Wednesday, October 31, 2007

All Saints': 1 November 2007

All Saints: 1 November 2007
(Ecclesiasticus 44:1-15/Psalm 149/Ephesians 1:15-23/Matthew 5:1-12)
I believe…in the communion of saints.

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

Personal evil confounds us. Two teenage boys – children – Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold enter Columbine High School with legal weapons of mass destruction and murder 12 of their classmates, one of their teachers, and wound 23 others. When the initial shock and sorrow abate enough that we can begin to think, we turn to questions like Why? and How could this happen? and What could possibly turn children into murderers? Several contributing factors were proposed by a commission of law enforcement agents, mental health professionals, and representatives of the Columbine community and other communities where school shootings had occurred: school cliques; bullying; and the desensitizing effect of violent video games, films, and music among them. Underneath all the analyses lies a basic assumption: Something went wrong here. Killers are made, not born. Evil is a matter of nurture gone terribly wrong, and not a matter of nature.

Personal evil sickens us, particularly evil directed against the most vulnerable in society – children. Sexual abuse of children is especially abhorrent to us – and troublesome from the standpoint of justice. We know, based on extensive records, that pedophiles are serial criminals. If we let them out of jail, they will victimize other children. Rehabilitation – at least the kind conducted in jails and medical offices – doesn’t often work. But here, in the presence of this kind of evil, we are not as likely to ask about causes or contributing factors. We seem more likely to think that some people are born with sexual perversions and that such tendencies are truly part of who they are, so that they are unable to change. This type of evil is born, not made. This type of evil is a matter of nature gone terribly wrong, and not a matter of nurture.

Of course I have over-simplified the nature of evil here. But I’ve done so to make what I think is a valid point. Evil confounds us. It begs for an explanation and our society – deprived of the wisdom and language of the Christian community -- has no definitive one to offer. Sometimes we conclude that evil is a matter of nature and sometimes that it is a matter of nurture. Are evil people born or made? The debate continues because evil confounds us.

I am equally confounded by good. A bright, articulate, successful college student leaves behind a promising career to live with and advocate for the homeless in Philadelphia, becoming, in effect, one of them. Almost no one notices. No commissions are convened to ask Why? or How could this happen? or What could possible turn a self-absorbed college student into homeless advocate? A brilliant doctor sees Haiti for the first time and loses his heart there, giving up a lucrative practice for the challenge of eliminating HIV/AIDS and pneumonia in the third world. Why? How could this happen? What could turn a recipient of the American dream into a third-world champion?

Good confounds us. It too, begs for an explanation, but no one seems to notice. In many ways good is much more a societal threat and embarrassment than evil; we tend to avert our gaze from it. People seem to expect great evil, but not great good and we don’t quite know what to make of it.

I believe in… the communion of saints we Christians say in the Creed, and on this day we celebrate All Saints. And so, we are called upon to notice good, to give an explanation for extraordinary good, for the presence of saints among us in this and every time: Who are they? and How did they come to be this way? and What could possibly explain how they turned from “ordinary people” into champions of faith and virtue and love? Is it nature or nurture? Are saints born or made?

As with so many either/or questions the true answer is, Yes. Are saints a product of nature or nurture? Yes. Are saints born or made? Yes. There is no contradiction here – paradox and mystery, certainly; but contradiction, no.

The church at Corinth was a mess by anyone’s measure, and Paul knew that better than most. What a burden that church was to him: doctrinal confusion, divisions, lawsuits among believers, drunken and gluttonous celebrations of the agape meal – the Eucharist – gross sexual immorality, fellowship at pagan feasts. It would have been easy to write this group off as a failed attempt at Gentiles doing church badly. And yet, Paul knew better. He didn’t write them off; he wrote them a love letter – tough love, yes, but love nonetheless.

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor 1:1-3, NRSV).

Of course you picked up on the greeting: Paul called these very flawed and struggling Christians saints – holy ones in the Greek of Paul’s letter. How could he? How could he seriously use the language of sainthood to describe these people? Paul could call the Corinthians – flawed as they were – saints because he knew that saints are born, or more truly, saints are born again, born of water and the Spirit. You are saints, Paul could write them, because

[But] you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God (1 Cor 6:11b, NRSV).

The Gospel is proclaimed, the wind of the Spirit blows, faith is kindled, and sinners enter the baptismal water. Saints emerge. There is new creation. There is new birth. Saints are born “not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13, NRSV) and they are children of God through our Lord Jesus Christ. This is the nature of sainthood: new birth in Jesus Christ.

Just as birth is the beginning of life, new birth is the beginning of sainthood. And just as we grow into the fullness of our humanity, so too must we grow into the fullness of our sainthood. The Corinthians still needed much growth.

And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, 3for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations (1 Cor 3:1-3)?

In Corinth we find saints behaving badly, behaving not according to their true spiritual identity as saints, but according to human passions. They had not ceased to be saints, but they had not grown as expected and intended. The Hebrew writer encountered a similar condition among his charges.

11 About this we have much to say that is hard to explain, since you have become dull in understanding. 12For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food; 13for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness. 14But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.

6Therefore let us go on towards perfection, leaving behind the basic teaching about Christ, and not laying again the foundation: repentance from dead works and faith towards God, 2instruction about baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgement (Heb 5:11-6:2).

Infants, these two writers call the saints, because they both knew that saints aren’t just born, saints are made. Sainthood depends both on nature – the new birth in Christ – and nurture – cooperation with the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in fellowship with the church. Growing up into sainthood is not hard: fast, pray, give, serve, obey, deny yourself, take up your cross, lay down your life. Well, OK, maybe it is hard. But it’s not all that mysterious. We know the way because others have walked it ahead of us and we have their witness.

Hebrews 11, part of that witness, is often called the roll call of the faithful. It starts with a description – not really a definition, but a poetic description – of faith:

11 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. 3By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible (Heb 11:1-3, NRSV).

And then it continues with examples of faith – the roll call of the faithful – with examples of Old Testament saints: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Rahab. The writer is on a roll now, saints gushing from his pen onto the parchment and he has to force himself to stop and catch his breath.

And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— 33who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. 35Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. 36Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— 38of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
39 Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40since God had provided something better so that they would not, without us, be made perfect (Heb 11:32-40, NRSV).

No infants these. We look up to them, as we should. They are our examples, our mentors in the faith. And we could add others to the list: Zechariah, Elizabeth, John the Baptist, Mary, Joseph, the Apostles, Stephen, Polycarp, Irenaeus, Athanasius, Perpetua, Justin, Francis, Clare, Mother Teresa, John Paul II – all those who have grown up in the faith, who have moved from their new birth as saints into the fullness of their vocation as saints. These saints were born, yes; but they were also made by presenting themselves as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable unto God, their reasonable service of worship.

Hebrews tells us that these sainst are with us still, as a cloud of witness to cheer us on in our own growth into sainthood.

12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God (Heb 12:1-2, NRSV).

These saints – those in heaven and on earth – form one family, one communion. We are in this great adventure of faith together; your name joins theirs in the roll call of the faithful. In a profound expression of the communion of saints, the writer of Hebrews says,

39 Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40since God had provided something better so that they would not, without us, be made perfect (Heb 11:39, NRSV).

These great heroes of the faith, these great saints, cannot reach perfection, cannot attain the fullness of their sainthood apart from us. We are truly in this together, in this communion of saints.

Are saints born or made? Yes. Are saints the product of nature or nurture? Yes. It is no contradiction to state, You are a saint, now become a saint. We must become what we are because we live in the between-times or, as Robert Benson might say, between the dreaming and the coming true. We are already saints, but not yet perfected in our sainthood, so we still must grow into the fullness of our identity and vocation as the saints of God. And we must look to those saints who have gone before and those who are still present with us as a great cloud of witnesses strengthening us and urging us onward toward the high calling that is ours in Christ Jesus.

I believe…in the communion of saints.


On this most fitting night, we consecrate an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary written by the hand of our sister Susan. Why do we have icons in our church when so many others do not? Simply because we truly believe in the communion of saints. We believe that these whose icons adorn our worship are alive to God and to us, that they surround us as a cloud of witnesses – witnessing to the glory of God and the power of the Holy Spirit to move men and women beyond their birth as saints toward the fullness of their sainthood. These saints we honor – Mary among them – are not different in kind than we are; we, too are saints. But perhaps – likely – they are different in degree, farther along in maturity than we are. Their icons remind us of their presence with us and their example for us. Mostly their icons remind us of Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours, the author and perfecter of the faith shared by this great communion of saints.

The Blessing and Hallowing of Icons

Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And blessed be his kingdom, now and for ever. Amen.

Trisagion (repeated three times)
Holy God,
Holy and Mighty,
Holy Immortal One,
Have mercy upon us.

Blessed are you our only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who dwells in light unapproachable from before time and forever, whom no one has ever seen or can see.

Praise the Lord for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever.

May your favor, O Lord our God, rest upon us.
Establish the work of your servants’ hands –
yes, bless the work of your servants’ hands.

O Lord our God,
who created us after your own image and likeness;
who redeems us from the ancient curse
through your only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ, the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of creation, in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, through whom also, in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
we are renewed in your likeness;

send forth, we pray, your blessing upon this icon,
and with the sprinkling of Holy Water
bless and make holy this icon unto your glory,
in honor and remembrance of your saint,
the blesséd Virgin Mary;
and grant that, as you have made us one
with your saints in heaven and on earth,
we may in our earthly pilgrimage always be supported
by their witness to your power and mercy
and so run with perseverance the race that is before us,
looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith;
with whom you are blessed,
together with your all-holy, good, and life-giving Spirit,
both now and for ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Sprinkling cross fashion the icon with Holy Water, the Celebrant prays:

Hallowed and blessed is this icon
of the blesséd Virgin Mary
by the grace of the Holy Spirit,
through the sprinkling of Holy Water:
in the name of the Father, and of the Son,
and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Collect of the Blesséd Virgin Mary
Almighty God,
with grace you have made the blesséd Virgin Mary
to be the mother of your only Son;
by the same grace,
hallow our bodies in chastity
and our souls in humility and love;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns
with You and the Holy Spirit,
one God for ever and ever. Amen.

Blesséd are you, O Virgin Mary,
for you believed that what was said to you
by the Lord would be fulfilled.

Blesséd are you, Mary, the Lord is with you:
through you we received our Redeemer,
the Lord Jesus Christ.

Blesséd are you, O Lord Jesus Christ,
King of heaven and earth.
We praise you for your virgin birth;
You are the Father’s only Son,
With God the Spirit, ever one. Amen.

Let us bless the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Sermon: 22 Pentecost (28 Oct 2007)

22 Pentecost: 28 October 2007
(Acts 2:37-47/Psalm 133/1 Peter 2:4-10/Matthew 16:13-20)
…the one holy catholic and apostolic Church

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

Brother Jim Thompson came,
the oldest,
with overalls and a white shirt buttoned at the collar,
with a walking cane and a Bible
that had stood fifty years of pounding,
and with that old fire burning through his cataracts.
Didn’t need no seminary.
Always preached the Bible
and the Lord Jesus Christ
crucified and buried and
raised from the dead.

Brother Hamer came
and Brother Ewart
and the three Walker boys,
preachers all.
They came through rain,
wrestling with the wheels of their out-of-county cars,
sliding in ruts so deep the tail pipes dragged.
They parked under the trees and along the road,
then walked, shined shoes and all,
through the mud,
picking their way along the high spots
like children jumping puddles.
Into the church of their fathers,
the place they had felt the call,
the old home church
where thousands of hands had pressed
on the bowed heads of new preacher boys,
of sun-reddened young men called by the Lord,
called from the cotton fields to preach the word.
They had felt the hands,
these old preachers,
felt those blunt-fingered, work-hardened hands,
felt them like a blessing,
like an offering,
like a burden.
Felt them at weddings and baptizings,
felt them in the heat of a summer revival sermon,
in the agony of a baby’s funeral,
in the desperate prayer against some killer disease,
in the frustrating visit with a mind gone senile.
And now the old preachers came to lay their hands
on the head of a new kind of preacher,
a preacher from the seminary,
a preacher who studied the Bible in Greek and Hebrew,
who knew about religions they never heard of,
who knew about computers
with memory banks full of sermons
and many other modern things.
A new kind of preacher,
and yet,
a preacher who still would feel on her head
the hands
like a commandment

from all the preachers and deacons who ever were.
Ordination, James Autry

I’ve felt these hands as blessing and offering and burden three times – deacon, elder, pastor – my father’s hands; two generations of church men, the old ones who still smoked on the church stoop between Sunday School and church and their sons who hoped and prayed they could fill those good men’s shoes; your hands. Blessing, offering, burden – that sums it up nicely. With the press of your hands still imprinted on my head I committed before God and that great cloud of witnesses in this world and the world to come that I would “proclaim the faith of the church and no other.” Knowing that I will one day stand before the judgment seat of our Lord Jesus Christ to give account of my stewardship, knowing that teachers will be judged more strictly, I take this commitment most seriously.

As an elder and pastor my charge is to contend for that faith once for all entrusted to the saints (Jude 3) – to faithfully pass on to this generation and the next that faith which has been believed “always, everywhere, and by all” (Commonitory, Vincent of Lérins): not my faith, but the faith of the church and no other. This is my blessing, my offering, and my burden – mainly blessing and offering. But not today. Today this charge is burden. Today we say, I believe in the holy catholic Church, or, in the longer version of the Nicene Creed, We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. And this weighs on me as a heavy burden. When we arrive at this statement, I don’t know how to fulfill my commitment to proclaim the faith of the church, because I don’t know what the faith of the church is – right here at this point. Here’s the problem. I can stand with my Orthodox and Catholic brothers and sisters and proclaim our common belief in the one holy catholic and apostolic Church but I cannot, on the basis of that belief, then join them at the table of our Lord. And why? Because they do not believe we are part of that one holy catholic and apostolic church. The Catholics do not share Eucharistic fellowship with the Orthodox. The Orthodox do not share Eucharistic fellowship with the Catholics. Neither of them share Eucharistic fellowship with Protestants. And it is all because we have no common faith in, no common understanding of the one holy catholic and apostolic church. I can tell you what each group believes about the church, but I cannot tell you what the church believes about the church simply because there is no consensus of the faithful. Everyone seems to believe that there is indeed one holy catholic and apostolic church, but no one seems to believe that anyone else is part of it. It is as if Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians – a church noted for internal struggle and division – had been ripped from Scripture and lost to our collective memory.

21The eye cannot say to the hand, "I don't need you!" And the head cannot say to the feet, "I don't need you!" 22On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
27Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it (1 Cor 12:21-27, NIV).

While Paul was speaking of the local church as the body of Christ, certainly his insistence on its divine, fundamental unity could be extended to the universal church as well. We need our Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters and they need each other and us. Despite their protestations, we are one.

While it may not be possible to tell what the church actually believes about itself, it is possible to tell what the church should believe about itself. And it’s all there in the creed: We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

The creed starts with this basic understanding: The church is one. Thomas Campbell, a leader in the Restoration Movement of the 18th-19th centuries, expressed this fundamental understanding in his book Declaration and Address.

[That] the church of Christ upon earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one; consisting of all those in every place that profess their faith in Christ and obedience to him in all things according to the scriptures, and that manifest the same by their tempers and conduct, and of none else as none else can be truly and properly called Christians (Prop. 1).

Campbell says the church is essentially one, that is, one in its very essence. It cannot be different because the Lord has created the church in precisely this way.

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all (Eph 4:4-6, NRSV).

There is one church precisely because there is one Spirit who calls it together and gives it life, because there is one Lord – Jesus Christ – its head, because there is one common faith by which we are born anew, because there is one baptism for the forgiveness of sins, and because there is one God who is above all and through all and in all.

Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. Hear, O his people, the church, his church, is one.

But being one does not mean that each church is, or must be, identical. We must be careful never to mistake the church’s essential unity for cookie-cutter uniformity: within unity there lies great room for diversity. Clearly, from St. Luke’s record in Acts, the Jerusalem church and the Antiochian church had significant differences. James – the brother of our Lord and himself a devout, messianic Jew – led the primarily, or exclusively, Jewish Jerusalem church. Observance of the Mosaic Law was apparently typical among the brothers and sisters there. In Antioch, though, the situation was decidedly different. That vibrant, evangelistic congregation was an eclectic mix of Jews and Gentiles sharing a common life together without the restrictions of Mosaic Law. What was required of Jerusalem and Antioch was not uniformity, but a determination to live their new lives in Christ together in spite of – and just maybe in celebration of – their very real differences.

I’m not advocating unrestrained liberalism here – an “anything goes” approach to the faith. Far from it. Just as every circle must have a circumference, our faith must have boundaries of orthodoxy. No Christian church is free to deny the deity of Christ, for example, and remain in fellowship with the one holy catholic and apostolic Church. It is apostate and must repent or be excluded; it has, in reality, excluded itself. No church is free to replace the bread and wine of the Eucharist with Twinkies and grape Kool-Aide or to eliminate baptism in favor of a hazing ritual and an initiation fee. Certain elements of faith and practice are non-negotiable – but not every element of faith and practice. Scripture is our constitution; it is normative for both faith and practice, and the Creeds and Councils and writings of the Fathers help us interpret Scripture rightly. We look to what has been believed "always, everywhere, and by all” as a mark of the orthodox faith but allow for significant variations in the expression of that orthodox faith.

I will hazard a theological analogy here. The Holy Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – are one in essence, but three in persons. Within the unity of divine essence there is nevertheless diversity of personhood. Might this just be true of the church, as well? The church is one in essence – one Spirit, one faith, one Lord, one baptism, one God and Father of all – but diverse in expression. Perhaps we could say it this way: If the church is a language, then there are many dialects, all of which may, and must, communicate the truth. We believe in one … Church.

We also believe that the one Church is a holy Church. Groucho Marx once said, “I wouldn’t belong to any club that would have me as a member.” I feel that way sometimes about the church. Why would I want to belong to a church that would let sinners like me in? How can it be holy if I belong to it? Let me suggest two answers that take us off the hook and one that puts us right back on again.

First, the church is holy because it is the temple of God, a temple indwelt by the Holy Spirit. In speaking of the danger of divisions in the church Paul writes to the Corinthians,

Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?

If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him: for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple (1 Cor 3:16-17, NIV).

The context of this passage makes it clear that Paul is not speaking to individuals but to the church: the church is God’s temple and God’s Spirit lives in that church; therefore, it is sacred. It is holy.

The church is also holy because it is set apart for God’s use. That is perhaps the most basic meaning of holy: set apart, consecrated for God’s use and to God’s glory. The church is holy because God has called us out of the world to be a kingdom and priests, because he has set us apart as his image bearers in this world.

In both of these meanings – holy as the temple of God and holy as being set apart for God’s use and glory – holiness is not an attribute of man, but of God. That’s how even a church that would let me in can still be considered holy. But I’m not totally off the hook just yet; there is another aspect of holiness that does involve me, that does make demands on you.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sister, by the mercies of God, to present you bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect (Rom 12:1-2, NRSV).

Historically the church has emphasized orthodoxy – right faith – and somewhat neglected orthopraxy – right practice, right action, right living. The question, at least among many evangelical protestants, has for too long been, Have you prayed the sinner’s prayer? rather than, Are you living the disciple’s life? Yes, holiness is an attribute of God, but an attribute into which we are to grow. The Methodists call it sanctification – the process of a believer actually becoming holy in thought, word, and deed. The Orthodox call it theosis – deification – a deepening union with God. Regardless of what word we use, it is the goal of our faith.

As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance.

But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy” (1 Pe 1:14-16, NIV).

The church that welcomes sinners must also be the church that produces saints. We believe in one holy … Church.

The church is catholic the Creed says: small c, no Roman in front of it – just catholic. As far as we know St. Ignatius of Antioch (35-107) first used the term catholic church in writing a letter to the church at Smyrna while he was en route to his martyrdom. Ignatius was a strong proponent of the episcopacy; he felt the bishop was the unifying force and the protector of the faith in the church, and he wrote to the Smyrnaeans to encourage their obedience to their bishop.

Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church
— Letter to the Smyrnaeans 8, J.R. Willis translation.

As Ignatius uses the word katholikos (καθολικός), catholic means universal. The catholic church is that church dispersed throughout the whole earth which yet maintains a single faith. The catholic church is that church which unmistakeably bears the image of Christ. Irenaeus writing around 180 also emphasized this catholic nature of the church.

Although dispersed throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, the church has received this faith from the apostles and their disciples… Although she is scattered throughout the whole world, yet, she carefully preserves it, as if she occupied only one house. She also believes these points just as if she had only one soul, and one and the same heart. She proclaims these things, teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony – as if she possessed only one mouth. For although the languages of the world are different, yet the significance of the tradition is one and the same. For the churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different. Neither do those in Spain, Gaul, the East, Egypt, Libya, or in the central regions of the world.

Jesus instructed his disciple to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the world – in short, to call into being a truly catholic church, and that they did. The Christians in China, Russia, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Turkey are as much our brothers and sisters as those Christian right across the street. We believe in one holy catholic…Church.

And that church is apostolic. Now some will argue – our Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglican brothers and sisters, for example – that a church is only apostolic if it possesses a pedigree that reaches back to the apostles, that is, if there is an unbroken line of episcopal ordinations from the apostles to the present bishop – apostolic succession they call it. In all fairness, some of the Church Fathers may be read in agreement with this position. But in our time we have seen bishops in such apostolic succession so compromise the faith and practice of the church that it no longer resembles the one holy catholic and apostolic Church. More important it seems than such a historical pedigree is a spiritual pedigree. Can a church trace its faith and practice through an unbroken line to the apostles? Do we believe and profess and practice a faith that the apostles would recognize as their own? If so, the church is apostolic. If not, no Episcopal succession will make the church apostolic. So writes Tertullian (c. 197) of those churches who

although they do not have as their founder the apostles or apostolic men (as being of much later date, for churches are in fact being founded daily), yet, since they agree in the same faith, they are considered to be no less apostolic because they are alike in doctrine.

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

In the creed we confess a church that is essentially one because it has one Spirit, one faith, one Lord, one baptism, one God and Father of all; a church that is holy because it is set apart for God’s use and to his glory and because it is comprised of sinners who will not rest until they are saints; a church that is catholic because it bears the image of Christ throughout the entire world; a church that is apostolic because it faithfully preserves the faith and practice of those men who knew Jesus and who were commissioned to go into all the world making disciples and teaching them to observe all things that Jesus commanded. Whatever we may believe about the church, this is the reality of the church. And so, with thanks to God the Father, through Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Spirit we proclaim that we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.


Saturday, October 20, 2007

Sermon: 21 Pentecost (21 Oct 2007)

21 Pentecost: 21 October 2007
(Acts 2:1-4, 14-21/Psalm 104:25-37/Ephesians 4:1-6, 14-16/Matthew 3:13-17)
I believe in the Holy Spirit.

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

Summary: The Christian life is life in the Spirit. We are conceived by the Spirit when we hear the gospel and the Spirit stirs faith within us. We are born of the Spirit in baptism, sealed as Christ’s own forever, and given a new identity in the Spirit. We mature in the Spirit as we submit to and cooperate with the process of sanctification (theosis), the process of growing in Christ-likeness and union with God.

The newly-baptized servant of God stands by the baptistery clothed in a white robe – the external, physical sign of the inner, spiritual robe of righteousness – clothed with light as with a garment. The celebrant offers the prayer of Holy Chrismation.

Blessed are You, Lord, God, Ruler of all, Source of all good things, Sun of Righteousness. You have raised up a light of salvation for those in darkness, through the manifestation of Your only-begotten Son and our God. Though we are unworthy, You have given us a blessed cleansing in holy water and a living sanctification through holy anointing. Now, to Your newly enlightened servant, You have been pleased to give new birth by water and the Spirit, for the forgiveness of his sins, whether committed willingly or unwillingly. Therefore, O Master, and gracious King of all, grant him also the seal of the gift of Your holy, almighty and adorable Spirit and the communion of the holy Body and precious Blood of Your Christ. Keep him in Your holiness, strengthen him in the true faith, and deliver him from the evil one and all his deceitful ways. Keep him in purity and righteousness by a fear of You that brings salvation, that he may please You in his every word and deed and become a son and an heir of Your heavenly kingdom. For You are our God, a God of mercy and salvation, and we give glory to You, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and ever and forever. Amen.

After this prayer, the celebrant anoints the newly-baptized servant of God with holy chrism – holy oil – making the sign of the cross on the forehead, eyes, nostrils, ears, breast, hands and feet saying,

The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This ancient rite is holy remembering in word and symbol. For, as Jesus told Nicodemus, we are born of water and Spirit. As Jesus told Photini – the woman at Jacob’s well in Samaria – true worshipers must worship the Father in Spirit and in truth. As those who have been reborn through baptism, as those who truly worship the Father, we are people of the Spirit. We proclaim not only with our lips but with our lives the words of the Creed, I believe in the Holy Spirit. We not only believe in the Spirit, we live in the Spirit.

It’s all mystery, this life in the Spirit. Jesus likens it to the wind: unseen, powerful, unpredictable. To a confused and struggling Nicodemus Jesus says,

The wind blows wherever it will, and you hear the sound it makes, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit (John 3:8, NET).

Human conception is a mystery – not the mechanics of it but the creation of life where an instant before there was nothing: so, too, the creation of life in and through the Spirit. The Gospel is proclaimed to those who have never heard or to those who have heard and have resolutely rejected – in short, to those who are dead. And then suddenly some find themselves believing. Suddenly some find new life where an instant before there was nothing. Why? How? The wind of the Spirit blows, from where and to where we do not know; but, in its wake there is new life, new creation. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father: these words of the Nicene Creed– hard fought and hard won by our fathers in the faith – acknowledge the Holy Spirit as the source of our new life in Christ.

If this initial blowing of the wind of the Spirit that calls forth faith within us – that kindles the spark of life – can be likened to conception, then baptism is certainly full birth in the Spirit. And the life that follows, the life in the Spirit, is like no life we’ve known or imagined before. Words fail. Analogies fall flat. The Trinity, beyond all time, exists as a community of Persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – each unique and yet of one essence. Love ceaselessly passes between them, and life: pure, abundant, eternal life. When the wind of the Spirit blows through us it catches us up into that love and life of the Trinity. On the night he was betrayed, in his last extended discourse to his disciples, Jesus revealed this mystery.

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (John 14:15-20, NRSV).

We speak of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, though the words scarce do justice to the reality. Through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit we are caught up into the life of the Trinity: Christ is in the Father and we are in Christ, and all this is through the Holy Spirit. Life in the Spirit is like no life we’ve known or imagined before.

When children are born they are also named, and that name is identity, seal, and pledge. Another generation was added to my family recently with the birth of my great-nephew. He was named in honor of his grandfather, my brother, William, and of our father – the baby’s great-grandfather. That name was placed like a seal upon him, an indelible mark of identity. From this time forth and forever he is marked with this name: it both establishes and creates his identity. It makes him part of an ongoing story. It entitles him. And it obligates him. He is sealed as a member of our family forever. This seal is more than just a name, more even than just an identity. It is a pledge, a promise, that his family makes to him: to love, to nurture, to provide, to protect, to educate, to equip. Through this seal his parents say to him, “Everything we have is yours; we pledge this as your inheritance.”

In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance towards redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory (Eph 1:11-14, NRSV).

The Holy Spirit is the seal of the newly baptized servant of God, an indelible mark of identity. The Rite of Holy Baptism in the Book of Common Prayer makes this explicit. The bishop or priest places a hand on head of the newly baptized, marking on the forehead the sign of the cross and saying,

[Name], you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever. Amen.

The Holy Spirit establishes and creates our identity, makes us part of an ongoing story, incorporates us into a family – a family of blood and water, the blood of Christ and the water of baptism – a family in which the old differences of race and gender and status no longer matter. In contemplating the riches of God’s love for us in making us his sons and daughters – his family – Paul falls to his knees in prayer and praise.

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God (Eph 3:14-19, NIV).

The Holy Spirit is the seal of our identity as members of God’s family and as members of one another. The Holy Spirit is the seal of God’s ownership of us. And the Holy Spirit is God’s present sign and pledge of our future full redemption.

Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come (2 Cor 1:21-22, NIV).

Before the recent mortgage scandals of sub-prime lending and balloon payments, earnest money and down payments were customary. An offer to purchase a house was accompanied by a check – usually one or two percent of the asking price – called earnest money; it expressed the buyer’s earnest intent to complete the transaction, a guarantee that the offer was real and would be honored fully. Likewise, at the time of purchase, a down payment of ten to twenty percent was given to the lending institution as a guarantee that all future payments would be made. Based upon these two “earnest payments” the buyer became a homeowner, though of course the full redemption of the home lay in the future. This is a modern take on Paul’s analogy. The Holy Spirit is the earnest money, the down payment, of our inheritance. The Holy Spirit is the present expression of God’s pledge to redeem us fully in the day of Christ’s appearing and to grant us the full inheritance that is ours as his children.

The seal of the Holy Spirit establishes our identity as Christ’s own, as the sons and daughters of God. The seal of the Holy Spirit is the earnest, the pledge of God, guaranteeing our future full redemption and inheritance. The seal of the Holy Spirit is also God’s stamp, his imprint upon us forming us in the image of Christ.

15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to trap Him by what He said. 16 They sent their disciples to Him, with the Herodians. "Teacher," they said, "we know that You are truthful and teach truthfully the way of God. You defer to no one, for You don't show partiality. 17 Tell us, therefore, what You think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?"
18 But perceiving their malice, Jesus said, "Why are you testing Me, hypocrites? 19 Show Me the coin used for the tax." So they brought Him a denarius. 20 "Whose image and inscription is this?" He asked them.
21 "Caesar's," they said to Him.
Then He said to them, "Therefore, give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Mt 22:15-21, HCSB).

Whose image is on the coin? was Jesus’ question. In Rome, each coin was made by hand. Seals were placed on the blank coin, front and back, and struck to imprint the desired images on it. What has been struck and formed and imprinted by the seal of Caesar belongs to Caesar. But not us. We have been struck and formed and imprinted by the seal of the Holy Spirit and we belong to God. Or better still, we are being struck and formed and imprinted by the seal of the Holy Spirit, for this re-imaging is an ongoing process of growth and transformation. We are conceived by the Spirit in faith, born of the Spirit in baptism, and we grow in the Spirit through sanctification.

Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit (Gal 5:16-25, NRSV).

This process of growth, of re-imaging through the Spirit, is both a mystical work of God and a tangible work of man. It is enabled and empowered by the Spirit, but it is implemented by man in cooperation with the Spirit. It is work. It is discipline.

So then, putting away all falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labour and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption (Eph 4:25-30, NRSV).

Paul gives more behavioral instruction – do this, don’t do that – but this enough for now. The Spirit works within us to make obedience and righteousness possible, but we must discipline ourselves to obey and strive toward righteousness, if we are to grow into the image of Christ.

I believe in the Holy Spirit we say in the Creed. Yet much more than this, we live in the Holy Spirit. We are conceived by the Spirit in faith, born of the Spirit in baptism, and we grow in the Spirit through sanctification. It is mystery, this life in the Spirit – life abundant and everlasting, life beyond our words and imagination. And yet it is also at hand and “ordinary”: kindness and faithfulness and generosity and obedience and love. It is not beyond our grasp, not for those of us who believe in the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Sermon: 19 Pentecost (7 October 2007)

19 Pentecost: 7 October 2007
(Acts 2:36-42 /Psalm 37:1-10/Hebrews 9:24-28/Matthew 25:31-46)
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

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

I’ve always thought of hellfire-and-damnation preachers much like I think of grits and sweet, iced tea – as home grown Southern commodities. Oh, I suppose you can get all of them north of the Mason-Dixon line, but there they would be only dim shadows of the full reality we have here in Dixie. Here we have the real Brother Love.

Hot August night and when you’d almost bet
you can hear yourself sweat he walks in.
Eyes black as coal and when he lifts his face
every ear in the place is on him.
Starting soft and slow like a small earthquake,
but when he lets go, half the valley shakes.

Cause it’s Love, Brother Love,
say Brother Love’s traveling salvation show.
Pack up the babies and bring the old ladies
cause everyone goes, everyone knows it’s Brother Love’s show.

-- Neil Diamond (adapted)

I like grits: butter, salt, pepper: please, no sugar – that’s for Yankees who even put it in their cornbread! And sweet tea? Well, that’s the house wine of the South. But, other than as cultural icons – kind of like Elvis – I’m not so fond of hellfire-and-damnation preachers. They tell you with tears in their eyes and a catch in their voice just how much God loves you. Then a moment later – sometimes without missing a single breath – they stride across the stage and with red face and popping veins terrorize you with the eternal fires of hell where the flames are never quenched and the worm never dies and where God is only too pleased to send you forever if you don’t repent this very night. And this always brings the shouts of Amen! from the crowds. “Are you saved, brothers and sisters? If you leave this place and on the way home die in a terrible car wreck, do you know where you’d spend eternity?”

I’ve heard my share of these preachers. They weren’t part of my spiritual traditional directly, but I’ve heard them often enough. And I’ve known a few – genuinely good men worthy of respect. Even so, I don’t care for their preaching. And it’s not just a matter of style; I don’t care for the style, but that’s just personal preference and not important at all. It’s not the simple and unsophisticated faith they typically express that bothers me; after all, God has not chosen to use the wisdom of the world for his glory, but rather the foolishness of the cross proclaimed with simplicity and power – the very wisdom of God. No, it’s their theology; that’s the problem. I find their vision of God more than a little confusing and frankly, disturbing. God loves me and God is willing to torture me forever in the fires of hell. These two notions need a lot more reconciliation than their sermons usually provide, and really than their theology provides. And the incessant question, “Are you saved?” makes me wonder: In their theology am I being saved by God, for God, or from God? It truly begins to sound like the latter. God, who is good, is disposed – by his very goodness – to send me, wretched sinner that I am, to eternal punishment. But Jesus interposes himself between my sinfulness and God’s righteous wrath to save me from God’s vengeance. Jesus saves me from God. Can that be right? Is that really the biblical image of salvation?

Such preaching always leaves me feeling vaguely disquieted, even a bit irritated. It’s taken me a while to realize why, but I think I understand now. These preachers’ vision of God is the God of my childhood; theirs is the same, slightly schizophrenic theology that I’ve struggled to shake but haven’t quite managed to. I find it hard to love this vision of God – easy to fear him, but hard to love him. I find it hard to believe that he loves me. I find it hard to say this vision of God is good in any normal sense of the word good. And yet, I find it hard to let go of that theology. I am a Western Christian, a product of the Reformation, and that is the God of the Reformation. What is left if I let go of that image – some wimpy, culture-formed god who just wants us all to get along and who embraces us all in the end? That can’t be right either. What I want is the real God. What I want is the true theology of the church – faithfully received from the Apostles and faithfully preserved in Scripture and in the faith and practice of the one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church. What does the church say about God’s judgment?

He will come again to judge the living and the dead. This is the unanimous testimony of the creeds, Scripture, the Fathers, and the historic church itself. And it must be our starting point: Jesus Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead. Judgment is certain. At issue is what that judgment will look like. At issue is the nature and outcome of that judgment. At issue is our very understanding of God. Perhaps that’s why, in discussing judgment with Nicodemus, Jesus starts with God.

16 ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
17 ‘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. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God’ (John 3:16-21, NRSV).

Any discussion of judgment must be firmly rooted in this passage and must keep coming back to it as a compass continually returns to true north. Let’s lay out the major points here and then flesh them in later.

1. God’s fundamental and unchanging disposition toward the world is love. “For God so loved the world,” means just that. This is true corporately – God loves the whole world – and individually – God loves you. Imagine yourself at your best moment, at that time when you were closest to God. He loved you then. Imagine yourself at your worst moment, at that time when you were farthest from God. He loved you then. God’s unchanging disposition toward the world is love.

2. God sent his Son into the world to save the world – the most costly rescue mission ever mounted. Let’s get this straight at the outset: we are not saved from an angry God by the sacrifice of Jesus. We are saved by the loving God and for the loving God through the sacrifice of Jesus. I think my preacher friends knows this; it’s just that their theology doesn’t give them such a good way of expressing it. It is God’s desire and intent to save the entire world – not just to pardon sinners but to restore all of creation – through his unique Son, Jesus Christ.

3. Judgment began the moment Jesus entered the world as Christ, the Messiah, because at that moment people began making decisions about their relationship with him and to him. The Magi chose to bow down in worship and sacrifice. Herod chose to rise up in rebellion and murder. Jesus’ very presence makes judgment unavoidable. And here is the irony on which everything hinges: we worry about how Jesus will judge us when, in reality, we are the ones judging Jesus.

4. The nature of judgment lies in the human response to the presence of Jesus. “19And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” I read this verse and imagine roaches in a dark, filthy room scurrying for cover when the light is turned on. Jesus’ presence provokes a response and that response is a self-judgment. Not only do we judge Jesus – whether we will bow before him or rise up against him – we also judge ourselves. If we are resolutely evil – evil and beyond repentance – we will flee from his presence. If we looking for the kingdom of God – perhaps even unknowingly – we will be drawn toward the light of Christ. Our response to the presence of Jesus is the judgment for or against us, and it is ours to make.

Now let’s put some flesh on these bare bones of theology. What does this judgment look like incarnationally? As usual, Jesus tells a story.

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:1-2, NRSV).

Already in these introductory verses judgment is occurring; it provides the context for the following parables. Jesus is present and people must make decisions, judgments, about their relationships to and with him. Notice that when the light of Christ shone on Israel it wasn’t the tax collectors and sinners who scurried away toward the dark nooks and crannies, but the religious elite who did so. Unrighteousness wasn’t judged harshly; self-righteousness was.

11 Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ” 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” 22But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
25 ‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” 31Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found” (Luke 15:11-32, NRSV).

In this story one player remains steadfast, unchanging in his true character throughout; one player experiences radical repentance, a recreation of heart and mind; and one player is revealed for what he truly was and is.

From first to last, what is the father’s disposition toward his sons in this parable? Love. Whether the sons are near or far, rebellious or obedient, shameful or upright, the father never wavers in his love for them. His sole judgment is that he will continue to love his sons – no matter what – simply because they are his sons. God’s fundamental and unchanging disposition toward the world is love. God’s fundamental and unchanging disposition toward you is love. Are you a sinner? Well, I am and I can only suppose you are, too. But more importantly, we are children of God through our Lord Jesus Christ and we are the undeserving recipients of God’s unchanging love.

The younger son is a jerk. There’s no need to paint a rosy picture where none exists: he is unconscionably disrespectful, intolerably selfish, unimaginably arrogant, and unashamedly sinful. In short, he looks a lot like me. Until…until the light of the memory of his father’s love pierces the darkness of his despair and he comes to his senses. And this memory forces a judgment. What will be his relationship to the father? Will he return and bow humbly before him seeking hesed, loving compassion, or will he, in continued arrogance distance himself even farther from his father’s grace? Judgment began the moment the memory of the father’s love surfaced, and that judgment was in the hands and heart and mind of the prodigal son. Judgment begins for us the moment Jesus becomes present to us. Jesus’ very presence make judgment unavoidable – not that Jesus judges us, but that we judge him.

The elder son has a thin veneer of righteousness. I even believe his claims – that he had worked faithfully for his father and that he had never disobeyed – don’t you? Externally, here was the perfect son. But he didn’t have his father’s heart. He was every bit as concerned with inheritance as his younger brother had been – concerned with position and pride and importance. And when the light of the father’s love blazed openly upon the returned prodigal, it was the self-righteous elder son who scurried for the darkness of anger and selfishness. The presence of the father’s love revealed the true heart of the elder son and provoked a response of self-judgment and rejection. Our response to Jesus reveals our heart and in that revelation lies the judgment for or against us. When our hearts are opened the judgment we have made about Jesus, and therefore our judgment upon ourselves, is revealed. Perhaps this is what John recorded symbolically in the Revelation:

Then I saw a great white throne and the one who sat on it; the earth and the heaven fled from his presence, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and the books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books (Rev 20:11-12, NRSV).

And maybe that’s what Paul had in mind in his instruction to the Roman Christians.

Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honour and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury (Rom 2:4-8, NRSV).

Both John and Paul speak of the judgment as an opening, a revelation, of what a man has written in the book of his life, of what he has stored in his heart. This is not as much God’s judgment on man as it is self-judgment. Let’s see what you’ve become. Let’s see your response to the light. What is it that you really want as revealed by the storehouse of your heart? Then that is what you shall have.

He will come again to judge the living and the dead. This is the testimony of the Creed, Scripture, and the voice of the faithful for two millennia. I believe it. Each of us will be judged – will judge ourselves – based upon the totality of our lives and the totality of our response to the Lord Jesus. Did we bow down in worship or did we rise up in rebellion? Did we scurry away from the Light of the World or did we let it fill us so that we became a light for the world? Will our opened hearts reveal the Father’s love or the emptiness of man turned inward upon himself? These are the judgments we will make. These are the judgments we are even now making.

Like the hellfire-and-damnation preachers I believe God loves us. And like them I, too, am concerned with being saved, but not saved from God – rather saved by and for our loving God through the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus. In fairness, I’m sure that is what many of them mean. So, we live not in fear, but in love and expectation.

If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in the world we are like him (1 John 4:15-17, NIV).

He will come again to judge the living and the dead. Even so come, Lord Jesus.