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Friday, April 29, 2016

Mystery, Glory and Thankfulness

The Rev’d Stephen E. Stults
St. Paul’s Anglican Church
Maundy Thursday, 2016


This is a glorious night.  On this night, approximately two thousand years ago, Jesus Christ changed everything.  On this glorious night, mankind’s salvation was translated from a works-oriented system to one based on faith and on the limitless mercies of God.  On this glorious night, Jesus Christ changed the way we believe and the way we remember our salvation. It was on this night that Jesus Christ ushered mankind into the New Testament era, one based on hope and faith and trust.

How did this happen?  How could this happen? Let’s review just a bit.  St. Paul tells us in today’s Epistle from 1 Corinthians that Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it and distributed it to the disciples.   He said, “Take, eat: this is my body, which is given for you.  This do in remembrance of me.”  He then took the cup and did likewise, saying, “This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye as oft as ye shall drink, in remembrance of me.”  These words changed everything.  Christ now offered Himself as the Passover Lamb to take away our sins. Moreover, this sacrifice was not temporary, needing to offered year by year to atone for the sins of the people.  Rather, it was, in the words of the Prayer Book: “the one oblation of himself once offered: a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.”

The best authority to help us understand this is the Epistle to the Hebrews, chapter 9:
“For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling them that have been defiled, sanctify unto the cleanness of the flesh: 14 how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish unto God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?”  We know from our study of the Old Testament that the High Priest of Israel went once a year into the Holy of Holies in the Temple and offered blood for the sins of the people. This was what God commanded.  It was not, however, a permanent or durable sacrifice to take away sins.  It also could not purge the conscience of sins.  Yet, in the fullness of time and in the wideness of God’s mercy, Jesus came.  As the first chapter of Hebrews tells us: “God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, 2 has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; 3 who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4 having become so much better than the angels, as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.”

Thus, Christ came, spoke, ministered, and died for us.  He was betrayed into the hands of sinners, as we read tonight. As we discussed on Palm Sunday, despite man’s best efforts to kill Jesus for the world’s reasons, God’s Will was done.  Returning to the ninth chapter of Hebrews, we read: “And for this reason He is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.”

Thus, we reformed Christians, we Anglican Christians, don’t have to rely on a system of good works to try to earn our way into heaven, thank God.   This is impossible, due to the fallen nature of mankind, our own inherent sinfulness.  We rely instead on the “one, perfect and sufficient sacrifice” of Jesus Christ.  That is what our Lord bequeathed to us in the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist. 

Through the Supper, we remember His sacrifice of Himself for us.  Through the Supper, we receive grace to be Christians, “little Christs” in the world; and through the Supper we are fed spiritually with Christ Himself. 
As Bp. Sutton once said, “Through the liturgy of the Eucharist, we take Christ into ourselves, and we become part of Christ.  This is a great mystery.’

Indeed it is.  It is one of the greatest mysteries known to man, or better said, known to the household of faith.  For it is only in the Body, the Church, and its graceful fellowship that one receives this mystery. Christ gave us the Church, he gave us the Eucharist, and now he gives us grace to carry on in His name, until we feast with Him in heaven.

This is indeed a great mystery.  This is indeed a great gift to us.  This is indeed a glorious night.



! Cor. 11:26 “For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink the cup, ye proclaim the Lord's death till he come.”

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

 



Bread, Miracles and Signs

Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Paul’s Anglican Church
March 6th, 2016


We have a wonderful reading from the Gospel of John to consider today. It is one of the best known of Christ’s miracles, and it confronts us completely with the enormity of Christ’s Kingship.  From it, we recognize our role as humble penitents preparing for Christ’s Resurrection in our hearts and souls at Easter.

The portion of the Book of John from Ch. 2:1 through Ch. 12:50 has been called the “Book of Signs.”  Christ performs seven signs that clearly demonstrate both His divinity and His unique relationship to God the Father. Up to the point of the feeding of the five thousand, he had performed three signs: the changing of water into wine, the healing of the nobleman’s son, and the curing of the paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda.[1]  Each of these signs clearly point to His Lordship over natural events, as well as the universality of his healing message. This is clearly shown as the nobleman’s seeks him out, despite the vast differences in their social standings.  The message is plain: Christ’s healing is meant for all, rich and poor.

Let us examine this grandest miracle in all. Christ sees the multitude coming to him, numbering in the thousands. He purposefully asks Philip: how were they going to feed this vast crowd? Philip puzzles over this before admitting that "Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient for them, for everyone to receive a little."[2] Christ has the answer and proceeds to the solution, performing one of the most noted events of all time.

There are at least three ways to view what happened on that grassy plain.  One view is that a miracle occurred in the hearts of those listening to Christ.  That is, the “selfish” shared their provisions with the needy, and all were fed. Perhaps, but it is not likely…

Another view is that this feeding should be seen as a precursor to the Holy Eucharist, in that each participant received a tiny bit.  This view is contrived and does not do justice to the plain sense of Scripture, because the passage clearly says that Christ gave to the disciples and they distributed to the people, “as much as they would.”  The Scriptures clearly say the people were “filled”, not tantalized with a mere morsel.  So, we discard this view.

The third view of this passage is that Christ performed a genuine miracle.  Christ, as God, took gifts of his own bounty in the form of five loaves and two small fish, and multiplied them beyond all measure.  He didn’t, like a magician, create an illusion that bread and fish appeared, but actually multiplied them. The disciples distributed an immense amount of food, completely satisfying the multitude. As such, this is the fourth great sign of the Book of Signs.[3]

It is at this point that two great insights should become apparent to us.  The first is very obvious, but is also very profound.  This is simply the contrast of Philip’s perplexity with our Lord’s serenity.  Philip saw thousands of hungry people coming to them and no solution in sight.  Our Lord saw a large flock of needy sheep (people) looking to Him the great Pastor for instruction and sustenance.  Our Lord chose this instance to not only perform an act of mercy and pastoral care, but also to manifest forth his glory.

Here then, is the simple and profound truth: how often do we, in our human finitude, see an overwhelming situation and grasp helplessly for a solution, when God, in His Omnipotence and eternal Wisdom, has already prepared a solution?  It’s been said that God has a solution prepared for the faithful even before they see a problem. 

The other insight is to consider the very act of the sign itself.  Obviously, it demonstrates clearly Christ’s absolute Kingship over all Creation. That is a given. As the fourth sign in the Book of Signs, it is the greatest in magnitude. There can be no doubt who is the performer of the great sign; thus, this miracle is for those who see with the eyes of faith.  It is undeniable.  As such, it is also the only miracle, with the exception of the Resurrection, that is recorded in all four Gospel accounts.[4] That is a testament to its significance.

Yet, there is another great spiritual truth for us today, that tells us about God’s magnificence and Man’s blindness.  This great truth is that Christ, in performing these mighty signs in John, did exactly what was demanded of Him by the Scribes and Pharisees in virtually every confrontation he had with them.  Recall that these self-important and pompous men demanded that Jesus give them a sign from Heaven in order to prove his Lordship.  Christ ignored these requests from the Pharisees, knowing their source and motivation.  He knew that even if He were to bring down fire from Heaven, similar to Isaiah, it would have no impact, or even be turned against him, as in the case where he was accused of casting out demons by the chief of demons. Thus, he refused to honor their spurious request, instead revealing His glory to the unlettered masses, or to specific individuals.  Why?  It is very simple.  The Scribes and Pharisees were not called to hear the message. Their hearing would not be mixed with faith.  Thus, it would not matter what Christ said or did, because these men, with a couple of  notable exceptions, were not able to believe.

Contrast that to those whom Christ did reveal Himself.  These blessed sheep were called to hear Christ and to acknowledge His Reality.  Perhaps not all of them were prepare to call Him God or even Messiah, but many of them were. Many of them, such as Mary Magdalene, were able to see Jesus as the Christ, just as are we. Somehow, through the mystery and magnificence of God’s Grace, we are called, here, to receive this message of hope and salvation. 
Today’s Gospel gave us a message of bread, miracles and signs. For us, today, it is a message of hope, love and salvation.  That is, we hope, or look forward to, receiving the truth of Christ’s Kingship in our hearts. We pray that we love Him as much as He loves us, and finally, that this love be translated into eternal life with Him. We pray that we experience the salvation that His love calls us into.

Beloved in Christ, if you grasp one message from today’s Gospel, it is that of love.  God wants one thing from us, this Lent and for evermore.  He wants our love.  If we can love Him more than we love ourselves, we will satisfy God with our love.  That is what He wants. This is exactly what he did for us on Calvary.  He loved us to the exclusion of everything else, even to life itself.  He loved us with a love that is profound and eternal. He offers us a love that is ever-present, dynamic, and eternal.  Not only did Christ show this by providing earthly sustenance to a hungry crowd, but he also allowed them to witness His Glory.  This He denied to the Pharisees and Scribes. 

Let this knowledge be a light in your Lenten Journey.  Let it fill your heart with joy.
For reasons only known to God, he has chosen us to receive the most glorious of all messages.  The message is this: Christ is King and Lord. Christ is God Almighty, who loves us with an everlasting and wonderful love that is meant for us, and for us alone.  Not for the high and mighty, not for rich and pompous, but for us simple Christians.

To His everlasting glory, let us give thanks to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, now and forever.

AMEN.



[1] http://bible.org/seriespage/exegetical-commentary-john-6
[2] John 6:7

[3] http://bible.org/seriespage/exegetical-commentary-john-6
[4] Ibid

Suffering and Grace

Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
2nd Sunday after Easter 2016
April 10, 2016

1 Peter 2:20: “For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God.”

Is God the ultimate Sadist?  Does He take pleasure in our pain and suffering? Looking at Peter’s statement, perhaps… It almost seems as if God takes pleasure in our patient suffering.  While this is what it looks like on the surface, we know that surface reflections can be deceiving.

Two clarifications need to be made.  First, one cannot ascribe to God Almighty the concept of “feelings” or even emotion.  We mortals ascribe to God human feelings and emotions, when His Serenity is so perfect as to above such things. Still, we do it, we suppose, to keep some connection to a Being that we cannot approach or understand, except through Christ.

The Bible does speak of the wrath of God. God’s Holiness was offended by the various sins of Israel, most of all their apostasy.  He reacted by sending various armies, captivities and afflictions upon them.  Yet, one cannot make the mistake of thinking that God, who sees all eternity as one continuous scene, became suddenly angry with His People and decided to punish them.  Once again, this limits the limitless nature of God and His complete, serene Holiness.

Note two things.  First, this is an area of deep mystery.  Secondly, God works all things to His Purpose and Design, to His own mysterious and wonderful Glory. This is unfathomable to us, except that we participate with all faithful Creation to give glory and praise to the Holy and Blessed Trinity.  In this sense, we can both understand and participate in the ultimate reality of God.

That may be as far as it goes, however.  Recalling how God spoke to Job, asking him who has the mind of God, that he may instruct Him?  The answer is rhetorical. Thus, we wonder why God would find it acceptable that Christians accept punishment patiently when it is not merited. 

The example of Christ gives us an answer. The reason for God’s “acceptance”, if you will, of our patient suffering is perfectly modeled in Christ.  Peter reminds us that Christians are called to suffer as Christ suffered for us. Christ did not revile, He did not threaten, and he did not complain. He led the only sinless life ever and was crucified…  Quoting 1 Peter 2:21: “For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps,” These are the words that Peter tells us and with them, perhaps God’s purpose for our endurance of unjust suffering becomes clear.  In short, it is this: if Christ our Lord and Savior suffered, the just for the unjust, what is our calling?  Not that we choose suffering or that God delights in it, but rather if it occurs, our Christ-like reaction to it is crucial.  If we, like Jesus, endure and accept suffering for righteousness’ sake, this is pleasing to God. If we take it patiently, without murmuring against God, this is acceptable to Him; if only for the reason that we are modeling His Son’s behavior. When we do it well, we are actually offering God the sincerest praise we can, simply because we are imitating Jesus.

There is a connection between suffering and holiness.  Suffering can draw one closer to God and it often does. One may cry out to God in the midst of their suffering for comfort, for help, or just for something to lean on.  This is wonderful and blessed, for even in the midst of our suffering, we know God hears us. 

Yet, it is difficult. As one experiences hardship and pain, it may cause an opposite reaction to God.  Some may blame God for their troubles and loss, running from Him rather than running to Him.  This is a common reaction and is understandable, if unpalatable to the mature Christian.

Why? Simply because the mature Christian knows that suffering and grace go together.  There is suffering in life, there is hardship, but thanks be to God, there is grace as well.
While the Christian may understand the reaction of the one running from God because of hardship, he rejects the idea that God takes some random pleasure in it, or that there is not some purpose in it. The latter is the most difficult, as in the loss of a loved one or the visitation of a grave disease.  One person’s faith will say, “Why, God?” while another’s will say, “I do not understand, but thy will be done.”  In these two cases, which of the two, the questioner or the accepter, will receive more grace?  Perhaps both, but the odds are greatly in favor of the one who accepts God’s Will and prays to see the sense in it. He may be given that answer, but very likely he will not.  He will have to content himself with the thought, “Glory be to thee, O Lord, thy will be done.” This very acceptance brings grace and peace, even in very difficult circumstances.

One’s reaction may be according to the faith that one is given. While we are unable to probe the mysterious and unlimited Mind of God, except as it is revealed to us in Word and Sacrament, we do know that God calls people to Himself. Each call is different, in that God calls each individual soul, yet there is one determinant that God reserves to each man: his own free will.  In this instance, some use their free will to cling to God during times of trouble.  Others use their free will to question, complain and ultimately flee from God. After all, He brought all this upon them, right? Another uses his free will to embrace the will of God and thus receives grace in times of suffering, trouble and pain.

Perhaps one of the most profound and difficult concepts for the Christian to accept is the use of suffering by God to shape and mold the Christian’s character.  God knows our spiritual disposition and often put us in situations to teach us.  If we accept that fact that suffering is not
 meaningless, as one with an existential bent might say, we know that a lesson lies in it somewhere.  That lesson may be simply the availability of grace.  That is, Love is the force behind it, as difficult the path to it may lie. It may also be the most troubling lesson for the mature Christian, in that somber time when God withdraws Himself from a soul in order that it may learn its utter dependence on Him. The old adage says that with absence, the heart grows fonder.  Nothing could be truer, especially when the needy soul is gasping for the presence of God.

The atheist and agnostic will no doubt turn up their noses at this, saying “it simply proves the superstition of religion, or worse yet, the need of a “bloodthirsty” God who demanded that His only Son be sacrificed for His satisfaction.  How barbaric, how savage, how primitive, they may think.  People today are simply too civilized to accept such a messy, transactional scheme of salvation.  This Christianity stuff is simply a myth cooked up by those who need a celestial father figure. After all, I’m OK.  I don’t need a Savior.”

“Not so fast”, says the Christian.  To the atheist and the agnostic he says, “Your view is too simplistic. You simply do not understand the gravity of your situation, nor do you understand the spiritual wasteland inside you.  Your soul, despite all temporal efforts to satisfy it, is still empty. Only one thing can fill it and that one thing cannot be obtained by you. You must look to something, or someone else. Finally, you must suspend your questions and your arrogance in your need to bring God to your level.  Acknowledge God for whom He is: Omnipotent, Omniscient and Omnipresent.  More importantly, recognize Him as the One who has what you need and yet, gave everything that you could have it.”

“Moreover”, says the Christian to the questioner, “Suffering may have been the gate to lead you to this point.  Perhaps your need for God has finally grown to a point where you can surrender your pride so that Grace may enter in.” Perhaps now you can see the seriousness of your sin and extreme nature of it, so much so that “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross that you might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.”[1]

Your sins and my sins put Christ on the Cross, but it was the Love of God that took Him off.  That is, having declared his triumph, he showed it openly, forever defeating sin, death and the grave.

This suffering of Christ and his magnificent love brings us home at last.  As Peter tells us: “For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.”[2]


[1] I Peter 2:24
[2] 1 Peter 2:25

Doubt, Temptation, and Certainty

Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Paul’s Anglican Church
Feb. 14th, 2016

Mat 4:3
“And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread.”

Three words: doubt, temptation, and certainty. These three words sum up the Lenten experience for some.  It may sum up the Christian life for most. Let us consider these three words: doubt, temptation, certainty. If we are being honest with ourselves, it is probable that we will experience all three in this season of Lent.

Similarly, the Gospel for the day goes to the very heart of what it is to be a Christian , as it focuses on these three powerful realities.  In the opening lines of the Gospel passage we read, from Mat. 4:1:”Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.”

Recall that at the end of the previous chapter of Matthew, Chapter 3, Christ has just come from His baptism in the river Jordan at the hands of John the Baptizer.  In that amazing scene, the Spirit of God had just descended upon Jesus and a voice from heaven had said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Christ submitted to baptism even though He had no original sin to wash away, thus giving us the model of Christian Baptism.  He also received glory and recognition from God the Father.  

Oftentimes, honor precedes humbling or trials; as one commentator tells us: “After we have been admitted into the communion of God, we must expect to be set upon by Satan. The enriched soul must double its guard.”[1] Thus, in our Gospel selection, St. Matthew describes the temptation of Christ.  In it, Satan tries to something audacious and evil. In effect, he attempts to undo God’s Plan by the invocation of one little word, “if.” Christ had just been exalted, and now as Matthew tells us in Mat 4: “Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.” 

Many commentators on this passage have wondered why Jesus Christ would  submit to such a situation.  Although there is much discussion of this, we may safely assume three areas of consensus:
1.                  Christ suffered temptation that he might fully identify with all aspects of         our human condition, yet without sin.
2.                  Christ battled with Satan and overcame him, not in evidence of divine power, but in the absence of any outward manifestations of power.
3.                  Christ, in his human nature, exhibited complete reliance upon His Father and his Holy Word, thus giving us the perfect model.

We note with interest that there were three temptations. The first temptation deals with Christ’s physical well-being, as Satan tempted him to make bread out of stones. This attack is both insulting and predatory.  Satan introduces the assault by saying, “If thou be the Son of God…”  Is Satan, the Great Deceiver, seeking to cause Jesus to doubt himself in his physical weakness?  As ludicrous as it seems, this is the case.  Satan, in arrogance, evidently thought this attack might work. Of course, the idea of causing the Son of God to doubt himself is absurd and fanciful.  Yet, once again, the point is plain; if Satan tried to get God the Son Himself to doubt, what will he try with us?
This leads to the predatory aspect of Satan’s attack on Christ.  Because he is wicked and a brilliant tactician, the Devil attacks us when we are weak.
Be it through physical need, sickness, melancholy, or (God forbid) despair, he seeks a chink in our spiritual armor.  He wants to insinuate his infernal suggestions, temptations and fears. Yes, there are times when all of us, being  subject to the weaknesses of the flesh, fall prey to his devices.  Yet, by keeping  our spiritual eyes on Christ, we will frustrate the plans of the devil.  In this instance, Christ dismisses Satan’s assault with a word of Scripture.  From Deut. 8:3, Christ said: “And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the LORD doth man live.” Satan is rebuffed.

Having failed in his first attempt, Satan then takes another approach, this time appealing to Jesus’ physical safety, and to the very image of who He Is.  Jesus is taken to a pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem.  Again, there comes the insult and the word of doubt: “If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down…”  Herein is a great lesson concerning the nature of sin and Our Adversary’s dealing with us.  Note that Satan does not throw Christ off the pinnacle himself, thus doing Him direct harm, but rather, suggests that Jesus “cast” himself down.  We learn  here Satan has no direct power over us but is limited to the power we give him.  Sin always requires an active response from us in some assent of the will

In this case, Satan’s temptation is obvious and flagrant.  Once, again, Christ repels him with a word from Scripture, “It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.” Some commentators have interpreted this as “Don’t presume  God to save you when you engage in some self-destructive or sinful act, in exercise of your free will.”[2]  Yet, even when we behave in a flagrantly sinful way, or are self-destructive, God in his mercy often mitigates the ill effects of our actions. He may also allow us to realize the consequences of our sins to teach us. While God forgives us our sin, the “scar tissue” of our misdeeds remain.  Forgiveness abounds from God’s mercy when we truly repent, but the consequences of our sin are a lasting reminder of our rebellion against God.

It is not so with Christ.  Satan is defeated again with a rebuke from Scripture, but not without one more insidious and persistent attack; by an appeal to Jesus’ pride.  In a twisted, perverted view of Christ’s Kingship, Satan shows Jesus all the earthly glory.  In Mat 4:8 “Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them.” At last, Christ’s patience is exhausted, for as the Tempter says, “All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.” Christ expels him a command: “Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.”

This is the so-called “last straw” for Christ. The idea of the Lord prostrating Himself before this hideous fallen angel is too much.  Christ speaks with authority and the Devil leaves, defeated and frustrated. The victory is won and the angels, who have been watching this contest with worshipful admiration, come and minister to Jesus. Satan had done his best and had failed.  Just as Christ would later defeat Satan completely on the battleground of Calvary, so he is now vanquished.

At the start of this homily, I mentioned that this passage “goes to the very heart of what we believe and experience as Christians.” It speaks to the twin infernal phenomena of doubt and temptation. Concerning doubt, Satan used the “if” word three times, once for each temptation: “if thou be the Son of God, “if” thou be the Son of God, and “if” thou wilt fall down and worship me.”  
Each of these is a conditional statement that seeks to provoke doubt or sin. Each time, Satan seeks to cause Jesus to question Himself, and/or he mockingly insinuates that Jesus Christ is not the eternal Son, and the Spotless Lamb of God.

If this were true, Christianity would be shattered.  If Christ is not who He says He is, the Son of the Almighty God and the Lord and Savior of Mankind, we are confounded and hopeless.  If Christ is not the Son of God, we might as well submit to the toothless doctrine of the Enlightenment, where Christ’s dying on the Cross is not substitutionary, but merely a supreme example of what a good man does.  Finally, if we worship an “If” God, we Christians are, in the words of St. Paul, the most miserable of all people. 

Thanks be to God, because instead of doubt, we have certainty. St. Paul says, “But, now is Christ risen from the dead and become the first fruits of them that slept.” [i]  In the eternal sense, now is our Savior Christ victorious over sin, death, hell, and the Devil.  We can meet the twin evils of doubt and temptation and emerge victorious. We do not worship an “If” God. No, we worship a God of certainty. We worship He who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.   

AMEN


[1] http://blueletterbible.org/Comm/mhc/Mat/Mat004.html, Mathew Henry, “Commentary on Matthew”
[2] Ibid



[i] I Cor. 15:20

The Renewing of our Minds

The Rev’d Stephen E. Stults
First Sunday after the Epiphany
St. Paul’s Anglican Church
January 10, 2016


“In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost….”

I bid you God’s Peace on this 2012 celebration of the first Sunday after the Epiphany, also known as the Manifestation of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles.  Let’s consider the word epiphaneiafrom the Greek, meaning “an appearance”; or the English derivative, Epiphany. It means “an appearance or manifestation especially of a divine being (1) : a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something (2) : an intuitive grasp of reality through something (as an event) usually simple and striking (3) : an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure .”

Today, let us focus just a bit on the last definition, that of an “an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure.”  What does that means in our lives, and more importantly, what does it means to our growth in Christ?

The realization for today comes from our Epistle selection from today. St. Paul.  In this illuminating instruction from St. Paul, we are told three things that are vital to our life in Christ.

The first instruction tells us “to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.”  If we examine this statement, it correlates exactly with what the Prayer Book tells us to do.  We no longer need the various ritual sacrifices prescribed in the Old Testament.  Instead, the sacrifice we are called to give is our “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.”

What does this exactly mean? When St. Paul says, “Present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship”, does he mean a literal sacrifice?  No, and this is one of the glories of the New Testament.  We are not called upon to sacrifice animals for our sins, nor are we required to shed any blood.  Instead, we are to remember the “one, holy and perfect sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction”, that was offered for us.  Then, in remembrance, we are to offer our own sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. 

Again, what does mean, literally?  It means that we should, without reservation, present ourselves to the Lord. What this means is that we allow the light of Christ to peer into every aspect of our lives, without reservation.  How easy this sounds and yet how difficult it is, if we are still holding on to something selfish, something secret, or something hidden that we don’t want God to see.  Of course, how vain and how foolish this attitude is!  Nothing is hid from God, despite our best efforts to convince ourselves that it is so.  Many a time when younger, I heard preachers talk about this, how that we all hold our secret sins close to us, with the deluded conception that God doesn’t see.  How vain, how utterly vain this is!

Yet, when we present ourselves as a sacrifice wholly acceptable to God, which is our spiritual service, something wonderful happens.  Our God, our loving Heavenly Father, sees us only as filtered through the Son.  This makes our “spiritual service” worthwhile and good, despite our actual condition.  This does not mean that we just sin and sin, confess, then repent and sin again, willfully. That is, we cannot test the patience of God without regard to true contrition. To do so is similar to battering on the very gates of Hells itself, while praying that they don’t open.  St. Paul addressed this very issue in the early church, and it was the cause of several early heresies. The point is we must be willing to let God’s light come into us and illuminate us, in spite of our sinfulness.  When we do this, our desire to be godly takes on a real and almost tangible aspect.

What allows this to happen is the second instruction from St. Paul, as he tells to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”  As we allow the Holy Ghost to illuminate our mind, we will be transformed in a new and wonderful way.  That way is the renewing of our mind in Jesus Christ.

Once again, what does this actually mean?  Simply this:  we Christians have a light within us that cannot be quenched.  Not misfortune, or persecution, or torture, or death can put it out. Why is this?  It stems from the fact that our strength does not lie in this life.  Instead, it stems from the eternal, absolute Life that is God.  In short, it extends past our feeble earthly years into an existence that cannot be numbered or counted. 

 Our light and our joy pertains to this life as well, lest one think that the benefits of Christianity are only future-based. Right now, in this life, is something that is not available to those who are not of the household of God: joy.  This joy is the result of light inexpressible, irrefutable, and bright without measure, peeking around the edges of our souls. There is something different, in a good way, about a Christian.  That “something” is the light that makes it way through the darkness of this world, to be seen by men.  As our Lord said in Matthew 5:16: ”Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”

The last point St. Paul makes our epistle is simply this: Romans 12:3: “For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith

Does this mean that we Christians aren’t to have joy in Christ and in our redeemed state? Can’t we feel that we Christians are a called people, special to God?  Yes, we freely acknowledge this, but our special relationship to God through Christ can never be a source of pride in ourselves, but only in Him.  That is, there may be a temptation to think that because we are Christians, chosen and called by God to receive His eternal inheritance, somehow we have merited this by something that we are or have done.

Beloved, nothing could be farther from the truth.  We are called, not because of our deserts, but precisely the opposite. God, through His mercy, saved mankind form eternal darkness and death for one reason:  out of love. He chose this, despite the fact that we deserve nothing but the harshest condemnation, due to our fallen nature.  Despite the seeming harshness of this statement, it is true. Man, left to his own devices, without the renewing effect of the Holy Ghost, will always descend into an increasing maelstrom of lust, envy, murder and violence.  Man without God is a dark creature, indeed.

Yet beloved, that is not the message for today.  Instead, it is the fact that all of us, without exception, can enjoy the renewing of our minds through the wonderful influence of the Holy Ghost in our lives. We too, with simple desire, fervent repentance, and earnest expectation, receive new life in ourselves.

We too, through Christ, can “present our bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God.” It is this “illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure” that all of us can grasp this Epiphany season.  Once we realize this, our lives will never be same, for our lives will have taken on a new measure and a new dimension in holiness.  As we draw near to God, He will draw near to us.    As the Psalmist says, in Psalm 73: “But it is good for me to draw near to God: I have put my trust in the Lord GOD, that I may declare all thy works.” 

Even so, let it be this Epiphany season this year 2016.  Amen

Persistence and Possibilities

Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Paul’s Anglican Church
Feb. 21, 2016

Matthew 15:26 “But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs.”

Some time ago, this priest covered the building of the Panama Canal in 5th level history class at the school at which he taught. The effort to build it was massive, daring, and dangerous.  At the cost of over 4,000 men, the project was completed. It took a strong leader, Teddy Roosevelt, and a nation’s focused energy to complete the job. Remember that we took up where a French company had given up on the project.  Out of the project, along with the great help it was to shipping, was the cure for yellow fever, discovered by an American doctor. It was an amazing feat. Aside from the financial commitment and the manpower, it took something else to get it done. That “something” was persistence.

In today’s Gospel selection, we see an example of persistence.  Matthew tells us that “a woman of Canaan” came and cried after Jesus as he journeyed.  We read that her daughter was tormented with a “unclean spirit”, and was “grievously afflicted by a devil.” Here was a  woman of the very people the Jews despised, asking Jesus for help.  The Gospel of Mark tells us the same story, only with some important contrasts.  First, instead of depicting the woman as a despised Canaanite, she is, according to Mark, a “Greek, a Syrophenician by birth.”  This gives her a higher status.  Yet, as one commentator reminds us, it really wasn’t a contrast at all, because the Jews regarded all foreigners at this time as “Greeks”, and despised them equally. [1]

Yet, his woman evidently had some knowledge of Christ, for she addresses him as ”Lord, thou Son of David”, a term of messianic status.  In characteristic Middle Eastern fashion, she falls at Christ’s feet. Thus, she is presenting herself as the complete supplicant, imploring Christ to help her.  Yet, what is so fascinating about Matthew’s account is that Christ was silent.  How interesting and how perplexing!  Is not God always open to our prayers?  Is not Christ always the absolute essence of compassion?

In this case, the woman is so insistent that the disciples implore Christ to send her away. She cried after them, urgently.  One commentator says this: “In our culture we might consider this woman rude, but ancient Mediterranean judges were sometimes so corrupt that among the poor only a persistent, desperate, otherwise powerless woman could obtain justice from them.”[2]

She cries, she pleads, and she persists. Finally, Christ turns to her and says, “I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel”[3]. The Jews, the Chosen People, are to be served first in the order of salvation. She, being a Canaanite, must comes second, or maybe even last in the scheme. At any rate, she must acknowledge her secondary status as one receiving the spiritual benefits granted to the Jews, then to the rest of the world.  Still, undeterred, she persists.

Wouldn’t this melt the heart of anyone?  Wouldn’t this sway even the hardest of hearts? Yet, despite these heartfelt pleas, Christ turns to her and says, “It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs.”[4]

At this point wouldn’t most people simply give up?  Christ has just likened this woman to a dog, yet she persists.  In one commentator’s words, “she allows herself to be annihilated”, but yet she persists.
Evidently, without batting an eye, she humbly replies, “Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table.” She acknowledges both her dependent state and her absolute need of the healing power of the Master.

At this point, our Lord acknowledges this and simply says, “O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.”[5]  He offers praise for her great faith and grants the woman her heartfelt desire. Her daughter began to mend immediately.

This wonderful passage, as glorious at it is, raises our questions as well as our wonder. How could Christ act this way?  How could He be so seemingly callous?

First, was Jesus really ignoring the woman?  Did He hear the words of His disciples “to send her away, for she crieth after us?”  Let us ask ourselves one question…is this type of behavior typical of Christ?  He was both perfect God and Man and as such, perfectly consistent in both natures, simultaneously.  If God’s nature is that of perfect love, which we believe and accept, doesn’t this mean that He always hears our pleas? Would such a heartfelt appeal as that of the Canaanite woman be rejected, or ignored? No. We must reject the idea that Christ was dismissive or even remotely hard-hearted. It is inconsistent with His very nature. He must have had some other motive. 

Was He testing her faith?  Was He seeing if this Canaanite woman would subject herself to the superior spiritual position of the Jew? Was he, in short, calling on her to persist?  Could it be that God Himself was calling this woman into a closer relationship with Him? [6] Perhaps her persistence itself was God-given, both to heal her daughter and also to have her embrace this new spiritual reality in her life.  
How often do we confront God through difficulty!  Rather, how often does He confront us with His absolute Sovereignty through difficulty? Through difficulty, through trials, and through tribulations, we learn of both the divine and mysterious qualities of God.  If we allow ourselves to be led and instructed by the Spirit of God, we will become teachable by God. After being tempered by the Holy Spirit, we   come to that point where we allow ourselves to be subsumed into the mysterious and omnipotent Will of God.  It is at this point that we bow our heads and say, “Thy Will be done”, even if that will is difficult for us at that time. Although we don’t understand, we submit ourselves to it, even giving thanks for it.  This is difficult, but necessary for spiritual growth.

Returning to the Gospel passage, we hear the Canaanite woman express humility and faith. In response to Christ’s comment that “it is not meet to take the children’s bread and cast it to the dogs”, she humbly says, “Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table.”[7]     At this point, our Lord sees her faith and praises it, saying: “O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt.” Her daughter was made whole from that very hour. In the end, persistence wins the day.  The woman had faith, persisted in her appeals, and won the healing word from Jesus. 

Thus, we should “persist” with God. We need to emulate the widow in Luke 18:1, who received her petition from the judge because of her continual cries for justice.  Yet, unlike the judge, we do not “weary” God by our heartfelt concerns and pleas.  Rather, like the Canaanite woman, we are being drawn in a wonderful and mysterious way into a closer relationship with Christ.

Will we respond like her and persist in our journey towards holiness?  Or will we, when some terrible difficulty or sadness or trouble overtake us, become “mad at God” and turn away, to live in a state of willful spiritual rebellion and ultimate isolation?  Sadly many people do.
While never minimizing their grief or pain, we who are growing in Christ must say that even in these trying circumstances God is calling us closer to Him.   This is difficult, yes.  It is painful, but it is the mysterious Will of God working out in our lives.

This is our choice, this Lent. Will we respond to the circumstances and experiences of Lent to draw closer to God?  Will we acknowledge our state as those who are unable to live well without Him? Will we take this opportunity to shed our spiritual and emotional “baggage” in order that we may grow closer to Him? 

This is our opportunity.  Now is the accepted time for penitence, for growth, and for reward. Glory be to God!




[1] http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom32.ii.xlvii.html
[2] http://www.biblegateway.com/resources/commentaries/IVP-NT/Matt/Canaanite-Womans-Faith
[3] Matt. 15:24
[4] Matt. 15:26
[5] Ibid 15:28
[6] op.cit. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom32.ii.xlvii.html

[7] Matt 15:27