Sunday, September 28, 2008

Reflection: 20 Pentecost 2008

Sermon: 20 Pentecost 2008

(Exodus 17:1-7/Psalm78:1-16/Philippians 2:1-13/Matthew 21:23-32)

By What Authority?

(The following reflection is based upon the sermon given at Trinity Church on 28 September 2008 -- a sermon developed through the community's engagement with the texts given to it.)

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

Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority” (Mt 21:23, NRSV)?

What things? A day earlier Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem at the head of a coronation procession, acclaimed by the masses – including tax collectors, prostitutes, and other notorious sinners – acclaimed by the masses as the Son of David, as he who comes in the name of the Lord: in short, as the rightful King of Israel and as the Messiah of God. He strode into the temple accompanied by these less than reputable disciples, disrupted commerce and worship, and staked his claim as one greater than the temple. In these two defiant acts, Jesus confronts the powers of state and religion with the gospel proclamation that he is Lord of all the kingdoms of the world – Herod and Caesar notwithstanding – and that he is Messiah of Israel, the Savior and Redeemer of the world.

“By what authority are you doing these things?” the chief priests and elders ask. “And who gave you this authority?” they want to know. Jesus’ answer – given in the form of a question – directs them to his baptism in the Jordan: by the authority conferred in baptism by John the Baptizer and prophet, by the authority conferred by God the Father who said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3:17), by the authority of Holy Spirit who descended like a dove and remained on Jesus. And so Jesus asks, “John’s baptism – where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men?”

In symbolic action and word, Jesus confronted the powers with the gospel proclamation. As his disciples – as those who have within us the same mind that was in Christ Jesus (Phil 2:5) – can we do less? In symbolic action and word we are to confront all the powers that resist the gospel proclamation: Jesus is Lord. We are to act in such radically counter-cultural ways that the high priests and elders of the powers challenge us: By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority? And, as Jesus, we must direct them to our baptism, to that time that when we heard the call, “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand;” to that time we heard the voice of God say, “You are my child, my beloved with whom I am well pleased;” to that time when the Holy Spirit descended upon us to remain forever. Our baptism – and its attendant grace – is our authority, for in it we are identified completely with our Lord, who confronted the power on our behalf and commissioned us to confront the powers on the world’s behalf.

What powers? Two come readily to mind: fear and greed. Our nation is presently in the grips of both. We fear terrorism and the war to combat terrorism. We fear the nuclear intentions of North Korea and Iran and the resurgent saber-rattling of Russia. We fear gas shortages and high gas prices. We fear natural disasters, pandemics, and global warming. We fear George Bush and John McCain and Barak Obama. We fear our crumbling economy and our personal and national debt. We are as possessed by fear as if it were a personal and national demon. And the high priests and elders of fear – those who would profit from it and use our fear to their advantage – must be confronted with the gospel proclamation that Jesus is Lord of the kingdoms of the world, that he is the Messiah of Israel, the Savior and Redeemer of the world. In symbolic action and word we must live as those who have heard Jesus say, Do not be afraid. We must live as those who have heard Jesus say, I am with you always, to the end of the age; I will never abandon or forsake you. We must live as those who have seen Jesus enter into death and come out again on the other side of resurrection. If the same God who raised Jesus from the dead is for us, who can be against us? Who can make us afraid? We must confront the power of fear with the gospel proclamation until the high priests and elders of fear query, “By what authority do you do these things, and who gives you this authority?” And then we must proclaim, “Jesus is Lord and we have been baptized!”

Fear, yes, but greed also exerts its power among us. Jesus had another name for it, a demonic name – Mammon. And now as then, we cannot serve both God and Mammon. We must confront the power of Mammon through the simplicity and generosity of our lives – through the same counter-cultural practices that led the very Roman authorities who persecuted the early Christians to admit with wonder that the Christians cared not only for their own, but for the poor and sick among the Roman populace. We must put our trust not in some political economic bailout, but in our God and Father who feeds the sparrows and clothes the grass and the flowers and who knows our needs even before we ask him. We must put our trust in Jesus who told us not to store up treasures for ourselves on earth where moth and rust destroy and thieves break in to steal, but rather to lay up treasures in heaven where they are safe in the Father’s keeping. We must confront the power of greed with the gospel proclamation until the high priests and elders of greed query, “By what authority do you do these things, and who gives you this authority?” And then we must proclaim, “Jesus is Lord and we have been baptized!”

There are, of course, other powers; you know them all too well. But they shall fall and Jesus shall reign. As the darkness of the powers deepens, the light of the gospel shines even brighter in the lives of those who follow the Lord. In these dark days, “Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like start in the world” (Phil 2:14-15).


Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Reflection: Silence and Miracles (23 Sept 2008)

There are moments when one must simply fall silent in the presence of God:
The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him (Hab 2:20), Habakkuk tells us, and if we are wise we listen – to the prophet and to his God.

Sunday was such a day. There was no sermon. For days before we had waited in silence – knowing God was in his holy temple – we had waited in silence for him to speak. Then, with fear and trembling we opened his word, praying that Jesus would be known to us in Scripture and the breaking of the bread. We listened: to the Word of God in the words of Scripture, to the Word of God in the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts, to the Word of God in the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit. And God spoke: words of love, words of healing, words of forgiveness, words of resurrection. A miracle occurred at Trinity Church Sunday – a miracle no less than the raising of Lazarus or the healing of the crippled woman bound by Satan those eighteen years (Luke 13).

Paul spoke very little of his heavenly visions; I will speak but little here of what we saw and heard and felt. Those who were there that day know, and that is enough.

To the One who was and who is and who is to come, the Almighty, be glory and honor now and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Reflection: 15 September 2008

The Daily Office brought me round again this morning to Psalm 72, following. God grant our presidential candidates -- and all the leaders of the nations -- grace to respond to this call to righteousness and justice.

72 Deus, judicium (BCP)

1 Give the King your justice, O God, *
and your righteousness to the King’s Son;

2 That he may rule your people righteously *
and the poor with justice;

3 That the mountains may bring prosperity to the people, *
and the little hills bring righteousness.

4 He shall defend the needy among the people; *
he shall rescue the poor and crush the oppressor.

5 He shall live as long as the sun and moon endure, *
from one generation to another.

6 He shall come down like rain upon the mown field, *
like showers that water the earth.

7 In his time shall the righteous flourish; *
there shall be abundance of peace till the moon shall
be no more.

8 He shall rule from sea to sea, *
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
9 His foes shall bow down before him, *
and his enemies lick the dust.

10 The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall pay tribute, *
and the kings of Arabia and Saba offer gifts.

11 All kings shall bow down before him, *
and all the nations do him service.

12 For he shall deliver the poor who cries out in distress, *
and the oppressed who has no helper.

13 He shall have pity on the lowly and poor; *
he shall preserve the lives of the needy.

14 He shall redeem their lives from oppression and violence, *
and dear shall their blood be in his sight.

15 Long may he live!
and may there be given to him gold from Arabia; *
may prayer be made for him always,
and may they bless him all the day long.

16 May there be abundance of grain on the earth,
growing thick even on the hilltops; *
may its fruit flourish like Lebanon,
and its grain like grass upon the earth.

17 May his Name remain for ever
and be established as long as the sun endures; *
may all the nations bless themselves in him and
call him blessed.

18 Blessed be the Lord God, the God of Israel, *
who alone does wondrous deeds!

19 And blessed be his glorious Name for ever! *
and may all the earth be filled with his glory.
Amen. Amen.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Sermon: 18 Pentecost (14 Sept 2008)

Sermon: 18 Pentecost (14 September 2008)
(Exodus 14:19-31/ The Song of Moses/ Romans 14:1-12/Matthew 18:21-35)
Forgive our sins, as we forgive

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

9 I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. 10I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet 11saying, ‘Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.’
12 Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. 14His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, 15his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. 16In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force.
17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, ‘Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, 18and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive for ever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. 19Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this. 20As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches (Rev 1:9-20, NRSV).

The Revelation opens with a vision of Jesus walking abroad, to-and-fro amongst his churches, speaking to each a word – now of encouragement, now of reproof, now of correction, always of promise to those who conquer. Jesus’ message to John and John’s message to the church is clear: Jesus is present with and central to the church, and the church is central to the epic battle for the redemption of the cosmos, a battle waged across the pages of the Revelation and the stage of this world, a battle both seen and unseen.

Paul, dead in Christ for many years before John penned these words, shared his vision of the centrality of the church.

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 1:17-23, NRSV).

It is all for the church: all the agony of the cross, all the power of the resurrection, all the glory of the ascension, all the promise of his coming again – all for the church, which is his body.

So it is surprising that Jesus, as recorded in the gospels, has almost nothing to say about the church: two brief passages in one gospel, and nothing more. In economics, scarcity produces value; perhaps here, too. These few words about the church may be all the more precious precisely because they are so few.

Jesus first mentions the church in response to Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi: “You are the Christ [the Messiah], the Son of the living God.”

And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter [Gk. petros, rock] and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven (Mat 16:17-19, NRSV).

Whatever the theological implications of this passage, Jesus calls Peter the rock on whom the church is to be built, and then promises that His church will be victorious against the gates of Hades; not even death itself will be a match for the church. Then he gives Peter keys for loosing and binding within His church. “Loosing and binding” what, Jesus doesn’t yet say.

Now, just two chapters on – and likely only weeks or months in real time – Jesus mentions the church for the second and final time in the gospel accounts. Back at Capernaum now – home territory – the disciples ask Jesus, “Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” It’s not a bad question really: How do we achieve greatness in God’s eyes? Well, Jesus says, you must become childlike – give up the concept of achieving greatness at all and just accept the gift of God’s grace present in the one who now speaks to you. And, do not cause these with childlike faith to sin; that would be a bad thing – better not to be born at all than to cause one of these children of God to sin. While we’re on this topic, be careful not to sin against these little ones yourself. If your hand is the culprit, cut it off. If your eye, gouge it out. Better to be maimed and blind than to sin against these children of God and incur God’s wrath.

Of course, try as we might, in any community – even in a community of disciples – sin will manifest; one will injure and one will be injured. What then? How do we deal with the reality of sin in the community of the faithful? What if we, ourselves, are the victims of sin? Jesus lays out the steps for us. First, approach the offending brother (or sister) and confront him with his sin. (By confront I do not mean to be confrontational in the usual, argumentative and hostile sense of the word. I mean to speak the truth about another’s sinful actions and the effect of those actions. I mean to express the necessity for repentance and reconciliation.) If the brother recognizes his sin and repents, then we must forgive and be reconciled to our brother. If, however, he is unresponsive or if he hardens his heart, we are to return to him with witnesses – two or three will do – and confront him in their presence. If this fails to bring our brother to repentance, then – and here it is, that final mention of the church – we are to bring our brother before the church and confront him with his sin before all. “If he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Mt 18:17, NIV). Treat him as an “outsider” who has yet to hear and respond to the gospel message: Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand. And Jesus follows with these words, making clear what was left hanging at Caesarea Philippi:

18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them" (Mt 18:18-20, NRSV).

The church is a place for the loosing and binding of sins, and the decision of the church on earth is ratified by the Father in heaven. If the entire church – be it as few as two or three – agree that a brother’s repentance is genuine and grants that brother forgiveness and absolution of sin, his sin is forgiven. That is why a priest or minister – anyone appointed by the church to speak for the church words of absolution – can say without fear or hesitation in the words of the Book of Common Prayer,

Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has left power to his Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him, of his great mercy forgive you all your offenses; and by his authority committed to me, I absolve you from all your sins: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

These words are powerful and effective if the minister truly speaks the mind of the church and if it is truly the church that speaks its mind. No minister speaking on his/her own authority has the power to forgive sin; nor does any group that is not a legitimate expression of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. The president of the Rotary Club – as good as he may be and as fine as that organization is – has no authority to forgive sin; nor does any group which calls itself a church but which has abandoned the apostolic faith.

Though Jesus mentions the church only twice, the little he says is vast in scope. He defines the church as the apostolic community founded upon the fundamental truth of his identity as the Christ – the Messiah – the Son of the living God. He says this community is a place where the truth is spoken: where sin is confronted, where repentance is required, where forgiveness is offered, and where absolution is granted. And, he says, God will honor and ratify what this community does here on earth; our earthly, temporal decisions have heavenly, eternal implications.

Amidst this breathtaking vision of the church, two stark realities emerge: the church has no right to offer forgiveness where there is no genuine repentance, and the church has no right to refuse forgiveness where genuine repentance is evident. It’s this latter point that seems to trouble Peter. What if someone sins against me repeatedly? he wants to know. How many times do I have to forgive him?

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord if my brother sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times” (Mt 18:21-22, NRSV with Greek alternate reading).

This is one of the hard sayings of Jesus. I’m not certain I can do this; I’m not certain any individual can. Many sins – many of the most hurtful and damaging sins – are often serial. A man who has one affair is likely to have multiple affairs. If he confesses and repents of each, is his wife really supposed to forgive time and time again? A woman with an addiction – alcohol, drugs – is likely to relapse repeatedly. If she confesses and repents each time, are her husband and children really expected to forgive the damage she has done to the family relationships? And there are perhaps worse sins that we hesitate even to mention – physical or sexual abuse among them. How do we forgive these things? It is all too much for any one of us; that’s why Jesus placed the burden and responsibility on the whole church. The church must decide – with prayer and fasting and spiritual discernment, in shared sorrow with the one injured, with the fear of God ever before their eyes – whether repentance is genuine, whether the guilty brother will submit himself to church discipline and accountability and strive mightily for amendment of life. The church must decide how effectively to safeguard and support the one who has been hurt. And, when all this is done, then yes, the church must forgive in the name of Jesus, and on behalf of the injured one who might not yet be able to muster personal forgiveness. Hard. We begin, right here, to understand just a bit of what Jesus meant when he told his disciples to take up the cross and follow him. How hard was it as the hammer fell time after time, sin upon sin, for Jesus to pray, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing”? That is our model.

Jesus closes this forgiveness discourse – as he often closes a discourse – with a parable. Perhaps only a story is large enough, powerful enough, to do.

It’s like this Peter. A king was settling accounts and found that a slave owed him a small fortune. He ordered that slave and his family and possessions sold to erase at least a small portion of the debt. But when the slave begged for the mercy of patience, for the gift of time in which he might try to pay back the debt, the king relented and fully forgave the debt – wrote it off completely, freeing the slave from all obligations.

Then this same slave remembered that a fellow slave owed him a few dollars – not much in the scheme of things. He violently accosted the debtor and demanded payment. When his fellow slave begged for a little time in which to get the money – begged in the same words the forgiven slave had earlier used with the king – no mercy was forthcoming. Instead, the forgiven slave had him thrown into debtors’ prison until every last cent should be repaid.

When this was reported to the king, he was indignant and had the forgiven slave brought before him.

“You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you/” And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

We might view this as a threat: forgive or suffer the consequences, the heavenly Father’s refusal to forgive our sins. Or, we might better view this as a poignant reminder that the true basis for our forgiveness of others is the vast mercy the Father has shown us in his forgiveness of our sins. Perhaps this will break our hearts and let forgiveness pour forth. Well do we sing the great hymn Forgive Us Lord As We Forgive.

"Forgive our sins as we forgive" you taught us, Lord, to pray;but you alone can grant us grace to live the words we say.

How can your pardon reach and bless the unforgiving heartthat broods on wrongs and will not let old bitterness depart?

In blazing light your cross reveals the truth we dimly knew,what trivial debts are owed to us, how great our debt to you.

Lord, cleanse the depths within our souls and bid resentment cease.Then, bound to all in bonds of love, our lives will spread your peace.
-Rosamond E. Herklots


Saturday, September 6, 2008

Sermon: 17 Pentecost (7 September 2008)

Sermon: 17 Pentecost (7 September 2008)
(Exodus 1:8-2:10/Psalm 124/Romans 12:1-8/Matthew 16:13-20)
Uncommon Grace

Both here and in all your churches throughout the whole world,
we adore you, O Christ, and we bless you,
because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world. Amen

I sometimes imagine that if I could find a quite place outdoors just before dawn, and could listen intently enough, I just might hear the still, small voice of God whisper, “Let there be light,” as the sun’s first rays break the horizon. It may be a foolish notion, but it reminds me that every sunrise – every new day – is a gift of God’s grace, a gift freely given to us and to all mankind. It reminds me that God’s compassions never fail; they are new every morning and great is his faithfulness (Lam 3:22,23). It reminds me to sing with the Psalmist and give voice to all creation: This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it (Ps 118:24).

Let us give thanks to God for the common graces, for all his gifts so freely bestowed upon us.

For the beauty of creation, in earth and sky and sea,
We thank you, Lord.

For all that is gracious in the lives of men and women,
revealing the image of Christ,
We thank you, Lord.

For our daily food and drink, our homes and families,
and our friends,
We thank you, Lord.

For minds to think, and hearts to love, and hands to serve,
We thank you, Lord.

For health and strength to work, and leisure to rest and play,
We thank you, Lord.

Common graces all –common, not because they are ordinary or to be taken for granted, but common because by God’s providence they are the common, shared property of all humankind. In these common graces God shows no partiality. As our Lord Jesus himself said, the Father “causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Mt 5:45b, NAS). The Lord’s brother, James, goes even further: “Every good thing bestowed and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation, or shifting shadow” (James 1:17, NAS).

Common physical and emotional graces are ours – sunrise and sunset, work and rest, food and drink, love and joy and beauty. But there are common spiritual graces, too, which bear external and internal witness to the presence and character of God.

Never has God left men and women – of any language or nation – without knowledge of himself. No less than the Jews, all cultures have received the common spiritual graces that make God universally known and, just perhaps, worshipped.

Let man look beyond himself, to the skies and to the stars. Creation bears eloquent witness to God.

19 Cæli enarrant

1 The heavens declare the glory of God, *
and the firmament shows his handiwork.

2 One day tells its tale to another, *
and one night imparts knowledge to another.

3 Although they have no words or language, *
and their voices are not heard,

4 Their sound has gone out into all lands, *
and their message to the ends of the world (BCP).

And Paul reminds the Roman church that “ever since the creation of the world his [God’s] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made” (Rom 1:20, NRSV). Creation is a common grace that reveals God to all people – to all cultures.

Let man look within himself, to the thoughts which accuse or defend him, to the longings which haunt him. The gentiles, who had no knowledge of the Jewish Law and the covenants, nevertheless knew of justice and righteousness and mercy instinctively, because God had placed this knowledge within them as a common grace.

14When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. 15They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them 16on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all (Rom 2:14-16, NRSV).

And St. Augustine knew that man’s great longings for transcendence, for meaning, for truth and beauty and joy, for immortality point toward the God who gave man these impulses.

Great are you, O Lord, and exceedingly worthy of praise; your power is immense, and your wisdom beyond reckoning. And so we men, who are a due part of your creation, long to praise you – we also carry our mortality about with us, carry the evidence of our sin and with it the proof that you thwart the proud. You arouse us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you (Augustine, Confessions).

The thoughts of our hearts – our conscience and our longings – are common graces that reveal God to all.

And then there are stories – good dreams C. S. Lewis calls them in Mere Christianity– that, too, are common graces: myths, legends, songs, poems that tell stories of heroes and sacrifice, of gods and incarnation, of death and rising again.

He [God] sent the human race what I call good dreams: I mean those queer stories scattered all through the heathen religions about a God who dies and comes to life again and, by his death, has somehow given men new life (Mere Christianity).

So many stories – ancient epics and moderns films – turn on the common themes of sin, sacrifice, and redemption. Stories reflect God’s common grace.

Paul gives voice to all these common graces when he speaks to the pagan philosophers on Mars’ Hill in Athens.

22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26From one ancestor* he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27so that they would search for God* and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28For “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said,“For we too are his offspring” (Acts 17:22-28, NRSV).

We are God’s offspring – all of us – and we all have a knowledge of God through his common grace. So, we should expect – and we find – the truth of God woven into the fabric of many cultures, many religions. When the Buddha teaches us that life is transitory and filled with suffering, that suffering is caused by our cravings and attachments, and that we can transcend these attachments through wisdom and ethical conduct and mental discipline, he is sharing truth revealed to all men through the common grace of God. When the Hindu Brahmins – priests – tell of the human soul seeking union with the Divine, of man being held accountable for his actions, and of the need to distinguish between reality and illusion, they are sharing truth revealed to all men through the common grace of God. When the atheist models justice and compassion and mercy and righteousness he is acting on truth revealed to all men through the common grace of God.

We all walk together on the common path of common grace toward God: Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, atheists, and Christians. All that is good and true and holy in every culture and every religion is a good and perfect gift of God, a common grace bestowed on us all – perfect gifts imperfectly received.

Do all paths then lead to God after all? No. The path of common grace leads us all toward God, but not to God. We can walk the common path together only so far. There is, at the end of the path of common grace, a stumbling block. That stumbling block is Jesus. At that stumbling block the path forks. We who have traveled the common path of common grace together must now choose. The choice is even now what it was then, then in Caesarea Philippi: the answer to a single question.

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ 14And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets’ (Mt 16:13-14, NRSV).

Who is Jesus: a good man, a superb ethical teacher, a great moral philosopher, a true prophet? Or, perhaps he is more myth than man, more fool than sage, more construct of the church than concrete historical reality?

15He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ 16Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ 17And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven (Mt 16:15-17, NRSV).

Who is Jesus?

[He is the] 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.
For us and our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end (Nicene Creed).

That’s who. And that’s where the common path of common grace forks into the many paths toward God and the one path to God. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” Jesus says of himself, “and no one comes to the Father, but through me” (John 14:6, NAS). And Peter, the very one who confessed Jesus at Caesarea Philippi, the very rock upon whom the church was built, took his stand upon the stumbling block of Jesus and called men to choose. Who do you say Jesus is?

[I say that] He is the stone which was rejected by you, the builders, but which became the very corner stone. And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved (Acts 4:11-12, NAS).

Common grace has brought us to this juncture, to this point of choice, but common grace is no longer sufficient – not in these last days.

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. 3He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs (Heb 1:1-4, NRSV).

When we leave the path of common grace and set off in the direction marked out for us by Peter’s confession of Jesus, when we walk the way blazed for us by the one who is the way, the truth, and the life, we

come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant (Heb 12:22-24a, NRSV).

And while this is not yet the path of common grace, it can become so. By God’s common grace the common call goes forth to all – to every tribe and language and people and nation: Come to Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Come to Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Come to Jesus, the first and the last, the living one who was dead and is now alive forever. Come to Jesus.

This invitation comes as a question posed by the one who loves us and who gave himself for us, even Jesus: Who do you say that I am? And what of those who have not and perhaps will not answer rightly? What of those who have walked with us the path of common grace: the Buddhist, the Hindu, the Muslim, the Jew, the atheist? What about them? We simply do not know: we are not God that we should sit in judgment. God’s common grace is beyond our comprehension, his common love beyond our imagination. And he is determined, through Jesus, to redeem that which is his own, to put all creation to rights, and to be finally all in all. But we do know this: to gaze upon Jesus – to look fully and intently at his love, mercy, and holiness – and yet to say, I find him lacking, is to turn from life toward death. To gaze upon the cross – to look fully at the freely offered, priceless, atoning sacrifice of the Lamb of God – and yet to say, No thank you, is to turn from forgiveness toward judgment. To gaze upon the One who was dead but who is now alive – Jesus seated on the right hand of God in power and glory – and to say, I will not bend the knee, is to turn from reconciliation toward rebellion. And in these conscious decisions the path of common grace toward God just might become the path away from God.

God’s plan to restore creation and to redeem man is Jesus. There is no alternate, no other way. Any person who truly knows God, knows God in and through the incarnation of Jesus. Any person reconciled to God is reconciled in and through the redemptive work of Jesus. Any person born to new and eternal life is born anew in and through the birth, life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. There simply is no other name given under heaven by which men and women and children must be saved; it is Jesus.

And so we pray that we may know Jesus and may yet come to know him more perfectly. We pray that we may confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, not only with our lips, but with our lives, by giving up ourselves to his service and by walking before him in holiness and righteousness all our days. We pray for those with faith, for those with no faith, and for those whose faith is known only to God, that Jesus may be for us all the way, the truth, and the life, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, our Lord and our God.