Sermons = Homilies

Ordinary Time
aka the Long Green Season
 
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Recent Sermons/Homilies from St Michael's
Some think a Homily is a short form of Sermon, but they're really the same thing.
A short Sermon is called-- are you ready for this?-- "a short Sermon."
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Proper 17, Year A
3 September AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
 
Proper: Jeremiah 15:15-21; Psalm 26:1-8; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28
 
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
         

While I was in my previous two parishes, I was involved with the pro-life movement, to the point of standing on the sidewalk outside the local abortion clinic holding a placard and praying for everybody connected with it. I felt quite strongly that abortion is utterly evil. I still feel that way. But I’ve had a change of heart with regard to joining public protests, mainly for pastoral reasons. If I were a layperson, I think I’d gladly still participate in the March for Life and 40 Days for Life, walk up and down the sidewalk in front of Planned Parenthood, and throw holy water on the building like one little old Roman Catholic lady I saw once. But living in a sharply divided political climate over the past five years has led me to the conclusion that my presence on the sidewalk, whether in uniform or out of it, can be divisive within the Church, and repellent to those who maybe outside the Church wondering about coming in.

At one point Jesus said that he didn’t come to bring peace to the earth, but a sword. “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law” (Mt 10:34-35). And ten years ago I would have said, “Yeah, and as his priest I’m participating in that ministry.” But what I’ve since come to realize is that that’s not really a part of my ministry, or anyone else’s who is ordained. I’m ordained to be a pastor, not a protester. My ministry, as the bishop says to those about to be ordained, is “to nourish Christ’s people from the riches of his grace, and strengthen them to glorify God in this life and in the life to come” (BCP 1979, 531). I don’t think putting on a clerical collar and hold up a sign that says, “Abortion is murder!” in front of a young woman on her way into the clinic meets those criteria. Neither does being politically active on any side, or even being politically vocal from the pulpit. Why? Because it can be terribly divisive. By all accounts of the Old Testament, and of John the Baptist, prophets are the ones who have license to offend and to divide. They’re the ones God sent to call his people out for their unfaithfulness. But pastors are sent to welcome people in and care for them, to minister the grace of God to people who are hurting.

I was reminded of all this by images that I saw of clergy wearing their vestments marching with the counter-protesters in Charlottesville last month. Now I’m not taking sides on that issue. I know lots of good people who can make a reasonable case for keeping the Confederate monuments in place, and lots who can make a reasonable case for removing them. But it was inevitable that that kind of protest was going to draw lots of racists and white-nationalists. The thing about clergy conspicuously joining the other side is that at the time, well-intentioned as they were, none of those clergy really knew about everybody they were marching with. Sure, most of the counter-protesters had the best of intentions. But there were some there, like Antifa, the growing anti-fascist group, who are committed to using the same tactics as fascists to further their cause, in other words, to borrow St Paul’s phrase from today’s lesson, they’re ready to “repay evil for evil.”

That’s where the Charlottesville counter-protest is markedly different from the march on Selma in 1965, for example. It was right and proper to see all those clergy leading that march, because civil rights is very clearly a Gospel issue, being tied up with our Lord’s commandment to love your neighbor as yourself, and non-violent protest is a very Christian way of opposing injustice. So the clergy in Charlottesville should instead have stood on the sidelines as a visible, praying presence. And when it became apparent that physical conflict was about to erupt, they should have willing to step in between the opposing sides, the way those Ukrainian priests stepped in between police and protesters in Kiev three years ago. Remember those famous images of them wearing their sacramental stoles and holding up crosses to show who they were and in whose Name they were stepping in?

People in my line of work are called to stand above worldly politics, and instead to advance the agenda of the kingdom that is, as Jesus himself described it, “not of this world.” “If my kingdom were of this world,” he said at his own trial, “my servants would fight... But my kingdom is not from here” (Jn 18:36). It’s why military chaplains don’t engage in combat. We’re agents of peace and reconciliation. In fact, my job description can be nicely summed up by what we pray for in today’s collect: “Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works.” Now of course, I can’t do those things for anybody, not even myself– only God can. I’m just part of his support staff. The ordained ministry of the Church is an extension of the ministry of Jesus, but not the part about setting children against their parents, and daughters-in-law against their mothers-in-law. Jesus already accomplished that by becoming one of us and revealing himself as God, and declaring the truth of God in such a way that everybody has to react to it. And the fallen world has been reacting against it ever since. Our job as the Church is to gather, not to scatter, to bless, not to curse.

And all the members of the Church need to have a good understanding that that’s their ministry in the world, and how to go about it. As St Paul says earlier in Romans, “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ,” and before that he says, “how are they to hear without someone to proclaim” Christ to them? (10:17, 14). Well that’s my job. “Graft in our hearts the love of your Name,” we prayed today, “increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works.” As I said I can’t do that, only God can. But as his priest my role is to stand in the middle, interceding with the Lord for the people he has given into my care, and ministering his word and sacraments to his people. And it’s through that ministry of word and sacrament that true religion is increased, goodness is nourished and the fruit of good works is produced.

Now I need to say a word about that phrase, “true religion,” because some people lately have taken to speaking of religion as if it were different from Christianity, and somehow opposed to it. But it’s not. You hear things like, “Religion is bad, but Jesus is good,” or, “Organized religion is what keeps people away from Jesus.” That last one is sometimes used as an excuse for not going to church. And I can guarantee you that whenever someone says that, it’s not the real reason they don’t go to church. Anyway, the trouble is that the word ‘religion’ gets defined as something that it doesn’t really mean. So here’s your language lesson for today: Religion comes from the Latin word, religare = to reconnect. The root is ligare = to tie, bind, connect. Think of ligaments, the tissues that hold everything inside your body together. So ‘religion’ really means to reconnect. And the Christian faith and the Church are all about reconnecting people with the God who made them, who loves them, and who wants to redeem them so much that he sent his Son into the world to make that happen, to die for our sins and to rise again, opening the way for us to new life in him. Did you get all that? Religion is good, as long as it’s true religion.

And so we pray, “increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and bring forth in us the fruit of good works.” Once when someone addressed Jesus as “good teacher,” Jesus said, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone” (Mk 10:17-18). That’s why we address God in the beginning of today’s collect as “the author and giver of all good things.” So we ask him to nourish us with all goodness, a gift that only he can give, and to “bring forth in us the fruit of good works.” The good that he nourishes us with is meant to bear fruit– good actions, good works. And the primary sources of good nourishment are God’s word and sacraments– proclamation, preaching, teaching the word, giving new life in the sacrament of baptism, and renewing that new life in the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood. In the first lesson today Jeremiah says, “I ate your words, and they became to me a joy and the delight of my heart,  for I am called by your name, O Lord, God of hosts.” Every worship service, and every celebration of the Holy Eucharist in particular, is a feast of God’s Word. Word and sacrament are the primary diet of the Church. And that’s the work of the ordained ministry, to provide all that in the Name of the Lord.

Then we send you all out into the world to bear fruit. Well, first we send you out to the parish hall for coffee, and to share the goodness of God with each other. Then you go out and share it with everybody else. And that’s where St Paul comes in. I’m going to paraphrase what he says in today’s lesson about how Christians are to live in the world: Abhor evil, cling to the good. Love one another as brothers and sisters. Put everybody else ahead of yourself. Don’t be spiritually lazy, but serve the Lord eagerly. Rejoice in the hope of eternity; be patient in your suffering; never stop praying. Don’t be stingy toward your fellow Christians in need. Bless everybody who thinks or does ill toward you, and don’t ever curse them. Stand by your brothers and sister in good times and bad. Don’t allow any bad blood in the church, over the biggest or the smallest issue. Don’t be snooty, but treat everyone as equal. Never retaliate, but always do the right thing. And do everything in your power to keep the peace of the Lord within the Church, and to share it with everyone outside it. Since vengeance as a perfect and righteous judgment can only be carried out by God, don’t even think about it. But instead, overcome evil with good by loving and caring for your enemy, no matter who that is or how hateful they seem to be toward you or anyone else.

Those are just a few of the fruits of good works that can only be nourished in us by a steady diet of word and sacrament. And the bottom line is that our vocation as Christians, what God calls us to do in his Name, empowers us in baptism, ordains us in confirmation, and nourishes us in Holy Communion to do is to be reconcilers, reconnectors, religious people in the world, reaching out to everybody with the love of God, caring for them even when it’s clear they don’t care for him, or for one another. The main thing is that we keep extending that love, regardless of how anyone may respond or react. The worst that could happen is that they could beat us mercilessly and nail us to a cross. But then we’d be in good company, right? Enough said. In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
a.m.d.g.
Ian C. Wetmore+


Proper 14, Year A
13 August AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
 
Proper: 1Kings 19:9-18: Psalm 85:8-13; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33
 
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
         

I bet most folks don’t give too much thought to the collects that we pray before the readings, other than praying them and maybe meditating on what they say. Otherwise they’re just something we pray before we can sit down, and that may have some connection to the Bible readings we’re about to hear. We call them collects, btw, because they collect (gather up) the themes of the readings that follow. And some of them have a pretty interesting background. Very few of them date back only to the 1970s when our present Book of Common Prayer was published. Several of them date back to the publication of the very first Book of Common Prayer in 1549. But most of them date back to the 6th century (over 1400 years ago!), and were composed by Pope Gregory the Great when he organized the first set of collects and Bible readings to be used throughout the Church in the Western world. But some date back even further, to Pope Leo the Great in the 4th century.

Well, we know that the collect we prayed today is at least as old as St Gregory, maybe older, and that Archbishop Cranmer made a pretty faithful translation of it into English in 1549. But whoever updated it in the 1970s really did some damage to the original meaning. The opening line is still bang on. It says, “Grant to us, Lord, we pray, the spirit to think and do always those things that are right...” That’s pretty close to the Latin original. Then, in its present form it says, “that we, who cannot exist without you...” That’s pretty different from Cranmer’s translation, which says, “that we, who cannot do any thing that is good without you...” That’s much closer to the original Latin, which translates as something like “we cannot manage our lives without you.”

It’s quite clear to liturgy nerds like me that the people who revised the liturgies of the various churches in the 1970s-80s weren’t as careful, or as eloquent, as they were in the 1500s, or even in the early 1900s. More recent translations (e.g. the Church of England’s Common Worship, 2000; Roman Rite, 2011) are much better, and much more accurate. But even by the looser standards of the 1970s, it’s a pretty big leap from “we... cannot do any thing that is good without you” to “we cannot exist without you.” The fact that we cannot exist without God is so basic to the faith of Jews, Christians and Muslims, that it’s hardly worth repeating. The fact that we can’t manage our lives, or can’t do any good thing without God is also fundamental. But it’s something that we all need to hear over and over, simply because most of us spend a good bit of time and energy on trying to do just the opposite. We’re constantly trying to get along without God, trying to manage our lives, trying to do every good thing without his help, without first committing it to God in prayer, without asking for, and relying on, his grace to make it happen, and to make it bear fruit for his kingdom. Whether it was St Leo or St Gregory who wrote that prayer, they both knew how critical it is to ask God for the spirit to always think and do the right thing, precisely because we can’t manage our lives well, we can’t “do any thing that is good” apart from God’s help.  And all of today’s readings underscore that.

Elijah is considered the greatest of the prophets of Israel. Remember in last week’s gospel that when Jesus was transfigured, the two people who stood with him were Moses and Elijah. Moses was the lawgiver, the one who freed God’s people from slavery and interpreted God’s law for them to live by. Elijah was the fearless prophet, the one who stood up to the enemies of God’s people, and therefore represents all the prophets of the Old Testament. That’s why it was those two who appeared with Jesus during his transfiguration to affirm that he really is God’s chosen.

The back story to today’s first lesson (1Kgs 18) is that Elijah was on the run from Ahab and Jezebel. Ahab was the wimpy king of Israel, and the very henpecked husband of Jezebel, who was a very nasty piece of work. As a Canaanite, Jezebel was a worshipper of Ba’al, the fertility god, and saw it as her mission to lure God’s people away from worshipping him, and to worship Ba’al instead. And some of her missionary tactics proved to be pretty ruthless. So the people of Israel were torn between Ba’al and their own God.

The big showdown between Jezebel and Elijah came when Elijah challenged four hundred prophets of Ba’al to a contest that would prove whether God or Ba’al was more powerful. King Ahab invited all the people of Israel to come to Mt Carmel and see. There the prophets of Ba’al built an altar early in the morning, laid wood all around it, butchered a bull and laid it on top, and proceeded to call on their god to send fire down to consume it. “O Ba’al, answer us!” they said over and over, but nothing happened. Then at noon Elijah started mocking them. “Louder!” he said, “for he’s a god. Either he’s deep in thought, or he’s relieving himself, or he’s on a journey, or maybe he’s asleep and needs you to wake him up.” So they started crying louder and also cutting themselves so that there was blood everywhere. They kept it up until late afternoon, but still nothing happened.

Then Elijah built an altar with twelve stones, representing the twelve tribes of Israel, dug a trench all around it, butchered his bull and laid it on top of the wood on the altar, and had his helpers pour something like twenty gallons of water on it, which ran down and filled the trench. Then he prayed to God: “let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Show yourself to your people and turn their hearts back to you.” Then fire came down and burned up the offering, the wood, the stones and all the water in the trench. And all the Israelites fell on their faces and said, “The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God!” So they rounded up all the prophets of Ba’al, and Elijah killed them. When Ahab reported back to Jezebel she sent a message to Elijah saying, “May the gods do worse to me if I don’t kill you by this time tomorrow!” So he ran for his life to Mt Horeb, aka Mt Sinai where God gave the law to Moses, and hid in a cave there. That’s where we find Elijah at the beginning of today’s reading.

“What are you doing here, Elijah?” God says to him. And Elijah complains about how badly he’s been treated. “All your people have turned their back on you,” he says, “They’ve torn down your altars and killed your prophets. I’m the only one left, and they want to kill me too.” God tells him to go out and stand on the mountain, where Moses stood centuries before to receive the Law. God sent a mighty wind, an earthquake and fire. But he didn’t speak out of any of those. You can’t hear God speaking in all the chaos and confusion of the world. He’ll use those to get our attention. But to actually listen to what he has to say, you can only hear him when your heart and your soul are tuned in to his presence, ready to listen. Then he spoke in a low whisper, “a still small voice” (KJV).  “What are you doing here, Elijah?” he says again. And Elijah repeats what he said before.

Then God gives Elijah his marching orders: “Go anoint Hazael to be king of Syria, Jehu as king of Israel, and Elisha to succeed you as prophet. Whoever Hazael doesn’t kill, Jehu will; and whoever escapes Jehu, Elisha will kill.”  He’s talking about killing whoever tries to convert his people to the worship of Ba’al, namely Jezebel and her henchmen. And he promises to spare all the people who have kept the faith, which amounts to around 7,000. If you’re wondering what happened to Ahab and Jezebel, Ahab repented shortly afterward, and the Lord spared his life. But Jezebel– and this part gets a PG-17 rating– she was eventually thrown out a window by some of Jehu’s men, trampled by horses and eaten by dogs, as Elijah had prophesied. All that was left of her were her skull, hands and feet (2Kgs 9:30-37). Pretty gruesome, right?

Now don’t let yourselves get hung up on all the violence and bloodshed here. From our point of view it’s hard to see how the righteousness of God is at work in it at all. And I can’t explain it very well. But I do know that in our culture, in which we’re so jaded by the violence we see on the news every day, whether it’s in Virginia or Syria, we’re not as abhorred by it as we ought to be. And yet we’re super-vigilant with regard to violence against animals, and hypercritical of violence in the Bible. Our thinking is all messed up by the noise and the chaos that surrounds us. So we should really just take a step back and try to see it all from a better point of vew, accept what we read in the Bible as a past event that we have no control over, and get more actively concerned about Virginia and Syria, trusting that God is just, and relying on him to help us think and do what’s right.

Even by Old Testament standards, though, this is all pretty gory stuff. And of course you’re all wondering how today’s collect applies to Elijah. Well, after all that’s gone on in Israel, what with Jezebel trying to stamp out the worship of God, and after God’s triumph over Ba’al on Mt Carmel, Elijah has a moment of weakness. After standing up to Jezebel and Ahab, he’s suddenly become afraid of her. He’s been fearless and faithful, as he protested to God. But God’s fearless prophet is suddenly worried about his own safety. So God comes to the rescue. He needed to go out into the quiet of the desert, and up on God’s holy mountain in order to be reassured by God, to have his faith affirmed and his resolve strengthened, before joining the fray again and carrying out the prophetic ministry for which God anointed him. He needed that grace that would enable him to do the good things God had planned for him, and to live according to God’s will.

It’s much the same with Peter and the others in the boat, except that they weren’t on the run from a monstrous queen. What happened just before what we read in today’s gospel was the feeding of the five thousand. After witnessing that miracle, the crowds wanted to see Jesus do more spectacular things. As Jesus explains later (John 6), they had missed the whole point of it, which was that similar to how he fed that large crowd with a small amount of natural food, once he had risen from the dead he would feed a far greater number with a small amount of supernatural food, i.e. his own Body and Blood. But they just wanted to see more magic, and they wouldn’t leave Jesus and his disciples alone. So he sent the disciples off in a boat, and he went up on the mountain for some peace and quiet and to spend some quality time with his Father.

Then a storm arises, and in the midst of it, Jesus comes walking on the water toward the boat. Have you noticed how some sort of natural disturbance usually precedes the appearance of God? And people are usually afraid. With Elijah it was the wind, the earthquake and the fire, on top of his fear of Jezebel. In the Transfiguration gospel that we read last week, and in the case of Moses on Mt Sinai, a cloud descends on the mountain. Well, this time it’s a storm on the water, and the disciples are afraid for their safety. And when they see Jesus out there walking they think it’s a ghost because, who can walk on water? So they’re even more afraid. Then he speaks. And what he says to them is much more significant than how it reads in English. What we hear is “Don’t be afraid. It’s me.” But what he actually said is “Don’t be afraid. I Am” (ἐγώ εἰμι). I Am is how God identifies himself, as in when he was sending Moses to free his people. Moses said, “If they ask me your name, what do I tell them?” And God said, “Tell them this, ‘I Am has sent me to you’” (Ex 3:13-14).

Jesus said “I Am” to his disciples quite a lot, and they understood that he was identifying himself with God. So this time, when he says, “Don’t be afraid. I Am,” they’re somewhat relieved, but not totally. So Peter says, “Lord, if it’s really you, command me to walk on the water.” Jesus says, “Come,” and Peter steps out and walks up to him. But then fear gets the better of him and he begins to sink. He’s momentarily distracted by the danger around him, and loses confidence in the power of God. But as he’s sinking, he knows enough to cry out to Jesus, who grabs him and says, “Such little faith, why did you doubt?” Then they all knew for sure that it was Jesus, and to confess that he truly is the Son of God.

That’s how it is with us, isn’t it? I know it is with me. We have faith. We believe in God, and worship Jesus as Lord. And every time we say the Creed, we declare our belief that God is almighty, and that in his good time he’s going to sort out all our messes. And we know that in the mean time we need to commit everything to him in prayer, lifting up to him the whole world that he created, and asking him to redeem it. But then comes the moment when we feel like we’re being buried under all our problems and cares, and all the problems and cares of the world. And we’re tempted to despair and to lose faith. That’s the time to cry out with Peter, “Lord, save me!”

That’s essentially what Elijah was saying to God on the mountain: “Lord, save me!” And as St Paul says in today’s second lesson, quoting the prophet Joel, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Joel 2:32). But he qualifies that. He says that it’s by embracing “the word of faith,” which is another way of saying the Gospel, the Good News that Jesus Christ is Lord and that God raised him from the dead– by embracing that word of faith so that it becomes embedded deep in our hearts and is ready to fall from our lips whenever anyone wants to know the reason for our hope (1Pet 3:15)– by embracing the word of faith in that way, we are saved. And when we embrace the word of faith, we embrace “the spirit to think and do always those things that are right,” which is a gift of God’s grace.

Confessing with our mouth that Jesus is Lord and believing in our heart that God raised him from the dead is at the center of the Christian life. And it helps us all to know that neither Elijah nor Peter and the other disciples had a perfect, and a perfectly unshakeable, faith in God. They all had their weak moments. And they all knew enough to cry out in their weakness, “Lord, save me!” And the Lord did rescue them from their momentary troubles. But what’s more important, for them and for us, is to have that deep assurance that whether we overcome our troubles or they overcome us, as long as we keep on calling out to him, we will be his and his life in us will be secure. In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
a.m.d.g.
Ian C. Wetmore+




The Transfiguration
6 August AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
 
Proper: Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99:5-9; 2 Peter 1:13-21; Luke 9:28-36
 
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
         


You all see that great big brass thing behind the altar every time you come here. You can’t miss it. And you see me get something out of it while we’re singing Lamb of God, and putting it back after Communion and pulling the veil over it. But I’m pretty sure some of you don’t know what it’s called or where it came from. Am I right? That is the tabernacle, the place
where we keep the reserved Sacrament– the leftovers from Communion– in case we need to take it to the sick, the housebound, or the dying. This one is particularly beautiful. There’s a descending dove on top of it, which represents the Holy Spirit, and on the door there are two angels bowing in adoration, because what’s inside it is the Blessed Sacrament, the Body of Christ, the means by which he feeds us from his own substance.

You can embrace any doctrine of the Eucharist that you want, whether it’s that the bread and wine are completely changed into the Body and Blood of Christ, like the Roman Catholic Church teaches; or that we receive the Body and Blood in some intangible, spiritual way at the same time that we consume the bread and wine, which is what some of the Protestant reformers taught; or like the Orthodox and most Anglicans, that in some mysterious way, well beyond our ability to comprehend, the Lord is truly present in the Sacrament to nourish us for life in his kingdom. “This is my body... This is my blood,” Jesus said. And whatever that makes it, Queen Elizabeth I famously said, “that I believe and take it.” Whatever you believe happens to the bread and wine when the Church offers them up at the altar, there’s no denying that they’ve become truly holy, and that we need to treat them with deepest reverence– the same way you treat a Bible. You don’t pile other things on top of it or toss it in the garbage, or stick it under the short leg of a table, not because of what it’s made of, but because of what it contains. The presence of a tabernacle, particularly one like ours, in a church is a clear statement of our belief that Jesus is truly present in the Sacrament.

This tabernacle, by the way, originally came from St Paul’s Church in East St Louis, and was given to the glory of God, as it says on the memorial plaque, and in memory of Fr Raymond Gunn, who was a much-loved priest at St Paul’s (1940s-50s?). The usual way of phrasing memorial plaques is to say, “Given to the glory of God and in memory of __.” And when you understand the purpose of a tabernacle, and appreciate the beauty of ours in particular, you can see that it really does glorify God by drawing attention to itself and telling worshippers that what’s inside it is the most precious thing on earth– the life-giving Body and Blood of Jesus. That’s your lesson in eucharistic theology and holy hardware for the day.

So what does our tabernacle have to do with anything we’re supposed to be thinking about today, the feast of the Transfiguration? Two things: first is the word itself, tabernacle; and second, like the mount of transfiguration on that day, the tabernacle in a church is a place where the glory of the Lord is revealed and enshrined. Bear in mind that this isn’t all just Bible trivia that doesn’t really mean much in the big picture. All the writers of Scripture were quite deliberate in their choice of words. And since they were divinely inspired, you can see God’s hand on every page making connections all over the Bible, because everything in the Bible is connected. And at the center of it all is Jesus.

Now you may have noticed that I keep using that word, tabernacle, even though it doesn’t appear in any of today’s readings, at least not in the translation we’re reading from. In the gospel, Peter says, “Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Some other modern English translations say, “Let us make three shelters/booths.” But in the earliest English translations it’s “Let us make three tabernacles.” Taberna is the Latin word for a temporary dwelling, which is where the English word tavern comes from, a place where you can lodge for the night (think Holiday Inn, Travelodge). Tabernaculum means something like a smaller temporary dwelling, so that’s the Latin word for tent. And in today’s gospel, the word that Luke actually uses is the Greek word for tent– σκηνός– which is also a word that Peter uses in today’s second lesson.

Now if you look at that lesson in your insert, Peter starts out by saying, “I think it right, as long as I am in this body...” But when Peter wrote that letter– in Greek– he didn’t say body (σωμα), he said tent (σκηνός). He uses that word to indicate that this mortal body which is going to wear out and die is our soul’s temporary dwelling. But he doesn’t mean it in the same way as the gnostic heretics, who believed that the body was evil, and that the soul would eventually be freed from it for all eternity. The dead in Christ are going to be raised up on the last day, Paul says (1Thes 4:16), soul and body will be put back together, new and improved. The perishable body will put on the imperishable, the mortal will put on immortality (1Cor 15:53). And it’s going to look something like what Peter, James and John saw happen to Jesus when he was transfigured.

Now jumping back to the first lesson, there’s no mention there at all of tents or tabernacles, but it’s implied. It begins by saying that Moses came down the mountain carrying the two tablets of the testimony. Those are the stone tablets on which he carved the Ten Commandments– a copy of the first set. You’ll remember that when he came down the first time, he was carrying the original stones on which God had written the commandments– with his own fiery finger, according to Cecil B. DeMille. And when Moses saw what the people down below had gotten up to during the forty days he was up on the mountain with God, he got pretty upset and smashed the tablets on the ground. So he went back up the mountain to plead with God to spare his people, and this time God had Moses make new tablets himself.

Anyway, whenever Moses spent time in the presence of God, the divine glory somehow irradiated his face so that it had a supernatural glow for a long time afterward. The first time that happened was on this occasion that we read about, when he came down the mountain. And it frightened the people because they’d never seen anything like it before– no one ever had. St John Chrysostom said that the problem was not so much the divine glory reflected in Moses’ face, but that it made the people fully aware of their sinfulness. And since, as God had told Moses on the mountain, “no one can see me and live” (Ex 33:20), it’s no wonder they recoiled in fear. But Moses called them closer, and began to give them the whole law as God had just given it to him. And when he finished speaking, he veiled his face so that the people wouldn’t be so afraid of him. Then it says that whenever Moses went in before the Lord he took the veil off, and put it back on when he went out. What he was going in and out of was the tent of meeting, aka the tabernacle, which the Lord had commanded Moses to set up. That was God’s temporary dwelling among his people during the forty years he led them around the wilderness, and for several centuries afterward, until Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem.

So it became the practice after that among God’s people, whenever they encountered any manifestations of God’s holiness, to want to put up a tent or a booth, to enshrine it– not to try to box God in, but to capture the moment and to linger in it as long as possible, as a reassuring token of God’s presence and care for his people. And the Church has carried on that tradition. Next time you’re in an older Catholic or Episcopal church, look at the windows to see if there are any saints depicted as if they were posing for a portrait. Chances are that there’s something that looks like a little roof or a tent over their heads. Statues of saints inside churches also will sometimes have a little tent over their heads. Outdoors they’re sometimes housed in a booth like the guards outside Buckingham Palace.

So it was quite natural for Peter, when he saw that Moses and Elijah were about to disappear, to want to capture the moment by pitching tents over the three holy men. Maybe Peter thought that would be the proper thing to do, since God had commanded Moses to pitch a special tent where they could have their conversations. And here was Moses, along with Elijah, the greats of the Old Testament prophets, caught up in this supernatural glow in conversation with Jesus about “his departure,” as Luke calls it, his coming death and resurrection. Then at that moment a cloud moved in and obscured their view. And God the Father spoke out of the cloud, like how he spoke to Moses out of the fire and the cloud on Mt Sinai, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Then it was all over, and the three disciples found themselves alone with Jesus. They went down the mountain and never said a thing about any of it until after Jesus had died and risen again.

So, why did the Transfiguration happen in the first place? Just a week or so before this, a couple of really important things had happened. First, Jesus asked the disciples who people thought he was. So they told him what they’d been hearing: “Some say you’re John the Baptist, others say Elijah... or one of the other prophets”. “But what about you guys?” he said, “Who do you say I am?” Peter said, “You’re the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus blessed Peter because he said this thing that only God could have revealed to him. And he told all the disciples that on that confession of faith he was going to build his Church, and that on the strength of that apostolic faith, his Church would smash the gates of hell and empty it out. Then Jesus told his disciples for the very first time that they were about to go up to Jerusalem where he would be arrested by the religious leaders, and be tortured and killed, and then rise from the dead on the third day– his departure. Peter rebuked Jesus for saying such a thing. Then Jesus rebuked Peter for rebuking him. And then Jesus began to teach them about the need to take up their own crosses to follow in the way Jesus was about to lead with his cross, i.e. that they should be willing to sacrifice their own lives for the sake of saving the world  (Mt 16:13-228). All that is what happened in the immediate run-up to the Transfiguration.

So in the wake of giving this scary news to the twelve disciples, Jesus takes the inner circle of three– Peter, James and John– up the mountain with him to give them a glimpse of who he truly is. It’s a way of confirming the faith that they had confessed earlier, of grounding their belief that he’s really the Christ, the Son of God, in preparation for what they’re all about to face when they get to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. He pulled back the veil of his human flesh, the tent of his body as Peter says, to reveal the hidden divinity underneath, and let the brilliance of it shine out far brighter than it did in the face of Moses. Moses was just a mirror that reflected the glory of God. But Jesus is the glory of God. In causing the eternal Word to become flesh and dwell among us, St John says, we have seen the glory of God not simply reflected in the face of Jesus, but in all its fullness, “glory as of the only begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14).

The Transfiguration of Jesus was a brief moment of clarity for Peter, James and John. It was a brief, but astonishingly brilliant glimpse into the true nature of Jesus– the two natures of Jesus, in fact, since being both the Son of God and the son of Mary he possesses both divine and human natures. He is both fully God and fully human, which is what Peter blurted out by way of divine revelation a week earlier, and which he continued to proclaim until the end of his life, on a cross, just like Jesus. “I think it right, as long as I am in this body,” he says in his letter to the Church, “to stir you up by reminding you of everything I’ve seen. And I’ll make every effort so that after I’m gone you won’t forget any of it.” And what he saw on the mountain that day was that God himself had come down to his people in Person in order to take us back to himself. The three of them didn’t say anything about what they saw that day until after Jesus had risen from the dead. And then on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit filled them, they started telling the whole world. And they didn’t stop until the day they died, because they realized that they were “eyewitnesses of his majesty,” just like Moses was whenever he went out of the tent of meeting, and just like we’re called to be whenever we leave this place. In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
a.m.d.g.
Ian C. Wetmore+



Proper 12, Year A
30 July AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
 
1 Kings 3:5-12; Psalm 119:129-136; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
 
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
         

Twice in today’s second lesson St Paul uses a word that makes a lot of Christians uncomfortable, and yet gives a measure of satisfaction to some others. The word is predestination. First comes that line that has brought so much comfort to so many Christians: Paul says, “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose,” meaning that no matter what may happen, the goodness of God and the kingdom of God keep on advancing, and that the faithful will ultimately be fully taken up into his goodness and into his kingdom. Forget whatever Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer and Kenneth Copeland might say. It’s not a promise of our material prosperity or of living Your Best Life Now (Osteen’s book). It’s about the final triumph of God and the complete eradication of sin, suffering and misery according to the plan which he formulated before the foundation of the world. “...all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose,” Paul says. We who love God and who put our whole faith and trust in his crucified and risen Son know this. It’s written on our hearts in the Blood of Jesus.

Then Paul says,

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

There are four significant theological words in that statement– foreknew, predestined, justified, glorified. And the Church has had a lot to say over 2,000 years about each of them. But don’t worry, I’m not going to say it all right now! I’m just going to pick out a few threads.

Before getting into the theological tangles of predestination, let’s break the word itself down to understand its basic meaning. It’s really pretty simple. To say that something is predestined is to say that its end, its destiny, has been determined beforehand. This is where something is supposed to end up, not where it’s going to end up no matter what, but where it’s supposed to end up. Everybody got that? Now let’s look at it in practical terms.

My lovely wife, as many of you know, is a lovely cook. She especially loves making sweet things. In fact, an old friend of ours dubbed her “the dessert queen.” You all get to see and enjoy the nice things that she brings to coffee hours and shared meals. But on rare occasions, when she’s in the kitchen and I’m somewhere else in the house, I can hear the oven door open followed by a cry of “Oh no! My cheesecake fell!” or “My banana bread’s all gooey in the middle!” But that doesn’t happen very often at our house. She starts out with a plan of what she’s going to do and how it’s going to turn out. And even though she follows the recipe, does all the right things, puts in all the right ingredients at the right stages, there are some variables that are beyond her control that sometimes make things not turn out they way they’re supposed to. That’s how divine predestination works. She also makes excellent lasagna. But for a long time it turned out rather more juicy than she intended.  And whenever she took a pan of it to a parish function back in the day, one lady would look at it and say, “Jumpins, it’s some runny? Who made that?” I know you’ve all, at some point in your lives, met that one church lady in the kitchen who’s hyper-critical of what everybody else does.

Now the reason why that word, predestination, disturbs a lot of Christians, and scares away some potential Christians, yet comforts some other Christians, is that they think it means something that it doesn’t really mean. Remember Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride?– “You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means” (“Inconthseivable!” “Predethstination!”). The popular misunderstanding of predestination is that before the creation of the world God, from his eternal vantage point, looked at all his human creatures from first to last and chose which ones he would save, and left others. (Those are the Left Behind.) A number of theologians throughout the history of the Church have taught this doctrine. St Augustine believed it at one point in his spiritual development, but rejected it later.

Then there’s the even scarier idea of double predestination, as taught by the Protestant reformer John Calvin and others, including some Anglicans like J.I. Packer, one of the leading theologians alive today. Nevertheless, God has used Calvin and Packer to bring a lot of people into the kingdom. That just goes to show that preachers and teachers of the Gospel aren’t saved by their theological accuracy, but by their faithfulness. Double predestination is the notion that not only did God choose specific persons to be saved, but that he also deliberately singled out certain persons to be eternally condemned.

Now this is a really appropriate time for you all to ask, “How could a good and loving God do such a thing?” Well, apart from a relatively small number of theologians, the Church has consistently taught that God has not done such a thing, nor will he. This subject is a very good illustration of why no individual can seriously think that we can each read and interpret the Bible on our own. We all read Scripture, like we read everything else, through the lens of our own worldview, and our own limited understanding. That’s why C.S. Lewis said that for every new book we read, we should also read at least two old books. Because a new book that’s been written in our own time and culture will reinforce the views and values of our time and culture, whereas books written in earlier times and different cultures will challenge our own views and values, make us look at them more critically, and broaden our understanding considerably (from Lewis’s intro to St Athanasius, On the Incarnation).

We read the Bible in the company of the whole Church in every age, and we interpret it through the collective teaching of the whole Church in every age. So it can’t mean one thing for 21st-century Christians, and something entirely different for 1st- or 3rd- or 16th- century Christians. As both Isaiah and St Peter have said, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Is 40:8; 1Pt 1:24-25). That’s not to say it can’t be consistently misinterpreted from one age to the next. That has happened. Double predestination is based on a 16th-century reading of Scripture by people who were reacting against equally bad teaching coming from the Church’s ruling establishment in Rome. If you want to see an example of what I’m talking about, just watch and hour of CNN and an hour of Fox News, and pick out the extremes from both sides, and then try to figure out what the truth is that they’re both distorting. A later pope initiated what became known as the Counter-Reformation which corrected a lot of Church teaching and practices. But by then Calvin’s followers had dug in their heels and wouldn’t budge on their reactionary teaching.

So what’s the real deal with predestination? I can see that you’re all sitting on the edge of your pews right now itching to find out. So let’s think about my wife’s cooking, and take it to the heavenly level, although lots of people, myself included, would say that it’s already up there. And let’s get back to St Paul. We’ll combine the two and call it culinary theology. In today’s reading St Paul says that “those whom [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son”– those whom God foreknew.

The idea of God’s foreknowledge is something that can really challenge our thinking– it did mine for a long time. We’ve all been taught since Sunday school that God created everything out of nothing. Yet lots of us still want to say, “Yeah, but what did he start with? He must have had some building materials.” But at the beginning of the biblical creation story it says, “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep” (1:2). That means that there was absolutely nothing there– no atoms, no particles, no angels, nothing– only God, until he spoke. Then things began to exist. And one of the first things God created is time. That fact is threaded all through the creation story: “there was evening and there was morning, the first day... the second day... the third day...” (Gen 1:5ff). I’ve explained this before, but it bears repeating since it’s a really rich thing for us to think about. What that all means is that as the Creator of time, God stands outside of it. He dwells in eternity, the ticking of the clock means nothing to him. And the whole material creation is wrapped up in time, and floats like a little bubble inside eternity. The kingdom of God is all around us, kind of like how a submarine is enveloped in the ocean. And most of the crew can’t see what’s going on just oustide the boat. Technology tells them what’s out there, but they can’t see it with their own eyes. In a similar way, the revealed Word of God tells us what’s out there because we can’t see it with our own eyes. “For we walk by faith, not by sight,” Paul says (2Cor 5:7).

So God, standing outside of time, can see the whole creation from start to finish. He knows every one of his creatures from all eternity, and he knows exactly what we do at any moment, what choices we make, what messes we get into, whether and how much we reach out to him for help, or reject him entirely. He knows it all. And so Paul says in today’s reading, “those whom [God] foreknew he also predestined.” That begs the question, Whom did God not foreknow? Which of his own creatures was he ever not able to look at and see how their lives were going to unfold? Answer: None! “Those whom he foreknew he also predestined.” So it’s reasonable to say that that includes every person whom God has created. 

Now going back to what I said earlier, predestination is about where something or somebody is supposed to end up, and not about where they’re going to end up no matter what. Calvin’s reading, and others’, is that we have no choice, that God has already decided that we’re either going to shine or burn, and that nothing we do can change that. It’s as if we’ve been programmed either to succeed or to fail, and the program can’t be changed. But that’s a very bad reading of Scripture.

Scripture is very clear that God created every one of us out of love, and that his great desire is that we should all repent and return to him, and that the thrust of everything he did throughout biblical history was to enable that to happen. And so he has predestined all of us to a blessed eternity with him. But he hasn’t decided that we’re all going to end up there no matter what. Scripture is also clear that God has given us the choice. St Augustine said that “God orders all things while preserving human freedom,” while preserving our freedom to choose. He gives us all the grace we need to lead us in his direction– the grace of the sacraments to nourish us in the life of the kingdom, and other means of grace to guide us along the way. But he doesn’t force his gifts on anybody who doesn’t want them, and he doesn’t withhold them from anybody who really wants them. But he has planted in every one of us the impulse to respond to his call.

“And those whom he predestined,” Paul says, “he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” Those are the steps of salvation that Paul lays out there. God has a wonderful plan for us all, and he calls us, he invites us to be part of it. Those who accept the invitation he justifies, he makes right, he forgives sin and restores the image of himself that he created us all to be, but which we have tarnished by our sin. And when his Son returns in glory to finally eradicate all sin and evil, and fully establish his kingdom on earth and open it up to eternity, then will he glorify all his people with the glory that he first revealed in his crucified and risen Son.

God doesn’t want anybody to miss out on that. Origen, the great biblical teacher of the 3rd century, said that “God’s providence extends to every individual,” not just a chosen few. And Pope John Paul II said, “Since salvation is offered to all, it must be made concretely available to all.” That’s exactly what God did when he sent his Son into the world, because his great desire, as Paul tells Timothy, is for “all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1Tim 2:4).  

The really egregious problem with Calvin’s kind of predestination is that as Calvin himself said, “all are not created in equal condition” (Institutes III.21.v), meaning that God created some of us for eternity and others for damnation, which flies in the face of everything Jesus said and taught. The horrible outworking of that has been the human tendency to classify our neighbors, to segregate them based on our own ideas of worthiness and unworthiness, whether because they look different, or don’t behave according to our standard, or don’t believe what we believe. Thinking about Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the weeds that we read last week, it gives a self-appointed group of people the right to determine who’s in and who’s out. It can also drive individuals crazy wondering whether they themselves are saved or damned, which was what happened among the Puritans in New England, and led to a number of suicides.

So the take-away from all this is that when you see the word predestination in the Bible, don’t let it scare you. What it means very simply is that in God’s plan of redemption there’s a place reserved for every last person. But he doesn’t draft us; he invites us to be part of it. He demonstrated that when his Son stretched out his arms on the cross to embrace the whole world, and to die for the sins of the whole world, and again when the risen Son sent the apostles to evangelize the whole world. All through the gospels we see Jesus fighting against the tendency of the religious leaders to be selective. And in a lot of instances of division in the Church since then, especially among us Protestants, that tendency has been a major factor. The message of the cross is that eternal life in Christ is available to all people, and that the Church is the place where God gathers in all the people who respond to his call, to give them new life and to nourish them for that life in his eternal kingdom. In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
a.m.d.g.
Ian C. Wetmore+



Proper 11, Year A
23 July AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
 
Proper: Isaiah 44:6-8; Psalm 86:11-17; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30,36-43
 
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
         

I’m not a very patient person when it comes to self-discipline. I have a really hard time keeping focussed on something if the goal seems a long way off. For example, my clothes keep shrinking, and I haven’t been able to summon up the determination to make them stop! But since I really don’t want to have to buy a bigger set of clothes, I’m going to have to do something about it soon. Lots of us are impatient and undisciplined that way, and increasingly so in part because of technology. The more technological advances come into our lives, the fewer chances we have to practice patience. Just about every kitchen has a microwave oven, so we don’t need to wait too long for things to cook. We email, text, snapchat and tweet, and what we say can go the far side of the world in a split second. Who corresponds by mail anymore? We order stuff from Amazon and have it in two days. When I was growing up, it seems like the last thing they said on every mail-order ad on TV was, “Allow six weeks for delivery.” Who waits that long for anything?

I’ve never seen the remake of The Karate Kid, but in the original movie, the main character is beaten up by some thugs, and then decides that the way to get revenge is by learning karate. He finds an old Japanese master and begs to be taken on as his student. But to the kid’s disappointment, the master doesn’t put him in a white uniform and begin teaching him karate right away. Instead, he puts him to work doing menial tasks– waxing cars, scrubbing things- but not just any old way. He makes the kid use his hands in certain ways that don’t at first make sense. Remember “wax on, wax off”? The kid is impatient. He can’t see the point of all this. He wants to get right to the good stuff. But Mr Miyagi is persistent. And when he thinks the kid is ready and, just as important, willing to learn more, he teaches him. By the end of the movie, the kid has learned that karate not about revenge at all, but is primarily about self-discipline. He’s also learned that, in order to do something right, and to have a full appreciation of it, you have to be patient, you have to be willing to learn, and open to guidance. He’s learned that the way to perfection doesn’t come easily or quickly.

This is what St Paul teaches in today’s epistle. The way to Christian perfection does’t come easily or quickly. In fact, we won’t attain perfection in this life at all. We spend all our lives striving towards it, and we stumble way more than we care to admit. But with God’s help we get back on track, and by his grace we do our best not to fall off again, even though we know it’s going to happen, because we’re not there yet, we haven’t yet been fully remade in the image of God. He’s working on it, though. But we keep putting up obstacles in our own way. We still want to hold on to our old nature, we want to do things our way, and we’re unwilling to wait. That’s how I was at the beginning of my discernment process. I wanted to skip the bachelor’s degree requirement and go right to seminary. But the bishop told me I needed to be patient and get that undergrad degree first, because there was a lot of stuff I needed to learn before I would even be ready to begin studying Scripture and theology. I didn’t like what he said, but I had to do it, because he was the bishop. And in the end he was right.

St Paul knows this about our human nature probably better than most, because he himself was pretty impatient. He knows this about himself, and so he encourages us on our way to perfection. “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us,” he says, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.” What he’s saying is that what we are waiting for, if we can be patient, is far better than anything we’ve ever experienced, or ever will experience in this life. The whole creation has been groaning under the weight of its sufferings, he says, because of sin, especially us. We “who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” He means all those who have been reborn by water and the Spirit, who believe in the risen Son of God, and who put their “whole trust in his grace and love” (BCP 302). We groan within ourselves because we see everything through the lens of God’s love, and we want so badly for him to make it all better, to redeem it.

“We who have the first fruits of the Spirit” are all those who, by faith in Christ, have been given a foretaste– “the first fruits,” Paul says– of the life of the world to come. Paul encourages us to listen to that Spirit who, through baptism, has come to dwell in us– in the Church and in each baptized person– to allow that Spirit within us to hold before our eyes continually that hope that has been restored to us by Jesus’ death and resurrection.

In every Eastern Orthodox church, there’s an icon of Mary holding the infant Jesus. And it represents the fact that God took flesh and was born of a woman. It’s always placed on the left side of the altar, and the icon of Christ enthroned in glory is placed on the right side. What this teaches is that we are now living in a tension between our present and our future experiences of the kingdom of God. In this present life, the Holy Spirit has given us the first fruits of the kingdom, he has given us a foretaste of our future glory in God’s eternal presence, enough to encourage us, to lead us on, until at last we come that eternal glory. We live in it now, but not yet in the fullness of it.

And church is the chief place where we find this encouragement. This is the other part of what the icons on the altar teach: That in church, and especially at the altar where we receive the Body and Blood of Christ, is where this life and the future glory meet. We gather on the Lord’s Day to hear his written Word proclaimed and taught. And then we approach the altar to receive his sacramental Word– the Body and Blood of his Son– which gives us life, and hope, and encouragement and patience to wait and to pray, and to get us back on that path to perfection that we keep straying from.

This present life, with all its troubles and all its suffering, is not a dead end. It’s the way we have to travel toward the goal of ultimate glory. There may be times when it seems like our troubles will be the end of us. But we need always to remember St Paul’s teaching that they’re not to be compared with the glory that will one day be fully revealed to us in Christ Jesus, and made available to us through the suffering that he endured for our sake. Elsewhere Paul, who gets the last word today, says this:

For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are temporary, but the things that are unseen are everlasting (2Corinthians 4:17-18).   
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
a.m.d.g.
Ian C. Wetmore+


Proper 10, Year A
16 July AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
 
Proper: Isaiah 55:10-13; Psalm 65:9-14; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
 
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
         

In St Mary’s Church in the last parish I served, there was a very nice window in the church depicting the parable of the sower that we read in today’s gospel. It shows Jesus holding a basket of seeds and strewing them on the ground, and underneath are the first words of Jesus in that reading, “A sower went out to sow.” What that window illustrates is that the seed that Jesus sows is actually himself. He is “the word of the kingdom” which, as he says in explaining the parable, is what the seed is. Since he is the incarnate Word of God, that makes him the preeminent teacher of the written word of God. In other words, he’s spreading himself around. It sounds a little odd at first, but it’s not really. It’s much the same as when we celebrate the Holy Eucharist: no matter who the priest is standing at the altar, it’s really Jesus himself who feeds us, and it’s really Jesus himself that we’re consuming. He is both the priest and the sacrifice. He’s both the one who feeds and the food. Whenever the Gospel is proclaimed, no matter who the proclaimer is, it’s actually Jesus sowing the seeds of his own resurrected life in the hearts of those who hear, so long as the proclaimer is faithful. For the faithful proclaimer of God’s word is one who puts his own self-interest, his own agenda, and every worldly agenda aside, and thinks only of the glory of God and the salvation of souls.

He can add some fertilizer to the mix though. And if you’re a gardener you know that certain fertilizers will promote growth in certain kinds of plants and hinder growth in others. So if the proclaimer of God’s word is concerned with the truth of the Gospel above all else, then that will encourage the growth of the good seed that he sows. But if he is preoccupied with worldly things, then he will pollute the ground he sows on with weak interpretations and maybe even false teaching, or simply a lack of solid teaching. And by the same token, if the listener is preoccupied with worldly things, then the soil– the heart of that person– isn’t going to be all that receptive to the seeds of the kingdom.

For example, a few years ago someone told me about a Lenten study in her church that was a discussion of heaven. They looked at a number of books by a number of best-selling authors who speculated on what they thought heaven might be like. Maybe it’s a huge eternal party, or a great banquet hall with every kind of delight you ever wanted in this life but couldn’t have. Maybe it’s a place where you’ll be reunited with all your loved ones happily ever after. This person came away with the notion that heaven will be whatever the individual wants it to be– one thing for one person, a different thing for somebody else. You hear this sort of thing all the time. People love to speculate, and they don’t like to be contradicted, not even by the Word of the Lord. “I think this,” or “I think that.” “But what does the Gospel say? How does it shape what you think?” “I think you’ll find that it supports what I think.” “Ah. So have you found that the Gospel actually does support what you think?” Mark Twain said, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”

So after all that, I said, “then you looked at what the Bible says about heaven, right?” “Well, why would we do that?” she said. “Because,” I said, “that’s where you’ll find what God has revealed about heaven. And what the Bible says about it is what it’s really like.” “Well, how do you know that?” she said. “Because we’re Christians,” I said, “and we believe that the Bible contains the inspired word of God, so that whatever it says about heaven is the way it really is. You can imagine all you want; but as a Christian you’re bound to measure your imaginings against the revealed Word of God. And if they don’t measure up, then which one do you think is probably going to turn out to be wrong?” Well, then came a really puzzled look, so I dropped it.

My first thought was to wonder why a Lenten study group was looking only at non-biblical readings, without any reference to Scripture. But on second thought, I suspect that the priest in that parish had done his best to show his people the differences between all those imaginative ideas about heaven, and what God has revealed through the writers of Scripture. But this person, for one, wasn’t getting it, or at least wasn’t willing to allow Scripture to inform her understanding. To apply today’s parable, the seeds were being sown, but they weren’t falling in good soil.

In our everyday life we hear so many different ideas about spiritual things, most of them very different from what  Scripture says. Some of those are actually put forth by people who claim to speak in the Name of the Lord, but who are really speaking in the name of their own bank accounts. Others may just not very competent teachers of the Word. In either case they’re not sowing the right seed, the seed of the kingdom. Or else the soil has been made unreceptive by worldly priorities.

So in the parable that Jesus tells here, he is the sower of the seed. In using that image, he is reminding people of the passage we read today in Isaiah where God says,

as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout,  giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55.10-11)

The word Jesus Christ himself, the Word made flesh which God sent down from heaven, and which will not return without a great harvest of souls. The abundance of the harvest depends on the growing conditions wherever the seed is sown. The different kinds of ground that the seed falls on reflects people’s different attitudes to Jesus and his teaching. And the condition of the soil in each case determines a persons reaction to the call of Jesus. So the different places where the seed falls describe the various conditions of the hearts of people and how receptive they are to what he has to say.

Some of the seed, he says, fell along the path, where the soil was packed down really hard so that the seed couldn’t penetrate it, but got trampled instead. And it wasn’t long before birds carried the seed away. The path, St Bede says, “is the heart, which is trodden on by the frequent traffic of evil thoughts, and cannot take in the seed and let it germinate because it is so dried up.” It’s not hard for the devil to snatch the word from a hard-hearted person before it has a chance to sink in and work on his soul. But we have to bear in mind that souls that are hardened by sin can always be softened by God’s grace, and become good soil that bears loads of fruit for the kingdom. In the history of the Church, lots of hardened sinners have become fervent saints, St Paul being the most notable.

The rocky ground represents the hearts of people who at first were happy to hear the Good News of Jesus, and who initially had every intention of leading “a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways” (BCP 330). But as soon as they encounter any opposition or experience any difficulty, they give it up. They’re like trees that grow on an outcropping of rock– there’s enough soil for them to grow a little bit. But they never get very big or look very healthy. The same can be said for people who don’t want too much religion– just enough to stay connected for whatever reason. Rather than look down on such people, God’s call on us is to shower them with his love and try to draw them in a little more.

Some of the seed fell among thorns, which choked the good plants as they grew. People in this condition get off to a good start. The seeds of eternal life begin to grow and thrive in them. But somewhere along the way they get caught up in the distractions and concerns of the world– a family situation or a demanding workload, etc. And maybe because they think they’re secure in their faith, it’s okay to slip a little bit. Then a little more, and a little more, so that their faith cools off, and before they realize it, they’re serving two masters. St Josemaria Escriva says, “It is wrong to have two candles lighted– one to St Michael and another to the devil. We must snuff out the devil’s candle: we must spend our lives completely in the service of the Lord” (The Navarre Bible).

Now a little bit of confusion crops up here between the thorns in this parable and the weeds in the one we’re going to read next week (Mt 13:24-30, 36-43). In that one, a farmer sowed good seed in his field, and then his enemy came that night and sowed weeds in it. His workers offered to pull the weeds as they grew up, but the farmer said to leave them for fear of tearing out the wheat as well. The two main points of this parable are to show that heresy will grow up side by side with the Gospel, no matter what, and also that we have no business trying to separate what any of us might think are the ‘righteous’ members of the Church from the ‘unrighteous.’ The result will be that the ones who choose to do the sorting turn out to be self-righteous, and hard-hearted toward those who don’t measure up, while a lot of good, decent people will become so turned off by it all that they’ll go away. There’s always the hope of conversion for the self-righteous as well as the unrighteous, and everybody in between. Our job is simply to love everybody unconditionally and leave the judging to God. So the wheat and the weeds in that parable are the people themselves; whereas in the parable we read today, the seed and the thorns are not people. Instead they are the things that either give us life or choke us to death.

Jesus uses some vivid imagery to describe what happened to the seed– it was devoured, it withered, or it was choked. And it underscores the various degrees of opposition to the Gospel and the determination of its enemies. They can be straightforward and aggressive, like the so-called New Atheists (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, etc.), or people we know personally who ridicule our faith. Or it can be subtle and incremental, like the way some governments and powerful organizations discriminate against religious groups and individuals. And it can even be insidious and heretical, like the way some clergy and theologians lead people away from the truth by undermining their confidence in the revealed Word of God. But to those who “hear the word and understand it,” it will result in what St Bonaventure calls “a fulness of eternal happiness,” which includes an ever-growing love for God and our neighbor, and an ever-growing desire to share that fulness with our neighbor.

After telling this parable Jesus says, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” by which he means listen closely to what God has to say. That means not just reading bits of his Word in church on Sunday, but actually engaging it, seriously studying it, and asking God to shed his heavenly light on our study, and his grace on us in order to build our understanding and shape our lives in the image of his Son. Fr Austin Farrer said, “We cannot hear the voice of God in Christ’s words, let alone in St Paul’s or Isaiah’s, unless we have an ear attuned. After we have done our best to understand the words by the aid of honest scholarship, there is still something to be done, and that is the most important thing of all: to use our spiritual ears” (Interpretation and Belief, 10-11).

That’s what Jesus means when he says, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Hear the Word of God– the teaching, the imagery, the poetry, the prophecy, the history, all of it–  hear it, listen to it in such a way that it reshapes us into the creatures he intended us to be from the beginning– creatures filled to overflowing with the love and mercy of God, who are eager to let that love and mercy spill over onto the whole world. That’s what happens when the seed is sown in good soil. It “bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
a.m.d.g.
Ian C. Wetmore+


Proper 9, Year A
9 July AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
 
Zechariah 9:9-12; Psalm 145:8-15; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
 
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
         
Bill Cosby told the story about one of his children who, when she was a toddler, kept trying to drink from his bottle of Coke. And since he didn’t want to end up with slobber and snot on it, he drilled her on not drinking from it. Then he put it down on the table to go do something, and when he came back, lo and behold, she was drinking his Coke. “What did I tell you?” he asked her. “You said not to drink your drink,” she answered. By this time he’s getting angry, and she’s getting scared. And he said, “Then why did you do it?” Half crying, she said, “I don’t knoooowwww!” (Bill Cosby, Himself, 1983).
Well that seems to be St Paul’s conundrum at the start of today’s second lesson. “I don’t understand my own actions,” he says, “I just don’t get it. Instead of doing what I want to do, I do the very thing I hate, the thing I don’t want to do.” And then he talks about sin as if it’s something like a brain tumor, or an evil alien inside his head, that forces his body to do things against his will, like how Lord Voldemort got inside Professor Quirrel (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone). And that’s actually kind of what sin is.

There’s a school of thought among some Christians that teaches something called “the total depravity of man.” It says that human nature is thoroughly corrupt and sinful ever since Adam and Eve committed the first sin. But that idea is in serious disagreement with what the Church has taught from the beginning. In the very first chapter of the Bible, it says that God looked on all that he had made, including humans, and saw that it was all very good (Gen 1:31). So it’s really quite wrong to say that human nature is totally depraved, sinful to the core, for God is not the creator of evil. Simply put, evil is rebellion against God, freely chosen and engaged in by his creatures. Now I realize that that last statement seems contradictory to what St Paul is saying in today’s reading, and especially to what we heard from him last week about how we’re all the slaves of sin before being redeemed by the blood of Christ, and becoming slaves of righteousness (Rom 6:15-23).

In today’s reading he says, “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.” And there’s the qualifier– “...in the flesh.” We’re not just flesh-and-blood beings, though; we’re spiritual too. And those two sides of us are equal parts of one whole person. And Paul seems to imply that if there weren’t that spiritual side to us, or more to the point, when our spiritual side is not nurtured in the right way, and nourished on the right things, our physical side can become totally consumed by base desires, what he and St John both call “the desires/lusts of the flesh” (e.g. Eph 2:3, 1Jn 2:16).

At every baptism, the celebrant asks that set of six questions of the candidates, the first three of which are called the Renunciations. Historically, they face the door of the church, symbolizing the spiritual darkness from which they’ve come– their separation from God, their rebellion against God, which they’re now turning away from. Then the baptist (= the one doing the baptizing) says,

       Question  Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
       Answer    I renounce them.
 
       Question  Do you renounce the evil powers of this world
                  which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
       Answer    I renounce them.
 
       Question  Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
       Answer    I renounce them.

And then turning toward the front of the church where Christ is waiting to fill them with his life at the altar, they answer the second set of three questions called the Promises: 

        Question   Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?
       Answer    I do.
 
       Question  Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
       Answer  I do.
 
       Question  Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?
       Answer  I do. 
(BCP 302)

What St Paul is saying is that there is an ongoing struggle within every one of us between our innate goodness, the goodness that God built into us when he created us, and that deeply ingrained sinfulness, that original sin with which the human race has been infected ever since Adam and Eve. That struggle is ramped up every time we begin to move toward God. And so what the person being baptized is doing in answering those questions is committing himself to the struggle.
Paul puts it this way, “I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil is close by.” And Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, puts it this way: “Wherever God erects a house of prayer, the devil always builds a chapel there.” Noting, as St Paul does, that more people will give up the struggle than stick with it, that whole verse of Defoe’s poem reads like this:
Wherever God erects a house of prayer,
The devil always builds a chapel there;
And ‘twill be found, upon examination,
The Latter [the devil] has the largest congregation.
The True-Born Englishman, 1701
So it stands to reason that every follower of Jesus is always going to be confronted by the temptation to sin, and is always going to experience that internal spiritual struggle between good and evil. And the more active God is in a person’s life, the busier the devil will be trying to undo the good that God is doing. And often there’s that lurking temptation to despair, to want to give up, because the struggle seems unwinnable. “For I have the desire to do what’s right,” Paul says, “but not the ability to carry it out”– I want to do it, but I can’t. Or as Jesus said on Maundy Thursday night as he waited to be arrested, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mt 26:41).
But here’s the good news– the struggle is not yours alone, or mine! Near the end of today’s reading Paul cries out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” this corrupt human condition. He’s not wondering whether he’s really going to be delivered, or having a momentary doubt about his salvation. He knows the answer, which is why in the very next sentence he declares, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” or as he puts it in 1 Corinthians, “thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!” (1Cor 15:57). It’s by Christ’s victory over death on the cross that Paul and the rest of us are delivered from the corruption of sin. That doesn’t mean, however, that we’re immune or impervious to sin. It means that by the grace of God, first given in baptism, and then renewed every trip to the communion rail, we’re able to rise above it. “This is not your own doing,” Paul says in Ephesians, “it’s the gift of God” (Eph 2:8). It’s not something we can possibly earn by doing all the right things, which is a common trap that a lot of Christians fall into. It’s pure gift. And all we have to do to receive it is to accept it in humility and repentance. You should all read C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, if you haven’t already. It’s not a very long read, and it’s a lot of fun. And it deals directly with this issue of the internal struggle against sin that we’re all engaged in. And it comes at it from the devil’s perspective, which is what makes it a fun read.
The Holy Spirit who makes his dwelling in us when we’re baptized is the One who takes up that internal struggle against sin. If we’re serious about being followers of Jesus, he leads us every day in renouncing evil, and in turning to Christ our Savior, in putting our whole trust in his grace and love, in following and obeying him as our Lord. It’s not our own doing. So when we find that we’re confronted with the temptation to do the thing we know we ought not to do, or the temptation not to do what we know we ought to be doing (like dragging our butts out of bed on a beautiful summer Sunday morning), the thing to do is not to try to power through it on our own, come what may, but simply to turn to God and ask for help. And the simple, three-word prayer for help that Christians have always prayed is Κυριε ελεισον, “Lord, have mercy.”
That’s where the notion of the total depravity of man falls apart. It insists that we’re so far gone that we’re totally incapable of crying out to the Lord for mercy. But in fact there will always be enough of that impulse toward goodness in us that God built into us at creation, along with all the other gifts of his grace, that we’ll always be able to call out to him in time of need. And even if we’re sunk so deeply in sin that we’re not inclined to cry out, he’s still going to surround us with his grace. He’s still going put reminders in our way. He’s still going to throw countless lifelines out for us to grab onto. That’s precisely what he did in sending his Son into the world. “God shows his love for us,” Paul says, “in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). Before we even knew that we needed saving, God sent his Son to be our Savior. So don’t ever think that you struggle against sin all on your own. God is your champion, the cross is his weapon, and the Church is your support group. And that’s the good news from St Paul today.  In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
a.m.d.g.
Ian C. Wetmore+



Proper 8, Year A
2 July AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
 
Proper: Jeremiah 28:5-9; Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42
 
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
         

Some of you know about a Christian satire blog called the Babylon Bee. It posts fake news reports that spoof all sorts of things that Christians believe and do, whether mega-churches, Baptists, Episcopalians, whatever. As one of my Pentecostal colleagues says, it’s an equal-opportunity offender. And most of the time it’s pretty funny. I post one of their articles to the church Facebook page every now and then, not because of who it makes fun of, but because it’s just funny.

One of the Bee’s favorite targets is people who believe the King James Version is the only accurate English translation of the Bible. In fact there are some who believe that the translators who produced it way back in 1611 worked infallibly under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. And some of them believe that any later translations that differ in any way from the King James are the subtle work of the devil to mislead God’s people and rob us of our salvation. There are even a few who, not having any knowledge of languages and how they developed, or of the history of Bible translation, think that the King James Version is as old as the Church herself. Well all that is the background to the Babylon Bee item I posted on the church’s page a couple of weeks ago. The headline read, “Apostle Paul’s King James Bible Up For Auction,” and the opening line of the article said that St Paul’s very own leather-bound copy of the King James Bible– “the only translation he was known to use”– had been listed on eBay, and that some blessed person could have the opportunity to read the Word of the Lord from the same 17th-century English edition that St Paul and the other Apostles used to found the Church... sixteen centuries earlier. Now in case you’re having a hard time keeping up, the Church was founded by Jesus several decades before the first book of the New Testament had been written, and about 1600 years before the King James Bible was produced. Are you with me?

Well, the King James Version is a magnificent piece of work, both for the beauty of its language and the accuracy of the translation. The scholars who translated it had access to the largest and oldest known collections of Greek and Hebrew scriptures at that time. But the thing is that lots of older and even more reliable copies of Greek and Hebrew texts have been discovered since then, and are still being discovered deep in vaults and libraries and caves all over Europe, Asia and Africa. Also– and most King-James-only people don’t know this either– the King James Version was revised less than two hundred years after it was first published in order to update a lot of words and expressions which no longer carried the same meanings, or which people no longer understood.

One very good example of that is in today’s second lesson. In just about the middle of the passage St Paul says, “But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed,  and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.” It’s a very strange thing that Paul says here– that we used to be slaves of sin, but are now slaves of righteousness. His letter to the Romans is full of stuff like that, stuff that we’ve got to read more than once, and do some digging in order to understand. Slavery to sin makes sense to us– being so mired in it that we can’t get free, like some kind of addiction. But slaves of righteousness? That’s a very strange turn of phrase.

In the King James Version you won’t find the word ‘slaves’ in that passage. It says, “But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you. Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness.” That’s quite a bit softer language to our ears, and not nearly as troublesome. But the question remains, how could one translation say servants, and another slaves?

In the Greek-speaking world in which Paul lived and wrote, there was a big difference between slaves and servants. But in England in the early 1600s, slavery was not a very familiar concept, although the first slaves arrived in Virginia just eight years after the King James Bible was published. Up until then, the English knew firsthand about servants, and forms of servitude that were difficult to escape from, including indentured servitude, which is how a lot of people paid their way to the New World. But they didn’t know so much the outright ownership of individuals. So ‘servant’ was most likely a much more suitable word to use back then. And if slavery had never been introduced in America, servant might still have been a more comprehensible word for us to use. But since the institution of slavery is a major blemish on both American and British history, that word suits us better than servant does.

The books of the New Testament were all originally written in Greek (not 17th-century English). And the Greek word for servant is διακονος (diakonos), and the word for slave is δουλος (doulos). By the time Paul wrote to the church at Rome, his brother apostles had already created the distinct order of ordained servant ministry in the Church which they called διακονοι– deacons, whose primary work was hands-on pastoral care, serving the poor, the elderly, the hungry, prisoners and others, not as slaves, but as loving, caring fellow Christians. So with deacons ministering in every local church, there was all the more reason that Paul should avoid using the word διακονοι, servants, to describe the dramatic change of circumstances that new converts undergo at baptism.

Paul actually drops a strong hint in the direction of this teaching at the very beginning of Romans. Introducing himself in the first sentence, he says, “Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God” (Rom 1:1). It’s interesting that most modern English translations of the Bible say ‘servant’ in that verse, even though the Greek word is very clearly δουλος / slave. Why do they do that? I have no idea, but it doesn’t seem right. Anyway, after making that dramatic statement that we read today, about having been freed from sin and becoming slaves of righteousness, Paul explains, “I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations.” The people he first wrote to, just as people today, didn’t get how utterly serious the problem of sin really is. So he presents it in rather jarring terms that they do get.

He is describing what we are before we belong to God and what we become afterward. The relationship of the slave to his master  is something that people in first-century Rome understood very well because, among the congregation that he was writing to, many were slave-owners, many were slaves, and many had been slaves but were now free. It's even possible that there were Christians in Rome who had once been slaves, but had risen to a position in which they could afford to own slaves themselves. Philemon was one such slave-owner. He was a Christian who owned a Christian named Onesimus. Paul wrote a letter to him in which he reminded him that even though Onesimus was his slave, he was also his brother in Christ, and he should treat him accordingly.

Paul wrote to people in terms that they could readily understand, like in today’s reading where he says, “For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.” In that statement Paul is alluding to one particular way that a person could become a slave back then. For any number of reasons, usually having to do with poverty or debt, a person could willingly become a slave in exchange for food and shelter or to clear a debt, sort of like indentured servitude, but maybe a bit more permanent.

Paul is saying that in a similar way we enslave ourselves to sin by willingly embracing it, by presenting ourselves to it. You don’t necessarily set out with that intention, but little by little you get sucked into it to the point of being unable to free yourself. Think of the heroin addict who will trade everything he’s got in order to feed his addiction. And he’ll do whatever it takes, sell or steal whatever it takes, to get the next fix. “You once presented your members,” you dedicated/devoted yourselves, which is what the Greek word means, “as slaves to impurity.” “Don’t you know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?” The more a person engages in sin– presents, devotes, dedicates himself to it– the deeper he sinks himself in it, and the more solidly he gets stuck in it. And the deeper he goes, the less able he is to free himself.

Now here’s the good news: there’s another word associated with slavery which, in English, is redemption. One of the titles given to Jesus is Redeemer. But a lot of folks don’t really know the origin of that word in relation to God. When I was a kid, we’d mail in so many cereal boxtops to redeem the cool toy pictured on the box. Where I come from the redemption centre is where you take your empty beer bottles to get the deposit back. In this country there are lots of churches called the Redemption Center, which brings us closer to the point. The word means to take/buy back. And that’s where St Paul is going with his teaching about being slaves to sin/ righteousness, although he doesn’t get there in today’s reading. Redemption in his day was the key that freed slaves. Some slaves back then were allowed to take jobs on the side to earn money so that they could redeem themselves. But that usually took a very long time. Sometimes a generous master would free a slave after years of faithful service. And sometimes a third party would buy the slave and set him free. And that’s the transaction that has taken place in order to free us from sin.

Jesus alone is that generous third party who is able to redeem us, to pay the price. St Paul teaches that the Son of God “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Phil 2:7), in order to present himself to our slavemaster as the price of our redemption. On the cross he absorbed into himself the sin of the world. But because he is God, it’s impossible for sin to destroy him like it would have destroyed us. Instead he destroyed the power of sin and took back what belongs to him, namely all those whom he created in his own image– us! He has redeemed us and set us free.

In the ancient world, rather than redeeming a slave and setting him free, it was more often the case that the redeemer bought the slave to use for his own purposes. But Jesus didn’t do that. Like the nine lepers that he healed, who went away and didn’t come back to worship him (Lk 17:11-19), he lets us do as we please. But St Paul urges us to present our members to Jesus as slaves of righteousness, which is what will sanctify us, what will make us holy. After all, Paul says to the Corinthian church, “You’re not your own, for you were bought with a price” (1Cor 6:19-20). And St Peter says that we were redeemed, “not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ” (1Pet 1:18-19), which is of more value than every precious thing on earth.  And the reason Jesus redeemed us is because, as Jesus himself said, we are more precious than everything else on earth (Mt 6:26).

The bottom line is that we humans have to have a master to serve, of one sort or another. We can fool ourselves into thinking we’re the masters of our own fates and the captains of our own souls (W.E. Henley, Invictus). But that’s just not true. In fact that was the prize the serpent promised in persuading our first ancestors to commit the first sin. We’re really incapable of being our own masters. And every time we try, it turns out badly, because we invariably end up placing ourselves under the mastery of sin. And as St Paul says at the end of today’s reading, the reward, the wages, of sin is death. Sin unrepented of always leads to death. But the gift that God offers in its place, and it truly is a gift that’s just waiting for us to accept, and nothing that we could ever earn, is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. We’re not our own, Paul says, and we can never be our own. Whether we recognize it or not, we’re surrounded on every side by the grace of God. And all he asks of us is to open up and let him fill us with it. In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
a.m.d.g.
Ian C. Wetmore+



Proper 7, Year A
25 June AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
 
Jeremiah 20:7-13; Psalm 69:8-11, 18-20; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39
 
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
         

I had this classmate in seminary who was a bit, what we might call, motivationally challenged. He had a hard time to get to class. And more than once during exams, I looked out my third-floor window and saw him sneaking in the basement door of the college with a box of beer in one hand and a stack of Blockbuster movies in the other. Then after grades were posted, it wasn’t unusual to see him going about dressed in a suit and tie, making every class on time, asking the professors all sorts of questions and participating fully in the discussions. He’d made his mind up that he was turning over a new leaf. But after a week or so, he slipped back into his old rut. Amazingly, he didn’t flunk out of school, but his sponsoring bishop (also my bishop) on the east coast dumped him. So he went to work in a shoe store in his hometown on Lake Erie. But before long, the Bishop of Saskatchewan took him under his wing and ordained him. And he became a very good parish priest, now serving on the west coast. It’s nice little story of redemption– and transcontinental migration.

To be fair, there were lots of disincentives in the Toronto School of Theology in those days, lots of things going on in the classrooms and the chapels and elsewhere that could easily discourage students of a traditional Anglican outlook from wanting to get involved. This in addition to the way those kinds of Anglicans were viewed by the rest. But as we all got into parish ministry, and diocesan and national church affairs, we encountered bigger issues and lots of bitterness on all sides. And sometimes we just wanted to retreat back into our little country parishes and stay there. But since the Lord won’t allow any of us to suffer more than we can handle without also giving us a way out (1Cor 10:13), we learned more and more, with the help of God’s grace, when to stand our ground and when to shake the dust off our feet and walk away. And if we’ve been attentive to Jesus and the teaching of his Apostles and prophets, we’ve learned that whether we engage or walk away, we should do it with a blessing on our lips and a prayer for God to bring glory out of the messes that we create.

Well, turning over a new leaf is what St Paul is talking about in today’s second lesson. Only in his distinctly Christian way of putting it, he calls it “walking in newness of life.” And that, of course, means that what he’s talking about is a whole lot bigger, and way more important, than just trying to get back on track after you’ve bombed an exam, or a job, or a relationship, or whatever.

We hear this expression of Paul’s whenever we use Rite One which, for us, is during Advent and Lent. When we’re getting ready to confess our sins the priest says,

Ye who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God and walking from henceforth in his holy ways, draw near with faith... (BCP 330)

In other words, if you’re serious about honestly repenting of your sins, about loving your neighbors better, which includes not just everybody you like, but also every person you can’t stand to be around, as well as every other person on earth; and if you fully intend to obey God’s commandments and to walk the way of holiness– all of that is how you begin to lead the new life. And if that’s what you really want to do, then you need to bow down before the Lord and ask him to free you from your sins. Then, in the full confidence that he’ll help you do all those things, come to the altar to eat his Flesh and drink his Blood, which is the way he fills you with the life of his Son, and “gives you the strength to get up and do what needs to be done” (Garrison Keillor). That’s my paraphrase of the Prayer Book’s Invitation to Confession. But now and then we need to unpack  what it means to “lead a new life” a bit more.

What does it mean when St Paul urges us to “walk in newness of life”? He pretty much spells it out in the opening lines of today’s reading. “Don’t you know,” he says, “that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” That’s a really strange expression– that we were baptized into Christ Jesus. Lots of people tend to say, “I was baptized Catholic/ Lutheran/ Baptist/ Episcopalian,” which isn’t really true at all. You might have been baptized in one of those churches, but that didn’t make you Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist or Episcopalian. It made you a Christian, because when you went into the water, whichever way you went into it, and however old you were at the time, you were joined to Jesus in his death. You died to sin.  He died on the cross for our sins, and according to him the first step in the Christian life is to join him there in his death, in some mysterious way that we can’t fully understand in this life, in order to be freed from sin and to become inheritors with him of his eternal kingdom. And when we come up out of the water, we’re reborn to the new life of the redeemed. “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death,” St Paul says, so that “just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” We are now somehow sharing his divine, risen life, even while we finish out our mortal days. And sometime after our bodies have given up the ghost, they’ll be pulled back together and raised up in a glorified way, just like our Lord was on Easter morning, so that we can live that new life to perfection.

Meanwhile, our main concern is to live that new life as best we can in this life as witnesses to the risen Lord and to his promise of resurrection for all of us. By the grace of baptism we’ve been set up to live the rest of this life as if he were living his life in us, which indeed he is, by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. When we went down into the water, St Paul teaches, “our old man” as he calls it, the old sinful person that we were before baptism, innocent little babies that we were, yet still infected by sin, were crucified with Christ, joined with him on the cross in a wonderful mystery in order to destroy that old sinfulness and to free us from it, so that from then on we could live like Jesus, love like Jesus, forgive like Jesus and most important of all, worship like Jesus, offering the whole of our life up to the Father as a living sacrifice. Our worship of God doesn’t begin and end in the hour or so that we’re here. True worship of the Father begins at the baptismal font and never ends.

Fr Austin Farrer says that when we come together at the altar like we’re doing here this morning, and offer the bread and wine and money, those are just tokens of our total offering of ourselves to God. The real offering, he says, “is you yourselves who are laid on the altar to be consecrated, and to be made the body of Christ.” And at the moment that the priest breaks the bread on the altar, “we are all sacrificed to God in Christ’s death, dying in him to our own will, and receiving Christ our true life in communion” (The Crown of the Year, Trinity vi). Then, as we walk out of here after having received Holy Communion, each of us walks with Christ in us in a renewed way.

That’s what it means to “walk in newness of life,” as St Paul puts it in today’s reading, or to “lead a new life... walking from henceforth in [God’s] holy ways,” as the Prayer Book says. It is to go through life with the full awareness that we never walk by ourselves, knowing that wherever we go and whatever we do, Christ is with us, because he is in us through the indwelling power of his Holy Spirit. We carry him wherever we go. And when we interact with other people, Christ interacts with them through us. So every encounter we have with another person is a holy conversation, and an invitation to that other person to walk with us in newness of life, in Christ Jesus. So think about that when you’re about to yell at someone for cutting you off in traffic, or to treat a telemarketer badly, or speak rudely to a fellow parishioner. That’s not how you behave when Christ dwells in you.  In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
a.m.d.g.
Ian C. Wetmore+


Proper 6, Year A
18 June AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
 
Proper: Exodus 19:2-8a; Psalm 100; Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35–10:8
 
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
         

Whenever I preach at funerals I keep it fairly short, mainly because  grieving loved ones aren’t in a frame of mind such that they can take in very much. Also, one of the things I was taught about preaching at funerals is that the sermon is not to be a eulogy. Eulogy comes from a Greek word meaning to speak well of someone. In the Anglican tradition, as in the wider Catholic tradition, there’s no place for extolling the praises of the person we’re burying. As Marc Antony said at Julius Caesar’s funeral, “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him” (Act 3, scene II). That’s because a Christian funeral is above all a worship service. So the sermon has to be a proclamation of the Gospel, just like every other sermon. It’s quite alright, however, to talk about ways the departed may have served and glorified the Lord in their earthly life, and stood as a witness to Christ crucified and risen. So it’s okay to speak well of someone in that way, as long as the central focus is God.

Well I’m going to be fairly brief today since I had very little down time during St Michael’s Youth Conference to work on a sermon.  And this is also going to be a little bit of a eulogy. I found out last Monday that a very dear friend of mine had died two days before. His name is Fr Lyman Harding, and he was the priest who presented me for ordination. (It was his 80th birthday celebration that I went to a couple of months ago in Canada.) When I moved to Saint John, NB, in 1989, I lived a block from Trinity Church. By then I had not been a regular church attender for nearly ten years– that’s another story. I walked by that church quite a lot, and I noticed his name on the sign and remembered the he was the priest in my grandmother’s parish years before, and that he had officiated at her funeral. I was curious, so eventually I decided to go to church there one week; and from that point on I never missed a Sunday, because from that first day, I knew beyond all doubt that I was home, a prodigal son back where he belonged in the bosom of the Church.

The vocation to ordained ministry that I had begun to sense as a teenager began to resurface soon afterward, and became louder and louder. So Fr Harding and I talked about it. Eventually he called me into his office and said that by working full time and going to school part time it would take years for me to get my bachelor’s degree, plus three years of seminary after that. “So here’s what you’re going to do,” he said, “You’re going to quit your job and move into the rectory, and go to university full time.” And since the only household expenses he and Margaret had were groceries and cable, I was going to pay $25 per week for room and board. Then I would go to seminary if the bishop agreed to sponsor me. I got my degree in three years. During one summer he got funding to hire me to catalog the parish archives, which was a pretty big collection of all kinds of stuff. And the summer after my first year of seminary he hired me as his student pastoral assistant, and persuaded a parishioner to lend me her car for the job. So as you can well imagine, I became pretty close to the Harding family. Ever since, I’ve referred to them as my godparents– I had been baptized as a baby in a church that didn’t do the godparent thing. And their daughters and I still call each other pseudo-sis and pseudo-bro.

There are actually four of us priests in whose lives Margaret and Lyman have had a strong formative influence. One of them is now an archdeacon, like Lyman was before he retired; one is a college principal; one is the Dean of the Diocese of Fredericton, where we were all ordained; and I’m the last, and the least. He always called us his “boys,” and they both treated us as if we were their own sons. Margaret and Lyman are both faithful servants of the Lord, and Lyman was a good and faithful priest. They saw what they did for us four “boys” as part of their service to the Lord and to his Church– not as an onerous duty, but as a real act of Christian love.

Lyman, by the way, is the one who taught me that there is no place for eulogies at a funeral. He also taught me how to pick hymns. He was adamant that you pick them randomly, but ones that support the readings of the day. He also insisted that you never, ever sing slow, draggy hymns at the beginning or the end of a service, and that communion hymns ought to be somewhat quiet and meditative. I learned lots of other things from him, but those seem to be the ones that some people want to argue about.

So here’s the gospel proclamation: Two verses from today’s readings really stood out in light of my godfather’s death. The first is in the gospel. As Jesus was preparing to send the disciples out as his student assistants, he said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Fr Harding saw it as a huge blessing in his life to be able to present four young parishioners to the bishop that he could send out into the harvest.

The other verse is from today’s second lesson: Paul says that through Jesus “we have... obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand.” It’s lovely poetic language, but more than that, it’s a pretty significant expression that Paul uses– “this grace in which we stand.” It’s the grace of God that makes every good thing happen. We heard a great sermon from Mother Ann Tofani here on Friday in which she talked about the various kinds of grace that God gives. Prevenient grace goes before us to prepare the way– first of all to predispose us to receive the Good News and to believe the Gospel, and then to prepare God’s people to receive all the gifts he has to give. Then there’s justifying grace, by which he reconciles us to himself, through baptism, forgiveness, Holy Communion and so forth. And sanctifying grace makes us holy. God’s chief means of doing that is through the sacraments, not just baptism and the Holy Eucharist, but all seven, depending on which of the others we’re called to receive or that we’re in need of. These are particular forms of grace, but really grace is one gift that God gives in countless ways. So when St Paul speaks of “this grace in which we stand,” he’s talking about the expressions of God’s love that have come to us from every direction, whether straight from him or through other people ministering to us.

That’s what I saw God doing powerfully for me through Lyman and Margaret Harding as his faithful servants who saw it as their ministry to further the ministry of the Church. And that’s what I saw again this past week at St Michael’s Youth Conference. Those eight kids went home yesterday so much richer in the gifts of God’s grace than when they came last Sunday. And I saw God pouring out his grace on them– and on us adults– in so many ways, including the way so many of our parishioners gave so much to support the cause, whether it was by serving meals, donating the cots they all slept on, making sure the air conditioning got fixed, at least temporarily to make sure we didn’t swelter in last week’s heat, and not to forget Tiffany who took lots of pictures to post on Facebook every day, and Jack who helped out the bishop in teaching music and playing for Mass every day. For my part, it was just paying forward what I’ve received in my life through other followers of Jesus. And all those gifts from our people was just some of the grace in which we stood over the past week. It was all given to build up the faith of the people who participated, the love that we have for one another, and to prepare laborers to go out into the harvest of God’s eternal kingdom.

So deepest thanks to you all for that, and prayers for rest eternal for Fr Lyman Harding. In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

a.m.d.g.
Ian C. Wetmore+



Trinity Sunday, Year A
11 June AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
 
Proper: Genesis 1:1–2:4a; Psalm 8; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20
 
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
         
This is the day that preachers like to joke about– or grumble about:  Oh no! I’ve got to preach on the Trinity this week! I have to try to teach something that nobody’s going to  understand. Why don’t we just skip the sermon and have a little hymn-sing instead? One of my mentors used to say, “Oh Father, the Trinity’s the simplest thing in the world to explain, because God is utterly simple.” Then he would go to the pulpit to explain it, but it didn’t come off sounding all that simple. He’s a philosophy professor as well, which may explain some things. The thing is, as the theologians say, God is utterly simple, which makes him not that simple to understand.
Shortly after the Reformation the bishops of the Church of England formulated a document that’s best known as the Thirty-nine Articles as a way of teaching the Christian faith to ordinary people in the pews. It’s in our Prayer Book beginning on page 867. The very first thing it talks about is the Trinity. Article 1 says this:
There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. (BCP 867)
Dead simple, isn’t it!?– just like Fr Mercer used to tell me. Let’s unpack it:


“There is but one living and true God, everlasting...” We all get that, right?– because we’re all devout monotheists. We believe that there can only be one God who, as St Paul says, “is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:6). Or to put it more simply, “He’s got the whole world in his hand.” We get him, because he’s got us. And he is eternal, everlasting. He has no beginning and no end. That’s because he is the creator of time itself, so naturally he must be outside of time, eternal. We humans like to build things way bigger than ourselves, sometimes to the point that we can’t contain or control them. But not so with God. Nothing in all creation is beyond his ability to contain or to control, including time. He’s outside of it all, yet he permeates all of it.

This one God is “without body, parts, or passions...” He has no physical body– he’s pure spirit. He has no parts, no divisions. If you can remember biology class, think about the cell, the basic life form– the egg is the one that’s most familiar to us. It has three main parts, the membrane, the cytoplasm and the nucleus– shell, white, yolk, and each part is made up of millions of even tinier parts. Well God is even simpler than that. He can’t be divided into parts. He just is. When Moses asked God to identify himself, God said, “I am” (Ex 3:14). It can’t get any simpler than that.

None of us can say that about ourselves. We can say, “I am this or that,” but none of us can say simply, “I am.” Jesus said it about himself several times, which made the Pharisees draw back in fear, because they knew that by saying such a thing, he could only be one of two things, either crazy or God. And they knew that God doesn’t have a body– not before Jesus anyway. Yet in saying, “I am,” Jesus identified himself as God. And we worship him as God. So what’s the deal with that? Hold that thought.

God is also without passions, the article says, meaning that he’s incapable of suffering, or of having emotional ups and downs like we have. Nothing can injure God or hurt his feelings, because nothing in all creation has any power over him. And there’s nothing in creation that he doesn’t know about from the beginning to the end of time. He created everything that exists, and from where he sits in eternity, he sees it all in one perfect view. So nothing can surprise him. Once in a while somebody will say, “How could God know this or that?” or “How could Jesus know what was about to happen to him, or know what was wrong with somebody before he even met them?” Well, as Jesus said to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, “How foolish and slow you are not to believe everything the prophets have said!” To God all hearts are open, all desires are known, and from him no secrets are hid (BCP 323, 355). He’s God who created everything, so he knows everything.

God possesses “infinite power, wisdom, and goodness,” the article says. This stands in pretty stark contrast to the creation myths of the ancient world. Most of those stories describe the physical creation as a sort of corrupt byproduct of violent cosmic struggles among various gods, and therefore not a good thing. In contrast, the one true God inspired the writer of Genesis to describe a benevolent Creator who intentionally created a good world, which he populated with creatures that he loves and cares for. And not only the physical world, but the spiritual realm as well. He is, as the article says, the Maker and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. That’s what we read in the first lesson today. And as if to underscore the difference between the biblical creation story and the others, seven times the writer says, “And God saw that it was good.” Unlike the gods in those pagan myths, God’s power is infinite, it’s unlimited and absolute, as are his wisdom and goodness, which are quite clearly displayed in the biblical creation story.

That’s the hard lesson God’s Old Testament people had to learn, since early in their existence they had become enslaved by a pagan nation for several centuries. When he led them to freedom in the Sinai wilderness he began re-educating them (to use an old Soviet term). Over the next forty years he gave them a crash course in monotheism, teaching them to worship only him and to rely solely on him for everything, right down to what he gave them to eat every morning and evening. Then he drove out all the pagan nations that had occupied their promised homeland, where they settled and were surrounded by pagan cultures.

Because of all that, the first and great commandment God gave them was, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” And to impress on his people how supremely important it is to believe that he is the one living and true God, and that they should love and worship him and no other, he followed that up by saying,

these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deut 6:4-9)

In other words, wherever you go don’t ever forget that there is only one God. Worship him alone, and love him above all else because he loves you more than you’ll ever be able to imagine. From that came the practice of wearing phylacteries. Jewish men wrote the great commandment on pieces of parchment and put them in little leather boxes which they tied on their arms and foreheads. And they still put the commandment in a little container called a mezuzah and fasten it to the doorposts of their homes.

The oneness and the infinite power, wisdom and goodness of God was a vitally important lesson for his people to learn and to believe, because they were surrounded by pagans, and were in constant danger of syncretism, of worshipping pagan gods alongside the living God. Psalm 135 says, “The idols of the nations are... the work of human hands. They have mouths, but don’t speak; eyes, but don’t see, ears, but don’t hear, and there’s no breath in their mouths. Those who make them become like them [i.e. dumb], and so do all who trust in them!” (vv 15-18). By contrast, the God who chose to reveal himself to Abraham and his descendants is real, and powerful, and actively cares for his creatures, which he demonstrated over and over throughout their history. And then, at a time when his people were fully convinced of the oneness of God, he chose to reveal his threeness to them, his tri-unity, his Trinity.

The last statement of Article 1 introduces the Trinity. This God of ours, who is described as the only God, living and true, without body, parts and passions, the Maker and Preserver of everything, he is one, he is utterly simple. And whereas every created thing exists in relation to something or someone else– she’s a daughter, a lawyer, an airman; he’s a son, a soldier, a brother– God just exists, he just is; I Am is his Name. “And in unity of this Godhead” [in the oneness of God],  Article 1 says, “there are three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” That’s the really hard part for us to get our minds around.

The Trinity really is utterly simple but, as I said, not in a way that’s easily understood. There is only one living and true God– that’s the easy part. But then he goes and reveals this new dimension. And we have to be careful how we talk about it since that’s where the major heresies all stem from. That fact alone is proof that understanding the Trinity is not all that simple. We speak of Jesus as God’s only-begotten Son, “begotten, not made.” “Begotten” is a word that has to do with reproduction. Babies are begotten, conceived by their parents. And that has led some people to wonder whether the language of the Bible and the Creed is little more than imagery, that the Church is imposing a human image on God to help us understand him more easily. The argument that that gives rise to is that Jesus isn’t really a son in the way we understand sons and daughters. But that leads down a rabbit hole that’s full of biblical and theological problems.

The big problem with that train of thought is that it runs backwards, from us to God. The thing is that Jesus is God’s begotten Son in the most real way, and that we with our sons and daughters are the images of the real thing. It’s kind of like how marriage in the Christian understanding is an image of the heavenly marriage of Christ to his Bride the Church. So when you think of your relation to your children being like God the Father’s relation to God the Son, and of your faithfulness to your spouse as like the faithfulness Christ to his Church, instead of theirs being like yours, that puts it all in a different light, a brighter, clearer light. We are created in God’s image, as we read in today’s first lesson, not the other way round.

Then there’s God the Holy Spirit. He’s not another son of God. He proceeds from the Father and the Son, as Jesus said (Jn 14:16-17, 26), and as we say in the Creed. He is the Love that the Father and the Son have for each other, that fills the worship of God’s people, and that God pours out through the Church in order to draw people in to the community of divine love, which is what the Trinity is. St Paul says, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom 5:5). He is the power of God that drives the Church out into the world to share God’s love with everybody, and that gives us patience and comfort on those occasions when that love is rejected.

Now the reason we read that long passage from Genesis today is because it’s the very first revelation of the Trinity in the Bible. And it comes right at the beginning of the Bible– in the first three verses, in fact. “In the beginning, God created,” it says. That’s “God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” In verse 2 it says that the Spirit of God hovered over the waters. He’s on standby, waiting to bring everything to life as soon as God gives the Word. Then God spoke: “‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” The Word that he spoke and the Light that he called up are one and the same, his eternal Son. Remember what St John says at the beginning of his gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1"1). And a few verses on John identifies that Word as “the true Light, which enlightens everyone” (1:9). Then he says that this Word/Light “became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth (1:14).

So the Trinity is all there, present and involved in creation. It’s plain for us to see because we look at it through the lens of the Gospel. Before Jesus, God’s people weren’t able to see it. The Father revealed it all when he revealed his Son by sending him into the world to die and rise again, and then sending the Holy Spirit into the Church at Pentecost to lead her into all truth, as Jesus promised (Jn 16:12-15).

Also through the events of Easter and Pentecost, God shows that the Trinity is present and active in the new creation, the redemption of the world. Each Person has his part to play. By sin we have alienated ourselves from God. So the mission of the Son and the Holy Spirit is to reconcile us to the Father. Jesus atoned for our sin on the cross, and by joining us to himself in baptism he makes us the children of God, the prodigals who have returned cap in hand. And the Holy Spirit fills us with the divine life by drawing us into the community of divine love, where he enables us to reach out to God as Abba, our Father (Gal 4:6).

And that’s why we celebrate the Holy Trinity on this Sunday after Pentecost. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would lead us into all truth. And the greatest revelation of truth is that the one living and true God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three Persons all of one indivisible substance. And as the Creed of St Athanasius says (the one in the back of the Prayer Book that’s printed so small that we can’t read it in church, p864), the whole thing is incomprehensible. Yet this incomprehensible, loving God comes to us in majesty and mercy every time we meet at the altar, to take away our sin, and to renew the divine life in us by filling us with the life that was poured out on the cross for our redemption and reconciliation. It’s a great and strange mystery that, on the intellectual level, is inaccessible to us, but by faith it absorbs us into the life of God. O come, let us worship! In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.   
a.m.d.g.
Ian C. Wetmore+



Pentecost, Year A
4 June AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
 
Proper: Numbers 11:24-30; Psalm 104:25-35, 37; Acts 2:1-21; John 20:19-23
 
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
         

I love the story of Eldad and Medad, the two guys who stayed behind in the camp and prophesied. The first thing it reminds me of is all the control freaks in the Church, and all those people who say, “You can’t do that!” or “That’s not how we do things!” or “That’s Baptist/ Catholic/ Pentecostal. We don’t believe that.” And even though I’ve been frustrated, and  at times even angered, by some of those people, whenever I think about them I have to smile, because I know that they’re always going to be fighting a losing battle. It’s like when the Pharisees were trying to figure out how to wipe out the young Church. Gamaliel, the most highly respected elder on the council and, as it turns out, the one who trained St Paul as a Pharisee, he cautioned his colleagues against doing anything. Leave them alone, he said. If it’s bogus it will fail; but if it really is from God, you won’t be able to stop them. You might even find that you’re working against God! (Acts 5:38-39).

Well, that’s where Joshua found himself in today’s first reading. Moses was swamped with work as the leader of God’s people, so he prayed for help. God told him to pick seventy elders to assist him, gather them outside the camp at the tent of meeting. All but two showed up. And as we read today, that was the first great outpouring of the Holy Spirit among God’s people when he caused all those elders to start prophesying. Eldad and Medad were the two who didn’t show up. But God filled them with the Holy Spirit just the same, right where they were at, in the midst of the camp, and they prophesied too. Joshua, Moses’ assistant, was young and green, but extremely loyal; so he ran to Moses and pleaded with him to stop those two. But Moses said, “Don’t be jealous on my account. I wish God would inspire all his people like that.” Something similar happened during Jesus’ ministry. John said to him, “we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he wasn’t one of us.” Jesus said, “Don’t stop him; whoever is not against us is for us” (Mk 9:38-40; Lk 9:49-50). In other words, if they’re doing the right thing for the right reason, don’t get in their way– support them. Joshua learned his lesson, and eventually turned out to be the great leader who succeeded Moses and led Israel into the Promised Land.

Now I’m sure all this was in the back of Gamaliel’s mind as he advised the council to leave the Apostles alone. It’s certainly what I think of whenever I encounter that “Can’t-do” attitude in the Church– “They can’t do that. Make them stop.” And what I really want to say at that moment is, “No, you stop, and be quiet, watch and learn, and see what God may be doing there. Good things may be happening. And if it’s really a movement of the Holy Spirit, then you need to seriously question whether you’re working against God.”

By the day of Pentecost, ten days had passed since Jesus ascended into heaven. While he was still with them he had laid all the groundwork to prepare them for this day. “I won’t leave you like helpless orphans,” he told them on Maundy Thursday, “I will come to you” (Jn 14:8). And right before he ascended he said, “Sit tight and wait for what God has promised. John baptized with water, but pretty soon you’re going to be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” I’m sure at least a few of them must have wondered if that was going to be anything like what happened to the seventy elders of Israel. They had ten days to think about it anyway.

And then it happened, on a Sunday morning while they were worshipping together in a house in Jerusalem. As we heard at Bible study the other night, a lot of houses back then were built around a central courtyard, which is where the early Christians often met for worship. First came the sound of a mighty wind. Has any of you ever sat through a tornado? It’s pretty loud, isn’t it? That’s what I think of. Then came the divided tongues like flames that rested on their heads. That’s what the mitres that bishops wear are meant to look like, because they’re the successors to the Apostles. That was all visual and audible imagery provided by God to show that he was fulfilling his promise to send the Holy Spirit. And the first thing the Spirit must have done was to send them all out of the house, because Luke says they began speaking in the languages of all the foreigners who were in Jerusalem that day. These were Jews from all over the Roman Empire who had made their pilgrimage to celebrate Pentecost, the day when Moses gave the law to God’s people, and also the day when the first fruits of the early harvest were offered to God in the temple. (I wonder if there were any strawberries. That’s what’s in season here around this time of year.)

Then Peter began to preach, and that was the very first public proclamation of the Gospel. We only got the start of his sermon today. But we’ve already read the rest of it earlier in the Easter season. Peter used the prophecies of the Old Testament to explain how God had prepared his people for this day, how he had sent his eternal Son into the world in the Person of Jesus, who died on the cross for the sin of the whole world, and rose again, and returned to heaven. All that has opened the way for all people everywhere to be reconciled to God through repentance and baptism. By the end of the day around 3,000 people had responded to Peter’s proclamation and were baptized. And within a very short time, the number grew to over 5,000. And it kept on growing to the point that, within three hundred years, it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. And it all happened because ordinary people responded to the Good News about Jesus, and allowed the Holy Spirit to lead them in doing the work of God’s kingdom, loving every person they met unconditionally, and sharing the Gospel with everyone who would listen.

If God is doing a good thing through any of you, or through our little congregation, or through the Lutherans or the Methodists down the road, then what choice do the rest of us have but to support it, to get behind it, and to pour all the love into it that God has poured into us? “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you,” Jesus said, “and you will be my witnesses... to the end of the earth ” (Acts 1:8). In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

a.m.d.g.
Ian C. Wetmore+



The 7th Sunday of Easter, Year A
28 May AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
 
Proper: Acts 1:6-14; Psalm 68:7-10, 33-36; 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11; John 17:1-11
 
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
         

First of all, I owe everyone a big apology. As regional dean I tried to organize a deanery celebration for Ascension Day, which was this past Thursday. I waited, and waited, and waited, but no one responded except one colleague. So then I decided that we would celebrate it here. But then I got so distracted by all sorts of things that I completely forgot about it until about last Wednesday, by which time it was too late to publish the tidings. That happens a lot in the Church: Ascension kind of gets forgotten because it comes so soon after Easter, and because it’s always on a Thursday, which is not a day most Christians associate with going to church.

So I promise I’ll try to do better in future, because the Ascension of the Lord really is a big deal, and ought to be properly celebrated by Christians everywhere. It’s so important, in fact, that the celebration carries over to the following Sunday– today– as you can tell by the collect we prayed and the first lesson we heard this morning. So the question a lot of people may wonder about is, Why is the Ascension of Jesus such a big deal? Well, I’m going to tell you, even though you may already know!

In many instances the theological aspect of what God does seems more complicated, and more difficult to grasp than the physical. At least that’s what a lot of people think. But if you know the Creed, then you know quite a bit of theology. Healing the sick and raising the dead, for instance, are pretty straightforward. Somebody was sick, or died, then Jesus or one of the Apostles touched them and now they’re up walking around and feeling fine again. The sickness has been cured, or life has been restored. It’s when we try to understand or to explain how those miracles point to some greater significance in the kingdom of heaven that things get complicated. But with the Ascension it’s the other way around.

The theological significance, the tremendous importance of it in God’s plan of salvation is not that hard to grasp. For us and for our salvation, the eternal Son and Word of God came down from heaven, he became incarnate, he took human flesh, from the Virgin Mary and was born as one of us, as truly and fully human. That’s deeply ingrained in us from years and years of saying the Creed. So it’s safe to say that we’ve all got that. And Mary named her baby boy Jesus, meaning God saves. He’s the Savior; he has come to rescue us from sin and reconcile us to God, which he did by dying on the cross, rising from the dead, ascending into heaven, and sending the Holy Spirit into the Church.

What’s so significant about Jesus ascending into heaven is that he didn’t leave his humanity behind. He didn’t escape from his human body and return to heaven as the strictly divine being that he was before he came. His humanity became an essential, and inseparable, part of who he is when he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary. So he returned to heaven as both fully God and fully human. He took the humanity he got from us into the heavenly realm, and presented it to God as the first fruits, the initial offering, of redeemed humanity.

Now this is all bound up with the imagery of sacrifice as it was practiced in Israel from the time of Moses until the temple in Jerusalem was finally destroyed some forty years after the Ascension, so for about 1,300 years. That sacrificial system of worship was really a rehearsal for what Jesus did. It was God’s way of preparing the world so that when Jesus came, his people would understand what he came to do in light of what their priests had been doing in the temple for all those centuries.

Sacrifices went on every day for various purposes. But the really big event of the year was the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), when the high priest offered up a lamb to atone for the sin of God’s people. After killing it and roasting the meat on the altar, the high priest took some of the blood into the Holy of Holies to sprinkle on the mercy seat, the earthly throne of God, and to intercede with God on behalf of the people. Then he took the rest of the blood out and threw it on the people. Afterward, the priests ate the roasted meat. And when all was said and done on that day, all God’s people were ritually pure.

Now compare that to what Jesus did. In submitting to the hatred of the people, and not resisting their actions against him, which he could easily have done because he is God, Jesus offered himself as the perfect sacrifice, the only one that could truly atone for the sin of the world. The letter to the Hebrews says that none of those sacrifices in the temple were really able to take away sin, but were just an annual reminder of the sins of the people (Heb 10:3-4). So by surrendering to the will of the people, Jesus acted as what Hebrews calls our great high priest (4:14). He’s greater by far than all the high priests of Israel because of who he is, and because the sacrifice he offered is perfect and unrepeatable. It’s perfect in that it has real power to take away all sin from the beginning to the end of human history, and therefore never can be repeated. What we do here at the altar when we “offer the holy sacrifice,” to use the old high-church term, is not to repeat it, but to go back and participate in it over and over again. The purpose of an atoning sacrifice is, as the eucharistic prayer says, to bring us “out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life” (BCP 368). So when we participate in it, when we join ourselves to Jesus on the cross, we’re repenting of our errors and our sin, embracing truth and righteousness, and offering up the death of Jesus the sacrificial victim to keep us in eternal life. That’s what Jesus did.

Then he ascended into heaven, taking all the things he received in his incarnate life– his humanity, the scars that were inflicted on him through his suffering and death, the body that he offered and the blood that he shed on the cross, which was his altar of sacrifice. He presented it all to God the Father on his heavenly throne, the true mercy seat, like the high priest did every year in the earthly temple. And every time his people gather around the altar to participate in that once-for-all sacrifice, he pours out his blood on us, much like the high priest did on the Day of Atonement. And he gives us his flesh to eat, like the temple priests who ate the sacrificed lamb, because we are all, as St Peter says, a holy priesthood who offer spiritual sacrifices to God (1Pt 2:5). This is all nicely summed up in a familiar hymn (Hymnal 1982, 460, v.5): “thou within the veil hast entered, robed in flesh, our great High Priest; thou on earth both Priest and Victim in the eucharistic feast.” And Bishop Christopher Wordsworth's lovely hymn celebrates the fact that Jesus took our human nature into heaven:

Thou hast raised our human nature
on the clouds to God’s right hand:
there we sit in heavenly places,
there with thee in glory stand.
Jesus reigns, adored by angels;
Man with God is on the throne;
mighty Lord, in thine ascension,
we by faith behold our own.
Hymnal 1982, 215

We’re there with him by virtue of the fact that he returned to heaven as one of us. Think about how huge it was for African Americans in particular that Barack Obama became president. A lot of the comments I remember hearing when that happened were similar to what this hymn says– there we sit in that exalted place, there we stand alongside him, “there with thee in glory stand.” One of our own has made it to the White House. It truly was a great moment for this country. But sitting with Jesus in the heavenly places and standing with him in glory is way more wonderful because we don’t just stand beside him, we live there in him. By being baptized, St Paul says, we have died and our life is hidden in the life of Jesus (Col 3:3). Or to put it the other way round, Paul says that it’s not we who live, but Christ who lives in us (Gal 2:20). It’s a mutual indwelling, “that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us” (BCP 337).
Okay, so everything I’ve said up to now is just a recap of what you all probably already knew, isn’t it? This is all stuff we hear again and again at various times throughout the Church year; and some of it we say every week in the Creed. A lot of you could easily have gotten up here today and pretty much said what I’ve just said, right? Of course you could! You know this. I’m just reminding you of it. You all have more theological understanding than you think.
But here’s the part about the Ascension of Jesus that may be puzzling: it’s the physical aspect that’s usually hard to take in. Where did he go? St Luke is quite clear in today’s reading that he ascended, he physically went up while all his disciples were watching, “and a cloud took him out of their sight.” But what happened after that? Did he keep on going? And why does it even matter? It matters because of what we think about heaven.
Austin Farrer said, “Where then, in all my spreading world is Jesus Christ, the man risen and glorified? When clouds received him from our sight, into what height, what distance did he go?” (Words for Life: Forty Meditations, London: SPCK, 1993). Our basic problem is that we think in terms of space and direction. Things are either here or somewhere else, above, below, beside or away from us. And we always speak of heaven as being up there somewhere. But in England, no matter whether you’re starting from, you always go up to London, not because it’s north of you or high up on a mountain– it’s not, but because London is bigger, greater than any other city in the country. And the high street in any English town is not the one on a hill, but what we call the main street, where all the traffic is. That’s also how the Jews viewed Jerusalem back then. Everybody in the Bible talks about going up to Jerusalem, or to the temple, or to heaven, because those are the greatest places.  But still, I have no doubt that while the disciples were standing around watching, Jesus literally was taken up, as Luke says, so that they would all understand that he was returning to heaven. I get a kick out of those medieval paintings that show all the disciples looking up, and at the top of the picture is just a pair of dangling feet.
Now, I commend to you a video of Bp Robert Barron, that I posted on the sermons page of our church website, in which he talks about our various understandings and misunderstandings of heaven. So I won’t go into what he says here. Instead I’ll go back to Austin Farrer who said “When clouds received him from our sight, into what height, what distance did he go? However far away I place him, I gain nothing by it: he fits no better beyond Orion than behind the nearest trees.” In other words, space and distance have nothing to do with it. The further he went from the disciples on that day when he ascended, the closer he was to the heart of God. And being seated at God’s right hand in glory, they were there with him, and so are we, because by baptism we have become part of him..
“He is nowhere in this world,” Fr Farrer says, “He is not outside it, either, for it hasn’t got an outside where he could be. Where is he then?” We think in terms of creation having two worlds that are completely cut off from each other– the spiritual and the physical. We’re down here in the physical world, and God and his angels and great aunt Betty are up in the spiritual world. But in reality heaven is all around us. We can’t see it, but Aunt Betty can see us (and we can be sure that she’s praying for us, cheering us on). That’s because the whole physical universe is contained within God’s larger creation. So “while it is indeed impossible to place heaven in the world,” Farrer says, “it is impossible not to place the world in heaven.” Remember that old song, “He’s got the whole world in his hands”? There you go.
We can’t see it, but because we’re in Christ we’re in it. We’re there with him because our lives are joined to his. And whenever his Church gathers at the altar, he draws back the thin veil between here and there, and he reaches through it to speak to us through his written Word, and to feed us from his own Body and Blood. He does all that to renew his life in us, and to build us up so that we can love one another with his love, and take his love out into the world in the hope of drawing the world to him.
Okay, that’s probably plenty to take in for one day. I think it’s pretty important on certain days in the Church year, like today, to think about the deep meaning of the event we’re celebrating. Because it impresses on us the majesty of God and the immensity of his love for us. And hopefully it will deepen our faith and make us want to go deeper into the heart of God, to study, to pray, to come to the altar as much as possible where he draws back the veil, and to celebrate and share his love.
So we’re going to finish with a prayer written by Fr Austin Farrer for the feast of the Ascension:
Jesus Christ, living Son of the living God, clothed in our nature, I cannot place you in my world, but neither can I escape from yours. I cannot reach you by many steps, but I can reach you by one, the single step of faith, which lands me in the heart of heaven. If ever I am to end with you, it is from you I must begin. [You, God, see me]; and if ever I am to see across the gulf from me to you, it will be by starting with you, and seeing myself through your holy and compassionate eyes.
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
a.m.d.g.
Ian C. Wetmore+
 

The 6th Sunday of Easter, Year A
21 May AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
 
Proper: Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:7-18; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21
 
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
         

In the gospel last Sunday we heard that bold declaration from Jesus  that troubles a lot of Christians, and that makes us uncomfortable when we think about it in relation to people of other religions. He said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn 14:6). And I hope you all went away with an appreciation that it’s impossible for us to understand perfectly well what Jesus meant by that. Lots of people think it’s pretty cut and dried, but it isn’t. There’s a depth of meaning there that’s beyond us. After all, St Paul says that nobody can comprehend the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God (1Cor 2:11). And God himself really lets Job have it after listening to him and his buddies come up with all sorts of feeble explanations as to why Job suffered so much. “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” God says, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding” (Job 38:2, 4).

So when Jesus says, “No one comes to the Father except through me,” and keeping in mind that his stated intention is to draw all people to himself (Jn 12:32), then it shouldn’t be to hard for us to understand that his plan of salvation is way bigger than we know. And when you consider what Jesus said in the context of everything else that God has revealed in Scripture about himself and his plan of salvation, it’s pretty clear that neither of the most extreme ideas can be true. On the one hand is the extremely narrow interpretation that unless you make an explicit profession of faith in Jesus, you’re doomed to everlasting condemnation. On the other is the universalist interpretation that Jesus will hold the door open for absolutely everybody, regardless of what they believe or who they worship, or don’t worship. He’s like the greeter at Walmart who smiles at everybody and welcomes them in. Yet even if you were only to read St John’s gospel all the way through, you’d get the strong sense that neither of those interpretations makes sense.

Also last week we read about the stoning of St Stephen, the Church’s very first martyr, and how all the rock throwers laid their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul (Acts 7:58). And I pointed out that a few verses beyond last week’s reading, it says that Saul terrorized the Church, and put all sorts of Christians in jail (8:3), but that later on he underwent quite a dramatic conversion and was baptized, and then became known as Paul the Apostle. Well, this is where we have to read between the lines and assume that certain things had to have happened.

First of all, as a persecutor of Christians Saul would surely have been familiar with the whole story of Jesus in order to build a strong case for the prosecution. And because he was so zealous in persecuting the followers of Jesus, we know that he didn’t believe any of it at the time. We also know that when Jesus spoke to Saul on the road to Damascus he became convinced that the story of Jesus really is true after all. And when he was subsequently baptized, he was filled with the Holy Spirit, because the rest of the New Testament is pretty clear that that’s what happens at baptism. As Jesus says in today’s gospel, the Holy Spirit (= the Helper) dwells with us and in us.

Now Saul was a Jew, but he wasn’t from Judea, the Jewish homeland. He was from Tarsus, about 600 miles north of Jerusalem. He had also become a Roman citizen at some point. So following the custom in those cases of adopting a Roman name he also identified as Paul. And since his new mission was to evangelize the non-Jewish world, he dropped his Jewish name altogether when he became a Christian, and began to use his Roman name exclusively.

Well, Paul didn’t waste any time after his conversion, but went right to work spreading the Gospel. What we read today is only the fourth sermon of Paul’s that’s recorded in Acts. And it also didn’t take him long to hit the bigtime. Ancient Greece is called the cradle of Western civilization. And Athens was the center of learning, including philosophy, and the major religious center in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. There were more pagan temples in Athens than just about anywhere else, possibly even more than in Rome. There was also a Jewish community in Athens. And wherever Paul went, he always visited the local synagogue first, because that’s where Jewish newcomers went to connect with the locals, in much the same way that modern Christians will usually find a church of their own denomination when they move. 

So there he was, discussing and learning about all the various sorts of pagan worship in Athens, when he met some Greek philosophers who were intrigued because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection (Acts 17:18). They liked hearing all sorts of new ideas about philosophy and religion, so it was natural that they should sit in on the teaching and worship at the Jewish synagogue. The whole notion that there could be only one God fascinated them, especially since there had been some famous Greeks who believed it. And along comes Paul, adding another dimension to this monotheistic  religion as he preaches about how this one and only God became man and died and rose again. So they invited Paul to the Areopagus, where people gathered to discuss politics, philosophy and religion. That was the mainstage where those kinds of things were talked about and debated. Paul had hit the bigtime when he was invited to speak there. Quite close by the Areopagus was an altar dedicated “to the unknown god.” The Greeks had reasoned that there might well be one or two gods up on Mt Olympus that they didn’t know about. So they set up this altar just to make sure all the bases were covered. And that was the opening Paul used to introduce Jesus to them.

Now notice that he doesn’t come out with some offensive declaration like “You’re all going to burn in hell if you don’t listen to me and do what I tell you.” He meets them where they are. “I perceive that in every way you are very religious” he says to his Greek audience, quite unlike Peter who in his first sermon accused his audience of being accessories to murder– “this Jesus whom you crucified,” he said to the people in Jerusalem (Acts 2:36). Like Paul, however, Peter actually was meeting the people where they were at. For they were all Jews who had been expecting the Messiah to come in their day. But when he did come, they followed the religious leaders in rejecting him and calling for his death.

Paul, on the other hand, is speaking to Greeks who know very little of the Jews and their God. So what he has to say is all completely new to most of them. “As I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’” The story goes that the city’s elders called on the philosopher-poet Epimenides to end a plague. He suggested that there must be a god no one knew about, and advised them to offer sacrifices to that god. When the plague ended, they built this altar that Paul refers to. Paul is doing what Peter teaches in today’s second lesson: “always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” Paul is showing respect for the Greeks and for their religious piety. And it’s at that anonymous altar where he connects with them. “What therefore you worship as unknown,” he says, “this I proclaim to you.”

To Paul’s way of thinking, the unknown god, the god that the Greeks suspect is out there, but that they know nothing about, is the God who made himself known long before to Abraham and Moses and the prophets of Israel. It’s the God “whom no one has ever seen or can see,” as Paul later described him to Timothy (1Tim 6:16). This God, he says, is “who made the world and everything in it.” And it’s no wonder you Greeks don’t know anything about him because he can’t be contained in temples. Nor does he demand the kind of service and sacrifices you’re used to offering. In fact, he’s nothing at all like the gods of the Greeks and Romans, to whom they offer sacrifices just to keep them from wreaking havoc in the human world. The one, true, living God gives life and breath and everything else to all people. And then to back up what he’s telling them, he quotes a piece of ancient Greek poetry, “In him we live and move and have our being,” which is attributed to that same Epimenides who counselled sacrificing to the unknown god. And to back up the biblical teaching that all humans are descended from Adam, God’s original human creature, Paul also quotes the another Greek poet Aratus, “For we are indeed his [= God’s] offspring.”

Paul knows their poetry, and he knows the story behind that anonymous altar. And he’s using that knowledge to establish credibility with his audience. And he’s hoping that they’re going to conclude that since he knows all these things, then maybe it’s true what he says about the unknown god. Then he goes on to suggest to them that since we are all God’s offspring, we shouldn’t think he’s like any of the idols fashioned by human talent, that are worshipped in statues and temples all over Athens. This God, previously unknown in the Gentile world, has called and end to pagan idolatry, Paul says, now that he’s revealed himself in flesh and blood in the Person of Jesus, who died and rose again, and who intends to reconcile all people to the Father through himself.

That’s where today’s reading ends. But Luke finishes it off by giving us a little audience response. “Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, ‘We will hear you again about this’” (17:32). Resurrection of the body was a strange and scandalous idea to the Greeks. They believed in the immortality of the soul. But they thought of the body as a prison for the soul, and that it was unworthy of salvation. Strangely, there are plenty of Christians today who believe that, but they’re dead wrong, at least according to what the Bible teaches. That’s where a lot of Paul’s Athenian audience got hung up. But some of them believed Paul and followed him.

So when you think about this event in Paul’s ministry, along with what Jesus said about himself being the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and that no one has access to the Father except through Jesus,  you really have to start thinking that that access may not be as narrowly restricted as some people insist. And also it seems pretty clear that it’s also not nearly as wide open as others would have us believe. Jesus is not the greeter at the door who unconditionally lets everybody in with just a smile and a kind word of welcome. After all, he did open that door at the cost of his own life, and the doorpost is drenched in his own blood. And he insists that we have to die with him in order to live in him. So truly no one does have access to the Father except through Jesus. But just what his admission requirements are, apart from what’s been spelled out in Scripture, are beyond us. So we work with what we’ve been given, and leave the rest to God.

This is where the courage of Christian conviction comes in. Our job is not to speculate as to how widely or narrowly open the gate is to the kingdom of heaven. Our responsibility is to embrace the witness of the Apostles exactly as we have received it from Peter and Paul and the rest, and to live into that story, because by baptism we have become part of that story. The door has been opened to us; the blood that covers it has washed us. In Christ Jesus “we live and move and have our being.” Our job as followers of Jesus, as the baptized and the redeemed, is to continue to celebrate and to proclaim the wonderful works of God in all circumstances– to celebrate them every day of life, but especially when the Church gathers at the altar, and also to find ways to proclaim those wonderful works that connect with the people who need to hear about them.

“Who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?” Peter says. Who is there to harm you if you’re zealous in sharing the love of God, in caring for people, and giving them a glimpse into the Way, the Truth, and the Life of God? In all things honor Christ in your hearts, and be ready to explain to those who ask what it is that fills you with hope. But do it gently and respectfully, not belligerently and self-righteously, fully confident that the Helper is with us and dwells in us. And we know this how? Because Jesus promised that that’s how it would be. And since Jesus is God who died and rose again, we know that that’s how it is. That part is really simple.  In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
a.m.d.g.
Ian C. Wetmore+


The 5th Sunday of Easter, Year A
14 May AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
 
Proper: Acts 7:55-60; Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14
 
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
         

I started looking at today’s readings early last week. And I don’t know why I never noticed this before, but it struck me kind of funny that we read these two lessons together, the first about St Stephen being stoned to death, and in the second St Peter describes believers as “living stones.” I wondered if whoever put the lectionary together was having a little fun. But when you look a bit closer, you can see the deeper connections among today’s readings.

St Stephen is famous as the very first Christian martyr, the first person to be killed because of his faith in Jesus. And since all we got in today’s first lesson is the account of his execution, we need to look at the back story, at what led to his death. The young Church was growing so quickly after the day of Pentecost that the Apostles were becoming overwhelmed by all the work they had to do. Up until that point, they were the Church’s only ordained ministers. On the day that Jesus rose from the dead, he ordained them by breathing on them and saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22); and on the day of Pentecost they did receive the Holy Spirit, who filled them with conviction and boldness to proclaim the Gospel. He also empowered them to heal the sick and raise the dead, and to take up the administrative leadership of the Church. And of course, we know that when everything is going swimmingly in the Church, you can be sure that problems will arise that have the potential to mess everything up.

So the Apostles decided that they could use some help doing pastoral care, things like looking after widows and the sick, and feeding the hungry. And they asked the Church to nominate seven godly, competent men who could take on that kind of work. That way the Apostles themselves could concentrate on prayer and proclamation. Stephen and six others were presented to the Apostles, who prayed over them and laid their hands on them (Acts 6:6). In other words, they ordained them and called them deacons (διάκονοι = servants). “And Stephen,” Luke says, “full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people” (6:8). He obviously turned out to be a pretty remarkable preacher too, since Luke says that a certain group of people didn’t like what Stephen had to say. Not that upsetting people is a mark of a good preacher. But a good preacher will challenge the people to seek the truth of God above everything else. And in Stephen’s case, some people didn’t want any part of that.Luke says, they weren’t able to contradict “the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke” (6:10).

And what do you do when you can’t stop someone from saying things you don’t want to hear? You could stage a big protest at their speaking engagements, which seems to work fairly well on college campuses, or you could frame them. So they recruited some false witnesses and took Stephen before the Jewish council, the Sanhedrin, on the charge of blasphemy. This was the very same body that managed to get Jesus crucified. But it looks as if every member of the council was captivated by Stephen. “Gazing at him,” Luke says, “all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel” (6:15).

Then Stephen started to speak. He took them back through salvation history to show how so many of the faithful servants that God had raised up were mistreated or rejected by God’s people. He made a pretty good case before the high priest and the council, and they probably agreed with just about everything he said. But then, like Peter before him, Stephen pointed the accusing finger right at the members of the council and said, “You stiff-necked people... you always resist the Holy Spirit.” You’re just like your ancestors. They persecuted the prophets, and killed those who foretold the coming of Jesus. And now all of you have betrayed and murdered him (7:51-52). Well, they didn’t like that very much. They yelled and plugged their ears and rushed him, as we read today. Then they took him out of the city and stoned him.

And that’s the story of St Stephen in a nutshell, from his ordination as a deacon to his martyrdom. Everything we know about him is in Acts 6 and 7. One other thing to point out in today’s reading though is that all the witnesses, the people who framed Stephen, “laid their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.” I suppose they needed to free their arms so that they could throw the stones better and harder. You don’t want to wear anything too binding when you’re trying to do stuff like that. Saul the coat checker was all in favor of killing Stephen, because Saul was a persecutor of Christians himself. Just a few verses after where today’s reading ends, it says that Saul terrorized the Church, going from house to house and dragging Christian men and women off to prison (8:3). This is Saul of Tarsus, the infamous Pharisee who was later struck blind by God and converted on his way to Damascus, and subsequently became known as Paul the Apostle.

Now to move on to today’s second lesson. Stephen’s martyrdom marks the beginning of the first major persecution of Christians. Up until then a few of the Apostles had been arrested and shortly released, having been ordered not to preach the Name of Jesus. But that didn’t stop them. After Stephen’s death, the enemies of the Church stepped up their efforts to destroy it. So a lot of Christians fled Jerusalem for other parts of the Roman Empire, where they evangelized and founded new congregations. Now jump ahead thirty years or so, to when Peter wrote this letter that we’re reading through during this Easter season. He wrote it to comfort and encourage the Church, which by then was suffering persecution on a larger scale under the Emperor Nero.

In his defense before the council, Stephen talked about how God had provided his Old Testament people with the way to worship him and to remain faithful during their wandering in the wilderness. He gave Moses the design for the Ark of the Covenant and the tent to house it in, and the rules for offering sacrifices, and so forth. Eventually God allowed Solomon to build a permanent temple as the center of his worship, even though, as Stephen pointed out, “the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands” (Acts 7:48). But over and over again God’s people turned away from him, or distorted his worship, mixing in worship of other gods, or introducing ideas, practices and rules that didn’t fit with what God himself had revealed through Moses and the prophets. And when the prophets called the people on those things, the people turned on them.

Well, the people Peter initially wrote this letter to, God’s New Testament people, the Christians, were again wandering in hostile pagan territory. And Peter wrote to encourage them to keep the faith. He references the temple in Jerusalem, which was built of stone, and had heavy woodwork and lots of bronze, iron and gold. But as Jesus once said to the Samaritan woman at the well, “the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.” True worship of God, he said, doesn’t need to happen in a grand building. It will happen wherever it’s done in spirit and in truth (Jn 4:22-24), which is the point Peter is making here. You yourselves are the temple, he says to the people of God. Each of you is a living stone, which the Holy Spirit is putting together with all the other living stones to make a spiritual house of worship. And there you will act as a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices that are pleasing to God.

Now the role of the priesthood is to mediate between God and his people. They intercede with God on behalf of his people through prayer and sacrifice, and they minister and speak to the people in the Name of God. That’s basically the job of a priest. All the baptized, Peter says, are priests of God, interceding for the whole creation. If you’ve heard that term, “the priesthood of all believers,” that’s what it means. Every baptized person is that kind of priest. When the congregation gathers, it’s not just in the interest of our little group. We offer up the needs and concerns of the whole world, along with the bread and wine as we plead the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, who died to redeem the whole world, not just a chosen few. The ordained priesthood is a little different. It’s a particular role within the Church. My ministry is an extension of the bishop’s ministry. And the bishop’s ministry is a continuation of the Apostle’s ministry.

So we– all of us together– are the spiritual house in which God is worshipped. And we are also the holy priesthood who offer acceptable sacrifices to God. And the only thing that makes them acceptable is when we join ourselves and our sacrifices to the one great sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Our Anglican brothers and sisters in Kenya, just before the blessing at the end of their liturgy, say,

Priest    All our problems
People  We send to the cross of Christ.  (Gesturing toward the cross over the altar)
Priest    All our difficulties
People  We send to the cross of Christ.
Priest    All the devil’s works
People  We send to the cross of Christ.
Priest    All our hopes
People  We set on the risen Christ.

That’s what the Church does, no matter where it gathers or what facilities it has, whether indoors or out. All we need is a congregation, some bread and wine, the willingness to pray and the desire to bring the world into the presence and the loving care of God, all in the Name of Jesus, all joined to the sacrifice of Jesus.  And that’s where all of this is tied to today’s gospel.

It starts with Jesus saying that wonderful line that we so often hear at funerals:“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.” That’s really the gist of what Peter is saying to the persecuted Church in his letter– don’t let worldly cares and fears shake your faith in God– “Let not your hearts be troubled.” It’s a wonderfully comforting thing to hear, especially at a funeral. But then Jesus says these two other things, one of which confuses a lot of people, and the other either confuses or embarrasses a lot of people.

“In my Father’s house are many rooms”– that’s the confusing one. The King James version says, “many mansions,” which is even more confusing since we think of a mansion as big fancy house where rich people live. When I was a kid, I pictured a massive house with a lot of big houses inside it. But when the KJV was first published 406 years ago, a mansion was understood to be just a dwelling, either a house or a room. So what Jesus means is that there’s plenty of room for everybody in his Father’s house. Some people interpret him as meaning that it’s not for Christians only, that the different rooms are for different religious groups. Others say the opposite, that it’s reserved only for people who have made an explicit profession of faith in Christ. And to back it up they will cite the other troubling claim Jesus makes in this passage: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”  On the other hand, some people will suggest that that can’t be true.  Jesus wouldn’t reject good, honest, decent people simply because they’re not Christians, is how the argument usually goes.

The fact is that nobody in the Church– nobody on earth– really knows perfectly what Jesus meant by that. We believe it because he said it, and he is God. We just don’t have a perfect understanding of what he meant. What we do understand is that Jesus is the Way that God has opened for all people to be reconciled to him. And that Jesus is the fullness of the Truth. God has not revealed all truth to us in such a way that our limited understanding can comprehend it all. It’s just not possible for us in our present state. But he has revealed all Truth to us in the Person of Jesus. “God does not give us explanations,” said Fr Austin Farrer, “instead he gives up a Son.”

And when Jesus says that he is the Life, we understand that he is first of all the author of all life. “Through him all things were made,” we say in the Creed. “Everything came into existence through him,” St John says, “Not one thing that exists was made without him” (Jn 1:3, God’s Word). And not only is he the author of life; but by his death and resurrection he is also the Life that is given to every person who persistently follows the Way that leads to the Truth. If you’re not with me, that’s okay. I’ll be posting my sermon online in a couple of days, so you can read it over and over if you like.

What that all means for people who haven’t explicitly embraced the Christian faith, we don’t know. And since nobody fully understands what Jesus meant by it, it’s not for any of us to speculate. But it does appear that Jesus has given a lot of leeway to people who earnestly seek the truth, no matter where they’re coming from. St Paul said that “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8), i.e. before we even knew we needed to be saved, he died to save us.

What it means for us, though, as followers of Jesus, as people who believe that he is Lord and that he has risen from the dead, is that we’re under the same obligation as Peter and Stephen, and all the royal priesthood of believers– the obligation to intercede with God for all people, and to proclaim the Good News of God to all people, and to be merciful and loving to all people, just as God is merciful and loving. After all, St Paul says, God  “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2Tim 2:4). For that reason alone, he sent his Son into the world to be the Way, and the Truth, and the Life, the One through whom everyone can come to the Father. “Once you were not a people,” Peter said to the scattered Church of his day, “but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
a.m.d.g.
Ian C. Wetmore+


The 4th Sunday of Easter, Year A
7 May AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
 
Proper: Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10
 
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
         

St Peter is maybe one of the best examples of what Christian conversion really means. That’s evident in today’s second lesson, but it’s even more pronounced when that lesson is read alongside today’s gospel. Today is nicknamed Good Shepherd Sunday because in the gospel Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd. Most of John 10 is taken up with Good Shepherd teaching, and there’s so much to learn from it, that the Church in her wisdom has divided it into three sections so that we read it all over the 3-year cycle of the lectionary on this 4th Sunday of Easter.

Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd, but that term may not be very clearly understood by us 21st-century types. We tend to think in terms of good, better and best, so that when we hear that so-and-so is a good shepherd, or a good mechanic or a good doctor, we want to know if there’s a better one. We also, especially in this country, like to use superlatives, to say the best thing we can say about something, like, “That movie was fantastic!” or “My new __ is awesome!” Not so much in the country just to the north of us. Remember that I said a few weeks ago that when they describe something as “not too bad,” they usually mean it’s actually pretty good. Americans are much more enthusiastic and animated about the things they like or don’t like. So to our way of thinking, just being good often isn’t good enough. We want a great doctor or mechanic– or shepherd, if that’s what you’re in the market for.

But the Bible doesn’t deal in good, better and best. It just deals in good and evil. And Jesus himself draws the line between them very clearly. When someone addressed him once as “Good Teacher,” he replied, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone” (Lk 18:18-19). Now understand here, that he’s not suggesting that he himself is not good; he’s hinting at the fact that he’s really God in human flesh. And what he’s saying is that God is thoroughly good. So Jesus really is the Good Teacher. But since all of us humans have been infected by sin, we’re not thoroughly good. That’s not to say we’re all thoroughly bad though. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously said that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being” (The Gulag Archipelago). The evil in our lives is dealt with by ongoing repentance and forgiveness. And whenever we do that in worship, God fills us with his own goodness, first at baptism, and then repeatedly whenever we receive his Body and Blood. And since the infection is going to keep coming back as long as we live in this fallen world, we’re totally reliant on the goodness and mercy of God to cover us, to rehabilitate us, and hopefully to improve us little by little.

Anyway, we don’t talk of the things of God in terms of good, better and best, or even holy, holier and holiest. We just repeat the words good and holy, which is what the angels do when they sing that hymn that we join in at every Mass– “Holy, holy, holy...” There’s no way to measure goodness or holiness in heavenly terms. There’s just goodness and holiness. And in the lives of every one of us, those are entangled with things that are not good or holy.

So when we hear Jesus describe himself as the Good Shepherd, we need to forget about superlatives, about whether or not there’s a better or a best shepherd. There’s not. There just isn’t a better shepherd than Jesus, the Good Shepherd, because only he can lead us into the goodness of God. Only he can care for his sheep in the most important way, the way that has eternal consequences, the way that rescues us from sin keeps us in eternal life. Only he can tend his flock in such a way that none of his sheep will be lost. Now I have to make clear here that this doesn’t mean that those who call on the Name of the Lord won’t suffer any injury or persecution. Just look at what’s going on with the Christians in Egypt and Syria right now. What it does mean is that by persevering– by keeping the faith– they will in the end be raised up to dwell for ever with the Lord. To that end Jesus says, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31).

In order to get a good picture of what’s going on in today’s gospel, we have to go back a little bit before the Good Shepherd talk. A heated discussion arose between Jesus and the Pharisees because of the statement I just read, about continuing in God’s word and being liberated by the truth of it. Jesus effectively shut down the Pharisees when he said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (Jn 8:58). “I Am” is the Name of God that no faithful Jew would dare to utter. So, John says, “they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple” (Jn 8:59). On his way out he sees a blind man, and after some discussion he anoints the man’s eyes and heals him. (We read that gospel six weeks ago.) John says that the Pharisees then cornered the man and gave him a hard time in an effort to prove that Jesus was really possessed by a demon. But getting nowhere with him, they threw him out of the temple– they excommunicated him. Hearing of this, Jesus found the man in order to reassure him that his healing was indeed from God.

Then he goes into the Good Shepherd teaching of chapter 10. He talks about those who sneak into the sheepfold, and how they’re not really shepherds but thieves and robbers. He is talking about the Pharisees who, as the religious leaders, are supposed to be the shepherds of Israel. Their job is to teach the faith and to be God’s ministers to God’s people. But their treatment of the man who had been blind shows that their interests are not God’s interests, but that they’re playing a power game. They’re hired hands who don’t really care about the job they are supposed to be doing as long as they can maintain their status. Jesus had already angered them by telling them that they weren’t really Abraham’s children because they didn’t do what Abraham did. The only thing Abraham did, or could have done, to receive God’s favor was to believe in him. “He believed the Lord,” Genesis says, “and the Lord counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6). The Pharisees were full of self-righteousness. And because Jesus pointed that out to them, they wanted to do him in. But Jesus, being the Good Shepherd, sought out the man he had healed to make sure that the Pharisees hadn’t derailed the man’s faith. And thankfully they hadn’t.

The Pharisees are “thieves and robbers.” They are willing to let the sheep stray, or even to lead them astray, in pursuit of their own agenda. Seven hundred years earlier Isaiah prophesied this sad situation when he said, “The dogs have a mighty appetite; they never have enough. But they are shepherds who have no understanding; they have all turned to their own way, each to his own gain, every one of them” (Isa 56:11). Without calling the Pharisees by name, Jesus talks about them in today’s gospel as those who enter the sheepfold not by the door, but over the wall. Isaiah’s prophecy had been fulfilled. But Jesus’ audience didn’t understand who he was talking about. So then he says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them.” He’s talking about the religious leaders, and also about the false messiah’s who had been popping up in those days. It was all the work of the devil, trying to confuse the people and lead them away from Jesus and from the truth of God. “I am the door,” Jesus says, “If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

That’s where today’s reading ends. But in the verses that follow, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me... I  will lay down my life for my sheep... I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again” (Jn 10:14,17-18). And he did indeed lay down his life and take it up again. That’s what we celebrate not just at Easter, but every Sunday.

Now back to Peter. He’s around for all this. He is with the Lord every day. He has seen all the signs and wonders. He saw the healing of the blind man. He saw the hypocrisy and self-righteousness of the Pharisees, and the goodness and righteousness of Jesus. But his faith was still a bit wobbly. At one point Peter declared that Jesus is the Son of God, but in the very next instance, when Jesus spoke of going up to Jerusalem and being handed over to suffering and death, Peter couldn’t bear the thought of it. But Jesus told him that he had to be ready to give up his own life for Jesus’ sake (Mt 16:15-28). Later on, during the trial of Jesus, Peter’s fear got the best of him, and three times he denied knowing Jesus. Peter sees and experiences all these things, but his faith, like ours, is far from perfect. He’s still in the process of being converted, like us.

The big turning point in the conversion of the disciples came after the resurrection when they saw the risen Lord. And this is especially so for Peter because at the close of John’s gospel we see the risen Lord giving Peter a chance to be rehabilitated. Three times during Jesus’ trial Peter denied knowing him. Here, after the resurrection, Peter says three times, “Lord, you know that I love you” (21.15ff). And three times the Lord says to Peter, “Feed my sheep.” The next we see of Peter, in the book of Acts, he’s preaching the Gospel fearlessly wherever he can get an audience. He’s in and out of jail; he’s continually being warned by the Jewish leaders not to preach in the Name of Jesus. Once, after an angel freed the Apostles from prison, Peter responded to the Sanhedrin’s gag order by saying,

We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things. (Acts 5:29-32)

All this has taken place after Jesus had ascended into heaven and raised up his Church at Pentecost. Over the past couple of weeks we read most of Peter’s Pentecost sermon in which he boldly preached the Gospel of Christ crucified and risen, and called the people to repentance. And then the Apostles began backing up their preaching with a tremendous healing ministry. “Many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles,” Luke says,

...they even carried out the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mats, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them. The people also gathered from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed. (Acts 5:12-16)

Peter and the others are now empowered by the Holy Spirit to feed the sheep, to minister in the Name of Jesus, and they show no hesitation or fear in doing it. We see something of that boldness in today’s second lesson, the once-cowardly follower now leading, feeding the sheep, passing on to God’s people what was given to him. He wrote this letter some thirty years after the resurrection of Jesus, and yet it shows that he’s still full of that zeal for the Gospel and that love for Jesus and his flock that he first demonstrated on the day of Pentecost. But you can also see how his faith has matured, and his ministry has been seasoned over the decades. And the Pentecostal fire is still burning just as hot.

“He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness,” Peter says, “By his wounds you have been healed.  For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Episkopos [Overseer, Bishop] of your souls.” It is the power of the Easter gospel– the gospel of the crucifixion, resurrection, ascension and Pentecost– that has given Peter the boldness to speak the way he does, because now he’s convinced that real and eternal life is only to be found in Jesus Christ, and that it’s worth all the suffering a believer may have to endure to enjoy that life. As God’s Apostle it’s his joyful duty to spread this message no matter how great the difficulty or the cost.

Today’s reading begins with Peter saying, “this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly.” And he bore this out in his own life, for like his Lord, he also died on a cross, although he asked to be crucified upside down because he didn’t want to be seen in any way as equal to Jesus. “For to this you have been called,” Peter says, “because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.”

People like to talk about St Paul’s dramatic conversion experience as if it were the gold standard. The thinking behind it, even though no one ever really says so, is that if your conversion was somehow as dramatic and spectacular as Paul’s, then you’re some kind of super-Christian, a cut above the rest of us. But that’s just BS. Peter’s, as I said at the start, may be one of the best examples of what Christian conversion really means. And what it means is that if you’re that convinced that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead, then it’s confirmed in your mind and heart that everything he said and did, everything he revealed about God, and about our sinful condition and our need to be reconciled to God is absolutely true. And if we’re that convinced, nothing will derail that faith. And even though we stumble and fall into sin over and over, we know that God is merciful, and that there is no sin that’s beyond God’s ability or desire to forgive.

This was a big question in the early Church when so many Christians were being coerced into acknowledging Caesar as God on pain of crucifixion or being fed to the lions. Could they be forgiven and reconciled to God? After much prayer and study of Scripture and discussion, the bishops of the Church came out and said, Absolutely they can. For God’s love is unconditional, his mercy is infinite, and his willingness to forgive is only limited by the sincerity of our repentance. After all, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.” By his wounds, by the physical wounds he suffered on Good Friday, and by absorbing the sin of the world into himself on the cross, we have been healed. And by his resurrection, we now live in him. In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
a.m.d.g.
Ian C. Wetmore+


The 3rd Sunday of Easter, Year A
30 April AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
 
Proper: Acts 2:14a, 36-41; 1 Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35
 
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
         

I don’t imagine it would surprise any of you to hear that preachers get a little bit of flack now and then. But we can take it, since one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit at ordination is a thick skin. Snowflakes need not apply. The flack usually comes from just one or two members of a congregation, unless the preacher really is that bad that everybody’s complaining. The usual complaints have to do with either the length of the sermon or the fact that the content is not what the complaining person wants to hear. Or it could be that somebody just doesn’t get what Christian preaching is all about.

When I was being interviewed for my previous parish, one of the search committee members asked me how long I typically preached. Knowing that my predecessor was brilliant, and packed an awful lot into five minutes, and that he sped through the rest of the service, I said, “About twice as long as your previous rector.” The guy said, “Fr Craig gets us in and out in forty-five minutes, and that’s with a sermon and four hymns.” In that one comment, he made it pretty clear what his primary criterion was for the new priest– Don’t waste my time. I said, “Sorry, but those days are over no matter who your new priest is going to be, because nobody does it like Fr Craig.” Well, that guy left the parish before I ever even started.

Then on my first Sunday in that parish, at the end of the early service after I’d finished shaking hands with everybody, I went back to the vestry to take off my vestments. And on the desk I found a little clipping from Reader’s Digest about a long-winded preacher. I took it as a warning. The person who put it there must have come to church with that clipping already in his pocket, before ever having heard me preach before. So instead of heeding the warning, during announcements the following week, I told the congregation that somebody had laid that clipping on my desk the week before. And I read it to them. Two can play at that game, you see. I’ve since come to realize that I have a talent for driving people away. I’m kind of like the character Cyclops in the X-Men movies who has to wear a visor all the time so that he doesn’t destroy people with his eyes when he looks at them. And I have to be really careful that I only use my power for good. So far I think I’ve only done it twice, both times as a visitor in other parishes.

As I said, the usual complaints about preachers are either that we go too long, or that our message doesn’t appeal to the one who’s complaining, e.g. “You don’t use catchy illustrations to grab my attention; You could stand to tell a few more jokes; You don’t draw me in.” Those come under the heading of entertainment– “You’re not amusing me.” Or the complaint may be, “You never speak directly to my personal situation; You don’t connect with me on a personal level; You don’t make me leave church feeling good about myself.” What that person wants is therapy from the pulpit, which is not what the pulpit is for. So if that’s what somebody needs, they really need to come see me in my office, or invite me over, and we’ll have a private conversation. And I’ll do my best to help them in their particular situation. But I can’t do that from the pulpit to the pew.

All of those kinds of complaints come from a mistaken idea of what preaching is all about. Well, today we heard two perfect examples of what Christian preaching really is all about, one from Jesus Christ himself and one from St Peter. And since Jesus is God, there’s no arguing over whether his preaching is absolutely the best. It just is. But first, St Peter.

What we heard from Peter in the first lesson today is actually the last sentence of his very first sermon, which he preached on the Day of Pentecost, followed by the response of the people and Peter’s response to them. We read the core of that sermon last Sunday. Altogether it’s pretty short– about five minutes probably, like Fr Craig used to preach. So people who don’t like sitting through a long sermon would have been happy with it. But anyone looking for a personal connection or some group therapy would have been awfully disappointed. St Peter was not a touchy-feely kind of preacher. In fact, in this first sermon of his he gets a little harsh with his audience, much like St John the Baptist.  He starts out talking about how Jesus demonstrated his divinity by “mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him.” Then Peter says, “this Jesus... you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:22-23). He’s pointing the finger right at his audience, accusing them all of murder, of killing the Son of God– probably not what they wanted to hear, probably not something that would have made them feel good about themselves. But that was precisely the point of Peter’s sermon. It was to open their eyes to the truth, to make them understand that it was their sin that nailed Jesus to the cross.

He went on from there to show how the prophets of the Old Testament foresaw the coming of Jesus and his death on the cross for the sin of the world, and how King David was given a vision of Jesus as his descendant and his heir enthroned in heaven. Therefore, Peter concludes, “Let all the house of Israel know for sure that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” He’s connecting them with their own history. The house of Israel is the nation God set apart to cultivate, to be the greenhouse, as it were, where he would raise up the Savior of the world from among them. But when he rose up, they pulled him down. They tortured and crucified the One who had come to save them. And God raised him up again. But instead of destroying his killers, he prayed for their forgiveness. And beginning on the Day of Pentecost, he raised up his Church to call all people to repentance and to be raised up to the new life in Christ.

Now when they heard all this, Luke says, “they were cut to the heart.” They didn’t feel good about themselves, and they weren’t amused or entertained by what Peter said. They were convicted. So they said, “What do we do?’ Peter said, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for... everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” Which is to say everyone who will answer the Lord’s call, because it’s meant for every person on earth.

Luke didn’t write down the rest of what Peter said that day. He wraps it up by saying, “And with many other words [Peter] bore witness and continued to exhort them... So those who received his word [those who believed in Jesus and repented] were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” It’s safe to say that they all felt pretty wretched over what they as a nation had done to the Son of God. But at the same time they had come to a basic understanding of why he suffered and died. And as a result, they wanted very much to be a part of the new life that Jesus opened up by rising from the dead. So what they went away feeling good about was not themselves, because at last they understood themselves to be sinners in need of forgiveness and redemption. Instead, what they went away feeling good about was what God had done for them and for all people. He nailed our sins to the cross in the Person of his Son, and through his own empty tomb he raises us up to life in his eternal kingdom. That’s what we’re supposed to feel good about. That’s what we celebrate, not just at Easter, but every Sunday in church and in everything we do and say.

Now, jumping back from Pentecost to Easter Sunday afternoon, we see Jesus suddenly appearing and walking alongside two of his disciples, Cleopas and somebody else whom Luke doesn’t identify.  A little context here: The women who were the first to discover the empty tomb arrived there before daylight on Easter morning (Jn 20:1).  None of Jesus’ followers had been able to go very far from Jerusalem yet, because of the Sabbath travel ban. The Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday and ends at sundown on Saturday. And since Jesus died late Friday afternoon, his followers had to hole up in Jerusalem until Sunday morning. So it wouldn’t have taken very long at all for the news of the empty tomb to reach the other disciples, including these two, who later set out on their seven-mile walk to Emmaus. That’s where Jesus joined them.

They didn’t recognize him, for the same reason Mary Magdalene didn’t recognize him at first. The resurrection body apparently looks quite different than before it died. “What are you guys talking about?” he asked them. One of them said, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem that hasn’t heard everything that’s gone on this weekend?” Jesus is playing dumb just to get these two to voice what they’re thinking, even though he already knows what that is. They’re overwhelmed by the news of the empty tomb. After all, resurrection is something that was completely knew to the world on that morning. Jesus had raised four other people from the dead before he died. And he had spoken quite a bit about his own death and resurrection. All that was to demonstrate that the power to give life and to give new life, to create and to recreate, is all his. But still, it had to have been an awful lot for the disciples to process. Yet Jesus doesn’t cut these two disciples any slack when he begins to set them straight. “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” he says, “Wasn’t it necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” Then he takes them back to the beginning of the Bible and walks them all the way through the Old Testament to show them how every page of it points to himself. But they still don’t recognize him. For all they know at that point, he’s just a really good teacher who’s given them a lot to think about.

And that’s what the preacher’s job is: to open the Scriptures for the people of God, and to teach them how to recognize Jesus when he reveals himself. It’s not about making them feel good, or gaining their confidence, or entertaining them for a few minutes. It’s about showing Jesus to his people, and preparing them to meet him when he comes.

Well, since it’s late in the day when they finally arrive home in Emmaus, they invite Jesus to come in for dinner and stay the night. And while they’re at the dinner table, he does the very same thing he did on Maundy Thursday. He took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them, although he doesn’t say the words, “This is my body,” like he did with the twelve on Maundy Thursday. But it’s clearly the same intention. It’s as if to say, “This is where my people will encounter me. This is where they will recognize me, where I will make myself known to them, where I will feed them from my own substance, and share with them my own divine life.” And that’s why we do that every Sunday at the very least. Every Sunday is the day of resurrection, it’s a little Easter. So we celebrate his resurrection by proclaiming his death for the sin of the world at the altar, and by being fed from the sacrifice that he offered on the cross.

As soon as Jesus did all that with the bread, Cleopas and the other one recognized him, just as Mary Magdalene recognized him when he spoke her name earlier that day. Then he disappeared! Not only did they recognize him, but they were suddenly, firmly convinced of the truth of everything he had taught them on the way. “Didn’t our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” That’s why our worship is designed the way it is. We hear the Word first, read and interpreted, and then we go to the altar. The fact that we physically approach the altar  by walking past the place where the Word is proclaimed and preached is meant to reinforce that understanding.

The Word is all about the mercy and love of God. And it all points to Jesus, the Word made flesh, who is the profoundest expression of God’s love and mercy, not just to us, but to the whole world. And what he wants for us is that our hearts should burn within us as we hear about his great love for us, and so that when we do approach the altar, we will recognize and understand that it really is Jesus there, filling us with his own life through the sacrament of his Body and Blood, washing away our sin, and giving us boldness and confidence, like he gave Peter and the others on the Day of Pentecost, to go out and tell the world about what he has done for us and for all people. And so we pray today that just as Jesus made himself known to those two disciples in the breaking of bread, God will open the eyes of our faith, that we may recognize him in all his redeeming work, and that he would equip us to participate in that redeeming work. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia! In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
a.m.d.g.
Ian C. Wetmore+




Easter Day, Year A
April AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
 
Proper: Acts 10:34-43; Ps 118:1-2, 14-15, 19-24; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-18
 
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
         

Alleluia. Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia.

I’ve been quoting my favorite preacher a fair bit lately. So today I’m going to quote my second- and third-favorite preachers. Austin Farrer (my #2) said this about the resurrection of Jesus: “We do not know what happened when Jesus Christ rose from the dead; that is God’s secret. We do not know, that is, what change he underwent, what it was like for him to rise” (The Crown of the Year, 28). I don’t know whether many of you have ever given much thought to the mechanics of the resurrection, but what Farrer says seems like a pretty reasonable thing to say, probably the most sensible thing anybody can say. Still, lots of people have come up with lots of interesting speculations as to how it happened. The one I like the best is the theory that God sent a massive electrical charge into the dead body of Jesus, such that it seared an image of his face into the cloth that had been wrapped around his head, which would also explain the shroud of Turin. I don’t buy that theory, but I like it. The thing is that the people who came up with that theory are thinking in terms of the kind of resuscitation modern medicine does with defibrillators. As Fr Farrer says, we don’t know a lot, but from the eyewitness accounts in the New Testament, we do know that God did not raise his Son by using cardio-pulmonary resuscitation.

Besides, if all God had done was to raise Jesus back to the life he had been living up until Good Friday, the way Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, then Mary Magdalene wouldn’t have had any trouble recognizing him when he first spoke to her. As St John says in today’s gospel, “she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she didn’t know that it was Jesus.” And the two disciples Jesus travelled the road to Emmaus with later that same day, they didn’t realize that it was Jesus until he broke the bread at supper and immediately disappeared. None of them recognized him because he looked very different. It was only when he called Mary by name, and when he broke the bread in Emmaus that he revealed his identity. If it had been a case of simply reviving a lifeless body, there wouldn’t have been any physical change.

So even though we don’t know how God raised Jesus from the dead, we do know that it was a spectacularly different kind of resurrection than when Jesus raised Lazarus, and the widow of Nain’s son, and Jairus’ and the centurion’s daughters. We do know from the descriptions in the gospels that Jesus was raised up in what St Paul calls “a spiritual body” (1Cor 15:). He doesn’t mean a disembodied spirit, like a ghost. He means a glorified body, one that is fully fitted out for life in the kingdom of heaven, one that isn’t subject to the frailty and limits of our present human nature, one that is incorruptible, imperishable, eternal. And then, in that passage that we often read at funerals, St Paul says,

Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. (1Cor 15:51-52)

He’s talking there about the general resurrection of the dead at the end of time. But that’s only going to happen because it first happened to Jesus. The human body that he inherited from his human mother was subject to all the limits and frailty of every other human, including death. But then when his heavenly Father raised him from the dead, he glorified his Son’s human body, he refitted it, you might say, for eternity.

As I pointed out the other night, we frail humans have a hard time with concepts we don’t understand. We try to make sense of things based on what we already know. And some of us seem to think that if we can’t understand something, then it can’t really be true. And that’s the conclusion a lot of people have come to after trying to comprehend the resurrection of Jesus. But I daresay most of us are here this morning precisely because we believe it. And if there are any here who aren’t sure, then I welcome you, and encourage you to keep on questioning. And I would suggest that you even put your questions to a certain divine Being about whose existence you’re not sure, just in case he really does exist.

At any rate, we’re all here to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. In fact that’s the only thing we do in this sacred space; that’s the only thing it was built for. Everything we do in this space is centered on the death and resurrection of Jesus. Everything we do as followers of Jesus is centered on his death and resurrection. “We remember his death, We proclaim his resurrection, We await his coming in glory,” is what we say in the liturgy (well, not today, but for the rest of the Easter season we will). We don’t know how it happened. It’s beyond our very limited capacity to comprehend it. But, Fr Farrer says, “we know some of the things that happened to his disciples, what he caused them to see, to touch and to hear.” Through those things “he made them understand at least this about himself: the whole Jesus who had lived with them before his passion was again alive, and with them again; nothing had been lost where everything had been glorified.”

On that first Good Friday it seemed to the disciples as if they had lost everything that was dear to them, because by that point Jesus had become the dearest thing to them. But on that bright Easter morning they found that they hadn’t lost him at all. In fact, there was so much more about him than they could take in, and they were overjoyed. And that’s what we’re doing here, continuing to celebrate that unspeakable resurrection joy, the fact that the power of sin and death was destroyed by the death and resurrection of Jesus. And that by dying with him in baptism we are raised to the new life in him. And in just a few minutes baby Michael is going to be joined to Jesus in his death, and raised up to join us in that new life in Jesus.

But that’s not all there is to the Church’s Easter celebration. We don’t just come here to feel good for an hour. We come to be instructed in the Good News of what God has done, to be born again of water and the Spirit in the back of the church, and to be fed from the Body and Blood of the Son in the front of the church. And by those we are reconciled to God. But it’s all for a bigger purpose, which is to change our own lives and to change the world.

The Gospel, and the death and resurrection of Jesus, place a moral demand on whoever believes and is baptized. My third-favorite preacher, Bishop Harold Nutter, used to say on Easter Day, “Christ is risen from the dead. Now what are you going to do about it?” In other words, how’s it going to change the way you live, the way you regard yourself, the way you regard the world and other people, the way you relate to other people whether you like them or not? How’s it going to change the way you love both God and your neighbor? Is it going to fill you with the same overriding desire that filled Jesus to draw all people to himself so that he can reconcile them to the Father? Is it going to fill you with such zeal for the Gospel that you’re going to want to reach out to every person in the love of Jesus to care for them in the way they need it most at that moment?  All that is what we sign up for when we’re baptized, when we go down into the water to die with Jesus and are raised up to live his risen life. And it’s what we sign our babies up for when we bring them to be baptized. It’s what we’re instructed in every time the Word of the Lord is read from the lectern and preached from the pulpit. It’s what we’re nourished and empowered to do when we “eat the Flesh of the Son of Man and drink his Blood” (Jn 6:53). That is the outworking of the resurrection in the Church and in the life of every Christian.

If you’ve been raised with Christ, Paul says, “seek the things that are above... Set your minds on things that are above [greater things, godly things, eternal things]. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” Alleluia. Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia.  
In the Name of... Amen.
a.m.d.g.
Ian C. Wetmore+

Maundy Thursday
13 April AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
 
Proper: Exod 12.1-14; Psalm 116.1, 10-17; 1 Cor 11.23-26; John 13.1-17, 31-35
 
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
         

At Bible study the other night, we got into a brief discussion of when the various books of the New Testament were written. That’s always a very helpful discussion to have, since we in the modern Western world tend to think in straight lines, and chronological order is one of the ways we like to organize things. So it comes as a surprise to lots and lots of people that that’s not how the NT is arranged at all. And we’re initially puzzled as to why the early Church would arrange all the books in chronological disorder, as it would seem to us. If they’re not in some kind of order that makes immediate sense to us, then they’re in disorder. And that disturbs our thought process. Now that’s a generalization. I’m not saying every Westerner is like that. But I think it is more of a Western problem. Easterners– not New Englanders, New Yorkers, etc, but Eastern Orthodox Christians, Arabs and further east– generally don’t see the need to think in straight lines the way we do. I’m one of those straight-line thinkers. My first degree was in history.

Anyway, Matthew’s gospel is the first book of the NT, but it wasn’t written before the rest– not even close. The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke were most likely written in the 70s, and John wrote his gospel, as well as his three letters and Revelation sometime in the 90s. Paul’s letters are actually the oldest books of the NT, all written from the mid-50s to the mid-60s. I won’t go on about why the Church ordered the NT books the way she did. That may be for another time. But all of this raises an issue that’s relevant to what we’re commemorating tonight.

Matthew, Mark and Luke, in their gospels, all describe the Last Supper, the meal Jesus shared with his disciples shortly before he was arrested. They actually don’t describe the meal itself, but the very strange thing Jesus did right after supper, when he picked up a piece of bread and said, “Take, eat: This is my Body...” and then a cup, saying, “Drink this, all of you: This is my Blood of the New Covenant...” For Matthew, Mark and Luke, that was the highlight of that quiet time together before all the bad stuff started to happen. But John doesn’t talk about that at all in his gospel. Those other three gospels had been around for close to twenty years before he wrote his. So he most likely didn’t see the need to cover it again.

What John highlights instead is the other thing Jesus did after supper. He set aside his outer clothing, wrapped a towel around his waist like a servant would do, and got on his knees to wash his disciples’ feet. It was a lesson in humble service. The other three gospels don’t talk about this event, but Matthew and Mark both record Jesus’s earlier teaching that undergirds the footwashing. In the kingdoms of this world, he said, the powerful people stand above everybody else and rule over them. But that’s not how it is in the kingdom of heaven; and that’s not how it’s going to be with you.  “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:25-28).

And he demonstrated it even further later that evening and on the next day when he was falsely accused, and wrongfully convicted and executed. Just as Isaiah prophesied, Jesus gave his back to the smiters, and he didn’t shield  himself from every kind of abuse (Isa 50:6), including death on the cross. He completely gave himself into the hands of sinful humanity in order to reconcile sinful humanity to God. That’s why he came. And that’s why he sent his Apostles out into the world on exactly the same mission, and to carry it out with exactly the same humble attitude. And that’s what they all did. They gave their backs to the smiters, and didn’t shield themselves from the world’s abuse, in order to draw the world to the cross of Jesus where he would reconcile all people to the Father. That’s what John highlights from that first Maundy Thursday evening– the commandment to love one another the very same humble, self-sacrificing way Jesus loves us. That, btw, is where the word Maundy comes from– the commandment, the mandate to love one another. And that takes us back to the thing that Matthew, Mark and Luke highlight about that Maundy Thursday evening, and to our Western hangup about chronological order.

If you’ve been going to Mass for any length of time in the Episcopal, Lutheran, Orthodox or Roman Catholic Church, the Words of Institution will be quite familiar to you. Those are the words of Jesus that the priest speaks over the bread and the cup. You know how it goes:

On the night he was handed over to suffering and death, our Lord Jesus Christ too bread, and when he had given thanks to you, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, and said, “Take, eat: This is my Body which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me. After supper he took the cup of wine... (BCP 362)

Well, if you know that off by heart, and then you look closely at the Last Supper in any of the first three gospels, you’ll see that the words aren’t quite the same in any of them. And that’s because the wording that’s in the Prayer Book is from St Paul, in that little passage we just read from 1 Corinthians. But Paul wasn’t there that night. In fact, Paul wasn’t even a follower of Jesus then. At that point he was still on the side of the religious leaders who were plotting to have Jesus crucified. But that little bit of 1 Corinthians, written some time in the mid-50s, is the first account from any of the Apostles of what Jesus said when he instituted the Holy Eucharist.

And here’s the most remarkable thing about it: Paul prefaces it by saying, “I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread...” Look closely at what he says: “I received from the Lord...” Even though, as a new convert, he might have heard priests saying those words, God somehow revealed directly to Paul that that’s what Jesus said on that night. That’s why the Church uses Paul’s version in her eucharistic prayers. She does add words from Matthew though just to reinforce the fact that sharing the Eucharist is not optional for anybody: “Take, eat... Drink this, all of you... For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” Our participation in this sacrament, this holy mystery, is our witness to the world that “Christ has died, Christ is risen, [and] Christ will come again” (BCP 363).

Now here’s where some of our brothers and sisters get hung up on chronological order. On the night when he was betrayed he took bread, and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, and also the cup in the same way. Jesus is declaring the bread and the contents of the cup to be his own Body and Blood. From the very beginning, the Church has understood this to mean that in some mysterious way that none of us can fully comprehend in this life, Jesus actually fills the bread and the cup that his Church has prayed over with his own self, that he fills them with the life he was to offer on the cross the following day. “But how could this be?” some Christians argue, since he gave them the Lord’s Supper the night before he died. And besides, how could he even “give us his flesh to eat” in the first place? which is what the doubters said to Jesus earlier when he talked about the necessity of eating his flesh and drinking his blood  (Jn 6:52). The short answer is that we don’t know how he can do it. But what we do know is that he is God. And we should be thankful that his ability to create and to recreate is in no way limited by our very limited ability to understand. When Mary said, “How can this be?” the archangel Gabriel replied, “With God all things are possible” (Lk 1:37). And since Jesus is God, and he says that’s what this bread and this cup are, we take him at his word.

And like the example of humility Jesus gave in washing the disciples’ feet, and the ultimate display of humility that he showed on the cross, the Holy Eucharist is all about the reconciliation of sinful humanity to God. We are taught by the Lord himself to approach it with all humility, and in deep repentance for our sin, because that’s the only way we can properly approach the God of our salvation. And there Jesus wipes away our sin, fills us with his divine life, and presents us to the Father. And from there, he sends us back out into the world, “not to be served, but to serve” in his Name by loving the way he loves, and drawing people to him so that he can do for them what he has done, and continues to do, for us. That’s what’s so vitally important about this night. In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
a.m.d.g.
Ian C. Wetmore+



Palm Sunday, Year A
9 April AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
 
Proper: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11: Matthew 27:11-54
 
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
         

Every year when I think about preaching on Palm Sunday, I realize that there’s really not much in the gospel today that needs a preacher to elaborate on. I talked a little bit last week about the plain meaning of Scripture (Richard Hooker). Well, St Matthew gives us a pretty straightforward piece of historical narrative that really doesn’t need a lot of explanation. But before that, the collect and the other readings, brief as they are, give us the whole Gospel in a nutshell, not just that little bit of it that we read today in St Matthew’s gospel, but the whole story of what Jesus has done for us.

Let’s start with the collect, which gives it to us in the most bare-bones form. There are four key phrases in today’s collect that outline the whole mission of Jesus. The first one answers the question why. Why was he born as one of us? Why did God become man in the first place? The answer is simply this: he did it out of his “tender love for the human race.” God is love, St John says (1 Jn 4.8, 16). He made us for love, to be loved by him, and to love him and all his other creatures the same way that he loves. “God is love,” St John says, “and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 Jn 4.16). The trouble was that we don’t always abide in God and we don’t always want him abiding in us, which is the beginning of our sinfulness. And because we have rejected his love, because we have failed to love him and each other as we ought, and because he has never stopped loving us and has never given up on us, St John goes on to say, God “sent his Son to be the propitiation [perfect offering, atoning sacrifice] for our sins” (4.10).

Propitiation is one of those ten-dollar biblical terms that probably most of us wonder exactly what it means. Various English translations of the Bible translate it as perfect offering or atoning sacrifice or expiation, because there’s not a simpler word in English that means the exact same thing as propitiation. I’ve noticed whenever we use Rite One that at certain points in the liturgy, a few people suddenly look up at me a bit puzzled. And I finally realized that some of the words I say aren’t what’s printed in the Prayer Book. That’s because I memorized them from the older Prayer Book, which is what I used before I came here. Propitiation is one of those words. The propitiation for our sins is the offering that is favourable to God, the one he looks on favourably, the one that pleases God the most. Those other terms I mentioned– perfect offering, atoning sacrifice, expiation– they don’t mean exactly the same thing. But propitiation includes all those things. And the only thing we can offer up to the Father for our sins is his Son. Jesus is our perfect offering, our atoning sacrifice, our expiation– all those things and so much more, all because he is the beloved of God, the one in whom God is well pleased (Mt 3.17).

So because of his tender love toward us, God sent his Son “to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross,” as the collect says, in order to be the propitiation for our sins. That’s the whole Gospel in a nutshell. And the response that it calls for from us is just the thing that we ask God for in today’s collect– that we may follow “the example of his suffering”–  i.e. that we should be as willing as Jesus was, for the cause of righteousness, to accept whatever the world might inflict on us– and that we may “share his resurrection.” It is by dying with Christ in baptism and absorbing the hatred of the world because of him that we will share his resurrection. But more about that at Easter.

Some 700 years before it happened, Isaiah prophesied what Jesus would endure for the sin of the world. “I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting.” It happened exactly that way. Yet Jesus did not strike back. The only time he ever retaliated was to rebuke those who distorted the Word of the Lord; and he never did so to defend himself. “But the Lord God helps me,” he says through the prophet, “therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame... Behold, the Lord God helps me; who will declare me guilty?”

St Paul elaborates on all this in today’s epistle by quoting a hymn that Christians were singing in his day. And considering that he wrote the letter to the Philippians within thirty years of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, this is probably the oldest Christian hymn still known to us. It’s another retelling of the Gospel in a nutshell. It begins with the Son of God leaving his heavenly home to come down into our world in order to save us, and then going back to the Father’s side in heaven.

“Though he was in the form of God,” St Paul says. He doesn’t mean that Jesus simply looked like God, but that before he was born as a man he was God. He was the Word who was with God from the beginning, as St John explains it, and who was God and who is the Word that was spoken that created everything (Jn 1.1-3). Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider equality with God as something to cling to. He was not jealous of his dignity or keen to hold on to his power at all costs. He had no fear of losing it or of not regaining it whenever he wanted. After all, he is God– who is there that can take anything away from him?

Even though he is the Lord of all creation, he “emptied himself.” He didn’t give up anything that he possessed as God; he simply set it aside. He chose not to exercise it in a big, flashy way once he became human, but in more subdued ways in order to change people’s hearts rather than to coerce them or to intimidate them with raw power. He “put the clamps on it,” as they say where I come from. He emptied himself and took on the form of a servant– he took a human body by being conceived and born of a human mother.

And as if it weren’t condescending enough for God to become man, he humbled himself even further “by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross,” as the ancient hymn says.  He was obedient to the will of his Father for the salvation of us all so far as to suffer death, but not just any death. It was the most degrading and dehumanizing form of execution, “even death on a cross.” Crucifixion was reserved for criminals and insurrectionists. They completely stripped the person and nailed him to the cross in full public view. (The fact that artists always depict him wearing a cloth around his waist is a gesture of Christian modesty.) It was the most extreme form of public humiliation that the Romans could come up with. In addition the agony of dying by crucifixion, the public was allowed to torment the convict. I’m sure most of them were pelted with stones and rotten tomatoes as well as all sorts of verbal assaults. In Psalm 22, which is taken to be a prophecy of the crucifixion of Jesus, it says “All they who see me laugh me to scorn; they curl their lips and wags their heads...” (22.7). And that’s what actually happened.

All this he submitted to willingly out of his “tender love for the human race.” St Gregory of Nyssa said,

What is more humble than the King of all creation entering into communion with our poor nature? The King of kings and Lord of lords clothes himself with the form of our enslavement... the pure and incorrupt one puts on the filthiness of our nature and experiences all our needs, experiences even death itself. (Oratio I in beatitudinibus)

And as the Wisdom of Solomon puts it, the “all-powerful word leaped down from heaven, from the royal throne, into the midst of the land that was doomed” (Wisd 18.15). Which is exactly why he took the leap– the human race was doomed because of our sin. The King of all creation left his heavenly throne and went down to the depths of human disgrace. He didn’t have to; no one forced him. He did it because of his tender love for us.

That is the theological (spiritual) backdrop of what we just read in St Matthew’s gospel, and of what we’re thinking about as we pray and worship our way through Holy Week. The fact that our Lord humbled himself in this way stands in glaring contrast to Adam, whose sinfulness we’ve all inherited. Egged on by the serpent in the Garden of Eden, Adam attempted to exalt himself to equality with God in spite of God’s warning that it would result in death, which it did. “For as in Adam all die,” St Paul says, “so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor 15.22). Christ came to undo Adam’s deed, not counting equality with God as something to hold on to. He did the opposite of Adam in order to save Adam. And we, if we’re going to share his resurrection, need to pay attention to this magnificent outpouring of divine love for us, to respond to it in kind and to imitate it in our own lives.

To quote another hymn, not nearly as old as the one St Paul quotes, or as well known since it was written by a Canadian priest in the 19th century, but which very nicely sums up what the readings have to say to us this day:
We hail thee now, O Jesus, 
In silence hast thou come,
For all the hosts of heaven
with wonderment are dumb–
So great the condescension,
So marvellous the love,
Which, for our sakes, O Saviour,
Have drawn thee from above.

(We hail thee now, O Jesu, Book of Common Praise, 1938: #244)

 
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
a.m.d.g.
Ian C. Wetmore+



The 5th Sunday in Lent, Year A
2 April AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
 
Proper: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45
 
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
         
In the Sunday gospels in Lent this year, we’ve been looking at the theme of baptism, starting three weeks ago, and finishing up today. There’s a lot of stuff in those gospels that can be difficult to understand– mystical stuff, heavenly realities that are not easy to see without the help of 2,000 years of deep, prayerful study by generations of devout people that God has gifted for that purpose.
Last week at Bible study Bishop Tony mentioned what we commonly refer to as the literalist interpretation of Scripture, which is not the same as what the Church has always called the literal interpretation of Scripture. That extra syllable makes a huge difference. The literalist interpretation is the idea that a particular passage can only mean one thing. And that one thing is what that particular literalist happens to believe, and what his followers believe simply because they believe in him. But other literalist groups may believe something very different, because their founder/leader teaches something different. That’s because everybody tends to read the Bible through the lens of their own point of view. And that’s why so many different kinds of churches popped up in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, especially on the American frontier.

The two most prominent examples of literalist interpretation come from both ends of the Bible, Genesis and Revelation. Six-day creationism is based on the assumption that God had to have created the whole universe in six 24-hour days, because a day in our experience and understanding is 24 hours. Therefore, literalists believe that the writer of Genesis could only have had a 24-hour day in mind, because that’s the only way to understand what a day is, right? Nevermind what the psalmist and St Peter both say about one day being like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day from God’s perspective (Ps 90:4, 2Pt 3:8). From there six-day creationists start to disagree in all sorts of ways, because they’re forced to try to figure out where dinosaurs and wooly mammoths fit in since, by their reckoning, the earth can’t be more than 6,000 years old.

Then there’s the millennium, the thousand-year reign of Christ, that St John mentions in Revelation. The various groups who argue over whether certain things are going to happen before, during or after that thousand years call themselves millennialists, pre-millennialists, post-millennialists, a-millennialists. And then they add the word dispensationalism in there to further distinguish themselves from others who don’t believe quite the same thing. It’s all very confusing and, for the most part, badly uninformed. Bp Tony pointed out that the biblical literalists trip over their own understanding of literalism because it creates far more problems than it resolves. Yet they still maintain that there’s only one way to read the Bible, which happens to be their particular way. But still, they’re our brothers and sisters in Christ, and we love them. After all, we Anglicans don’t have everything exactly right either. In fact, we’ve got a few things badly wrong over the centuries. But the good news is that God is merciful if we are penitent.

Well, from the very beginning, the Church has interpreted the Bible using what came to be known as the four-fold sense of Scripture. From the very beginning, the leaders of the early Church weren’t bound to only one meaning or interpretation of a particular passage. They understood that the Bible speaks its message in various ways, and that there are different levels of meaning, different senses of Scripture, different ways of coming at the same passage in order to get everything out of it that God has to say. The Apostles, the very first leaders of the Church, ordained by Jesus himself, are really big on this.

St Peter talks about how God saved Noah’s family and all the animals on the ark when he flooded the earth. Then he says, “Baptism, which corresponds to this,” is what now saves God’s people (1Pt 3:18-22). Peter is using something called typology there. It’s the idea that a something or someone in the Old Testament, like Noah and the flood, is a shadow, a type, that points to the real thing as it’s revealed in Jesus and in the New Testament. In this case it’s baptism. So Noah and the flood, as well as Israel passing through the Red Sea, are both types, prophetic images, of baptism.

St Paul and St John both talk about the heavenly Jerusalem. The earthly Jerusalem is where the temple stood, where God’s people went to worship him on earth. It’s a type of heaven, so it’s called the Holy City. In his letter to the Galatians, St Paul shows how the grace and mercy of God do everything that the law of God can’t do on its own. The law that God gave to Moses on Mt Sinai, Paul says, cannot save anybody. It defines what sin is, and it demands that we avoid sin by slavishly obeying the law. But what Jesus did on Mt Zion, the place in Jerusalem where God’s people offered sacrifice in the temple, and where the adjacent hilltop is where Jesus died on the cross, what he did there was to free us from slavery to both sin and the law by pouring out God’s mercy and grace from the cross. And whoever is joined to him in his death on the cross, which happens for each of us through baptism, is also raised up with him to live his risen life. We’re free from that old bondage to the law, from trying to do everything we can to satisfy its impossible demands. Because on the cross Jesus has done for us what we can’t do for ourselves (Gal 4:26–5:1).

The illustration St Paul uses to describe all that is the two sons of Abraham and their different mothers, from Genesis. Ishmael was the son Abraham had with Hagar the slave at a time when he doubted God’s faithfulness and his promise to do what Abraham thought impossible. Isaac was the son he later had with his wife Sarah, the son through whom God promised to make a great nation and to bless the world, which he ultimately did through Jesus, their greatest descendant. Paul uses another of the four interpretive methods here. “This may be interpreted allegorically,” he says, meaning that one thing represents, stands for, something else. “These women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar” (Gal 4:24). Hagar the slave stands for the law. But Sarah, Abraham’s wife who gave birth to the son God promised, she stands for Jerusalem, the location of the temple, but more important, the place where Jesus died and rose again, the place where we are set free from sin. “The letter [of the law] kills,” Paul says, “but the Spirit gives life” (2Cor 3:6). And what the Spirit ultimately gives us is citizenship in the heavenly Jerusalem, the city which, Paul says, “is free, and is the mother of us all” (Gal 4:26). The heavenly Jerusalem is really the whole Church of Jesus Christ gathered together at last around God’s heavenly throne.

Alright then. I’ve given you a lengthy explanation of two ways the Church has always interpreted Scripture, allegory and type/typology. And I’m going to come back to one of them after I tell you about the other two, which are a lot simpler. Those are the moral and the literal interpretation. Morality has to do with how we live our lives. And the moral interpretation of Scripture has to do with how we live in light of the Gospel. An old friend, Bp Harold Nutter, used to base his Easter sermons on one simple statement: “Christ is risen from the dead, so what are you going to to about it?” i.e. how does the fact that Jesus died for your sins and rose again change the way you live your life? What’s the moral of the Easter story? How will you respond to what Jesus has done for you? The moral interpretation of Scripture brings to light what implications the Word of the Lord has for living the Christian life.

The last of the four senses of Scripture, methods of interpretation, is actually the primary one, the literal sense. Remember how I said earlier that literal and literalist mean two very different things. Literalist interpretation is all about what I, and maybe my little group, think the Bible means, without any help from anybody else. Literal interpretation, as the Church has always understood it, has to do with what a passage says about past events, with what the great Anglican theologian Richard Hooker called “the plain meaning of Scripture.” That’s pretty straightforward, right?

OK. Now let’s take a look at today’s gospel. It’s very long. And the basic story, the literal sense is very straightforward, so we really don’t need to dig into it too much. Jesus’ good friend Lazarus is ill. Jesus’ first reaction is to say, “This illness isn’t going to lead to death. It’s for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” From that we know that he’s planning something really big. But he waits two more days before going to see Lazarus, by which time he knows that Lazarus has already died. Everybody’s puzzled by his inaction.

When he finally arrives in Bethany, Martha says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died,” and that leads to a little chat about resurrection. And as Jesus is heading toward the grave, he says that line that we always repeat as we enter the church for a funeral: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” Then Mary, the other sister, comes out and says what Martha said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”

Then comes the shortest verse in the Bible, “Jesus wept.” Nobody can say for sure whether he cried more over the death of his friend, or over the fact that because of sin everything and everybody in the world has to decay and die, which is the reason he came into the world in the first place, to die the death that sin requires. It’s probably both. Anyway, he orders that the grave be opened. Martha protested, “Lord, he’s been dead four days; it’s going to smell pretty bad!” Jesus said, “What did I tell you about believing and seeing the glory of God?” So they moved the stone, Jesus prayed, and then called Lazarus back to life, and out he came.

That’s the literal sense, the true story as St John records it. But what’s of special interest to us, aside from the actual fact of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, is what it points to. Remember how I said that Noah’s Ark and the Israelites passing through the Red Sea are types of baptism, prophetic images that point toward Christian baptism? Well, so is this.

Jesus wept over Lazarus’ grave because the friend that he loved had died, and because everyone else he loves– every human from the creation of the world to the second coming– has got to die. And sin is the cause of it. But through the death and resurrection of Jesus himself, “whoever believes in [him], though they die, yet shall they live, and everyone who lives and believes in him shall never die.” That’s what Jesus demonstrated by raising Lazarus from the dead: that faith in him is the key to new life; and that dying with him in baptism, and being raised up out of the water is where that new life begins. Baptism is very much a Good Friday and Easter moment for everyone who believes in Jesus, because that’s where we become part of the redemption of the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus. It’s where he takes us into his death and raises us up to live in him.

Lazarus died again– he had to because the time for the general resurrection of all the faithful departed hasn’t come yet. Jesus was using him more or less as an object lesson, a type, to illustrate the bigger thing that was soon going to happen to himself on Good Friday and Easter, and that he’s going to make happen to all of us in the fullness of time. The vision that God gave to Ezekiel of breathing new life into the dry bones in today’s first lesson points to the exact same thing that the raising of Lazarus does. And the way to get there is what St Paul is explaining in the second lesson today: set your mind on the Spirit, the things of God, and not on the flesh, the things that are decaying and passing away. Even though our bodies are dying because of sin, Paul says, the Spirit fills us with the life of God. The Spirit who makes his dwelling in us at baptism gives life in the midst of death. In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
a.m.d.g.
Ian C. Wetmore+



The 4th Sunday in Lent, Year A
26 March AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
 
Proper: 1Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 1:9-41
 
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
         

If you’re a liturgy geek like I am, you’ll know that this is year A in the lectionary. The lectionary is the schedule of Bible readings that we follow through a three-year cycle, years A, B, and C, so that we read through nearly all the gospels, and huge chunks of the rest of the Bible. But just because we read through most of the Bible in church on Sundays, that doesn’t let any Christian off the hook of needing to read and study it themselves in some helpful way. We’re all disciples of Jesus, all students of the Master. And students need to pay attention to what the Master teaches, and what he does, in order to be well formed in his image. When we talk about formation in the Church, that’s what we mean– being formed in the image and likeness of Jesus, becoming Christlike, we say, an ever-growing resemblance to him in all our thoughts, words and actions. It’s a really big part of ordained ministry, the formation of deacons and priests in the image of Christ. So reading, studying and meditating on the Word of the Lord is the most important field of study for anybody seeking ordination, as well as for everybody who’s already ordained.

Anyway, in the gospels that we read during Lent in year A there is a clear progression on the theme of baptism. On the first Sunday in Lent every year we read about the first confrontation between Jesus and the devil, how the devil tempted Jesus in an effort to scuttle his mission before it had really begun. This happened right after Jesus himself was baptized and was driven by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to fast and pray. In Holy Week, beginning on Palm Sunday, we read about the suffering and death of Jesus, which is the culmination of his mission in the world, the completion of his saving work. “It is finished,” he said on the cross just before he died, meaning that his work of reconciling us to God is done. Then comes Easter, which is the vindication of everything he taught and did, as well as of his suffering and atoning death on the cross. And it’s in rising from the dead that he opens the way for all of us to enter into the new life in him.

And of course, our entry into that life happens when we are baptized. All of that is why, in the ancient Church, the season of Lent was the final and most intensive stage of preparation for candidates seeking to be baptized. They were evangelized intensively, i.e. they were taught from the Gospel, from the passages that we’re reading this year in Lent, and others, about the all-embracing need that every person has to be reconciled to God, and how we enter into that reconciliation through the sacrament of baptism. They didn’t know everything by the end of it, by the time they came to the water at the Easter Vigil. But what they did know  by then with great certainty and deep faith, was that the greatest need in their lives was for Jesus. Now it’s never correct to say, as some do, that we need Jesus in our lives or that we accept him as Savior and Lord. It’s really the other way round– we need him to take us into his life, which is how St Paul talks about baptism. And we also need him to fill us with his life, which is what happens every time we receive Holy Communion. We don’t do anything. We don’t have it in us to do anything. He does it all.

During Easter week, after having been baptized, those early Christians were led through another stage of formation in which they were taught about how baptism changes them, and how Holy Communion nourishes them. Those are some of the heavenly realities that we can’t see with our eyes. That week of instruction was given the fancy Greek name Mystagogical Catechesis. (Don’t worry, you don’t need to remember that for the test.) Catechesis is teaching, formation, as in learning the catechism. Mystagogy has to do with the heavenly realities that earthbound thinking can’t comprehend. Think, for example, about trying to explain to a non-believer what Jesus meant when he said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (Jn 6:51). That passage is the basis of today’s collect. People who belong to a church that puts the Holy Eucharist at the center of worship every week have a pretty solid understanding that that’s what Jesus is talking about. Then a couple of verses on in that same passage Jesus says, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (Jn 6:53). Every time we come to the rail we hear, “The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven... The Blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.” And we say Amen to that each time, meaning we believe that’s exactly what it is. But do you think you could explain all that to a newby? On some level, maybe. Do you think you understand it perfectly yourself? Talking about the Holy Eucharist and eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Christ is not the place to start evangelizing the unbaptized. They’ll most likely shake their heads and walk away. When Jesus explained it a little bit to his followers that day, some of them said, “This teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?” (Jn 6:60). And afterward, St John says, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (Jn 6:66). It’s kind of like diving into advanced calculus or trigonometry before you’ve had basic math. That’s mystagogy. And new converts aren’t ready for it.

So where do the Sunday gospels we’re reading this Lent fit into all this? Well first, as we read two weeks ago, Jesus said to Nicodemus that “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:5). Jesus threw poor old Nicodemus for a loop. Nicodemus said, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” That’s the kind of earthbound thinking I was talking about. And Jesus called him out on it: “You’re a teacher of Israel, and yet you don’t understand this stuff?” he said. The history of Israel is full of instances when God used water to save or to cleanse his people, beginning with Noah and the flood, right up to John, who baptized Jesus in the river Jordan. And all of those instances were part of God’s plan of preparing the world for the kind of baptism Jesus was talking about with Nicodemus, the kind he requires all his followers to undergo, the kind that mystically washes away sin and raises us up to the new life in Jesus. And we hear about that washing and raising up again and again in these Lenten gospel readings.

Last week, we read that long passage about Jesus encountering the Samaritan woman at the well. He acknowledged that it was a holy well, because it had been used by their ancestor Jacob. But, he said, that water could do little more than revive a person on a hot day, whereas the water he gives will well up to eternal life. He’s talking there about the water that was to spring out of his wounded side on the cross after the soldier drove a spear up into his heart. That’s the water we’re all baptized in. That’s what it becomes for the Church when she prays over the font at a baptism, “Now sanctify this water, we pray you, by the power of your Holy Spirit, that those who here are cleansed and born again may continue for ever in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Saviour” (BCP 307).

Today we read about the man who was blind from birth. St Augustine says that’s a really important point. There are forms of blindness that can clear up over time, he says, and even in his day (5th century) he says there were ways of removing cataracts. But in the case of blindness from birth, there was no hope of ever being able to see. That’s the guy Jesus singled out so “that the works of God might be displayed in him.” First he spits in the dirt and makes mud, and rubs it over the blind man’s eyes. Note that the spit, the moisture came from Jesus himself– water. Then he sends him off to the pool of Siloam. That’s where they drew the water for the rites of purification during the feast of Tabernacles. That feast commemorates the forty years when God’s people were in the wilderness living in tents, and where God miraculously provided fresh water to keep them all alive and clean. The point of the way Jesus healed that man’s blindness, Augustine says, is to remind us that he who anointed the man’s eyes with mud is the same One who made us from the dust of the earth and breathed life into us in the first place, “and that this dust of the earth that is our flesh can receive the light of eternal life through the sacrament of baptism” (Letter 80:1-5). Just as Jesus sent the blind man to the pool of Siloam, he now sends everyone into the Church to be washed and to receive spiritual sight.

The theme of new life in Christ continues in next week’s gospel which– spoiler alert!– is just as long as today’s and last Sunday’s, and Palm Sunday’s, and Good Friday’s– they’re all long from here on out until we get to Easter. But next week’s gospel doesn’t involve water, although it is connected to the new life that comes with baptism. And it’s a further step in the progression I talked about that these Sunday gospels map out toward the death of Jesus. And that’s all I’m going to say about that today. So come back next week, same time, same channel. In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
a.m.d.g.
Ian C. Wetmore+

The 2nd Sunday in Lent, Year A
16 March AD 2014
St Michael’s Church, O’Fallon, IL

Proper: Genesis 12.1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4.1-5, 13-17; John 3.1-17
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
         
St John Chrysostom, my favorite preacher as most of you know by now, says this about today’s gospel:
The only-begotten Son of God has deemed us worthy of great mysteries– great ones, ones we do not deserve... not only are we unworthy of the gift, but even deserving of punishment and torture. (Hom 26 on John)
That sounds kind of disturbing, doesn’t it? That because of our sinfulness we deserve not only to be punished, but even tortured! The point Chrysostom is trying to drive home is that that’s how serious our sinful condition really is. However, our God is not like that. As Jesus says in today’s gospel, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Every celebration of the Holy Eucharist is a celebration of the gift of eternal life. And every year in Lent we spend time thinking about what Jesus overcame on our behalf, and the extreme he went to in order give us life. He has “deemed us worthy of great mysteries,” which is what we see Jesus beginning to unfold for Nicodemus in this gospel.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee, one of the religious leaders– not the kind Jesus was so highly critical of, the ones who were more concerned with protecting their position and commanding respect than with serving the people. He was also a member of the Sanhedrin, which was the governing religious body of Israel. He was an intellectual and a biblical scholar, and therefore well schooled in the law and the worship of God’s people. And unlike some of his colleagues who engaged Jesus publicly in efforts to make him look bad, we know by the way Nicodemus engaged Jesus personally that he was genuinely open to seeking the truth of God, and following wherever that search might have led. So he was open to the possibility that Jesus may actually be the Christ, God’s Anointed One. But because there was such hostility among his colleagues toward Jesus, Nicodemus went to speak with him under cover of night.
The first thing he says to Jesus is, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” He acknowledges Jesus as a rabbi, a teacher of Israel, and not just to butter him up like so many of his colleagues did. And he recognizes that the things Jesus has done and said are godly, so he’s not a crackpot or one of a number of false messiahs that had been trying to get attention in those days. Nicodemus’s education and his powers of reason have allowed him to see all this. But there is something about Jesus and his ministry that Nicodemus is not able to see clearly– the kingdom of God, which Jesus has come to establish on earth.
Suddenly the conversation seems to take a strange turn. All Nicodemus has said up to this point is to tell Jesus what he knows about him. And Jesus replies with this seemingly disconnected statement about not being able to see the kingdom of God without first being born again. Nicodemus is thrown off by this, but not totally confused. Even though he hadn’t yet posed his question, Jesus knew what he wanted to ask, because Jesus is God, “unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid” (BCP 323, 355). Then Nicodemus says, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he go back into his mother’s womb and be born a second time?” Jesus is challenging Nidodemus’s earthbound thinking. He’s presenting a heavenly mystery that only the gift of the Holy Spirit can help us to see, that in fact, no one was able to comprehend until the Father and the Son sent the Spirit into the Church on the day of Pentecost. Jesus is beginning to open Nicodemus’s eyes to spiritual things that he had never before considered. And he’s using everyday terminology– birth– to lead Nicodemus to a higher understanding– rebirth or, to use the Church’s technical term, regeneration.
There are two kinds of birth– earthly and heavenly. By being conceived by our parents and born as babies we begin life in the kingdoms of this world. That’s generation. But by being conceived a second time by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Church and born again through the water of baptism we begin life in the kingdom of God. That’s regeneration. This is not a metaphor, as a lot of people down through the ages have mistakenly believed; it’s an actual second birth. Jesus says so very plainly right here. What he’s teaching Nicodemus about is something called the Sacramental Principle.
Those of us who have been through confirmation class know that a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, to use the classic Anglican definition. It’s a visible, tangible thing that God uses to bring about something we can’t see or touch, something heavenly, something invisible but, as C.S. Lewis would say, far more real than the things we can see and touch. The Sacramental Principle is that God uses visible, tangible things to do something that can’t be seen with our eyes or measured with any sort of instruments or gauges. Giving new life in Baptism and nourishing that life in Holy Communion are the two primary ways he does that.
The new Episcopal Bishop of Dallas says, “The world thinks spirituality is all long silences and distant thoughts” (Dr George Sumner, “Up from Pavement and Puddles” in The Living Church, 3/23/2014), by which he means that in the popular mindset, anything to do with religion has nothing to do with concrete reality. But that’s now how it is. And that’s precisely what Jesus is trying to show Nicodemus. God created everything that exists out of absolutely nothing. He spoke and the whole spiritual realm came into existence– “angels and archangels, and all the company of heaven.” He spoke again, and the physical universe and everything in it came into existence. God speaks, and things that never existed before, suddenly do. Then he spoke to Mary, and the Word that he spoke to create everything, the creative Word himself was conceived in her womb as a human. And when that Word in human flesh speaks, the things he created out of nothing, and which had become corrupted through human sin, are suddenly rehabilitated, restored, and in the case of the sinful humans, born again, born anew, washed clean of sin and raised up to a higher level of existence– regenerated.
We don’t go back and get born from our human mothers all over again, which is what Nicodemus was asking, because he was the first person ever to hear what Jesus was telling him. No, in the sacrament of Holy Baptism we are leaving behind the old life entrapped in sin– we die to it when we go down into the water. And we come up out of the water filled with the new life of the kingdom of God. This can only happen, Jesus says, when we are born again by water and the Holy Spirit.
St John Chrysostom said, “As the womb is to the embryo, so the water is to the believer, since he is formed and shaped in the water” (ibid). The womb is that watery place inside the mother where the newly-conceived human life is grows and develops to the point that it’s ready to be born. And it’s in the sacramental water of baptism where the Holy Spirit recreates us for the new life in God’s kingdom. God uses the things he created– visible, tangible things– to do new things in order to redeem his creation. Whoever believes his Word will gladly accept these means of redemption, both for themselves and for their children. And they will obediently participate in them, because of the promise that through them our sins will be forgiven and we will be filled with Christ’s divine life. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ,” St Paul says, “he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2Cor 5:17).
I’m not just talking about baptism now. That’s all Jesus was talking about to Nicodemus, because that was the very first discussion about the sacramental life that Jesus had with anybody. And that discussion, like the sacramental life itself, has to start with baptism. Some time later on, Jesus expanded the discussion to include the Holy Eucharist, most notably in John 6. Then on the night before he went to the cross, he took bread, blessed and broke it, gave it to his disciples and said, “Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you.” Then he passed around the cup and said, “Drink this, all of you, for this is my blood of the new covenant, shed for you, and for many, for the forgiveness of sins.” By speaking his life into the bread and wine, the life he was about to sacrifice on the cross, they become his Body and Blood. And he commanded his Church to speak those same words over the bread and wine by which he nourishes his Church until the end of time.
God the Father speaks, and things begin to exist. The Word that he speaks opens his own mouth and water is turned into wine at a wedding feast, demonstrating that he has that kind of power over creation. He speaks again and water becomes the means of regeneration into the new life of his kingdom, bread and wine become his Body and Blood which are the food for that new life. He speaks and sins are forgiven, the sick are healed, the dead are raised. He breathes on his Apostles, investing them with the divine authority to forgive sins and to confer the gifts of the Holy Spirit on his disciples, and ordaining them to carry on his ministry of reconciliation to the ends of the earth. His Church speaks his word over a man and a woman and the two of them become one flesh, inseparable for life. Those are the seven sacraments of the Church, the seven principal ways in which God uses visible, tangible things to fill his people with his heavenly grace.
He uses ordinary things for extraordinary purposes. He uses the ordinary stuff of earth to bring his earthbound creatures into the life of heaven. When people are brought to new birth by water and the Holy Spirit and nurtured in the faith, they are given the kind of sight that allows them to see these heavenly realities. That’s why in the early Church, the unbaptized were ushered out of the assembly at the offertory. They weren’t allowed to witness the consecration of the bread and wine because they weren’t allowed to see things their earthbound understanding couldn’t comprehend.
So Christian spirituality is not “all long silences and distant thoughts.” It is the life of heaven brought to earth by the Lord of all things, who came to earth himself in human flesh, and who uses the things he created to redeem his creation. His mission in the world is to restore and rehabilitate whatever human sin has tainted and corrupted, and to bring sinful humans to rebirth and new life in his kingdom. After he rose from the dead he ordained his Apostles, and after he ascended into heaven, he empowered his Church to carry on that same work in the world. Christian spirituality is heavenly and mystical for sure; but it’s also concrete and tangible because it involves the redemption of the world and everything and everyone in it. It’s very hands-on. And because the devil is busy trying to prevent the redemption of the world, it has often been met with violence, bloodshed, and no end of confusion and misunderstanding.
God does not promise to raise up souls without bodies to inhabit his kingdom for all eternity. He promises to raise up bodies long dead, but in a glorified, transfigured form as he reunites them with their original souls. And he promises to restore the earth to its original, pristine condition. Water, bread and wine, oil for anointing,  the laying on of hands, binding couples together, smudging foreheads with ashes, laying the dead in the ground with great reverence and love, all have an important part to play in the Church’s ministry of proclaiming the Good News of Jesus, and of reconciling the world through him to God the Father.
But at the same time the Church is proclaiming the Good News and sharing Christ’s love in the world, her members have to be constantly working at reconciliation among themselves, and between ourselves and God. This is something we have to be doing this all the time in an ongoing process of repentance and renewal. The Church gives us the season of Lent just to sharpen the focus on that ongoing need, and to remind us that it’s a year-round, day-in day-out thing we need to stay on top of. Because the regular spiritual disciplines after while can become perfunctory, almost mechanical, we’re given this precious time in the shadow of the cross leading up to Good Friday to wiggle ourselves out of that rut. Then in the brilliance of Easter we can re-engage ourselves in the work of reconciliation, both within the Church and out in the world. Since it’s the most important work on earth, we all need to keep ourselves in top spiritual condition in order to do it.
So we should all pray with St John Chrysostom who said, “May all of us attain to this by the grace and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, with whom glory be to the Father, together with the Holy Spirit, now and always, and forever and ever. Amen.
a.m.d.g.
Ian C. Wetmore+


The 1st Sunday in Lent, Year A
5 March AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
 
Proper: Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
 
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
         

I wonder how many of you understood everything we just read in that second lesson from Romans? Notice that I’m not putting my hand up! And I’d be really surprised to see any other hands go up. Well, that’s precisely the reason our Monday Bible study this Lent is on the letter to the Romans (it’s not too late to jump in!). What we read today is a really dense passage, one of many really dense passages in Romans. St Paul tends to get quite wordy, so that nobody can read it through once, or even twice, and claim to have a perfect understanding of it all. And those of you who are participating in the Monday Bible study know that Fr Tony won’t be able to go too deep in very many passages like the one we read today. But he is going to lay out some key principles that will help us to go deeper, and hopefully to get a better grasp of it.

And also, hopefully, it will help us all to understand that as disciples, followers of Jesus, we can’t expect to simply read a piece of Scripture once every three years in church on Sunday, and then move on to something else. Everybody knows from school days that you’ve got to study in order for stuff to sink in, as well as to pass the next test. But even though God doesn’t give exams, the Word of the Lord is by far the most important study that his children have to engage in. That’s because it’s all about the new life that he has brought us into through baptism. And because we’re living that new life, our faith does get seriously tested from time to time, not by God, but by the temptations that confront us, or that are presented to us by the one who really wants us to fail.

Now here’s the thing about that. There are some Christian groups whose understanding of salvation is summarized by the expression, “once saved, always saved.” I know some of you have heard that before. But may you’re not too sure what it means. It’s the simplistic notion– not biblical, but still popular– that once you have given your life to Christ, once you pray the “Sinner’s Prayer” (also not biblical), and made a public profession of your faith, you are saved finally and irreversibly. You’re now on the express train to heaven, and nothing you do, or that is done to you, can throw you off track. There’s also the equally faulty notion held by lots of catholic-minded Christians, including some Anglicans/ Episcopalians, that baptism magically puts some kind of heavenly force field around us so that we get put on that same express train to heaven as well, and that there’s no way that train can be derailed. But that’s just not how it is.

A old friend of mine, while he was a student at a certain kind of fundamentalist college in Winnipeg, went out in search of a Sunday church service once, and came across an Anglican church where choral evensong was about to begin. So he went in. He’d never seen anything like it before. He was captivated by it– chanting the psalms and canticles like the Jews have always done in the synagogues, singing ancient hymns (= pre-1965), reading long passages of Scripture, and a sermon that touched his heart primarily by challenging his mind and not stirring up his emotions. The whole service is full of Scripture. If it’s not being read from the lectern, it’s being sung in psalms and canticles, or being prayed in all the collects and prayers.

And that service always begins with a lengthy, and thoroughly biblical, exhortation to repentance:

Dearly beloved brethren, the Scripture moveth us in sundry places to acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness; and that we should not dissemble nor cloke them before the face of Almighty God our heavenly Father; but confess them with an humble, lowly, penitent, and obedient heart; to the end that we may obtain forgiveness of the same, by his infinite goodness and mercy.

The priest says a bit more, and then the people all kneel and pray together saying,

Almighty and most merciful Father, We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, We have offended against thy holy laws, We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us.

Pretty strong language to describe our sinful condition. But then, that’s how serious the problem of sin really is. Then we make our appeal to God, in the Name of Jesus, for mercy and forgiveness, after which the priest stands up and pronounces the absolution, declaring that God “pardoneth and absolveth all them that truly repent and unfeignedly believe his holy Gospel”– unfeignedly, sincerely believe the Gospel. That’s the spirituality that Anglicans have been nurtured in for centuries. And although we still have a little bit of that in our present Book of Common Prayer, quite a bit of the penitential language was cut out in 1979. Fr Tony Clavier, our Bible study teacher, likes to joke that General Convention decided back then that Episcopalians are all spiritually healthy now, so there’s no longer any point in telling God that “there is no health in us.”

Anyway, my old friend kept going back to that Anglican church in Winnipeg, and even took some of his classmates with him, who were also blown away by the worship there. After while they decided to approach their college principal to ask whether they could use the Book of Common Prayer on occasion in their chapel. He took a copy of it to study and pray over, and eventually called the students back in and said no. His reasoning was that their denomination believed in the doctrine of “once saved, always saved,” which meant that every born again believer  is completely holy and therefore no longer capable of being corrupted by sin which, if you read Romans carefully, is so not biblical. So for them to use the Book of Common Prayer would be wrong, the principal said, because they would be confessing sins they’re not guilty of. My friend became an Anglican shortly after that, and is now a priest in my former diocese, and a theologian.

So where am I going with all this? Way back beyond fundamentalism and the Book of Common Prayer to a fourth-century bishop named Gregory Nazianzen. His best friends were two other bishops named Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa. Basil, Gregory and Gregory were the Larry, Darryl and Darryl of the early Church. Actually they were all brilliantly gifted theologians and pastors. What St Gregory says about baptism applies equally to the wonky notion of once saved, always saved. “We must not expect baptism to free us from the temptations of our persecutor,” he says. The human body that Jesus took on when he became man made even him, the Son and Word of God, a target for the enemy. Jesus is the Light of the world that cannot be overcome by the powers of darkness. But because of what he came into the world to do, which is to draw all people to himself, to free us from sin and reconcile us to the Father, he became the devil’s primary target.

That’s why this confrontation in the desert that we read about in today’s gospel had to happen at the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry. The devil came up with a set of temptations tailor made  for Jesus. They wouldn’t work on anybody else, because nobody else possesses the power that Jesus does, which the devil was tempting him to misuse. And to make the temptations even more attractive he attempted to sow doubt in Jesus’ mind– “If you are the Son of God,” he said. “Are you sure that’s really who you are? You should try these things just to prove it to yourself. Turn these stones to bread to satisfy your hunger... Jump off the temple and see whether God will send his angels to catch you... Use your divine power, if you really have any, to conquer the kingdoms of the world.” If he could have got Jesus to cave in, it would have scuttled the whole plan of salvation that God had laid before the foundation of the world.

Those temptations won’t work on anybody else, because none of us can turn stones to bread or conquer the world. And not too many of us are foolish enough to put God to the test by jumping off tall building to see if he’ll catch us. He probably wouldn’t. But there are countless ways that we all can be tempted to sin, or that our faith can be tested. Most of us have weaknesses various things. And the devil’s goal is to use those weaknesses to sow doubt in our minds. “If you are the Son of God,” he said to Jesus. “If God really loves you,” he says to us, “do this or that and see if he comes to your rescue,” or “try to do something he says you shouldn’t, and see if he prevents you from doing it.” That’s not how God works, even though a lot of people think that’s how God works.

St Gregory Nazianzen says that we have at our disposal “the means of overcoming temptation, so we should not be afraid of the struggle. “Flaunt in [the devil’s] face the water and the Spirit,” he says. In other words, use the gifts God gave us in baptism, primarily the gift of faith in him, nurtured as it needs to be by Word and Sacraments. And that’s why it’s so important to struggle with the Word of the Lord. Listening to a particular passage in church once every three years, as I said, isn’t nearly enough. And devoutly receiving the Body and Blood of Christ every Sunday without going deep in the Word to try to understand what that means and what it accomplishes for us, and in us, isn’t nearly enough. Disciples, which is what we became at baptism, are followers, students, apprentices of the master. It’s a lifelong apprenticeship. And the more seriously we take it, the better equipped we will be to fend off the temptations that confront us every day of life.

And when we are confronted by temptation, Gregory says, we should face the tempter squarely and say,

“I too am made in the image of God, but unlike you, I have not yet become an outcast from heaven through my pride. I have put on Christ; by my baptism I have become one with him. It is you that should fall on your face before me.” At these words he can only surrender and retire in shame. As he retreated before Christ, the Light of the world, so will he depart from those illumined by that Light. Such [Gregory concludes] are the gifts conferred by baptism on those who understand its power; such is the rich banquet is lays before those who hunger for the things of the Spirit. (Homily 40.10)

In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
a.m.d.g.
Ian C. Wetmore+


Ash Wednesday
1 March AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
 
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Ps 103:8-14; 2 Corinthians 5:20b–6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
 
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
         
King Saul and King David are an interesting pair to compare and contrast. Saul was the first king of Israel. God anointed him because the people they wanted to be like everybody else. They had been ruled by judges but, wanting to keep up with the Joneses, they insisted on having a king. So God gave them what they wanted. The description of Saul in 1 Samuel says, “There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than [Saul]. From his shoulders upward he was taller than any of the people” (1Sam 9:3). What that implies is that God gave his worldly-minded people a man who fit their worldly image of what a king ought to be. But Saul didn’t turn out to be a very godly king. He tolerated worship as long as it didn’t inconvenience him. And later on when David began turned out to be a greater hero than himself, Saul started coming up with ways to try to kill him.

David proved to be a greater king than Saul, but he was every bit as much a sinner as Saul was. His most egregious sin was having his general Uriah killed in battle so that David could have Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife, for himself. When God sent Nathan the prophet to confront David, he was cut to the heart at the deep realization of the evil that he had committed. With a broken heart, he confessed his sin, and he wrote down his prayer of confession, which we have as Psalm 51. And that psalm has been part of the Church’s Ash Wednesday penitential rite for as long as anyone knows, which we’ll pray in a few minutes. It’s well worth reading over again, and meditating on, in your own time, and maybe even make it a part of your daily Lenten devotions. And if you really want to capture the penitential mood, look up the musical setting of it by Gregorio Allegri on YouTube. It’s sung in Latin, but reading it slowly with the music in the background really gives a good sense of the penitential mood that we ought to have at the realization of how our sin alienates us from God.

David and Saul were very similar in a lot of ways. But there was one huge difference. David knew enough to repent, and Saul didn’t. David loved the Lord. The prophet Samuel even described David as “a man after [God’s] own heart” (1Sam 13:14). Even though he had a habit of doing some pretty bad things, whenever he repented and returned to the Lord, God forgave him. That’s what makes him such a good role model for us to follow– not the sinning part, but his deeply ingrained habit of repentance.

Now one other thing– I want to read a paragraph from my second-favorite preacher, Fr Austin Farrer, who says this:

If there are any of you determined to live a more Christian life, there is one resolution you need to make which is, out of all proportion, more important than the rest. Resolve to pray, to receive the sacrament, to shun besetting sins, to do good works– all excellent resolutions; but more important than any of these is the resolution to repent. The more resolutions you make, the more you will break. But it does not matter how many you break, so long as you are resolute not to put off repentance when you break them, but to give yourself up to the mercy which will not despise a broken and a contrite heart. Converted or unconverted, it remains true of you that in you, that is, in your natural being, there dwells no good thing. Saints are not men who store goodness in themselves, they are just men who do not delay to repent, and whose repentances are honourable. (The Brink of Mystery, p. 17).

That’s the single most important habit we need to cultivate in our lives, and we can only do it with God’s help. And Lent is the perfect time to start working on it. In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
a.m.d.g.
Ian C. Wetmore+


The Last Sunday after Epiphany, Year A
February AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
 
Proper: Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9
 
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
         
In late January we started reading our way through the Sermon on the Mount which, as I’ve said before, is the very first sermon Jesus preached, as far as we know, and is the longest single discourse of his that’s recorded in the gospels. It covers chapters 5 through 7 in St Matthew’s gospel which, as I’ve also said, even though it doesn’t take long to read in one sitting, the Church spreads it over several Sundays so that we can look at small chunks of it in more detail. Unfortunately, we only made it through chapter 5 by last Sunday and, except for a little bit of chapter 6 that we’re going to read on Ash Wednesday, that’s all we’re going to get from that sermon this year. And that disappoints me, because the Sermon on the Mount is so important to the Church, because it lays out a lot of the basics of what it means to be a disciple, a follower of Jesus. You might say that it’s the basic service manual for all Christians. So it’s a very good thing to do an in-depth Bible study on, especially since we don’t read the whole sermon in church. And maybe we’ll do that three years from now, when we read Matthew again.

The reason we spend several of the Sundays after Epiphany reading from the Sermon on the Mount is because the sermon itself is an epiphany. It’s a manifestation, a showing forth of who Jesus really is. Going back to January 6th, the feast of the Epiphany is when we celebrate the visit of the Wise Men to the infant Jesus. They were the very first Gentiles, non-Jewish people, to come to Jesus. As old Simeon declared when baby Jesus was presented in the temple, he is “a light for revelation to the Gentiles,” as well as the crowning glory of God’s chosen people (Lk 2:32). And the gifts the Wise Men gave him prophesied that that’s who Jesus is. He was born the rightful King of the Jews, but his overarching purpose is to conquer the whole world by the power of divine love. And when all is said and done, St Paul says, “at the name of Jesus every knee [will] bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue [will] confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil 2:10-11).

So in this season between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, the Sunday gospels we read present various ways that Jesus is revealed as God. At his baptism, for example, at the very beginning of his earthly ministry, the voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3:17). And as we read today, the three disciples heard the exact same thing again on the mount of Transfiguration, near the end of his earthly ministry. This really is the Son of God, “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God” (Nicene Creed). “Listen to him,” the voice says. Listen to everything he has to say, because it is the word of God coming directly out of the mouth of God. Jesus the Word of God in human flesh is everything God has to say.

In a very understated way, at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew says that the crowds were astonished by Jesus, “for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Mt 7:29). What he means by that is that the scribes, the biblical scholars of the day, would teach the people, saying, “Rabbi So-and-so says this is what a particular passage of Scripture means, whereas Rabbi What’s-his-name says it means something slightly different. But I think it could mean something else.” They could only repeat what they had read, or else put forward their own opinions. Sometime later all those opinions and interpretations were compiled into a book called the Mishnah. But several times in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus begins to teach on a particular point by saying, “You have heard that it was said...” referring to the teaching of the scribes, all the interpretations and opinions, clouded as they sometimes are by faulty human presuppositions and agendas. And then he says, “But I say to you...” this is how it really is, straight from the mouth of God in the flesh. “This is my Son,” God the Father says, “Listen to him.”

Well, that’s where we’re at in today’s gospel. In every one of those “You have heard that it was said... But I say to you” teachings, Jesus is correcting some misinterpretation or misapplication of the word of God. And only he has the ultimate authority to do that, because he is that Word. So, “listen to him,” the Father says.

Now I want you all to pay attention, because this is where all sorts of Christians get hung up. Depending on our particular brand/expression of Christianity, we get hung up on different things in the Bible. We tend to read certain things and say, “How can that be?” or “Oh, I don’t think I believe that.” And instead of going seriously deep in studying the Word of God in order to understand the things of God, we’ll interpret it in light of what we’ve heard from Oprah, or Joel Osteen, or in a way that conforms it to the platform of our favorite political party, or any of the countless other ideas and opinions that bombard our ears and minds every day. And that’s a seriously flawed way of interpreting the written Word of God.

The simple fact is, as I said, that Jesus is the Word God speaks. Moses, Elijah and the rest of the prophets and writers of the Old Testament were inspired by God to put his Word on paper as it was for the benefit of his people. And there is nothing in or about Jesus that overrules or contradicts anything God spoke through Moses and the prophets. As Jesus himself said, a divided kingdom or house cannot stand (Mt 12:25; Mk 3:24-25). Eventually it’s going to collapse. But, say both Isaiah the prophet and Peter the Apostle, “the word of the Lord will stand forever” (Verbum Domini manet- Isa 40:8; 1Pt 1:25).

So we ought not to shy away from difficult or challenging things we read in the Bible, or try to spin them in a way that seems to affirm what we believe, or want to believe. That’s not really an option that’s available to us. Instead, if we truly believe that Jesus is Lord, we need to engage his written word, wrestle with it, pray over it, look at all the stuff that his faithful disciples have discovered in it, and said about it, over thousands of years, see how it all fits together, or how it all comes undone if the least bit of it is altered. Because interpretation of Scripture is not something an individual is capable of doing alone, as St Peter cautions in today’s second lesson, since it’s all inspired by God as his revelation to the whole Church (2Pt 1:20). It can’t mean one thing for you and something entirely different for me. So our job, as disciples of Jesus and stewards of the Word of God, is to seek to interpret it faithfully, and to apply it mercifully, not abusively. The Bible is not a weapon to assault people with, but a love letter which God uses to draw all people to himself. It doesn’t always sound lovey-dovey when you read it, but the whole thing is an expression of God’s love.

That’s why God caused Moses and Elijah to appear with Jesus when he was transfigured. The transfiguration itself showed who Jesus really is. It substantiated everything he had taught and revealed about himself up to that point, including that very important bit in the Sermon on the Mount where he says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Mt 5:17). And that’s where Moses and Elijah come in. They represent the Law and the Prophets. Moses was the one to whom God gave the Law that governs his people. And Elijah was the greatest– and fiercest– of the OT prophets. Their presence with Jesus in that mystical cloud confirmed in the minds of Peter, James and John that Jesus truly is God, the Son of God. And it impressed indelibly upon them that they should listen to him above every competing and conflicting voice on earth.

St Peter himself is a good example of the kind of faulty interpretation or misunderstanding of the Word that Jesus addressed in the Sermon on the Mount. On certain occasions Jesus chose Peter, James and John, and left the other nine disciples behind, in order to show those three some things of particular importance, like what we read about today. So those three have become known as the inner circle of the Apostles. I suspect he chose them because they had rather different points of view. You just have to read the books of the New Testament that each of them wrote, along with the four gospels and Acts to see that.

Peter was often impetuous. He contradicted Jesus when he foretold his arrest and execution. “No way, Lord, that can’t happen,” he said, to which Jesus quite harshly replied, “Get behind me, Satan! You’re trying to hold me back, because you’re setting your mind on human things, and not on the things of God.” That harks back to what I said earlier about interpreting the Word of the Lord in light of Oprah and Joel Osteen rather than evaluating Oprah and Osteen by the light of Scripture, which is the right thing to do.

So Peter witnesses this amazing transfiguration of Jesus. It’s not a transformation, not a change of form. It’s still very clearly Jesus standing in front of the disciples. What happened was that he allowed his true character, his divinity to come out. In today’s first lesson it says that “the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.” It was a terrifying sight for the Israelites to behold, especially since they didn’t know all that much about their God at that point. That forty years they spent in the wilderness was a time of getting reacquainted with him, learning his ways, and learning to worship him properly. And so they feared for Moses who climbed that mountain alone and walked into the cloud where God was waiting for him.

But what Peter, James and John saw on this other mountain was their friend and teacher unveiling his true identity, showing them that he’s really God the Son. This happened shortly after Jesus had quizzed all twelve of his disciples as to who they thought he was. “What are people saying about me? Who do they think I am?” “Some think you’re John the Baptist,” they replied, “some say Elijah or one of the other prophets.” “But who do you say that I am?” he said. It was Peter who blurted out, “You’re the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” “Blessed are you, Simon bar-Jonah,” Jesus said to Peter (Simon being the name his parents gave him), “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter [= rock], and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” By which he meant that he would build the Church on the solid foundation of the Apostles’ faith, which is what would enable the Church to smash the gates of hell and set free every repentant sinner (Mt 16:13-19).

So with this still fresh in their minds, Jesus allows Peter, James and John this glimpse of his divine glory that he’d been keeping under wraps ever since he came into the world. But even though Peter had had this flash of revelation about who Jesus is, he still hadn’t totally got it. When Jesus was transfigured and became blindingly brilliant, with Moses and Elijah standing beside him, Peter seems to have become scared and nervous. And all he could think to say was, “Lord, it’s good for us to be here.” St Augustine suggests that even after his brilliant revelation, he still wasn’t fully comprehending the heavenly reality that had been revealed right in front of him. He understood that it was a mystical moment, but he was also thinking about it in a sort of selfish way. He wanted to stay there in the moment, and put off going back down the mountain. “Why should he go back down there,” Augustine says, “when here he had a holy love of God, and therefore a holy way of life? He wanted happiness for himself, so he continued, ‘If you are willing, let us set up three tents here: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’” He wanted to extend that mountaintop experience indefinitely, which is why he suggested pitching three tents. It was, in Peter’s mind, a way of keeping them all there for a while longer.

Jesus didn’t say anything, but Peter got his answer when the bright cloud overshadowed them. Three tents would have isolated Jesus from Moses and Elijah, St Augustine says, but the bright cloud included all three of them under one heavenly cover, as if to show that everything in the law and the prophets points to Jesus, and is fulfilled in Jesus, just as he himself had said. “The Word of God is Christ,” Augustine says,

the Word of God is in the law, the Word of God is in the prophets. Why then, Peter, do you seek to divide? You ought rather to combine. You ask for three: understand that the three are one. (Barnecut A, 152)

So there’s no separating the New Testament from the Old. And there’s no separating the “gentle Jesus” of the NT from the “angry God” of the OT, as lots of misguided people have tried to do throughout the history of the Church, because that’s simply not the way it is. The whole thing from Genesis to Revelation is one big love story about God and everything he’s done to redeem his creation from sin and to draw all people to himself. That’s the big message of the Transfiguration. And as we enter into the penitential season of Lent, and look forward to celebrating the ultimate expression of God’s love for us all on the cross and in rising from the dead, we need to keep squarely in the forefront of our minds and hearts that this man who appeared so weak and helpless in the hands of his torturers and executioners is none other than the Lord of all creation, the eternal Word of God, “whose mercy endures for ever” (Ps 136). “Listen to him.” In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
a.m.d.g.
Ian C. Wetmore+



The 5th Sunday after Epiphany, Year A
5 February AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
 
Proper: Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 112:1-10; 1 Corinthians 2:1-16; Matthew 5:13-20
 
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
         
You know how, at a baptism when I give the candle to the newly baptized– and I put the candle in the baby’s hand first– I tell the parents and godparents to light it every year on that day and say a prayer when the person blows it out? We’ve done that at home with Sarah most years on the feast of St Anne (July 26th), the mother of Mary, the day when Sarah was baptized. We give her e.g. a cupcake with her baptismal candle in it, and she says a Hail, Mary, or another prayer, and blows it out. Sometimes we sing, “Happy rebirthday to you.”

Well, today is my rebirthday. I was born again, born from above, born anew of water and the Spirit, to use all the terms Jesus uses (Jn 3:3,5), on this day, Epiphany V (Feb 4th), 1962. I was baptized in the United Church of Canada, which doesn’t tend to make a big deal over baptisms. It’s sort of a minor aside after the sermon: “Oh, by the way, we’re going to baptize a baby now. Splash, splash, splash, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Now let’s sing a hymn and pass the collection plate.” And since the United Church doesn’t do the godparent thing, I suppose that makes me a “god-orphan.” But still, Jesus’ Father became my Father that day, and it can’t get any better than that.

As you’ve probably figured out, I’m going to talk about baptism in relation to the Scriptures we read today, prompted as I was by an article I read last week. It was about a recent survey among churchgoing Christians in which they were asked what happens in baptism. An alarmingly large number said they didn’t think anything happens, but that it’s just a rite of passage for membership in the Church. Well, it certainly is a rite of passage, but that’s not all it is. Others said they thought our sin was washed away, but that was about it. Our sin is washed away in baptism. We stand up every Sunday and declare that that’s what we believe: “We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins” (BCP 359). But that’s not all that happens in baptism. The media loves opinion polls; and we love to give our opinion on just about anything, even when we’re not the least bit qualified or informed on the subject in question– just look at Facebook. And as one of my mentors, Fr David Mercer said to me once, when I brought up the idea of polling people for their opinions on something or other, “You’re asking the wrong question, Father. Instead of asking, ‘What do you think,’ you should be teaching them, and then asking, ‘Do you understand?’” That is the reason I talk a lot about baptism. It’s the thing that has changed our lives in the most important way. So it’s definitely something the Church needs to teach her people about over and over and over, so that we’ll have a good, biblical understanding of what it is, and what we become because of it.

Some churches don’t make a big deal over baptism. We Anglicans, for example, used to like to do "private" (=family only) baptisms on Sunday afternoons- I really hate those! But it really is a big deal. Why? Because of what God does in a person’s life at baptism– and remember, everything that happens in baptism is God’s doing alone; all we do is carry the baby, or walk ourselves, to the water in obedience to his command– and also because of what God, through baptism, has ordained that person to do with the rest of his/her life.

“Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ.” That’s what we prayed in today’s collect (= opening prayer). And that’s the first thing God does in us when we’re baptized. He sets us free from the bondage of our sins. He washes away the stain of that original sin that we’ve all inherited from our first ancestors, as well as whatever sins we’ve committed ourselves up to that point. As for sins we commit after baptism, we don’t go back to the font to take care of those. Instead we confess them and receive Holy Communion. As Jesus said, “This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt 26:28).

The second thing God does in baptism is to give us what today’s collect calls the liberty of abundant life in Christ. Martin Luther published a famous pamphlet 500 years ago called On Christian Liberty. What God liberates his children from is what St Paul calls our bondage to corruption (Rom 8:21). Because the world has become corrupted by human sin, rebellion against God, we’re trapped in a continuous cycle of deterioration and death. Decay and death were not part of God’s plan for his creation. In fact, they’re enemies of God. St Paul says so in his beautiful teaching on death and resurrection (1Cor 15:26). All the disease, all the pollution, the political acrimony and strife of every kind, every bit of it is the result of human sin, a withholding of love for God and our neighbor. And that’s not how God intended his creation to be.  So he gave us his Son to be the remedy, not to fix it all right away, but to draw people to himself, to draw us into reconciliation with God, first by paying the due penalty for all our sin on the cross and forgiving every sinner who repents; and second by joining all those penitent sinners to himself in a death like his and raising us to new life in him (Rom 6:5).

That all happens in the sacrament of baptism. “We were buried with him by baptism into death,” St Paul says, “so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4). That’s what God does for us in baptism. It’s the first stage of liberation from “our bondage to corruption.” Our mortal bodies will still deteriorate and die. The word mortal means being subject to death. But as Paul also teaches, in this present life God has given us the beginnings of immortality, the firstfruits of the Spirit (Rom 8:23). And while we wait for the fullness of that gift at the end of time, we have things to do.

Luther based his pamphlet on two propositions:
  • A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to no one.
  • A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.
What he means by that is that the powers of this world, although they can destroy our bodies, have no spiritual control. We are servants of God, and subject to no human power. That doesn’t put us above the law of the land, however. So long as that law doesn’t contradict the laws of God, we must abide by them, for the good order of society. We are free lords of all, Luther says, and subject to no one. But at the same time, we are the servants of all, and therefore subject to all. We’re not subject to their whims and desires. But as God’s children by baptism and his ambassadors in the world, he has subjected us to all people as the servants of their liberty, as agents of the Gospel sent to share the Good News of  Jesus with them and to lead them into what St Paul calls “the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom 8:21).

The same Spirit who brings about our rebirth, our birth from above, is the Spirit of God that Paul talks about in today’s reading. He’s not the spirit of the world, Paul says, which is the spirit of corruption and strife and bondage to fear. No. We have received “the Spirit who is from God,” who helps us to understand the things of God,” things like forgiveness and the new life that Christ purchased with his blood on the cross. And in response there are two things he asks of us: that we love God with everything we’ve got, and love our neighbors with his kind of love. The highest expression of our love for God is when we come together on the Lord’s day to proclaim the death and resurrection of his Son. That worship is extended when we go out to tell the whole world about what he’s done. “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified,” Paul says in today’s lesson. And last week we heard him say, “We preach Christ crucified,” where all the power of God to save sinners was exercised (1Cor 1:23-24). So the greatest expression of love for our neighbor is to lead them into the loving, forgiving, life-giving embrace of God.

That’s what Jesus is pointing to in this section of the Sermon on the Mount that we read today. “You are the light of the world... You don’t light a lamp and then hide it; you put it where it will light up the whole house.” The purpose of a light is to shine, to scatter the darkness, so that people can see where they’re going and what they’re doing.

At the Easter Vigil every year we go out into the darkness and kindle a new fire. Then we carry that light into the church singing, “The Light of Christ,” and people light their little candles off it as it passes by, and they light up the people next to them. as the big candle moves toward the altar, the Light of Christ leading his people into the heart of God. Then once we’re all inside, the place is filled with the Light of Christ that has been kindled in all his baptized followers– all but the ones who are waiting to be baptized, that is. Then at the point when those people come to the font to be born again, the priest lights a candle and hands it to them, saying, “Receive the Light of Christ to show that you have passed from darkness to light. Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” That’s right out of today’s gospel. And that’s what Luther meant when he said, “A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” The people of God are sent to every person on earth to share the Light of Christ with them, to let them know about the wonderful things God has done for us all.

St John Chrysostom said, “This is a light that reaches not only the bodily senses, but also illuminates the beholder’s mind and soul. It disperses the darkness of evil, and invites those who encounter it to let their own light shine forth...” (In E. Barnecut, Journey with the Fathers, Year A, New City Press: 1992, 86). That’s what God makes of us through baptism– disciples of Christ and servants to all people, who carry his light to them. It’s in the nature of the baptized, Chrysostom says, “to be beacons, shining lamps that proclaim the glory of God revealed in his crucified and risen Son.” He’s not talking here about us using words to evangelize people. He’s talking about how the example of our lives and conduct as children of God ought to draw the world’s attention to our Father.

I’ll give the last word to my favorite preacher, who says that when Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others,” he meant

Let your virtue, the perfection of your life, and the performance of good works inspire those who see you to praise the common Master of us all... strive to live so perfectly that the Lord may be praised by all who see you... and so that we may all be found worthy of the kingdom of heaven by the grace, mercy, and goodness of God.

In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
a.m.d.g.
Ian C. Wetmore+


The 4th Sunday after Epiphany, Year A
29 January AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
 
Proper: Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 15; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12
 
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
         
One of my favorite Beatles songs is The Fool on the Hill. It’s about a man whose neighbors don’t give him credit for being very wise or intelligent. And because they won’t have anything to do with him, they have no idea what he does and doesn’t know. At the end of the song it says,
He never listens to them;
He knows that they’re the fools.
They don’t like him.
The fool on the hill
Sees the sun going down,
And the eyes in his head
See the world spinning round.
I’m always reminded of that song when I read what St Paul says in 1 Corinthians about how worldly wisdom is really foolishness to God, and how the wisdom of God appears to the world to be foolish. “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing,” Paul says, “but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” What does he mean by that– “the word of the cross is folly”?

The Rev’d Fleming Rutledge is probably the best-known preacher in the Episcopal Church right now. She’s a faithful interpreter of Scripture; she has keen biblical insights; and she really studies the Word for all she can get out of it. Most preachers would like to have all that, but not many of us are so gifted in those things as she is. Look her up on YouTube– it’s a real treat to listen to her. She recently published a book called The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ. It’s over 600 pages and it’s dense, but it’s great! I started reading it a couple of months ago, and I’m only just over a hundred pages in. From what I can tell so far, if there’s one piece of Scripture that sets the tone of the book, it’s a line from St Paul in Romans that’s very closely connected to what we read today. “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16), or as he says in today’s reading: “to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” In Romans he calls it the Gospel, in 1 Corinthians he says, “the word of the cross.” It’s the same thing.

Why should Paul be ashamed of the Gospel, Mother Rutledge asks, and why should anyone else be ashamed of the Gospel. In fact, she says, quite a lot of us are ashamed of the Gospel. Lots of Christians living in the progressive and enlightened societies of the West tend to keep our faith to ourselves when we’re out and about, because we’re afraid others will look down on us and think we’re backward, superstitious fools for believing a myth about a man who claimed to be God, and who was killed on a cross and rose again from the dead. That’s a crazy story to people who have never heard it. So we prefer not to let people know what we believe, until we get to know them a little better and find out whether they believe it too. I suspect that’s why lots of people are so friendly to me when they see me out in public wearing my black shirt with a white collar. It brands me as somebody who believes what they believe, so it’s safe for them to warm up to me.

But back then, much closer in time to the death and resurrection of Jesus, why would Paul feel the need to say he’s not ashamed of the Gospel? Well, it’s for basically the same reason: the people who worshiped Jesus as Lord and Savior were the objects of scorn and derision in the eyes of the people who didn’t know Jesus in that way. And increasingly in those days, they were the targets of official religious persecution. Yet the Church persisted in proclaiming the Good News about Jesus, “the word of the cross,”, even though increasingly large numbers of believers were being put to death by whatever horrible means the state could come up with. And by their persistent witness, singing hymns, praying and speaking the Name of Jesus with their dying breath had the effect of leading increasing numbers of onlookers to conversion. Most of the believers who were arrested were steadfast, even when the authorities offered to free them if only they would renounce Jesus and offer a pinch of incense on one of the pagan altars. When they refused, their persecutors wrote them off as deluded fools. But they knew that the persecutors were the real fools.

The most shameful and foolish thing of all, in worldly eyes, was the man himself who died on the cross. Mother Rutledge is very careful to explain this point. We moderns don’t have an adequate appreciation of the cross, she says, unlike all the people in the ancient Roman world. One of the prayers for Holy Week in the Prayer Book speaks of the cross as “an instrument of shameful death” which became for us the means of life. We pray that prayer every year, but we don’t have a full appreciation of how deeply shameful the cross was back then. It was the cruellest means of execution the Romans could come up with. None of the four gospels explain how cruel or how shameful it really was. The early Christians didn’t need to have it explained to them, because lots of them had seen a crucifixion firsthand.

I won’t go into detail. But experts say that it’s the worst kind of agony because the body is fighting against itself. The feet and wrists are nailed to the cross so they can’t support the body; and when it hangs limp the chest collapses and the person can’t breath. So when the person forced his body into a position where he could draw a breath, the pain from the nails forced him to go limp again.  It was excruciating– the pain of the cross– that’s where that word comes from. Rutledge says that in the case of some extremely healthy and strong men, that struggle went on for days. But before the crucifixion, the condemned were flogged with a weapon that mutilated the flesh, just to weaken and humiliate them all the more. The rest of the details are way too gruesome for us to talk about here. Extreme humiliation of the person was a big part of the show as well, the idea being to dehumanize the person as much as possible. So it was especially poignant when Jesus began to pray Psalm 22 in the midst of his gasping for breath on the cross, since verse 6 says, “as for me, I am a worm and no man, scorned by all and despised by the people.” Suffice to say that crucifixion was the most shameful form of execution. And as such, it was reserved for the dregs of society, criminals and traitors. The Jewish religious leaders brought Jesus to trial before Pilate because to them he was a blasphemer who made himself equal to God. And blasphemers were utterly reprehensible to them. They failed to understand that he really is God, so in their mind he was the worst kind of person.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis says that there are only three possibilities when it comes to Jesus. Anybody who said the kind of things Jesus said would have to be either “the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.” The religious leaders framed him as something worse. And they presented him to Pilate as a traitor on the charge of setting himself up as equal to the emperor. So when they managed to get him crucified, with all the dehumanizing cruelty and disgrace that goes with it, their self-satisfaction at believing they had completely wiped out the Jesus movement, was immeasurable. They were sure they had proven the folly of this teacher and his movement beyond all doubt. And that was that.

But then on the third day he rose from the dead, and hung out with his followers off and on for the next forty days. That did three things: It vindicated everything he had done and said prior to his crucifixion; it proved the fact that he is the one that the law and the prophets of Israel all point to as God’s Anointed One; and it set the faith of his followers in stone. Then at Pentecost he sent the Holy Spirit into his new Church to fill his followers with the conviction that all of this truly is from God, and to send them out into the world to proclaim it.

They were not ashamed of the Gospel, because it was through suffering the disgrace and humiliation that the sinful world inflicted on him that he destroyed their power to disgrace and to humiliate. And he destroyed the power of death to keep his people in the grave. But to those who refuse to believe who he is or what he has done, St Paul says, “the word of the cross is folly,” it’s all nonsense. And to those who do believe, it’s the power of God at work to rescue lost souls. In rising from the dead, Jesus turned everything upside down. Paul quotes Isaiah here to show that his prophecy is fulfilled in the cross: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” In other words, the cross thoroughly confused the wise and discerning, since it was inconceivable to them that God should die; and not only that, but that he should put himself in the hands of his own inhumane creatures (St Thomas Aquinas, Comm on 1Cor). It really is crazy if you’re coming at it for the first time.

“Where is the one who is wise?” Paul asks, “Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age?” The wise are the Greek philosophers who contributed so much to the learning of the ancient world. The scribes are their Jewish counterparts. There are lots of references in the gospels to the scribes and Pharisees. The scribes weren’t recording secretaries. They were authors who interpreted and wrote commentaries on the Scriptures. The debaters weren’t people who hurled insults at each other like what we had to put up with last fall. Debating ideas and issues respectfully was how they arrived at the truth in the ancient world. What’s become of all those people in light of the Gospel? Paul asks. They were all mystified, because what God has done in Christ Jesus made no sense to them. “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” What he means is that human wisdom alone cannot attain knowledge of God. Atheists who are scientists say something like this to make their own case: If we can’t demonstrate the existence of God by scientific means, then God doesn’t exist. But human wisdom and intelligence can’t show us God. That was demonstrated at the tower of Babel.

Instead, what we know of God has to have been revealed by God himself. And his greatest revelation of himself is in his Son, who was born as one of us, wrapped in swaddling clothes by his human mother and laid in a feeding trough. That was an act which prophesied the fact that he would one day be devoured by his sinful creatures, and beyond that, that he would become the food that nourishes his faithful followers. “God doesn’t give us explanations,” says Austin Farrer, “he gives up a Son” (Said or Sung).

As I said, it’s all craziness to the person who has never heard it, or who is not open to the fact of God and the goodness of God. Therefore, Paul says, “it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe,” to proclaim the word of the cross to the whole world, and to welcome into the fellowship of the Church the people who are intrigued by it, who find some kind of hope in it for a better existence, who find in it a remedy for the despair of the unbelieving world, who find forgiveness and new life through the power of the cross because of what Jesus did with it.

That, Paul says, is why “we preach Christ crucified.” “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom,” he says. Jews want God to prove his presence by powerful demonstrations, like parting the Red Sea, or raining down fire from heaven. Lots of people still wonder why he doesn’t intervene in all our problems and flex his almighty power. And the Greek philosophers wanted to find God by the wisdom of their own minds. But Paul says God’s power and wisdom are both found in Christ on the cross. It’s there that he exercised his power to save his people, and it’s there that his wisdom trumped human wisdom. For human wisdom says that great human intelligence and strength are what accomplish great things. But Jesus showed that extreme love and humility are what accomplish the most important thing, which is the redemption of the world.

What we need most is what we can’t do ourselves. It was done for us on the cross. And every time another person turns to Jesus and repents, every time another person is baptized, joined to Jesus in his death and raised to new life in him, that work is extended. We can’t do any of that ourselves. God does it all. What we do in support of that cause is to preach Christ crucified, to be faithful stewards of his word and sacraments, and to love everybody with the kind of love that took him to the cross for us all. In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
a.m.d.g.
Ian C. Wetmore+




The 3rd Sunday after Epiphany , Year A
22 January AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
 
Proper: Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1, 5-13; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23
 
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
         

Disclaimer: If I presented any "alternative facts" in the historical account summarized herein, it was not my intention. I simply didn't take the time to bone up on my Reformation history. I am reasonably certain, however, that the facts are as stated. IW+

We’re right in the middle of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which begins every year on the feast of the Confession of St Peter (Jan 18th) and ends on the feast of the Conversion of St Paul (Jan. 25th). It’s a time when all Christians are called on to pray especially for efforts toward healing the countless divisions among God’s people around the world. That’s why we read that lesson today from 1 Corinthians about divisions in the Church.
You may also have heard that this year is the 5ooth anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. We’ve already begun to hear lots of talk about Martin Luther, since he’s the one that started it. And there will be all sorts of articles and interviews about all the  good stuff, and the bad stuff, that came out of it. And that’s all good for us, because it will remind us of why the Reformation happened in the first place. We’ll also most likely hear some talk of celebration. But that’s not really a good word to use, because even though it’s a significant event, and important for us to remember and to think about, it’s not an anniversary to celebrate, because it marks the beginning of a huge split in the Western Church. And it has continued to result in tears in the fabric of the Church here and there ever since, including our own Anglican Communion in recent decades. Don’t get me wrong. Reformation of the Church is necessary from time to time because as St Paul says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23), and that includes the leaders of the Church as much as anybody else.
What started the Reformation? A couple of things– a Bible study and a capital campaign. Martin Luther was a monk, a priest, and a professor of theology in Wittenberg, Germany, who had been seriously wondering about how believers are justified, made right with God. What really troubled him at the time was the sale of indulgences. You’ve probably all heard that term, but you may not know what it means. I’ll explain it as succinctly as I can. In the Middle Ages, in the Western Church, the idea of Purgatory began to develop in a strange way. It’s always been understood that before we can enter into the direct presence of God we have to be completely pure. So something’s got to happen. On the basis of Scripture, the Church has always taught that if we die believing in Jesus, that will do it. St Peter said that there is salvation in no other name (Acts 4:12). And St Paul said that “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).
That’s the foundation of the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone, that God justifies you, makes you righteous, simply by believing in his Son and repenting of your sin. So every time we confess our sins and earnestly ask God’s forgiveness, he wipes them away and makes us as if we’ve never committed a sin in the first place. He won’t take another look at them again on Judgment Day and say, “Hang on a minute. You did some stuff that can’t be completely forgiven until you do something more to make it right.” God’s forgiveness isn’t conditional or partial. It’s entire and complete the moment you repent of anything. And he’ll never bring it up again for all eternity.
Well somewhere along the line some people started getting the idea that Purgatory was a place where all the faithful have to go after they die in order to have the lingering stains of our sin purged from us. And there we’ll have to carry out some burdensome acts of penance over a period of time, depending on how grave our sins are (cf Dante’s The Divine Comedy). And even though that flies in the face of what Peter and Paul, and Jesus himself, said about repentance and forgiveness, more and more higher-ups in the Church began to believe it in the late Middle Ages. And they began to think that you could lessen your time in Purgatory by doing things in this life. And then they began to think, “Oh, people could also give money to the Church, and the Holy Father could give them an indulgence, a certificate guaranteeing time off from Purgatory. Cha-ching, what a brilliant idea!” Then in the early sixteenth century, the Vatican began the big project of rebuilding St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. And they came up with all sorts of fund-raising ideas. A certain German archbishop who owed a lot of money to Rome was told that he could lower his debt by raising money for the building project. So he sent a monk named Fr Johann Tetzel around the country selling indulgences for that purpose.
Meanwhile, Fr Martin Luther was struggling over this whole notion of earning our salvation, which is what the indulgence idea really amounts to. And he began to study the letter to the Romans, which is where St Paul lays out the basic doctrines of the Christian faith, and paints a picture of the life God intends for us. Luther had been brought up, and formed as a priest, believing that it’s by strict adherence to the law of God that we’re saved, which is what the medieval Church had been teaching as a way of controlling people’s behavior as well as their allegiance to the Church. Wherever you find excessive legalism, you’ll always find people with control issues behind it. Communism didn’t start out that way, but that’s how it ended up in just about every country where it’s been the rule. And fascism as well as both Christian and Islamic fundamentalism have that in common too.
From his in-depth study of Romans, Luther came to realize that that’s not the Gospel. It’s true that Jesus came not to abolish the law of God, but to fulfill it (Mt 5:17). But the way he does that is by filling it with his grace, by tempering it with divine mercy, by pouring his own blood all over it, so that whoever repents and pleads his sacrifice on the cross will be forgiven. And after God’s forgiving word is spoken over the repentant sinner, there will be no punishment for those sins on Judgment Day, and there will be no requirement to work off the lingering stain of our sin in Purgatory. God promises that our forgiven sin will be totally and eternally forgotten in heaven. God does all that for us, and all we have to do is trust Jesus and repent, just like it says on the billboard beside the strip club on I-64.
There’s no possible way that we can earn God’s favor by our own effort. Jesus is how God favors us. By being joined to him in baptism, repenting, dying and being raised to the new life in him, “and walking from henceforth in his holy ways” (BCP 330) with the constant help of his grace, that’s how God favors us. Sinners are justified, made right with God, not by achieving anything for God, but by simply receiving everything from God. Coming to that realization, Luther said, “was for me truly the gate to paradise.” It was his greatest conversion experience.
Around that time, Johann Tetzel showed up in Luther’s neighborhood, which really set Luther off. That’s when he wrote his famous Ninety-five Theses to refute the system and the power of indulgences by a set of statements of biblical teaching on how God justifies sinners. On Halloween, 1517, he nailed them to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg as an invitation to academics and clergy to hold a conference to discuss them. That’s where the Reformation began that spread across western Europe, and resulted in the breakup of the Western Church, although that’s not what Luther intended at all. He wanted to reform the Western Church, to purge if of its corrupt practices and unbiblical teaching. A lot of dialogues ensued, and other Protestant reformers emerged with their own ideas, each of them gathering a large following. And even several kings opted in to the Reformation, mostly following Luther. Then when Pope Paul III realized that the whole Western Church really did need to be reformed, he convened the Council of Trent and invited the major Protestant leaders to participate. The council imposed a lot of reforms, but also dug its heels in with regard to some of the issues that fuelled the Reformation, so there was no chance of healing the great split.
Meanwhile, the major reformers were also fighting amongst themselves, which resulted, not in a single Protestant church across Europe, but a bunch of churches divided by the various interpretations of Scripture and doctrine held by their particular leaders. And on and on it went so that there are now something like 45,000 separate Christian denominations around the world. And that, as I said, is not cause for celebration, even though the Reformation itself is very much a cause for commemoration.
As St Paul travelled around Asia Minor and Europe evangelizing the empire and planting churches, he also kept busy writing letters to encourage and build up the churches in his care. And like most bishops ever since, he had a couple of problem congregations to deal with, in Corinth and Galatia. The problem in Corinth was that people were divided over several issues, both issues of equality among members and issues of faith and doctrine. “It’s been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you,” Paul says in today’s reading. Chloe was one of the trusted leaders in the Corinthian church. Paul doesn’t get into the details of the divisions in this passage, but he covers them all in the rest of the letter. Some of the main issues are the people’s understanding of what the Church is and how different it is from the wider society in which Christians live; how the Lord Jesus binds his people together as equals around the altar; and what will happen when all the faithful are raised from the dead at the end of time.
Apparently, people were choosing up sides behind various leaders that they imagined were somehow opposed to one another on important issues. But there’s enough historical evidence, both within and apart from the Bible, to prove that’s not the case at all.  Paul says that people were identifying themselves as followers of either Apollos, Cephas, Jesus or himself. And he seems to suggest that some of them were giving their first allegiance to the person who baptized them. That’s why we should never say, “I was baptized Episcopalian, Methodist, Catholic, Baptist, etc.” Baptism doesn’t make you any of those things. We were all baptized in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, which makes us Christian, and nothing more.
Apollos was a faithful elder who, according to St Jerome, got so fed up with the problems in Corinth that he moved to Crete until Paul could get a handle on things (Commentary on Titus 3:13). Cephas (Κηφας) is the Apostle Peter. Although Peter and Paul had disputed over a couple of things, there was no disagreement between them on the issues dividing Corinth. And of course neither Paul nor Apollos nor Peter were at odds with anything Jesus taught.
So what was really at stake in the Corinthian church was how various people understood the Gospel, the nature of the Church, and how they should relate to one another. And that’s not so different from what happened during the Reformation, or what’s been happening in the Anglican Communion lately. Various groups of people develop various understandings of the Gospel and of how the Church ought to deal with important issues. And the problem is compounded by the fact that there are various understandings of how important Scripture and the teaching tradition of the Church are in guiding how we deal with them. We’re also influenced to some degree by the values and views of the societies we live in and the organizations we belong to. And it’s awfully easy to let those things, and our allegiance to those things, influence or even trump the Gospel, instead of the other way around. For example, do I let my political party’s platform shape how I read the Gospel, or do I let the Gospel inform my approach to politics.
That’s why Christian discipleship is extremely important, learning the Gospel and following the way of Jesus. Because we are emissaries of Jesus to the world, as St Paul teaches (2Cor 5:20). Through Christ, he says, God reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciling the whole world to him. We can’t do that so well when we’re divided. That is so important that it’s the thing Jesus prayed for on the night before he died, that we would all be one as he and the Father are one (Jn 17:20-23). One in the love of God; one in the worship of God; one in proclaiming the reconciling death and resurrection of the Son of God; one in reaching out and caring for the least and the lost in the Name of God.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, who is the spiritual leader of the Anglican world, and the Archbishop York, the #2 bishop in England, issued a statement the other day at the start of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. I’ll finish up by reading a few snippets from that statement:
In this Reformation Anniversary year, many Christians will want to give thanks for the great blessings they have received to which the Reformation directly contributed... Many will also remember the lasting damage done five centuries ago to the unity of the Church, in defiance of the clear command of Jesus Christ to unity in love... This year is a time to renew our faith in Christ and in Him alone. With this confidence we shall then be ready to ask hard questions about those things in our lives and the life of our churches that get in the way of sharing and celebrating faith in Him...
We therefore call on all Christians to seek to be renewed and united in the truth of the gospel of Christ through our participation in the Reformation Anniversary, to repent of divisions, and, held together in Him, to be a blessing to the world in obedience to Jesus Christ.
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
a.m.d.g.
Ian C. Wetmore+



The 2nd Sunday after Epiphany, Year A
15 January AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
 
Proper: Proper: Isaiah 49:1-7: Psalm 40:1-6; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
         
I came across an interesting painting online, by a 17th-century Spaniard named Murillo, which he called “The Infant Christ Asleep on the Cross”– it sounds really strange, doesn’t it? I’m not sure why, but there was a particular devotional interest in artwork depicting the baby Jesus during that period. The Infant of Prague statue is probably the best-known (copies available at most Catholic bookstores). It seems that in Spain and Italy especially, a kind of romanticized notion of the baby Jesus became more popular for a while, maybe in contrast to the crucifixion which, around the same time, was showing up  more and more in artwork and on church altars. Crucifixes (crosses depicting the crucified Christ) began to be placed in churches in the late Middle Ages. Lots of hymns and prayers addressed to baby Jesus were also composed at that time, e.g. “Infant Jesus meek and mild, look on me, a little child,” and the Polish hymn “Infant holy, infant lowly.”
Maybe Murillo was motivated by a concern that people might become so focussed on devotion to the infant Christ that they would forget why Jesus came, what the true purpose and mission of this baby was. That’s a criticism that lots of active Christians like to grumble under their breath about the people who only come to church on Christmas and Easter Day. “Those people,” they say, want the warm fuzzy feelings of the holidays, but they don’t want to bother with the rest of it, like sin and death and the great battle that Jesus came to champion. I think it would be a really good thing if we could totally quit being critical of our annual visitors, and focus instead on embracing them with the love that brought Jesus into the world to do what he did for them as much as for us. After all, you’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, right?
Murillo’s painting and others like it show the Christ child lying fast asleep on the cross, with his arm resting on a skull beside him, while two angels hover above. The cross and skull point to his eventual crucifixion, while the angels point to his divine origins. And of course, it underscores what the Church has taught from the very beginning, i.e. that this baby was born in order to die for the sin of the whole world. “The cross overshadows the manger” is how one of the ancient Fathers put it. And in the original words to the Christmas carol, What Child Is This, the second verse says,
Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you;
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.
 
("This, this is Christ the King..." is not a refrain in
the original, but only the second half of verse 1)
That purpose was prophesied in the gifts the Wise Men brought, and also by ancient Simeon when baby Jesus was presented in the temple. He said that this child was “appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel,” and a “sword of grief” would pierce his mother’s soul as she watched him die on the cross  (Luke 2:34-35). Another word of prophecy from Simeon at that meeting was that Jesus was to be a light that would bring revelation to the Gentiles, all the peoples on earth, and that he would be the glory of God’s ancient people Israel (Lk 2:32). And that brings us closer to what’s going on in the readings on this day and in this whole Epiphany season.
This is the season of light. And it’s the period of shifting the Church’s focus from who Jesus is and where he came from, toward the culmination of his saving work on Good Friday and Easter Day. We hear that proclaimed most clearly by John the Baptist in today’s gospel as he points to Jesus and says, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” On Christmas Eve we heard Isaiah say, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them the light has shined” (9:2). Then on Christmas morning we heard St John describing Jesus the Son of God as the eternal Word of God and the Light of God. “The true light,” he said, “which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (Jn 1:9). Simeon, as I said, called Jesus “a light of revelation.” And much later Jesus said of himself, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn 8:12).
Today’s collect begins by recalling that self-identification of Jesus as the light of the world. And then we pray to God that he would grant that his people, his Church, being “illumined by [his] Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth.” That’s a fitting prayer to kick off this season after Epiphany, a prayer that God would light us up by means of his word and sacraments, so that we can light up the world with the radiant glory of Jesus and that, through us, he will draw all people to himself.
This is the prophecy we heard from Isaiah in today’s first reading.  In fact, the word that Isaiah was given to proclaim in this reading is really from the Son of God long before Mary gave birth to him and named him Jesus. “The Lord called me from the womb,” he says, “from the body of my mother he named my name.” “And now he who formed me from the womb to be his servant to redeem his people... he says, ‘I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’” The purpose of the Light of God coming into the world is to reveal to all God’s creatures how deeply he loves each and every one, and how he so wants us all to turn away from sin, to turn toward the Light, and to follow it back into the heart of God where we all belong.
In due course, the Light of the world had to go the full distance in order to make his purpose known to us, and to reveal the full extent of his love for us. At the end of today’s first reading Isaiah presents God the Father speaking to his Son: “Thus says the Lord,  the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation, the servant of rulers.” That’s a prophecy of what’s going to happen to Jesus at the hands of the people he created in the first place. They’re going to hate him, and turn on him, and nail him to the cross. My second-favorite preacher, Fr Austin Farrer, said, “Human hands kill the Son of God, and the world rocks and swings aside revealing God, God in the act of raising him from the dead” (The Crown of the Year, “Trinity xiii”). The Word, the Light, the Son of God can’t be kept in the grave, because he is God, and because his love for his creatures is stronger than death. And because, being God, only he is able to destroy death and to give life. And because only the taking of a perfectly sinless life can atone for the sin of the world, “he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man” (Nicene Creed), the perfect sacrifice, the Lamb of God.
Fr Farrer says, “The death of a lamb or of some other beast was the centre of ancient worship; the death of Christ is the centre of our worship here.” St Paul says, “We proclaim Christ crucified,” (1Cor 1:23). That’s what Christian worship is all about. It’s not about making us feel good, or entertaining us, or trying not to upset anybody by focussing only on “Infant Jesus meek and mild.” It’s all about Christ crucified, because the thing that we, and all people everywhere, most need know about is how to deal with sin and get right with God. And for that God has commissioned his Church to lift high the cross as the great proclamation of the love of Christ. In doing that the Church says, “This is how your sin has been dealt with. So come to the cross and worship the Lord who loves you so much that he did this for you.” Or in the words of John the Baptist, “Behold the Lamb, of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
As I said last week, the whole of Jesus’ incarnate life, from his birth through his death, resurrection and ascension, all the way to his glorious return to judge the living and the dead, is all of a piece. It’s all one tremendous act of love, all one seamless whole, as Austin Farrer has said. So of course the cross overshadows the manger. And of course it’s appropriate for a Christian artist to depict the Christ child sleeping on the cross with angels watching over him, because it proclaims the whole Gospel on one canvas. This is what we celebrate when we gather on the first day of the week. This is what we proclaim every time we celebrate the Holy Eucharist. And this is the revelation from God that the world so badly needs to hear from us. “Behold the Lamb, of God who takes away the sin of the world!” And so we pray,
Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth.
 In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
a.m.d.g.
Ian C. Wetmore+



The Baptism of the Lord, Year A
8 January AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
 
Proper: Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17
 
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
         

Here’s a story you might have heard:
Three little boys were concerned because they couldn’t get anybody to play with them. They decided it was because they hadn’t been baptized and didn’t go to Sunday School. So, they went to the nearest church. Only the janitor was there. One said, “We need to be baptized because no one will come out and play with us. Will you baptize us?” “Sure,” said the janitor. He took them into the bathroom and dunked their heads in the toilet bowl, one at a time and said “Now go out and play.” When they got outside, dripping wet, one of them asked, “What religion do you think we are?” The oldest one said, “We’re not Katlick, because they pour the water on you. And we’re not Babdiss, because they dunk you all the way in. We’re not Methdiss, because they just sprinkle you.” The littlest one said, “Didn’t you smell that water?” “Yeah!” another one said, “What do you think that means?” The little one said, “I think it means that we’re Pisscopalians.”
OK, now that I’ve got your attention, this is the day when we get to take a close look at baptism, and to be reminded of what it means– both what it meant to God’s people up until the days of John the Baptist, and what Jesus added to it when he stepped into the water.
Baptism is an ancient Jewish practice. It’s an outward act of ritual purification that God’s people underwent after recovering from sickness, or childbirth, or after a period of repentance, and also whenever anyone was about to embark on a new mission or ministry in the name of the Lord. And the priests were required to wash themselves thoroughly both before and after offering sacrifices in the temple. So when John appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance in preparation for the coming Messiah, everybody knew what he was doing and why it was so important.
Lots of people had been expecting the Messiah, the one anointed by God to deliver his people from bondage. Only by then they were thinking the bondage he was going to free them from was the Roman occupation of their country. But regardless of what he was going to do, if God’s Anointed One really was coming soon, then God’s people needed to get themselves ready to be part of it. And that included ritual purification, a baptism of repentance, in order to make a good start to this new work that God was going to do.
There was a lot of excitement over John and his message. St Matthew says that “Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (Mt 3:5-6). Confessing sin, repentance, has always been an essential part of baptism for both Jews and Christians. But Jewish baptism, including what John was doing, was only a sign of repentance and forgiveness. It was an outward action that expressed a person’s sorrow for sins committed and the desire to be forgiven. The heart was turned the right way, the desire was there, repentance was there, but there was no actual forgiveness of sin, no absolution by God. An appropriate sacrifice had to be offered in order for that to happen. And that sacrifice hadn’t happened yet, nor would it happen for another three years or so on the cross on Good Friday. St John Chrysostom (my favorite preacher) said, “When the sacrifice was not yet offered... how was forgiveness to take place?” Like the sacrifices in the temple, Jewish baptism was just a shadow, a preparation that pointed to the real thing that was yet to come.
That’s what was going that day when Jesus came out to John to be baptized. Under the law of Moses, he couldn’t begin his ministry without first being baptized, even though he was the one person on earth who was completely sin-free. John knew this about Jesus. John was the prophet God raised up to be the Forerunner, the one who went ahead to proclaim the coming Messiah. He knew before he was born who Jesus is, because even then he was filled with the Holy Spirit for the prophetic ministry that God had ordained him for (Lk 1:41-44). That’s why the first thing John said to Jesus was, “I should be baptized by you, and yet you come to me?” John understood his own sinfulness, as well as Jesus’ complete sinlessness. So it seemed to make more sense that Jesus should baptize John instead of the other way around. But not so. Jesus said it had to be the other way around in order “to fulfill all righteousness,” to satisfy the legal requirement. Somebody snapped a picture last year during Holy Week of the Pope making his confession to a lowly priest in the Vatican. I imagine that priest probably felt something like John the Baptist when he saw the Pope coming his way. “Holy Father, you want me to hear your confession? Shouldn’t you be hearing mine?”
When Jesus stepped into the water to be baptized, he added something to baptism that it didn’t have before. First of all he changed it from being merely a symbolic ritual to being the means by which sin truly is washed away. And the thing about that is that death is the necessary result of sin. It takes a death to completely eradicate sin, because death is what sin introduced into the world. And that’s why the Word and Son of God became flesh and dwelt among us (Jn 1:14). He became one of us so that he could offer himself as the perfect sacrifice for our sin. So in undergoing the baptism of repentance, Jesus who had no sin to repent of himself made baptism the place where our sin is forgiven. It’s no longer a symbolic act, but a real, mystical washing away of sin (mystical meaning in a way that we can’t fully comprehend). It’s a supernatural moment. But that wasn’t at all obvious on that day.
The whole of Jesus’ incarnate ministry, from his birth through his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension, is all one seamless act, one big event. But he had to lay out all the essential parts of it in a way that, once it was all over and done with, his followers could see how they all fit together. Baptism– both his and ours– is the first essential part. And it’s tied inextricably to his death. Dying on the cross, he absorbed all the sin of the world into himself. Only he was perfectly without sin, so only he had the capacity to absorb it. He is the perfect, spotless Lamb whose sacrifice on the cross atones for all the sin that his creatures are willing to repent of. And in doing that, he destroyed the power of death to keep us in the grave. So the first thing that happens to us when we are baptized is that we die to sin; we are joined to Jesus in his death. And being joined to him in that way means that death cannot hold on to us. We’ve been freed from sin, so there’s nothing to keep us down. That’s what St Paul means when he says,
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Rom 6:3-4)
And that’s the other thing Jesus did when he stepped in to the water. He filled it with his own life, so that whoever is baptized is raised up to live his risen life. “If we have died with Christ,” Paul says, “we believe that we will also live with him” (Rom 6:8). Jesus talks about that new life in terms of being “born again/anew by water and the Holy Spirit” (Jn 3:5). On that day by the river, John said, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me... will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Mt 3:11). That fire is the divine power and grace of the new life that the Holy Spirit fills us with. Jesus rolled those two baptisms together so that penitent believers die to sin and then rise up filled with the new life of God. That’s what I mean when I say that he filled the water with his own life. It’s the same way that he fills the consecrated bread and wine with his own life, so that every time the baptized consume it, his life is renewed in us, and we’re cleansed of our sins yet again.
From all that biblical teaching about what happens in baptism, the Church has identified three characteristics that each of us takes on. We become members of Christ, children of God, and inheritors of his kingdom. Being joined to Christ Jesus in his death, as St Paul teaches, means that we become part of him, incorporated into him. That’s the basis of Paul’s teaching that the Church is the Body of Christ. It’s the fellowship of all the people who are joined to Jesus in his death. Becoming parts of his Body means that we have been adopted by God the Father as his children. And because we are his children, we are also inheritors of his kingdom. This is all summed up in the prayer after Communion when we give thanks to God that through the sacraments he has made us “living members of the Body of [his] Son, and heirs of [his] eternal kingdom” (BCP 366).
Now all that brings into focus something vitally important that we may have a hard time believing and accepting for ourselves because of our feelings of unworthiness, like John the Baptist when Jesus approached him, and like how I imagine that priest felt when he saw the Pope coming to make his confession. The last thing we heard in the gospel today was the voice of God the Father speaking from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Even though we can’t hear it, that pronouncement echoes over the water every time somebody is baptized. Because at every baptism somebody has been joined to Christ in his death and raised up to the new life as a child of God, and has inherited God’s kingdom. In Jesus’ own case, it was simply God’s declaration of who Jesus already is. He’s always been God’s eternal son.  But in our case, baptism is where our new life with our new Father begins. And it will never end– from that moment on, we will always be his children. We can rebel; we can walk away; we can alienate ourselves from God and his Church. And children who are baptized, but not brought up in the fellowship of the Church can grow up not knowing anything about who they are or Whose they are. But none of us can unadopt ourselves.
Even if we choose to reject God utterly and finally, we’ll still be his for ever. He has set his love and his favor on us from the moment of our baptism. “This is my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.” He doesn’t love us because of anything we’ve done ourselves, but because he created us in the first place to be the objects of his love. We are his creatures, his handiwork. And he’s not well pleased with us because of anything we’ve done ourselves, but because of what his Son has done for us. Jesus has redeemed us and caused us to become his brothers and sisters, children of the living God.
In today’s second lesson, Peter declares “that  God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him”– anybody, from anywhere who fears God and does what is right. We all do all sorts of wrong things. And for those things, we can repent and be forgiven, so long as we do the one thing that is right, “the one thing that is necessary,” as Jesus said to Martha (Lk 10:42), which is to worship Jesus, like her sister Mary did, to confess that he is Lord, to believe that God raised him from the dead (Rom 10:9), to die with him in baptism so that he can raise us up to the new life in him.
That’s what baptism makes us. It doesn’t make us “Katlick”,or “Bapdiss” or “Pisscopalians.” Baptism makes us members of the Body of Christ, children of God, heirs of his eternal kingdom. So don’t ever forget that that’s your identity above absolutely everything else. You are God’s beloved child in whom he is well pleased. And it’s all because of Jesus. As my second-favorite preacher, Austin Farrer, said, “In so far as we are in Christ, we are filled with Holy Ghost, and the Father’s good pleasure rests upon us; infinite Love delights in us.” So no matter what happens to any of us, or what we may do, or what kind of messes we may find ourselves in, we need to know that God delights in us because he sees us through his Son, who is our life and our salvation. In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
a.m.d.g.
Ian C. Wetmore+



Holy Name of Jesus
1 January AD 2017

St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL

Proper: Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 8; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 2:15-21

In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

✠     ✠     ✠

On my way to visit a parishioner in the hospital several years ago, I stepped off the elevator and met three ladies who, as soon as they spotted me in my black shirt, said, “Father, we need you to give us a Jewish blessing!” I was surprised, to say the least. “Are you a father or a reverend,” one of them asked. “I’m an Anglican,” I said. “Then you’re a father,” she said. Another one began to explain that they’d been to see their friend who wasn’t doing very well, and because they were so upset, they felt they needed a blessing; and as they rounded the corner, lo and behold, there I was! “You can do this, Father,” they said, “because we worship the same God!” “Yes we do,” I said. And while all this conversation was going on– mostly them talking– I was trying to think of what kind of blessing I could say over them that didn’t name Jesus or the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Then it hit me: God commanded that whenever Aaron and his priestly sons bless the people of Israel, they should say,

The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

So that’s what I said, while holding my right hand down with my left because, you know, when priests give blessings they automatically tend to make the sign of the cross.

That’s the traditional Jewish blessing. “So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel,” God said, “and I will bless them.” It’s also, therefore, a blessing that the Church has used from the beginning, although we usually only hear it at the end of Mass on Trinity Sunday. But that one time is really important because in the context of the Trinity Sunday Bible readings, the Church shows us how the three Persons of the Trinity are identified in that blessing.

If you were to look up today’s first lesson in your Bible, chances are you’d find that the word ‘Lord’ in all three of those pronouncements is printed in all capital letters. In fact that’s how you’d find it printed in most of the Old Testament. It’s something that’s been done in nearly every English translation of the Bible since the first one in 1535. The Hebrew word for Lord is Adonai, but that’s not the word that’s in the original Hebrew text. What is there is YHWH, the Hebrew word for I Am, which is how God identified himself to Moses– “I Am who I Am” (Ex 3:14). But God’s ancient people have always considered that name to be so holy that they won’t say it out loud. Instead, whenever they come to it in the Bible, they say either Adonai or “the Holy One (blessed be he).” And out of respect for that tradition, most Christian Bible translations replace it with ‘the Lord’ in whatever language.

St John makes it pretty clear in his gospel that Jesus is I Am. He begins the gospel, as we read on Christmas Day, by saying, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God... And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:1, 14). In other words, the Word is Jesus, and he is God. Then, over and over again throughout that gospel, John shows Jesus identifying himself as I Am: “I am the Bread of life,” “I am the Light of the World,” “I am the Good Shepherd,” “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” But by far the most shocking are the two times he identifies himself that way to the religious leaders. The first time is when he was rebuking them for their wonky interpretation of Scripture. He said, “Truly I say to you, before Abraham was, I am,” which led them to pick up stones to throw at him (Jn 8:58-59). The second time is when they came to arrest him. He said, “Whom do you seek?” They said, “Jesus of Nazareth.” When he said to them, “I am” (no ‘he’ in the original languages), they drew back and fell to the ground in fear (Jn 18:4-6), because either he is God and therefore they should fall down before him, or he’s a blasphemer and God is going to strike him dead.

So you see, even though the Jewish people don’t recognize that Jesus is God, he’s in that traditional Jewish blessing. “The Lord/Adonai bless you and keep you,” or as it really says in the original Hebrew, “I Am bless you and keep you...” In the Trinitarian understanding of the Church, the Lord in the first line is God the Father. It is he who blesses and sustains us. The second Lord is God the Son, because it’s in Jesus that God has made his face to shine upon us, and showered his grace on us. “From his fullness,” St John says, from the fullness of God the Son, “we have all received, grace upon grace” (Jn 1:16). And the third Lord is God the Holy Spirit. He’s the One who favors us by dwelling within the Church and within each baptized person, and fills us with divine peace. From the beginning that’s how God has been blessing his people, even though those lovely Jewish ladies didn’t know any of that.

God the Son has existed from all eternity, “eternally begotten of the Father,” the Creed says, “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.” There’s never a time when he did not exist– he’s the creator of time, in fact. But at a particular point in time, he entered into his creation. As the ultimate expression of God’s love for us all, “he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man,” born to redeem what he created. “You shall call his name Jesus,” the angel said to Joseph, “for he will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:21). Jesus = Joshua = Yeshua means ‘God saves.’ So “at the end of eight days,” as we read today, “when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” That’s why this eighth day of Christmas is the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus.

It’s a holy name because it’s the new name of God, and because it describes his purpose in being born as a man. It’s holy because it conveys all the power of God. “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” Jesus said just before he ascended into heaven (Mt 28:18). In his Name his disciples forgave sins, baptized converts, healed the sick, and raised the dead. When Peter and John encountered the lame beggar at the gate of the temple, Peter said,

“I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” And he took him by the right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. And leaping up he stood and began to walk, and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. (Acts 3:6-8).

Peter then preached a sermon explaining how the man was healed, resulting in about 5,000 conversions that day, as well as the arrest of Peter and John for preaching Christ crucified. The high priest said, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” Peter replied,

...by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead– by him this man is standing before you well... And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:10, 12)

And it’s in his Name that his Church continues to do all sorts of wonderful things. Some of her members and some of her leaders have done some pretty bad things, claiming to act on his authority. But that’s an abuse of power that they’ll have to answer for when he returns in judgment.

The bottom line is that Jesus is, as the hymn says, the Name of our salvation. As the eternal Word and Son, he’s everything God has to say to us. And as the one who is both fully divine and fully human, he’s all that we can to say to God to save us. It’s in his Name that we are constituted as the Church. It’s in his Name that we gather, that we pray, that we love and care for one another, and that we reach out to the rest of the world with his message of love and redemption. Which is why St Paul says “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. In the Name of…

a.m.d.g.

Ian C. Wetmore+


Christmas Day
25 December AD 2016
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
 
Proper: Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1:1-12; John 1:1-14
 
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
         
In last night’s gospel we got the superficial details of the birth of Jesus, how it appeared on the surface, the human viewpoint: Mary “gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger” (Lk 2:7). This morning we got the theological perspective, the heavenly view, how the angels saw it, what it’s really all about: the Word through whom all things were made, the true Light who enlightens everyone came into the world, he “became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only [begotten = μονογενοØς] Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Up until that night, Hebrews says, God spoke to his people in many times and ways through the prophets; but on that night he began speaking directly through his Son. His Son is the Word that he had previously given to all the prophets to speak. But ultimately he gave his Son human flesh and bones. The Son “became incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man,” the Creed says. He has Mary’s genes, he’s fully human while also remaining fully God. Hebrews says, “He is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact imprint of his nature,” i.e. he’s the spitting image of his Father, “and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.”
He’s all that; and now he’s also a son of his own creatures– the only impeccable (= without sin or flaw) human, ever. He had to become that in order to redeem his creation, because only the sacrifice of a flawless lamb could atone for sin. And that’s what he entered into his own creation to do. St John of Kronstadt summed it up quite nicely when he said, “The Son of God became the Son of Man in order to make us sons of God who were the children of wrath and eternal damnation.” In order to do that, God couldn’t simply have appeared on earth in his natural state. For one thing, he doesn’t have a natural appearance that we’re able to see. For another, if he had chosen to reveal himself in his full glory in a way we could see, we couldn’t bear it, because it’s way to brilliant. As God himself said to Moses, “you cannot see my face, for no one shall see me and live” (Exod 33:20). Our sinful eyes just can’t look at the pure, unfiltered light of God’s glory. So I’m guessing it must be something quite a bit more shocking than turning on a bright light in the middle of the night– so much so that he would scare us all away.
So God became man, the almighty and eternal Son of God became incarnate from the Virgin Mary and was born as a helpless infant, who grew up to surrender himself to the will of the sinful people he came to redeem, and died at our hands in order to redeem us. By becoming one of us he made himself directly accessible to us. St Theodotus, the 5th century bishop of Ancyra, said, “The hunstman has no wish to startle his prey... he hopes by stealth to ensnare and save us” (Journey with the Fathers, Year A, 24). Like catching wounded wildlife in order to save them, God appeared as one of us to get close enough to us, to gain our trust and get us to let him to help us. And he went so far as to allow his creatures to nail him to the cross as the penalty for our sin. That’s what he meant by his dying words, “It is finished” (Jn 19:30) near the end of John’s gospel. The work of redemption is finished whenever people recognize that he is the Son of God who became the Son of Man in order to make us sons of God. That happens when we are united to his death by being baptized and raised up to new life in him (Rom 6:3-5).
The opening three words of St John’s gospel that we read today, “In the beginning...,” and the three last words of Jesus on the cross, “It is finished,” are the bookends of the whole gospel. They speak about who he is, and what he came to do. And in between those bookends John unpacks those two essential facts. And that’s the eternal reality behind the obvious fact that Mary “gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger.” “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only begotten Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” O come, let us adore him. In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
a.m.d.g.
Ian C. Wetmore+



Christmas Eve
24 December AD 2016
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
 
Proper: Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96:1-4,11-12; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20
 
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
         
If you love to sing Silent Night, Away in a Manger, Angels We Have Heard on High, While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night, and also the Advent carol, Gabriel’s Message, you should be grateful to a man named Theophilus. He was not the author of those carols, but it was because of him that St Luke wrote the gospel on which all those songs are based. Luke’s is the only gospel that tells us about Gabriel’s visit to Mary, and other angels appearing to shepherds in the field singing Glory to God in the Highest, and telling the shepherds that they would find the infant Lord wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger because there was no room in the inn. Without St Luke’s gospel, we wouldn’t have any of these images etched for ever in our memories because of the songs we sing at Christmas.
Luke addresses his gospel to somebody named Theophilus so that, as he says in the first few verses, “you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (1.4). Theophilus was thought to be a prominent Gentile convert to the Christian faith. And since that name is a Greek word that means ‘lover of God,’ it’s quite likely that Luke addressed his gospel, and Acts, no just to one particular person, but to every person of faith, which prompted St Ambrose to say, “If you love God, then it was written for you” (Orthodox Study Bible, Lk 1.4 n ). But it really doesn’t matter whether Luke himself intended it for only one person or not, because God intended it for the whole Church and for the whole world, so that people everywhere would hear the Good News of his Son being born as one of us in order to save us from sin. Luke didn’t write it down just so that we could have special hymns to sing or figures for a Nativity scene or play. His gospel is part of a full catechism, a full set of instruction in the Christian faith. There’s a lot of stuff going on in this Christmas gospel that we read tonight that you don’t see unless you read it in the context of the whole Bible.
For example, why was this baby’s first bed a manger, a feeding trough for livestock? It didn’t happen by chance. It was part of God’s plan of how his Son would come into the world. Jesus later described himself as the Bread of Life which came down from heaven to give life to the world (Jn 6.51). He is the heavenly food which God has given to all those starving for something more and better. So when his first visitors, the shepherds, come to see him, they find him lying in the manger, the place where food is placed for animals to eat. And it happened in Bethlehem, which means “house of bread.” And it was foretold by the prophet Micah that he was to be born there (5.2). Jesus later connects all this with the manna, the bread, that God caused to fall from the sky to feed the Israelites during their forty years in the desert, when he says, “it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world.” Then he says, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6.32-35). He is the true bread, the Bread of Life, who came down and was born to Mary in the House of Bread, and place in a container some of his creatures eat from.
This is what we celebrate on Christmas– the fact that Life has come into this dying world, “into the midst of the land that was doomed” (Wisdom of Solomon 18:15). The Lord of Life has come to give us a share in his heavenly life, to call us out of the darkness and despair that human sin has enveloped us in. He has come as one of us, born as a baby, grown to manhood, in order to take upon himself the sins of the whole world and to suffer the penalty they deserve, and having done that, then to rise up out of the grave and return to his Father in heaven, opening the way for us to follow. You don’t get all that if you only read this little bit of St Luke’s gospel once a year. You’ve got to read everything before it and after it. And you still won’t get it unless you are Theophilus, a lover of God.
I heard a guy on the radio talking about the shopping frenzy and the excitement leading up to Christmas. And he said, “Once the presents are all opened on Christmas morning, that’s it. It’s all over.” Well, that’s not it, not by a long shot. What he was describing is just the superficial, consumerist part of Christmas divorced from the real meaning of it all. What it’s really all about is God’s incomparable, incomprehensible gift to his creatures– the gift of redemption and forgiveness and new life that can only be given to us through the life of his incarnate Son, the Word made flesh, the Babe of Bethlehem, the Bread of Life. And it’s about our getting to know him and his infinite, unconditional love, and learning to love like he loves– of becoming Theophilus, plural– Theophiloi, lovers of God.
St Hippolytus (3rd century) says,
There is one God, and we can come to know him only through sacred Scripture. So then, let us look at what Scripture proclaims, let us discover what it teaches. As the Father wants to be believed, so let us believe; as he wants the Son to be glorified, so let us glorify him; as he wants the Holy Spirit to be given, so let us receive him. (Contra Noetus 9, Office of Readings, 23 Dec.).
You can imagine that Christmas is all about the frenzied search for the nicest, most expensive gifts for the people closest to you, and the mad rush to tear open all the cool presents that other people give you. And you can imagine that after the turkey has been laid waste, you can say goodbye to all your difficult relatives and rejoice that you won’t have to see them again for another year. Then when you wake up on Monday morning, you can begin doing penance for your extravagance by working hard and scrimping to pay down your credit card bills. That’s what Christmas without Christ at the centre of it is like.
But Theophilus doesn’t look at it that way at all. The lover of God doesn’t show the measure of his love for others by what he spends on their gifts. Nor does he turn up his nose at the less desirable, less interesting gifts he may receive from them. He doesn’t see difficult relatives merely as people to be tolerated with a fake smile until they’re out the door. And he doesn’t wake up on December 26th feeling only the immense burden of his credit card debt. First of all, for Theophilus Dec. 26th is really the feast of St Stephen, the first martyr. And two days after that the Church commemorates the Holy Innocents, all the babies in Bethlehem who were slaughtered because Jesus was born there. And in between those two, on the 27th, is the feast of St John who gave us the heavenly interpretation of what we read in tonight’s gospel about Mary giving birth to her firstborn son. He said that the Word of God, the true Light, the true Bread, who really is God, “was made flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). Those three holy days, the second, third and fourth days of Christmas, bring to mind the total impact of the birth of this baby in Bethlehem.
He came to bring life into a world filled with sin and death, to offer people a way out of their bondage to those things. But because so many people are so deeply immersed in that culture that they’re comfortable– even happy– in it, they crucified him; and they’re willing to do whatever it takes to silence anybody who dares to glorify him and to proclaim the better way that he offers, whether by physical violence or by more subtle means.
You can imagine all sorts of warm, fuzzy things about Christmas, and ignore the fact that so much bloodshed resulted from the birth of Christ. And it soaks the witness of his Church. But that’s not how it is. Hippolytus says, “We must look at things rather as God has chosen to make them known through Scripture.” This baby provoked a lot of anger and hostility in the world, and he still does. But far more important is the fact that he gives life to the world, to all who receive him and who believe in his Name, as St John says  (Jn 1.12). And that far outweighs all that other stuff, and is a far greater gift that God has given to us than we can possibly give in return, or that we could give to one another. “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory.” “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth!” In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 
a.m.d.g.
Ian C. Wetmore+



Advent 4, Year A
18 December AD 2016
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
 
Proper: Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25
 
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
         
I want to give a plug here for our next adult study session well in advance. Because we’re going to read through most of St Paul’s letter to the Romans, which we actually began three weeks ago, and will finish up next September, and because Romans is such an important book of the Bible, that’s what we’re going to be looking at. Fr Tony Clavier from Glen Carbon is going to be our teacher, since he loves to teach and doesn’t get much opportunity, plus he’s very engaging, and he offered! So it doesn’t get much better than that. We’re looking at Mondays, starting February 6th and continuing through most of Lent. Stay tuned for further details.
You may have noticed that when the Church reads through a book of the Bible on Sundays, we don’t always do it in order from start to finish. That’s because the first two readings and the psalm are geared toward the gospel reading. Here’s why: Everything in the Old Testament looks forward to Jesus, even though when all those books were written, Jesus hadn’t come yet. Nobody knew exactly how God was going to accomplish his plan of salvation. He revealed it bit by bit. For example, when he evicted Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden, he said to the serpent who had tempted them to sin, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen 3:15). No one knew who that offspring of Eve’s was until Jesus came. Then by the light of the Holy Spirit, the Church understood that it was Jesus himself, which is why that passage from Genesis is called the Proto-gospel– it’s the first promise of the coming of Jesus, and it’s in the first book of the Bible. So starting with that, all the books of the OT look forward to Jesus.
And all the books of the New Testament, after the four gospels, point back to Jesus. They were all written some time after his earthly ministry, and well after he had died, risen and ascended into heaven. The gospels were too. But it’s in the four gospels that we see and hear Jesus directly. That’s why we read the gospel after the other Bible readings in church, and why reading it is surrounded by great ceremonial and reverence, even though on rare occasions, like today, we don’t hear the words of Jesus himself. But still, it’s the gospel. And it’s still that important, because it also serves the purpose of preparing God’s people to receive Jesus into ourselves in Holy Communion. So all the OT books and the rest of the NT books point toward the gospels, toward Jesus, from two different directions. And it’s Jesus himself, everything he did and said, as recorded in the four gospels that guides how we look at the rest of the Bible, both the Old and the New Testaments.
Now back to Romans. The bit we read today is the opening paragraph of St Paul’s letter to the church at Rome. He hadn’t yet been to visit them in person, but it was on his bucket list. Some of us learned in school how to write a formal letter. You put your own address at the top, then the name and address of the recipient if it’s a business letter, then the date, then “Dear ___,” then comes the body of the letter: “How are you? I am fine. Hope you are the same,” etc. And you finish it off with “Yours truly,” “Kindest regards,” “Your loving child,” etc., and sign your name. In the first-century Roman Empire, the standard way to begin a letter was much like that. You’d state your own name, then the recipients name, and a salutation. That’s what St Paul did. But he would add some kind of encouraging word about the people he was writing to.  In his personal letters he wrote, “To Timothy [or Titus], a true son in the faith.” Most of his letters that we have, though, were written to whole congregations, always with an encouraging word and a blessing, like what we read today:
To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Then he would launch into the body of his letter. To the Corinthian and Galatian churches he went immediately from the warm greeting and blessing to calling them on the carpet for listening to bad teachers and the divisions they caused. And after setting them straight, he ended with another blessing, e.g. “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you.”
The church at Rome, on the other hand, was doing quite well, thriving and growing. So Paul was pretty eager to go there in person. Meanwhile, he wrote this very important letter both to introduce himself and to do some heavy-duty teaching in advance, knowing that they would prize that letter, reading and rereading and studying it, and also copying it to share with other churches, which is what all the churches did in those early days. We do it by email now. In fact, our bishop just sent out a pastoral epistle to the clergy of the diocese the other day. But it wasn’t anything like St Paul’s epistles, except for the part where he gently reminded us that clergy conferences and retreats are not optional unless we’re lying in a hospital bed or a cemetery, or looking after someone else who’s in one of those places. And he doesn’t usually do it with the same force as St Paul (“You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” Gal 3:3; cf  “You foolish priests! What's the matter with you?”).
What we read today is just the opening greeting of Paul’s letter. But it’s packed with a lot of theological content that’s well worth our time unpacking just a little bit. “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God...” Right off the bat, he’s establishing his credentials. He identifies himself primarily as a slave of Jesus. For some strange reason, the version we read today, and most other modern English translations use the word servant. But the word Paul really uses here is slave (= doulos; servant = diakonos). There’s a big difference. A servant is not entirely beholden to his master. He could quit his job any time he liked. But slaves are property– they’ve been bought for a price, and they owe their masters everything, total service, total devotion. At least that’s how slave-owning cultures understood it, which is precisely why Paul uses that term, in order to flip the whole idea upside down.  The price paid for Paul is the same price Jesus paid for you and me– his own blood poured out on the cross. Paul is being intentionally ironic here. Unlike being the slave of a human master, being a slave of Christ Jesus is a glorious thing because it gives to the slave a kind of freedom that is incomprehensible to worldly minds. It’s freedom from slavery to sin. Even though in this life we’re surrounded and constantly bombarded by sin, through the water of baptism and faith in Jesus, God has lifted us out of it and given us the means to get free of it whenever we stumble and fall back into it. So Paul teaches that the greatest way we can identify ourselves is as slaves of Jesus, whom he bought and freed with his own blood.
Next he says that he’s “called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God.” The Apostles are the ones Jesus called out of all of his earliest followers to be the first leaders of his Church. Apostolos= one who is sent. Before ascending into heaven, Jesus sent twelve of them out into the world to proclaim the Gospel and begin the work of building up  the Church. Later on he chose Paul. You know the story– he temporarily blinded Paul by the pure heavenly Light that Jesus himself is, and then sent him into the loving embrace of the Church to be cared for and prayed for and nourished by the Gospel which he was subsequently sent out to proclaim. By this time Paul is quite well known throughout the Church as an Apostle gifted by God with all the power and authority he gave to the other twelve.
Then, still in his opening greeting, Paul declares the whole Gospel in a nutshell, so that the Roman Christians would be assured that he’s the real deal. His ministry is to proclaim Jesus whom God had promised through the OT prophets, and declared to be his Son by raising him from the dead. That doesn’t mean that Jesus wasn’t God’s Son until he raised him from the dead. What Paul means to say is that the resurrection is God’s ultimate declaration that Jesus has always been his Son– “eternally begotten of the Father,” as we say in the Creed, “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not created.” The Son of God exists eternally in the heavens. He is the Word that God speaks. In the gospel we read on Christmas Day, St John says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (Jn 1:1-3). The Son of God is the Word God spoke to create everything, and he is everything that God has to say to his creation.
The letter to the Hebrews, which we also read on Christmas Day, says that “at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets,  but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son... through whom also he created the world” (Heb 1:1-2). Now in case you’re wondering, I’m not jumping the gun and preaching a Christmas sermon even though I’m quoting the Christmas readings. My point is that this is the point we’re at in Advent on this last Sunday before Christmas. And it’s the point of today’s Bible readings. They’re bringing all this together for us.
There’s another wonderful passage, from the Wisdom of Solomon, that’s read at Evening Prayer on Christmas Eve:
While gentle silence enveloped all things, and night in its swift course was now half gone, your all-powerful Word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne, into the midst of the land that was doomed.” (18:14-15)
It’s echoes that prophecy that we read in both the first lesson and the gospel today: “‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us).” When Isaiah first spoke that prophecy, no one knew who that virgin would be or how her son could possibly be Immanuel, God with us. How could a human also be God? Or would he just be the most Spirit-filled of all the prophets? And how would God accomplish the redemption of his people through this person? Through the prophets God revealed his plan bit by bit throughout  that Old Testament period from the garden of Eden up until John the Baptist appeared, preaching and baptizing in the Jordan river.
And the readings on this last Sunday of Advent pull all of it together, so that the Church can say to her own children and to the whole world that this child whose birth we are about to celebrate really is Immanuel, God with us, who “became incarnate by the Holy Spirit from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” God’s “all-powerful Word leaped from heaven... into the midst of the land that was doomed.” That’s what the Church calls the mystery of the Incarnation, of the eternal Son of God becoming man. How he became fully human while also remaining fully God is beyond our finite human understanding. But God doesn’t expect us to understand it in order to share in the divine life he offers us through his Son, no more than he expects us to understand what he’s doing in us when we’re baptized. He simply invites us to accept it, to let him wash away our sin and enter into it. We’ll understand it all one day.

Meanwhile, we carry on preparing, getting ready to greet the Lord with full hearts and open arms. As the Church we look forward to that happening at the end of time when the Lord will return in glory. Every Christmas is a rehearsal for that. But it’s most likely going to happen for every one of us here quite a bit sooner, at the end of our own lives. And the way we do that is by listening to his voice as he speaks to his Church through the proclamation of his Word, by confessing our sins and asking his forgiveness, and by going to the altar to be filled with his divine life. We need to do this every Lord’s Day, Sunday, if at all possible, and every major holy day, especially Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. And we allow his voice to speak through our own words and actions as we relate to one another, and as he sends us out into the world  to share the Good News of Immanuel, God with us, just like how the angel shared it with Joseph, the archangel Gabriel shared it with Mary, and a multitude of the heavenly host shared it with the shepherds. Because that’s what he gives his slaves the freedom to do.  In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 
a.m.d.g.
Ian C. Wetmore+


 

No homily on Advent 3. The family pageant filled that slot, and filled it very well!


Advent 2, Year A
4 December AD 2016
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
 
Proper: Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12
 
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
         
Point of information: It may be a trivial point, but I’d bet more than a few people wonder who the Gentiles are that St Paul mentions six times in today’s second lesson. Lots of cultures use an us-them terminology to distinguish themselves from everybody else. Jews use the Hebrew word Goyim, which is the same as the Latin word ‘Gentiles’, both of which translate into English as nations. cf Psalm 2: “Why are the nations in an uproar?” The Jews use two biblical terms that God himself gave them: They refer to themselves as God’s chosen people or Jews. Before the nation was divided by the sons of King Solomon, they were called Israelites. And they refer to the rest of the world as Goyim/Gentiles. Now, moving right along...
As I said last week, repentance is an essential element of Advent, the season of getting ready to celebrate the birth of our Savior. And the readings the Church has appointed to be read in Advent are shot through with that understanding. Last Sunday we heard St Paul urging us to “cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Rom 13:12). And in the collect we prayed that God would give us grace to do that very thing. In today’s collect we prayed that God would give us “grace to heed [the prophets’] warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer.” And in today’s gospel we heard John the Baptist echoing the prophet Isaiah’s call to God’s people to “prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” by repenting of sin. St Matthew says that scads of people went out to be baptized by John, confessing their sins.
The way, the road, the path of the Lord that John is talking about is not some external thing, not one of the beautiful paved stone and concrete roads that the Romans were building all over the empire in those days. The way of the Lord runs right through the heart of every person on earth. So clean it up, John said, straighten it out, repent. That’s what it takes to get ready to meet the Lord when he comes.
In the Church, which the Lord created when he first came in human flesh, and in the wake of his death and resurrection, and his giving himself to be the Church’s heavenly food, we understand penitential preparation to be an ongoing thing. It’s not just an annual Advent exercise. It’s not just something we have to remember to do, or hope we’ll be able to do when we’re about to meet our Maker. It’s something we need to be working at all the time– keeping the way of the Lord that runs through us neat and clean, free of potholes, roadkill and roadside trash, you might say.
That’s an exercise that begins with the Prayer after Communion every time we go to church. We ask that God would “send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve [him] with gladness and singleness of heart” (BCP 365). That’s our prayer most of the year. But in Advent we phrase it a little differently:
...we humbly beseech thee, O heavenly Father, so to assist us with thy grace, that we may continue in that holy fellowship, and do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in” (BCP 339).
Our weekly preparation begins right there. And it continues until the next time we come to hear the voice of the Lord speaking to his people through the Scriptures, and his word of forgiveness when we confess our sins, and to receive the Lord into ourselves as we kneel at the rail. And if we’re serious about that, and as it becomes a habitual part of our lives, we become pretty good at dealing with all those little sins, and even at resisting the temptation to sin. And if we’re determined to keep the Lord’s path straight as it runs through us, we’ll know enough, with the help of God’s grace, to run to him right away whenever we’re tempted by those besetting sins may afflict us, those chronic things that won’t leave us alone, like that mysterious ‘thorn’ in St Paul’s flesh (2Cor 12:7). Preparing the way of the Lord in that way is an essential part of the Christian life, and of our growth in holiness.
So repentance is a pretty important part of getting ready to celebrate the birth of the Lord, as well as to receive him in Holy Communion every week, and to meet him in the hour of our death. But I would suggest to you that there is a particular issue that the whole Church– whole congregations, whole denominations, every part of the Church on earth– needs to focus on, at this time especially, but really all the time, that we need to repent of and to earnestly seek and use God’s grace to straighten out. It’s our failure to carry out the Great Commission.
The Church has basically two things to do: worship and witness. That’s all. But it’s a lot, and it’s not always easy. Worship is our primary responsibility. The earliest Christians gathered early on the first day of the week (Sunday) to to celebrate the Holy Eucharist (= “break bread”- Acts 20:7, 1Cor 16:2), early in the morning before anybody went off to do anything else. Right off the bat, they set the pattern for the Church to follow until the end of time. Worship is the most important thing we do, above everything else in our lives. So it should be the very first thing we do.
Stewardship plug: It’s also why our giving to the Church should come off the top of what we have, rather than giving out of what’s left after the bills are paid, because financial support of the Church is itself an act of worship.
So it’s important that every believer should make every effort to worship with all God’s people on Sunday morning, if possible. But since it’s not always possible, it’s up to the rest of us to lift up those absent ones to the Lord at the altar. And  it’s important that God should be worshiped, no matter how small the congregation or how many can’t make it out because of work or weather or whatever. The main thing is that the Lord is worshiped on the Lord’s Day. Why? Because he is God. And as the psalmist says, “It is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture” (Ps 100:2).
So worship is always the first thing the Church does on the first day of the week, before she does anything else. And of course the truly wonderful thing is that at every hour of every day, in every time zone around the world, congregations are gathered at the altar, and individuals are praying in private. So the worship of God on earth never ends. It’s a visible image of the heavenly worship that began at the dawn of creation and will continue for ever.
Witness is the other occupation of the Church. And that’s where lots and lots of Christian groups fall down, including us Anglicans. Some would say especially us Anglicans, but not me. Because it’s where God’s people have fallen down over and over again, ever since he chose a specific group to be his people. Ever since our first ancestors committed the first sin, God’s project has been to redeem and to reconcile all of humanity to himself– not just a chosen few, but every person who would freely accept his invitation to repent and return to him.
He chose the nation of Israel, the children of Abraham, to be the conduit through which he would bless the whole world. But in time, the Israelites grew complacent and smug in their chosen status, while ignoring the reason God chose them. Again and again God sent prophets to call his people to repent, to turn around. Again and again his people abused his prophets and even killed some of them. So he allowed other nations to conquer his people and to abuse them. After long centuries of that kind of conditioning, they grew to despise all Gentiles, all foreigners. That’s why John the Baptist screamed at the Pharisees and Saducees, calling them a brood of vipers. They saw themselves as the elite among God’s chosen people, and were the ones who reinforced, and even beefed up, the isolationist policy.
Then came God himself in human flesh, born the son of Mary, one of them. And they abused and killed him too, using the most horrible, most degrading method of execution.  But he rose up from the dead, because he is God, and he’s determined to love his people no matter what. And just before the crucified and risen Lord ascended into heaven, he commissioned his Church to go “and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe” everything he commanded them (Mt 28:19-20). That’s the Great Commission. Second only to worship, it’s  the Church’s job description– going out and making disciples, sharing the love of the God who loves all his creatures so much that he sent his only Son to be our Savior (BCP 374), to absorb all the sin of the world into himself on the cross and die for it, and then to destroy death by rising from the dead. That’s the Good News that his earliest followers, who witnessed it all, set out to proclaim to the whole world, telling what they saw, making and baptizing disciples.  And quite a lot of them were put to death for it because the world didn’t want to hear what they had to say.
That kind of sustained opposition will wear down most people. So over time, like God’s Old Testament people, the Church’s besetting sin has become to withdraw in the face of even the slightest opposition. Our tendency is to worship behind closed doors. We open them to let people in who really want to join us, but we certainly don’t want to go out in public to proclaim Christ crucified and risen, to tell the world what we believe and to invite people in. Yet that’s our job, our vocation, our calling from God, and our commission from Jesus– to call people in, to welcome them and love them like he does, just as he called and welcomed us and loves us.
The Church faces this problem in every generation. The Episcopal Church’s problem in the recent past has been to view itself as the liberal Protestant elite, a cut above other Christian groups. Some of its advertising in the last ten years or so featured the line, “You don’t have to check your brain at the door.” Not only is that incredibly arrogant and self-righteous, it also demonstrates a profound ignorance of all that stuff Jesus taught about humility and meekness. The clear message of that kind of advertising is that we only want to welcome the right sort of people. It’s not just our denomination that has done that kind of stuff, though. There are all sorts of ways various Christian groups have declared their elitism and narrowly defined the sort of people they want in their pews. All of them are offensive to the Gospel, and essentially sinful.
In today’s second lesson, St Paul is writing to a mixed congregation of Jews and Gentiles in Rome. And since Rome was the capital of the empire, it might well have been a very multi-ethnic, multi-racial mix. Paul hadn’t been to Rome yet when he wrote that letter, but he knew all about the church there. And one of the more remarkable things was that all the Christians there loved one another and got along quite well, which must have been pretty refreshing for Paul after having to deal with snobbery and elitism, and other divisive issues that had infected the churches in Corinth and Galatia. So in this passage we read today, he’s just encouraging the Roman Christians in what they’re already doing so well. “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus,” he says, “that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” That’s what they were already doing. They were proclaiming the Gospel with one voice in the public square, and welcoming all sorts of people into their worship and fellowship, just as Christ welcomed them, without a care for who they were, what they looked like or where they came from.
Then Paul goes on to talk a little bit about God’s overarching plan to draw all people to himself, and not just a chosen few. “Christ became a servant to the circumcised [= the Jews],” he says, “to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm” everything he had promised in the OT, “and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.” Christ was born among Jews as a Jew, just as all the OT scriptures had foretold. And as promised, God did indeed bless all the nations on earth through Abraham and his descendants by raising up Jesus from among them, who extended the invitation to all the world to be reconciled to God.
So continue what you’re doing, Paul says to the Roman church, because it’s working! And because it’s working, God is glorified so much more, and the cross of Christ is lifted up so much higher for everyone to see. Continue to embrace one another and to welcome newcomers unreservedly. Rome was the initial long-term goal for the Apostles because if they could get a church to thrive and grow  in the imperial capital, the Gospel would be carried from there to every part of the known world. And so it happened. The church at Rome became the launchpad for the spread of Christianity throughout the western world. And from Constantinople it spread all over the eastern world.
The Church has a lot to repent of in preparing for the coming of the Lord, both now as we do our best to get ready to make a proper annual celebration of his birth, and in the long view as we do our best to use his grace to help us do the thing he commissioned his Church to do. That is to go into all the world, making and baptizing disciples, and teaching them the way of the Lord. That’s the thing each of us at baptism was born again to be a part of, and that were ordained to do at our confirmation. We need to go back to basics. We need to look to the early Church, which thrived in a hostile environment and spread all over the world. We need to engage every baptized person in discipleship, and identify who is gifted for what part to play in carrying out the Great Commission in the environment where God has planted us.
The Church is often compared to a ship. Every sailor has a particular job to do to keep the ship operational and to fulfil its mission. Talking about how God equips each disciple in the cause of the Gospel is something we tend to do more at Pentecost. So we’ll leave it alone for now, and I’ll urge you all instead to focus on preparing the way of the Lord, both in your own hearts and in the congregation and the wider Church. And “may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
a.m.d.g.
Ian C. Wetmore+

 
Advent 1, Year A
27 November AD 2016
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
 
Proper: Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44
 
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
         

The older Prayer Book tradition, before the one we use now, is quite different from the one we use now. I was formed as a priest in that older tradition, and practiced it before I came here. Ever since the Reformation, we always began the liturgy on this first Sunday of Advent by praying the Great Litany. That’s because Advent is a penitential season– not quite as much as Lent, but it’s up there. So when I arrived here, and began to learn the newer ways, I consulted some colleagues, including our bishop,  as to whether kicking off Advent with the Great Litany is something the Episcopal Church does. The bishop said yes. But one priest said absolutely not, because Advent is not a penitential season. It’s all about the preparation to celebrate the coming of the Lord in human flesh, he said, and that’s a joyful pursuit, not a penitential one.
That, I learned, is why so many Episcopal congregations like to decorate their churches in royal blue rather than the old-fashioned purple/violet for Advent. They claim it dates back to medieval England when they used what is called Sarum (= Lat. Salisbury) blue. Blue is the color of hope and expectation, some argue, and Advent is the season of hope and expectation. Another common argument is that blue is the color of Mary, and Advent is the season of Mary’s expectation– late in her third trimester, the doctor would say. A third argument is that blue is the color of the predawn light, and the birth of Jesus is the dawning of the true Light. The thing is, every one of those arguments is made up. The only true thing is that lots of churches in medieval England, used Sarum blue at certain times of the year, but not necessarily in Advent. And besides all that, Sarum blue is nothing like the royal blue that all the modern-day holy hardware suppliers feature on the covers of their fall catalogs. It’s actually a shade of indigo, which is so dark that it could be reckoned as either blue or purple, and therefore a deeply penitential color. So the modern taste for blue in Advent really has no solid history to back it up. It was based on some questionable evidence in order to support the desire to downplay penitence, which really is an essential part of Advent worship.
Which begs the question, why the emphasis on penitence in getting ready for the coming of the Lord? To answer that, we have to look, not to arguments over liturgical practice, but to the Bible, at why the Son of God came to us in human flesh, and why God sent all those prophets before Jesus, from Moses right up to John the Baptist, and even all the way back to why Adam and Eve got evicted from the garden of Eden in the first place. The basic answer is sin. What is repentance, if not simply dealing with sin and getting free of it by God’s redeeming grace? And why such a pressing emphasis on sin? Because sin is destructive. It destroys relationships; it destroys the planet; it destroys individuals who nurture it in their hearts and who act on it. Adam and Eve turned away from God. They stopped trusting him and tried instead to become like him, having believed the devil’s lie that they  themselves could have all the knowledge and power of God. That original sin has infected the whole world. And every descendant of theirs is born with the stain of that sin, which can only be gotten rid of by the baptism of repentance.
To explain all this I’m going to take you on a little tour through the Prayer Book liturgy, which is thoroughly grounded in Scripture. We should pay close attention to the words of the liturgy as we pray it, because as it carries us into the presence of God week after week, it also reminds us of the story of our salvation. And the more we participate in the liturgy, the more indelibly that story is written on our memories, the more deeply it’s ingrained in our hearts. And if there’s one thing we Anglicans/Episcopalians know well, it’s our Prayer Book liturgy. I suspect most of you know more Bible and more theology than you think you do, because there’s so much of it in the Prayer Book.
So why did the Lord Jesus come to us in human flesh? One of the eucharistic prayers in the Prayer Book (C– the “Star Trek” prayer), puts it very well: “...we turned against you, and betrayed your trust; and we turned against one another... Again and again, you called us to return” (BCP 370). Return, in that sense, is another word for repentance. Again and again God called his people to turn around, to turn away from sin, and turn back to him. Another eucharistic prayer (D– the longest one) says this:
When our disobedience took us far from you, you did not abandon us to the power of death... Again and again you called us into covenant with you, and through the prophets you taught us to hope for salvation. (BCP 373)
Ever since that original sin was committed by our first ancestors, God has repeatedly called his people to repent, to turn around, to come back to God on bended knee, trusting in his mercy to forgive.  And “in these last days,” as it says in eucharistic prayer B, God sent his Son
to be incarnate from the Virgin Mary, to be the Savior and Redeemer of the world. In him, you have delivered us from evil, and made us worthy to stand before you. In him, you have brought us out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life. (BCP 368)
Just before Jesus appeared on the scene, though, God sent the last of his prophets to call his people one more time to get ready, because the time had finally come. Even though he appears in the New Testament, John the Baptist is very much an Old Testament prophet in the line of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the rest, because the message of his prophecy is essentially the same as theirs: repent and return to the Lord your God. St Mark says that “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mk 1:4). That’s the call of Advent, folks! Preparing the way of the Lord can’t happen without repentance. So every year at this time, Mother Church calls her children to a few weeks of soul-searching and repentance so that, come Christmas, we can celebrate the first coming of the Lord with hearts emptied of sin, in order to make room for the love that brought him into the world to be our Savior and Redeemer.
Now, this little travelogue through the liturgy wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t highlight something from Rite One, which we use in Advent. This is how the eucharistic prayer we’re using today starts:
All glory be to thee, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for that thou, of thy tender mercy, didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption; who made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. (BCP 334)
That’s a beautifully worded chunk of Elizabethan English, although it can be kind hard to take in the first time you hear it. But be of good cheer– you’ve got four weeks to process it. That opening sentence explains why Jesus came. He came to be our sacrifice, our sin-offering to God. You see, the long shadow of the cross extends all the way back to the manger in Bethlehem, and even beyond that to his conception when the angel said to Joseph, “you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:21). Jesus = Yeshua means ‘God saves.’
From the days of Moses, God’s chosen people had been steeped in the understanding that the only way to deal with sin in order to get right with God involved the blood of an innocent victim. And they were reminded of that every year on the Day of Atonement, when the spotless animal was sacrificed for the sins of God’s people. And although they didn’t know it in those days, that was an annual rehearsal for the real day of atonement– Good Friday, when Jesus, who “lived as one us, yet without sin” (Prayer D, BCP 374), “stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself... a perfect sacrifice for the whole world” (Prayer A, BCP 362). Like I said, if you pay close attention to the liturgy as we’re praying it, you’ll get the big picture.
So yes, Advent is very much a penitential season, though not quite the same as Lent. What we’re looking forward to during Lent is Palm Sunday and the the great three days at the end of Holy Week. On Maundy Thursday we celebrate the institution of the Holy Eucharist, when Jesus gave us this liturgy in which he feeds us from his own substance. Good Friday is the most mournful day of the year as we commemorate the death of Jesus for our sins, followed closely by the most joyous day of the year, the day when he rose from the dead. A season of deep soul-searching and repentance is called for in getting ready for all that.
In Advent, what we’re immediately looking forward to, and getting ready for, is the birth of Jesus. Christmas is a bright and joyful celebration to be sure, but not so much as Easter, since Easter is on the far side of the cross, and since by rising from the dead, Jesus has vindicated everything that happened before Easter. In fact, it’s the immense brilliance of Easter coming from the far side of the cross that casts that long shadow backwards over Epiphany, Christmas and Advent.
So yes, joyful expectation is quite the proper mood in this season of getting ready, as we look forward to Christmas. But what we really need to understand is that Advent penitence really does heighten the joyfulness of Christmas, and puts us on the right footing to kick off the new Church year. And so we pray on this first day of the new Church year that God would give us grace to “cast off the works of darkness” by repenting of our sin, and to “put on the armor of light” by pleading God’s mercy and accepting his forgiveness, so that when his Son returns in all his glory to judge the world, “we may rise to the life immortal.” So come then, “O house of Jacob,” O Church of the living God, “let us walk in the light of the Lord.” In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
a.m.d.g.
Ian C. Wetmore+





Proper 28, Year C
13 November AD 2016
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon, IL
 
Proper: Malachi 4:1-2a; Psalm 98; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19
 
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
         
There are lots of people around, especially in this country, and especially in the last two hundred years, who are obsessed with preaching about the end times, the coming tribulation, and the rapture– that last one is not even a biblical thing. They cherry-pick verses all over the Bible, including what we read today in Malachi and Luke, to try to show how all those passages point to the same event, one that they believe is going to happen very soon. But Jesus says quite emphatically, Don’t listen to those people. Many will come in my Name, he says, and they’ll do whatever it takes to persuade people that they know what they’re talking about. And that includes stringing together any number of Bible verses, lots of which are not really pointing to the same event. That’s what happens when an individual, who doesn’t know how the books of the Bible came to be written and gathered  together in one volume, and who doesn’t read it with the whole Church in every age, and who has no knowledge of the larger context in which each of the books was written, then reads it and tries to make sense of it on his own. One person cannot do it. It’s just too rich and too complex. There is lots of stuff in there that’s easy to understand, and that can give a lot of comfort and encouragement to the reader. But not all of it is that way.
We Anglicans have been praying today’s collect every year since 1549. It’s nickname is the Scripture Sunday collect because it was originally paired with a passage from Romans 15 in which St Paul teaches about the necessity and the purpose of learning the Word of God, which is to strengthen our faith, fill us with hope, bind us all together in Christ, and lead us all to praise him with one voice (Rom 15.4-6). And it’s become sort of the standard Anglican Bible-study prayer, since so many individuals and groups pray it as they study the Word in depth. It begins by acknowledging what Jesus affirmed in his earthly ministry, and what his Church has always taught, i.e. that all the holy Scriptures have been written for our instruction. They’re God’s testimony of love to his people; the record of how he created us and why; the history of how we have repeatedly turned away from him and spurned his love; and what he ultimately did in the Person of his Son to free us from sin and redeem us. The letters of St Paul and the others in the New Testament then teach the followers of Jesus what our response to that love ought to look like, how we should let it form our life and our worldview, and guide the way we relate to our neighbors. There are also lots of laws and commandments that act sort of like a guardrail to keep us from going off the road that leads to God.
But you can’t know any of that unless you study it. Childhood Sunday school is not enough. Christians are not allowed to graduate from studying the Word of God. But that doesn’t stop lots of us from playing hooky though. Listening intently to the preacher on Sunday morning isn’t enough either. The sermon at every Mass is an altar call, meant to prepare God’s people for what’s about to happen at the altar. It’s supposed to be based on the appointed Bible readings. And it’s purpose is to open the Word so that the people can recognize Jesus when they meet him at the altar. But that’s not the time or the place to take God’s people deep into his Word.
So if today’s readings are not about the end time or the rapture, what are Malachi and Jesus talking about? Well, a bit of context is helpful. God raised up Malachi to prophesy sometime after the newly rebuilt temple was consecrated in about 515 BC. The original temple, built by Solomon around 950 BC, had been destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BC. And so the first thing the Jews did after returning home from their Babylonian exile was to rebuild the temple. After that, it didn’t take very long for the people to backslide yet again. They started to grumble against God, and to neglect his worship, and to treat people, including their own families, with contempt. The priests slacked off, neglecting their temple duties and accepting inferior sacrifices rather than insisting on the very best animals, as the law required. So God sent Malachi to call his people to repentance, and to remind them that the temple and a proper reverence for it, a faithful priesthood, and sincere worship are what form the spiritual foundation of God’s people.
Then after pointing out all the ways the people had gone wrong, at the end of the prophecy, comes what we read today. The unfaithful will be consumed by fire, but the faithful will see the Sun of Righteousness rise with healing in his wings. That’s kind of a mixed metaphor– a sun with wings. He’s actually prophesying the coming of Jesus. And since the Church looks at the Old Testament through the lens of the Gospel, St John and St Paul help unpack that a little bit. John describes Jesus as the Light that the darkness cannot overcome (Jn 1:5). He’s the uncreated Light of God, that Paul describes as being “brighter than the sun” (Acts 26:13). Charles Wesley used Malachi’s image in his famous poem:
                        Risen with healing in his wings,
                        light and life to all he brings,
                        hail, the Sun of Righteousness!
                        hail, the heaven-born Prince of Peace!
                        Hark! the herald angels sing
                        glory to the newborn King.                                                       (Hymnal 1982: #87)
In contrast to the fire of God’s judgment that will burn up the wicked, the heat of the sun warms the faithful with the healing message of God’s righteousness. And he will shelter them under his protective wings, the psalmist says (Ps 91:4). It’s Jesus that Malachi sees. And without knowing who that is, or what the future of the temple will be, Malachi is given this vision of the coming redemption of God’s people by this mysterious Sun of Righteousness. “You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall,” he says further on... “And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers” (Mal 4:2,6). Extreme joy in the Lord, and reconciliation with both God and each other– that’s the message of all the OT prophets, of whom Malachi is the last. That’s the message of the Gospel as well.
Now, skipping ahead a little over 500 years– Jesus and the disciples are inside the very same temple that Malachi was talking about, only it’s recently been expanded and made much more opulent by King Herod. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus said Herod used slabs of white marble sixty feet long and eighteen feet wide, that the gates and doors were plated with gold and silver so that they flashed in the sun, and everywhere the intricate wood- and stone-carving was set with jewels. It was the most impressive building in Judea. It’s Holy Week, sometime between Palm Sunday, when Jesus entered Jerusalem for the last time, and Maundy Thursday, when he was betrayed and arrested. He’s been teaching, and getting himself deeper in hot water with the religious establishment.
But at this moment, he seems to be left alone with his disciples, who are amazed at the grandeur of the temple. That’s when he says, “You see all this stuff? The day is coming when not one stone will be left on top of another. It will all be destroyed.” “When’s that going to be?” they ask him, “And how will we know it’s time?” “Don’t be fooled,” he says, “for many will come in my name, claiming to be the one who knows, and warning that the time has come. Don’t listen to them.” He’s actually talking about more than one event. Thirty-seven years later the second temple, the one they were sitting in at that moment, was destroyed by the Romans, along with the rest of the city, after the Jews had risen up in rebellion. But a few years before that, the Romans recognized that Christians were no longer just a subset of Jews, but were distinctly different. That’s when the emperor Nero began the first large-scale persecution of the Church.  It continued, off and on, for nearly 250 years. And the persecution of Christians has been happening in different places around the world ever since, most recently in places like China, Iraq and Syria– but not in the United States, as Billy Graham’s granddaughter claimed while she was campaigning for Donald Trump a couple of weeks ago!
So Jesus is prophesying this one concrete event, the destruction of the temple in 70 AD. And he’s also warning his disciples that there’s going to be trouble from here on out, until the end of time. You’ll be betrayed even by people close to you, he tells them, “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake,” for sticking with him, for remaining steadfastly faithful to him. “See that you’re not led astray,” he urges them. Well, how will his people be able to do that, if not by being solidly grounded in the fellowship of his Church, regularly nourished at his altar, and well schooled in his Word?
In this country it’s pretty unlikely that any of us will be captured and beheaded by ISIS, or brought up on a charge of being a follower of Jesus. In fact, the vast majority of God’s people who ever lived died of natural causes. So the greater danger for them, and most of us, is either to simply drift away, or to be sucked in by people who preach a different gospel, a distorted version of the real thing that’s been safeguarded and proclaimed openly and boldly by the faithful Church through the ages. And one of the things that the faithful Church has repeated through the ages is that, because the Scriptures describe the end times in a variety of ways in several different books in both the Old and the New Testaments, it’s impossible to nail down exactly when the end of time will be, when the Lord will return in all his glory to establish his kingdom in all its fullness on the ruins of the kingdoms of this world. There’s no way that anybody on earth can know or calculate that time. So “do not go after them,” as Jesus says– and don’t send them any money!
Rather than wasting our time and resources on vain speculation, we should instead be doing the most important work of the Church in the world, the work of reconciliation, of constantly working on being at peace with each other within the fellowship of the Church, and of extending that opportunity of reconciliation and peace with God to everyone outside his Church. And we also need very badly to immerse ourselves in the ongoing study of his Word so as to be deeply grounded in what we say we believe when we stand up and say the Creed, and to be able to give to the world “a reason for the hope that is in us” (1Pt 3:15), to make a strong case for our faith to anybody who asks.
By the way, on that scary day when Jesus cleansed the temple, when he upset tables everywhere and used a whip to drive the merchants out of the worship space that God himself had reserved for the Gentiles, the religious leaders asked whose authority he was acting on. He said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” They had no idea what he was talking about. “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple,” they said, “and you’d rebuild it in three days?” “But he was speaking about the temple of his body,” St John says. The first temple, built by Solomon, was destroyed by the Babylonians four hundred years later. The second one was destroyed by the Romans five hundred  years after it was built. Jesus himself is the third and ultimate temple. Whoever believes and is baptized is incorporated into his Body the Church. He is the high priest who eternally offers himself to the Father as the atoning sacrifice for his people. We approach the throne of God in Christ Jesus, who died and rose again on the third day. That’s what he was telling the religious leaders that day– that the true worship of God only happens in and through Jesus. He is the priest, the sacrifice, and the temple. And we who are his baptized disciples inhabit that temple; we plead his sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but for the sins of the whole world (1Jn 2:2); and we worship the Father in him, in the power of the Holy Spirit.
So we, the people of God, need to be busy learning about all that, going deeper in the faith of Jesus, and then taking it out to the world to share with whoever wants to hear it, whoever needs to hear it, whoever is looking for something or someone who can give them hope. God has “caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning.” Therefore we really ought to do our best to learn from them, to be grounded in his truth, so as not to drift away from it, so as not to be caught off guard by some crazy distortion of the truth, and so as to be able to give someone else some of the hope that he has instilled in us through his holy Scriptures. So we should all pray sincerely that God would “Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which [he has] given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.” And if you’ve got any Bible study ideas or requests, please do let me hear them, and we’ll see what we can do.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
a.m.d.g.
Ian C. Wetmore+



All Saints Sunday
6 November AD 2016
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon, IL
 
Ecclesiasticus 44:1-10, 13-14; Psalm 149; Revelation 7:2-4, 9-17; Matthew 5:1-12
 
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
         
You all know what Heinz Ketchup is like. It comes in that distinctive-looking bottle that has six flat sides– not the squeeze bottle, but the traditional glass bottle. And the ketchup itself is so thick that you have to shake it and pound it, and take a chance on getting it all over yourself before you actually get any on your burger. But it’s worth the risk, isn’t it? And then there’s some of those off-brand versions that are a whole lot cheaper and a whole lot thinner, so that if you’re not careful, it will run all over your burger before you can stop it. And it doesn’t taste as good as Heinz. But they make their bottles look as much as possible like a Heinz bottle without crossing the line into copyright infringement, in order to get you, the unsuspecting consumer, to buy it. Now hold that thought.
There are a lot of strange ideas floating around about Christianity– most of them pretty far off the mark, as far as I can tell. And in the seminaries, where naive candidates for ordination go to learn about the faith and to be strengthened in it in order to go out and be good priests and faithful stewards of the mysteries of Christ– in the seminaries lots of these goofy ideas come to the surface. Now you would think that seminary would be the one place where crazy ideas would be revealed for what they are, and tossed out with yesterday’s garbage.
One of my classmates was telling me one day how wonderfully ‘evangelical’ his minister was: When he preached he would make all sorts of gestures with his head and his arms, and raise his voice and lower it at appropriate moments in order to get his point across and to stir up his congregation. This, to my friend, was what it meant to be ‘evangelical’. He belonged to a fairly new church that was established by that particular minister to suit his own agenda. And my classmate was convinced that if a minister could be so passionate, so ‘evangelical’, to use his word, about a particular cause, he must be right. But there’s quite a big difference between being right and just being persuasive. St Paul warns the church in Galatia about being led to follow a different gospel, “...not that there is another one,” he says, “but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ” (1:7).
The minister of that congregation that my friend belonged to brought to his ministry the preaching style of the Baptist Church in which he was originally ordained, and which later defrocked him for heresy, and copied catholic forms of worship from the Anglican, Lutheral and Roman Catholic Churches, using both of those to try to give credibility to what he preached. He put his product in someone else’s package and tried to pass it off as the genuine article. He put his off-brand of weak and dishonest religion into a reputable, familiar-looking package, and tried to pass it off as “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). It’s weak because it won’t stand the test of scripture and tradition; and it’s dishonest because denies the truth of God as he has revealed it in Holy Scripture. If ‘evangelical’ means dressing up in colourful vestments and dramatizing our speech, then what we do here is nothing more than play-acting.
But thanks be to God that ‘evangelical’ means so much more than the world understands. It has nothing at all to do with the frail human ways we emphasize or underline the message we want to convey. It has instead to do with the message itself. Evangel means message. And in the Christian sense it is the Gospel. And in today’s readings we’ve heard the Evangel, the Message, the Good News in clearest terms. It speaks to us about the importance of what we are and what we do in this life, and of what that has to do with the fullness of life that is ours in Christ Jesus.
In today’s second lesson, the elder asks St John, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and where have they come from?” John says, “Sir, you know,” which is another way of saying, “I have no idea.” Then answering his own question the elder says, “These are the ones who have come out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” These are the blessed ones that Jesus describes in today’s gospel. These are the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, the hungry, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and the persecuted. These are the ones who confess that Jesus is Lord and believe in their hearts that God raised him from the dead (Rom 10:9),  and whose lives have been transformed by his life, death and resurrection. These are the people who, as St Jude says, have contended “for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints,” and who refused to turn to a different gospel, “not that there is another one.” There is only one Jesus and only one Gospel, and anything that differs from it is a distortion of it.
The point of our celebration this week is to honor all those saints– those holy ones– both known and unknown, who through their confession of faith, their repentance, their embrace of the Gospel, and their devotion to the crucified and risen Lord, received those qualities of blessedness which make them fit inheritors of the kingdom of heaven, and which bring them to their proper place before the throne of God, where they serve him day and night by worshipping him and by praying to him for the world. A friend of mine used the Chicago Cubs the day after their win to teach her class of 5- and 6-year-olds about the steadfast faith of the saints. She said 108 years of patient endurance by Cubs fans was incomprehensible to her little ones, but they kind of got the point.
But the primary focus in celebrating All Saints, or the feast day of any saint in particular, is not really the saints themselves, but Christ Jesus, the source and the object of their faith. Because it’s Christ who gives those qualities of blessedness in the first place. Christ gives us that hunger and thirst for righteousness that makes his servants meek and merciful and peaceable, willing to admit their spiritual poverty apart from him, willing to be persecuted for his sake. He offers these gifts freely to us all. And all we need to do is to accept his offer, to say yes to Jesus. The end result of accepting his offer is that our lives, like the lives of all the saints, become more and more wrapped up in his life. And unlike the minister I talked about earlier who spun the Gospel to suit his own agenda and vainly tried to make God’s will resemble his own, God’s will becomes our will, so that the good we do is not really our own doing, but God doing in and through us.
Fr Austin Farrer, one of my three favorite preachers, says,
A martyr is only a martyr because his sacrifice was the act of Christ in him, and a saint is only a saint because his life is the life of Christ in him. All the feast days of the saints are feast days of Christ– of the Christ in Francis or the Christ in the Blessed Virgin Mary or the Christ in Paul. (A Celebration of Faith)
They are what they are, and we are what we are meant to be, by feeding on Christ in both Word and Sacrament. And through our feeding on Christ, we become joined ever more closely to him, and to all the saints who have ever fed on him, and ever will. Through our constant feeding on Christ, we become more and more Christlike.
During this octave, this eight-day festival, we celebrate our unity, in Christ, with all those blessed ones who, though they are beyond our sight, they live nonetheless, and who in their prayers are with us and for us. So, may we always strive to contend for the faith once delivered to them, and then one day to stand with them ‘before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple.’ And in the words of another of my three favorite preachers, “May we attain all these blessings through the grace and loving kindness of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom and with whom be glory to the Father, together with the holy and life-giving Spirit, +now and always and for ever and ever. Amen” (St John Chrysostom).
a.m.d.g.
Ian C. Wetmore+