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Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Key to All Parables

Sexagesima 2018

Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Paul’s Anglican Church
Feb. 4, 2018

All of us at one time or another, have been blessed to learn from a gifted teacher. This priest was fortunate to learn from our former Presiding Bishop, Royal U. Grote, who taught us seminarians that the Parable of the Sower is key to our understanding of all Christ’s parables.  It is considered by many Biblical scholars as the “root” parable of parables. 

In our Gospel for the day, Our Lord uses an agricultural or “organic” analogy in the parable of the Sower.  St. Luke 8:5-8: ”A sower went out to sow his seed: and as he sowed, some fell by the way side; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it. And some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it. And other fell on good ground, and sprang up, and bare fruit an hundredfold.”

Biblical commentators have remarked on the Lord’s use of agricultural analogies in the parables. First, his use of common agricultural references made it easy for his hearers to grasp his message, at least on one of its levels.  After all, everyone can understand a growing plant or weed.

The second reason is not as transparent.  Our Lord is concerned about our growth in holiness and righteousness; thus, He uses “growing” analogies a great deal.
We Christians are to be the “good soil” from which good works do spring, not as a justification for our salvation, but rather as a natural outgrowth of our faith, trust and love in Jesus Christ. 

Another reason Christ uses agronomy or agriculture for his teaching examples reflects the Great Plan of Creation itself.  Why do we have parks in cities?  Why do many of us have house plants? Each plant, each plot, each park reflects man’s desire to get back to the Garden of Eden, which Man lost through sin. All of us, deep in our natures, be we “city” or “country” folk, have this desire to “get back to the Garden”.[1]This may be one reason why deep, simple faith is often more prevalent in the countryside, when contrasted to the cold, concrete atmosphere of the city.

Why is this parable so important to understanding Christ’s Mission and Ministry?  Let us consider two phrases Luke 8:11  Luke 8:5  "The sower went out to sow his seed” and "…the parable is this: the seed is the word of God.

Our Lord speaks of the Sower, who is Jesus himself, casting some seeds in the World.  This is significant because Christian theology teaches us that the Son, the Word, spoke the World into being.  St. John tells us, (John 1:1) “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. So now in this parable we have the Great Speaker of Creation casting seeds into the World.

What is this Seed? The Word of God. The Sower is cultivating his Garden.  Why is this important? It shows us that God was not content to simply create the World and let in spin.  So thought the Deists of the 18th Century, but no. Instead, Christ wishes to sow seeds in His World that bring His creatures into complete fellowship with Him.  Christ sows the words of salvation, the Good News, into the world. 

Is it fertile? Note, seed some falls on the wayside and is devoured by birds, some falls on a rock and withers from a lack of moisture, and others are choked out by thorns.

In the first case, the seed is exposed and is an easy target for Satan, who comes and devours the seed. In the second case, the rock provides no soil for the seed, and it dies. It falls on a hardened heart that will not receive it.  In the third case, the seed grows in an environment of competing weeds, who choke it out.   

None of these environments was right for growth.  In the last case, however, some seed fell on good soil and sprang up, bearing fruit “an hundredfold.” 

If we see the seed as symbolic of the soul, this parable makes a great deal of sense.  Just as a seed must be given a good place to grow, the Christian soul needs a good spiritual environment.  The young soul should not be exposed too early to the devouring forces of the World, which is why we try to shield our children until they reach some measure of maturity.

In addition, the soul cannot grow in isolation or barren-ness, as the seed on the rock.  Rather, it needs the seedbed of the Church for its moisture and nourishment.  The idea of the solitary Christian, apart from the worship and fellowship of the Church is usually doomed to failure.  Instead, God meant for the Christian “seed” to grow in the Church, being fed by her and returning good fruit to her and to the community at large.

Why do you think that the first sign of a Christian soul in trouble is their absence from church?  Simply, Satan knows that he must cut the straggler away from the herd, just as predators do. Once alone without the shelter of the group, it is easy prey. If Satan can stop a person from going to church, he knows that he has won a great victory.

Note that our Lord had to explain this parable to his disciples. This indicates that this Word is meant for us, the household of faith.  Although the message and call of Christianity is universal, in the mysteries of God’s grace some hear the call and respond to it, while others do not. For some mysterious reason known only to God, we are called to be here today. Accept this with thanks and praise. 

Thus, our Lord means us to be “good” soil: planted, nurtured, and tended by the Church.  God desires us to be bountiful: producing sweet, delicious fruit for our brethren and for the World.   In the words of our Lord from Luk 3:8 “Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.”

Our fruit is the result of the grace of God in our hearts, not from us.  It is there because of Christ’s seed, the Word of God.  

Pray always, therefore, that this seed may bear forth good fruit.

Luke 8:15: “But that on the good ground are they, which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience.”

Glory be to God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost, now and for ever.   AMEN

[1] Crosby, Stills, Nash, Woodstock, “Déjà vu”

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Love without Limits

The Rev’d. Stephen E. Stults
Second Sunday after the Epiphany
St. Paul’s Anglican Church
January 14, 2018
“Love without dissimulation”

We just heard a beautiful, but archaic phrase today in the Epistle from St. Paul.  We heard, “Let love be without dissimulation.” While this beautiful language, what does it mean? While this priest genuinely loves the KJV version of the Bible, and it is this translation that comes to memory for me, other translations have real value to us as well.  For example, some modern translations put it this way: “let love be without hypocrisy”;[i] “let love be genuine”;[ii]and “let love be sincere.”[iii]

This “kernel” of truth here isthat love must be real. It must have substance.  Is it enough to say to another person, “I just love you…?”

This statement certainly makes us feel good, but how do we know it is true?

For most of us, appearance is reality.  Yet, there is always a test between appearance and reality. It could be that test revolves around one little word: action. Something must happen to solidify the quality of love.

With that thought in minds, consider the actions St. Paul associates with love.  Note the verb attached to each one.
  • Abhor evil
  • Cling to that which is good
  • Be devoted to one another
  • Prefer one another
  • Avoid slothfulness
  • Rejoice in hope
  • Be patient in trouble
  • Pray instantly
  • Distribute to the needs of the saints (the Church)
  • Give hospitality
  • Bless those who persecute you
  • Do not pay back evil with evil
  • Practice humility
  • Live peaceably with all men.
This is quite a list: abhor, cling, bless, prefer, rejoice, and give, among others.  All these things require something: effort and action. In short, love is doing something for someone else. Sometimes, that may be not doing or saying something that may be hurtful.

Referring to St. James’ Epistle, he tells us, “But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?”[iv] While St. James’ statement applies to a broader context that what St. Paul is saying, it is very applicable. It is very important that we show love to others in our lives by what we do and say.  Deeds speak louder than words, as the old saying goes. As our Lord taught us,” Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.”[v]

As an aside, let it not be thought that words are not important; they are. We all know of people whose parents never told them they loved them. There are people who have never heard the words, “I love you.”  How unfortunate. As in all things, we must seek to strike a balance.  The wise ancient Greeks called it the middle way.  This is a quality of Anglicanism, too.  We strive to walk the middle way, the “via media” in many things.

Let me ask you a question…where does love begin?  Does it originate in the head, as an intellectual decision, or in the heart, as an emotional response?  Do we weigh the benefits of something, and then decide to love it, or them; or, is it merely an emotional “rush” that comes over us?  How does it happen?

We will submit to you that the type of love of which St. Paul is speaking is deeper than either a rational evaluation that leads to affection, or an emotional onslaught in the form of infatuation. The love St. Paul is referencing is much more profound and durable.

Consider this: for us to be able to love in action as well as in words, we need something that is infinitely greater than either our mere intellectual appraisal, or even our fickle emotional attachments.  We need something that lets us love the unlovely, and to show our love to those whom we normally would not.

How is this possible?  How do love those we really don’t like, how do we pray for our enemies, and how do we consistently prove our love through action? It must come from outside ourselves.

Most certainly it does.  First, to love others, we must love ourselves. This love is not the self-indulgent, or selfish manner that we all are prey to, but rather is the clean, bright knowledge that Someone loves us more than we can imagine. The Holy Trinity loves us (you) to such a degree that is totally incomprehensible to us, for it knows no limits. 
Try to accept that in your innermost soul.  If possible let it sink in, deep down, and transform you that you truly love yourself.  When this happens, loving others is possible, even natural.  As the realization grows that you have infinite value to God, you will value yourself. You will value others more also.
Here’s something the engineers in our congregation can relate to: godly self-value and Christ-like self-esteem is like liquid that can only be compressed so far; eventually it explodes its container. The extreme, profound love of God cannot be contained in mere mortal vessels.  It too must explode into the world beyond.

This is what God’s love is like. It wants to live in you, to the extent that you choose to accept it. As you allow God’s love to take root in you, it cannot help but spread its branches through you, to the world.

Then, you can express love in word and deed.  Then, you can do things like abhor evil, prefer others above yourself, pray instantly, give unstintingly, and live peaceably with all men.

You will be able to prove consistent love by speaking it and doing it.

Romans 12:9   “Let love be without dissimulation.”

[i] New American Standard Version
[ii] English Standard Version
[iii] New International Version
[iv] James 2:20
[v] Matt. 7:20

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Kingship and a Righteous Branch

Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Paul’s Anglican Church
Sunday Next before Advent 2017

‘STIR up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may by thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”   

Every year we read this Collect, the Sunday next before Advent. We petition God to “stir up” the wills of His faithful people. Historically, this Sunday is known as “Stir up” Sunday.  Why? We are preparing for two momentous church seasons, Advent and then, of course, Christ-mass.  We Christians beseech the Lord to “stir up” our wills, that we may be filled with faith and plenteously bring forth good works. It is vital to our spiritual health that we appreciate these two upcoming seasons for what they are and not the mere counterfeit the World offers us.

Turning to our Epistle from Jeremiah, we read: ”Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth.”[1]

How do these two thoughts come together on the Sunday Next before Advent?  What is the unifying theme here and what significance do they have for us?

First, it is that we see God being 100% consistent in His Holy Word.  What we mean here is that the lessons from this Sunday are purely and simply a fulfillment of prophecy. 

In this case, it is the prophecy of Jeremiah coming true in the days of Jesus.  The O.T. prophet Jeremiah clearly proclaims the kingship of the Messiah. He is to be the “righteous branch”, the “King” who “shall reign and prosper” over Israel and Judah. 
Then, in our gospel selection from St. John 6, Jesus performs a miracle that clearly gives evidence of His Kingship over all creation.  To the spiritually discerning, the prophecy is fulfilled.

But wait, one might say, how is it that Christ showed himself, really and symbolically, as King and Ruler over Creation?  If it weren’t for a grassy hillside near the Sea of Galilee, one could argue that He was not.  After all, what Jeremiah was prophesying was the standard Messianic vision several prophets had or would have in their ministries. This type of prophecy fed right into what Judah hoped for during the Roman occupation and the vision Judah had for herself: a strong, independent Jewish nation, led by their warrior-king-messiah, subduing all nations and bringing the light of God’s Law to the heathen.  In some ways, it is also the vision some 21st century Christians have of Christ as well.

Today, some members of Christ’s body on earth support Israel for this purpose. Not only to participate in the blessing on those who support her, but in some way to advance an agenda whereby Christ returns to earth in power and great glory.  It has been said, for example, that President Harry S. Truman believed this and thus helped advance the formation of the state of Israel.  He did this to prepare events for a certain end-time scenario. He thought that by causing Israel to be created, he was setting the stage for the Second Coming of Christ. In the mysterious sovereignty of God’s Will, he did help, just not with the short-term payoff he may have envisioned. It is true that all of us fulfill God’s Holy Will in some way, even when we are unaware of it.  For the spiritually introspective, most of us only see the glorious working out of God’s Will in our lives in hindsight.  Looking back, sometimes we are blessed with an “ah-ha” moment.  It is those times that we should bow our heads and worship most fervently as we see God’s Kingship in our lives.

It is precisely this Kingship that Christ revealed in Galilee when the hungry crowd followed him and listened eagerly to His teachings.  As Lord and Pastor of their souls, he fed them spiritually and then, fed them physically.  First, he tested his first disciple Philip by asking him where they might buy bread, in order that the crowd might eat.
Philip acknowledges the impossibility of earthly means to feed them.  Andrew then informs Christ of the lad with five barley loaves and two fish, while also acknowledging the paucity of means to feed so many.  Christ does not respond to this, but tells the disciples to have the people sit down. 

He then performed four important actions: he took, he blessed, he broke and he gave. The liturgical Christian will recognize these as the same actions a presbyter performs during the Eucharist. The symbolism is intentional. Christ feeds all of us in the Eucharist, just as he did the multitude.  All the faithful who come to communicate with Christ are the new multitude of the Church. After distribution, the men eat and are satisfied, just as we who come to the Holy Table are satisfied with Christ.

Note that the significance of this kingly sign was not lost on the people.  In fact, it was so evident that they wanted to make Christ an earthly king by force by necessary. Christ rejected this and withdrew from them into the mountains.

The message is both clear and mysterious.  Clearly, Christ was the expected One, the Messiah of God by the signs He exhibited.  Yet, it was unclear how He exercised his power once he began to appear among men.  Not as the powerful earthly ruler, with pomp and magnificence, did he manifest Himself to mankind. Yet, as possessing all power He showed Himself to man through His miracles.  Note that He did not create the bread out of nothing, using some manipulation of Nature or magic, but magnified that which already existed. Bread comes through the bounty of God and the labor of Man.  The message is clear to those who have a heart for God: Jesus is Lord and King, just not in the earthly sense of these terms. Rather than exercising lordship through coercive or terrible means, Christ exercises Lordship through loving authority.  He doesn’t need to extract fealty from us through fear or raw power, but through the attraction of love.

This is the standard that God expects of us.  We are to love God with our whole being, with our heart, our soul and our mind.  We are to love Him with every fiber of our being, the One who loved us so much that, in the words of John 3:16:  "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (NKJV)

Then, we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. We are, in the words of the Golden Rule, to treat others as we would have them treat us. We are to love them as we love ourselves. These two commandments, to love God and to love our neighbor, are at once very simple and very profound.  We can only do this through Christ and the help of the Holy Spirit.

That leads us to contemplate the great Season upon us, the Season of Advent
One cannot underestimate the value and importance of this brief and wonderful season.  
Are we ready, as faithful Christians, to re-commit to Him, as we prepare for another year in the life of the Church?  Will we permit ourselves to experience the full joy and peace of Christ is our life? These are all serious, but wonderful questions that Advent helps us to answer.

To us today, the same message applies: there is hope, for our “King and Redeemer draweth nigh.”  The Season of Advent is meant to help prepare our hearts and minds to receive the One to whom all Biblical prophecy points.  Advent helps us prepare for the One who brings light and life to a dark and despairing world.  Advent helps us to maximize the spiritual and temporal joys of Christmas, as we embrace the eternally momentous Nativity of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

We pray you, let this Advent season be the richest you’ve ever had, full of the joy of Christ.

Glory be to God the Father, and to God the Son and God the Holy Ghost, now and forever.   AMEN

[1] Jer. 23:5

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Our Heavenly Family

16th Sunday in Trinity 2017
Grace and Glory: the whole family in heaven and earth

Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Paul’s Anglican Church
Oct. 1, 2017
Examining St. Paul’s Epistle selection from Ephesians, one comes to a very interesting and wonderful conclusion: Christianity offers us something we can’t get from anybody else. God offers us something that is truly unique. What might that be, one might ask? After all, those of us Christians who are truly committed to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ already trust in Him for our salvation. Those of us who partake of the holy mystery of the Eucharist already have a deep abiding faith in our eternal life with Him. If we have this saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, what else need God give us? After all, this wonderful sense of our salvation through Christ is really the “big idea” of Christianity. Right? What else could God give us?

First of all, Paul tells the congregation at Ephesus to “faint not at my tribulations for you.” This may refer to the trouble that he suffered at Ephesus spreading the Gospel. Recall that Ephesus contained one of the great worship centers to Diana, the Greco-Roman huntress-goddess. She was worshipped everywhere. In fact, there was a lucrative trade in silver Diana statuettes, shrines and necklaces flourishing in that city. In Acts 19 we learn of the craftsmen’s concern that, with the appearance of Paul and this “new” religion, their “craft is in danger to be set at nought.”1 Thus, the great uproar that caused Paul and his companions to be dragged into the city’s amphitheater, where, the crowd cheered Diana for about three hours before the town magistrate finally broke it up.

St. Paul mentions that his tribulations are “your glory.” He actually rejoices in suffering for the Lord Jesus! Paul then follows this up with the wonderful statement, (Ephesians 3:15) “Of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named,”

This is a key point. We mentioned that only God could give us something that nobody else could. Could this be it? Could this be the one thing that only God can give us? Yes! Only God in Christ can give us the one thing that will never pass away: a true, permanent and eternal family. Through Christ, we become members in the one family relationship that is not tainted by death, decay or sin. Only God in Christ can give us the true family in which there never will be any rancor or disagreement. Imagine that. Imagine a loving family that never passes away and is never “dysfunctional”, to use a modern term.

Is such a thing even possible? Those of us who have had some family friction simply shake our heads. How God could frame His heavenly organization in such a fashion, knowing the failings to which all families are prone?

The difference is this: we talking about the fallen families of man, with all the nastiness, anger, greed and self-service that they imply. On the other hand, how about the perfected, glorified company of the saints? In Heaven, we have the perfect, joyous group of the Church Triumphant, contrasted with the faint earthly reflection of it here. After all, the best things on Earth are but a faint reflection of things in heaven. Thus, imagine the very best family gathering you ever experienced, magnified to an infinite degree. Imagine being with a group of people withwhom you will never disagree, have any conflict, or a troublesome situation.

Another corollary to this is the situation of the orphan. Consider those who have never had a family. Those poor, isolated souls who have never had the embrace of a family’s love, flawed though it is, will have the fullest expression of familial love in its perfection.

Aside from the familiar aspect of Heaven, consider the fact that our growth in Heaven will never end. We will know and enjoy God for all Eternity. Our growth in holiness, however, begins here. John Calvin once said, “The highest perfection of the godly in this life is an earnest desire to make progress. This strengthening, he tells us, is the work of the Spirit; so that it does not proceed from man’s own ability. The increase, as well as the commencement, of everything good in us, comes from the Holy Spirit.”2

Calvin’s point, and that of the Epistle selection, is really one of grace. Citing an O.T. reading from Deuteronomy, the major realization we must make as Christians is that God set his grace upon us, not because of our deserving, but because of His ebullient Love for us.

This brings us back to relationship and from there, back to family. God our Father, Christ our Brother, and the Holy Spirit our Sanctifier, all desire to have you in their company for all eternity. This is simply amazing. As the inspired Word of God tells us, God desires a close, personal relationship with us.

How does this happen? How can we enter into such a relationship with our Lord and Master? Once again, we ask, perhaps in stupefied amazement, how is such a thing possible? Turning back to Calvin, he says: “This deserves our careful attention. Most people consider fellowship with Christ, and believing in Christ, to be the same thing; but the fellowship which we have with Christ is the consequence of faith.” Completely agreeing with this, St. Paul says that he wishes that we all, ”according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man;”3
This “might” of which St. Paul speaks is the power that comes from faith. This is the faith that we have a Heavenly Father who, through the Holy Spirit and the intercession of Christ, always hears our prayers, supplications, thanksgivings and praises. This is the faith that allows us to call upon God for all our needs, big and small. Finally, it is the faith that allows us to cherish a relationship with the Almighty that is both strengthening and nourishing to our souls and spirits. What is the result of this faith? Is it a warm, fuzzy feeling that all will be OK? Is it a merely a vague, feel-good sensation?

By no means! This is the faith that makes alive. This is the faith that procures strength when we think that we cannot go on. It is the faith that allows us to experience real, life-changing fellowship with God. Returning once more to John Calvin, hear these words of wisdom and perception: “No man can approach to God without being raised above himself and above the world. On this ground the sophists refuse to admit that we can know with certainty that we enjoy the grace of God; for they measure faith by the perception of the bodily senses. But Paul justly contends that this wisdom exceeds all knowledge; for, if the faculties of man could reach it, the prayer of Paul that God would bestow it must have been unnecessary.”

The result of this faith is that Christ may dwell in our hearts by faith, and that we are “rooted and grounded” in love. When we reach a realization of Christ’s love for us, we too may “may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; 19 And to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God.” In other words, our faith will allow us to recognize the immensity of God’s love for us, as much as humanly possible. It is our humble opinion that we flawed humans, so hopelessly marred by sin and rebellion, cannot possibly understood the infinite degree of God’s love for us.

Yet, we must try. We must seize God’s love for us and cling to it, knowing that because God so loves us, we can love others and ourselves. We are actually unable to love others until, through the Grace of God, we are able to love ourselves completely in Christ. This overwhelming love of God for us is then projected to others…

It is at this point that we begin to grow into the person God wants. Not weak, but strong in faith. Not hateful, but strong in love. Not faithless, but faithful in God through Christ. Not sorrowful, but moving through the sorrow of this fallen world in joy and hope.

Listen to this wonderful closing benediction from the end of the 3rd chapter of Ephesians: “Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, 21 Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.”4

Amen, and amen ...
1 Acts 19:24-26
2 Calvin, John, “Commentary on Ephesians 3”
3 Ibid

4 Eph. 3:21-21