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Sunday, September 2, 2012

"Blessed are the eyes..."


13th  Sunday after Trinity, 2012
Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
Sept. 2nd, 2012

Last week, you’ll recall we spoke about the great themes that run through the Lectionary readings for the various Sundays throughout the Church year. Recall we also mentioned that these themes always do one thing: point to Christ in various and sundry ways.

This Sunday, the 13th after Trinity, is no different… what we have here is St. Paul again speaking of the dramatic tension between Law and Grace.  Last week, please recall from 2nd Corinthians, that St. Paul told us how the letter of the Law kills, but the Spirit of the Law gives life.  This week he expounds further on that theme by telling us that to Abraham and his seed were the promises made.  He goes on to tell us that the use of the singular in “seed” is intentional, for he expressly says not to many seed(s), but to one, the descendents of Abraham.

Let us take a moment and recall that promise made to Abraham in Genesis 12:2-3:   And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing:  3 And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.”  This is the great promise God made to Abraham and it has certainly come true.

Now, Paul follows up this remembrance of the promise with another great happening: the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. He carefully notes that the promise came first; then was followed by the Law some four hundred and thirty years later.  This is significant, because it clearly follows the history of the Israelites.  At Sinai they had just escaped from Egypt and were now a free people.  Note carefully that God did not give the Law to a slave people, but to a free people. Having escaped Pharaoh’s yoke, the People were to submit themselves to a far greater King, but with a difference. Instead of slavery, this new King (God) gave them freedom.  Also, instead of a questionable identity as the Hebrew slave people of the Egyptians, God gave them a new identity as the sons and daughters of the Most High.  On another note, is there any wonder why God’s wrath was so kindled when the People (or at least various segments of them) wanted to return to Egypt?  Remember the rebellion of Korah, where God destroyed those men and families who offered up idolatrous incense?  You see, once God has delivered a person from bondage, He does not take it lightly when that person seeks to return to that state of servitude, whatever that might be.

On the same vein, imagine God’s disgust with His People when much later, under the threat of Nebuchadnezzar’s siege of Jerusalem, they again sought the “week reed” of Egypt to help them? This of course, was not only futile, but also blasphemous.  As we have noted, the Babylonians crushed the Egyptians militarily, thus ending any hope that Israel would be delivered by her former master. Thus, to my mind, there is certainly no wonder at all, but a sense of incredulity at their foolishness.

St. Paul clearly tells us that the Law did not disannul the Promise, but rather, it was added because of the transgressions of man.  It was a necessary means to prepare mankind for the coming of the true promise, Galatians 3:19: “till the seed should come to whom the promise was made”.  Who is St. Paul talking about?  Christ, of course.  He is the ultimate promise to mankind, and the reason that “all families of the earth be blessed.”  It is only through Christ that we Gentiles are able to share in the promise of Abraham, and to be ultimately included in the family of God. 

This is both glorious and humbling.  Recall that in Romans 11, St. Paul speaks of us being “grafted” in as wild branched to the true vine, which is Israel.  Note also that in the same chapter, he tells the wild vine (we the Gentiles), not to boast against the Jews because we were included in Christ, while they rejected Him.  He reminds that if God was able to graft us in, He can certainly graft us out as well….  It’s a sobering thought, and one that cause us to reflect on the nature of our salvation with gratitude and humility.

Paul continues with a characteristic statement about the Law being added because of transgressions.  That is, if man is basically good, there would be no need for the Law.  We ask you, are laws basically used to guide and punish, or to praise and give reward?   The answer is obvious.  Laws are meant to guide and punish those who transgress them. Thus, St. Paul says”the scripture hath concluded all under sin”, that is, law is meant to control the natural sinful impulses of men. 

Yet, all is not negative.  Far from it.  Instead, St. Paul brings in the good news of the Gospel.  He does this by saying “that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe.”  What does this mean?  It is the fulfillment of the promise of God to Abraham! That is, through Christ, we, and all the families of the earth who believe are brought in under the umbrella of Grace.  No longer do we suffer because of our failures to live under the Law.  Now, we have something better, the covenant of grace in and through Jesus Christ.  It is as if we have had our nasty, rusty, iron handcuffs and leg cuffs cut loose from our limbs.  We are free to enjoy an unfettered walk with God. 

Are we still sinful?  Yes… Are we subject to the temptations of the World, the flesh, and the Devil?  Most certainly, yes…. Yet, are we judged according the unyielding Law of Moses, or by the covenant of Grace in Jesus Christ?   Once again, the answer is obvious.

This is exactly what Jesus is speaking about in today’s Gospel selection from Luke 10…  He says in Luke 10:23-24   23 ¶ And he turned him unto his disciples, and said privately, “Blessed are the eyes which see the things that ye see:  24 For I tell you, that many prophets and kings have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them.”  To what is Jesus referring, to His miracles?  Perhaps…We think it is more, much more.  He is speaking about the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham, that all the families of the earth will be blessed.  He is speaking of Himself.  He is speaking about the fulfillment of hundreds of years of prophecy come true in their presence!  He is speaking of the events concerning Himself that began way in Genesis 3 and “trended” if you will, throughout all Scripture up to His day.;..

Once again, is it any wonder that Christ had moments of irritation and anger with his contemporaries, especially those in the religious establishment, the Scribes and Pharisees?  Those who were supposed to know and to recognize the signs of the Messiah did not heed them, or worse yet, purposefully ignored them to protect their own place of prominence in society.  How crass, How blind, How utterly human this is.

Yet, in the beauty and completeness of God’s Plan, this too was foreordained.  God did not control the Pharisees like puppets on a string, but instead, as He always does, cause people to realize their true nature to His Glory.  Just as Christ reminded the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, “Then he said unto them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken:  26 Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory?  27 And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.”[1]

Beloved, we are living in the New Testament era of Grace.  We are the spiritual descendents of Abraham.  If we will realize it, take hold of it, and cherish it, we are the most blessed of all people.  We have the promises of God through Abraham, and we have the grace of God through Jesus Christ.

How fortunate we are to be in the Church of the redeemed.  How fortunate we are to be loved of God.  In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.



[1] Luke 24:25-27

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Flip the Coin


Flip the Coin: Pharisee or Publican?

Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
11th Sunday after Trinity, 2012


In today’s Gospel, Our Lord draws a perfect contrast “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others” by drawing a wonderful word picture of a Pharisee and a Publican. This parable is a short, but pithy picture of human nature.  It might even be said that it represents two sides of one coin.

Here we see two diametrically opposed classes of society; the Pharisees and the Publican. We know that the Pharisees were often the objects of Christ’s scorn and usually were the example of what “not” to be.  There were also notable examples of righteous Pharisees, such as Nicodemus and certain unnamed others, who secretly believed on Christ.  Yet, recall the origin of the Pharisees, how they arose to defend Judah and Israel from the gross idolatry that had brought so much suffering.  Remember how the Jews fell into such a state of “mixed” belief that even their pagan statues populated the very Temple itself.  Recall how God, in His longsuffering and mercy, sent prophet after prophet to call His People back into repentance, yet they would not. After literally hundreds of years of warning, God finally executed judgment on Judah, when the Jews rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar, as we discussed last week.  Recall that even in this last state, Jeremiah warned the people to submit to the yoke of Babylon and live, even if it meant a state of servitude.  Had Judah done this, even Nebuchadnezzar would have turned his fierce wrath and accepted their repentance.  Instead the Jews under Zedekiah refused, even trying to flee the siege of Jerusalem through a break in the city wall.  This, of course, failed, and Zedekiah saw his sons slain before him.  He was blinded and taken to Babylon as one of many captive kings.  The Babylonians then proceeded to destroy Jerusalem, including the fabulous Temple of Solomon, which was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. 
God, however, was not done with His People.  Far from it.  Much later, under the reign of Artaxerxes the Persian and then Darius the Mede, Jerusalem’s wall and Temple would be rebuilt, as related in the books of Nehemiah and Ezra.  Although it was indeed glorious to have the Temple in Jerusalem again, it had nowhere near the grandeur of the former temple, nor could it be.  Many of the ‘old hands’, those who had seen the original Temple, actually wept openly when they saw the “new” one.   Later, Jerusalem would be savaged again by the Greeks, until Judas Maccabeus and his sons led a successful revolt against the Hellenization of Judah.  It was during this period that the Pharisees arose, men so zealous for the Law and for the purity of Jewish belief.  Their calling was to safeguard Jewish society from the evils of heterodoxy, so that the suffering brought on by idolatry could never happen again.

This was a most worthy goal.  Yet, like all things human, absent the guiding Spirit of God, Phariseeism virtually became its own religion.  It became twisted and self-centered. They Jews sought righteousness through their own deeds and their interpretation of the Law, thus ensuring, even requiring God’s favor towards the nation of Israel. Their religion became show without substance, mere mechanistic practice without faith or belief.  Hypocrisy and outward show became the norm, to a large extent.

That brings us to the Gospel selection for the day. Christ clearly draws a contrast between the self-righteous Pharisee and the humble, penitent publican. Thus, Our Lord draws a fascinating parallel between appearances versus reality.  Those of you who took college-level English literature courses will recall that as a major theme in literature, and in life.

Imagine the scene.  Here is the Temple, glorious, large and impressive.  It must have seemed like acres of smooth stone.  Now we see the Pharisee, dressed in his long robe, no doubt with flowing phylacteries and all, standing and praying to himself.  It is highly likely that he presented himself to be received by the Temple, as one who truly belonged there. In short, he probably walked in like he owned the place.

 Now, considering his “prayer”, some commentators have observed that this “prayer” is not really a prayer at all, but rather an “address” to God[1]  The Pharisee proceeds to list his righteous acts and behavior before God, rehearsing them, if you will, almost to demand God’s favor and justification. He gives tithes of all that he possesses, he fasts twice weekly; he is, by all accounts, a righteous man.  There is a problem, however; he knows it. Just as a person who is aware of their good looks, nothing “poisons the well” more than self-knowledge about one’s own virtues. While he does do good deeds, actions worthy of praise, his attitude of self-righteousness undoes all his good deeds. Thus, he parades his righteousness before man and God, fully confident that he is seen as such before both.
 
Our Lord then tells us of the publican.  Here is a man who was universally despised as both a tool of the Roman occupiers and as an extortioner.  Recall that publicans, or tax collectors, as the NKJ version translates it, were Jews employed the Roman state to levy and collect Roman taxes.  Often, they asked for and received more than what was due, in a fraudulent manner.  No wonder they were hated, not only as symbols of the occupation, but also as taking advantage of their position to wring as much money as possible out of the population.  

This may be why another Publican, ”short of stature” Zacchaeus, in Luke 19:8, said that he would restore four-fold to anyone from whom he had over-collected when Christ told him that He must stay with him that day. This act of repentance on Zacchaeus’ part prompted this wonderful statement from Jesus: Luke 19:9-10   9 And Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham; "for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost."   
Similarly, let’s examine the publican’s behavior in the temple from today’s Gospel.  He stood “afar off”, not even daring to lift up his eyes to heaven.  Instead, he looked down and “smote upon his breast, saying, “God be merciful to me a sinner.”  The contrast couldn’t be clearer.

What really drives home the point of the parable is Christ’s last statement: (Luke 18:14) “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."  We know this by conventional wisdom, in sayings such as “Pride goeth before a fall”, which is actually taken from Proverbs 16:18-19: ”Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.  19 Better it is to be of an humble spirit with the lowly, than to divide the spoil with the proud.”

Thus, the humble publican was justified before God, while the Pharisee was rejected. His supposed righteousness meant nothing, while the penitent publican, despised by men, was favored by God. Of course, there is a great lesson in this for us. 

We think that it is not far-fetched to think that this picture, both the Pharisee and the Publican, reflects all of us from time to time.  Certainly not in these extremes, but it essence this may be very accurate.

For example, there are days that all of us, in some degree or another, play the part of the Pharisee.  Not that we dress up in long robes and seek the greetings in the marketplace, as Christ once said, but rather that we might get a bit of self-righteousness.  Something has gone well, or we have exalted ourselves in some manner because of some event.  Or, we have read some Scripture and think, “Yea, that might be me!”  In short, we enjoy some sort of self-exaltation that is not godly.
On the other hand, at other times, we get a truer sense of our own self-worth.  That is, we realize that we are what we are: sinners desperately in need of a Savior. Like the publican, we hardly dare to lift up our eyes to heaven. 
It is at this point that we are the closest to our salvation, in this priest’s humble opinion.  That is, rather than trying to fly on the rotten wings of supposed self-worth, we realize that we need the wings of the angelic host to carry us to Heaven.  Not that angels can save us, but they can carry out the commands of Jesus, their Lord, and bring us into His presence.  This is salvation, and not the other.

The lesson to us is plain: we rely, not on our own righteousness, but that of Jesus Christ.  As Ephesians 2:8-9 tells us: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”

When we, like the Pharisee, depend on our own works for justification, or feel pride in our goodness, or indulge in self-righteousness, we run the risk of being rejected by God.  Yet, when like the publican, we approach God in a lowly and humble spirit, relying only on the merits of Jesus Christ, we have eternal justification and redemption.

Yes, it may be that we are like two sides of one coin: Pharisee one day and Publican the next.  Yet, as we grow in Christ, the Pharisee will fade and the Publican will flower.  That is, our dependence on self will lessen and our need for God will grow stronger every day.  It is at this point that our salvation is closer than we thought. 
Thanks be to God!

Luke 18:14  4 "I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." AMEN.

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


[1] Matthew Henry, Commentary on Luke, BW 7.0

Friday, August 10, 2012

Gifts and Giving


10th Sunday after Trinity, 2012

Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
August 12, 2012

1Co 12: “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I would not have you ignorant.”

Good morning, dearly beloved in the Lord.  This morning we are indeed privileged to hear the Word of God, freely in a free country.  We are indeed privileged to hear this from the pen of St. Paul, as he begins teaching us with a very characteristic phrase: “…brethren, I would not have you ignorant.” When the Apostle Paul begins one of his epistle segments thus, we know that we about to receive some orthodox doctrine of Christianity. 

While this sermon is not about the Apostle Paul, but rather the message he brings us from God, we Christians owe an inestimable debt of gratitude to this Apostle.  Without St. Paul’s selfless ministry, would Christianity be what it is today? Without St. Paul’s prodigious labors, Christianity might not be the worldwide force that it is, because Paul could be considered the greatest evangelist and teacher in Christian history, aside from Christ Himself. Thus, we are extremely thankful for him. We are thankful that God did raise up Saul, later Paul, for our edification and instruction in righteousness. Thank God that He did.

The epistle begins with a statement recalling the Corinthians’ former state, that of Gentiles (the Goyim), separated from God, drawn away to pagan idols and to a religion made from the imagination of man’s mind. The classical world, that of Rome and Greece, had beauty, nobility and high ideals.  It was, in many ways, the highest aspiration of human endeavor.  Personally, having had the undeserved benefit of a classical liberal arts education and having been downright lucky enough to walk in Rome and in Greece, I had been enamored with Classical civilization for some time. Even the ruins of the Parthenon and the Forum inspire awe; imagine what they must have been like in their heyday!  It must have been wonderful, at least on the surface.

On the surface, I say, because the reality of Classical life was far more violent and brutal.  A book on evangelism, called Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? , by the Rev. Roland Allen, helped me to see the reality of ancient life.  The reality of ancient life, even in the Classical period was this:  it was a tough society based basically on hate. It’s an unfortunate fact that class hated class and group hated group.  To begin with, virtually all of the work done in those societies was by slaves, who hated their masters, for the most part.  There always exceptions of course, especially in the case of the educated Greek tutor-slave.  He or she was a high-class doulos (slave) who taught the younger members of the patrician Roman family, and was considered almost a member of the family. Then, on the other hand, consider the lot of the kitchen slave or field slave, who may not have been so blessed.

The slaves’ masters, in turn, hated those above them, had envy for those in higher places of authority and constantly plotted against them.   Soldiers in general, often hated their pay and their postings, the artisan class hated the Patrician class, and so on through every level of society. Again, beneath it all were the slaves, who made it all run, the hidden “machinery”, so to speak, of the ancient world.  In general, except as noted, they were seen as mere property and without humanity. In general, it was a dark picture, indeed.

Into this dark picture came a man, a Jew, who brought a message of love. He spoke about one God, who looked on men with love and not contempt.  He spoke of a God who offered up His only Son in order that all mankind might enjoy eternal life and fellowship with Him.  He brought a message that said God loves mankind.  Is it any wonder, then, that St. Paul’s message about hope and light and life took hold?  Here was a man preaching “Christ, and Him crucified”[1]. Here was a man preaching forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with God, and the free gracious gift of eternal life.  He told people to come to God as they were; for example, were they called as slaves?  Seek not to be freed.  Were they called as freedmen?  Look kindly on their slaves. Were they called as soldiers?  Be content with their pay.  In short, come to God as you are and receive the Good News. 

What is this good news?  Recall 1 John 1:5: “This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all.”  That is, through Paul’s preaching, the light of Christ had come to a very dark world.  For many, many people, this was very good news indeed. Rather than spend a lifetime toiling and fighting, only to end up in some shadowy land over the river Styx, now one could look forward to a land of light, peace, plenty and joy.  What a difference! 

The church at Corinth evidently had received the Good News with gusto. As we learn in St. Paul’s second Corinthian epistle, the church had grown so much that it threatened to split into factions.  In short, it had growth problems.

It also had spiritual gifts in abundance.  This is why St. Paul wrote, 1Co 12: “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I would not have you ignorant.” After he reminds his readers of their former state, he makes an amazing statement,
Corinthians 12:3:  Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God calls Jesus accursed, and no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.”  This statement appears simple on the surface, yet when considered thoughtfully, is actually quite profound.  First, “no one speaking by the Spirit of God calls Jesus accursed”; well, personally, I’ve never heard anyone call Jesus “accursed”, but I sure have heard plenty use his Name taken in vain. Haven’t you? Most people admire Jesus, even pagans; they just won’t (or can’t) affirm his Lordship.  They certainly can blaspheme quite easily as well, using the Name of Christ as a mere exclamation.  On the other hand, no one can say, “Jesus is Lord!” without the Holy Spirit. Saying it another way, on the one hand, an absence of the Holy Spirit allows one to use Jesus’ name as a curse or a violent exclamation, whereas the presence of the Holy Spirit allows one to affirm Jesus’ true state, that of the Son of God, our King and Lord; thus, “… one can’t say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.”

There was a time in my own spiritual journey when I really wondered if the Holy Spirit was with me, especially when I was much younger. I asked, did I “have” the Holy Spirit?  What did it “feel like” to have the Holy Ghost?  How come I don’t “feel” differently if I supposed to be a dwelling place of the Spirit and how come I wasn’t holy all at once; other such questions occurred to me as well. Well, I confess that this verse gave me a great deal of comfort; when I first read that “no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.” Just the fact that we can affirm this simple Christian truth means that the Spirit is striving within us as a gift giving us grace to affirm and accept Christ.

After all, faith is not about feelings.  Faith is about knowing.  Faith knows. Thus, through faith, we know that we have a loving God who gave His only Son to redeem us from an otherwise utterly hideous eternity.  Of course, I am talking about an eternity without God, with is too unthinkable to consider.  Faith also knows that, despite our own innate sinfulness, we are saved through Christ, and only by Him.  Finally, faith knows that we have a God that gives us gifts, even undeserving as we are….

Gifts are exactly what St. Paul is speaking about in this epistle selection.  He tells that there are 1 Corinthians 12:4-5 “There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit.  5 There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord.”  That is, the Holy Spirit grants various types of spiritual gifts, but the Spirit who grants them is the common source. Also, there are various ways to offer service to God, i.e. ministry, but it is always the same God.  While this may seem patently obvious, St. Paul brings the point to a close by saying, Corinthians 12:6-7 6”And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all.  7 But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all:”  

Here then, is the point.  God the Holy Spirit grants us spiritual gifts to bring edification to the Body, not glory to the individual Christian.  Thus, if one is blessed with a specific gift, it is not a cause for self-exultation, but rather of thanksgiving.  The real question becomes, how can I offer my spiritual gift to the Body, and thus to God in such a way as to magnify Him?  How can I glorify God by offering back to Him the gift He has so freely given me?

To help us in this question, St. Paul lists several spiritual gifts: the word of wisdom, the word of knowledge, the gift of faith, the gift of healing, the working of miracles, the utterance of prophecy, the discernment of spirits, the gift of tongues, and finally, the interpretation of tongues.  All of these gifts are still extant, to some degree or another, in different parts of the Church.  It must be noted that in lesser “civilized” parts of the world, we may see more spiritual gifts. Evidently, when man becomes more civilized, he also reasons himself into a less spiritual state. I think it must also be noted that some gifts were given to the early Church for its edification and growth.

If we are indeed committed Christians, as this group certainly is, demonstrated by our desire to preserve the orthodox faith once delivered to the saints, we all should have a desire to grow in Christ.

Let us see Christianity as a “religion of growth.”  The most important growth I can think of concerns grace and our personal journey in sanctification.  This is exactly what St. Paul is speaking about, that we are not ignorant of our spiritual gifts. 

Thus, I would ask you to consider these spiritual “steps for growth”.  First, pray for discernment of your own personal spiritual gift.  We who love Christ all have them.  Thus, I humbly urge you to pray that the Holy Spirit will reveal your gift to you, if you don’t already know.  Knowledge is the first step towards spiritual “self-actualization”. Next, consider, meditate, ponder, and cogitate, etc., as to how you can offer your gift to the Church and to the world.  Pray earnestly that God open opportunities for you in this regard.  Finally, just use it.  Use your spiritual gift to edify us, the Church, and to bring joy to you, the giver.  Greater joy is impossible when one knows that he or she is truly serving the Lord.

Earnest prayer, leading to discernment, leading to knowledge, leading to action is the key to a joyful Christian life. I humbly pray that all of us may grow in Christ to such an extent that we, too, may discern, know and do, thus making our cup of joy full to overflowing.

In the words of Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, “Freely you have received, freely give.”[2]

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


[1] 1Co 2:2
[2] Matt 10:8

Friday, July 20, 2012

Blessing and Multiplication



Seventh Sunday after Trinity, 2012
Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church

July 22nd, 2012

Mark 8:1

Today’s Gospel relates one of the archetypal stories in Christendom: the feeding of the four thousand.  It is the second time that Christ fed the people, the first being the mass of “about five thousand men, as well as women and children.” It is the lesser known of the feeding miracles, being related only in Matthew and Mark, whereas the feeding of the five thousand is related in all four gospel accounts.

Yet, the significance of this is not limited to the number of times it is mentioned in Holy Scripture.  In fact, the thought occurred to this priest that Christ may have fed several crowds at several different occasions, but for some reason, it was not mentioned in the gospel accounts.  It could be. No doubt some more liberal scholars might take this as merely a retelling of the feeding of the five thousand, or as a symbolic sharing that took place among the crowd, but that is not how we view the Word of God.  We simply take it for the truth.

The real significance of these events is manifold, even if one doesn’t “merely” dwell on the miraculous nature of the feedings themselves. Of course, not to marvel at the wonderful physical multiplication of the loaves and fishes is to do God a grave disservice. The very fact that Our Lord took the bread and the fish, blessed it, broke it and distributed it to his disciples is wonderful beyond words. The word “miracle doesn’t even do it justice. It had not been done before, and we doubt if it will ever be done again. It was truly a marvelous happening.

Yet, we actually must go beyond the physical marvel into the “how” and “why” beyond the act to begin to truly appreciate the significance of it.  Without sounding too pompous, we must enter into the metaphysical realm to see why it is significant to us today.

We believe that the true significance of this act goes beyond Christ’s wonderful compassion shown on the multitude. Of course, on the first level of meaning, this is truly marvelous and blessed to behold.  Christ had “compassion” on the crowd, because they had been with him three days with nothing to eat.  Unless they had brought something with them, they were in a fasting condition.  This shows what great power Christ’s words had, as well as the power of his preaching. The crowd was so spiritually hungry that they neglected their bodily needs in order to hear His words of truth.  Can you imagine?  No mere earthly preacher has this wisdom or this eloquence.  Christ did, however, and captured their attention for three days. Yet, even so, Christ cared about their physical welfare, as well as their spiritual welfare.  He was concerned that since they had been fasting for three days, if He sent them away empty, many would faint on their way home.  Thus, Christ “begged the question” as his disciples made the doubtful query, “Where can one find bread in the wilderness, and especially enough to feed so many?”

No doubt Our Lord wanted them to ask the question, so that they could be still and behold the works of God. They needed to see Christ at work, because at this point, there were some among them that still doubted whether or not He was the Christ.

Now, we come to the metaphysical part.  This is the area which transcends the mere physical and takes us up in to the mind of God, as much as we are able.  Note first that Christ asked how many loaves the disciples had on hand...  Whether this came from the crowd, or from the disciples themselves, we not know, because Scripture is silent.
The disciples answer, “Seven.” We also learn that there were a few small fish available as well.  This number, in and of itself, is an important fact.  It is, of course, a mystical number, and one that occurs again and again in Scripture.  For example, the word “seven” occurs 54 times in the Books of Revelations alone….

Lest we caught up in numerology, however, let us pursue the truth at hand. Our Lord then set the pattern for the four-fold action of the Holy Eucharist, when he took, blessed, broke, and gave to His disciples.  Incidentally, if one doesn’t believe in the ordained ministry, here is a precursor for it.  Note that Christ did not give to the multitude directly, but rather he gave to his disciples, who then gave to the people.
As we mentioned earlier, there is a lot of significance in this passage of Holy Writ.

Now, to the crux of the matter….. Please note that Christ did not, shaman-like, create an illusion of abundance. That is, it didn’t just look as if the bread and fishes were multiplied.  They actually were increased beyond belief.  Also, and just as important, is the fact that Christ didn’t do magic.  He did not wave his hand and the fish and bread appeared. As a friend of mine at St. Thomas of Canterbury once remarked, magic is a manipulation of nature, making it (supposedly) do something that is against its own essence.  For example, things do not just appear out of nowhere.  Something from nothing is not natural.  The only time something was created ex nihilo, out of nothing, was the Creation itself.  It is this priest’s opinion that God created the atoms, the chemical compounds, and the other building blocks of matter, which he in turn, fashioned into our Earth.  In this respect, Science and Religion do not have to be at odds. After all, we know that God is the ultimate Scientist, just as He is the ultimate expression of all that is good.

Instead of something out of nothing, our Lord did something else:  He multiplied.  He magnified, He amplified.  Taking the things already at hand, Jesus multiplied them. Thus, seven loaves became enough to feed thousands.  A “few small fish” became a veritable torrent of food to feed the hungry.  If you’ve ever the movie, “Jesus of Nazareth”, then you’ll remember that was done very effectively by showing a literal shower of bread loaves falling out of baskets held up by the Disciples.  It was very well done, indeed. 

What lesson can we at St. Barnabas take from this, both individually and corporately?
Simply this: God takes what we have and grows it.  He multiplies anything that is truly given to Him. One simple example is our “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving”, about which we spoke last Sunday, where we each individually offer every Sabbath day during our worship.  This priest knows that he always gains something from each experience of holy worship.  After all, how can we not, seeing how we seek to draw near to the Holy One when we approach His Altar with “boldness” , to cite Heb. 10:19. Thus, when we approach God with our gifts, even though they be meager (as in this priest’s case), God takes and multiplies them.  Yes, He takes us and sometimes He must first break us, before He can bless and magnify us.

We at St. Barnabas are the loaves and the fishes.  We are that worthy material God will use to spread His Glory to the community and to this area all around, as His Will dictates.  The fact is, as we continue to give ourselves to Almighty God in faith, and in hope, and in love, God will multiply us.

Therefore, let us not be as the incredulous and unbelieving disciples, who asked, “From whence can a man satisfy these men with bread here in the wilderness?”[1]  Rather, let us be like the waiting multitude, which was fasting, yet expectant; hungry, yet hopeful.

God will multiply this church. Believe it. Have faith in it.  Pray for it every day.  If for some reason, you are not praying specifically for it, this priest bids you start, today, with fervor.

Beloved, we are the loaves and fishes. We are the faithful remnant. As we remain faithful, we will be magnified.

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


[1] Mark :4

Friday, July 13, 2012

Supplication and Deliverance


  Supplication and Deliverance

Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
Trinity IV, 2012
July 1, 2012


Our Epistle comes from one of the “core” sections of N.T. Scripture, St. Paul’s wonderful 8th chapter of Romans.  Some commentators have called this Epistle Paul’s tour de force, as he expounds on the doctrines of grace, hope, sin, justification, forgiveness and salvation.  It is certainly one of the key books in the N.T. and one of my personal favorites, because it was chiefly responsible for my adult “re-conversion” at the tender age of 22.  I can honestly say that Romans reawakened my own slumbering faith and made me see, starkly, my desperate need for Christ’s saving Grace. For a new Christian, after he or she has read the Gospels, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is the next obvious choice, in my opinion.

Last week we spoke of God’s wonderful restoration, as He constantly calls us back into repentence, forgiveness, and restoration to our rightful places in His family. We saw that He does this first and foremost through our baptisms, as the taint of original sin is washed away by the glorious water of rebirth. We also spoke of our continual restoration through the Holy Ghost, as the Holy Paraclete pricks our consciences and guides us, if we will listen to Him. Christians need always to heed that small, still voice, or that “check” in our spirit that we all feel from time to time. As we know, and as this priest knows only too well, how easy it is to ride roughshod over the Spirit and go our own way, usually to our own detriment. Without a doubt, one of the most challenging aspects of our journey in sanctification is our willingness to be led by the Spirit and do the things that please Him.  Yet, being human and possessing free will, so often we flaunt our will in the presence of divine guidance and suffer the consequences.  Now, we don’t think this is done with malice necessarily, but it is just our failure to let God be the master of our lives when our raging human will, often led by the impulse of the flesh, wants to have its own way.

There is a better way. For example, St. Paul’s message today is one about our ultimate restoration, but it is also a message of hope. It is a message about the ultimate hope that all committed Christians possess and hopefully, all Christians will imbed in their souls in a real and meaningful way.

The first line of this wonderful selection from Romans begins, Romans 8:18-19  18 ¶ “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.  For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God.”

In his epistles, St. Paul often draws our attention to the here and now versus the hereafter. He has a keen vision of the life to come, while fully appreciating both the joys and sorrows of our earthly life. An excellent example of this is Philippians 1:23-24, where he says:”For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better: Nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you.” In this particular passage, Paul is awaiting his second appearance before the Emperor Nero, where he was expecting to be condemned and sentenced to death.  Based on these words, we can be assured that Paul met his fate with courage and even joy, as he looked forward to his reception in Heaven

In a similar vein, St. Paul draws the contrast to the sufferings of the present time with “the glory that shall be revealed in us..” He is speaking, of course, of our own glorious reception and restoration in Heaven with the Triune God. There, we shall experience a restoration of our rightful places as heirs of salvation and heirs of the Kingdom of God.  There should be “an earnest expectation of the creature”,that is, all of us. If we have exploited our Christian joy to the fullest, we should be in earnest expectation of the glory that awaits us.  We do not mean that we should totally disdain our current life on Earth, although there are many Christians such as isolated monks, hermits and aesthetics, who have. If one is called to such a state, one must simply admire their devotion. On the other hand, we feel that our current life is a gift from God, to be used to love and glorify Him. 
Yet, at the same time, our devotion to this life should not be complete, for fear of losing our real life, which awaits us in Heaven. Rather, as committed Christians, we need to view this life as merely Stage One of eternity. For those of us in Christ, we have effectively entered into our eternal life with him, just that we have not seen its glorious fulfillment yet. That will come when we pass from this realm into the next, and more permanent one. 

This is the glorious hope that awaits all of us.  Yet, the trick is how to live in this world and this life in such a way as to pass directly from this life to judgment, and then to life eternal.  For we know that there will be Judgment, as all of us will be judged on the deeds done in this flesh. As we contemplate the things we have done and left undone, this should be a terrifying thought.  Very, very few of us could be deemed to deserve the joys of Heaven, In fact, Christ Himself said to the rich young ruler in  Matthew 19:17, “ Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God…” Thus, none of us can get to Heaven on our own deserts. Yet, as awful as this sounds, there is mercy. This sinful priest knows that when he stands before the Judgment Seat, all he can do is hold up Christ. For just as all of our deeds are as dirty rags in the sight of the perfect and completely holy God, there is only one way He can see us in all of our wickedness.  That way we all know, and it is the most glorious hope and joyful thought we can possess. What is that way?  It is Christ, first, foremost, and always.

Through Christ, we, and the whole Creation will be delivered from our pains and travail into the glorious liberty of the sons of God, or into the “earnest expectation of the sons of God.” What is this “earnest expectation of the creature (that) waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God”, or as the NAS (New American Standard) puts it, “the anxious longing of the creation (that) waits for the revealing of the sons of God”?   We are given a hint of what he is saying when he says that the Creation was subjected to futility or vanity, by reason of him who subjected it in hope. This doesn’t make sense until we read the verse: (Romans 8:21) because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.”  Thus, putting it all together, we get a sense of what he is saying.  It is this: all of Creation, consciously or subconsciously, waits for the consummation of history, when it and all things in it will change.  Things now are indeed vain or futile in this sense:  we humans expect all things to go on the way they are now, even ourselves.  While we know intellectually that all things change, decay, and eventually pass away, we really don’t want to believe it. Thus, love songs speak of “forever”; grants and trusts are constructed with the words “in perpetuity”; and the Psalmist says, “Men call the land after their own names.” In fact, one psalm says, “Their inner thought is, that their houses are forever, And their dwelling places to all generations; They have called their lands after their own names.”  Yet, as the Preacher reminded us in Ecclesastes, “Vainity, of vanities! All is vanity.”(Eccl. 1:2).   How true, how utterly true that statement is. We are all in a state of entropy, of drawing into ourselves.

Yet, why would the Apostle say that we  are “subjected in hope”? It is because, while all things have a passing, they also will have a resurrection. This, St. Paul confidently affirms (Romans 8:21) “Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God”.  We and all Creation will be set free from our “slavery to corruption” into the freedom of glorious perfection in Christ. The Book of Revelation speaks of Jesus presenting Creation as his spotless Bride to the Father.  We also know that we will change this corruptible body for an incorruptible one, and our mortality for immortality.  Thus, we will escape our bondage to finality and will assume our inherited places with the Church Triumphant in Heaven.

In the meantime, we have a job to do on Earth.  Our job is to love God with all whole heart, mind, and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We are to show God’s love for us by loving others in the same way we want to be loved.   We Anglicans know the word that fits the bill: it is charity. We are to be charitable in our thoughts, in our words, and in our actions.  We are simply, to treat others the way we want to be treated.

Yet, while we struggle against sin and we strive to persevere in righteousness, let us also strive to do it with joy.  Ours is certainly not an easy journey, nor one without pitfalls and dangers.  We do have enemies and adversaries, both spiritual and temporal.  As we strive for holiness and godliness, we do not expect the world’s approval, but rather its reproof.  Expect its scorn as you seek after righteousness and even its ridicule as you hunger and thirst for the things of God.  Remember, if we were of the World, the World would love us.  We are not, ultimately, seeking the approval of men, but of God. We are seeking a different type and source of approval.

Again, let us seek to do this with joy. Difficult as it may be, yet it is one filled with hope and with help.  We are never far from our Helper, the Holy Paraclete, as He seeks to tabernacle with us.  We are never far from help that is always fresh, ever-present and abundant.  We are never far from Joy, if only we would seize it!

Let us then, take hold of this joy and cherish it.  Let us wrap our spiritual “arms” around it and hold it close to our soul.  This is our comfort, this is our aid, and this is our hope as we wait for “the redemption, to wit, the redemption of our body.”

This redemption and our ultimate restoration is our hope and our destiny.

Romans 8:22  “For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.”

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

H

Angry without a Cause?



Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
6th Sunday in Trinity 2012
July 15, 2012

Have you ever been angry without a cause? Have you ever been angry, and then felt justified in your anger? “I felt this because this person did this to me”, you might say?
Of course you have.  I know that we all have. While we don’t condone anger, we know that it seems to be  part of our human natures.

Our Gospel selection for the day puts anger in a new light.  It also teaches us about the power of words and how we use them. This passage also gives the lie to the old childhood axiom: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
We all know how totally untrue this is; in fact, it could be argued that, while physical damage will heal over time, usually, the emotional scarring that words can inflict may be permanent,  This is true especially if one is lacking a Christ-like spiritual orientation. If one is able to forgive, one may be able to forget.  On the other hand, without forgiveness, there can be little possibility of forgetting.

Our passage from Matthew shows how powerful words can be, both in this world, and even potentially in the next. Christ gives several examples of angry words that have heavy consequences. First, He speaks of those who are angry without a cause. This type of anger merits judgment. This judgment might possibly be before an earthly court, like the Sandhedrin, but probably not. Christ most likely has in mind the heavenly court, which sees all and hears all that men say, even in the most casual of situations.[1]  Recall this, from Matt. 12:35-37: “A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things.  36 But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. 37 For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.”  Thus, our speech is powerful, bringing with it a just recompense of reward. It is difficult for us to imagine that what we say is as important as what we do, for just as the Word of God spoken forth on the day of creation brought forth light, so our words, if they be corrupt and fallen, can bring forth very negative consequences. After all, think of all the fistfights, battles, and even wars that have begun because of words.

In this passage, our Lord seats himself to teach the multitudes, in good Rabbinic style, and uses a classical scribal technique to begin his discourse about words.  He says, (Matthew 5:21): Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: “ He follows this with His own interpretation and emphasis: (Matthew 5:22)  22 But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.”[i]

These are strong words, indeed.  Christ is not just condemning anger, but he is condemning angry words with intent.  Here, we talking about anger expressed in words that if left unchecked, could lead to murder. In other words, people can easily be angry enough to kill. This kindled anger and hatred is akin to murder in Christ’s eyes, for it can very easily lead to it.

Here, one might ask, “Well, wasn’t even Christ angry?  Did not even He give vent to anger and frustration through words?” The answer is yes, but with a vast difference.  Christ’s anger was righteous, and it was without sin.  On one occasion in Mark 3, he looked around on the Pharisees and Scribes with anger “because of the hardness of their hearts”, as He was about to heal the man with the withered hand.  Recall that Jesus had just asked them if it was lawful to good on the Sabbath, even if this involved “work.”  Recall that the Pharisees regarded Him with stony silence, for to speak at this point would have invalidated their position.  Instead, they were silent, and irritatingly so.

Another example was immediately after His resurrection, as He assumed the role of the mysterious stranger who suddenly joined himself to two of the disciples as they walked the road to Emmaus in Luke 24.  They were sad and walked heavily. When the “stranger” enquired about this, the two told him about Jesus’ crucifixion and about their crushed hopes that He would deliver Israel.  At this point, Christ says to them, Luke 24:25-27:
“Then he said unto them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken:  26 Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory?  27 And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” Christ actually used the word “fools” here.
The difference here is in this situation, Jesus’ anger was used for instruction. We don’t even believe He was really angry here, but He gently upbraided the disciples for their failure to “connect the dots”, so to speak, concerning all prophecy and Himself.  In the case of the Pharisees, Christ was angry because of their sinful obstinancy.  They simply would not let themselves see the inherent good in the situation at hand, but instead clung to a ritualistic precept for its own sake.  Recall Christ’s comment about man not being made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath being made for man, in Mark 2. 

The point is that Christ was never angry with intent to do harm. He did not become angry through hate and wish to destroy. If there was ever a case of righteous or justified anger, only Christ exhibited it. As incredible as it may seem, Christ was angry without sin.  How man of us can say that?

As an aside, this priest does ponder the magnificence of Christ’s life in this respect: how could a man, any man, go through this life without sin?  We know the theological reasons why Christ could not sin, namely that He was born without the taint of original sin, because He not born of the seed of Adam.  Thus, through His immaculate conception, Christ’s seed came from God and not man. Imagine being born without the inclination to sin. Imagine that… This does not mean that Christ was not tempted as we are, for the Word of God tells us that.  Yet, He was without sin. It is amazing and it has to be one of the reasons we worship the Christ, perfect man and perfect God.

Christ has a final word about anger, worship, and our acceptance before God. He tells that if we have a quarrel with someone, or we realize that we have a problem with another person, we should not attempt to make a sacrifice or a gift to God unless we are reconciled. The ancient Jew usually offered a lamb, a bullock, or some other animal as a sacrificial offering to God.  He also gave money, as we witness from our Lord’s parable of the widow’s mite, as she saw great and powerful men casting in their offerings. These gifts and offerings were prescribed by the Law and were meant to bring favor to the giver.  In the New Testament era, we do not have to offer animals anymore.  There is no more need to shed animals’ blood, as the One Perfect and  Sufficient Sacrifice has already been offered for us. 

Yet, even so, we are called to make a sacrifice each time we worship in the context of the Holy Communion. This sacrifice is personal, and it is one that each person must make individually.  This is, of course, our “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.” This is the outpouring of each individual soul as it rejoices in the presence of God though holy worship.  This is the sacrifice for which God most cares, and it is precisely the one that He does not want to be tainted with hatred, or malice, or ill will.  God desires our sacrifice to be as pure and holy as our fallen natures will permit. While he knows our natures only too well, as he knows the number of hairs we have on our heads, he wants us to strive towards the purest and finest sacrifice we can give. If we come to church angry, or become angry during the service, all we can give  is a tainted sacrifice. Surely, this is not pleasing to God.

It all begins with our orientation in love. Are we striving to love God with all whole heart, mind, soul and strength?   Are we striving to love our neighbor as ourselves?
That is a question we can only answer individually, in the recesses of our own souls. May this happen, as we surrender to the Spirit and seek His will and His peace in our lives.

 

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

AMEN.