant passages in Isaiah and elsewhere.

And not much has changed since then because most of us usually don’t want to humble ourselves and obey God’s will in our lives, especially when we might have to suffer in doing so. Want proof? How do we treat our enemies? We send in the tanks with the intention to destroy them. On a more mundane level we curse our personal enemies and try to destroy them with ad hominem attacks. We work to accumulate all kinds of wealth while turning a blind eye to the poor and needy. Oh sure. We give some of our money to charities, but not to the point where we might have to do without. We are too busy beyond window dressing to really be bothered by those who have all kinds of emotional or physical baggage. When our marriages our in trouble, we are as quick to walk away as to really do the hard (and usually humble) work needed to repair them. In sum, we look to the ways of the world to fix our problems and ourselves, rather than looking to God because deep down, most of us really do think we know better than God. We are all about grasping equality with God.

But this is not the way of the cross. This is not having the mind of Christ. This is not denying ourselves and taking up our cross for the sake of others as well as ourselves. I’m not talking about being an emotional doormat or physical punching bag. I am talking about the willingness to humble ourselves and imitate our Lord Jesus in every aspect of our daily living. But we typically shrink from this because we are too pride-infected and influenced by our culture’s values and mores. Yet it is the consistent witness of Scripture, starting with our lessons today, that having the wisdom and humility to obey God is the only way to go. It is only when we are willing to live out the seeming paradox of emptying ourselves of any notion of false glory that we are somehow God’s equals rather than his image-bearing creatures, that God’s power can work in and through us.

We see our aversion to humbly obeying God illustrated in Scripture and in our own lives. We don’t see Jesus’ disciples going home after his crucifixion and partying like it was the eschaton. They didn’t thank God for his self-giving love made known on the cross. They didn’t understand that in Jesus’ death God had brought about their salvation. That would come later and only in light of the resurrection and 20-20 hindsight. Of course, it is easy for us to see good coming out of Jesus’ death because we still have that 20-20 hindsight as well as the God-given faith to believe our story, thanks be to God! But what about those things in our life for which we do not have 20-20 hindsight? Then what? Are we willing to obey our Lord’s command to us to humble ourselves and follow him? Here are some questions to help us with the answer. Do we really believe that our prayers are efficacious and that we must be at prayer in places where our world is in pain? For example, do we pray regularly for peace in the Ukraine and for an end to persecution of Christians by ISIS et al.? Do we persevere even when our prayers don’t seem to make a bit of difference as we read of new atrocities each day? Are we willing to seek peace with our personal enemies, even when it is costly and distasteful to us, even when they are overtly hostile to us, or do we dismiss such efforts as foolishness and a waste of time (cf. 1 Corinthians 1.18-25)? And what about suffering? As we work through our own suffering or the suffering of our loved ones, are we willing to acknowledge that while we cannot see why God allows suffering to continue in his world that maybe, just maybe, there are purposes beyond our ability to understand and that God is good to his promise to redeem all suffering? This is a massive challenge to our faith, but it gets to the very heart of humble obedience and this is extremely hard for us to accept. We would much rather blame God or dismiss him as being uncaring or irrelevant instead of acknowledging our limited ability to think and know and see as our Creator thinks and knows and sees (cf. Isaiah 55.6-11). How we answer these questions will give us an honest assessment of our readiness to be faithful imitators of our Lord. And if we bristle at any of this, it is a sure indication that we are not yet ready to put aside our desire to be equal with God.

But this is the path we are called to reject because our Lord Jesus rejected it and we are called to follow him by imitating (obeying) him. When we are willing to put aside our desire to be God’s equals and imitate Jesus’ humility in obeying the Father’s will, the same will God has for you and me when he calls us to be his kingdom workers, we will discover to our astonishment a new kind of power at our disposal. It is not the kind of power that will guarantee our selfish agendas will be fulfilled or that promises us health, wealth, and happiness. It is a power that will allow God to use us to build on the foundation of Jesus’ death and resurrection to bring about the birth of his promised new creation. It is the power of love, mercy, healing, and forgiveness. It is a power given us by the Holy Spirit who lives in us and who shapes us to be truly human beings because we belong to Jesus.

This is the king we are called to follow and this is what Holy Week and Easter call us to ponder. That is why it is so important for us to participate in this week’s events so that we can become part of that story and find fresh grace, strength, and hope as we continue to grow in our discipleship. So come and participate in the terrible and wonderful events of this week. Resolve to have the mind of Christ and let Holy Week and Easter remind you of the great love of God and the hope he has in store for us as his people. Come to Maundy Thursday and see Jesus’ humility being symbolized and imitated in foot washing. Give thanks that in the sacraments Jesus is really and powerfully present to you, regardless of who you are or what you might have done, and feed on him in your heart by faith with thanksgiving. Look with sorrow on the cross of Calvary on Good Friday, but also with hope. Hear the culminating story of God’s great redemption of the world and you. See the love and justice of God poured out for you that you might have life and have it abundantly, and then come and venerate the cross. On Holy Saturday as we await our Lord’s resurrection, pause and reflect on the costly love of God and be reminded that our present perspective on the grand scheme of God’s rescue plan for us is necessarily limited by our finiteness and mortality. Come to the Easter Vigil that evening and hear the entire story of God’s redemption for his hurting and sin-sick world and its people. Give thanks that we worship a God who loves us and wants us to live with him forever, even when we do not or cannot see that love playing out in every aspect of our life. Then come on Easter Sunday to celebrate our Lord’s mighty resurrection and rejoice that God has counted you worthy to be part of his promised new world and called you to live and work to bring his healing love to those around you, terribly difficult and costly as that can be. Only when we learn how to be both cross-bearing and resurrection people will we learn that we have Good News, now and for all eternity. May you have a blessed and life-changing Holy Week and Easter this year. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

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

Palm Sunday

He who came down from heaven to raise us from the depths of sin, to raise us to himself, we are told in Scripture: “above every sovereignty, authority and power, and every other name that can be named,” now comes of his own free will to make his journey to Jerusalem. He came without pomp or ostentation. Let us run to accompany him as he hastens toward his passion, and imitate those who met him then, not by covering his path with garments, olive branches or palms, but by doing all we can to prostrate ourselves before him by being humble and by trying to live as he would wish.

—Andrew of Crete, Bishop, Sermon 9 for Palm Sunday

An Account of How Palm Sunday Was Celebrated in the 4th Century

The following day, Sunday, marks the beginning of Holy Week, which they call here the Great Week. On this [Palm] Sunday morning, at the completion of those rites which are customarily celebrated at the Anastasis or the Cross from the first cockcrow until dawn, everyone assembles for the liturgy according to custom in the major church, called the Martyrium. It is called the Martyrium because it is on Golgotha, behind the Cross, where the Lord suffered His Passion, and is therefore a shrine of martyrdom. As soon as everything has been celebrated in the major church as usual, but before the dismissal is given, the archdeacon raises his voice and first says: “Throughout this whole week, beginning tomorrow at the ninth hour, let us all gather in the Martyrium, in the major church.” Then he raises his voice a second time, saying: “Today let us all be ready to assemble at the seventh hour at the Eleona.” When the dismissal has been given in the Martyrium or major church, the bishop is led to the accompaniment of hymns to the Anastasis, and there all ceremonies are accomplished which customarily take place every Sunday at the Anastasis [Church of the Holy Sepulcher] following the dismissal from the Martyrium. Then everyone retires home to eat hastily, so that at the beginning of the seventh hour everyone will be ready to assemble in the church on the Eleona, by which I mean the Mount of Olives, where the grotto in which the Lord taught is located.

At the seventh hour all the people go up to the church on the Mount of Olives, that is, to the Eleona. The bishop sits down, hymns and antiphons appropriate to the day and place are sung, and there are likewise readings from the Scriptures. As the ninth hour approaches, they move up, chanting hymns, to the Imbomon, that is, to the place from which the Lord ascended into heaven; and everyone sits down there. When the bishop is present, the people are always commanded to be seated, so that only the deacons remain standing. And there hymns and antiphons proper to the day and place are sung, interspersed with appropriate readings from the Scriptures and prayers.

As the eleventh hour draws near, that particular passage from Scripture is read in which the children bearing palms and branches came forth to meet the Lord, saying: “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” The bishop and all the people rise immediately, and then everyone walks down from the top of the Mount of Olives, with the people preceding the bishop and responding continually with “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord” to the hymns and antiphons. All the children who are present here, including those who are not yet able to walk because they are too young and therefore are carried on their parents’ shoulders, all of them bear branches, some carrying palms, others olive branches. And the bishop is led in the same manner as the Lord once was led. From the top of the mountain as far as the city, and from there through the entire city as far as the Anastasis, everyone accompanies the bishop the whole way on foot, and this includes distinguished ladies and men of consequence, reciting the responses all the while; and they move very slowly so that the people will not tire. By the time they arrive at the Anastasis, it is already evening. Once they have arrived there, even though it is evening, vespers is celebrated; then a prayer is said at the Cross and the people are dismissed.

—Egeria, Abbess, Pilgrimage

N.T. Wright: What Palm Sunday Means: God’s Street Theatre Comes to Jerusalem

r1405901_20102708The extraordinary twist in this story is that, having announced judgment upon Jerusalem for refusing God’s way of peace, Jesus went ahead, embodying simultaneously the love and the judgment of God himself, to suffer the Roman horror he had predicted for his people.

That dark royal story lies at the heart of all subsequent Christian understanding of the cross, though it is a truth so strange that few hymns or liturgies plumb its depths. Theseus and Oberon are one and the same. Good Friday, itself a form of Roman street theatre, was taken up paradoxically within God’s street theatre, the play within the play within the play that explains everything else.

But, even without that sequel, the questions of Palm Sunday itself force themselves upon us.

First, the questions of which story we are living in, and which king we are following, remain urgent within our culture. As our public institutions are less trusted than ever, and our behaviour at home and abroad is more confused than ever, the stories which used to make sense of our lives have let us down.

We thought we knew how the play worked: get rid of tyrants, and people will embrace democracy, peace, love and flower-power. How quickly things have moved from Palm Sunday to Good Friday. The so-called Arab Spring has turned back to winter, as we have no idea what to do about Syria, about Israel/Palestine and, of course, about Ukraine. We have run out of stories, we have run out of kings of whatever kind; all we think we can do is trust the great god Mammon, as though our fragile economic half-recoveries would trickle out into the mountains of Syria or the deserts of South Sudan. Give me Psalm 72 any day.

But that’s where the second question comes in, a personal question. If the Palm Sunday street theatre means what Jesus meant, it challenges all his followers, then and now. The crowds may have been fickle, but they were not mistaken. The two on the road to Emmaus had hoped he would redeem Israel, and they were hoping for the right thing – God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven, a this-worldly reign of justice and peace – but they had not glimpsed the means by which Jesus would bring it about. Right story, wrong king.

Sooner or later, this happens to all of us. We start out following Jesus because we think we know the story, we know what sort of king we want him to be – and then things go badly wrong, he doesn’t give us what we wanted, and we are tempted to wonder if we’ve been standing on the wrong side of town, watching the wrong procession.

Jesus warned us this would happen: we all have to live through a Holy Week, a Gethsemane, a Good Friday of one sort or another. That happens in personal life, in vocational life, as well as in public life.

Read it all.

Tremper Longman III: Getting Brutally Honest with God

From CT. Good stuff from Dr. Longman. Check it out.

56279I remember hitting my forehead over and over on the glass door of the shower. My mentor and dear friend, Ray Dillard, had just died at age 49. He had trained me in seminary, encouraged me to go to graduate school, and eventually hired me to teach Old Testament alongside him. Besides the loss, his death meant that my already heavy workload would double, as I would need to teach his classes in addition to my own. This increased responsibility came at a bad time: my teenage sons were acting up at school and needed my attention. To say I felt sad and stressed was not even half of it…

I already understood that the lament psalms gave me permission to complain to God. God invites us to speak to him with utter honesty and boldness. This is different from grumbling against him, as the Israelites did when they journeyed from Egypt to the Promised Land (Num. 11).

The Israelites spoke about God behind his back—or so they thought. Conversely, the complaints of the psalmists are spoken directly to God. And whereas the wilderness generation had given up on God, the psalmists had not. Even though they often addressed God in anger, they spoke to him, asking for help and hoping that he would answer them in their distress.

Read it all (especially if you are in a dark valley right now).

Fr. Philip Sang: Being Participants With Christ

Sermon delivered on Lent 5B, Sunday, March 22, 2015, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

If you would prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, click here.

Lectionary texts: Jeremiah 31.31-34; Psalm 51.1-13; Hebrews 5.5-10; John 12.20-33.

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

The fifth Sunday of Lent is a Sunday that is traditionally given in the church to think about the passion of Christ. It marks the beginning of an increased emphasis on the sufferings of Jesus. To speak of the death and sufferings of Christ is to be reminded of the human side of the One we confess to be the Son of God.

This stands in contrast to the first four Sundays of Lent which are traditionally given to a personal reexamination of our lives and to penance. We move from that emphasis to the last fourteen days of Lent which become a time for thinking more exclusively about the sufferings of Jesus. And so today with our text our attentions is turned to the passion of Jesus.

No writer speaks well about the humanity and sufferings of Jesus than does the writer of Hebrews. In this Epistle we see Jesus as one with us. The writer says in chapter 2 of the One whom he has already declared to be the Son of God, “Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil.”

In a wonderful way the writer speaks of the full identity of the Son of God with us. Hebrews 2:17?18: “Therefore, he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.” Hebrews 4:15: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” It is, of course, as one with us that the Son of God suffers and dies. In his sufferings we see him fully human, enduring the testings of this life as we also do. And even as we learn through our experiences of pain and suffering, so also did Jesus. What did Jesus learn? The writer says “he learned obedience.” This was obedience put to the test in the darkest hour of his life. The writer of Hebrews gives a very vivid description of that ordeal in verse 7.

“In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.”

He was tempted and tested in every way that we are and yet he was without sin. When offered early in his ministry ways to avoid the cross by embracing the values and claims of this world, Jesus refused to give in to the desires of the flesh. When he could have fled for his life to some remote part of the world, Jesus stayed the course to do the work God had sent him into the world to do. He learned in his sufferings to put his trust completely in God and God heard his prayers because of his reverent submission.

Learning obedience and suffering do go together. That is to say, obedience is always tested in the trials and tribulations. Of course, It is easy to obey when there is nothing standing in the way. If we were placed in a protected environment, obedience would be easy and perhaps also meaningless, since it is not really tested.

In our gospel lesson today Jesus is talking about his death. This is, however, something we do not talk about. Yes I mean Death. We acknowledge death when it happens but for the most part we do not talk about death with any real depth or substance, and certainly no enthusiasm. We don’t deal with it. We deny it. We ignore it. We avoid it. No one wants to die. We don’t really acknowledge, talk about, and deal with death. The death of our loved ones is too real, too painful. Our own death is too scary. The relationships and parts of our lives that have died are too difficult. So, for the most part, we just avoid the topic of death. Especially in a culture that mostly wants to be happy, feel good, and avoid difficult realities.

The Greeks in today’s gospel did not go expecting to talk or hear about death. They just want to see Jesus. And who can blame them? Jesus has a pretty good track record up to this point. He has cleansed the temple, turned water into wine, healed a little boy, fed 5000, given sight to the blind, and raised Lazarus from the dead. The gospel does not say why they wanted to see Jesus but we know the desire. We want to see Jesus. I think everybody wanted to see Jesus. We too are not left out we would want to see Jesus. Seeing Jesus makes it all real. We all have our reasons for wanting to see Jesus.

If you want to know your reasons for wanting to see Jesus look at what you pray for. It is often a to do list for God. I want a good job, I want a good house, I want a good car. When in trouble, Lord save me from this. When sick, Lord heal me. You probably know those kind of prayers. We want to see Jesus on our terms. We don’t want to face the pain of loss and death in whatever form it comes. Sometimes we want something from Jesus more than we want Jesus himself. There is a real danger that we will become consumers of God’s life rather than participants in God’s life. We pick and choose what we like and want but we skip over and leave behind what we do not like, want, or understand. Christianity, however, is not a buffet. Christianity means participating in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That is what Jesus sets before the Greeks who want to see him.

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. If we want to see Jesus then we must look death in the face. To the extent we refuse to acknowledge the reality of death, to the degree we avoid and deny death, we refuse to see Jesus. Really looking at, acknowledging, and facing death is some of the most difficult work we ever do. It is, as Jesus describes, soul troubling. It shakes us to the core.

There is a temptation to want to skip over death and get to resurrection. So it is no coincidence that this week and last week the Church points us towards Holy Week and reminds us that death is the gateway to new life. Death comes first. Death is not always, however, physical. Sometimes it is spiritual or emotional. We die a thousand deaths every day. There are the deaths of relationships, marriages, hopes, dreams, careers, health, beliefs. Regardless of what it looks like, this is not the end. Resurrection is always hidden within death. There can be, however, no resurrection without a death.

Is death something we can avoid? No way, to the extent we avoid death we avoid life. The degree to which we are afraid to die is the degree to which we are afraid to fully live. Every time we avoid and turn away from death we are proclaiming it stronger than God, more real than life, and the ultimate victor.

The unspoken fear, anxiety or the big dragon as Fr. Ric calls it, and avoidance of death underlies all our “what if” questions.” What if I fail, lose, fall down? What if I get hurt? What if I don’t get what I want? What if I lose that one I most  need and love? Every “what if” question separates and isolates us from life, from God, from one another, and from ourselves. It keeps us from bearing fruit. We just remain a single grain of wheat. We might survive but we aren’t really alive.

Jesus did not ask to be saved from death. He is unwilling to settle for survival when the fullness of God’s life is before him. He knows that in God’s world strength is found in weakness as Paul says when I am week then I am strong, he knows that victory looks like defeat, and life is born of death. This is what allowed him to ride triumphantly, as we are going to see, into Jerusalem, a city that will condemn and kill him. That is what allows us to ride triumphantly through life. Triumph doesn’t mean that we get our way or that we avoid death. It means death is a gateway not a prison and the beginning not the end.

Regardless of who or what in our life has died, God in Christ has already cleared the way forward. We have a path to follow. That path is the death of Jesus. Jesus’ death, however, is of no benefit to us if we are not willing to submit to death, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Ultimately, death, in whatever way it comes to us, means that we entrust all that we are and all that we have to God. We let ourselves be lifted up; lifted up in Christ’s crucifixion, lifted up in his resurrection, lifted up in his ascension into heaven. He is drawing all people to himself, that where he is we too may be. Grains of wheat. That is what we are. Through death, however, we can become the bread of life. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies it remains just a single grain.”

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

A Prayer for the Feast Day of Thomas Cranmer on the Anniversary of His Martrydom

Thomas_Cranmer_by_Gerlach_FlickeThe Collect for Thomas Cranmer
Father of all mercies,
who through the work of your servant Thomas Cranmer
renewed the worship of your Church and through his death
revealed your strength in human weakness:
by your grace strengthen us to worship you in spirit and in
truth and so to come to the joys of your everlasting kingdom:
through Jesus Christ our Mediator and Advocate,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever.
Amen

 

Dr. Ben Witherington: Suspicious Minds

We live in an era when people are prone to suspicion, and susceptible to believing conspiracy theories, even in extreme forms. What often happens is there are things that people would like to be true about people or institutions or beliefs they don’t much care for, and when a conspiracy theory comes up that smears the person or belief or institution in question, they are all too ready to believe it. Sometimes this form of cynicism is confused with critical thinking. But genuine critical thinking start with an open mind and examines evidence. It does not start with a suspicion and then looks for one’s suspicions to be confirmed, selecting evidence that supports the preconceived notions. When the blinding searchlight of suspicion is turned on the subject of religion, including Christianity, all sorts of evidence is left in the dark in order to focus on this or that fact which one wishes to highlight. This does not constitute good critical thinking, much less objective analysis. It is in fact a sort of negative apologetics, or as Paul Simon once said “still a man sees what he wants to see and disregards the rest”. While that is a cynical view of humankind, it is sadly too often true in a cynical age. Suspicion is a corrosive acid, and it is the opposite of trust much less faith. The saddest part is it destroys the soul of the person who is pouring the acid on this or that object that one used to care about— a loved one, a cherished belief, and so on.

Read it all.

Myth-busting: What You Need to Know About St. Patrick

From Christian Today.

st-patricks-dayToday is St Patrick’s Day, when all around the world people with Irish roots – and plenty of others who just like to party – celebrate the life of the fifth-century saint. There are parades with floats and banners, Guinness consumption doubles, and there is even the odd church service.

Ah, St Patrick – who could be more Irish than that? 

Pretty much anyone, actually. Whisper this, but Patrick was actually a Brit, captured by Irish pirates and sold into slavery. After six years he escaped and went home.

There must be more to it than that. 

Oh, all right. During his enslavement he became a Christian. After his escape he saw a vision in which he was called to return to Ireland as a missionary. He probably landed at Wicklow, at the same port from which he had earlier escaped, but the natives were unfriendly and he was forced further north. He was energetic, innovative and fearless, becoming the first bishop of Armagh and Primate of Ireland.

Read it all.

A Tale of Two Poles

Sermon delivered on Lent 4B, Sunday, March 15, 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: Numbers 21.4-9; Psalm 107.1-3,17-22; Ephesians 2.1-10; John 3.14-21.

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

Our readings this morning are full of contrasting themes of light and darkness. They remind us of the reality of the existence of human sin and evil, and God’s mysterious response to it all. In doing so, they remind us what the gospel is all about and how we should respond to both the light of Christ and the darkness that has been defeated by God in and through Jesus, and this is what I want us to look at briefly this morning.

In our epistle lesson, the apostle Paul offers a blunt assessment of the human condition. He tells us that without Jesus we are dead people walking and children of God’s wrath because of our sins and our natural inclination to follow the ways of a world laboring under the control of Satan. The world Paul is talking about, of course, is the people and systems that are hostile to God’s good and original intentions for human beings to be his wise image-bearing creatures who reflect God’s glory out into the world and reflect the world’s praise and goodness back to its Creator. Like Adam and Eve, we are not much interested in being God’s wise stewards. We want instead to set ourselves up in God’s place so that we can run the show the way we want, taking matters into our own hands at every turn. The result is that God’s good world has gotten turned upside down and without God’s gracious intervention in our lives, the human condition is characterized by enmity, strife, quarreling, jealousy, fits of rage, dissensions, factions, sexual impurity and a whole host of other nasties (Galatians 5.19-21). As John reminds us in our gospel lesson, people love the darkness of their sin rather than the light of God’s healing love.

But John also tells us that God loves the world and because he does, God must inevitably judge it to rid it of all traces of evil. We see this entire dynamic played out in our OT lesson this morning. God had rescued his people Israel from their slavery in Egypt, bringing them through the Red Sea in a mighty act of deliverance. Now God’s people find themselves wandering in the desert and they start to grumble. This despite the fact that God had graciously provided for them and led them himself in the pillars of cloud and fire. In other words, there was little objective reason for God’s people to grumble or complain that God had abandoned them. But grumble they did. They became impatient with God’s travel plans and provisions for them. They couldn’t disabuse themselves of the notion that their timeline and travel route to the promised land were superior to God’s. They weren’t able to trust that God really did care for them, especially during this time of uncertainty in the wilderness. And so they quarreled with God through Moses. Some even wanted to return to their slavery in Egypt! Talk about short-sightedness! But of course we do the same when we become impatient with God when things aren’t happening fast enough to suit us or God apparently isn’t giving us the things we want. After all, we know better about our needs than God and expect him to cater to our every desire.

God’s response to his people’s grumbling was swift and terrible. He sent poisonous snakes among them and as a result, many died. As we hear this story, many of us our tempted to wonder if John wasn’t seriously delusional when he tells us that God loves the world. This is love? No thank you, God. I’ll pass. But this reaction fails to take into account the bigger picture and the reason why God called Israel into existence in the first place. It is precisely because God does love his good world gone bad that he called Israel to bring his healing love to the world. And of course the balm for all that ails us is to learn how to become faithful and obedient people who love God and trust his good will and judgment in our lives, and who act in accordance with God’s original plans for his image-bearing creatures that we just talked about. But you cannot teach others how to love and trust God and be obedient to his will if you are grumbling and acting like those God called you to help heal. And so when God’s people actively rebelled against God’s rule over them, they incurred God’s just wrath. Remember, if God really does love his world, he cannot countenance evil in it, especially from his own people.

But in addition to God’s wrath, God also showed his gracious love toward his people when they repented (at least temporarily) of their proud grumbling. When they acknowledged their sin to Moses, Moses prayed to God on behalf of his people, the same people who had been grumbling against Moses and his leadership, and God provided a means of protection from the serpents God had sent to afflict his people. God told Moses to make a serpent and put it on a pole so that whenever anyone was bitten, they could look upon the serpent and live. This is a deeply ambiguous command. Moses was to use the image of a serpent, that powerful biblical symbol of evil, as a means to rescue his people. We are not told how this worked, only that it did when God’s people showed enough faith and trust in God to obey his command.

If we understand this call to look in faith at this strange symbol that bears God’s love for his world and to trust his love and good will and purposes for us, even when we are in the midst of our darkest valley, we are ready to look at the cross of Jesus Christ because it is the ultimate symbol of God’s gracious love for us and his world. As our Lord told Nicodemus, just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must Jesus be lifted up on the cross so that whoever believes in him might have eternal life, starting right now and extending into God’s new world.

Again, we note that Jesus did not offer an explanation of how this works or why. He simply tells us that it does. It is enough for us to know that once we were at death’s door through our own sin and disobedience but that in the cross of Jesus, God has provided us a remedy. And not just any remedy. The remedy, the only remedy. In other words, this passage is about a faith that grasps the God-given solution to the intractable problem of human sin and evil and so is healed by it. But unlike the Israelites who were only healed temporarily when they looked at that other pole, we who look upon the cross of Christ in faith are healed forever. This is why the cross stands as the eternal symbol of God’s great love for us.

And as Paul reminds us in our epistle lesson, God’s plan of rescue in and through the cross of Jesus is offered to us as a sheer act of grace by God the Father, precisely because God loves the world so much. When we put our whole hope and trust in Jesus, we get to share in both his life and death (cf. Romans 6.3-5). We are delivered from death by Christ’s death and made alive by virtue of our relationship with him. And we will be resurrected with him to share in his new life, thereby experiencing his love for in unimaginably new ways when God’s new world finally arrives in full.

This gracious love shown on the cross is a challenge to us all. It challenges our proud self-righteousness that deludes us into thinking we are worthy of God’s gracious offer of eternal life or that we don’t need to be rescued in the first place. And it challenges those of us who feel unlovable and who truly cannot believe God loves us that much to want to save us in the first place. But it is urgent that we come to grips with the cross because John confronts us here with making the ultimate choice: perish apart from God or receive the gift of eternal life offered to us in Jesus. There is no other way. And there is an urgency about making this choice because as John further reminds us, those who choose to look at the cross and walk away find themselves already condemned by their decision. When you reject the only God-given path that leads to life, faith in Jesus and his death and resurrection, what other result can there be?

That is why the season of Lent with its emphasis on confession and repentance of all that keeps us hostile toward and alienated from God is an especially appropriate time for us to focus on the cross. Doing so reminds us that God loves us so much that he sent his only Son to rescue us and restore us to a right relationship with him, even when we were his enemies! When we realize the great love and mercy God has for us and his desire for us to be healed, it can only melt our proud hard-heartedness and turn it into grateful humility for such a wondrous gift and love.

The cross also reminds us that God loves the entire world, not just those of us who belong to Jesus’ body, the Church. This means we are to imitate our Lord’s great love by embodying it to those around us, especially those who are hostile to the gospel. We do so because we have been rescued from our sin and death by the blood of Christ shed for us and desire to offer that same love to others with its power to heal. Of course, as John reminds us, many will reject that offer because they prefer to live in the darkness of their own sin. And if we truly love others as God loves us, we will find that rejection costly. But this is what it means for us to walk in the way of the cross as we follow the path our Lord Jesus took. Who or what situation in your life needs to be exposed to the costly love of God made known on the cross?

This desire to embody God’s great love in Jesus to others is precisely the reason why Paul stresses that Christ rescued us for good works. As the Israelites discovered when they wandered through the desert, it is hard for us to embody the love of Jesus, a self-giving love powerfully manifested on the cross, if we are acting just like those who need to be rescued. When others see us acting in ways that are contrary to God’s good will for us, they can never experience the reality of God’s love for them as it is typically made manifest—through God’s holy people. It is hard to show folks what it’s like to act as genuinely human beings and point them to the Great Physician to be healed when we are acting in sub-human or desperately sick ways, showing no signs of being willing to submit ourselves to the healing love of Jesus.

And so as we come to this midpoint in Lent, I encourage us all to stop and reflect on this tale of two poles. As Good Friday draws near, let us increasingly turn our gaze toward Calvary. Let us see our Lord dying there so that we might live and let this mysterious love of God thoroughly change us so that we not only rejoice in the incalculable gift we have been given, but also want to share it with others. We do both because we really do believe God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son into the world to save it and not condemn it, and we are thankful we have the gracious privilege of living out this Good News that is ours, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

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

Don’t Be a Moron

Sermon delivered on Lent 3B, Sunday, March 8, 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: Exodus 20.1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1.18-25; John 2.13-22.

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

As we continue our Lenten journey to the foot of the cross, I want us today to compare and contrast God’s Law as contained in the 10 Commandments with the cross of Jesus Christ to see what each means for us as God’s people. When I was a young man, I used to hate hearing the Ten Words (Commandments) of God because I thought God gave them to us to rain on our parade and stop us from having any fun. Being a typical red-blooded American male living in the midst of the burgeoning sexual revolution I wasn’t much interested in the 10 Words’ emphasis on sexual purity. No fun there. Being much smarter than my parents on a whole host of issues, I wasn’t particularly interested in listening to them either, let alone honoring them. After all, who wants to honor people who aren’t as smart as you? And the proscription against coveting someone’s slave or ox or donkey was simply more proof to me that these Words were outdated and irrelevant to someone who was as enlightened and smart and cool as I was. Some of you who know me today may be thinking to yourself not much has changed with him.

I tell you this because I think my attitude summarizes nicely the human condition and our inherent hostility toward living as God’s fully human image-bearing creatures. I thought I knew much better than God what makes me happy. I mistook the 10 Words as moralistic rules to be slavishly (or at least begrudgingly) followed to put forth an appearance of propriety. In other words, I totally missed the point of the 10 Words and God’s Law in general. I didn’t realize (or perhaps was never taught) that the 10 Words were part of God’s unfolding plan to rescue his sin-sick and fallen world and its peoples through Abraham and his descendants, culminating in Jesus. I didn’t pay much attention to the opening sentence in the 10 Words, which tells us how God set the stage for what was to follow by reminding his people Israel that it was God who had rescued them from their slavery in Egypt so that they could become the people God called them to be in the first place, to bring God’s blessings to a world that desperately needed to be healed. To gloss over that first sentence made me miss the point that what God did for his people Israel, God intends to do for us in Jesus: rescue us from our slavery to sin.

That’s why the first two Words are where and what they are. Israel was not to worship or even recognize any other gods but the one true and living God, the God who had delivered them from their slavery in Egypt and who was bringing them to the promised land so that they could get to work as his redeemed people to bring God’s healing to the world. That’s why there could be no idol-worship because all idols are human inventions and they pull us away from living as God originally created us to live. This was the essential problem at the Fall. Adam and Eve decided not to live as God’s image-bearing stewards to reflect his glory out into the world. Instead, they wanted to follow their own model for living, much like we still do today, and as a result, sin and evil entered the world and corrupted it.

So if God were going to call a people to help put the world to rights in the manner he always envisioned for humans, they had to do things differently than Adam and Eve (and almost everybody else ever since) had done. They had to learn how to be human beings again and this is what the 10 Words were designed to help them become. Just as God was holy and set apart from the world, so too did God’s people have to reflect his holiness. And to do this, they had to behave accordingly. They couldn’t be worshiping false gods because doing so would pervert and corrupt them into doing things that were not good for them or for the world around them. They couldn’t be following their selfish ambitions and programs because God was not selfish or ambitious. They couldn’t be greedy or covetous or sexually immoral because these things corrupt and dehumanize us to the very core of our existence. This was how the nations acted and it would result in their destruction.

And we get this at a gut level. Want to destroy a family (or a church family)? Have an affair. Want to ensure that conflict and hostility are part of your life? Then act consistently in ways that are selfish or proud or arrogant or covetous and you will certainly get what you want. Want to live by the sword? Then be prepared to die by the sword. But none of this reflects God’s holiness or goodness out into the world. It reflects our own sickness. And because God created us to be wise stewards over his world, when we are sick, the world around us is sick. So here we see God beginning to teach those he called to be his people how to think and act the part. God understood that we humans will become exactly what we worship and so he gave his people the Law to help them learn how to be holy so that God could use them to help rescue his world. Worshiping false gods or idols would send them down the same path as everyone else.

This is a far cry from seeing the 10 Words as rain for our parade given by an angry God bent on punishing us at every turn. Seen in its proper light the Law can help us learn to see the very heart and nature of God, the God who loves his world and its people, and who wants to set us free from our slavery to the sin that dehumanizes us and ultimately kills us. The psalmist gets this about the Law because this is exactly what he celebrates in our psalm today. The Law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul. The testimony of the Lord is good, making wise the simple. And what is the beginning of wisdom? A healthy and reverent fear of the Lord! This isn’t rain for our parade. It’s the spiritual oxygen we must breathe to have abundant life!

But of course a minute’s thought will make us realize that the Law can never rescue us because we are too badly broken and corrupted by the effect of sin and evil in our lives. Instead of seeing the Law as a good thing, we tend to see it at best as a necessary evil. This is why Paul would write in numerous places that the Law can’t give life and can only expose sin for what it is (e.g., Romans 3.20, 4.15; Galatians 2.16, 3.10-11). It can’t give life because none of us can keep the entire law. We are too badly broken. And when we are reminded of what it takes to be God’s holy or set apart people, it does nothing but frustrate and anger us. Look how much we struggle to keep our Lenten disciplines if we really are working on something that seriously impedes our relationship with God. Being the proud folks we are, we just know we can do better and are determined to pull ourselves up by our moral bootstraps to show God and others we are worthy of being in his company. This delusion, of course, ignores the reality of living in the presence of a holy God. God’s people learned this lesson when they arrived at Mount Sinai. When God descended on the mountain, the whole camp trembled in fear at his presence. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (or come into his presence), precisely because we are by nature unholy people and God is perfect in holiness (Hebrews 10.31; cf. Isaiah 6.5; Luke 5.8; Revelation 1.17). This is why the Law can never offer us Good News. If anything, it offers us nothing but bad news because it reminds us of who we are versus what God intends us to be and doesn’t give us a way to get from here to there.

But fear not, because the Law is not the last word in this business of our rescue from evil, sin, and death. Enter the cross. As Paul tells us in our epistle lesson, for those of us who are being saved, the cross represents the power of God to do the seemingly impossible for us. We ask how God can condemn our sin without condemning us. God’s word answers, “Through the cross.” As Paul would write elsewhere, on the cross God condemned our sin in the flesh by taking it on himself so that the righteous requirements of the Law would be fulfilled and we no longer have to fear God’s just condemnation. On the cross of Jesus, God reconciled us to himself and transferred us from the kingdom of darkness in which we all live to the kingdom of his beloved Son.

When we come to the foot of the cross in penitence and faith, we find real healing and true peace because as Paul tells us, the cross represents God’s wisdom and power needed to free us from the guilt and shame of our sin. By faith we perceive that God has done a terrible and costly thing on our behalf because he loves us and wants us to be healed so that we can embody and proclaim his great love to others around us, thus helping put God’s world to rights. God has saved our lives, but in a manner we never expected. We expect God to rescue us through mighty acts of power like he demonstrated at the Red Sea and Mount Sinai. But we never expected God to use the ultimate symbol of shame, defeat, and death to rescue us and give us life. Yet this is exactly what God has done for us and we have Jesus’ resurrection as proof that the testimony of God’s wisdom and power as demonstrated on the cross is true.

To a sin-sick world, of course, the cross is folly. Who ever heard of a rescue plan that puts suffering and sacrificial love at the forefront? Who ever heard of a rescue plan that uses an instrument of humiliation and shame to accomplish its purposes, especially when the person involved is God himself embodied as a human being? Does not compute! Certainly this would not have made sense to most Jews of Jesus’ day, precisely because the cross was an instrument of shame. Any good Jew knew that people who were hung on a pole were cursed by God, not blessed (Deuteronomy 21.23). Nor was dying as a criminal at the hands of hated foreigners akin to the Exodus or other mighty acts of power that the OT records. The cross certainly wasn’t the sign Jewish folks were looking for that would signal God had returned to fulfill his promise to rescue them from the hostile powers that oppressed them. Neither was Jesus’ resurrection a recognizable sign as our gospel lesson attests. Jesus’ opponents didn’t have a clue when he told them that if they destroyed the temple of his body, he would raise it up in three days. But for those of us who are being saved, the cross of Jesus is all the sign we need because it is the wisdom and power of God, seen in the light of the resurrection.

It is God’s wisdom and power because in Jesus’ death, God makes clear that it is only in and through his love and mercy that we are rescued from our sins and the ultimate evil of death. It is God’s power alone because as we have seen, none of us has the power within us to follow the Law and thus be rescued from our sin. This, of course, is an affront to a world that places a premium on power, pride, self-aggrandizement, and human knowledge. That is why the cross is foolishness to those who are not Jews. The focus is in the wrong place. It is on God and not us.

And we need to be clear about what Paul is saying here when he talks about foolishness. When we hear the word foolish, we tend to think of trivial things or being silly. But the word Paul uses, moria, from which the English word moron is derived, is much more than thinking silly thoughts. As our English word aptly suggests, it really is moronic to dismiss the cross because only in the cross can we find healing, forgiveness, peace, and life. Like I was in my younger days, so the world is too smart and sophisticated for its own good to believe in such love and grace made manifest in this way, sadly to its destruction.

This is why finding our way to the foot of the cross is so important during Lent because this is the season where we focus on developing the faith and humility in the power of the Spirit that will help us reject the false notion that the cross is foolishness, thereby learning how to be fully human and wise in our dealings with God and each other. The cross reminds us that God’s holiness is something we need to take seriously. But it also reminds us to take seriously God’s love for us and his call to us to be his holy people because that love is costly. And the way to do that is to learn to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus in his path of suffering love for the sake of the world. This means, in part, that we are to love and forgive our enemies. It means we are to bless and not curse them. It means we must abandon our proud self-righteousness, selfishness, and arrogance. It’s counterintuitive. Scandalous even. But if we really do want to live as fully human beings who enjoy the peace of God that comes from a firm knowledge we are loved and forgiven because of the blood of the Lamb shed for us, if we really do take seriously our call to live as God’s holy people, we must know that Jesus’ death and resurrection is the only way we will get there. So this Lenten season, don’t think like a moron. Instead, embrace the power and wisdom of God poured out for you on the cross and learn to walk in its way, because unlike a moron, you really do know that in the death and resurrection of Jesus, you have Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

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

Ana Marie Cox: Why I’m Coming Out as a Christian

Lot’s of good stuff here to munch on.

1425302314481.cachedMy hesitancy to flaunt my faith has nothing to do with fear of judgment by non-believers. My mother was an angry, agnostic ex-Baptist; my father is a casual atheist. (I asked him once why he didn’t believe in God, and he replied easily, “Because He doesn’t exist.”)

I am not smart enough to argue with those that cling to disbelief. Centuries of philosophers have made better arguments than I could, and I am comfortable with just pointing in their direction if an acquaintance insists, “If there is a God, then why [insert atrocity]?” For me, belief didn’t come after I had the answer to that question. Belief came when I stopped needing the answer.

No, I’m nervous to come out as a Christian because I worry I’m not good enough of one. I’m not scared that non-believers will make me feel an outcast. I’m scared that Christians will.

Read it all.