CT: Why You Can’t Read Scripture Alone

No person is an island. Listen if you have ears to hear!

48905You are a new Christian. You want to learn all you can about the Bible, for you know it is the Word of God, and somewhere you heard that you can know God only to the extent that you know his Word. You know a woman down the street who has walked with God for more than 60 years and has studied Scripture all that time. She has read commentaries, enjoyed attending churches within different denominations, and discussed the deep things of God with other mature believers and pastors.

You consider reading Scripture with her, to glean her wisdom. But you choose to read the Bible for yourself by yourself. You don’t visit the woman because you don’t want her beliefs to influence your own reading. And you want to listen to the Holy Spirit yourself, so you can get to the purity of God’s message untainted by outside influence.

Some Christians, and not just new believers among them, take this “me and God” approach to reading Scripture. They have learned from Matthew 15 not to be like the Pharisees, whom Jesus said exalted human tradition over God’s Word. They also try to heed Paul’s warning not to succumb to “philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition” (Col. 2:8, ESV used throughout). They have concluded, therefore, that Scripture teaches that church tradition—and all the perspectives and human-derived interpretations that it carries with it—should not color our reading of God’s Word.

Is that what the Bible itself teaches?

Read it all.

Pope Francis’ Opening Address to Humanum Conference

Good words from the Holy Father. Show me a society with strong families, not redefined, and I’ll show you a strong society.

Pope Francis pictured during private audience with Austrian President Fischer at VaticanIt is necessary first topromote the fundamental pillars that govern a nation: its non-material goods. The family is the foundation of co-existence and a remedy against social fragmentation. Children have a right to grow up in a family with a father and a mother capable of creating a suitable environment for the child’s development and emotional maturity. That is why I stressed in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium that the contribution of marriage to society is “indispensable”; that it “transcends the feelings and momentary needs of the couple.” (n. 66) And that is why I am grateful to you for your Colloquium’s emphasis on the benefits that marriage can provide to children, the spouses themselves, and to society.

In these days, as you embark on a reflection on the beauty of complementarity between man and woman in marriage, I urge you to lift up yet another truth about marriage: that permanent commitment to solidarity, fidelity and fruitful love responds to the deepest longings of the human heart. I urge you to bear in mind especially the young people, who represent our future. Commit yourselves, so that our youth do not give themselves over to the poisonous environment of the temporary, but rather be revolutionaries with the courage to seek true and lasting love, going against the common pattern.

Do not fall into the trap of being swayed by political notion. Family is an anthropological fact – a socially and culturally related fact. We cannot qualify it based on ideological notions or concepts important only at one time in history. We can’t think of conservative or progressive notions. Family is a family. It can’t be qualified by ideological notions. Family is per se. It is a strength per se.

Read the whole speech.

A Night and Day Difference

Sermon delivered on the second Sunday before Advent A, November 16, 2014, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, 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: Zephaniah 1.7, 12-18; Psalm 90.1-12; 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11; Matthew 25.14-30.

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

In last week’s epistle lesson we saw that Paul addressed concerns about what would happen to the Christian dead when Jesus returns. Paul reminded us that they are safely in the Lord’s care and would appear with Jesus at his Second Coming. In other words, those who are alive when this happens will not have an advantage over those who have died in the Lord. In today’s epistle lesson Paul focuses on the fate of those who are living when the Lord returns and this is what I want us to look at briefly this morning.

How many of you have some concerns or anxiety about what will happen to you when the Lord returns to finally put to rights all that is wrong in his creation? I mean, look at our OT and psalm lessons this morning! The prophet warns his people (and by extension us) that God’s wrath is coming and there will be no escape. They had not been God’s light to the world to bring the blessing of his healing love to bear on the nations. Instead, they had become just like the nations to which they were called to bring God’s light, and worse! And now the prophet warns the chickens are about to come home to roost. They will discover that God is not indifferent to their sin as they foolishly believed. God’s wrath is about to be poured out on them and there is nothing in this world—not their wealth or status or their false gods or their delusional thinking about their accountability to their God—that can save them. It is a terrible picture Zephaniah paints for us. No wonder the only appropriate response is silence.

And if we are looking for some better news from the psalmist, he’s not giving us much love either. He reminds us that God has set our misdeeds before him so that we kindle God’s anger and are consumed by his wrath. Oh sure, some of us might live to be 70 or 80 but even then our days are filled with toil and sorrow, passing away before we know it and then we are gone, i.e., we will die. Or what about Paul’s warning to the Romans and Corinthians that we all must stand before the judgment seat of God (Romans 14.10; 2 Corinthians 5.10)? And this is just the tip of the proverbial biblical iceberg! I could cite dozens more passages like these. In light of all this, I’m really looking forward to the day of the Lord. Aren’t you?

Ah, Father Maney, you cry (literally)! Another one of your feel-good sermons! How nice. You sure do know how to preach good news to us so that we are uplifted and given hope. Do you happen to have an ice pick we can put to our heads to put us out of our misery? To which I respond, where’s the fun in preaching that kind of stuff? So again I ask. In light of what we have just reviewed, how many of you have some concern or anxiety about what will happen to you when the Lord Jesus returns to put his corrupted world and its people to rights?

This, of course, is the concern Paul is addressing in our epistle lesson. The Thessalonians were apparently anxious not only about the fate of their loved ones who had died in Christ but also about their own fate. And in light of what we’ve just seen, who could blame them? But the question I just asked is also a trick question if you are a Christian. Do you know why? Of course you do. And if for some reason you don’t listen to what Paul says.

Paul, of course, would have recognized immediately that I was asking you a trick question because he would have known instantly that I left out a key event in asking it and then in reciting all the passages about God’s judgment on sin and the people who commit them. Please don’t misunderstand. None of us should take sin and its deadly consequences lightly or make light of it. God certainly does not and that is why he acted decisively on the cross to do something about it on our behalf and that is what was missing in the previous equation.

The cross of Jesus Christ and his subsequent resurrection to which Paul refers almost in passing in our epistle lesson (who died for us) is the key to us not being anxious about our present or future. Why? Because as Paul tells us elsewhere, on the cross evil has been defeated (Colossians 2.15) and  there is now no condemnation for those of us who are in Jesus because in his blood shed for us on the cross, God condemned human sin in the flesh so that God would not have to condemn us who put our hope and trust in Jesus (Romans 8.1-4). On the cross, we are reconciled to God and transferred out of the dominion of darkness and into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son so that we have redemption, the forgiveness of our sins (Colossians 1.13-14, 19-20). And since Jesus is God, we see the very heart of God beating for us on the cross. It is a heart overflowing with grace, mercy, and love for us, a heart that does not want to see the death of any of his image-bearing creatures.

This is why Paul could reassure the Thessalonians (and us) about our respective fate. He tells us we need not fear our Lord Jesus’ return and gives us two reasons why. First, we are children of the light and children of the day. In other words we are the Lord’s people who are forgiven and who will therefore escape his terrible wrath. Second, God has destined us for salvation because Jesus died for us and was raised from the dead. In other words, we who have faith that God has done this for us in and through Jesus are destined to share in Jesus’ vindication (his resurrection) because we are inextricably linked to him in the power of the Spirit who makes Jesus present to us right now and binds us to him forever so that wherever he is, there we will be also. We don’t receive this gift because we are deserving in any way. To the contrary we are deserving of God’s wrath about which Zephaniah and the psalmist speak. No, we are given this gift of life and pardon and mercy because God is loving and merciful and has given us demonstrable, historical proof of his love for us in Jesus’ death and resurrection.

But here’s the thing. Many of us act like we don’t really believe this. We remain anxious about our present situation and eternal destiny, choosing to believe that the Good News of Jesus can’t really be that good. And so we walk around anxiously gritting our teeth, trying desperately to earn favor in this wrathful God’s sight, which of course is an impossibility. We instinctively get this and it does nothing but increase our fear and anxiety.

And even if we do believe the Good News that is in Jesus, it is easy for us to lose sight of it because as Paul reminds us we live in a good world gone bad, a world of darkness that is hostile to God’s good plan to heal and redeem us in and through Jesus, a world that seeks after any god except the one true, living God. That is why we have to remind and encourage each other about the gospel so that it is not taken from us and we lose all hope. If you are someone who calls himself or herself a Christian and are laboring under this terrible burden of a false gospel that is full of wrath and devoid of hope, stop it right now! Do the math and take time to read and reflect on the hope and promise that permeates the entire Bible, especially the NT! And if that does not do it for you, talk to a trusted Christian friend or one of the priests here and we will try to help you find the love and hope that is in the gospel. Again, it is not about our worthiness; it is about God’s great love and tender mercy for his image-bearing creatures.

If we really take to heart the healing power of the gospel, there will be a release from the burden of guilt and anxiety over our relationship with God and our standing before him because we realize that on the cross, God really has done something about our sin so that we are destined for life and not death, pardon and mercy instead of judgment and wrath as the world and its people are. This, in turn, frees us to be the light-bearing people Jesus calls us to be as part of the rescued community of Abraham. This is why Paul goes on to urge us to act like people of light or the daytime. Your eternal destiny is secure, he says, so start acting like you really believe it. And how do we act like people who belong to the day (who have been rescued from evil, sin, and death)? In this particular passage, Paul tells us to put on God’s armor that will help us show others that we are people who possess the virtues of faith, hope, and love.

And now we are getting at the message of Jesus’ parable about the talents in today’s gospel lesson because the parable really is about how well we use the gifts God has given us to be his light to the world, to bring hope and Good News to the nations (and to our neighbors and fellow workers and friends, including each other). Notice that in entrusting the third servant with only one talent (a talent was worth about 15 years of wages for a common worker so even this was a huge amount), God judged this servant’s business smarts to be less reliable than the other two. Notice too that God did not condemn the servant for having lesser ability than the other two servants. Rather, God judged the third servant because he didn’t even try to use the limited abilities he had!

At the heart of this parable, then, Jesus is warning Israel (and us who are the newly reconstituted Israel around Jesus) that God has given us our life, our possessions, our gifts and abilities to be spent and put into circulation in the arena we call life so that we can help bring God’s light and love to the world. This is what Jesus was talking about on the sermon on the mount when he called his followers to be salt and light. This is why God has rescued us from the darkness of our sin—so that he could use us to help bring about the kingdom on earth as in heaven. Once again, our eternal destiny is not contingent on how well we do this, but rather that we at least try in grateful response to the incalculable gift we have been given.

But this is where it gets tricky because for a variety of reasons, most notably because the Church has dropped the ball in teaching its people how to be Jesus’ salt and light to the world, we don’t know how to do that. For example, we think loving people is all about being nice or giving them what they want, when often what they want is more darkness and not the light of Christ. If their darkness is going to be judged by God, how is that loving them? Our challenge is to redefine the conversation in our day so that we are not letting the culture with all its disordered desires define and drive the conversation. As one writer recently put it, we are called to be radicals because we are the recipients of the radical love and forgiveness of Christ so that we can offer folks a reason why they should want to come and die and so follow Christ.

Think on these things and talk about them so as to encourage one another in this work. How can we share the light of Christ so that in us, people see the gift of love and salvation we have? Whatever it looks like, and there are literally infinite possibilities, one thing is for certain. If we do not know we have Good News, we will not be prepared or know how to share it. And so in closing, I remind us all again that we are set free from sin and death and reconciled to God now and for all eternity by the blood of the Lamb shed for us and are given his Spirit to testify to us that this promise is trustworthy and true. That’s the Good News that is the sole basis for us to live as people who belong to the day, who belong to Jesus forever, thanks be to God!  To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

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

David Robertson: Biblical Christians are Winning the War; Here’s Why

From Christian Today. See what you think.

We are radicals, not conservatives. I am not a conservative Christian. The terminology is all wrong. We are biblical Christians and therefore the far more appropriate term to use is radical. I don’t want to ‘conserve’ our corrupt society – I want to turn it upside down (Acts 17:6)! The irony is that it is those who call themselves ‘progressives’ who are in fact the conservatives. They go along with the culture and shibboleths of our day. Why do you think the secular media love and laud Steve Chalke, Vicky Beeching, Richard Coles and Richard Holloway? Because they are basically of the same mind. “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you” (John 15:18-19).

Read it all.

Dr. Ben Witherington: What Should We Think about Suicide?

Very much worth your read and thoughtful reflection.

The recent case of Britanny Maynard and her move to Oregon in order to commit physician assisted (or at least physician plus drugs assisted) suicide, has reopened the debate about what we should think about suicide in general, and doctors willing to violate their Hippocratic oath to assist others in committing suicide. I am not here concerned with the debate in the larger culture, but rather would want to talk about whether Christians should, under any circumstances, be in favor of such a thing, perhaps as a lesser of two evils solution to a problem, as seems to have been suggested in a recent blog post on this very website, Patheos. I would like to list several major reasons why Christians should not be endorsing such a practice at all.

Firstly, the essential premise behind much of this whole discussion is flawed. It assumes ‘my life is my own and I have a right to choose how it ends’. This is frankly bad theology altogether. My life is not my own. As a Christian it belongs to God who gave me that life in the first place. I have my life as a sacred trust, not as a possession or a right. I am not free to do just anything with my life when my health is robust, nor do I have a right to do just anything with it when my health is not. To put it in general Pauline terms “my life is not my own, I have been bought with a price. I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” As I said, this is me as a Christian talking to other Christians. This logic applies to those who have signed on to follow the ethical teachings of Jesus, Paul and the other NT writers.

Read it all.

Rupturing the Rapture

Sermon delivered on the 3rd Sunday before Advent A, November 9, 2014, 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: Joshua 24.1-3a, 14-25; Psalm 78.1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18; Matthew 25.1-13.

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

In these Sundays between All Saints and Advent Sunday, the focus is on the communion of saints, both the living and the dead. Appropriately, then, in our epistle lesson we see Paul being a pastor to his people by offering them real hope and consolation for their dead who have died in Christ, i.e., for those who were united with Christ in baptism and faith when they died. But what was the basis for that hope? It is this question I want us to look at briefly this morning.

In our epistle lesson, Paul is addressing a concern that the Thessalonians have apparently expressed to him. What will happen when the Lord returns to finally usher in his new creation? Will only those who are alive at that time be the beneficiaries? What will happen to those who have died in Christ? Will they be left out of God’s new world?

Of course not, says Paul, because when the Lord Jesus returns amid many great signs and wonders, those who have died in the Lord will be raised by God to join those who are still living to meet and greet him! So nobody who is the Lord’s gets left out of the great end-time party! We notice that Paul is not trying to say exactly where the dead are or what state they are in. It is enough for him (and us) to know that they are in God’s care and that when the Lord Jesus appears again, so will they.

This is why Paul tells us not to grieve as those who have no hope. This does not mean that when we suffer the death of loved ones we should not grieve. That would be cruel nonsense and Paul himself never gave any hint of trying to practice something like that (cf. Philippians 2.25-27). Instead, Paul was reminding us about our Christian hope, that not even death can separate us from the love of God that is in Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 8.38-39), so that whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s (Romans 6.3-5, 14.8; 1 Thessalonians 5.10). This was in stark contrast to the prevailing view of death in Paul’s day and (sadly) increasingly in our own, that death is final and permanent. Death is hard enough to endure as it is. But think what it would be like if we thought of death as a permanent separation from the Source of all life and a final state rather than as sleep from which we will one day awake because we are connected to the Source of all life as Paul teaches here and elsewhere. This is why we are to grieve as those who have hope.

But what are we to make of the vivid images Paul uses in describing the Lord’s return and the resurrection of the dead? Is he really teaching that there is going to be a “rapture” that is epitomized in the Left Behind series where the good guys are swept away to be with the Lord while the bad guys are left stranded here to endure a hellish existence in God’s rejected world? The short answer is absolutely not. But you knew that I couldn’t just give you the short answer.

First, let us remember that rapture theology is a 19th-century invention. We have no evidence the early church ever taught any such thing or that this kind of theology existed before then. To explain the language Paul uses, we must keep in mind that Paul was offering comfort to his people, not speculation about the Lord’s return. Paul is trying to describe an event that is simply indescribable because we have no frame of reference for it. And so he uses various biblical pictures and images to make his main point that the dead are not going to be left out of God’s new creation.

When Paul talks about the Lord descending from heaven he is not talking about a literal spatial return. Instead, the language Paul uses about trumpets sounding is likely alluding to the language of Psalm 47.5, a passage the early church believed to be a reference to Jesus’ ascension. In other words, Paul is telling us that Jesus will return from heaven (God’s space) in the same way he was taken up into heaven. Paul’s use of trumpet blasts also utilizes a common OT metaphor for one of the signs that would accompany the great and terrible day of the Lord in which God would execute judgment on his sin-sick world and its people (Zechariah 9.14; Joel 2.1; Zephaniah 1.14-16). Not only that, Paul’s descent language mirrors the dynamic of the new heavens and earth that is presented in Revelation 21.1-7. More about that in a moment.

But what about verse 17 where Paul tells us that those of us who are alive will be caught up in the clouds along with the dead who have been raised to meet the Lord Jesus in the air and be with him forever? Doesn’t that mean we will be taken from this evil world to enjoy eternal bliss with Jesus as disembodied spirits in heaven? Again, the short answer is no. Paul likely had in mind the image of people coming out of a city to meet a returning victorious general or leader to welcome him home and escort him back into their city, a common practice for people living in Paul’s day.

The image of being caught up in the clouds also evokes images from Daniel 7.1-28 where the Son of Man is vindicated by God after his suffering. Cloud language is always a biblical metaphor for God’s presence and here Paul is reminding us that we too will be vindicated in our suffering when the Lord returns and his people come out to welcome him as he ushers in God’s new world.

We can be sure Paul had this in mind because of what he says about the resurrection elsewhere (cf. Philippians 3.19-21; 1 Corinthians 15.50-57). What is the logic of resurrection? Think it through. The resurrection promises us new bodily existence in God’s new creation, the time when God consummates his promise to renew his sin-sick world and its people by bringing about new heavens and a new earth. This, of course, will happen when our Lord Jesus returns in great power and glory, and this is precisely what Paul is talking about here. If God intends to renew all creation by recreating the kind of world he intended originally, and if part of living in that world entails having new resurrection bodies, where is the advantage of being snatched away out of it? It is this world that is going to be the real paradise when the dimensions of heaven and earth are finally fused together into a new whole as Revelation 21.1-22.21 boldly proclaim. Here is where the action and the eternal party is, so why would a loving God who has made all this possible for us in and through Jesus snatch us away so that we miss it? Does not compute! To the contrary, the ones to be pitied are those who are excluded from this beautiful promise of new creation about which Paul and the other NT authors write. [To learn more about this, check out this video from Dr. Ben Witherington]

And it is important for us to understand that Paul is not just talking about us and how we are saved, although that is part of it. Paul has in view something much more comprehensive, the gospel contained in all of Scripture. We are reminded of this in our OT and psalm lessons this morning. Joshua and his people renew their covenant with the Lord to be the people God called them to be through Abraham and his descendants. They are to be a blessing to God’s good world and its peoples gone bad through sin and rebellion and the evil it unleashed. God would later promise his people Israel a new covenant which was ultimately fulfilled in Jesus, the one true Israelite through whom God would rescue us from evil, sin, and death and reconcile us to himself. To be part of that people and to live in a manner that would bring God’s blessing to the world is the basis of all wisdom as the psalmist reminds us because in rescuing his world from evil, sin, and death, God must judge the evil in it and rid his world of all vestiges of it, including all who practice evil and who live in rebellion against God’s gracious rule, even (especially?) God’s people.

This is the same warning we see in Jesus’ parable in our gospel lesson. Be ready, he says, because you don’t know when I will return to issue final judgment on all that corrupts my world. Lip service won’t cut it. You must live in a manner that imitates me and there will come a point, either at your death or when I return, that you will have no further chances to be part of the party. So don’t be left behind. Be wise and live each day as my people as my people who are prepared for my return by being God’s blessing to the world because I want you to be at the party!

This, then, is the gospel. It is about God rescuing his world and its people, not about me and my salvation, although again that is a part of it. Paul writes about this more fully in Romans 8.18-30 and in our epistle lesson we see him drawing on that hope to offer comfort for those of us who mourn our Christian dead. Elsewhere, Paul reminds us that we don’t have to wait to die to be with the Lord because he has given us his Spirit to live in and through us to sustain and equip us to be his saints so that we can live our lives patterned after the life of Jesus to bring God’s healing and blessing to the world (Romans 8.1-11). We can trust this promise because we have experienced the Spirit’s presence in our lives and because what God has done for us in our Lord Jesus’ death and resurrection. He has reconciled us to him and given us a taste of our bright future that Paul talks about here.

There is a lot for us to chew on in all this. Our epistle lesson ends with Paul’s command for us to encourage one another with his words. Are we doing that and grieving as people with hope or are we living in denial or wringing our hands in despair as the rest of the world does? Do we believe the hope and promise contained in the whole of scripture that God is actively involved in rescuing his world and us right now, even when we cannot perceive it? Do we live like people who believe that in the cross God has defeated evil and sin and reconciled us to him or do we still live in fear? Do we live like we have the Holy Spirit living in us to comfort us when we are afflicted and to trust God to sustain us when we are forced to walk through the darkest valley or do we act like we must walk through that valley all alone? Do we believe in the hope and promise of the resurrection of the body and the new heavens and earth, the time when the party will never end and we will never again be afflicted by any kind of evil as we are now? Are we living in the power of the Spirit as God’s holy people who are prepared for Jesus’ return in our day? This is not the same thing as living with a sense of urgency each day because we notice in Jesus’ parable all the bridesmaids fell asleep and it is not in our nature to live for long periods of time with a sense of urgency. How we answer these questions will determine what kind of church we are and what kind of faith, hope, and love we have, not to mention possessing joy and power, because if we can answer yes to these questions, we are acknowledging that we trust in the Lord and live in his power, not our own. That means, of course, we know 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.

St. John Chrysostom on Sharing the Gospel

john-chrysostom2Nothing is more frigid than a Christian who is not concerned with saving others. You cannot in this respect plead poverty; the woman who contributed her last two copper coins to the collection box will rise up to accuse you. So will Peter who said: “I have neither silver nor gold,” and Paul who was so poor that he often went hungry for lack of necessary food. Neither can you point to your humble birth: for they were also little people of the lower class. Ignorance will serve as no better excuse for you: they also were unlettered. Even if you are a slave or a fugitive, you can still do your part; such was Onesimus, and look to what he was called. And do not bring up infirmity: Timothy was subject to frequent illness. No matter who you are, you can be useful to your neighbor if you are willing to do what you can.

Do you see how sturdy, fair, well-shaped, graceful, and magnificent are the trees that do not bear fruit? Yet if we have occasion to possess a garden, we prefer pomegranate and olive trees filled with fruit. Sterile trees are there for appearance rather than utility; and if they can be useful, it is only in a very limited way. Such are those persons who consider only their own interest. And such persons do not even attain this end, for they are good only to be rejected, whereas the trees can be used to build houses. The foolish virgins had purity, grace, and modesty, but they were not useful to anyone because they saw themselves rejected.

Such are also those persons who do not assuage Christ’s hunger. Note well that none of them is reproached for private sinsfornication, perjury, and the likebut only for not having been useful to others. I ask you, is someone who acts in this fashion a Christian? If the leaven mixed vvith the flour does not cause it to rise, is it truly leaven? If perfume does not have a pleasing fragrance for those who come near, do we call it perfume?

Do not say that it is impossible to lead others into the fold, for if you are a Christian it is impossible not to do so. Indeed, if it is true that there is no contradiction in nature, what we have said is just as true, for it stems from the very nature of a Christian. If you claim that a Christian cannot be useful, you dishonor God and you behave like a liar. It is easier for light to be darkness than for a Christian not to send forth light. Do not declare something impossible when it is the contrary that is impossible.

Do not dishonor God.

Homily 20 on Acts 3-4

Lessons from the Throne Room

Sermon delivered on All Saints Sunday A, November 2, 2014, 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: Revelation 7.9-17; Psalm 34.1-10, 22; 1 John 3.1-3; Matthew 5.1-12.

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

Today is All Saints Sunday, the day when we celebrate the communion of saints, both those Christians who have died in the Lord (the Church Triumphant) and those of us who are living and who labor in the Lord’s power as his faithful kingdom workers (the Church Militant). So why do we celebrate a day like today? This is what I want us to look at briefly this morning.

We can find a big part of our answer in John the Elder’s vision in our NT lesson from Revelation this morning. But what are we to make of this vision? The first thing we need to be clear about is that like many of the visions in Revelation, time is quite fluid, moving rapidly from present to future and back. This is what we are seeing in today’s lesson. The vision is of God’s heavenly throne room right now, not at the end of time, although we catch glimpses of that time in it as we shall see. We know the vision is about what is going on in heaven right now because the throne room represents the heavenly Temple of God that mirrored the earthly one in Jerusalem. But when the new creation comes, God’s direct presence will flood the new heavens and earth and not be restricted to the heavenly Temple as it is here (Revelation 21.1-5, 22-27).

Why is John sharing this vision with us and why should we care? John’s original audience was the seven churches in Asia but his letter remains as pertinent to us today as it did to those churches in the first century. John writes to warn us about the coming ordeals we all will face. Echoing Jesus’ warning in our gospel lesson, John is telling us to be ready because we are about to undergo a severe testing of our faith; indeed, some of us already are! And to help us be ready, John urges us to hang on for dear life to the vision he shares of God’s throne room because it reminds us that God and the Lamb have already secured the victory over the forces of evil and that suffering and death and sickness and sorrow are not our final destiny.

So who are these people in the throne room? John gives us the answer that we all desperately need to hear. These are the people who have come through the great suffering. Think, for example, of your loved ones who have died in the Lord and of the various sufferings they had to endure before their death. Or think about the apparent untimeliness of their death in some cases. Think too about the times of your own suffering and tribulation as well as the massive suffering of the persecuted church throughout the world, especially in the Middle East. Doing so will help us understand we are all represented by this countless multitude of people from every tribe, language, and nation. Here we see these saints awaking as from a bad dream and into a glorious new reality just like you and I will experience one day. And what is this glorious new reality into which they have awoken? These multitudes get to stand in the presence of the living God and of Jesus the Lamb in worship and praise for delivering them forever from their various tribulations. This is what John means by salvation and what a real and lively relationship with God looks like.

But there’s more. John goes on to tell us that these saints, symbolic of all the saints, including our own, are wearing white robes to signify purity. The reason they are wearing these robes does not necessarily mean that they lived totally pure or holy lives, but because of the blood of the Lamb shed for them on the cross. This is what has made them clean and pure. This is what has rescued them (and us) from slavery to sin and what makes them at once able to stand in the very presence of the living God. There is no need to wait for this privilege. There is no lengthy postmortem period of cleansing (i.e., purgatory). No, the death of Jesus and the suffering they endured have done all that is required. If you find yourself thinking at this point, “No way. This is too good to be true.” you are coming close to finding the breathtaking reality of God’s love for you in Jesus and the transformative power of the Gospel. This is why we desperately need to hear and appropriate John’s vision because we are catching a glimpse of God’s promise to heal and rescue his sin-corrupted world and its people.

But there is still more. John goes on to tell us that God not only welcomes this multitude but provides a shelter for them just like he provided his tabernacle to shelter his people Israel in their wilderness wanderings. In other words, all the blessings of being in God’s Temple will be theirs (and is ours right now). If you understand this, you will begin to understand what Jesus was talking about when he announced the beatitudes in today’s gospel lesson. The beatitudes are not moral imperatives for us to try hard to follow but rather Jesus’ announcement that in him the living God is doing a new thing to redeem his world and its people from the ravages of evil, sin, and death. In other words, in Jesus we see God’s kingdom already breaking in on earth as in heaven and that people who follow Jesus are blessed because we realize God is working through our circumstances in the power of the Spirit to sustain and transform us in our heartaches and sorrow, just like we see him doing in John’s vision of the throne room.

And then John shows us one of the most poignant scenes in all the Scriptures. The scene shifts forward in time a bit, anticipating the new Jerusalem about which he speaks in Revelation 21.1-22.21. John tells us that God will wipe away every tear from the eyes of the multitude in the throne room. This is such a poignant scene because it invites us to see the very heart of God, a heart filled with such a deep love for his people that it prompts God to come down off his throne and wipe away every tear from their eyes, and this after he has delivered them through the blood of the Lamb! I’m going to pause for a few moments and invite you to hold this vision in your mind. See God coming down off his throne to wipe away the tears from the eyes of your loved ones who have died in the Lord and who are with him now. And then picture God coming to you and doing the same. If you can do that rather than picture God as some uncaring heavenly landlord or cosmic bully who is determined to punish you the minute you do something wrong, you will begin to embrace the reality of God’s new day pictured here in John’s vision as well as in the midst of your own life’s sufferings. [pause for reflection]

These then are some of the lessons from the throne room. First, our beloved who have died in Christ are in his protective and healing presence in God’s heavenly throne room. They are there because of the blood of the Lamb shed for them and their suffering and sighing have ended forever. Second, they are conscious and enjoying a vital relationship with the living God, worshiping him and offering their thanks and praise to him for delivering them through the Lamb. Third, as John reminds us in our epistle lesson and implies in this throne room vision, they are awaiting their resurrection bodies that they will get when Jesus appears to usher in the new heavens and earth. Last, we who are still part of the Church Militant are given hope by this knowledge, not only for our loved ones who have died in Christ but also for ourselves because this too is our destiny. This future hope is what must sustain us as we endure our own trials and suffering. But we also remember our hope is not entirely future-based because Jesus is present with us here and now in the power of the Spirit to help us cope and to learn to live in ways that imitate him so that we can develop his character and learn to prepare ourselves to be where he is. We don’t do this to earn our way into the throne room and ultimately the new creation, but rather in grateful response to God’s great love made known to us when he rescued us in Jesus.

In a few moments we are going to read the Roll Call of the Victorious. As you hear your loved ones’ name(s) read, keep these lessons firmly in mind and then give thanks to God and the Lamb for loving you and your beloved, and for promising you strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow, a hope that our beloved know to be a reality so that we, like them, know 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.

A Prayer for All Saints Day (2)

Blessed are you, Sovereign God,
ruler and judge of all,
to you be praise and glory for ever.
In the darkness of this age that is passing away
may the light of your presence which the saints enjoy
surround our steps as we journey on.
May we reflect your glory this day
and so be made ready to see your face
in the heavenly city where night shall be no more.
Blessed be God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Blessed be God for ever. Amen.

A Prayer for All Saints Day (1)

Almighty God,
you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship
in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord:
grant us grace so to follow your blessed saints
in all virtuous and godly living
that we may come to those inexpressible joys
that you have prepared for those who truly love you;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Why All Saints’ Day?

Why should our praise and glorification, or even the celebration of this feastday mean anything to the saints? Do they care about earthly honors when their heavenly Father honors them by fulfilling the faithful promise of the Son? What does our commendation mean to them? The saints have no need of honor from us; neither does our devotion add the lightest thing to what is theirs. Clearly, if we venerate their memory, it serves us, not them. But I tell you, when I think of them, I feel myself inflamed by a tremendous yearning. Calling the saints to mind inspires, or rather arouses in us, above all else, a longing to enjoy their company, so desirable in itself. We long to share in the citizenship of heaven, to dwell with the spirits of the blessed, to join the assembly of patriarchs, the ranks of the prophets, the council of apostles, the great host of martyrs, the noble company of confessors and the choir of virgins. in short, we long to be united in happiness with all the saints. But our dispositions change. The Church of all the first followers of Christ awaits us, but we do nothing about it. The saints want us to be with them, and we are indifferent. The souls of the just await us, and we ignore them.

Come, let us at length spur ourselves on. We must rise again with Christ, we must seek the world which is above and set our mind on the things of heaven. Let us long for those who are longing for us, hasten to those who are waiting for us, and ask those who look for our coming to intercede for us. We should not only want to be with the saints, we should also hope to possess their happiness. While we desire to be in their company, we must also earnestly seek to share in their glory. Do not imagine that there is anything harmful in such an ambition as this; there is no danger in setting our hearts on such glory.

When we commemorate the saints we are inflamed with another yearning: that Christ our life may also appear to us as he appeared to them and that we may one day share in his glory. Until then we see him, not as he is, but as he became for our sake. He is our head, crowned, not with glory, but with the thorns of our sins. As members of that head, crowned with thorns, we should be ashamed to live in luxury; his purple robes are a mockery rather than an honor. When Christ comes again, his death shall no longer be proclaimed, and we shall know that we also have died, and that our life is hidden with him. The glorious head of the Church will appear and his glorified members will shine in splendor with him, when he forms this lowly body anew into such glory as belongs to himself, its head. Therefore, we should aim at attaining this glory with a wholehearted and prudent desire. That we may rightly hope and strive for such blessedness, we must above all seek the prayers of the saints. Thus, what is beyond our own powers to obtain will be granted through their intercession.

–Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermon 2

Augustine on the Saints of God

When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “With humans this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”— Matthew 19.25-26

The saints are those who are moved by God’s grace to do whatever good they do. Some are married and have intercourse with their spouse sometimes for the sake of having a child and sometimes just for the pleasure of it. They get angry and desire revenge when they are injured, but are ready to forgive when asked. They are very attached to their property but will freely give at least a modest amount to the poor. They will not steal from you but are quick to take you to court if you try to steal from them. They are realistic enough to know that God should get the main credit for the good that they do. They are humble enough to admit that they are the sources of their own evil acts. In this life God loves them for their good acts and gives forgiveness for their evil, and in the next life they will join the ranks of those who will reign with Christ forever.

–Augustine of Hippo, Against Two Letters of the Pelagians, 3.5.14

One of the reasons I love Augustine is that he was never afraid to be real. As we read his description of the saints, we cannot help but wonder how these folks can be enjoying their rest with their Lord. I mean, look at their flaws Augustine is pointing out!

Here’s the answer. They have died with Christ and so are raised with him (Romans 6.8) They were buried with Christ in the waters of baptism so that they might rise with him in his resurrection (Romans 6.3-5). And when they were alive, their lives were hidden with Christ (Colossians 3.3-4).

For you see, it is not about the saints or our worthiness. None of us is worthy to stand before God in God’s perfect holiness! Rather, it is about what God has done for us in Jesus so that through his death we might enjoy real peace and reconciliation with God (Romans 5.111). In Jesus, God condemned sin in the flesh so that we might be equipped to live with God forever, both here on earth in the power of the Spirit and in God’s promised new creation (Romans 8.3-418-25). This is what Jesus reminds us in the passage above from Matthew and that’s why we have hope for the Christian dead and ourselves on All Saints Day. Jesus is Lord, even over death!

Is this your hope or are you clinging to something less which is bound to fail? On this All Saints Day may God grant you the grace, wisdom, and courage to embrace the hope offered to you in Jesus. Come celebrate our victory over death in Christ this Sunday as we celebrate the communion of saints!