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Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Glory of Faith

The Rev’d. Stephen E. Stults
Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
January 30, 2011
“The Glory of Faith”

Matthew 8:3 3 And Jesus put forth his hand, and touched him, saying, I will; be thou clean. And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.
Matthew 8:13 13 And Jesus said unto the centurion, Go thy way; and as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee. And his servant was healed in the selfsame hour.

Here we have two remarkable miracles of Christ put together in the same passage of St. Matthew: the healing of the leper and the healing of the centurion’s servant from afar. Both of these have a common denominator, or one common theme.

Before we discuss this one common thing, let’s briefly look at each miracle.

In the first miracle, it is important to note its placement in the Gospel of Matthew. Recall that Jesus was “coming down from the mountain”, that is, He was coming down, just having delivered the most amazing sermon ever delivered, the Sermon on the Mount. Recall that among other things, from this sermon we get the Beatitudes, instructions on divorce and adultery, judging righteously, “an eye for an eye’, the way to give alms, and many other priceless admonitions. It is, and has been, the study of many a Biblical scholar, and worthily so.

Thus, the leper, perhaps having been inspired by Christ’s sermon, dares to approach him and say,
“Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.” Something in Christ, or something the leper heard, causes him to draw near and ask. Jesus, in his typical merciful fashion, is moved with compassion and agrees to heal him. Note that the leper was isolated in his misery, as the disease of leprosy was one of the major defilements in the Old Testament. One could not touch, or even receive into one’s house, a person who was leprous without incurring ritual defilement. Recall that such a state barred one from entering the Temple until one went through ritual cleansing. Thus, the leper lived a life of rejection, loneliness and despair.
Yet, in his absolute need, he asked Christ. He asked Christ, not in a diffident manner, but in a way that acknowledged Christ’s authority and power. Not a prayer of doubt, as in “Lord, if it be thy will, I think, maybe, possibly, a healing would be nice.” No, this is a prayer of power and recognition of authority. "Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean." Not, I think you might be able to do it, but “You can make me clean.” It is like, “Say the word, and I will be clean.” His faith prevails and Christ graciously consents to heal him.

Note another wonderful aspect of this miracle. It is the Law of Moses that has been separating this man from society. The Law, while protecting the whole of society, has been very unkind to this individual, almost harsh. It was the fate of all those poor unfortunates who contracted this disease. On the other hand, it is the grace and love of Christ that not only heals him, but brings him back into the fold of society. Picking up a point of St. Paul, whereas the Law can only condemn, the grace of Christ has the absolute ability to heal and restore. This is an excellent example of the contrast of Law vs. Grace. Having faith and having recognized Christ’s ultimate authority over the situation, the leper asks and Christ responds. Finally, Christ commands the man to report to the rabbis for a pronouncement of cleanliness from the disease. This is the final step in the healing process, one which allows him to be readmitted to society. It was also a “testimony” to Christ and to his glory. It clearly shows that Grace has arrived to mankind.

Almost immediately, the passage shifts locale. As Christ enters Capernaum, a second important miracle occurs. St. Matthew tells us that a Roman centurion came to him, beseeching him to come heal his servant, “sick of the palsy, grievously tormented.” When Christ graciously agrees to go heal him, the centurion protests and in a phrase that shows complete humility, says, “Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed.” Many Christians utter this phrase to themselves before Holy Communion as a sign of their own worthiness in receiving the Blessed Sacraments.

Interestingly, St. Luke tells the same story in his gospel, but with a different “twist.” His account has the centurion sending “elders of the Jews” to Christ, because the centurion himself didn’t think himself worthy to meet Christ personally. Being a professional delegator, as all military officers are, he sends an ambassage to Christ, which informs Him that this man is worthy of Christ’s attention, having built a synagogue for the local town in which he was stationed. As an aside, this shows the permanence of the Roman occupation. At any rate, this man was a God-Lover, shown through his actions and his attitude towards the Jews.

In both accounts, Christ is amazed at the faith of the centurion. In St. Luke, He actually turns around and addresses the crowd following him:” I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.” Then, he addresses the faith of the centurion and says, “Go thy way; and as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee. And his servant was healed in the selfsame hour.”

Why is Christ so amazed at this faith? Why should He actually remark on it to the people following Him? Could it be that this “pagan”, this infidel (in the eyes of the Jews), has more faith than the very people to whom Christ was sent? Is it possible?

It is. In fact, Jesus alludes to this very fact when he says, “And I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven. But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” What a fearsome denunciation of those who reject Jesus Christ! This gentile, while not professing a typical confession of faith in words, does so by his actions. He does so by his faith.

Here we come at last to the common denominator of both these miracles. What quality did both the leper and the Roman centurion have in common? It was faith. It was a faith so strong that it not only recognized Jesus’ authority, but also His ability to direct that authority in a healing and life-giving way. It was a faith that didn’t come through instruction, nor through catechism necessarily, although in the case of the leper there can be no doubt that Christ’s sermon moved him. In the case of the centurion, it was that of a man used to authority seeing true authority in all its implications. This recognition spoke to him and he responded appropriately.

This, of course, begs the question, how do we respond to the authority of Christ? Is He our Lord and Savior? Is He the most important Person in our lives? Finally, does He inspire the kind of faith that the leper and the centurion showed?

It is our prayer that it be so. We pray that you possess or acquire, through Jesus Christ, the kind of faith that can move mountains. We pray that your faith proclaims, in no uncertain words, “Jesus is Lord!” With that kind of faith, we can do anything.

In that regard, do we have the faith to believe that God wants us here as an orthodox expression of historic Anglicanism? Do we have the faith to move forward and build our building, knowing that if we plant the seed in a fertile field, God will grant the increase?

This preacher does. He invites you, the faithful, to put the pieces in place for our long-term success and for our long-term ministry. He invites you to move ahead with the next faithful step towards building the Kingdom of God here in this place.

After all, we are the Church. We are the ones who will spread the Good News of the Kingdom, through our presence and witness in this town and in this community. That includes a physical presence as well, one that people can see.

Let us have the kind of faith that says, “Lord, we know that we are unworthy, but please come in as our guest and dwell with us here in this place. Lord, You are most welcome…” Faith is the difference. It is the difference between success and non-success. It is the difference between joy and despair. After all, in the inspiring words of St. Paul, from Philippians 4:13 ”I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.”

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

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Behold, Emmanuel!

The Rev’d. Stephen E. Stults
Second Sunday after the Epiphany
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
January 16, 2011

“Behold, Emmanuel!”

Mark 1:1-3 “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2 As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, "Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, Who will prepare Your way; 3 The voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Make ready the way of the Lord, Make His paths straight.” (taken from the New American Standard Edition.)

It is fitting that we should read this particular Gospel selection for this Second Sunday after Epiphany. This is, after all, the first season in the Church year and the one that proclaims that the newly-born Messiah is here among us. Recall that we read in last week’s Gospel selection Jesus was actually manifested forth to mankind twice before, once in Bethlehem as the Magi worshipped Him, and once again in Jerusalem, as he sat among the doctors and scribes, hearing them and asking them questions.

St. Mark, in his inimitable, brisk style, launches right into Jesus’ ministry. He tells us briefly about John the Baptizer and how he baptized Jesus in the river Jordan. Recall that wonderful scene where Christ comes up out of the water: Mark 1:10-11: “And immediately coming up out of the water, He saw the heavens opening, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon Him; 11 and a voice came out of the heavens: "Thou art My beloved Son, in Thee I am well-pleased."

For additional emphasis, recall the same passage from St. Matthew, which occurred when Christ came to John for baptism:” And John tried to prevent Him, saying, "I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?" 15 But Jesus answered and said to him, "Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." Then he allowed Him.” Matthew then relates the same appearance of the Holy Spirit in bodily form alighting on Jesus. This is, of course, the first evidence that Christ came not to destroy the Law, but rather to fulfill it. It also highlights how utterly false the Jews’ accusations were against him, as they wanted, desperately, to see him as an enemy to Judaism.

What are we to make of this? Is it “just” another amazing theophany that we witness through the testimony of the Word Written? It is “just” another affirmation of our faith, as we read about God the Father speaking audibly to us, as he affirms his love for the Son? Is it a proclamation of the Holy Trinity, as we see, in one scene, all three Members of the Holy Trinity highlighted in stark relief? First, we have the Son, being baptized, the Holy Spirit alighting upon him in bodily form, while God the Father speaks about His Son .Perhaps a clearer example of, and witness to the Trinity would be difficult to find.

We should make note of all these things. This passage contains all of these important items, yet with one, all-important, encompassing theme: they all point to the Christ. Just as Mark uses the prophecy of Isaiah to introduce John the Baptizer, "Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, Who will prepare Your way; 3 The voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Make ready the way of the Lord, Make His paths straight.” With a single-minded focus, Christ is the emphasis and center of this passage, just as He is the emphasis and focus of Epiphany. He is shown forth, He is manifested to us in this Epiphanytide. With that fact presented to us, we ask again, what are we to make of this? In short, how are we to regard Epiphany and, what difference can it make it our lives?

To answer that question, we must turn and consider the very nature of God Himself and our relationship to Him. Of course, we all are familiar with the attributes of God: Omniscience, Omnipotence, and Omnipresence. We know that He is all-knowing, all-powerful and always present. Perhaps we could add another great “O” to the list by saying that He is Overwhelming Love as well. After all, St John tells us in 1 John 4:16: “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him.” While this is obvious to all of us, perhaps its ramifications are not as obvious in regards to Epiphany and our attitude towards it.

When we consider the love of God, my own mind always flies back to the concept of forgiveness and its attendant virtue, restoration. True love always forgives a fault, when it is sought with sincerity and true repentance. It also provides for restoration, or the putting of one back in the place where one was before the fault. This is the most genuine and the most absolute love possible. We all know how difficult it is to have a normal relationship with someone who has wronged us in the past. Yet, this is exactly what God the Holy Trinity does, every time we sin, repent, and seek amendment of life. In a blessed community of forgiveness, The Holy Spirit facilitates our prayers, the Blessed Son intercedes for us, and the Holy Father hears our pleas.
Through the blessed mercy and overwhelming love of God, we are forgiven and we are restored.

Can we not see the Epiphany Season in the same light? That is, what is the point of Epiphany if not to point to Jesus, which in turn points to our eternal blessedness in God? In this light, Epiphany becomes something not trivial, as a mere passage of time, but something more meaningful, even momentous for our lives.

We say this because Epiphany offers us something new and something fresh. That something is simply this: a new beginning in Christ. It is simply too easy, when we are burdened with the various troubles and vicissitudes of this life, with all the daily bothersome details of life, as well as its very real trials and tribulations, to remember what we ultimately are: new creatures in Christ and the Children of God.

Forgive me if this sounds too pat, too well-worn, and perhaps just said too many times. Yet, with all the integrity of the Holy Trinity and will all the truth of God behind this statement, let me proclaim it again unto you. We Christians are blessed to be the Children of God in every sense of the word. We are not the slaves of God, nor are we merely the lowly and subservient subjects of a great King. No, we are something different. We are children, members of the royal household and thus inheritors of our Father’s Kingdom. You parents think of how much you love your own children and then multiply that to infinity, if you can. That is how much Our Father loves those who love Him. It is how much He loves us, his blessed children in Christ.

Putting this in context with Epiphany, it is God’s Love that we celebrate this Epiphany Season. It is God’s Love that sent us our Emmanuel, our Intercessor, our eternal Friend. It is God’s Love, through Christ, that makes possible our repeated forgiveness and restoration. It is God’s Love that makes possible our status as Children of God.

Finally, putting this in practical terms, how do we celebrate the Epiphany Season this year?
What can we do to make a new start, to put a fresh face on our faith this year?

We will submit that it comes down to renewing and refreshing our relationship to God. We do this by seeking God’s Face in prayer and meditation. First, we do this by engaging in daily morning and evening prayer in our respective homes. Let us bathe our homes in prayer and in reading of the Holy Scriptures day and night. Let us also ask for the recognition of God’s continual Presence in our lives, every moment of every day. Let us, as much as possible, pray without ceasing, in the words of St. Paul. Better said, let our lives be a continual prayer unto God as we seek Him through all our activities, every day. In so doing, we will indeed be” a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service”, from Romans 12; 1.
When we do this, we will find a greater joy and a greater sense of purpose than ever before. It is only in Christ that we find our true purpose. For a true succinct answer, let us recall this simple answer from the Catechism, found in our Book of Common Prayer:

Question. What is thy duty towards God?

Answer. My duty towards God is To believe in him, to fear him, And to love him with all my heart, with all my mind, with all my soul, and with all my strength: To worship him, to give him thanks: To put my whole trust in him, to call upon him: To honour his holy Name and his Word: And to serve him truly all the days of my life.

If we can fulfill this duty, we shall be a happy and productive people.

Epiphany is the beginning of this fulfillment, one that we should embrace and celebrate, every day of our earthly lives.

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

Saturday, January 8, 2011

”Manifestation of Glory”

The Rev’d Stephen E. Stults
First Sunday after the Epiphany
January 09, 2011

”Manifestation of Glory”

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

I bid you God’s Peace on this 2011 celebration of the beginning of the Epiphany Season, also known as the Manifestation of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles. That blessed event occurred on this last Thursday, the 6th, and we will continue to be in the Epiphany Season until Septuagesima, or the Pre-Lenten season. It also officially ends the celebration of Christmas as we begin to move in to the church year in earnest.

Let’s consider the word epiphaneia – from 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 .”

All of these definitions apply to this feast day as the Truth Incarnate was revealed to three travelers from afar. Traditionally, in the Western Church, January 6th marks the end of Christmastide and the beginning of the Epiphany season, which lasts for six weeks. The feast of Epiphany itself traditionally lasts for eight days, almost as long as Christmas itself. Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night, refers to the celebration traditionally occurring on the twelfth day (or night) of the Christmas Season. Of course, the Eastern Church celebrates Christmas on this day, called by some “Orthodox Christmas.”

It marks the event known as the Visitation of the Magi (or Wise Men), which we read about today in our Gospel. It is an incredibly important event to we Gentiles, or non-Jews, because it was the Manifestation or showing forth of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, symbolized in the figures of the Three Wise Men, or Magi. The Magi were learned, religious men, probably from Persia.
According to Wikipedia, “The best known Magi are the "Wise Men from the East" in the Bible, whose graves Marco Polo claimed to have seen in what is today the district of Saveh, in Tehran, Iran.”
When one ponders the theological implications of Epiphany and the meaning it has for we Gentiles, it is simply amazing that it has sunk into such obscurity in our society. Actually, considering the hightly secularized nature of America, it really is not amazing at all. Yet, to that faithful remnant of orthodox believers, both Western and Eastern, the Epiphany has an element of blessedness that may be almost as important as the Nativity itself. The Epiphany is a symbol, a foreshadowing of Christ’s earthly ministry, as the first official visitors, after the shepherds, were the three mysterious strangers from “the East.” By including this story of the Magi in his Gospel, is St. Matthew signalling, or pointing towards the univsersality of Jesus’ Ministry? I believe he was. God works through symbols and mystery in dealing with us, yet every symbol has a purpose.

In this case, three strange men, obviously learned and rich, show up in Jerusalem, asking the whereabouts of a new-born King of the Jews, whose star they had seen in the east. Matthew tells us that the Magi came into Jerusalem and began asking questions. Of course, Matthew tells us, “When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” We know from history and from the Scriptures that Herod was a tyrant, bloodthirsty and cruel, whose only god was earthly power. Imagine his shock and amazement, as well as his fear, upon receiving these three strange men. The appearance of three well-heeled, stately visitors would have done that, indeed.

In this case, Herod hurriedly summoned the chief priest and scribes and demanded where the Messiah was to be born, according to prophecy. No doubt they read to him the passage from Micah 5:2: “But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.”

Armed with this knowledge, Herod sends the Magi to Bethlehem, giving them instructions to find him and then return, so that he might also worship the new King. Of course, this is fatuous and insincere to the extreme. As later shown by the massacre of the Holy Innocents, Herod’s true purpose was obvious.

The Magi did indeed find Jesus and rejoiced with great measure. They fell down before the newborn King and offered him their treasures: gold, incense and myrrh. The Church has always understood these gifts as symbolizing the three great offices of Christ. The Gold symbolizes his Kingship over all creation. The incense symbolizes His role as our Great High Priest, which the New Testament tells us about in detail in Hebrews 4. Finally, the myrrh, a substance used for preserving the dead, symbolizes his role as Prophet. In this case, Jesus is the Greatest and Last Prophet, as he seals the New Testament in his blood. Recall that many of the prophets died as martyrs, like “righteous Zechariah”, who was stoned by an angry mob. Legend has it that Isaiah was sawn in two by the apostate king of Juda. Thus, Jesus, when threatened by the Pharisees that Herod would kill him, replied in Luke 13:33:”Nevertheless I must walk to day, and to morrow, and the day following: for it cannot be that a prophet perish out of Jerusalem.” The myrrh thus symbolizes and foreshadows the upcoming Passion and death of our Lord.

After this period of adoration, the Wise Men depart to their own land, being warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod. This is the literal sense of the passage. Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, is manifested to the world, symbolically represented by the Magi. This manifestation is symbolic, as mentioned, and cosmic. Recall that the Magi said in Mat 2:2: “Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.” Church tradition has always held that the Wise Men were astrologers, as well as students of ancient prophecy. How did they know about the star? How did know about the King of the Jews? We do not know from Scripture specifically, but the very fact that they knew about “his” star is simply astounding. Obviously, these men, well versed in ancient prophecy as well as the movement of the stars themselves, had been waiting for this event for a long, long, time.

There are a couple of other ways that we could view this text. One is through the use of allegory, as many of the Medieval Church fathers sought to see all of the Scripture. The Sentences of Peter Lombard provided glossae or allegorical interpretations for virtually the whole Bible and this was the main use of Scriptures for a long time. Or, we could, as some of the early Fathers like Origen or Tertullian did, try to find an anagogical, or hidden spiritual meaning for the passage. This also could be valid.

Perhaps the best use of this passage for us today is one of example. The Wise Men did several things that we would do well to mimic. What did they do? They sought and found, they rejoiced, they opened and gave, they worshipped, and they went their way.

Let us now move forward to this week’s Gospel. Here, St. Luke tells of that wonderful story of Christ in the Temple “sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them,
and asking them questions.” As the Gospel tells us, his parents attended the Feast of the Passover in Jerusalem. This was one of the three required occasions each year that a devout male Jew was to appear before the Lord in the Temple. Obviously, Joseph did this every year, taking the family with him on a religious holiday.

This particular occasion must have been happy and carefree, for Mary and Joseph began the journey back to Nazareth without checking that Jesus was with them. They supposed that he was with their family and friends, so they left Jerusalem and went a day’s journey. Then, parental concern set in and they searched for him among the company. They didn’t know that he stayed behind in the Temple.

They must have been filled with astonishment at finding him, a 12 year- boy, sitting among the foremost experts in the Law of Moses and engaged in a very meaningful discussion. Obviously, he understood what they were teaching about the Law, for he asked them very cogent questions to the amazement of all who heard Him.

Jesus’ self-awareness comes to the fore in this story, as, with the piercing honesty of a child, he says to Joseph, “And He said to them, "Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father's business?" This flies in the face of those who think that Christ didn’t really know what He was about or who He was. He knew who He was and why He came to Earth. He was manifested forth to Judea, in some small way, from this event. In some ways, it might even be seen as second, smaller, Epiphany. Christ showed himself forth to the doctors of the Law, and to us.

All of this comes to us because of the wonder of the Epiphany. God chose to manifest His only-begotten Son: Immanuel, God with us, “Wonderful, Counselor, Almighty God” in a Judean stable some two thousand years ago.

This is the wonder and Glory of God. This is the majesty of the Epiphany.

“Thine O Lord, is the greatness, and the power, and the glory, and the victory and the majesty; for all that is in the heaven and the earth is Thine; Thine is the kingdom, O Lord, and Thou are exalted as head above all.”