Don’t Follow Your Heart

Sermon delivered at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church’s annual parish dedication festival, Trinity 13B, Sunday, August 30, 2015.

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

Lectionary texts: Song of Solomon 2.8-13; Psalm 45.1-2, 7-10; James 1.17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23.

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

On this day when we celebrate the founding of our parish, now well into its fourth year, and our patron saint, Augustine of Hippo, whose feast day was this past Friday (August 28), the anniversary of his death, how appropriate for us to consider the question, what makes a person righteous? In other words, how can we live our lives in ways that are faithful to God’s good will and purposes for us as his image-bearing creatures who are charged with being stewards over his good creation? The short answer is this: It’s a matter of transformation, and this topic was near and dear to Augustine of Hippo. This is what I want us to look at briefly this morning.

In our gospel lesson, we see Jesus again being confronted by his adversaries, this time over the matter of cleanness and uncleanness. Not being first-century Jews, these terms can seem strange to us, so let’s use the terms we are better acquainted with, righteous (or right) and unrighteous (or wrong). Yes folks. your heard me correctly. Despite what some would have us believe, there still are ways of thinking and acting in this world that constitute right and wrong. At the heart of the matter, Jesus’ adversaries are arguing that external things we do can make us right in God’s eyes. The immediate context in our gospel lesson was ceremonial (not hygienic) washing. Do this, say Jesus’ opponents, and you will distinguish yourself from the hated pagans who surround and control us, and make yourself right in God’s eyes at the same time. Sweet.

Nonsense, replies Jesus. It’s not the ceremonial things you do that make you right in God’s eyes, things like attending worship or praying or reading the Bible regularly or doing acts of charity (you know, stuff we Christians are called to do). You are focusing on the wrong things. What defiles you is what originates within you, within your heart. For it is out of the heart that all kinds of nasty things come. This is what alienates you from God and destroys your relationship with him. In other words, this is what makes you unclean and not right with God. Your corrupt heart is what makes external, ceremonial stuff necessary in the first place. It’s possible to do all those things well and still have a bad heart. For Jesus, the heart was not just the center of our emotions, but the center of our will.

This, of course, runs against our current thinking. Listen to your heart, we are told, and be true to it. Doing so is the key to success or happiness or whatever. But if we take Jesus’ claim here seriously, we can see the folly of that advise. We dare not listen to our heart, at least until it has been healed and transformed by Jesus in and through the power of the Spirit, because our heart is corrupt. Fixing this problem is not a matter of superficial window dressing (external acts), but of tearing down and rebuilding the very structure of the building (internal transformation)!

Jesus’ teaching also refutes an argument we hear a lot these days, that “God made me this way.” God did not create us with corrupt hearts that lead us to follow our own proud and selfish desires. God did not create babies with birth defects, etc. This is the result of human sin in the garden and God’s subsequent curse on it. Anyone with a realistic and biblical perspective understands that while there are many things in this world that are good, right, and beautiful, there is also something terribly wrong with the world, and here Jesus tells us what part of the problem is. We have corrupted hearts that make us act in unwise, unhealthy, and outright sinful ways. Fix the heart and the behavior corrects itself. Jesus wasn’t railing against human tradition. He was railing against human tradition that sets aside God’s teaching about how we are to conduct our lives. He didn’t say stop washing or tithing or doing the things we do here at St. Augustine’s as the Lord’s people. He said stop thinking that doing those things make you right in God’s eyes because they may simply be covering a corrupt heart. Augustine himself saw the wisdom of Jesus’ teaching when he said that, “Our hearts are restless, O Lord, until they rest in you,” i.e., until our corrupt hearts are healed and regenerated by Jesus.

Now at this point, I can hear some of you grumbling to yourselves. “I hear what Jesus is saying, but surely that doesn’t apply to me. I’m not a murderer or a rapist or a terrorist. I don’t preach long sermons like Fr. Maney. I’m basically a good person.” Well, you may be a good person at some level, says Jesus, because I created you good. But you are no longer pure. Every time you say a hurtful word to others out of anger, every time you tell a lie or gossip or speak evilly about someone else or are indifferent to the plight of another, you are bearing the fruit of your corrupted heart because none of these things is from God. None of these things are after my example. And until your corrupt heart gets healed, you have a fundamental problem with God, the source and author of all life, because your corrupt heart inevitably alienates you from God.

Now that I’ve sufficiently depressed you and made you feel all uncomfortable and stuff, let me tell you that a corrupt heart is not the end of the story. While we must certainly acknowledge our brokenness as humans and the estrangement our hard heart causes between God and humans and between humans, it is a testimony to the love and faithfulness of God that he would move to heal our corrupt hearts by becoming human and dying on a cross to end our alienation from him and each other. No matter who we are or what we have done, there is nothing too great for the love of God poured out in Jesus Christ to overcome or heal. Nothing. God wants us to live rightly so we can finally begin to enjoy real happiness and purpose of living, something that is only possible when he replaces our hard hearts with human ones. So in addition to addressing the basis of our alienation with him by dying for us, God poured out his Spirit in our hearts to heal us and give us hearts of flesh, human hearts, that will help us to live in the manner pleasing to God and us. Contrast this response to our own when we are the victims of someone’s hard heart. Our own hard heart doesn’t tell us to forgive the offender and be reconciled to him. Our unhealed hearts make us want to lash out and seek revenge on the offender, inevitably escalating the conflict and alienation we feel. This is not what we are hardwired for. We are hardwired for relationship and goodness and peace. But our sin changed us and gives us just the opposite. That is why God’s mighty acts of justice and mercy on the cross and his giving us the Holy Spirit are such wonderful, life-changing things, thanks be to God!

Jesus hints at this in our gospel lesson. Don’t replace God’s teaching found in the broader story of God’s redemption contained in Scripture with your own human traditions. Instead, examine your motives and seek a pure heart, a heart that can only be healed and changed by me. I am available to you in the power of the Spirit and in God’s word contained in Scripture. This means that until our consistent desire is for God to cleanse and purify us by healing our hard hearts, we will never know the real transformative power of God. Failing to desire purity and then not doing the things on our end that must accompany a real desire to be healed, e.g., obeying Scripture, praying for purity, etc., is simply another manifestation of our corrupt heart.

This is why James urges us to take our human condition and the resulting sin seriously. Don’t be deceived, he tells us. Sin is deadly and will ruin you if you do not embrace the gift you’ve been given in Jesus. To be sure, your sins are forgiven by the blood of the Lamb shed for you. To be sure, you have been rescued from the dominion of darkness and transferred into God’s kingdom of light because of what God has done for you in Jesus. But if you really believe God has done this for you, you must respond to the gift you’ve been given. For starters, you will begin to see your utter inability to change and heal your corrupted heart and understand that only Jesus can do that for you (humility anyone?). Faith in Jesus will also open your eyes to the utter deadliness and horror of your sin and cause you to seek to pattern your own lives after Jesus so that you can be freed from the sin that will destroy you. And how does James think we do this? Through accepting the word of God in our lives, i.e., by obeying the clear teachings of Scripture found in the broader narrative of God’s rescue plan of his creation and creatures, not just the parts we happen to agree with. When we are cafeteria Christians, picking and choosing what we will obey in Scripture and what we will ignore, we are demonstrating that we prefer to follow our corrupt heart rather than submit to God’s word. This is fundamentally self-defeating because all Scripture points us to Jesus our Lord and Savior, and only Jesus can truly change us for the good for which we were created. This is why we must obey all of Scripture, not just the parts we happen to like.

As our hearts get healed by Jesus so that we become more consistently like him, it will inevitably lead us to work for God’s justice to protect society’s weakest and poorest and those least able to defend themselves, i.e., we will begin to practice our faith. Why? Because our healed hearts lead us to have real compassion for the least and the lost, folks just like us before we were touched by the love of God. But our healed hearts will do more than this. Our heart of flesh will cause us to recognize that we must consistently work to develop new behavior patterns to replace our old corrupt ones. This is what Paul meant by putting on Christ. So, e.g., we must learn to put aside our anger, our evil speaking, our gossip, our pride, our selfishness, and all the other manifestations of our corrupt hearts. We don’t do this on our own, of course. We do it in the power of the Spirit. That’s why our urgent pleas for purity must inevitably lead to our transformation, maddeningly slow and idiosyncratic as that seems to us at times. But this is what James is talking about when he talks about us being the firstfruits of God’s good and generous gift to us made known in and through Jesus and the presence of his Spirit in and through his people. Thanks be to God! Our healed hearts cause us to bear good fruit and give the world a preview of what will be standard operating procedure in the new creation. Right now, healed hearts are an exception to the rule. When the kingdom comes in full, it will be the rule, no exceptions. I can assure you, Augustine would be all about healing and transformation that leads to action!

As I look at the fruit we bear as a parish, it is evident to me that the Spirit is at work in and through us and our hearts are being healed. I see how we care for each other and those who are not part of our family. I sense the spirit of goodwill and charity when we gather together and I rejoice at seeing us work tirelessly for our Lord who loved us and has claimed us. This isn’t an invitation for complacency and self-congratulations. Our healed hearts cause us to know better. But it is a sin not to celebrate our Lord’s good gifts to us as we resolve to continue to work tirelessly and joyfully on his behalf. Doing so is the best way we can witness to the world that God really does heal corrupt hearts and that we really do have Good News to offer others and ourselves, 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.

From St. Augustine’s Confessions

Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you. And see, you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made. You were with me, and I was not with you. The lovely things kept me far from you, though if they did not have their existence in you, they had no existence at all. You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.

10.27.38

CT: When Jesus Got the Bible Wrong

Very nice. See what you think.

All of us are tempted on occasion to approach biblical tensions—texts that seem to contradict each other—in flippant or offhand ways. At one end of the spectrum are skeptics who reduce tensions to textual incoherence and human invention. On the other are those with more evangelical commitments, who desperately trawl books and websites to harmonize mismatching texts. Once they find one, they sigh and move on as if the tension has nothing to teach us. The “problem” has been “resolved.”

But if we want to take Scripture seriously, we must ask why tensions exist in the first place. Why did the Holy Spirit—who inspired Scripture—cause these discrepant texts to be written? What do they reveal? And what might we lose if we “resolve” the problem? We are, after all, listening for the voice of God, not solving a puzzle.

Read it all.

Fr. Philip Sang: Trusting by Faith

Sermon delivered on Trinity 12B, August 23, 2015, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: 1 Kings 8.1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43; Psalm 84.1-12; Ephesians 6.10-20; John 6.56-69.

May the words of my mouth and meditations of our hearts be acceptable to your oh Lord our rock and our Redeemer, in the name of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit Amen.

In today’s gospel, we learn of how, after listening to Jesus teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum, many of his disciples found his words difficult to the extent where they could no longer be Jesus’ disciples. Jesus was teaching them about the sacrament of Holy Communion; of eating and drinking his flesh and blood. To many, this was going too far. How could they, being faithful Jews, participate in the most offensive act of cannibalism? Such a teaching went beyond sound reasoning and common understanding. However, Jesus was not teaching or advocating that his disciples practice cannibalism. Rather, he was speaking of living in relationship with him as God’s Holy One who would open the door to the Father. He was their true Master Key; he would be able to open the door and bring them into the Father’s kingdom.

As this gospel story unfolds, the people, who were disciples, we are told, are abandoning Jesus, so he asks the twelve disciples if they too wished to go away from him. Peter, being the spokesperson for the other disciples then responds with this confession, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

One wonders, how could Peter and the other eleven, of course with Judas being the exception, remain with Jesus and make this confession, while, on the other hand many others, who were also his disciples, abandoned him? Well, apart from the deep mysteries of God, the main reason seems to be that the ones who left placed their own understanding; their own knowing; over and above faith; of being able and willing to trust in Jesus even if they did not completely understand his teachings.

Men and women have come to God, not to find prove to bread or curious to analyze it; they have come as hungry people, needing to eat if they would live. And they have found life glorified by faith in him. It was with Peter and his companions as it is with us too; that faith and believing take precedent over and prior to knowledge and understanding. We do not know and understand in order to have faith and believe. Rather, it is the other way round, we have faith and believe in order to know and understand. This we see in the words of Peter’s confession as well, when he says: “We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Belief comes first, then the knowing. This truth is born out further as we read the whole story of Christ and his disciples in the gospels. Overall, we notice that it is not until after Christ’s resurrection that the disciples really knew and understood what Jesus was talking about before he died and predicted his Passion and resurrection. So it is with us too, we believe and have faith in Jesus long before we completely know and understand him. In fact, our knowledge and understanding of him is always growing and maturing as we take practical steps of faith in our daily living.

Another reality and truth to which Peter’s confession points us is the importance of commitment to Christ. Here we have people giving up their commitment to Jesus. In this context, when the going gets tough we see the tough gets going, it is Peter and his companions who stay put and remain committed to Jesus.

By following Jesus and being committed to him like Peter and his companions, we are able to make our life count. A committed life can transform the ordinary into the extraordinary this happens by us investing our time, talents, gifts and resources to work for the good of one another and for all. When we are committed to Jesus, we can leave a legacy of faith, a legacy of hope and a legacy of love for others that will last not only a lifetime, but into all eternity. Peter’s confession then reminds us all that by being committed to Christ our lives can make a tremendous difference in the church and in the world. Of course that is what we stand for; saved by God to make a difference for God

Most of us who have “fallen in love” with someone often say things like: “she/he is the only one for me;” or “she/he is the best man/woman in the whole wide world.” For us, the love relationship that we are involved in is so intense that there is no room for any other person to meet our needs or share our life with than that particular person whom we love.

So it was with Peter and his companions, when he made his confession to Christ. Notice the words he employs to communicate this exclusive loyalty and love towards Jesus: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” The question here might be translated something like this: “Jesus, you alone are the only one for us; there is no one in the whole wide world like you; you are the best; you are the greatest; you are number one!” Then Peter adds: “You have the words of Eternal life.” In other words, Jesus in his person now is the word become flesh, living and dwelling among us. His flesh present word along with the words that he spoke gives life. It is difficult to understand, how is this so? Well, it is this way because of the content in his word: his incarnate word-become-flesh and his spoken word both are life-giving because they are full to overflowing with promises. Promises like: “your sins are forgiven, I am with you always till the end of time, I love you, you are a precious member of my family, you are created in the very image of God, in me you are given everything you need to live an abundant life, I accept you unconditionally, I love you so much that I have suffered and died for you, I am the Holy One of God who through my resurrection, have defeated the powers of sin, death, and evil, and can save you and offer you eternal life.”

Peter and his companions trusted and later came to know that such words of Jesus were full-to-overflowing with promises that no other human being could live up to or match or improve upon. That is why they could go to no one else but Jesus. So it is with us too. Yes, at times we face many tests and hardships in life. Yes, at times we pray and pray; yet it seems to no avail and we feel that God doesn’t answer us. Yes, at times we are tempted to turn away from Jesus and go looking for “better things.” However, our God does not reject us or punish us for all of this. Instead, God hears us through Jesus and he invites us back from our wonder-lust, back to him. So we too, like the twelve, are invited to stay with him; he will give us all and so much more that we need to live a life of abundance, since there is no one else who can ever take his place.

Paul writing to the church of Ephesus and to us today warns that there will be struggle against the evil one and he encourages the church to be strong in the Lord and put on the spiritual armor of God to be able to stand against the methods of Satan. The struggle is not physical in nature but spiritual. Thus Paul mentions the spiritual weapons that we ought to have to face the battle, gird your waist with truth, put on breastplate of righteousness, gospel of peace, and shield of faith; As somebody puts it, the head of a Baptist, the heart of an Anglican, and the feet of a Pentecostal.  These are required to quench the flaming arrows of the evil one. The presence of these weapons in our lives means the presence of Jesus in our lives. People of God our strength is not in ourselves but in the Lord.

The psalmist has perfectly described the true meaning of putting one’s trust in the Lord. Putting our trust in the Lord is not simply confessing that we believe that Jesus is the Son of God or is the Lord of our life. We truly trust in the Lord when our desire is to be in the presence of the Lord above all else. We would rather serve God and worship God than enjoy the comforts of life. We must desire to ever sing God’s praises. When our hearts are on the highway to God, we will go through the valley of wailing, but enduring from strength to strength. God is our shield who hears our prayers and helps us through our difficult times. But we need to truly put our trust in the Lord. It is time to stop making excuses that we think justify us before God. Give God your time and full effort and you will find these things to be worth the effort.

Solomon and Israelites understood what it means to trust in the Lord and the presence of the Lord among them. The psalmist understood how blessed it is to trust in the Lord, Paul acknowledged trusting in the Lord who is the source of the strength to fight the enemy, the disciples resolved to trust and stick to the Lord who has life and none other. It is my prayer today that we will make a resolution to trust in the Lord Jesus who is our life and all in all. To Him be all Glory forever and ever

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

Wisdom and Foolishness

Sermon delivered on Trinity 11B, Sunday, August 16, 2015, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: 1 Kings 2.10-12; 3.3-14; Psalm 111.1-10; Ephesians 5.15-20; John 6.51-58.

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

Our lessons today tackle the biblical ideas of wisdom and foolishness, always a crowd pleaser. What does Scripture mean when it talks about wisdom and foolishness? What does that look like? Why should we give a fig about either? It is these questions I want us to look at briefly this morning.

Before we look at our lessons, it is helpful for us to have the Big Picture view in mind when it comes to the biblical notions of wisdom and foolishness. In general, as the psalmist proclaims (quoting Proverbs 1.7) the beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord. Those who have good understanding live by this. And as Proverbs adds, fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Scripture further distinguishes between godly wisdom and human wisdom. Godly wisdom produces a healthy fear of the Lord, not where we are terrified of God but where we realize God is God and we are not. Such wisdom produces a pattern of living that is consistent with living life fully in the manner God intends for us to live as his image-bearing creatures charged with caring for God’s good creation. Among others, it helps us discern evil from good and ultimately allows us to conduct our lives in the manner of Jesus. It is emphatically not about our ability to follow a set of arbitrary rules. Keep this in mind as we talk about what godly wisdom looks like on the ground, especially when we look at our epistle lesson.

Human wisdom, on the other hand, is based on our desire to play God. It is typically rooted in our pride and self-centeredness. We see it emerge in the garden of Eden when Adam and Eve listen to the tempter: “Did God really say…?”. And so our spiritual ancestors ate of the fruit from the tree of knowledge in a futile attempt to determine their own happiness. They weren’t content to follow God’s good and wise instructions and the ensuing freedom that always produce contentment, wholeness, peace, meaning, purpose, and happiness when followed. The folly of human wisdom is best seen in its failure to recognize our crucified and risen Lord, Jesus of Nazareth, the very embodiment of the living God, for who he is (cf. 1 Corinthians 1.20-25). Think how many today scoff at the notion that a meaningful and happy life, as well as salvation, can be found only in a real and living relationship with our risen Lord, vainly searching for all kinds of human-devised solutions that are bound to fail because they are not anchored in God, our only source of happiness and real life. It is enough to break the heart, especially when we consider the words of Jesus in our gospel lesson this morning: “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”

No, as the columnist Michael Cohen brilliantly argued in a recent piece, we in the west have spent the last 250 years or so trying to find happiness by tearing down all the old constraints and guidelines of religious morality in a misguided effort to become more “free” (a top priority of enlightened thinking), and we are utterly confounded when some of our youth reject their newly-won freedoms for the tyranny of ISIS.

But as Scripture reminds us, there is a problem with notions of freedom rooted in human wisdom. We are so inherently flawed that we really don’t know what is good for us. But being the wise fools we are, we don’t believe this and have rejected the godly wisdom of Paul, who correctly understood that only when we are free from our slavery to sin—something that is possible only in and through Jesus Christ, so that we are free to follow his pattern of living—will we ever be truly free and happy (cf. Galatians 5.1). And the result of our increasingly “free” society based on human wisdom? More alienation, more meaninglessness, more loneliness, more strife and enmity, more desperate searching for new meaning and purpose of living. We know in our bones (if we are honest with ourselves) there is more to life than the unfettered freedom to pursue our own fallen desires. And yet we continue to pursue those desires relentlessly.

With this in mind, we are now ready to see what light our lessons can shed on the twin notions of wisdom and foolishness. In our OT lesson, we see young King Solomon praying for God’s wisdom. Solomon’s ascent to the throne was anything but routine and peaceful (1 Kings 1.1-2-46). He emerged only after a deadly struggle with his own family, part of God’s curse on his father David’s sin of adultery and murder that we looked at a few weeks ago. Solomon had relied largely on his own wisdom to gain the throne, not God’s, but now apparently the young king is humble enough to know that he’s in over his head and needs the help, guidance, wisdom, and power of One greater than him if he is to rule God’s people wisely. In effect, Solomon asked God for the ability to live his life patterned after God’s own life so that God’s thoughts permeated Solomon’s thoughts, decision-making, and leadership. Is it any wonder God granted Solomon his request? Should we wonder any less that God would answer our own sincere requests to live wisely by being transformed in our minds and thinking (cf. Romans 12.2)? As Solomon demonstrated, once his mind was transformed by God, his behavior followed. But once Solomon decided to rely on his own wisdom, well, not so much. Apostasy and idolatry followed. Read the sad tale in 1 Kings 11.1-13.

From this story we see that if we are to pursue godly wisdom so that we live our lives in ways that are pleasing to God, you know, by practicing justice, loving mercy (i.e., loving others as ourselves), and walking humbly with our God (i.e., loving God with our whole being) (Micah 6.8), humility is the essential prerequisite. We have to be humble enough to recognize our own condition as being fatally flawed, and that we are not in the position to fix ourselves so that we reach out to the One who can fix and heal us. Life is complicated and we are mortal and finite. Despite what we might think, we are in it over our heads and need help from our Creator who really does know us and knows what is best for us. This realization comes only through humility.

Paul likewise urges us to practice godly wisdom in our epistle lesson. Be careful how you live, he says, because the times are evil. Live wisely and make the most of your time. The Greek he uses means literally to buy back your time. Here Paul is reminding us that life is not what God intended for us originally. It has been hijacked and snatched away from us by the dark powers and our own fallen nature, and he urges us to get the time we have back under our control. Why? So we can find real meaning, purpose of living, and contentment in our lives.

So how do we take back our time so that we find meaning, purpose, and joy? As we have seen the past two weeks, Paul has already told us how: cultivate the Spirit’s presence in you and let him heal and transform you so that you can live as God’s people. In today’s lesson, Paul expands on this, adding another dimension to his teaching. He tells us to embrace God’s wisdom. The Greek Paul uses here indicates that he sees this as an ongoing process, not a one-time event. Before we look specifically at what Paul says, we need a word of caution. I know that when I was a young man, I would read passages like this and roll my eyes. Don’t get drunk, don’t be sexually immoral, don’t party as the pagans do. In other words, I read passages like these with the understanding that Paul definitely didn’t want me to have a good time! All these dos and dont’s. All these rules to follow. But I knew better. Oh wait…! My point is this. If we read passages like today’s and see them as nothing more than rules to be followed, and not very fun ones at that, we are applying human wisdom and completely miss what Paul is telling us.

Paul and the other NT writers want Jesus’ body parts, you and me, to learn to take back the time that’s been hijacked from us so that we can learn to live in ways that are not only pleasing to God but pleasing to us. To do that, we must learn to live wisely, by God’s wisdom, not ours. And so here Paul tells us not to get drunk but to be filled by the Spirit. The Greek Paul uses indicates that while this is a command he wants us to follow, it isn’t something we can do in our own power. As we have seen, we do not have access to the Spirit until the Spirit chooses to live in us, and that is always God’s initiative. So here Paul is telling us that once we have been blessed with the Spirit, we are to do the things we need to do to allow the Spirit to do his healing and transforming work in us. In other words, what Paul is telling us to do is to cooperate with God so that God can do his thing in and for us. Paul understands that the spiritual world, like the physical world, abhors a vacuum. We must be filled with something, either good or bad (cf. Luke 11.24-26). Paul has nothing against wine or drinking. Neither does the Bible. What Paul (and Scripture in general) is adamantly against is drunkenness. Why? Because alcohol controls us, and usually not in good ways when we are drunk. It controls us indirectly by lowering our inhibitions so that we might say and do things we would never dream of saying or doing when sober. I know in my own experience, some of the things I have done about which I am most ashamed, I’ve done while being under the influence of alcohol: fighting, sexual immorality, evil speaking about others, boasting, selfish acts, and the like (cf. Galatians 5.19-21). By contrast, I’ve never done anything under the influence of the Holy Spirit about which I have been ashamed. Or consider the two daughters of Lot, who by using worldly wisdom, decided they needed to ensure their family line’s continuity after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and so devised a plan to get their father Lot drunk so that they achieved their goal by committing incest with him. Do you think Lot in his sober mind would have entertained such a scheme? If so, why the need to get him drunk? The writer of Genesis reports this, but certainly does not approve of this behavior (Genesis 19.30-36)! So Paul is warning us that if we want to be under the Spirit’s influence so that we can live wisely and take back our time, living in ways pleasing to God and building godly contentment in us, we must do things to cultivate the Spirit’s presence. This is a far cry from counseling us to follow the rules!

What are some of those things that can cultivate the Spirit’s presence? Prayer, as our OT lesson teaches. Reading and appropriating Scripture, as Paul teaches. Worship, praise and singing, along with partaking in the eucharistic feast each week, as our epistle and gospel lessons teach. Doing these things help the Spirit to do his transforming work in us so that we can build each other up instead of engaging in thinking and behaviors that tear each other down.

To summarize, the world, full of, um, its human wisdom, tells us to seek happiness by following our own desires and giving us the requisite freedom to do so. And so we seek to find happiness in booze, sex, greed, ambition and the rest. The result? We fail to develop meaningful relationships with God and others. Our drunken euphoria is replaced by a raging hangover in the morning. Our satiated libidos are counteracted by the loneliness and isolation we feel as the result of affairs or watching porn or one night stands. We seek to satisfy our desire for the perfect spouse by marrying, divorcing, and remarrying in an endless cycle instead of finding the joy and fulfillment that comes from a husband and wife working through married life for 30 years, like the Collins’s have, and overcoming all kinds of obstacles, things which while difficult and unpleasant at times, help us develop the kind of true and meaningful relationships we crave.

By contrast, godly wisdom recognizes that God created us to be his wise stewards and reflectors of his image and glory out into creation. It sees the massive importance of relationships, both with God and others, and understands that this takes hard work, humility, discipline, and commitment. The world’s wisdom will scoff at all this. In fact, they will hate it and us. They will call us fools and worse, and that is why we must be prepared to suffer for the Name. But who knows better about what it takes to make us happy than our good, wise, and all-knowing Creator? Augustine recognized this when he made his famous statement that, “Our hearts are restless, O God, until they find rest in you” (Confessions 1.1).

The choice is ours. Living our lives consistently after Jesus (notice I did not say in a mistake-free manner) will produce godly contentment and purpose of living that will surely satisfy us forever. We do that whenever we embody God’s love for all people, pursue justice, work for peace, resolve to be a servant to others rather than try to lord ourselves over them, and whenever we are kind, tenderhearted, generous, forgiving, and the rest (cf. Galatians 5.22-25). Learning to live our lives after God’s own life in which God’s wisdom leads, guides, and counsels us, so that we become Christ’s beacons of light to a world darkened by sin and confusion is surely the hardest thing we will ever do. But nothing worthwhile ever comes easily. Following Jesus is the only way we will ever learn to know real meaning and purpose for living.

As a parish, then, let us resolve afresh today to live as God’s wise image-bearing stewards, faithfully imitating our Lord Jesus Christ and relying confidently on his power to form us into the fully human beings he created us to be. And as Jesus does his healing and transformative work in and through us in the power of the Spirit, let us confidently, boldly, and joyfully proclaim to the world and each other, that we are wise enough to know we really do 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.

The Church: It’s Not Just Any Old Body

Sermon delivered on Trinity 10B, August 9, 2015, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: 2 Samuel 18.5-9, 15, 31-33; Psalm 130.1-7; Ephesians 4.25-5.2; John 6.35, 41-51.

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

Over the last several weeks we have looked at the astonishing claims Paul has made about the body of Christ, the Church. We have seen that in Christ, the barriers between Jew and Gentile have been broken down so that we as his body are given the task of promoting the gospel to not only the world but to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places, both good and bad (Ephesians 2.11-22, 3.10). This morning I want us to look at the basis for that unity and power, as well as how the power of Jesus should be properly manifested in us as his body.

We find the basis for the Church’s life and existence in our gospel lesson this morning. Last week we heard Jesus proclaim that he is the bread of life so that anyone who comes to him will neither hunger nor thirst. This provoked quite an uproar in the crowd so that they challenge the basis of his claim in today’s lesson. You are not someone special, they tell our Lord. We know whence you come. We know your family. How can you claim to come from heaven? Familiarity sometimes does breed contempt. As we listen to the crowd’s complaints (the same crowd, BTW, that had made a great effort to follow Jesus after he fed the five thousand and wanted to make him king), we can’t help but recall Nathaniel’s caustic rejoinder when hearing that Jesus came from Nazareth: Can anything good come from there (John 1.46)? No wonder Jesus would tell his hometown folks that a prophet is never welcomed by his own (Mark 6.4)!

But Jesus goes on to make an even more astonishing claim. Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, i.e., who has read Scripture and submitted themselves to its authority, will know that I come from the Father because I have seen the Father and the Father has sent me. In other words, Jesus is telling us that he is the living embodiment of God himself. People who know God’s true character, his righteous and merciful heart, will recognize that in Jesus, they are indeed seeing the embodiment of the living God. But no one does this except if the Father wills it (I see Fr. Bowser twitching nervously at this point). Here we are confronted with one of the most perplexing enigmas in all the Bible. On the one hand, Scripture makes clear that there is an element of human responsibility in faith. We have the freedom to choose (or not) to seek after God. On the other hand, Scripture makes clear that we are only drawn to Jesus by the will of the Father. Nowhere does Scripture attempt to resolve this enigma. It simply insists that the two apparently contradictory positions can and do coexist, and this is a place where we must humbly submit to Scripture’s authority and acknowledge it is true, even when we do not fully understand or comprehend it. Yet at the same time, Jesus’ claim should be tremendously comforting to us because it reminds us that no one who is truly open to God will be left out. They will find Jesus if they are willing to listen to and learn from God because Jesus is God.

All this is the basis for the mind-boggling claim our Lord makes next. Because I am the very embodiment of God, he says, the source and author of all life, anyone who believes in me has eternal life because I am the bread of life who came down from heaven, i.e., who is the living embodiment of God. You have this life because I will give my body to be broken on the cross for you. I will bear your just punishment so that you do not have to bear it. And after I have gone back to heaven to assume my rightful place as Lord of all creation, I am available to you whenever you eat my flesh (and drink his blood as we shall see next week) so that you will never die (cf. John 11.25-26). As John has pointed out to us in his wonderful prologue, the Word that became flesh is now promising to give himself so that those who believe in him may find radical healing, complete forgiveness, and new life, life that never, ever ends.

This is why eternal life is available to us right now, because Jesus is available to us right now in the power of the Spirit and every time we partake in the eucharistic feast. We don’t have to wait to die to inherit eternal life. We are given it freely, if we firmly believe that in Jesus’ death and resurrection, God has overcome evil, sin, and death. Here is the logic behind Jesus’ promise to us in this passage. Jesus is the embodiment of God, life himself, who has borne our sins on the cross and who was raised to new bodily life in the resurrection. And because God is the source and author behind the act and subsequent invitation, that new life, that eternal life, is available to anyone who attaches himself or herself to Jesus. And even though Jesus is currently hidden from us, he is available to us, among others, in the power of the Spirit and in the eucharist. This is a free gift from God because God is a lover and uniter, not a hater and divider.

Here then is the only remedy to our guilt and fears. How many of you have worried or wondered at times if God really does love you and/or has forgiven your sins? How many of you have feared (or fear) the awful judgment of God? I know I have. Like David in our psalm last week, I know my transgressions and my sins are ever before me, and I hate it. I sometimes have trouble forgiving myself and if I cannot forgive myself, I wonder how God can ever forgive me. Like the psalmist in our lesson today, many of us cry out in despair and despondency over our sins and the damage we have done, and fear that God really cannot or will not forgive us.

If you are like that, then spend some time with John 6 in the coming days and weeks. Read and learn from God because here we are promised by the Lord himself that we are so loved by God that on the cross God took care of all that separates and alienates us from him. He didn’t do that because we are particularly lovable. God did that because God is the ultimate lover who wants us to enjoy life with him forever, starting right now. And so Jesus gave his flesh for the life of the world. Or as Paul put it, in Jesus, God condemned our sin in the flesh so that God would not have to condemn us (Romans 8.3-4). And in doing so, Jesus would ironically fulfill his ancestor David’s desire to die in place of his son, except that Jesus died for all of us, not just a select few. That is why Paul would proclaim with joy and thanksgiving that there is now no condemnation for those of us who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8.1)! Paul could make that astonishing claim because he knew the heart of the Father as revealed supremely in Jesus Christ. He knew he was certainly unworthy of such forgiveness and rescue, primarily because he had persecuted Jesus’ body, the Church. But Paul had listened and learned from the Father so that by faith he recognized he was well-loved and forgiven in Jesus Christ our Lord. That same love and forgiveness is available to each of us, along with the promise of no condemnation, because we too put our whole hope and trust in Jesus. We too have listened to the Scriptures and learned from them. And we too feed on our Lord each week when we come to Table to receive his body and blood broken and shed for us. Despite all that we might have done, despite all that we may be (or not be), despite us not deserving such love and forgiveness from God, we have it anyhow through faith. If we really believe this, we are released from the crushing guilt of our transgressions and have real hope along with a thankful heart because we know our present and future are secure in God’s love. And yes, we are truly humbled by it all because we know in our heart of hearts we did nothing to deserve God’s love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness.

This is the basis for Paul’s astonishing claims about the Church. He’s not talking about our old fallen self that is full of envy, strife, anger, quarrels, factions, sexual immorality, idolatry, and the like (Galatians 5.19-21). These things do not produce unity. They divide and hurt and cause conflict. That is why Paul, in the passage preceding our lesson this morning, had urged us to put away our old character and put on Christ’s character that is always available to us through faith and in the power of the Spirit. We do so, not with teeth clenched and out of some misguided sense that our relationship with God depends ultimately on how well we follow the rules, but rather out of a profound sense of thanksgiving and humility for the gift of life that is given us by virtue of our relationship with Jesus, the bread of life. We realize that in his body, the Church, God has assembled all kinds of misfits to form a new family under Christ our head, from Jew to Gentile, sinner to saint, and everyone in between. God himself has broken down the walls that caused our former hostility and alienation between humans and God and between God’s human creatures. He has done that in and through the body and blood of Jesus our Lord, and has called us together as Jesus’ body to do the work God gives us to do.

And for us to do that work, we have to realize that because we are all one in Christ, we are all equally forgiven in the blood of the Lamb shed for us and all equally undeserving of this gift of life. So our job is to imitate our Lord in the power of the Spirit, and that starts at home in Jesus’ own body despite our different personalities, outlooks, and dispositions. As we saw last week, we enjoy unity of Spirit, which helps us to grow up in his power so that we become more and more like Jesus, the very embodiment of God. Becoming mature Christians is certainly not easy, but it is also not impossible, precisely because we have the Spirit of the living God living in us, transforming us, and giving us power to be the kind of people God calls us to be. This means we have to consciously work at developing a new and second nature that is patterned after the character of God revealed supremely in Jesus until it replaces our first and old nature. But we sometimes balk at this. We want to feel sorry for ourselves and whine about how hard this is to do. But this comes from our fallen nature and the devil, not from the Spirit. We can become like Jesus if we work consciously to develop his habits. Don’t misunderstand. I am not suggesting we will always get it right and never sin again. I am talking instead about developing a pattern of living so that when we act out of character, people notice, e.g., Oh. Sarah honey is not her usual self today. She’s actually not making it all about herself. What’s up with that? Stuff like that.

And so in the power of the Spirit who makes our living Lord available to us each and every day, we learn to treat each other as Jesus treats us. We learn to speak and act kindly toward each other, to put aside our own interests for the sake of the rest of the body, even when it is costly, to stop gossiping and slandering when we disagree with one another (and we will disagree, folks). It means we learn to forgive each other, not by brushing it under the rug and pretending like the hurt didn’t occur, but by acknowledging the hurt and then choosing not to act in retaliation. We do this because we know we have been forgiven by God while being wholly undeserving of such forgiveness. It means we learn to speak truthfully to each other because speaking truthfully simplifies things (we don’t have to keep track of the lies we tell so that we can continue to perpetuate the lie) and shows that we trust and respect each other. This is what builds up unity and gives us power to proclaim the gospel to the powers as God commands us.

Contrast this pattern of living with the ways of the world. When someone is wronged, revenge inevitably follows. People allow pride, selfish ambition, and greed to rule their lives so that other people become pawns and objects to them. This means that as long as things are going well, they are willing to associate with those whom they perceive can help and benefit them. But when it hits the fan, well, not so much. When the world can look at Christ’s body, the Church, and see human business being conducted in a fundamentally different way, it must take notice, even if it rejects our style of living. Our call is not to judge others because they either accept or reject the gospel. Our call is to live our lives as faithfully to Jesus as we know how, trusting that our Lord is firmly active and in charge of our affairs, and will sort it out according to his good will and purposes for us and the rest of creation. When we act in this manner, we do not grieve the Spirit who lives in us and seals us for the day of redemption, a promise made possible only because of the love of God spilled out for us supremely in the blood of the Lamb.

In other words, our faith must be lived out so that inevitably, if not slowly and sometimes painfully, it turns us into faithful imitations of our Lord Jesus Christ. Think on these things. Examine your own life and give thanks where you see evidence of Jesus at work in you in the power of the Spirit. This happens every time your behavior is loving, kind, and generous, among others (cf. Galatians 5.22-25). Examine too that which needs to die in you, the selfishness, anger, enmity, jealousy, pride, etc., and resolve to put those things to death by learning new habits of living. We do this by searching the Scriptures and learning from the Father who gave them to us. We do this by asking the Spirit to give us the power to overcome and to develop new, healthy habits. We do this by asking others in Christ’s body to hold us accountable. We do this by feeding on our Lord each week and imitating others who imitate Jesus well. As we grow slowly but surely to be more like Jesus, we announce not only to ourselves, but to the world, that we really do believe we 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.

The Scriptures on the Transfiguration

About eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

–Luke 9:28-36

I can relate well with Peter in this story. If I had been there, I probably would have passed out from fear! But what a glorious story we have here. We get a foretaste of the New Creation in which our mortal bodies will be transformed into immortal, resurrected ones, never again subject to decay, deformity, sickness, or infirmity.

The story of the Transfiguration reminds us that Jesus is who he said he is–the Lord, the promised Messiah through whom salvation will be offered to the entire world. His transfigured body is a preview of coming attractions for us because we remember the gracious promise contained in 1 John 3:2:

Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.

This is our hope of glory as Christians. This is our destiny with Christ! It is not ours because of who we are or because we deserve it. No, it is ours because of who God is and because he wants us to have life with him forever. That is why he created us in the first place.

We don’t know what the New Creation or our resurrection bodies will look like, but if the Transfiguration is any indication, it will be glorious. Too often we Christians fail to embrace our hope and instead let the cares and anxieties of this world beat us down. Don’t be one of those folks. Embrace the hope of glory that is yours in Christ and give thanks everyday that you have it awaiting you!

And while you are doing so, remember that the hope of New Creation reminds us that God’s current creation here on earth is also worth redeeming. Get on your knees in prayer, ask the Lord what he wants you to do with the gifts he has given you, and then use those gifts to help him in his redemptive work here on earth. After all, if we have the hope of the New Creation awaiting us, it means that God thinks his old, fallen creation is worth redeeming and we have a glorious invitation to help him in his redemptive work. Cool.

Origen on the Transfiguration

Do you wish to see the transfiguration of Jesus? Behold with me the Jesus of the Gospels. Let him be simply apprehended. There he is beheld both “according to the flesh” and at the same time in his true divinity. He is beheld in the form of God according to our capacity for knowledge.

—Origen, Commentary on Matthew 12.37

A Prayer for the Feast of the Transfiguration

Father in heaven,
whose Son Jesus Christ was wonderfully transfigured
before chosen witnesses upon the holy mountain,
and spoke of the exodus he would accomplish at Jerusalem:
give us strength so to hear his voice and bear our cross
that in the world to come we may see him as he is;
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Growing Up in Christ

Sermon delivered on Trinity 9B, Sunday, August 2, 2015, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: 2 Samuel 11.26-12.13a; Psalm 51.1-13; Ephesians 4.1-16; John 6.24-35.

What does it mean to grow to the full stature of Christ? Why is it important? Is this just another rule we are supposed to try and follow? These are some of the questions I want us to look at briefly this morning.

Last week we looked at the heart-breaking story of David’s affair with Bathsheba, a classic case study on the human condition. We saw that David’s clever attempt to cover his tracks failed so that he was forced to have Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah the Hittite, murdered in the line of duty. The story ended with David thinking he had literally gotten away with murder. In his cleverness, he was apparently trying to deceive not only himself, but God. The story, shocking in itself, is even more shocking when we remember that David was the Lord’s anointed King whom God had chosen to rule his people Israel. We might expect this kind of behavior from a street thug. But from David, the Lord’s anointed king, the man after God’s own heart?

Now in today’s story the chickens have come home to roost. The Lord confronts his wayward king as God typically confronted his people: through one of his prophets. In this case the prophet Nathan confronts David on God’s behalf (notice God’s use of human agency to achieve God’s purposes once again) and gets David to pronounce righteous judgment on the bad guy in the story. But then comes the punchline from Nathan. You are that man, David! Nathan’s words cut right through us because we are convicted along with David. God’s word of judgment on David’s sin is pronounced on our sin as well, along with all our clever attempts to cover our tracks and deflect responsibility for our own actions. The words of the prophet Jeremiah cut right to the chase. The human heart is deceitful above all things and desperately corrupt. Who can understand it (Jeremiah 17.9)? We too are that person!

And we notice David’s reaction to God’s judgment on his sin. He does not try to deflect responsibility for his own actions like his predecessor Saul had done when God confronted him through the prophet Samuel. He accepts responsibility and confesses his sin, later producing the psalm we read this morning, a model of confessional and penitential prayer. Once David stopped being delusional and living in denial, he did the right thing, just as we are called to do in the wake of our sin, because nothing is hidden from God. Nothing. And the Lord, being gracious and merciful, forgave David, just as he forgives us when we confess our sins in penitence and faith.

But God’s forgiveness isn’t the end of the story as the writer makes clear. While David’s sin was forgiven, the consequences of his behavior remained. Just as he had brought the sword to Uriah’s family, so would David’s family be afflicted by the sword. Just as David had committed adultery with another man’s wife, so would David’s wives be violated by other men (and while we are on this subject, let us put to rest the silly and false notion that Scripture approves of men having multiple wives as some have disingenuously argued. Nowhere does Scripture approve of this practice. It simply reports it in the context of the broader narrative and usually where there are multiple wives involved, as in this case, serious trouble either ensues or precedes the living arrangement). So what’s going on here? Is David forgiven or not?

David is indeed forgiven because as Nathan told him, he would not die immediately for his sin. But forgiven sin does not mean that consequences are removed. Every time we sin it cheapens and dehumanizes us. Is it any wonder, then, why God would utterly hate our sin and perhaps use its lingering consequences to help prevent us from sinning further? After all, if God loves us (and indeed he does because he became human for us), why would he want to encourage us to to engage in patterns of activity and thinking that continue to dehumanize us and mar God’s image in us so that we slowly and inevitably become sub-human creatures? Does not compute!

In the case of David, among other things, this affair apparently left him with the inability to discipline his sons properly, most notably Absalom, so that Absalom would eventually rebel against David and seek to usurp his throne. Here we see the turning point in David’s reign as king. Prior to the affair, David had enjoyed the Lord’s abundant blessings on his kingship as Nathan had reminded him. Now, not so much. The writer surely wants us to see that this is the cost of sin. Forgiveness is possible, protection from sin’s consequences is not always possible.

And a moment’s thought about this based on our own experience confirms the wisdom behind this warning. For example, should a priest have an affair with a parishioner, the priest’s authority would be destroyed permanently and the parish would likely be ripped apart. Forgiveness is possible, but not removal of the aftermath of the behavior. When one member of Christ’s body cannot control his or her own bodily passions, the whole body suffers. Anyone who has ever suffered a hangover will understand how this works! This confirms the wisdom of Paul, who after telling the Romans about the grace and forgiveness of God available to us in Jesus Christ our Lord, asked rhetorically if we should keep on sinning so that God’s grace should abound more in our lives? Of course not, the apostle thundered! Not only are we new creations in Christ, buried and raised with him in baptism so that we are given power to control our bodies, but we are also members of the same body and our job is to build each other up, not tear each other down (Romans 5.1-6.6; Ephesians 4.14-16).

And now we can see what our OT lesson has to do with our epistle lesson. As with David, if we let sin rule our lives as members of Christ’s body here at St. Augustine’s, we cannot possibly build each other up in mutual Christian love and affection. As we have seen, sin cheapens and dehumanizes us. It also deceives us so that we try to rationalize our sin away. When we persist in following our own bodily passions, we become used to living that way and like David, we think only of ourselves and our desires. Our sin not only makes us dead people walking, it deadens our sensibilities so we are gradually but increasingly willing to tolerate more behavior that is not only bad for us, but bad for Christ’s body.

Now if Paul’s teaching and exhortation about mutually building each other up were dependent on our own strength and effort, it would be ludicrous and laughable. As we saw with David, if even the best of us is capable of committing the kind of evil David committed, there is little chance that we as Christ’s body can ever hope to be functional in the manner Paul talks about. But thanks be to God, we are not called to be God’s people on the basis of our own strength and power. As we saw last week, we are Jesus’ people who are connected to him intimately in the power of the Spirit who lives in us and transforms us ever so gradually into new creations in Christ. This is the basis for Paul’s writing in our epistle lesson this morning. When we are Jesus’ people in the power of the Spirit, God blesses us with Christian unity (not uniformity, unity—one Lord, one faith, one baptism) so that we look out for each other and are there for each other. And a moment’s thought about the life and spirit of our own parish should provide us with an example of what this looks like because we are indeed Spirit-filled and led people. Look how we love each other and seek to serve others on behalf of our Lord!

This is why Paul tells us we must grow up to the full stature of Christ. To be the kind of people God calls us to be, to embody and bring God’s healing love to his hurting and broken world, we must learn how to imitate Christ in all his human fullness. But we cannot do that if we do not know God’s true character as revealed in the biblical story of God’s rescue of his sin-sick world in and through his people Israel and made ultimately known in and though Jesus Christ our Lord. That’s why God raises up for us pastors and teachers, not because some of us are better or more special than others, but because God uses all of us to help edify and teach his people so that we will not fall prey to trickeration and treachery that can take us off course.

And we all know this is a real danger. For example, there are those who deny that on the cross Jesus atoned for our sins and brought peace and reconciliation between God and his rebellious human creatures. If we do not believe in the atonement, it is virtually impossible for us to really believe our sins are forgiven and that we really have been reconciled to God so that we can live our lives with meaning, purpose, and power. Without the cross, enmity and alienation between God and his image-bearing creatures remain and we are without any real hope.

Likewise, there are those who deny the reality of Christ’s bodily resurrection, or who claim that it was simply a spiritual experience. Doing so denies the goodness of God’s creation and God’s intent to fully redeem and restore his good but broken world and its creatures. Denying the bodily resurrection of Christ also denies the foundation of all Christian hope: the new creation and Scripture’s promise that one day we will receive new bodies and get to live forever in God’s direct presence in the new heavens and earth (Revelation 21.1-7).

There are those who deny the destructive power of sin and who want us to believe that because God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, our sin does not matter to God nor will there ever be any real or eternal consequences for a life lived against God. But as the story of David’s sin powerfully attests, nothing could be further from the truth. There are things that are not pleasing to God and if we continue to act and live as if our lives don’t matter to God, we put ourselves in mortal danger. As we have seen, sin dehumanizes us and slowly destroys God’s image in us, and God loves us too much to want that to happen to us. He therefore gives us his Spirit and other Christians to help bring healing and encouragement to us so that we can indeed overcome our sin and do the work God calls us to do—to embody God’s healing love in Christ to others. As Israel discovered, we cannot do that if we remain as profoundly broken as those to which we are called to minister. I am not talking about leading a sin-free life. That is impossible this side of the grave. I am talking about living a life that is not characterized by a pattern of sin and rebellion against God, but rather tries to imitate Jesus our Lord in the context of our daily lives. Sin kills, but the Spirit brings life!

These examples remind us that Paul and the other NT writers were wise to tell us that we need to grow up in Christ so that we can become like him in the power of his Spirit. But we who live in our individualistic society often ignore that the whole of Scripture calls us to grow up in Christ together. As we saw last week, Christ calls us to be his body so that together we announce the gospel to the nations as well as to the powers and principalities, and together we do God’s kingdom work because God has created us to live life together, not alone.

And because this life of mutual Christian love, upbuilding, and service does not come naturally to us, we must remain yoked to Christ, who is our resurrection and life. Otherwise, we are just as likely to become “spiritual” rather than “religious,” whatever that means, instead of becoming part of Christ’s body as God always intended. Jesus our Lord loves us with a deep and costly love. He has given himself on the cross so that we might find healing and forgiveness as well as power and purpose for living. That is why he is our bread of life, our only bread of life, and that is why we must stay connected to him. But we must stay connected to him together. As we saw last week, we can do this through regular reading of the Scriptures and through prayer. As we are reminded this week in our gospel lesson, we are to stay connected to him physically by feeding on him together each week in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving as we come to the communion Table to literally consume our risen Lord’s body and blood so that he lives in us and communes with us in ways that transform us into his very image over time. This, BTW, is why Anglican worship is always centered around word and sacrament.

Here then is the power we need to be his people and do his work. And this is vitally important to the life of our parish because as our mission statement reminds us, we are changed by God to make a difference for God. As we have seen, this task is never easy—in fact, it is hopeless if we try to do it in our own strength—and we have many enemies, human and spiritual, who hate and oppose us, and want desperately for us to fail. But we are not to be afraid or get discouraged because we live in Christ and have a life-giving relationship with the Lord of this cosmos, who rules at the Father’s right hand and who equips us with all we need to be faithful agents and stewards of his healing love, both collectively and individually. And that, folks, is not only an awesome privilege, it is also 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.

The Power of God

Sermon delivered on Trinity 8B, Sunday, July 26, 2015, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: 2 Samuel 11.1-25; Psalm 14.1-7; Ephesians 3.14-21; John 6.1-21.

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

What are we to make of the apparent contrast of themes in our readings this morning? On the one hand the psalmist tells us that God looks down from heaven to see if there are any who seek him and finds no one because all are corrupt and their deeds reflect this stark and depressing reality. We get a real-life example of what this looks like in the sordid tale of David’s adulterous affair with Bathsheba and its aftermath. On the other hand we read Paul’s soaring prayer with its emphasis on goodness and power that accompanies his astonishing claim made earlier that it is through the Church, through you and me, that God will make his wisdom known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places (Ephesians 3.10). Do you feel up to that task? So what are we to think and believe? Is Paul’s prayer to live a godly life simply naive and unrealistic in the face of the human condition? This is what I want us to look at this morning.

The sad tale of David and Bathsheba is pretty straightforward and doesn’t need much explanation. The writer makes it clear that David wasn’t where he was supposed to be. He should have been on the front fighting with his men. Instead, he was at home in Jerusalem taking it easy. We aren’t told why David wasn’t with his men, only that he wasn’t, and that got him into big trouble. Here we see the pragmatic wisdom behind James’ warning in action:

One is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. Do not be deceived, my beloved (James 1.14-16).

Now we might expect a man of lesser character to act as David did when he saw a beautiful naked woman. But this is David we are talking about, the man after God’s own heart, and as we watch David commit adultery and then ultimately resort to murder to cover his tracks, we are shocked. The first question we want to ask is what kind of heart does God have if David does this?

The answer to that question is not that God has an adulterous and murderous heart. David, despite his great sin in this sordid affair and his penchant for shedding blood as a warrior, was a man after God’s own heart because he never turned to other gods or worshiped them. Despite his many flaws, David remained faithful to his God, although certainly not perfectly. Instead, the writer invites us to focus on the human condition. As the psalmist observed in our lesson, no one is immune from sin, not even God’s anointed king, the man after God’s own heart, and we see that being played out in this story. We have already noted that David was not where he was supposed to be and at least for the moment had too much time on his hands, time that he used for sinful purposes. We also note that nowhere did David stop and ask God to help him resist that alluring temptation. Perhaps David had become proud or was deceiving himself, thinking that because he was God’s anointed, God would not find out or give him a free pass. But as we shall see next week, David could not have been more wrong. Sin always has its consequences. Hence, one of the things the writer surely wants us to see is that anytime we rely solely on our own strength or cleverness or devices, we are setting ourselves up for a fall. If this can happen to the Lord’s anointed, it can happen to anyone. This is why we are never to put our whole hope and trust in human leaders because all have gone astray (Romans 3.23).

And a moment’s thought about our own experience confirms the wisdom of all this. We may not be adulterers and murderers like David was, but every one of us has our own skeletons in the closet, the deep dark secrets we are terrified that others might find out about, which will expose our own serious flaws and less than perfect character. How often have we resolved to live a life pleasing to the Lord, only to end up confessing our failures, almost on a daily basis? For those of us who truly desire to have a deep and faithful relationship with God, this can become very distressing and discouraging. How can we ever hope to love God with all our being and our neighbors as ourselves when we get it wrong so often? And if that is the case, can God really love and forgive us? After all, isn’t the road to hell paved with good intentions and fatally flawed execution? The words of the psalmist continue to haunt us: there is no one who does good in God’s eyes, not even one. How can we possibly have a future and a hope?

Paul and the rest of the NT writers have the answer for us: the love of God made known supremely in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. There is no sin and no amount of sin that cannot be overcome and forgiven because of Jesus’ blood shed for us. If it weren’t for the love of God made known on the cross, none of us would ever dare to have any real hope about a present or future life with God because we are all dead in our sins and so thoroughly infected we cannot possibly hope to drag ourselves up by our own bootstraps. But we do have hope, precisely because of the blood of Jesus Christ shed for us. That is why Paul could boldly tell the Romans there is now no condemnation for those of us who are in Christ Jesus because in Jesus, God has condemned our sin in the flesh and taken it on himself so that we no longer need to fear God’s righteous wrath or condemnation (Romans 8.1-4).

This is more than just mere platitude, folks. If you do not really believe this, you will never have any hope of having Paul’s prayer for you come alive in your life because the whole prayer is predicated on us accepting God’s real love for us and his real forgiveness of our sins, irrespective of what they are. If we still worship an angry God whom we think is nothing more than a bean counter who gives us a bunch of rules we cannot possibly hope to follow on our own so that he can beat us up, we are not worshiping the God of the Bible and should therefore not be surprised when our prayers for help to this false god go unanswered. For us to live in the power of God, we must first understand that while we are sinners, we are forgiven sinners, bought with the price of the Son’s own dear blood and greatly loved by the Father.

This is a gift from God, freely offered to one and all, and by God’s grace we can know we are loved and forgiven. This is not our own doing. If we are to really know the breadth, length, height, and depth of God, that knowledge must come from God. It cannot be manufactured by us, any more than we can manufacture knowledge about our loved ones’ love for us without them making their love known to us. And once we truly believe we are forgiven and loved by God, we open ourselves to the power of God so that we do not have to be defeated in our living the way David was or the way we are when we try to live a faithful life by our own strength.

Paul tells us how to tap that power. First, we must truly desire to have the power of God working in our lives. God never forces himself on us. True love cannot do that to the beloved. But all too often we are like our own St. Augustine, who, desiring to leave behind his old life of sexual promiscuity, prayed to the Lord for chastity, but just not right then. Augustine wasn’t quite ready at that time to give up sex for his Lord and was at least honest enough to pray that. So while Paul’s prayer is all about the power of God in our lives, it is based on the presupposition that we desire to have God at work in our lives. In other words, we must be willing to put in our sweat equity.

Once we are willing to do that, Paul tells us that if we ever hope to fulfill the task of the Church to make known God’s wisdom to the powers and authorities, we must ask God to equip us for the task. To do that, we must be firmly united with Christ in and through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit who lives in us. This is the Christ who meets us where we are and uses what we present to him to feed us and others, just like he used the bread and fishes to feed the five thousand. This happens most tangibly at communion when we come to the table to feed on our Lord’s body and blood and find our strength renewed. This is the same Christ who walked on the stormy sea, the very symbol of evil and darkness, and overcame it. Without Christ in us, we have no chance or hope of ever being his people. But as Paul’s prayer reminds us, to have Christ live in us, we simply have to ask and expect it to happen. I suspect many Christians who live in this country really don’t believe this. We’ve bought into the alternative story line that things like feeding the five thousand or walking on water or Jesus living in his people are just fairy tales and myth. They can’t possibly happen. So we might say the words Paul tells us to say—strengthen my inner being with power by your Spirit by connecting me with the Lord Jesus—but we don’t really believe anything will happen. We are not used to seeing signs and wonders and so we secretly (and sometimes openly) scoff at such requests. And I can promise you, if this is the case, you will not be disappointed. You will get exactly what you have asked for—nothing.

This is why so many churches limp along, powerless and rudderless. They don’t really believe in the power of God. They have never experienced it in their individual or collective lives the way many of us do here at St. Augustine’s. Just ask Dr. Falor sometime about the Spirit’s power, or think of the times in your life where you surprised yourself in the way you handled an extremely difficult thing. The same Jesus who overcame the stormy sea, who walks with us through the darkest valley, and conquered even death itself, is available to us right now as his body at St. Augustine’s. All we have to do is ask for his help and power and believe that he loves us enough and is powerful enough to grant us our requests that are according to his good will and purposes for us as a parish because he has commissioned us to bring his healing love to our neck of the woods, and it will be ours. Do you believe this? Really believe this?

Please don’t misunderstand. I do not suggest any of this is automatic, quick, or easy. We are profoundly broken people who are also subjected to the influence of the dark powers and principalities. But we are made stronger through adversity and Jesus’ death and resurrection stand as God’s eternal testimony that the power of God’s love made known to us in Jesus Christ is stronger than any adversity or foe we face. To be sure, none of us will be sin-free until we lose our mortal bodies (cf. Romans 6.7). But we are assured that we can be more than conquerors through him who loved us because neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8.37-39), thanks be to God! Simply put, if you want the power of God to live in you to make you a new creation to bear good fruit for the kingdom, you simply have to ask and believe God todo this for you because he loves you and wants you to be the fully human being he created you to be.

I close with a story I hope illustrates and summarizes what I have been talking about.

We sat down to table and the officer began his story: “I have served in the army ever since I was quite young. I knew my duties and was a favorite of my superiors as a conscientious officer. But I was young, as were also my friends, and unhappily I started drinking. It went from bad to worse until drinking became an illness. When I did not drink, I was a good officer, but when I would start drinking, then I would have to go to bed for six weeks. My superiors were patient with me for a long time, but finally, for rudeness to the commanding officer while I was drunk, they reduced my rank to private and transferred me to a garrison for three years. They threatened me with more severe punishment if I would not improve and give up drinking. In this unfortunate condition all my efforts at self-control were of no avail and I could not stay sober for any length of time. Then I heard that I was to be sent to the guardhouse and I was beside myself with anguish.

“One day I was sitting in the barracks deep in thought. A monk came in to beg alms for the church. Those who had money gave what they could. When he approached me he asked, ‘Why are you so downcast?’ We started talking and I told him the cause of my grief. The monk sympathized with my situation and said, ‘My brother was once in a similar position, and I will tell you how he was cured. His spiritual father gave him a copy of the Gospels and strongly urged him to read a chapter whenever he wanted to take a drink. If the desire for a drink did not leave him after he read one chapter he was encouraged to read another and if necessary still another. My brother followed this advice, and after some time he lost all desire for alcoholic beverages. It is now fifteen years since he has touched a drop of alcohol. Why don’t you do the same, and you will discover how beneficial the reading of the Gospels can be. I have a copy at home and will gladly bring it to you.’

“I wasn’t very open to this idea so I objected, ‘How can your Gospels help when neither my efforts at self-control nor medical aid could keep me sober?’ I spoke in this way because I never read the Gospels.

“‘Give it a chance,’ continued the monk reassuringly, ‘and you will find it very helpful.’

“The next day he brought me this copy of the Gospels. I opened it, browsed through it, and said, ‘I will not take it, for I cannot understand it; I am not accustomed to reading Church Slavonic.’

“The monk did not give up but continued to encourage me and explained that God’s special power is present in the Gospel through his words. He went on, ‘At the beginning be concerned only with reading it diligently; understanding will come later. One holy man says that “even when you don’t understand the word of God, the demons do, and they tremble”; and the passion for drink is without a doubt their work. And St. John Chrysostom in speaking about the power of the word of God says that the very room where the Gospel is kept has the power to ward off the spirits of darkness and thwart their intrigues.’

“I do not recall what I gave the monk when I took the copy of the Gospels from him, but I placed the book in my trunk with my other belongings and forgot about it. Some time later a strong desire to have a drink took hold of me and I opened the trunk to get some money and run to the tavern. But I saw the copy of the Gospels before I got to the money and I remembered clearly what the monk had told me. I opened the book and read the first chapter of Matthew without understanding anything. Again I remembered the monk’s words, ‘At the beginning be concerned only with reading it diligently; understanding will come later.’ So I read another chapter and found it a bit more comprehensible. Shortly after I began reading the third chapter, the curfew bell rang and it was no longer possible for me to leave the barracks.

“In the morning my first thought was to get a drink, but then I decided to read another chapter to see what would happen. I read it and did not go. Again I wanted a drink, but I started reading and I felt better. This gave me courage, and with every temptation for a drink I began reading a chapter from the Gospels. The more I read, the easier it became, and when I finally finished reading all four Gospels the compulsion for drink had disappeared completely; I was repelled by the very thought of it. It is now twenty years since I stopped drinking alcoholic beverages.

“Everyone was surprised at the change that took place in me, and after three years I was reinstated as an officer and then climbed up the ranks until I was made a commanding officer. Later I married a fine woman; we have saved some money, which we now share with the poor. Now I have a grown son who is a fine lad and he also is an officer in the army.”

The Way of a Pilgrim

Notice first how Christ used human agency (the monk) to introduce the young soldier to his Gospel. Notice the monk’s persistence and the faith he had in the transformative power of the Gospel in people’s lives, a faith based, in part, on past experience.

Next, pay attention to how Christ used circumstance instead of understanding to stay the young soldier’s hand from drinking. He read the Gospel without understanding it, but was prevented from going on a drinking binge because he had lingered in his quarters to read it.

Finally, mark how understanding occurred—through persistent reading. Ask anyone who reads the Bible regularly and systematically and you will hear this same answer. God grants understanding to humble minds willing to submit to his word (as opposed to trying to make his word submit to their agendas) through our persistent reading of his word (i.e., though our sweat equity). Nothing sexy or spectacular here, just the power of the Spirit at work changing lives. Paul tells us the same about the power and efficacy of prayer in his own prayer for us today. Ask. Persist. Believe it will be yours (cf. Matthew 7.7-11; Luke 18.1-8). Paul knew it was true because he practiced it and as a result knew first-hand the transformative power of Jesus in his life. That same power is available to us right now so that we too can be changed by God to make a difference for God, thus helping to fulfill Paul’s prayer and God’s will for Christ’s body the Church. And that, folks, is not only an awesome privilege, it is Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. Amen.

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