Thursday, September 27, 2007

Sermon: 18 Pentecost (30 September 2007)

18 Pentecost: 30 September 2007
(Acts 1:1-11/Psalm 47/Hebrews 10:11-25/Luke 24:44-53)
He ascended into heaven.

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

I’m always confused by those Christians – you know the ones I mean, those liberal, mainline, seminary-educated, social gospel preaching Christians – who argue that one boat couldn’t possibly hold representative pairs of all earth’s animal species; or that the Red Sea that parted during the Exodus was really the Reed Sea, a shallow, marshy area that the Israelites slogged through but which mired up the Egyptian chariot wheels; or that the walls of Jericho fell solely due to structural damage caused by the vibrations of hordes of marching feet; or – well, you get the idea. It’s as if they are embarrassed by the thought of God interacting with his creation; let’s keep God in heaven where he belongs and let the scientists tell us what is or is not possible here on earth. I’m confused by them because it seems to me that once you accept the idea of a God who creates worlds merely by speaking them into existence, a God who brings forth life merely by breathing into a red-earth manikin, then everything is on the table. A really big boat? No problem; God created the heavens and the earth, all things seen and unseen. I’ve seen a vocational class at my school create wooden canoes that are absolute pieces of art – not to mention being great boats. Now that’s a miracle. But God designing an ark? No problem. Parting a sea? Not to worry; in the beginning God separated the waters above from the waters below and brought forth dry ground by fixing the boundaries of the sea. To make a dry path through one of the smaller of those seas? No problem. Break down some walls? God lifts up and casts down entire nations according to his will. A few walls? No problem. Once you accept God, you get a lot thrown in for free. Why quibble over the details?

I suspect these same Christians – let alone those outside the faith – have major problems with the Creed. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. Now wait a minute. We know where babies come from. Maybe those poor, illiterate, ignorant people who wrote the Creed didn’t understand it, but we do. You don’t get babies from a woman protecting her virginity. But then again, if God brought forth all life on earth by saying, “Let it be,” then just perhaps he could do that again in the womb of a virgin willing to be so blessed. He was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again. Hold on. I’ve read lots of obituaries in my time, but never a notice of resurrection. There’s not even a word for it and that says it all. We have a word for death notice but not for resurrection notice. Why? Because deaths happen and resurrections don’t. But then again, if God is the author of life – if Jesus is truly the way, the truth, and the life – then I wouldn’t expect death to be able to hold him. In fact, I would expect the tomb to burst open and Jesus to come striding forth as conqueror. Once you accept God, you get a lot thrown in for free. Why quibble over the details?

I’m fine with all these apparently outrageous claims about God. I’ve accepted the truly outrageous claims – that God is and that God loves me, loves all of us. From then on it’s really pretty easy. So the Creed presents me with no particular challenges of belief – of understanding, yes, but of belief, no. At least not until I get to this line: He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. I know. This must seem rather tame to you after the virgin birth and the resurrection. Why does the ascension bother me so when the apparently more challenging doctrines of virgin birth and resurrection do not? Because Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary having been conceived by the Holy Spirit. This is a statement of fact about God incarnate. Because Jesus rose from the dead on the third day. This is a statement of fact about God triumphant. Once you accept God, you get all these thrown in for free. And to the extent that the ascension is a statement of fact about Jesus’ return to the right hand of God, it too is easy to believe. But it is far more than that, and it is the far more that causes me problems. The ascension is a statement of fact – several facts, really – about me, about you. And while I can believe grand things about God, I have trouble believing grand things about myself. Perhaps that’s why the church – at least that part of it we’re most familiar with – places such little emphasis on the ascension. Christmas, of course. Good Friday, yes. Easter, definitely. But Ascension? I don’t ever recall hearing a single sermon about it, and never a discussion of the theology.

But it’s all there in Scripture. Paul preaches the ascension in a breath-taking letter to the Ephesians, a letter which should drive each us to our knees in wonder and praise. And he teaches it, a deep theology that will stretch our understanding and belief to near breaking point. And he prays it, a prayer almost too deep for words, a prayer prayed in and through Paul by the Holy Spirit himself.

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints, and for this reason 16I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 20God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all (Eph 1:15-23, NRSV).

In this magnificent prayer, which he offers ceaselessly on behalf of the Ephesian church, Paul prays for spiritual wisdom, revelation, and enlightenment. Paul understands that the natural mind cannot grasp the deep truths of God; for these, only spiritual wisdom, revelation, and enlightenment will do. I have a friend who has no sense of humor, or at least one that is seriously stunted. I’ve made her laugh only once or twice in countless efforts. After the latest joke falls flat I often explain to her why she should have found it funny. And she may understand that intellectually, but the joke still isn’t funny to her. She simply lacks a spirit of humor. The same holds true with the deep things of God. The natural mind may perceive a certain logic to a doctrine, may acknowledge how the piece fits with the whole, but it is unmoved, unconvinced, unchanged by it all. Only a spirit of wisdom, revelation, and enlightenment – gifts from God – enable us to ascertain spiritual truths in a transformational, rather than informational, way. The true theologian is one who prays, and the one who truly prays is a theologian. And so, let us pray.

God of our Lord Jesus Christ, Father of glory: give us a spirit of wisdom and revelation as we come to know you, 18so that, with the eyes of our hearts enlightened, we may know the hope to which you have called us, the riches of our glorious inheritance among the saints, 19and the immeasurably great power you exert for us who believe, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

In this prayer – Paul’s and ours – we speak of the immeasurably great power that God exerts on our behalf. And here is the wonder: this is the same power that

God put [this power] to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come (Eph 1:20-21, NRSV).

The ascension of Jesus Christ was an expression of God’s immeasurably great power and the authorization for Jesus to share that same power at God’s right hand. In that position of authority and power Jesus reigns over all rule and authority and power and dominion. His name is exalted above every other name. He is the Pantocrator, the Almighty. And this same power is now being used for us, on us, and through us. The ascension brings the immeasurably great power of God to bear on us – to raise us from the dead and to seat us with Christ in the heavenly places – and it channels that same power through us for the life of the world. Ascension means power – the power of God to give new life, the power of God to recreate the world, the power of God to make fallen sinners like you and me become the sons and daughters of God and thus to share in the glorious inheritance of the saints. I find it easy to believe in the ascension of Jesus. I find it much more difficult to believe in my ascension, in the same power of God exerted on me. And so I pray for a spirit of wisdom and revelation and enlightenment, that I might know this truth, that you might know it, in a way that transforms us.

We could stop here and ponder this mystery for ages of ages, but Paul rushes ahead, words spilling forth from the abundance of his heart.

[But] God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus (Eph 2:4-7, NRSV).

Christ is our champion, our representative. By grace, through his faithfulness, what is true for him becomes true for those of us who, by faith, have put on Christ and are found in him. When he ascended to take his rightful heavenly place at the right hand of God, he carried us with him there; because Christ ascended, we, too, ascended. In the incarnation Jesus united his divinity with our humanity and descended to dwell with us. In the ascension Jesus unites our humanity with his divinity and lifts us to heaven to dwell in the presence of God, in the presence of God who

raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus (Eph 2:6-7).

Do you begin to see why I have such difficulty believing the ascension? These are statements not just about Christ – those are easy to believe – but about me, and about you. We have been raised with Christ. We have ascended on high with Christ. We have been seated in heavenly places with Christ. Why? Grace. Love. Why? Because God desires to lavish the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us for the sake of his only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. We die with Christ in baptism and rise from the water to walk in new, eternal life. We ascend with Christ – in and through his ascension – and take our place in heaven as God’s redeemed humanity, as God’s image-bearers, as those who have been united with Christ and whose nature has been transformed into his likeness. And if I can’t perceive myself that way now? Then I pray for a spirit of wisdom and revelation and enlightenment, that I might know this truth, that you might know it, in a way that transforms us.

So much of the truth of the ascension seems hidden to my eyes, a theological truth accepted but not directly experienced – and I want to see some evidence. Well, Paul insists we do have visible tokens, sacramental signs, of Christ’s ascension and of our union with it.

But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8Therefore it is said,‘When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.’ 9(When it says, ‘He ascended’, what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) 11The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ (Eph 4:7-13, NRSV).

The visible evidence of Christ’s ascension – and ours with him – is the presence of his gifts in the church and to the church, gifts of ministers and ministries: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. And this is just a partial list. To the Romans Paul says,

We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully (Rom 12:6-8, NIV).

The immeasurably great power by which God raised Christ to the heavenly places, seated Christ at his own right hand, and placed under Christ all rulers, powers, dominions, and authorities – that same power is now at work in us and through us for the life of the world. That power is demonstrated and exercised, at least in part, through the various servant-ministries of the church. We know that God seated us in the heavenly places in Christ because of the gifts he has lavished upon the church, gifts meant to bring us all together into the full measure of the stature of Christ. Jesus has joined our nature to his and has glorified our humanity by raising it with him into the heavenly places. Now, we are to live out that reality by coming to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, by coming to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.

So, let’s step back now and look at the grand sweep of the salvation story and place the ascension within it.

Christ has joined his divine nature to our human nature through the power of the Holy Spirit and the yes of the Virgin Mary. Christ’s incarnation assures us of God’s identification with his people – Emmanuel, God-with-us.

Christ has died and with him, through baptism, we too have died to sin. Christ’s death assures our forgiveness.

Christ has risen and with him, emerging from the water of baptism and receiving the Holy Spirit, we too have risen to walk in newness of life. Christ’s resurrection assures our eternal, abundant life.

Christ has ascended to the heavenly realm to take his proper place at the right hand of God and with him, carried upward by his ascension, we too have come into the very presence of God. Christ’s ascension assures our glorification, the union of our humanity with Christ’s divinity. The ascension makes it possible for us once again to be the image-bearers of God that nature and vocation intend.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love (Eph 1:3-4, NRSV).


Friday, September 21, 2007

Sermon: 17 Pentecost (23 September 2007)

17 Pentecost: 23 September 2007
(Acts 10:34-43/Te Deum laudamus/Colossians 3:1-4/Luke 24:1-10)
On the third day he rose again.

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

It’s a classic scene in the film Shrek. Shrek, the ogre, and his companion, a talking donkey named Donkey, are walking through a field on their way toward a great and life-changing adventure. For the first time the surly and defensive ogre begins to open up a little, to reveal his emotionally fragile and wounded “inner ogre.” Of course, doing that to a talking donkey has its risks.

Shrek: Ogres are like onions.

Donkey: They stink?

Shrek: Yes. No.

Donkey: Oh, they make you cry.

Shrek: No.

Donkey: Oh, you leave em out in the sun, they get all brown, start sproutin' little white hairs.

Shrek: NO. Layers. Onions have layers. Ogres have layers. Onions have layers. You get it? We both have layers.

Donkey: Oh, you both have layers. Oh. You know, not everybody like onions.

Well, the resurrection is like onions; it has layers, too – layers of meaning. Or maybe a better image would be the nested, Russian Matryoshka dolls. The largest, outer doll is beautiful in itself, but, twist it open and inside is another beautiful doll. And inside that, yet another. And so on until you arrive at the inmost treasure, an exquisite, tiny figure and perfect reward for your effort.

On the third day he rose again. That’s all the Creed says about the resurrection: it happened, and it happened on the third day. The Creed assumes that we have been taught by the Church to unpack the layers of meaning of this bare statement, that the tradition has been faithfully passed on to us and that we have faithfully received it, and that we will pass it on to our children – our children in the faith or in the body, or, if we are so blessed, in both.

The meanings of the resurrection are preserved in the tradition of the Church: in liturgical worship, in the sacraments, in the Scripture, in life in community and in the world. When we give voice to the liturgy – Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And blessed be his kingdom, now and for ever. – we witness to a particular meaning of the resurrection. When we attend to the Holy Gospel, we hear and proclaim still other meanings. When, during the Eucharist, we acknowledge the great mystery of our faith – Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. – and feed on the most precious body and blood of God’s Son, our Savior, we reveal yet another layer of meaning in the resurrection. Layer upon layer, truth upon truth, mystery upon mystery, it unfolds before us.

It is this way in Scripture, too. The New Testament authors – and ultimately the Holy Spirit who inspired them – present multiple layers of meaning in the resurrection. Gospels, Acts, Epistles, Apocalypse: these nested dolls of Scripture show a development in the church’s understanding and appropriation of the resurrection. The earliest, inmost, layer is found in Acts, in Peter’s great Pentecost Sermon. A few year later, Paul explores and develops the meaning of the resurrection in his letters to various congregations scattered throughout the Mediterranean – congregations attempting to live the resurrection in their place and time. Later still, John, the last of the Apostolic witnesses of the resurrection presents the fruit of his deep reflection in his Gospel and in the Apocalypse – a meaning so grand and sweeping that it takes us from the Garden to Heaven and back again. On the third day he rose again.

It is Pentecost; only fifty days have lapsed since Passover, since the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. On this morning God, the Holy Spirit, has come like a mighty, rushing wind, like flames of fire, to bring new life to those few witnesses of the resurrection. Driven into the streets, Peter preaches to the gathered multitudes.

“You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know – this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.

“This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says,
‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.”’
Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:22-24, 32-36, NRSV).

What meaning has the resurrection for Peter? The resurrection is the declaration of the Lordship of Jesus Christ: that is Peter’s sermon and the Gospel in a nutshell – Jesus is Lord! The resurrection vindicates Jesus before the powers that opposed him; it declares him to be right before God and all of them to be wrong. The resurrection exalts Jesus in his triumph over the powers that opposed him: Pilate, who boasted he had the power of life and death is shown to be an impotent coward; Satan, who thought he had the power of sin and death is trampled underfoot and soon will be cast into the lake of fire prepared for him and for his angels. The resurrection makes possible the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise – I will ask the Father and he will send a comforter. – his promise never to abandon or forsake us, but to be present with us and to empower us through life in the Holy Spirit. Jesus is Lord: vindicated, exalted, and present. This is what the resurrection means to Peter on this first Pentecost. It is the inmost layer, the most fundamental meaning of the resurrection: Christus Victor – Christ the Victor, Christ the Triumphant. Because of the resurrection all the world may “know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus” who was crucified and who rose again.

Some twenty years later Paul writes to a troubled church in Corinth: split by sectarian loyalties, polluted with sexual immorality, enmeshed in pagan cultural practices. He writes to remind them.

Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you – unless you have come to believe in vain.

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me (1 Cor 15:1-8, NRSV).

What is of first importance for this church or any church? Christ died, Christ was buried, Christ was raised on the third day: this is the tradition that Paul received and the tradition that he passes on. Some in Corinth were denying the resurrection of Christ – denying, in fact, the general resurrection of the dead. Paul confronts them with eye witness testimony to the resurrected Christ – confronts them with credible witnesses like Peter (Cephas) and the other apostles, James the brother of the Lord, five hundred disciples, and even Paul, himself.

What meaning has the resurrection for Paul and for his Corinthian brothers and sisters? He spells it all out for them clearly.

If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those who have died in Christ have perished. If for life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

But, in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power (1 Cor 15:17-24, NRSV).

The resurrection of Christ is the substance of faith, the evidence of forgiveness, and the hope of eternal life. Yes, Paul agrees with Peter: Jesus is the Lord who will destroy every rival ruler, authority, and power. But Paul deepens the meaning of the resurrection and makes it intensely personal. We will die, every one of us. Death entered the world through Adam and has brought all humanity under its dominion. Until Jesus. For the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ shows that death is a defeated enemy who has lost its sting. Jesus’ death brings us forgiveness, but his resurrection brings us life. And not just more of the same life. No. Eternal life, the life of the ages: imperishable, glorious, powerful, immortal. Death has been swallowed up in victory (1 Cor 15:54, NRSV). What is the meaning of the resurrection? Jesus is Lord – Lord of life: author of faith, fount of forgiveness, and hope of eternal life.

By now, late in the first century, Peter is dead. Paul, too. Only John remains as eyewitness of the resurrection. Through many years – six decades or so – he has pondered that mystery and has peeled away its layers of meaning one by one. Before he falls asleep in the Lord he tells the story once again for all future generations – for us and for our children and for all who are far off, so that we, too, better may grasp its meaning. John the Apostle, John the Theologian, John the Seer, John the poet writes.

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb (John 21:1, NRSV).

Some time later the same day – a few hours, perhaps, on that same first day of the week – Mary stands alone, weeping at the empty tomb, not comprehending its message. She hears or senses someone behind her, and turning, she encounters a stranger who says, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” She thinks the stranger must be the gardener, the caretaker of this garden cemetery. She learns better as the gardener speaks her name, “Mary,” in a voice so familiar that she recognizes it immediately. Rabbouni! Teacher. Jesus. And in this simple, touching story, John unveils a new layer of the resurrection, one so sweeping and profound that it encompasses all of creation. The resurrection is the first day of the week, and on that first day we find ourselves in a garden. This is a creation story – more truly, a new creation story – God at work in a garden bringing forth new life. John consciously writes his gospel account as a parallel to Genesis: this is the meaning that he wants to reveal to us, that God, in the person of Jesus Christ, is once again busy creating – recreating – the world; that God, in the person of Jesus Christ, is once again busy bringing forth life; that God, in the person of Jesus Christ, is once again busy among his people to bless.

The first Christians, though thoroughly Jewish, nevertheless left behind the Sabbath as their day of worship; they replaced it with Sunday, the first day of the week, which they called the Lord’s Day. For 1200 years they had followed the commandment to remember the Sabbath day and to keep it holy. Why forsake it? Because the resurrection inaugurates new creation, a new creation in which the Law has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Because the resurrection inaugurates a new creation in which the Spirit of God is busy recreating, renewing – not resting. Because the resurrection inaugurates a new creation in which our promised rest lies in the future, in the hands of the one who said, “Mary,” on that first day of the week and who has spoken each of our names, as well. What is the meaning of the resurrection? Jesus is Lord – Lord of life: author of faith, fount of forgiveness, and hope of eternal life. And this Lord is busy renewing the face of earth, restoring all creation, making all things new.

It is Sunday on the island of Patmos near the end of the first century. John’s body is exiled on this barren spit of rock, but his spirit is not imprisoned there. No, it is with his churches. It is with his Lord. It is caught up in worship with the elders and the four living creatures, with angels numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, around the very throne of God. And there he sees things, things which he is permitted to write. There he sees the ultimate layer of meaning in the resurrection.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away” (Rev 21:1-4, NRSV).

What is the ultimate meaning of the resurrection? Nothing less than the full reconciliation of the created order with the Creator. Nothing less than eternal life in the presence of God. Nothing less than the fulfillment of man’s created purpose to be the true and perfect image-bearers of God. Nothing less than the world put to rights. On the third day he rose again.

Peter had the first public word on the resurrection: Jesus is Lord. He has a fitting final word also, a word which encompasses layer upon layer of meaning.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice (1 Pe 1:3-6a, NRSV).

On the third day he rose again.


Saturday, September 15, 2007

Sermon: Holy Cross Sunday (16 September 2007)

Holy Cross Sunday: 16 September 2007
(Isaiah 45:21-25/Psalm 98/Philippians 2:5-11/John 12:31-36a)
The Elephant In The Creed

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, “Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ‘tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”

The Third approached the animal
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”

The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he;
“’Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right
And all were in the wrong!

So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!
John Godfrey Saxe

He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. These words are the Elephant in the Creed. We all stand before them like the blind men of Indostan; each of us gropes about in the dark for some hint of this great mystery of the death of our Lord. Like the blind men of the poem, we may stumble on the truth or be guided to it, but it will always be partial truth at best. What is required then is a great deal of humility. Yes, we know something but no, we do not know everything. We need dialog with other blind Christian brothers and sisters – dialog that spans tradition, culture, geography, and generations. We need a composite understanding that accounts for those features of the Elephant that we have yet to touch ourselves.

The historic church, in its Scripture, worship, and traditions offers just such a composite understanding. Read Saint Paul for instance; scattered throughout his epistles are several different images or descriptions of the meaning and purpose of the death of Jesus Christ. Each of them answers some of our questions and each of them raises even more questions.

God is a righteous judge before whom we must all stand and give account for our sins. Justice demands that God – And do you see the problem that idea raises? Something, anything, making demands on God! – justice demands that God render a fair and impartial verdict: guilty, for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. And, since the penalty for sin is death – And do you see the problem here? Why must the penalty be death? If God decides the penalty could he not decide otherwise? –since the penalty is death, that verdict places all of humanity, all of God’s fallen image-bearers, on death row. Then Jesus intervenes. He willingly takes on himself all the sins of mankind and submits himself to God’s righteous judgment, dying in our place. Christ in his love and mercy satisfies the righteousness and justice of God. This juridical image – the law court image – is one of Paul’s descriptions and it is true, as far as it goes. The problem comes when we insist that this image is the full and sole truth regarding Christ’s death, when we believe that it completely explains everything and exhausts the depths of the mystery. The Elephant is a wall.

Paul also presents Christ’s death as a ransom paid to free us from bondage, again an apt and true analogy. Of course this raises questions: To whom was the ransom paid? Who held us in bondage? God, Satan, sin, our fallen nature? Again, this image is part of the answer and also part of the problem if we focus exclusively on it. The Elephant is a spear.

Under the Old Covenant the atonement for sins required blood sacrifice; where there was no blood, there was no forgiveness of sins. The New Testament presents Jesus as the sacrificial Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, a spotless lamb offered upon the altar of the cross. This is powerful imagery that connects us to the story of God and his people – makes us part of the ancient story. But it is not without problems. How did the death of an animal purify its owner from sin? How does Christ’s death do the same for me? The Elephant is a snake.

And we could go on with biblical image after biblical image, all of them pointing to a feature of the truth and none of them completely revealing it. Theologians endlessly debate and argue and break fellowship over which image of the atonement is right

And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

I say all this so you will know that whatever we say here today, necessary as it may be, is also necessarily incomplete. I say all this so you will have some sense that in the atonement of Christ we are approaching the Holy of Holies of the great Mystery. Whatever else we do, we must take off our shoes – for we are on holy ground – take off our shoes and fall before our Lord Jesus Christ and worship him. We must take our place with the four living creatures, with the elders, and with many angels numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand as in heaven they sing their great hymns of praise to the Lamb.

“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased men for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth” (Rev 5:9-10, NIV).

“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise” (Rev 5:12, NIV).

Amen! Alleluia!

As usual, any unraveling of the mystery of our great salvation must begin in the Garden. What happened to us there? What were the results, the consequences, of our first parents’ sin? This question divides Christendom east and west, Protestant and Catholic and Orthodox. We just don’t agree – again because each of us has grasped a different part of the theological Elephant. Issues of free will, human nature and depravity, and inherited guilt separate us. But there is at least one point of overlap in all our theologies, one consequence of the fall on which we all agree: death.

The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the LORD God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Gen 2:16-17, NIV).

And later, after man’s sin,

To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Gen 3:17-19, NIV).

G. K. Chesterton once said that original sin is the only really provable Christian doctrine. The proof is simple: everyone dies. On this all Christians agree. Sin entered the world, and with sin came death. Since that day we have all been subject to death’s tyranny. It’s dominion is felt in every aspect of human existence and is exercised largely through the fear that death inspires. We fear that our lives will end all too soon and so we struggle to squeeze every pleasure out of every moment; we use everything and everyone as tools to satisfy our desperate longings – sex, money, and power are the drugs we think will numb our fear. They may do so temporarily, but, as with any drug, we become acclimated to them and need ever increasing doses. When the billionaire Donald Trump was asked how much money was enough he replied, “A little more.” That is fear of death.

Because of death we fear the meaninglessness of life. As he lay dying the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe moaned repeatedly, “Let me not seem to have lived in vain. Let me not seem to have lived in vain.” That haunting refrain is familiar and sings to us in the depths of the night when we awaken alone in the dark to the sound of our hearts pounding. If the good and the bad, the rich and the poor, the wise and the foolish, the righteous and the evil all die alike, then there is no meaning to life beyond what we assign it. So we seek meaning in career or family or even in sacrificial service, but all to no avail. We demand that others fill our lives with meaning and we place burdens on our relationships that they were never intended to bear. And when that fails as it certainly will, the fear comes calling. Fear of death lies at the root of much – some would argue all – of our sin. So, humanity is caught in a vicious cycle: sin introduced death, death causes fear, and fear tempts us to sin. Where death and fear abound, there our ancient foe, the devil, reigns, just as he did that moment in the Garden when the fruit was eaten and the curse pronounced.

But into the midst of the sin and death and fear comes Jesus Christ, God’s only son, our Lord. Into the heart of the human condition comes one conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. Why? To defeat our ancient foe, to destroy death, to free all whose lives were in bondage to sin.

It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father.

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death (Heb 2:10-11a, 14-15, NRSV).

How did his death do all this: defeat Satan and set us free from death and the fear of death? I don’t know, but the imagery in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus is among the most moving possible explanations I have ever heard.

It is Friday and Jesus hangs on the cross dead. Satan and Hell gloat over their victory.

Behold Satan the prince and chief of death said unto Hell: Make thyself ready to receive Jesus who boasteth himself that he is the Son of God, whereas he is a man that feareth death, and sayeth: My soul is sorrowful even unto death. And he hath been much mine enemy, doing me great hurt, and many that I had made blind, lame, dumb, leprous, and possessed he hath healed with a word: and some whom I have brought unto thee dead, them hath he taken away from thee.
Hell answered and said unto Satan the prince: Who is he that is so mighty, if he be a man that feareth death? for all the mighty ones of the earth are held in subjection by my power, even they whom thou hast brought me subdued by thy power. If, then, thou art mighty, what manner of man is this Jesus who, though he fear death, resisteth thy power? If he be so mighty in his manhood, verily I say unto thee he is almighty in his god-head, and no man can withstand his power. And when he saith that he feareth death, he would ensnare thee, and woe shall be unto thee for everlasting ages.

And as Satan the prince, and Hell, spoke this together, suddenly there came a voice as of thunder and a spiritual cry: Remove, O princes, your gates, and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors, and the King of glory shall come in.

Then did the King of glory in his majesty trample upon death, and laid hold on Satan the prince and delivered him unto the power of Hell, and drew Adam to him unto his own brightness.

And the Lord stretching forth his hand, said: Come unto me, all ye my saints which bear mine image and my likeness. Ye that by the tree and the devil and death were condemned, behold now the devil and death condemned by the tree. And forthwith all the saints were gathered in one under the hand of the Lord. And the Lord holding the right hand of Adam, said unto him: Peace be unto thee with all thy children that are my righteous ones.

And the Lord stretched forth his hand and made the sign of the cross over Adam and over all his saints, and he took the right hand of Adam and went up out of hell, and all the saints followed him.

How did Jesus defeat sin and death and deliver us from the fear of death? He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. He joined his divine nature to our human nature in his incarnation. He accepted human suffering, he submitted to human death, he descended to the depths of hell in his humanity, so that in his divinity he might trample the bars of hell and release forever those bound by the fear of death. He entered into death and made a way through, out the other side. And he brought redeemed humanity with him. And one day he will lead us through death and out the other side.

When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
‘Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death is your sting?’
The sting of death is sin, and the power of death is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15:54-57, NRSV).

How then dare we live as ones afraid of death? It has no power. It holds no terror. We are free now to take up the cross of Christ and follow him– free to enter into the suffering of the world – knowing the cross to be a symbol not of defeat but of victory, knowing the way of the cross to be not only the way into death but the way through it and out the other side.

He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. Thanks be to God!


Saturday, September 8, 2007

Sermon: 15 Pentecost (9 September 2007)

15 Pentecost: 9 September 2007
(Genesis 1:26-31/Luke 1:46b-55/1 John 1:1-4/John17)
Partakers of the Divine Nature

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

16Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod,* east of Eden.
17 Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch; and he built a city, and named it Enoch after his son Enoch. 18To Enoch was born Irad; and Irad was the father of Mehujael, and Mehujael the father of Methushael, and Methushael the father of Lamech. 19Lamech took two wives; the name of one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah. 20Adah bore Jabal; he was the ancestor of those who live in tents and have livestock. 21His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the ancestor of all those who play the lyre and pipe. 22Zillah bore Tubal-cain, who made all kinds of bronze and iron tools (Gen 4:16-22a, NRSV).

There was no music in the Garden. Oh, the birds sang almost certainly. But the sound of wood and string – the harp and lyre – and the sound of wood and wind – the flute and the pipe – well, these were not heard. Human music was generations away, east of Eden. There was no art in the Garden. Oh, the artistry of the Creator filled the earth and the sea and the heavens above them both. But the work of human hearts and hands – bronze sculpture and statues – well, these were not seen. Human art was generations away, east of Eden. There were no cities in Eden, no tended flocks. These, too, lay generations away and to the East. Much that is distinctive about human nature – our culture and civilization – was nowhere to be found in the Garden.

All these human accomplishments – music, art, tools, architecture, animal husbandry and the like – followed man’s original sin; but, there is no biblical reason to believe they proceeded from it. If anything, this human development shows that man, even in his fallen state, is capable of and is drawn toward God-ordained growth and maturity. Had man remained in the Garden, lovelier music and art would have graced Eden than that which we now know. Tools would have cultivated the garden and not ravaged it; never would plowshares have been beaten into swords. Architecture and agriculture would have ensured homes and food for all Eden’s inhabitants; homelessness and poverty – certainly born of sin – would never have been known.

A garden is not only an idyllic place of beauty and rest, it is also a place of fertile potential, a place where growth toward abundance is both possible and natural – expected. Perhaps we should envision Eden not as a beautifully landscaped but essentially static English garden, but rather as a newly-furrowed working farm awaiting the seed. As stewards of the Garden our first parents were commanded to be fruitful and multiply, which has implications far beyond mere physical reproduction. Grow, develop, mature in your relationship with creation, with one another, and with God – learn to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself: these were the divine mandates spoken into the very nature of man when God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness,” (Gen 1:26, NIV). From creation man was oriented toward God – not statically, but dynamically – moving ever closer, growing in grace and knowledge, reflecting ever more clearly and fully the image and likeness of God. Man was to become like God through an obedient relationship with God. This was, and still is, our nature and vocation.

And then sin entered the Garden. If you eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you will be like God, the tempter promised. You will be like God. Do you see the temptation, the snare? Becoming like God is the God-given nature and vocation of man; it is what we were created to do and to be, but only through obedience, only in relationship with God. The tempter offered another way, an apparently quicker and easier way – a way of death masquerading as a way of life. And our parents fell for it. They turned from the Creator to the creature. Man who was oriented toward God, moving ever closer and growing in grace and knowledge, turned his back on God and charted his own path.

There is a way that seems right to a man,
but in the end it leads to death (Pr 14:12, NIV).

And death it was, for our parents chose to separate themselves from the Source of life, from God their Creator. Not death only, but exile too – life east of Eden. Still man’s nature calls; still man’s vocation beckons. We were made to be the sons and daughters of God, to be partakers – to share – in the divine nature. It is that union with God for which we continue to long and to strive. So, in this land east of Eden, let there be music. Let there be art. Let there be tools and cities and farms and flocks. Let us be fruitful and multiply. For this is good and God-ordained.

But for all this, even our best efforts are tainted by the sin which surrounds us and forms us from the womb. As Michael Card observes, man was meant to wake up in a garden, but finds himself instead in a sin-impregnated world. That sin pulls us away from our vocation and entices us to act contrary to our nature. The ultimate goal of union with God eludes us.

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’* 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ 34Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’* 35The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born* will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 38Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:26-35, 38, NRSV).

This is the mystery of the incarnation, a mystery beyond our comprehension, beyond our best mathematics and biology: one God in three Persons, one person – Jesus Christ – comprised of two natures. Try to do those theological sums: 1 person + 1 person + 1 person = 1 God, or is it 1 nature + 1 nature = 1 person? Try to construct the Punnett Square for a hereditary cross between the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. Is divinity dominant and humanity recessive, or is it the other way round? All we can do is echo both Mary’s wonder – How can this be? – and her faithfulness – Let it be according to your word.

The Creed distills this account, this mystery, into very few words: He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. And these few words change the course of human history. Actually, these words – and the truth behind them – put human history back on course again.

In Jesus, specifically in the incarnation, the union of man and God that eluded us in the Garden – the union that we rejected through our disobedience – was accomplished on our behalf by God himself. Perfect obedience, perfect relationship, perfect union: these are the gifts of the incarnation. What we did not, and now cannot, achieve on our own God achieved for us through the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit and the life-accepting yes of the Virgin Mary: He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.

When the proclamation of the Gospel and the working of the Holy Spirit gives birth to faith in us, when we are baptized into Christ’s death and raised to walk in Christ’s life, we become the sons and daughters of God and are made partakers in the divine nature. What is true for Jesus through his incarnation is made true for us and for all who are in him through faith.

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and this is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is (1 John 3:1-2, NRSV).

His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:3-4, NRSV).

The incarnation has returned us to the Garden, reawakened us to our true nature, reoriented us toward a relationship with God and placed us once again on the path toward perfect union with God through Christ Jesus. We are once again on the path – not yet at the final destination – but able, in the light of Christ, to see the path and in the power of the Holy Spirit to walk the path. And walk it we must. Peter, who tells us that through Christ we may become participants of the divine nature, calls us to walk the path toward perfect union.

For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. For if these things are your and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, be all the more eager to confirm your call and election, for if you do this, you will never stumble. For in this way, entry into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be richly provided for you (2 Peter 1:5-8, 10-11, NRSV).

Through the salvation that is ours in Christ – a salvation that begins with his incarnation – perfect union with God is made possible. It is promised – not as a completed event but as an ongoing process. As with so much in our faith, it is “already but not yet;” already made possible and sure but not yet fully completed, already inaugurated but not yet consummated. And so we must cooperate with the Spirit. We must struggle. We must discipline ourselves. We must repent. We must work out our salvation. It is a struggle through life, for life. And though we have an essential part to play in this process, the power behind it all, the enabling power and grace are God’s.

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. 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 within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified (Rom 8:28-30, NRSV).

It is our God-ordained destiny – our nature and vocation – to bear the image of God, to be conformed to the image of his Son. He calls us; he justifies us; and he will glorify us. Those who are in Christ Jesus and who abide in him will one day – on the day of his appearing – be transformed fully into his image.

45Thus it is written, ‘The first man, Adam, became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. 47The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is* from heaven. 48As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. 49Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will* also bear the image of the man of heaven.
50 What I am saying, brothers and sisters,
is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, 52in 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 will be changed (1 Cor 15:45-52, NRSV).

One day we will all be changed, all those who are in the last Adam, Jesus Christ. But we can’t wait for that day. We must walk the path of transformation now. We must press on in obedience toward our high calling as the image bearers of God, certain that even now we are being changed into the likeness of Christ through the power of his incarnation.


Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Sermon: 14 Pentecost (2 September 2007)

Homily: Renewal of Marriage Covenant
John and Clare Roop
2 September 2007
(Tobit 8:5b-8, Psalm 128/John 2:1-11/Revelation 21:1-7)

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

(This homily is offered in celebration of my 30th wedding anniversary and in preparation for the Renewal of Marriage Covenant to follow.)

My friend Gary introduced me to the Internet Monk. He’s not a real monk, mind you; that’s just his blogging persona. His real name is Michael Spencer and he’s not even Roman Catholic or Orthodox; he’s a Post-Evangelical Reformed Protestant, a Southern Baptist, a husband and father, an English and Bible teacher at a southeastern Kentucky secondary boarding school dead center of nowhere – all in all about as far from being a monk as you can imagine. And he’s a blogger – one of the most well-known and respected in the Christian blogosphere. “A voice of sanity in the post-evangelical wilderness,” is how he describes himself. “Man, I’m tired of being right,” is the opening verbal assault of his companion podcast. A little arrogant, maybe, be he’s well worth reading and listening to.

Blogs are the internet cousins of radio talk shows, written instead of oral, but similar nonetheless; they are hosted by opinionated people – why bother otherwise? – and they deal with hot topics. The posts are often provocative: sometimes – and often in the case of the Internet Monk – provocative in the best sense of provoking deeper thought and good conversation. A recent post is a case in point. It was titled There Is No Such “Thing” As Grace. There’s a certain intended shock value to the title for the serious Protestant. After all, one of the most fundamental principles of the Reformation was salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Grace is really the heart and soul of Protestant theology. Deny grace and the Reformation crumbles. Well, it turns out that the writer Michael Spencer was quoting in the article believes in grace just as much as any Protestant. His point was that grace is not a “thing” – not a substance or spiritual quantity that is bestowed upon or transferred from one person to another– but rather is a description of a relationship with Christ. To have Christ is to have grace; grace is nothing – no such thing – apart from Christ himself. Really a very Protestant idea cleverly presented. The article contrasts this understanding to the doctrine of the Medieval Catholic Church.

The Roman Catholic Church did – and I think still does – conceive of grace as a thing, as a stockpile or repository of merits won by Christ through his obedient life, death, and resurrection. This grace is distributed to the faithful as the basis of their salvation; even in Catholic thought we are saved by grace. And how do we receive this saving grace? Well, this was the point of contention that spurred the Reformation. In Catholic doctrine it is the Church that doles out grace, specifically through the sacraments. The faithful receive grace through baptism, Holy Communion, confession, ordination and the like. There were seven means of grace in the Church, seven sacraments. To separate yourself from the Church – or to be forcefully severed from it by excommunication – deprived you of the grace of Christ, and led toward eternal damnation. It was this stranglehold on grace – this “power play” of the Church – that the Protestant Reformers could no longer tolerate. “There is no such ‘thing’ as grace,” is not a bad summary of their complaint.

But, as with many reactionary responses, the Reformers went overboard in some important areas. In denying the Church’s power to dispense grace through the sacraments, many of the Reformers and their followers simply dispensed with the sacraments themselves. They may have retained their forms – baptism and the Lord’s Supper most prominently – but they denied their power. The sacraments became symbols only, ordinances to be observed , acts of devotions or commitment, but not vehicles of grace. And that’s a shame, a real loss. I think there’s a much better way, a way the Internet Monk article hints at but fails to develop sufficiently. It rightly views grace not as a “thing” but as a relationship with Christ; to have Christ is to have grace. Why not take the next step and consider the sacraments to be those actions of God’s faithful people that make Christ present among us, that make visible Christ’s presence among us, that deepen our relationship with Christ so that grace may abound? The sacraments are not containers or channels of some “thing” called grace, but rather the visible expressions of Christ’s presence with us, which is grace itself.

Take the two most “common” sacraments (though I hate to use the word “common” to describe sacraments): baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Paul says that we are baptized into Christ, that spiritually we put on Christ through baptism so that we no longer live, but Christ lives within us. Of course we do still live; it’s just that the intimacy engendered by baptism is so complete that it becomes difficult to tell where we leave off and Christ begins. The two have become one. After baptism comes the Lord’s Supper where we feast on the Christ who is present with us in body and blood, in bread and wine. We take Christ into ourselves. He nourishes us, sustains us, becomes the most vital part of our lives. These are sacraments as the visible expression of Christ’s presence with us, and they are grace themselves.

In this scheme how many sacraments are there? Roman Catholics have seven and those Protestants that speak of sacraments generally have two. But if the sacraments are acts that make visible Christ’s presence among us, then we are awash in sacraments, immersed in them. The world becomes sacramental. What about the assembly of the saints – otherwise known as “going to church?” Well, Jesus promised that where two or three are gathered in his name he would be present. That seems to make the assembly sacramental. What about acts of mercy – feeding the hungry, caring for the orphans and widows, visiting the sick and imprisoned? In those moments, the least of these our brothers and sisters encounter Christ in our words and hands and feet, and we encounter Christ where he promised to be – in the disguise of the hungry, the naked, the prisoner; Christ is present to both groups. That seems to make acts of mercy sacramental. So, how many sacraments are there – seven? No. Seventy times seven.

Earth is crammed with heaven
And every bush aflame with God
But only those who see take off their shoes.
-- Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Let those with eyes see and know themselves to be on holy ground. Christ is present within us and without. The world is his and he is not absent from it. In fact, he is present in some of the most ordinary places, some of the most “earthy” experiences in our lives, and his presence makes them extraordinary and heavenly. His presence makes them sacramental. It was in sacrament that our story began.

26 Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground."
27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
28 God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground" (Gen 1:26-28, NIV).

I believe – I do not know, but I believe generally – that the image of God is not perfectly reflected in the individual man or women, but in the union of man of woman: “in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” In the union of the complements – male and female – God’s image is manifest and his presence uniquely known. The rest of the story strongly hints at this.

18 The LORD God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him."
19 Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20 So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds of the air and all the beasts of the field. But for Adam no suitable helper was found. 21 So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man's ribs and closed up the place with flesh. 22 Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. 23 The man said, "This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called 'woman,' for she was taken out of man."
24 For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh (Gen 2:18-24, NIV).

God ordained the union of man and woman for the benefit of his creation – all his creation, for we are its stewards, its caretakers, and our role is to make all creation fruitful. God ordained the union of man and woman in order to make his image clearly seen and known in his creation. When a man and woman – a husband and wife – give themselves to each other without reservation, God is present and known. When a man and woman – a husband and wife – sacrifice for the welfare of each other, God is present and known. When a man and woman – a husband and wife – keep covenant faithfulness with each other in spite of hurts and doubts and anger, God is present and known. When a man and woman – a husband and wife – forgive each other time and time again, God is present and known. And that is sacramental.

St Paul – who was himself apparently without wife and even counseled celibacy under some conditions – nonetheless insisted that Christian marriage is sacramental; the mutual subjection of husband and wife for the sake of Christ is a visible expression of Christ that makes his presence known and ministers grace to his people.

21 Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.
22 Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. 23For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Saviour. 24Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, 27so as to present the church to himself in splendour, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. 28In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, 30because we are members of his body.
31‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ 32This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. 33Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband (Eph 5:21-33, NRSV).

For Christ’s sake – literally for Christ’s sake – let’s be done with all the foolish, politically correct arguments about who’s in charge in the family. Husband, lay down your life in sacrificial service of your wife – as Christ did for the church – in order to present her holy and blameless before Christ on the great day of his appearing. If you want to be head of the family, that’s how you do it. The one who is greatest is the servant of all. Wife, love your husband as the church loves Christ – as she loves the one who lived and died and rose again – who went to hell and back – to redeem her. Surely, that kind of sacrifice is worthy of your respect. And if all this be truly done – in the name of Christ – then the two will become one flesh and the marriage will be a visible expression of Christ’s presence among us. It is a great mystery, this relationship between husband and wife, this relationship between Christ and the church. The word we use for mystery is sacrament.

For thirty years I’ve lived this mystery, this sacrament. What have I learned? That it is all very mysterious. That God truly can make of two, one flesh – one heart and mind – so that you can no longer tell where one leaves off and the other begins. That love is the way – the only way – and that such love must come from God himself because I’m not capable of it. That God is love, and that those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. And that all this is sacramental.

I’ve learned that thirty years or thirty lifetimes is not nearly enough to plumb the depths of this great mystery that is marriage, this great mystery that makes visible Christ’s presence among us and nourishes us with his grace. And I’ve learned that I’d like to do it all over again. Which is why at this moment I ask my wife if she would like to do it all over again, if she would renew with me our marriage covenant, this great mystery of husband and wife, of Christ and the church.

Sermon: 13 Pentecost (26 August 2007)

13 Pentecost: 26 August 2007
(Jeremiah 1:4-10/Psalm 76:1-6/Hebrews 12:18-29/Luke 13:10-17)
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.

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

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord: so opens the second stanza of the Creed. Familiar phrases all – Jesus Christ, only Son, Lord – scattered as they are across the pages of the Gospels. Yet, I wonder if their very familiarity might lull us into a false sense of understanding, or at least into unthinking repetition. It’s good periodically to step back, to see these phrases as if for the first time, full of meaning and wonder. Who is this Jesus Christ of the Gospels and the Creed? Who indeed?

There is great confusion and controversy about Jesus’ identify as even a quick survey of bookstore shelves reveals. We can read about the Gnostic Jesus in Dan Brown’s fiction and Bart Ehrman’s pseudo-fiction. We can read about the Jesus of revisionist history in the publications of the Jesus Seminar or in John Dominic Crossan’s many works. We can read about Jesus the CEO or Jesus the psychologist or Jesus the “life coach.” You name it and we can just about find a book that claims Jesus fits the bill. And the confusion isn’t just among the “experts” who author books; ordinary folk at the grocery store or ball game are confused too. Get ten people in a room together and you’ll find at least fifteen different opinions of Jesus. Even Bill Cosby was confused about Jesus’ identity; at least he says he was. From ages 7 to 15 Cosby says he thought his name was Jesus Christ because every time he did something wrong that’s what his Dad hollered at him: Jesus Christ! Stop that! And, from the inflection in Cosby’s voice it was clear that both he and his Dad thought Christ was really Jesus’ middle name, much as if I were to holler “Mary Kathleen – you get in here right now!” Not that I ever would.

Well, Christ isn’t a middle name, of course. We know that. It’s a title: Christos, the anointed one. It is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew meshiach, messiah. And it’s an important key to understanding Jesus truly as he was and is. As soon as we acknowledge Jesus as the Christ, as the Messiah, we are immediately caught up in a story, a particular story about the God named YHWH – God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth – and about a particular people, the Jews. It is this story that provides the context in which we must understand the identity and mission of Jesus. We can’t take him out of this particular story. We can’t abstract or generalize his message. It’s the story that keeps us from creating Jesus in our own image. Jesus is the fulfillment of the story that began with God’s declaration, “Let there be light.” It is the story of creation and fall, the story of call and covenant, the story of slavery and deliverance, the story of Law and land, the story of Judges and Prophets, the story of exile and restoration, the story of incarnation and ministry, the story of death and resurrection, the story of ascension and coming again, the story of life everlasting. It is the story we tell as we gather around the table of Jesus Christ, the Messiah:

It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere
to give thanks to you, Father Almighty,
Creator of heaven and earth.

At your word the earth was made
and spun on its course among the planets.

Your hand formed us from the dust of the earth
and set us among all your creatures to love and serve you.

When we were unfaithful to you, you kept faith with us,
your love remained steadfast.

When we were slaves in Egypt,
you broke the bonds of our oppression,
brought us through the sea to freedom,
and made covenant to be our God.
By a pillar of fire you led us through the desert
to a land flowing with milk and honey,
and set before us the way of life.
You spoke of love and justice in the prophets,
and in the Word made flesh you lived among us,
manifesting your glory.
He died that we might live, and is risen to raise us to new life.

It is the story of Jesus Christ – Jesus the Messiah – through whom creation will be restored, sin forgiven, death vanquished, covenant extended to bless all the peoples of the earth, and man reconciled to God to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

To say “I believe in Jesus Christ,” is to say “I believe in this story.” Even more, it is to say I want to take my place in this story, to root my identity in it, to found my life on it as did Jesus Christ, Jesus the Messiah. It is to say I reject all the lesser stories that clamor and dazzle and seduce – stories of self, stories of power, stories of wealth, stories of lesser gods. “I believe in Jesus Christ,” is a declaration of independence, a pledge of allegiance, an embrace of a history, an acceptance of identity – both his and mine, for the story of God that centers on Jesus Christ is large enough to encompass me – and you – as well. I believe in Jesus Christ.

I believe in Jesus Christ who is also God’s only Son. This apparently simple phrase – only Son – is a theological minefield and has been since the first centuries of the faith. Jesus, himself, is clear that God has many sons, not just one: the peacemakers (Mt 5:9), those who practice piety privately – who give alms and pray and fast secretly (Mt 6:1-18), really all those who seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness are God’s sons. In this sense, we are the sons and daughters of God, all of us. So, only Son can’t mean singular Son. A better translation of “only” might be “unique.” The Creed would then read, “I believe in Jesus the Messiah, the unique Son of God.” Yes, we are all God’s sons and daughters – all related to God familially – but not in the unique sense that Jesus is. This is precisely the point that the “other” creed, the Nicene Creed, strains so hard to emphasize.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.

While we are truly sons and daughters of God – and what a privilege that is! – none of these statements apply to us: I am not God from God or Light from Light and neither are you. But Jesus is, and only Jesus is. Jesus is the unique Son: uncreated, eternal, truly God, one in essence with the Father. Quite simply, what God is, Jesus is – and that uniquely so. We cannot think rightly about God without recourse to Jesus, for Jesus is the perfect self-revelation of God in human form. Paul explains to the Colossian Christians:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation…for in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross (Col 1:15, 19-20, NRSV).

All of this – and more than will ever comprehend – is implied by the phrase “his only Son.”

In this passage from Colossians, and elsewhere, Paul expands the notion of Jesus’ sonship to include not just unique relationship with God, but also unique vocation (work) from God. Jesus’ identity and mission are inseparable; he could accomplish his work on our behalf only because he was and is the unique Son of God. Paul again:

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross (Col 1:19-20, NRSV).

Only because Jesus was the unique Son, only because in him dwelt all the fullness of God, could he accomplish his vocation of the reconciliation of all creation to God through the blood of the cross. Jesus said as much in a passage we’ve known since childhood.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son [note the identical creedal language], so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17, NRSV).

And then, on the night of his death, Jesus once again made his unique identity and vocation clear to his confused and disheartened apostles.

Jesus said [to him], “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:6-7, NRSV).

And there it is again clearly: unique identity and unique vocation. See Jesus, see the Father. Come through Jesus – and only through him – and you may come to the Father. It simply isn’t true for the Christian that all roads – or even many roads or even some other roads – lead to God. Once again, Jesus is unique: “No one comes to the Father except through me.” And this is where Jesus’ unique vocation to be the way to the Father drives our unique vocation to proclaim the way to the Father, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, his only Son.

The Creed proclaims and we believe in Jesus Christ, his [God’s] only Son. It also proclaims Jesus as our Lord. There may be no more theologically and politically charged word in the Creed than this word Lord. It is blasphemous if not true and seditious if true. You may remember that God first revealed his personal name to Moses at the burning bush on Sinai: I Am, or I Am That I Am. In Hebrew this name is represented by the tetragrammaton – the four letters – YHWH. We have no real idea how to pronounce the name; no vowels are indicated and the key to pronunciation has been lost – probably not by accident. The name of God was considered so holy – names in general were considered objects of power and mystery – so holy that it was never pronounced. Whenever YHWH occurred in the Hebrew Scripture another word was substituted and pronounced for it, generally Adonai, the Hebrew word for Lord. This tradition persists in many English translations of the Old Testament where you encounter the word Lord typed in small capital letters, lord. Wherever that appears it is a substitution for the tetragrammaton, the personal name of God.

When the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek around the 3rd century B.C., the Jewish scholars selected the Greek word kurioV as the translation for Adonai. In other words, they used kurios as their substitution for YHWH, the personal name of God. Confused yet? Well, here’s what it all means. When the Creed calls Jesus “our Lord,” it calls him ton kurion hemon -- Iesous kurion, Jesus Adonai, Jesus YHWH. To use the New Testament and Creedal proclamation Jesus is Lord, is to say Jesus is Adonai – Jesus is YHWH. No Jewish Christian could have missed this bold proclamation. Of course, Jesus himself had made the exact claim during his ministry and had incited the Jewish leaders to stone him.

‘Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.’ Then the Jews said to him, ‘You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.’ So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple (John 8:56-59, NRSV, emphasis added).

We say in the Creed only what Jesus first said about himself: Jesus is Lord; Jesus is Adonai; Jesus is YHWH; Jesus is I Am. If not true, it is blasphemy. We believe it’s true.

But Lord has another resonance also – this one political, this one directed toward the Roman Empire. It is subversive. It is confrontational. It is a hallmark of Paul’s letters as described by N. T. Wright.

Paul explicitly (and we must assume deliberately) speaks of Jesus in language which echoes, and hence deeply subverts, language in common use among Roman imperial subjects to describe Caesar. In the pagan world of Paul’s day … it was natural for emperors to be treated with divine honour. Already in the time of Tiberius, his predecessor, Augustus, was regarded as divine, so that the emperor became first the son of a god and then, in turn, a god himself. Kyrios Kaisar was the formula which said it all: Caesar is Lord.

Most pagans within the Roman world were quite happy to acknowledge Caesar as Lord; they did it politically, and doing it religiously was all part of the same overarching package. And Paul said: no, Kyrios Iesous Christos: Jesus Christ is Lord (N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 88).

And the Creed picked up this same language: Jesus is Lord. Which meant that Caesar was not. This makes the Creed – at least historically – not only a religious statement, but a political manifesto, as well. I suggest that it still is. To say “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,” is to say I recognize no higher authority than his. It is to place not only individuals but governments and nations under his dominion. They may not acknowledge Jesus as Lord, but if they do not they are in open rebellion against the rightful sovereign of all creation, against the one at whose name

every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:10-11, NRSV).

And such rebellion has consequences as Psalm 2 reminds us.

Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the LORD with fear,
with trembling kiss his feet,
or he will be angry, and you will
perish in the way;
for his wrath is quickly kindled (Ps 2:10-11, NRSV).

We are entering the political season all too quickly. Soon presidential candidates and certainly the President-Elect will claim the people’s mandate to govern according to his (or her) agenda. Don’t believe it. The Creed reminds us that the mandate to govern is Christ’s as is the agenda. All leaders are called to submit to Jesus as Lord. All creation is called to submit to Jesus as Lord. So the Creed reminds us. So the Creed demands of us.

And so we stand together and say: I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. Which is to say I believe in Jesus the Messiah whose story was written before the foundations of the world, before the morning stars sang together at creation’s dawning – a story of creation, fall, restoration, and reconciliation. I believe in Jesus, the only son of God – unique in identity and vocation, the only one in whom the fullness of God dwells and the only one who can reconcile creation to Creator. I believe in Jesus Christ our Lord, the great I Am and the sovereign over all. Yes, I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.