Monday, June 30, 2014

The Kingdom of God comes near

Proper 8A.  29 June 2014.

 

Matthew 10.40-42

 

 

            Some years ago, I remember going to the Shenandoah County Fair and walking around with the children looking at the various stalls where vendors and organizations advertize their presence.  And there was a church that had a drink dispenser filled with water that was set up with cups, next to a verse from today's Gospel lesson on a sign.  It said, "Whoever gives a cup of cold water…will not lose their reward." 

 

            And it prompted a memory from when I was in high school, and I was going through a phase of taking the Bible very literally.  My parents had engaged a company to add a sun room onto our house in Bridgewater, and the carpenter was a very devout and very conservative Christian.  He was a nice man; and I enjoyed talking with him.  At one point, I offered him a glass of water or iced tea, and he received it gratefully. 

 

            For awhile after that I wondered, based on this text, what sort of reward I would be receiving.  Would it come in the mail?  Of course not.  But what sort of spiritual reward or grace would I receive for that?  Maybe my reward is having a way to start talking about this text.

 

            When Jesus spoke these words—at least, as Matthew has placed them in his Gospel—it comes at the end of his missionary discourse, which  I spoke about that at some length last week. 

 

            The missionary discourse is chapter 10 of Matthew's Gospel, beginning with the commission of the twelve disciples, a description of the mission, warnings about persecution, and instructions about how they are to function.

 

            Jesus concludes this discourse with a teaching about the hospitality they will be receiving.  He says, "Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me."

 

            Sometimes, for emphasis, Jesus will use the rhetorical power of antitheses to make his point.  For instance, later on in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus will say, "I was hungry and you gave me food; thirsty and you gave me to drink; sick and you took care of me."  There you have the positive theses.  But then he turns and gives the antitheses and says, "But to the others I will say, depart from me you wicked ones, for I was hungry and you gave me no food; thirsty and you did not give me to drink; sick and you did not take care of me." (Ch. 25)

 

            Jesus isn't recorded as saying that here; however, our own sense of logic connects those dots, "Whoever doesn't welcome you, doesn't welcome me; and whoever doesn't welcome me doesn't welcome the one who sent me." 

 

            In the disciples' context, they are being sent to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel"—one might say to those who were disenfranchised or undervalued by the Temple and synagogue culture. 

           

            Earlier in Matthew's Gospel, he writes that the prophecy of Isaiah had been fulfilled, "The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned." (4.16)

 

            To these people, Jesus comes, and to these people Jesus sends the disciples—to people who have not been given a place in life—to people who are "harassed and helpless, like sheep needing a shepherd." 

 

            If the mission of Jesus is a message of spiritual and religious renewal, one might think it would make more sense to go to the rabbis and priests and leaders of the community.  However, Jesus turns this thinking on its ear.  Instead of working for some kind of organizational consensus, or community change, he walks around those systems to the people who are in need. 

 

            He doesn't call rabbis to be disciples.  Remember when he said, "No one sews a new piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak—no one puts new wine in old wineskins"?  The rabbis and the priests have all made up their minds about who God is and isn't, and who is in and who is out.  Jesus and then his disciples walk around them, and into the hearts of people who have not received the blessings of the covenant. 

 

            That's what I believe this text is about.  It's not really about the welcome that they—the disciples—will receive; but about the welcome they are to give.  (Pause.)  The welcome they receive indicates their host's receptivity to the message of Christ, which is "that the kingdom of heaven has come near" them.

 

            Remember that that's the one and only line Jesus gives them to say.  It's in chapter 10, he says "As you go, proclaim the good news, `The kingdom of heaven has come near.'" (10.7)

 

            Maybe those words have languished in our consciousness.  Maybe we've forgotten the scandal of this message—that God comes near to people regardless of their family background, their financial and social standing.  It was an astonishing message then, and it is something that continues to surprise people now. 

 

            It was astonishing then because the rules of society and family background were inflexible.  Temple priests were born to families of the priesthood; rabbis were born to rabbis. 

 

            Actually in many places in the world, to this day, this is still the case.  I remember watching a wonderful documentary on India in which they showed people making bronze statues, and there was a man whose job was simply to pour the melted bronze into the molds.  That's all he did.  Other people who tended the furnace and did the finishing work had roles to play, but the man who poured the bronze was the son of the man who poured the bronze before him, and on back. 

 

            When Hindu people die, their bodies are cremated, but the fire used comes from an altar where a fire is perpetually maintained by the sons of the sons of the sons of the man who started that fire! 

 

            So for Jesus to walk around these religious leadership families and structures that essentially held all notion of God's presence to themselves, he is freeing people to accept the presence of God within them.  The kingdom of heaven has come near.  Wow!  Not a distant or unapproachable Faith—where to receive it and its blessings you had to be from the right families, but an intimate, caring Faith that all may have.   

 

            I've mention it many times before but when Jesus says that God is Our Father.  Wow!  That God wants to know us, even if we aren't a certain type of person!  Wow!

 

            So the hospitality the disciples receive indicates their hosts' willingness to receive this message.  If the disciples are not accepted, then neither is their message, neither is the Lord, neither is God the Father. 

 

            It may or may not surprise you to learn that though this message is essentially unchanged, it remains astonishing.  Sometimes, even to people who are baptized, confirmed, and regularly attend church.  For instance, it can become a seductive line of thought that "the kingdom of God has come near" everyone we know, because, we think, everyone we know goes to church. 

 

            But the original scandal remains that the kingdom of heaven comes near.  It comes near to people who want to receive God, whether they are coming to church every Sunday, or not.

 

            If someone has never heard, or has merely lost sight of God's willingness to have an intimate place in their lives, then this message continues to be astonishing.  God says, "Yes, even your little things are important to me."

           

            Maybe some of you remember The Spirit of St. Louis, the Jimmy Stewart movie, in which he plays Charles Lindbergh.  At one point, he says, "Over the water I keep watching the waves, see which direction the wind's blowing in, allow for the drift..."   Benjamin Mahoney says, "And hope the Lord will do the rest."  To which Lindbergh responds, "No, I never bother the Lord.  I'll do the rest."  Mahoney says, "Might need a little help up there, don't you think?  And Lindbergh responds, "No, it will only get in the way."

 

            You can take that as measure of self-confidence, to say, "I won't bother the Lord; the Lord will only get in the way," but a living faith is not a denial of self-confidence.  It is God's desire to come near, not just be asked for help.  

 

            Later in the movie, feeling exhausted and panicked, as he begins to descend to make the landing, Lindbergh prays, "O God, help me."  And when he lands, crowds and crowds of people rush the plane to celebrate.  "The kingdom of heaven has come near."  (Pause.)

 

            I am willing to guess, if you are anything like me, you go through times when you feel that you are walking with the Lord, and there are times when you think, "I don't want to bother the Lord." 

 

            Or maybe life has been more of that—more of a divine absence than presence.  I can almost guarantee that there are people in your life, even people who also go to church, who feel that way.  That life is more Good Friday than Easter.

 

            But the message of the Lord is that God wants to draw near.  Near to us, near to our real selves and our real situations.  God is not bound to Temple, synagogue, or even Church.  God draws near to us where we live, where we really think and feel.  In fact, I might say to you, that that is where the treasure of the Christian life is really to be found. 

 

            You and I have been lovingly called to a living faith.  A faith where God comes near to us for his own pleasure and happiness, and offers us abundant life. 

 

            Let us pray.

 

Gracious and loving God, whose desire is always to be with us and within us: Deepen our ability to perceive you in our daily lives.  Deepen our trust in your guidance and power.  Deepen our relationship with you that we may lead new and nobler lives, for Christ's sake.  Amen.


-o0o-

 

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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel

Monday, June 23, 2014

The call of Christ

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Proper 7A.  22 June 2014.

 

Matthew 10.24-39

 

            What I just read for you, Matthew 10, beginning at verse 24, is the middle part of a longer sermon from Jesus.  Matthew 10 begins with a description of Jesus calling together his twelve disciples and, essentially, ordaining them.  Matthew writes that Jesus gave them his authority over unclean spirits, and every disease and sickness.  And then he sends them out.  He says,

 

"Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  As you go, proclaim the good news, `The kingdom of heaven has come near.'  Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons." (10.5-8)

 

This is the beginning of what is called the missionary discourse in Matthew.  Notice that their mission is to their own people—but to the lost sheep of their own people.  They are taking baby steps into the communities that were "harassed and helpless, like sheep needing a shepherd."  And while at first it sounds very edifying.  Jesus soon warns them:

 

"See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.  Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles.  When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time;  for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you."

 

Jesus is telling them that they will encounter opposition, precisely from within their own people.  That even their own people will reject them and the ministry they are offering.

 

            In the part we read today, Jesus says—and I'm paraphrasing—"Don't be afraid of people who threaten you; our Father is much stronger than they are.  People sell pigeons at the Temple like they are nothing, but God loves even the pigeons.  God knows and loves every inch of you—down to the number of hairs on your head.  So don't be afraid."

 

            He is asking his disciples to trust in completely in God for their protection, and for their provision.  At one point he says, "Don't take any money with you.  Just the clothes on your back, and the sandals on your feet.  People who receive you will take care of you, and if they don't, move along."

 

            As we look back on this scenario and these words, it's easy to be somewhat nostalgic for a simpler culture and a simpler time.  And it's also easy to dismiss their relevance to us now. 

 

            At this stage, Jesus and his disciples were just starting off.  It was a movement.  The whole story had not yet been lived and written.  The Cross had not yet been endured; the resurrection had not yet been proclaimed. 

 

            In our day, and in our context in the United States, there are many churches, and Christianity is still the most widely practiced tradition.  And even if there are fewer people now who identify themselves as Christians, there is no real hostility towards churches. 

 

            Human history has endured so many fights over religion, even within Christianity.  The Nicene Creed, which we happily recite every Sunday, was not the product of people sitting around, holding hands, and singing Cumbaya.  There were fights over it.  In fact, it wasn't fully finished at the Council of Nicea in 325.  It took until the Council of Constantinople in 381 before it was finished, and it wasn't until the Council of Chalcedon in 451 that we finally agreed that Jesus was fully divine and fully human. 

 

            Beyond that, I don't have to tell you that the Reformation was a bloodbath.  The English Reformation, which gave birth to the Anglican tradition, was not a smooth or bloodless path.  There were years when, because the speed of information was so slow, some clergy didn't know whether they were Roman Catholic or Anglican.  They didn't know whether to use the Roman Missal or the Book of Common Prayer. 

 

            The thumbnail history that most Episcopalians like to think is that Henry VIII pulled the Church out of Rome and that was that, but in fact it wasn't until Elizabeth I's long and steady reign that the Church finally settled into its unique identity. 

 

            But I'm getting away from my point, which is to say that because history is filled with squabbles about faith and traditions, we—at least in this country—don't really have any fight left in us.  We've moved to a position of live and let live, which has a good side to it.  People shouldn't kill people over matters of the heart.  Jesus never encouraged his disciples to do so.

 

            But there can be a downside, and that is that the Gospel would seem in people's minds so innocuous, so domesticated, that it inspires no passion at all.  And I'm wondering if that's why people younger than I am seem disaffected by the church—at least maybe it is one of the reasons. 

 

            It is such an irony, really, that the Church was fairly stagnant in terms of growth during the Medieval era, roughly 500 to 1500.  For one thousand years there was a lot of political turmoil, and the Church was mostly kept alive by the monasteries.  Many clergy weren't literate enough to read the Bible—in fact, many of them learned how to offer the Eucharist from rote memory.  There was no sermon, unless the priest was literate enough to read the Bible, but even then preaching was considered of far lesser importance than the reception of the Holy Communion.  And that remains so even today in the Roman Catholic Church. 

 

            The Reformation, beginning in the sixteenth century, along with an explosion of scientific and artistic discovery, brought about a dramatic expansion of the Church—even with all the fighting and dying that went with it.  But people cared about what they believed—and it was passionate. 

 

            Again, I don't mean to sound nostalgic.  The good old days were not all that good, but there was more energy for the things of God. 

 

            And even now, for us, there is an irony about our devotion.  Even though we live among many Christians and many traditions, it is still difficult to bear witness to our own love of Christ.  We worry that people will think poorly of us, or that they will feel a little embarrassed for us, or embarrassed that someone is talking about such things.

 

            You probably grew up with the same understanding that I did, that there are three things you don't talk about.  Politics, religion, and uhm… I don't remember the third thing.  And I think for the most part that's still the norm.  I don't know what your experience has been.  It seems that people are freer in talking about politics and that third thing, but religion is still very much a taboo for discussion.

 

            Recently, I have marveled at the fact that it's actually even kind of a taboo for clergy when we get together.  Clergy will talk about the Church till the cows come home.  We'll talk to each other about weddings and funerals and awkward situations.  But we have trouble getting into the faith.  There is a vulnerability,  a sense of strangeness if a cleric begins to speak with another cleric about really believing and living the Christian life.  And it's the same kind of feeling that it would be for anyone, ordained or not.

 

            So we often hide it.  We hide good stuff and the bad stuff.  We talk with our wives or husbands, spiritual directors, parents.  Because we have a bit of fear about believing.  Everyone does.  I said a couple weeks ago, that the Christian life is not a straight line to glory.  There are so many contours and struggles, and sometimes we feel the richness, sometimes the poverty of spirit.  And we don't want to seem to brag about the good, or complain about the difficult.  But there is still a passion there.  (Pause.)

 

            I would love to know if there is a sweet spot in the culture for people being passionate about God, and yet not fighting each other over it.  And I suppose the faithful answer is that the sweet spot is the kingdom of God—the vision Christ had for the movement he started with those twelve disciples.  They were passionate, but not violent. 

 

            In the face of opposition and suffering, they stayed with Jesus.  They nurtured that relationship and kept going.  They touched the lives of their own people with blessing, and the fruits of their efforts, empowered by the Holy Spirit, are sitting in the pews this morning.  You and I are inheritors of their ministry. 

 

 

            To us, and into our unique culture and context, the love of God is given, and the voice of Jesus sends us.  It is a passionate voice, calling home the lost sheep, calling us all into the kingdom of God.  We aren't there yet, but we're well on the way.

           

Let us pray.

 

 

Heavenly Father, we have been sent into the world you created in your love, and redeemed through the death and resurrection of your son, Jesus: Give us such measure of your Holy Spirit that we may not be afraid to bring your Gospel of hope and love to those around us, through Christ our Lord.  Amen.

 

 

-o0o-

 

 

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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel

 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

God is for everyone

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Trinity Sunday A.  15 June 2014.

Alexander D. MacPhail

 

Matthew 28.16-20

 

 

            In order to get into the Gospel lesson this morning, let me just ask you to cast your mind back to Moses and the Exodus from Egypt.  The Exodus is considered to be the single most unifying experience of the Hebrew people.  And you can understand why.  They were the children of Abraham, in slavery in Egypt, and God calls Moses to lead them out with signs and wonders.  They are led into the wilderness to receive the Torah, the Commandments of God. 

 

            So first they are called by God as God's own people.  God delivers them from the hands of their oppressors.  God gives them instructions, or commandments, teachings.  And through their experience the story emerges that they are chosen.  God has chosen them.              This becomes their culture.  We are God's people.  Those who are not are Gentiles.  Gentile means "without God." 

 

            If you will let me on my soap box for a moment, I would like to expunge the meaning of the word "gentile" from the English language, because no one is without God.  We are all made in God's image, and whether we believe it or not, God cares about everyone.  What I would prefer is to say for this period of time in the Middle East there were: Jews and non-Jews. 

 

            And for the Jews there was this understanding: "We are God's chosen people.  God will not remove his covenant from us."  The Old Testament is about the contours of the relationship God has with the Hebrew people as his chosen people.   And eventually, from out of the chosen people, a most chosen person will emerge.  This person will be anointed by God.  Or in the Hebrew language, a messiah.  The messiah will be the one who will establish the total and complete reign of the one true and living God, who, with signs and wonders, brought us out of slavery and gave us this land.  He will redeem Israel from all sins; he will dethrone every foreign leader or king, and there will be peace.

 

            Into this history, culture, and tradition, a young woman in the country side of Galilee is approached by a messenger.  She is told that she will receive the Holy Spirit, and that this child will be holy; that he will be the one. 

 

            Jesus emerges from obscurity.  He is baptized and the voice of God proclaims, "This is my beloved son.  On him my favor rests."  Jesus owns that identity as the beloved son of God; and he lovingly extends his belovedness and his sonship to all the people he meets.  He heals, teaches, feeds, and cares for every person in his culture, rich and poor, Jew, Samaritan, Greek, Gentile, everybody. 

 

 

 

            He met opposition from his own people, and the opposition all boils down to one thing: We are the chosen people!  We have rules that keep us in the covenant as chosen people!  You can't give away this relationship to sinners!  You can't give away our chosenness!

 

            And the message of the Gospel is that Jesus—who is the most chosen of all the chosen—is giving you his chosenness!  Jesus is the messiah—so if the messiah, the anointed one, the beloved Son of God says, "You are loved and welcomed into relationship with God," then no one can say otherwise.  Everyone is chosen.  There are no Gentiles.  There are no people anywhere who are apart from God. 

 

            And this teaching—both in word and deed—upset the religious apple cart.  It said to the Pharisees, "even sinners are loved by God."  It said to the Sadducees, "Temple worship and sacrifices are just for show.  There's nothing there that God approves of, unless the people believe that God loves them and cares about their daily lives. 

 

            Temple worship and rules are putting the cart before the horse!  The real sacrifice is not an animal or food—the real sacrifice that God wants is for us to wake up in the morning and say, "God this is the day that you have given me to live; show me what I need to do."  That's the sacrifice!  Letting God into you and letting God direct and order your heart and your mind—letting God love you as you go on about your work and play. 

 

            That was the message.  A new covenant. Jesus was saying, You've only got it half right!  Yes, you are chosen!  But God really chooses you and everyone else! 

 

            So they dithered about it for awhile.  What do we do with him?  He hasn't done anything wrong.  Everything he says is backed up in the Scriptures.  People love him.  He's totally sincere.  But he's destabilizing the economic force of the Temple.  He's an upstart.  And…well…we don't want to change.  We are the chosen.  If God chooses everybody than where does that leave us?

 

            So he is bound to Pilate, while the religious authorities hoped and prayed he'd say something worthy of crucifixion.  But he said nothing.  He was silent.  Or what he said wasn't against Rome.  Pilate said, "There is nothing wrong with him."  The crowd said, "Crucify him!"  Pilate said, "You crucify him!  I find nothing wrong with him!"  They said, "Let his blood be on us," which is like saying, "Sure…we'll take the blame, we want him gone."

 

            So Pilate let him be crucified.  And Jesus offered his life.  He did nothing to stop them.  After three days, his heavenly Father raised him from the dead.  And with that God places a great big exclamation mark behind the message and ministry of Jesus.  It says, "You can try to kill this person and this covenant, but it's the truth!  You can try to say to people, "God doesn't love you!  God doesn't choose you!  God doesn't want anything to do with you!  But those are lies!" 

 

            Everyone who says, "God doesn't love you; you are not chosen," dies.  The one who says, "God chooses me and God chooses you," you can kill, but he will come back to life!

 

            So now, consider our Gospel lesson for today. 

 

            The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.  And Jesus said to them,  "My whole ministry was based on this one simple idea.  God chooses everyone.  God is a Father who wants everyone to know him as his children.  Go out there and form relationships with all people.  This is what I did; and now this is what you are to do!

 

            People are lonely.  They have been told a bunch of lies about the Father and about me.  They have been told that they won't be accepted, or that they won't measure up if they don't wash their hands properly, or they offer two pigeons instead of a lamb.  And I have seen them go about in slavery to that, just as bad as the slavery in Egypt.  I am the God who calls people out. Don't they remember that!  Don't they remember the story of how I delivered them!? They have been told lies that I want them to feel bad as they go about their lives.  They think I want them to feel guilty and oppressed and miserable, and it's not true!

 

            They don't know that the Father is the voice of love in their hearts.  I am the air they breathe.  I am the ground they walk on.  I am the I am.  That is my name.  If you sink to the depths of the hell, I am there.  If you rise up to heaven, I am there.  I am the I am.  And I created everyone and I want everyone to know that they are loved.

 

            So, says Jesus, teach them that.  Teach them that God chooses them and calls them beloved children—beloved sons and daughters.  They should not be afraid of anything.  Baptize them so that they will feel embraced by the traditions of their past; but welcome them into your lives as brothers and sisters! 

 

            Show them what you are telling them.  You can consider the food you share as my body and blood  If you sit there eating and drinking with someone who is sad and lonely—I am the food and drink.  If you eat and drink with rich people, poor people, people you don't know, people who feel confused and afraid—I will be the food and drink—I will be your nourishment.

 

            And behold, I am with you!  I am always with you!  I will never leave you.  I love you with an everlasting love.  All people!  Everybody!  For now and for eternity: God, who is Father, Son, and Spirit, is for everyone.

 

           

-o0o-

 

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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Day of Pentecost A. 8 June 2014.

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John 20.19-23

 

            A couple Sundays ago we read from the fourteenth chapter of John—the farewell discourse.  Jesus tells his disciples that if they love him, that he will pray the Father, and the Father will send them a companion, a Comforter, an Advocate, to be with them for ever.  That this is the Spirit of Truth, the Spirit of God. 

 

            This promise comes before the story of the crucifixion and resurrection.  We mark the coming of the Holy Ghost after the Ascension of Jesus.  Luke records it in his Book of Acts as coming on the day of Pentecost, which is why we read that today; however, interestingly, John's Gospel depicts Jesus as giving the Holy Spirit from his own body on Easter Day. 

 

            You may remember that we read this lesson on the Second Sunday of Easter—it sets up the story of Thomas being out of the room on Easter Day, but then a week later Jesus comes back.  Today we read just the first part of the story. 

 

            Jesus comes, as John writes, "When it was evening on that day"—Easter Day—"the first day of the week, and the doors of the house were locked for fear of the Jews."    Please remember that virtually everyone was Jewish, including the disciples themselves—John meant the "Jewish authorities" when he writes Jews.  "Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you."  And after he said this, he showed them his hands and his side."

 

            The disciples rejoice, and Jesus says again, "`Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.' When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, `Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any they are retained."

 

            It's a simple story, but it conveys a lot.  It describes the resurrection appearance of Jesus, complete with him showing his wounds.  This would have answered the main question on people's minds about the resurrection.  Jesus did not simply die; he was put to death with whipping, and crucifixion.  It was unthinkable that anyone could come back to life after that, and be healed of the wounds that brought about his death.  For Jesus to show his wounds assumes that the wounds are not bandaged up awaiting healing, but that they are healed miraculously—that it really is Jesus standing there.

 

            This narrative recites the story of Jesus having been sent by God, who our Lord has already explained, is a heavenly Father.  So the mission from the Father, which was given to Jesus, is now given to the disciples.  And along with the Lord giving that commission comes the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus literally imparts the Spirit to them from the depths of his being.  He breathes it upon them.  Life giving life. 

 

            This action recalls the breath of God given to Adam to make him a living being.  And the message of that is also profound—that the disciples are, truly, part of a new creation. 

           

            Christ is risen.  The world they had known before—a world of death and separation from God—is now dead.  And they are a community of resurrection—a community founded by the Spirit of the Living God, who are now sent as Jesus was sent.  Jesus completes his part of the mission.  He entrusts the rest to his disciples; and he gives them his own Spirit to activate that mission inside of them.

 

            With this gift of the Spirit also comes the authority over pronouncing or withholding forgiveness.  And though the Church liturgically invests that role to the clergy, I want to be quick to say that I don't think Jesus meant for the church to be that narrow-minded.  I don't think he is speaking just to ordained leaders when he says, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; and if you retain the sins of any they are retained."  I think Jesus is saying that we all have a role to play in forgiveness and mercy—that forgiveness is a gift of the Holy Spirit, given so that we can be free from the mistakes we make.  (Pause.)

 

            I mentioned that this story is how John describes the coming of the Holy Spirit to the disciples.  In John's Gospel, Jesus is described as speaking at length about the nature of the Holy Spirit, more so than any of the other three Gospels. 

 

            So it's seems fitting that after his lengthy discourses, and then the crucifixion and resurrection, that the Holy Spirit is given by Christ himself.  It's personal.  It's understood to be the Father's gift, but it comes through Christ, which makes so much sense. 

 

            If we were confined to Luke's story, the Holy Spirit would still be such a gift, but it wouldn't have the same tenderness.  A wind from heaven is very different from the personal visit and breath of Jesus.  Both accounts are true and have value—both of them convey their own meaning.

 

            Here in John's Gospel the Church can learn that the Spirit's activity is empowering the proclamation of the Gospel, but also that the Spirit is meant to be intimately experienced by the individual Christian.  Jesus describes the Spirit as an Advocate, a Companion, a Comforter. 

           

            Were it not for the Holy Spirit's presence, the Church would likely have died out years ago.  We would merely have gathered together to read the story of Jesus and wish for the good old days when he was around.  But because of the Spirit, which lives inside of us, and activates our faith, and renews us by confirming God's affection, we are able to reach deeper.  We are able to partake spiritually of the divine life.

 

            We ask the Holy Spirit to come over the bread and wine to sanctify them and make them the Body and Blood of Christ.  We partake of the Spirit as the Scripture is broken, and as the Bread is broken.  We are given in ways we can feel, and in ways we cannot feel, the Presence of almighty God.  This is all from the Holy Spirit.

 

            To live your life more fully aware of the Holy Spirit's presence within you takes three things.  Courage, vulnerability,  and trust.

 

            It takes courage to open our hearts to Holy Spirit's presence, because what lies beneath the desire to do so is our need.  People who do not ordinarily pray will pray when they have a need that is far beyond their power.  They reach out to God, and God loves them and hears their prayer.  Yet, how much more beautiful and courageous it is to recognize our poverty of spirit sooner—to admit to ourselves our vulnerability, and to pray courageously that God would direct even the simplest parts of our lives.

 

            That takes courage—to give our schedules, our relationships, our very lives to the Holy Spirit's direction.  And yet that is precisely how our Lord lived, and how he wanted us to live—in daily communion, under the daily supervision of God. 

 

            Our Anglican tradition upholds this value most obviously in Morning and Evening Prayer.  If you read those prayers attentively, you will notice that they ask for God to make us aware of him in all things.  The Collect for Guidance in Morning Prayer reads:

 

Heavenly Father, in you we live and move and have our being: We humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our life we may not forget you, but may remember that we are 
ever walking in your sight… 

 

            So it takes courage, and a willingness to become vulnerable.  Jesus at one point said that we must become like a child to inherit the kingdom of heaven.  He didn't mean that we wouldn't be thoughtful, mature adults, but that like a child is vulnerable to their parents with their needs, so must we be vulnerable with our heavenly Father.

 

            And that brings me to the third thing, which is trust—perhaps the most difficult of the spiritual disciplines.  Because the spiritual life is not a straight line to glory!  Believe me, I wish it were!  There are seasons of fruitfulness in prayer; and seasons when growth is unperceived.  And I am choosing to say it that way.  Originally, I wrote seasons of fruitfulness and seasons of fallowness, but fallowness assumes that nothing is happening, and I don't believe that that's true or faithful.  A seed may be dormant, but dormancy is not dead. 

 

            What I am saying is that it takes trust to believe that the devout life is real and worthy of our attention even when we do not experience sensations of it. 

 

            Perhaps the hardest but most helpful thing to do at those times is to try to rest in the promises of Christ.  To read over the words of Jesus, that "[The Father] will give you another Comforter to be with you for ever."   This breath of Christ, which imparted the Holy Spirit, or, if we are reading from Acts, this wind from heaven has been sent, and has come once and for all time.  In our feebleness we only apprehend but so much at any given moment, but it is with us for ever, and will not go away. 

 

            Beyond your emotions, beyond your thoughts, beyond even your faith, the Holy Spirit is still present.   It will never leave you.  It will never say to you that you are not loved.  It will never tell you that you are not enough.  It is there within you to give you peace and strength and daily communion with God, whether you feel it or not.  So take courage, be vulnerable with God, and trust.

 

           

            Let us pray.

 

Come, Holy Spirit.  As the disciples were sent into the world, so were you sent to be with us for ever:  Reveal yourself in our innermost being.  Kindle the fire of your love, which burned in the heart of Jesus.  Come upon us like the dove that descended as the voice of the Father proclaimed, "This is my beloved child in whom I am well pleased."  Help us to hear those words over us, and be with us to confirm, strengthen and empower us to know you, and to carry the Gospel forward, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

 

 

 

-o0o-

 

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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Torah made flesh


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Easter 7A.  1 June 2014.


 

John 17.1-11

 

           

            As we've been making our way through Easter, the lectionary has held us tenderly in the embrace of John's Gospel.  Today I'm preaching again from John, and I want just briefly to remind you of some of John's dominant themes. 

 

            John's portrayal of Jesus is profoundly relational.  From the very first chapter when we learn that Jesus is the eternal "Word" or "Logos" in the Greek.  Logos means word, it also means order—as in the order of things.  Rather like Torah in Hebrew means both teaching and law, Logos in Greek means word and order.  You might say that Logos is the New Testament Torah—that Jesus is Torah made flesh.

 

            For John, there is no greater message than that God's immortal invisible self sent his own son to be our Torah, our Logos, our Order, from which God reveals who he is, and what our relationship should be—as beloved sons and daughters of God. 

 

            Jesus opens his hands and his heart to us.  And in so doing, he welcomes us into the divine embrace of God.  In that divine embrace of the Word made flesh, we are graciously made part of the divine life of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Spirit. 

 

            So for the Word, Jesus, to come among us, and to speak to us and heal us, we are welcomed to hear the voice of the Father saying to us, as well as to Jesus, "This is my beloved Son/Daughter.  My favor rests upon you."

 

            This is celebrated in the farewell discourses, which we've been reading, John chapter 14.  Today we read part of what has been called the "high priestly prayer" of Jesus. 

 

            One of my commentaries says that these words are offered between heaven and earth—that they are like a pastoral prayer, which is a tradition not really observed in the Episcopal Church.  In many Protestant churches, there is a prayer offered by the pastor for his or her people, usually at the end of the service, that attempts to bring together the various threads of the sermon and the life of the church.  It is priestly, in the sense that priesthood, or eldership, is a role that is intended to link the Church with God, and God with the Church.

 

            We express this in the Great Thanksgiving, the Eucharistic Prayer, in which the bishop or priest draws together the desire of the Church to give thanks to God for the sacrifice of Jesus.  It's not quite the same thing in that the priest does not pull together the unique needs of the community; however, by not doing that, it keeps our focus on God, rather than the transience of the day—that worship is not really about us; it's about God.

 

 

            Nevertheless, the high priestly prayer of Jesus is very much about Christ's community just before he is betrayed and the events leading to his crucifixion begin.  So the prayer which hangs between heaven and earth summarizes the mission of Jesus that he has accomplished on earth, and helps the disciples then, and us now, to understand what that mission was.

 

            Jesus says that his heavenly Father has given him authority to give eternal life, which is to know and be in relationship with him, which then is also a relationship with the Father and the Spirit.  He prays, "Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave me I have given to them, and they have received them, and know in truth that you have sent me."

 

            So…follow me here…Jesus comes to reveal and teach: to give the Word, the Logos, the Torah of God.  And the Torah is that the Father wishes to give us eternal life through relationship with him as his beloved children.  Jesus has given the words—he has spoken the message—and we have received it.  And those who have received it, have been given the power to believe—to become children of God. 

 

            But not everyone has received it.  And that is where the missional element of John's Gospel comes out.  Not everyone has received the Torah, Word, Logos, Message—however you want to say it.  Not everyone is willing to believe that they are truly loved and accepted as God's beloved Sons and Daughters.  And so those of us who have received this message—and who believe that God does love us and accept us—are asked to help others to hear, see, and believe. 

 

            And I would say that even though we may believe that we are the beloved sons and daughters of God, there are times when even we forget that!  Not that we forget that God loves us in our minds, but that we stop believing it in our hearts.  And that's where the Torah must live. 

 

            Any number of situations, any number of reasons can distract you from remembering God's love, and living out of that.  Remember when you were a child—or remember how children separate from their parents for preschool or elementary school, and the child cannot let go of mommy.  And the mommy says, "It's okay…it's okay.  You're going to be all right.  Look, there is your friend, and this is the teacher, and she's going to look after you." 

 

            And the child is fearful of being separated from his mother, because he's afraid that he won't have her love when he needs it.  And the mother and father cry, too, because they won't be there to remind him of their love.

 

            It happens in preschool, and it happens again before college or whenever the big leave-taking takes place.  This little girl or boy is suddenly eighteen years old.  You've done everything you can to help him.  You've made mistakes, but from the moment you held him as a baby you were assuring him that he was okay.   "Look…here is something to eat!  Look…here is a toy!  Life is good!"

 

            And as he grew up, he learned that some things are dangerous, some people are dangerous.  "But you'll be okay.  You are still loved.  You just have to be careful."

 

            Now he is old enough to make decisions, and mistakes.  The one thing he needs now is the thing you just have to trust that he will remember, and that is that he is loved.  That when he is rejected by his colleagues at work, or when his friends desert him, or when he feels lonely and afraid, that he is still loved. 

 

            And that is how God wishes to be with us—God with us.  So if you know, as a parent, what it is like to want desperately for your child to know and feel your love—then perhaps you can understand how desperately our heavenly Father wants you to know his love. 

 

            In our participation in the life of Christ—in our communion with our Lord—we too can hear that we are God's beloved children.  And that we can live out of that.  We can live our lives from that deep seated place that Christ showed us.

 

            When he says that this is the peace that the world cannot give—the peace that exists between Jesus and Our Father, which he offers us—he is giving us the open secret.  It's open and it's there—right there in front of us!  God loves you and wishes to be in you at all times.  In your emotions, in your thoughts, in everything that you are and do, he wishes to be with you, and to love you. 

 

            So the mission that he describes is the living out of this Torah—the Father loving us and caring for us, and we helping others to discover that they too are beloved by God.

 

            It is hard to care for others, if you do not first feel cared for.  And if you try, then there is a danger that you will end up only trying to care for yourself.  But the mystery of Christ is that if you trust that he will be with you, and if you wait for the shepherd to come, he will come, and care for you; and from that, you will be a blessing.  From that love that you receive and live in, others will come to know. (Pause.)

 

            Our reading ends with Jesus praying, "Holy Father, protect them…"  In fact, that verse is the beginning of the second half of his prayer, and the second half of chapter 17 in John.  And it's all about protection.  Jesus knows that his path of suffering must be walked alone.  The disciples have been protected spiritually by the near presence of Jesus, and now he must leave them, so he prays that the Father would protect them. 

 

            One of the most moving parts of his prayer is the verse, (17.15) which reads, "I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one."  Jesus knows that they will encounter opposition—that his disciples will be the target of hatred and violence.

 

            So his prayer for his disciples, and by extension, for us is for the Father's protection.  We are fooling ourselves if we think that we don't need it. 

 

            Like in the parable of the sower, the seeds can be stolen.  The house can be robbed.  And the heart can be set upon.  We know this only too well.    So receive this prayer.  Receive the protection, and trust that God is with you in all that you do. 

 

            Jeremy Taylor, one of our great 17th century Anglican theologians, wrote a book called, Holy Living and Holy Dying.  The premise of the book is that if we practice the presence of God—if we try to live with a constant awareness of God's presence—then heaven will not seem so foreign: that death will be a seamless transition into an even more joyful experience.  He writes:

 

God is wholly in every place, [but limited by] no place; not bound with cords except those of love;  not divided into parts, not changeable into several shapes; filling heaven and earth with his present power, and with his never absent nature…So that we may imagine God to be as the air and the sea, and we all enclosed in his circle, wrapped up in the lap of his infinite nature; or as infants in the wombs of their pregnant mothers: and we can no more be removed from the presence of God than from our own being.

 

 

Remaining seated, let us pray.

 

Heavenly Father, you desire to be with us even more than we with you, and you have shown us how deeply you wish to be with us through the ministry of your Son, Our Lord:  Open the eyes of our faith that we may see you.  Open our hearts to receive you afresh.  Kindle your Holy Spirit within us individually, and as a parish church, so that we may share the good news that all people are your beloved children.  And, as your Son, Jesus prayed, continue to protect us.  Amen.

 

 

-o0o-

 

Please support the mission of Christ with your time, talent, and treasure.

 

Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel