Saturday, November 21, 2009

Grace To You And Peace: 25 Pentecost (22 Nov 2009)

Sermon: 25 Pentecost (22 November 2009)
(2 Samuel 23:1-7/Psalm 132:1-12/Revelation 1:4b-8/John 18:33-37)
Grace To You And Peace

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

Charis humin kai eirēnē apo ho ōn kai ho ēn kai ho erchomenos: Grace to you and peace, from the one who is and the one who was and the one who is to come.

I write many letters of recommendation: admission to college, application for scholarships, acceptance to special academic programs. Rarely do I know who receives or reads or evaluates these letters. So, their salutations are necessarily vague and generic: “Dear Sir or Madam,” “To Whom It May Concern,” or “Members of the Selection Committee.” If not for sake of form, these salutations could be omitted entirely. There is no information, no content; they are merely formal devices to introduce to the body of the letter.

It is inconceivable then, should the Lord tarry and future generations of historians stumble across these letters, that they would spend even one moment on the salutations. To analyze them, to write doctoral theses on them, to invest with great meaning “Dear Sir or Madam,” is absurd. Fluff, filler, and form: that is what they are – no more, no less.

But leave it to our Lord to fill the empty, to sanctify the mundane: a manger, a jar of water, a cup of wine, a loaf of bread, a cross, a tomb. Leave it to his disciples to follow in this way. Charis humin kai eirēnē apo ho ōn kai ho ēn kai ho erchomenos: Grace to you and peace, from the one who is and the one who was and the one who is to come. This is the salutation of the Apocalypse; this is salutation as theology, form filled with meaning almost beyond human comprehension. Of all words penned by men – inspired by the Holy Spirit – these are among the most beautiful and most holy.

I have spoken the salutation to you in the original language, simply to emphasize that there is an original language other than English, and that we read a translation. Translation is a difficult job – to capture the nuances present in one language and to re-express them in another. And yet the Spirit works; God’s truth will out in any and all languages. It will be spoken by every tribe, in every language, with every tongue. Of course, not all translations are created equal. One modern paraphrase, which is often quite good and beautiful, falls far short in its opening of the Apocalypse salutation: “All the best to you” (MSG) it reads, a far cry from “Grace to you and peace,” more akin to “Howdy!” than to rich theology. Yes, “Grace to you and peace,” is far better, but better only if we grasp the depths of those words.

Charis: grace. We have all known gracious people. We have all been the recipients of grace: a kind word spoken when rebuke was warranted, forgiveness offered when retaliation was expected, love extended again and again to the prodigal. We have come to think of grace as unexpected, unmerited good favor, a sort of 11th hour, death row pardon. And it certainly is that. In fact, this understanding of grace has come to dominate Western Christianity, which views God as a righteous judge who graciously pardons condemned sinners for the sake of Christ who loves us and gave himself for us. But there is more to grace – much more – than this.

Grace lies at the very heart of salvation.

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them (Eph 2:8-10, NKJV).

Grace is not primarily God’s favorable attitude toward us; grace is God’s transforming, recreating presence with us. It is by grace that we are made partakers of the divine nature as Peter makes clear in his salutation:

Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord, as His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue, by which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust (2 Pe 1:2-4, NKJV).

The one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church of our Lord Jesus Christ teaches us that salvation is more than forgiveness, more than a declaration of “not guilty.” Salvation is union with God through Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit[1]. For that, for the fullness of salvation, grace is required – not merely the good favor of God, but God himself present and active in our lives, his divine power giving us all things that pertain to life and godliness, making us partakers of the divine nature. Charis humin: grace to you.

This grace is received into our lives, is made effective in our lives, through life in the church; there is no grace and no salvation apart from the church. In the church we are plunged into grace in the waters of baptism; anointed with grace in the oil of chrismation; fed by grace in the Holy Mysteries of bread and wine, body and blood; called back to grace again and again in confession. In the church we are taught and we practice the ascetic life which energizes grace: prayer, fasting, charity, obedience, worship. In each of these sacraments, in each of these disciplines, we encounter more than God’s good favor; we encounter God himself: God with us, God in us. We become the sons and daughters of God and join in the life of the Trinity. This is grace, and I say with St. John the Theologian, Charis humin: grace to you.

But not grace only; peace, John quickly adds. Charis humin kai eirēnē: grace to you and peace. If grace is a mystery – and it is – so, too, is peace. We know so little of it: in the world, in our interpersonal relationships, in ourselves. And what we see of peace is so often counterfeit or, at best, a diminished form of peace that barely deserves the name. Two warring countries cease armed hostilities and we call that peace, though hatred smolders and poisons the next generation until war or terrorism erupts again. Tribes or clans – ethnic or social groups – live together in apparent harmony and we call that peace, though prejudice and resentment and violence lie just beneath the surface. A man leads a quiet and productive life and we call that peace, until, driven by the anxiety, turmoil, and rage inside, he opens fire on his colleagues. We know little of real peace, it seems.

He had spoken peace to them that night just three days ago, though they were not ready to receive it or even to understand his words.

“Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27, NKJV).

But how can they possibly know peace? It’s three days later and Jesus is dead, executed by Rome at the instigation of the Jewish authorities. It’s three days later and they sit behind locked doors in fear that crosses await them. It’s three days later, now the first day of the week…three days which have made a mockery of peace.

Then, the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, [Eirēnē humin] “Peace be with you.” When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. So Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20 20:19-22, NKJV).

Everything about this passage, everything about Jesus’ salutation of peace, speaks of resurrection and new creation. It is the first day of the week; the six days of old creation are over and Jesus’ Sabbath rest in the tomb is finished. It is time to rise, time to make all things new. Jesus breathes again: resurrection. Jesus breathes on his disciples – new creation – and how can we miss the Genesis allusion and the creation significance?

And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being (Gen 2:7, NKJV).

What has all this to do with peace? Simply this: peace is the result of death and resurrection; peace is the result of new creation and the breath of the Spirit. To have peace we must die to the flesh and be born anew of the Spirit. To know peace we must die in the world and rise in the Kingdom of God. Jesus made all this clear in the Sermon on the Mount – too clear for comfort, really.

25 “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature? 28 “So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; 29 and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31 “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble (Mt 6:25-34, NKJV).

When we put the Kingdom of God before food and drink, before clothing and shelter, before power and fame, before security and comfort, before our very lives, then and only then will we know peace. Make no mistake; this is death – a daily, hidden martyrdom of taking up the cross and following Jesus by denying the flesh and its passions and by walking in the Spirit. But what follows this death is resurrection, and new creation, and the breath of the Spirit, and Jesus saying, Eirēnē humin: Peace be with you. And this peace – this peace of Christ which surpasses all understanding – has power to renew the world. “Acquire the spirit of peace, and a thousand souls around you shall be saved,” said St. Seraphim of Sarov (18th century).

“Grace to you and peace,” John writes, and I say, “Amen. May it be so.”

This salutation is not greeting only, but blessing also – blessing from ho ōn kai ho ēn kai ho erchomenos, from the one who is and the one who was and the one who is to come. All tenses of being – past, present, and future – are mentioned here, for our God, who is beyond time, is the source and ground of all being, the one in whom we live and move and have our being, the one in whom all things consist, the one without whom nothing has come into being that has come into being. This is the one who identified himself to Moses as the one who is, as “I AM.” This is the one who said to the Jewish authorities, “Before Abraham was, I AM” (John 8:58, NKJV). This is the one promised to come as Advocate and Comforter, to make his dwelling in us and to make us partakers of the divine nature. This is blessing from our triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Grace to you and peace, from the one who is and the one who was and the one who is to come.

Receiving this salutation and blessing we are rightly moved with John to fall on our knees in doxology:

To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, and has made us kings and priests to His God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen (Rev 1:5b-6, NKJV).

And so, beloved, let us receive God’s grace – the very presence of God with us – through the Holy Mysteries, through the ascetic life of the church, through obedience. Let us pursue Gods’ peace through the death of daily, hidden martyrdom, through taking up the cross of Christ, and through seeking first the Kingdom of God. Let us glory in our triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Grace to you and peace, from the one who is and the one who was and the one who is to come. Amen.

[1] Fr. Stephen Freeman,


Anonymous said...

Dear Author !
It is very a pity to me, that I can help nothing to you. I hope, to you here will help.

John Roop + said...


It is not generally my practice to post or respond to anonymous comments, but, in this case, I've chosen to make an exception. Something in the sermon "Grace and Peace" obviously disturbed you. I have read and re-read that sermon and can find nothing there but the teaching of the united church. I realize that its emphasis on salvation as a process in which we have a role and its insistence on the importance of the sacraments might run counter to some Reformation theology, but what I have written -- I believe -- is what the church taught for its first 1000 years and is still what the historic church teaches. It is also, of course, what the scriptures say.

If you would like to engage in further discussion, please feel free to do so through comments -- but please identify yourself in the future -- or through the email address for the church.

Grace to you, and peace.