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Saturday, April 2, 2011

Children of Promise

Fourth Sunday of Lent 2011
“The Children of Promise…”
Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
April 3, 2011

Good Morning! I hope and pray that you are having a blessed Lent, as we prepare our hearts and souls for the world’s singular moment: the celebration of the glorious resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It was a once-in-history moment. It happened once and will never be repeated.

Jesus’ resurrection marks one theme that God revealed to man through His Son. That theme, which is prevalent this Sunday, is one of promise and Grace. The collect for the day and the Epistle from Galatians 4 go hand in hand to proclaim this theme. Allow me to re-read the Collect: “GRANT, we beseech thee, Almighty God, that we, who for our evil deeds do worthily deserve to be punished, by the comfort of thy grace may mercifully be relieved; through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

The key phrase in this beautiful prayer, I think, is “comfort of thy grace.” The word “grace” is one that we Christians bandy around sometimes, but what does it mean?
There are a wide variety of meanings for “grace”, but in the Christian context, let us consider these two concepts: first, The Gift of God to humankind. In Christianity, this means the infinite love, mercy, favor, and goodwill shown to humankind by God. The second corollary to this is: Freedom from sin. In Christianity, this means the condition of being freed from or restrained from sin by confession and repentance to God.

In light of the Collect, both of these definitions make sense. We, who do deserve to be punished, especially when compared to the ultimate, perfect holiness and justice of God, are most graciously “relieved” through God’s infinite love for us. Using the second definition as well, we are freed from sin in and through Jesus Christ.

In light of the Epistle from Galatians, St. Paul expounds further on the concept of grace. He uses the term “promise” to indicate the certainty of our life in God. Just as Abraham received his promise from God in the form of his heir, Isaac, so we will receive the promise of God to us in the form of eternal life. Recalling one of the most quoted verses in the New Testament, 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.” This wonderful verse contains not only a broad statement, “For God so loved the world…”, but also a wonderful promise, full of hope: “…that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” This is promise, pure and simple.

Turning to the epistle for today, it’s important to recognize that St. Paul was not merely engaging in pleasant philosophical discussions about grace, salvation, promise, etc. We know that he was, in fact, fighting for the young Church’s very survival. He know that he grappled with all, and I mean all, of the issues we face today, but to a much larger degree. In the case of the Galatians, he was exhorting them to stay true to the Gospel he had delivered to them and was trying to deflect the specious and erroneous doctrines being put forth by a group called the Judaizers. Recall that these were itinerant preachers like St. Paul who literally shadowed his steps as he planted churches. This group had the goal of turning new Christians away from Christ back to the whole lot of Jewish ceremonial law, including circumcision. Only in this way, they preached, could one be a devout follower of Jesus.

It is not surprising that much of the Epistle to the Galatians is devoted to the denial of this heresy. Consider this particular passage from Gal. 4: 21, where St. Paul finds it necessary to develop an allegory, using Abraham’s two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael, you will remember, was the son of Sarah’s handmaid, Hagar. When the promised heir failed to appear according to Abraham’s timetable, Abraham and Sarah tried to force the issue by producing a child through Hagar. Isaac was, however, the true, long-awaited son of Sarah and Abraham, the child of promise. In due time, Ishmael would become the father of the Arab nations. Yet, he was not the legitimate heir of Abraham and would eventually be cast out from Abraham’s family.

St. Paul’s point is this: Hagar and Ishmael stand for Mt. Sinai, where the Jews received the law from God, the Old Covenant. This was a good and wonderful thing, yet over time the law became so complicated, so convoluted and so constricting that is served no other purpose but to remind man how sinful he was. The Law was perverted, not by God, but by the Jewish priestly class’ endless additions to it. The overall effect was that the Law became far from God meant for its use: a life-giving, life-ordering gift, but rather became an instrument of negativity and spiritual death. It was a law of bondage.

This is a recurrent theme in St. Paul’s epistles, one that he emphasized over and over. On the other hand, Sarah and Isaac represent the New Covenant, symbolized by Jerusalem. This is the gospel of promise, not the bondage of the old law. It is, as St Paul says, much more fruitful than the old, producing many, many spiritual offspring. Thus, while Hagar symbolizes Ishmael and the bondage of the Law, Sarah symbolizes Isaac: promise and freedom.

This brings to the very heart of what we can glean from Scripture today. St. Paul, in this passage, introduced a dynamic, or tension, if you will, in Christianity. This is the tension between Law and Gospel and it is a topic that Christians have hotly debated for a very long time. Basically, the question is this: are we as Christians bound by the Law, or are we freed in Christ by the Gospel? That is, to what degree are we to be bound up in legalism and outward norms of behavior versus the liberating effect of the Holy Spirit on the human heart? In short, are we to have no other law but “to love one another”, as Christ commanded us?

This is a very difficult question. We cannot hope to shed any light on such a complex situation, except with one simple word: yes. To answer the question, are we bound by Law or freed by Gospel, the answer is yes. It is not a situation of either/or but both/and.

Let me explain. We are bound by Law in the Church, but not to the slavish, death-giving law of the rabbis. They meant well at first, as they sought to regulate and protect the pious Jew from any chance of sin or pollution. Yet, not only was it impossible to keep the Law, but as St. Paul tells us, this law could only remind us how sinful we were. Nothwithstanding, Christians do strive to keep a very important, basic part of the old Law. Our basic law, or rule of conduct, is contained in the Ten Commandments. This is the basic roadmap for our journey in life and the Christian’s basic modus operandi.

If this were all the instructions we had in life, our journey would be barren indeed. The Commandments are too sterile, too legalistic, and maybe even just too basic by themselves to be completely fulfilling. That is why Christ added the great “law of love” to the commandments. He said in John 13:34: “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. 35 By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.”

This is the “flesh and bones” that Christ added to the Ten Commandments. We are to follow the Commandments, yes, but we are to do it with love. That is the difference. While we Christians are bound by law, both secular and sacred, we also have norms of behavior, both secular and sacred, to which we adhere. Yet, we are to adhere to these norms and laws with love, not by legalism.

We Anglicans are reminded of this great law each Sunday. From Matt. 22, vs. 37-40, we hear Christ’s answer to the lawyer who tempted Him by saying, “Master, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus replied:”Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. 38 This is the first and great commandment. 39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets”

St. Paul echoes this in Romans 13:8 “Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.” The Apostle goes on: (Romans 13:9-10) 9 For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 10 Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”

Love is the universal constant here. Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ came, as he said, not to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it. As such, Jesus Christ, perfect God and perfect Man, is the living bridge between the Testaments. Foretold in the Old, revealed in the New, He is God the Father’s last, best, and complete testimony to mankind. Christ and only Christ could both preach and practice perfect love. Not only in his acts of healing and kindness, but in his monumental, complete Atonement on the Cross. This is the fullest, most excellent expression of love ever proclaimed.

This brings us full circle, back to the concept of grace and promise. Jesus has promised us eternal life with Him; in fact that we are “inheritors”, “joint heirs” of the Kingdom of Heaven. This promise makes us Christians the most blessed of all people. We say this, not in a sense of gloating or Christian triumphalism, but in sincere thanksgiving that God has called us into His Kingdom, through no merits of our own. When we are baptized, we receive grace as we become members of the household of God. When we are confirmed, we make an adult confession of faith and are admitted into the life-giving mysteries of the Holy Communion. Through the life of the Church, we grow in grace and in our daily walk with Christ. Finally, we receive our full consummation as we join the saints in Heaven, glorifying and praising God for ever and ever. This is glorious and wonderful. It is God’s free gift to us and it is our destiny as Christians. Thanks be to God!

Thus, are we bound by law or freed by Gospel….? The answer is…Yes.

“Nevertheless, what saith the Scriptures? Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman,”