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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Civilization and the Gospel

Trinity IV, 2015

Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Paul’s Anglican Church

Luke 6:38 “Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom. For with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again.”

It’s been said that the Bible contains all the answers to man’s quandaries, no matter what they may be.  Christians claim that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, infallible and inerrant, containing all truth.  Christians say that no matter what your question or problem, the Bible can answer it, or at least shed light on it in a real and meaningful way. 

That’s a mighty big claim.  “How can a book, written over thousands of years by many, many voices contain such truth?, ask modernists and liberal scholars.  How can such a book that’s been translated into more languages than any other book in history have any semblance of consistency, and how can it have any application to modern folk today? 

That’s an excellent question, one that’s been asked ever since the canons of the Old and New Testaments were finalized.  When critics begin their attack on Christianity, they usually begin with the Bible.  Bring down the Bible, they say, and one can bring down the Christian religion.  Prove the Bible to be ultimately inconsistent or untrue and one can destroy Christianity.  Some sects and cults even have their own versions of the Scriptures, edited and expurgated to fit their own doctrinal views. Thus, as we are all aware, there are those in this world, inspired and energized by Satan, who would like nothing better than to see Christianity fail.

Yet, Christianity prevails.  The Word of God still speaks to people with a gentle force that is un-reckoned in this world.  The Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion are still efficacious to those who use them faithfully.

The Holy Spirit of God still hovers over His People, guarding, guiding and shepherding them.  The promise of Christ still holds true: “Matthew 18:20 “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”  Finally, the Golden Thread of the Gospel, despite two thousand years and innumerable translations, still shines brightly through the pages of the Bible.

That Golden Thread of Truth shines brightly in today’s Gospel as well.  For example, it’s been said that “Reciprocity is the basis for civilization.”  If that’s true, and one can hardly refute that statement, then Jesus Christ has given us some of the greatest truth of all time. 

This portion of the Gospel comes from one of Christ’s great discourses from Luke 6, called “The Sermon on the Plain.”  The entire sermon is simply self-evident truth.   For example, in the section chosen for today’s Gospel, Christ tells us several principles on which we should base our lives, for they provide the basis on which one can build a society.  Allow me to summarize them briefly:
1.      Judge not and you shall not be judged.
2.      The measure that you give is the measure that you get.
3.      Can the blind lead the blind?
4.      The student is not above his master.
5.      Avoid hypocrisy

The first point, “judge not and ye shall not be judged” is a favorite verse that atheists, agnostics the general non-believing population like to use against Christianity.   For example, they say that Christians are “judgmental” when we condemn their unrighteous behavior, whether it is sexual sin, including homosexuality, adultery, the practice of serial marriage, or their drug use; as well as their blatant dishonesty, or their approval of abortion on demand.   “Don’t judge me”, they say, meaning don’t disapprove of my behavior, despite its horrific consequences to the individual and to society. 

The Christian is supposed to go on their way, meekly turning a blind eye to blatant sin and rebellion.  If we say something is wrong, then we are accused of being “judgmental.”  To the modern, godless mindset, there is only one unforgivable sin, the so-called sin of “intolerance.”  Everything else, as long as it works for you, is OK.

Yet, in typical modern inconsistent style, the people of today have many, many rules.  They have a clear sense of right and wrong; it’s just not the same set of rules that we strive to live by.  If you listen to teenagers and “20 somethings”, you will discover that they have many rules, and woe be to those who violate them! Talk about social exclusion!

The point is, we all have rules.  The meaningful question is: whose rules are they?  People today just want their own rules, not the time-tested rules of Truth given by Christ.  It’s the oldest story ever, dating back to the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve wanted to make their own rules.  Despite what many humanists and social engineers want to believe, human nature is real and basically unchangeable, absent the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit.

Thus, we are to judge; but according to Christ, when he said in John 7:24 “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.”  The result of this is that we see the world correctly, make non-malicious judgments and in general, get a better reception from those around us.

The next law is the one that really undergirds society.  It’s been called the “reciprocity rule.”  What it says, is that what you put into something is what you’ll get out of it.  The more you give, the more you get.   It works in finances, it works in the workplace, it certainly works in marriage.  It’s almost too simple, for it says that the more effort, money, time and emotional involvement one invests in something, the more one will receive.  Of course, there are exceptions, as life always has variations, but in general, it works and it works largely.    

Next, Christ uses an apt parable when he said, Luke 6:39” Can the blind lead the blind? shall they not both fall into the ditch?”  Very simply said, if the leader lacks vision, where will the followers be? As we’ve seen at least since 1930’s, the vision of a man-made utopia, without the guidance of the Bible or Christian doctrine, is not a vision at all, but rather a blundering path that leads into the ditch

The point is, we (mankind) really need a Shepherd to stay in the right pasture.  When we depend on His eyes, we will always stay on the right path.

In the middle of this lesson, Christ inserts a seemingly incongruous statement. “the student is not above his master.”  At first glance, this may seem out of place, but when we look at it in the context of these other statements, it makes perfect sense.
 Christ has been teaching us all along about the value and nature of relationships in this lesson.   Do not make unfair or malicious assertions about people, give largely and you will receive largely, and trust your path to a wise and visionary leader, to name the first three rules.  Now, we learn that the student is not above his master. 

Although it was a hard lesson for me to learn, one day I realized that I just didn’t know it all.  I realized that there people who were much smarter, much better educated and certainly more godly than I was.  As the bumper sticker says,
”Those who think they know it all really irritate those of us who do.” Well, the lesson here is humility and the respect for one’s betters.  It’s fair to say humility is one of the greatest (and least practiced) of the virtues.  Yet, it keeps us out of trouble, both temporally and spiritually.  Christ is simply telling us to respect those who have more knowledge, virtue, talent or godliness than we do, learning from them as we can.

The last point is probably the greatest of all: avoid hypocrisy.  Live as you would have others live, treat others as you would have them treat you, and do what you say you will do.  Don’t do things personally that you would condemn in others. In short, have integrity in everything that you do. 

This is one of the greatest lessons Christ can teach us.  When we are consistent in our actions and our speech, and when our actions mirror our beliefs, we are on the way to true godliness and peace. Best of all, we avoid that most common accusation leveled against Christians: “They’re all a bunch of hypocrites.”  You see, when one tries to live a godly life and set high standards, it’s only natural that one will fail occasionally.  This is when our enemies attack us, for they seize upon our occasional failure and hold that up for the norm.  Every time a Jimmy Swaggert figure falls, they rejoice and trumpet the prevalence of hypocrisy in Christianity. What they don’t see are the millions of ordinary Christians going about their lives and trying the best they can to emulate Christ. 

That’s really what we are about today.  We are trying to follow Christ. We are trying to preserve sanity and godly order in a world gone its own way.  We certainly have a good start in these five simple rules.

 As always, keep your eyes fixed firmly upon Christ and all will be well.  As with the rule of reciprocity, the more that we cling to Christ, the more strength, love, joy and peace we will possess.

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

Thursday, June 4, 2015

“He that loveth not knoweth not God..."

The Rev’d Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
Trinity I, 2015
7 June, 2015

The 1st Letter of St. John can be referred to a “love letter” from God to us.  Why? Because not only does it come from the apostle “whom Jesus loved”, and who leaned upon His Breast at supper, but also from the only apostle who had the courage to stand at Jesus’ feet while He was crucified.  The others fled out of fear of persecution.  It is evident that John reciprocated Jesus’ love by this action.

So it is that John’s writings speak so consistently and persuasively about the chief quality of God: Love.  In the first sentence of today’s Epistle from 1st John, we read: “He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. “  [ii] In the entire 4th Chapter of this letter, we see again and again one theme:  God is love.  John tells us : “ Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God”[iii]

How are we to know that God is love?  The answer, according to St. John is this: “In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him.  10 Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”[iv]

Thus, the Love of God is manifested by one monumental event: the coming of Jesus Christ into the World. It is the absolute proof of God’s love for us.  Yes, one can say that God’s love is manifested forth by His Creation and by its beauty and magnificence. One can also say that God’s Love is shown forth by the natural love mankind shows (at times) one to another. Both these statements would be true.  Yet, the love of which mankind is capable is only a faint reflection of God’s overwhelming love for us.

Lest this is too cerebral, and perhaps too abstract, let us bring it down to a human level… picture the greatest earthly king imaginable, say a Nebuchadnezzar, or the Pharaoh of Egypt, or Alexander the Great, at the height of their power. Now, see them stripping off their royal robes, coming down from their exalted thrones, and donning the clothes of an ordinary worker.  Imagine further their taking up a hammer, or a saw and commencing the hard manual labor of a carpenter. Imagine further as they leave this occupation to travel around the countryside, teaching, preaching, and healing, if it were possible. Finally, imagine them, who were once the absolute ruler of all they surveyed, accused falsely, lashed savagely like a common criminal, and then nailed brutally to a wooden cross, to endure an agonizing, horrible torture-death. Additionally, think of these kings, hanging upon their crosses, praying for and forgiving their torturers. The final thing is that they did this to protect their people from terrible danger.

It would never happen.  Not in this fallen world so in love with power, prestige and riches….yet, beloved in Him, it did happen through the incomprehensible love of God. With adoring eyes, we see Christ on the Cross; with hearts aided by the Holy Ghost, our spirits burn with gratitude for what He did for us.  We recognize, to some degree, the terrible danger of complete separation from God, from which He delivered us. Yet, the scope of this beautiful love is too much for us.  It is too hard for us to think of a Love so great that One would go to the Cross for us. We truly cannot understand its magnitude. The scope of it is just too great.

Yet, God’s Love knows no bounds, it has no limits. It cannot be measured by the breadth of men’s minds. It can only be summed up by this: “Hereby know we that we dwell in him, and he in us, because he hath given us of his Spirit.  14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world.”[v]  

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

I St. John 4:8[i]
[ii] Ibid
[iii] Op. cit.
[iv] I John 4:9-10
[v] 1 John 4:13-14

Friday, May 15, 2015

“Charity shall cover a multitude of sins…"

The Rev’d Stephen E. Stults
St. Paul’s Anglican Church
 Sunday after the Ascension  

May 17, 2015

1 Peter 4:7-8 “The end of all things is at hand; be ye therefore sober and watch unto prayer. And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves; for charity shall cover a multitude of sins.”

So speaks the Apostle Peter from the today’s Epistle selection. Coming from arguably the most “human” and “real” Apostle, this is a wonderful and blessed statement.  After all, Peter is one figure in the New Testament with whom all of us can identify in some way or another. If one has acted boldly or brashly in their lifetime, there is Peter. If one has ever been afraid of telling the truth in the face of strong consequences, there is Peter.  And yet, if one has ever boldly proclaimed, “Thou are the Christ; thou art the Son of the living God”, there is Peter as well.

There can be no doubt that Peter became a new and better man AFTER his denial of Jesus Christ. Yet, unlike Judas Iscariot, who allowed Satan to tempt him into the absolute depths of despair, something better happened to Peter. In some mysterious way, the Holy Spirit changed him into a leader of the apostolic band, first in Jerusalem, and later in Rome. He became a pillar of the early Church, and went on to inspire and to lead his early Christian colleagues.  In short, Peter is a picture of what God can do with us, when we allow Him to do so.

Thus, it is so fitting that Peter tells us that “Charity will cover a multitude of sins…” He is not speaking of merely the relief of the poor and needy, although that is important.  No doubt he is speaking of the form of love termed “caritas” in the Greek.  Unlike the other forms of love, namely eros (romantic, sensual love), or agape (fellowship), and philios (brotherly love), caritas is something else, and may be the most interesting of all. Why might we say that?

We will submit to you that charity is more complex and many faceted than the other forms of love. The romantic will certainly disavow this, as will the socialite; even the one concerned with the betterment of mankind through brotherhood.  Yet, if we consider each of the loves just mentioned, note that all of them have some reward or end in themselves, to some degree. 
After all, the romantic seeks the possession of intimacy with the other person; while the one engaged in agape seeks fellowship  as the end of their activity.  The same goes for the one seeking to increase brotherhood and understanding. Again, there is a reward, or payback, if you will, in each of these. Not that any of this is bad; far from it.  Instead, we bless God, and exclaim, “Ecce, quam bonum!” (Behold, what a good and wonderful thing this is….)

No, what we seek to do is to distinguish the quality of love contained in caritas (charity).  Why would St. Peter tell us that it covers a multitude of sins?  Consider this: if one will accept that charity has no end in itself, no inherent payback in the same way as eros, agape, or even philos do, thus charity is more disinterested than the other forms of love. Note, please, that we said disinterested, not un-interested, for there is a huge difference. Charity seeks nothing but a benign view of all men and all situations.  It seeks not to judge harshly or rashly.  It seeks to have “unconditional positive regard” for all. 

Properly done, a charitable view frames one’s whole outlook on life and on the World. Instead of having a harsh, judgmental outlook, one will have a milder, less caustic view of his environment and those with whom he interacts. Instead of leaping to judgment or condemnation, one can “step back” and allow the Holy Spirit to temper one’s own inherent acidity.  This allows one to have a more moderate reaction to things, and perhaps even less heartburn…

When charity rules one’s heart, it leads to an expression of that virtue in one’s daily activity.  This, no doubt, makes life more pleasant for the person practicing charity, and of course, for those that person meets, who ordinarily might be on the receiving end of their scorn and denigration.  Think of all the wasted energy and stress it takes to be negative! Now, think of that same energy focused in a new, more benign direction…

We can now come closer to what the Apostle means when he says that charity will cover “the multitude of sins.”  Think of all the sins avoided when one practices, habitually, the virtue of charity. For a succinct discussion of this, we need only to recall St. Paul’s stirring recap of charity found in 1Cor 13:: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.  2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.  3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.  4 Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,  5 Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;  6 Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;  7 Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.  8 Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.  9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.  10 But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.  11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.  12 For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.  13 And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” 

It is impossible for us to top that summation.  Yet, even as St. Paul tells us about charity, he doesn’t tell us how to achieve it. When one considers Paul’s exhaustive knowledge of the failings of man, learned through hard experience on his missionary journeys, one certainly knows charity doesn’t come from the heart of Man.  There must be another source.

And so there is. As with all aspects of one’s walk with Jesus, it is one based on dependence and trust. We know how hard this is to hear and accept, we thoroughly modern and self-sufficient people; yet it is true.  We who are Christians have to continually let God form our behavior through godly submission and acceptance for His Will for our lives.  In short, without the “bridle of the Holy Spirit” on our rough and ready natures, charity is virtually impossible.

That is certainly not to say that non-Christians can’t be charitable.  That would be wrong, for we all know people, although not religious, who behave well and decently in their lives, even charitably.  What we are saying is that their source of love for mankind comes from a humanistic source, perhaps based on agape or philos, but not necessarily caritas.  Of course, being ultimately human-based, it has its limits.  True love inspired by the Holy Spirit is divine, and therefore inexhaustible.  There is a difference. 

Contrast that with the free, unlimited love of God expressed in godly charity. Herein we see the difference, for as charity moves and is expressed, more freedom occurs and more pure love is shown. As the Holy Spirit moves in our lives and we allow the love of God inside us to focus outward, the condition of the world changes, just a bit. When we really know and accept the love our Heavenly Father has for us, it has to make us more buoyant and joyful. This sense of love becomes so overwhelming that it spills out around our edges, into the world beyond. 

That is when we can begin to practice charity habitually. Then, it is not the forced smile, or the “we should be nice, because we should” syndrome.  It is real love and real charity for all we meet.  That is when charity shall cover a multitude of sins,” For we have been transformed into different people, who see love as their native state,

It doesn’t come from us. It comes from the Source and Font of all love, in all its forms.  It comes from the One who suffered the worst the World could do to him, so that He could profess the ultimate Love for it, and for us.

Corinthians 13:13 - 14:1   13 And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity. 

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Victory and Faith

The Rev’d Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
Easter I, 2015
April 12th, 2015

Victory and Faith

“This is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith...” I John 5:4

Does the word “victory” bother you?  Does it offend you? In our modern, or as it is often termed, “post-modern” world, it does seem to bother some people.  In fact, “victory” is a term that we don’t hear very often.  On the other hand, we do hear things like “negotiated settlement”, or “phased-in withdrawal”, or “limited engagement”, but not the word “victory” very often. 

  If one doesn’t truly believe that one’s cause it just, how can one be fully committed to achieving victory?  We will submit to you that dedication to victory requires absolute sureness in the correctness of one’s position.  One reason why so many people may be uncomfortable with the concept of victory has to do with the perception of their own lack of purity.  Putting it even stronger, it has to do with their relationship with evil. Not that they are necessarily evil, it is just that in our modern world, so many of us have some ambivalence towards evil and sin. It is not that we would countenance absolute evil or gross misbehavior, but rather that our current world situation is so imbued with sin that it is very difficult to avoid contagion. For example, look at the increasing coarseness of the language in media and movies, all in the interests of “artistic realism.” Thus, if we aware that we are somehow tainted, how can our motives towards, or our worthiness to achieve  victory be pure?   

 Our Epistle for the day dispels any doubt about the rightness of our victory, for one key reason: its source.  Rather than experiencing the lackluster approval our own spirits give us, or rejoicing in our  frequent deceptive  self-concept, we have something better.  We have a renaissance of something real, eternal, and perfect.                                                                                                                                                                   
We who are Christians are no longer of the world in the same sense as others; they have not tasted the sweetness of Christ.  Thus this statement: (1 John 5:4) “For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.”  We who are baptized, worshipping, committed Christians are in the world, but not of it because we trace our spiritual genealogy to Christ Himself. 

Considering this, how did Christ come and how can we believe His report? To answer this question,         let’s explore some of John’s motives for writing this epistle.  He was seeking to bolster the faith of the early church, but he also sought to defeat an early, sinister heresy that sprang up, called the Docetists. This group taught that Jesus was not really a man, but merely seemed to be so. Another group taught that Christ wasn’t God, but was only a man.  Since God couldn’t die, Jesus couldn’t be God.  Rather they had an idea that “the Christ” came upon Jesus during His lifetime, but suddenly left Him when he expired on the Cross.[1]

John refutes these positions by telling us that Christ came in this fashion: (1 John 5:6) This is he that came by water and blood, even Jesus Christ; not by water only, but by water and blood.”  Examining this statement closer, we see that Christ did not come by water only, that is, by baptism, whereby the spirit of “the Christ” came on Jesus, but water and blood.  Yes, Jesus began his ministry when the Holy Spirit alighted upon him at Jordan, ostensibly after His baptism.  He finished his work on the Cross, where His holy Blood was shed for us.  While Christ did not need baptism to receive the Spirit, recall that Jesus “suffered” John to baptize Him, in order to “fulfill all righteousness.”  His baptism was meant as a sign for us and showed that Jesus fulfilled, but did not destroy the Law.

Thus, John seeks to tie the water and the blood together to proclaim the unity of Christ.  The water and the blood agree on earth, while the Holy Spirit bears witness to the truth of Christ. John also tells us there are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word (Christ) and the Spirit.  These three are one and they agree. Thus, we have the Trinity in heaven: Father, Word, and Spirit agreeing to the truth of Christ, and we have the earthly trinity: the Spirit, the blood, and the water agreeing also. According to the Old Testament Law, in the mouth of two or three witnesses, something was confirmed, so it is with Christ.  Since both trinities agree on the truth of Christ as both God and man, I is clear that Christ is not only man but God as well.

Consider this: is there such a thing as the sin of unbelief?  Is it actually a sin not to believe Jesus as the Son of God?  This is an interesting question, but it is one that John can answer with an unequivocal “yes.”  Why? Simply because he states that while the witness of man is important, the witness of God is greater. God has witnessed to the truth of His Son through his miraculous birth, his sinless life, his ministry, his passion, and greatest of all, his resurrection.  Besides all this, the Holy Spirit bears witness to the Son, and his witness is true.[2]

Continuing with this thought, those of us who accept the truth of Christ and believe in him receive a witness in ourselves. We simply know through faith that He is true.  On the other hand, those who reject God make Him a liar, because they reject the witness God has given us of His Son. It certainly seems that those who do this are sinning because not only do they reject the Truth, but they call the Truth a lie by their actions of unbelief.

Simply, John tells us the record that God the Father has given us of His Son:  God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son.  Those who have the Son have life, and those who have not the Son have not life.  It is at once simple and profound.

We Christians must have faith to believe, and that faith is in a man who was born of God, came among us, taught us, healed us, and ultimately died for us.  This too is simple and profound. 

In the end, our faith in this God-man enables us to overcome the world.  It is a faith that comes not from ourselves, but from the One who gives us all things. He Himself enables us to believe in Him as He draws us to Him. He enables us to love him because He first loved us.  He is able to give us unquenchable joy because He is the Source of all joy.

We will, in the end, overcome this fallen world through Christ. Through our faith in the record that God the Father has given of His Son, we have this witness in ourselves.  In the end, after all the hoopla and panoply of futility has passed by, we will have something else: a real, durable life in Christ that will not and cannot be overcome.

Do we have victory? 1 John 5:4   “For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  AMEN