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Sunday, May 20, 2012

Power and Continuance


The Rev’d Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
Sunday after Ascension Day, 2012

John 15:26 - 16:1   26 " But when the Helper comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of Me.  27 "And you also will bear witness, because you have been with Me from the beginning.”

This past Thursday we celebrated one of the major feasts of the Christian year, the Feast of the Ascension.   Ascension marks the end of Christ’s time on earth, or, or as one Biblical commentator puts it, the “capstone of his earthly ministry.”  It clearly identifies Christ as Divine, as he is received up into glory in the sight of the disciples.  As well it has fundamentally important theological reasons for its pre-eminence, chief among those is Christ’s physical ascension, taking his body (and Man’s nature) to heaven with him.  It is my firmly held opinion that, if Christians really understood the significance of Ascension, our churches would be full.  If they really understood that Ascension actually defines their salvation, our churches would be full.  

Today’s Gospel occurs very soon before that amazing event, as we see Christ preparing His Disciples for His imminent departure. He tells them: John 15:26 - 16:1   26 " But when the Helper comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of Me.  27 "And you also will bear witness, because you have been with Me from the beginning.”

What is Christ talking about here?  Who is this Helper?  Why is His coming to us important and vital to our life as Christians?
We will speak much more on this in about a week hence, as celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, or as we Anglicans call it, Whitsunday.  Today, suffice it to say that the coming of the Holy Ghost is the fulfillment of that wonderful O.T. prophecy of Joel, as the prophet tsays: Joel 2:28-29  " And it shall come to pass afterward That I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh; Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, Your old men shall dream dreams, Your young men shall see visions.  29 And also on My menservants and on My maidservants I will pour out My Spirit in those days.”   This, as we shall read about next week, is fulfilled in the marvelous event of Acts 2, when the Holy Ghost fell on the company of men gathered in Jerusalem, causing them to speak in strange tongues, yet understood by all.  The other reason for the miraculous quality of Christ’s sending the Holy Spirit to us is who He is.  He is not just some “feeling” of good will from God, or some vague sense of the presence of God, but the Third Person of the Holy and Blessed Trinity, come to tabernacle with us, forever.

That is one major reason why the Ascension is so important to we Christians.  Without the Ascension, there would be no transcendent Holy Ghost to cheer, guide and strengthen us.  Remember that Christ said in John 16:7: ”Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you.”

But, we will have more on that later.  Today we want to focus not so much on what Christ said about the Holy Ghost, but why He said it.  No doubt at this time, the Disciples would be fairly confused.  Not only does Jesus give them a puzzling statement about some heavenly Comforter coming to them, but then he follows it with some very negative words.  First, He tells them that they shall be put out of the synagogue. To a devout Jew, as these men were, this is a fearsome statement.  Being put out of the synagogue was the same as being cut off from the covenant of Israel. If one could not worship in the Temple, one could not affirm his affinity with the God of Israel and thus was thought an infidel, a Gentile, one cut off from the promises of God.  Then, to make matters worse, Jesus tells them that someday, when some Jew kills them, he will think that he doing God a service!  These are very strong words, indeed.

They are indeed strong and puzzling until Christ follows up with this statement: John 16:3  "And these things they will do to you because they have not known the Father nor Me.”   Just as Christ mentioned that the World hates Him because He is not of the World, so it will hate the Apostles for the same reason.  If they were worldly and embraced the same values as the World, the World would love them.  But, it is not to be so. We know that the history of the early Church was founded on the blood of the martyrs. We know that up until the time of Constantine the Great, Christianity was a despised, persecuted sect that was accused of horrible crimes such as cannibalism, gross sexual immorality, and treason. We know that it took great courage and faith to be a Christian in the early days of the Church.

Thus, in the words of the old adage, “Forewarned is forearmed”, Christ is telling His Disciples what is to come.  In the words of St. Peter: (1 Peter 4:12-13): ”Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you;  13 but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ's sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy.”
In the same vein, Christ is warning His disciples.

Yet, the glory of this passage is that the Apostles will not be alone in their sufferings for Christ. They will have the Comforter, the Helper, with whom they will be baptized “not many days hence.”[1] They will be endued with power to bear witness to Christ. 
Just as Jesus tells them that the Holy Ghost will bear testimony to Him, so the Apostles will bear witness to Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. In short, they will receive power from on high. With this power, they will change the world.  Just as the Holy Spirit made them changed men, so they will spread the life-giving message of the Gospel to all the ends of the earth.

 Thus, the message of the Gospel is the same for us today.  We too can experience the life-changing effect of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  We too can and should reflect the light of Christ to all we meet.  We too, when given the opportunity and occasion, should rejoice in sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Churches grow by attraction.  People should see what we Christians have and want it too.  Our joy should be so palpable, so evident, that it overflows into all areas of our life.  When this is apparent, it is contagious, wonderfully so.  We pray that this is so. On the other hand, as one wit observed, “If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”  It’s a fair question.

Remember, as we are instructed from the Prayer Book, on the Last Day Christ shall call all from their graves and they shall appear for judgment in their flesh. Those who have trusted in Christ for their salvation will reign with Him in eternal glory.  Those who rejected Christ in their lifetimes on earth will also be rejected.  For those “obstinate enemies of Christ” there will indeed be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” I weep for the unredeemed, for those who know not Christ, for they know not what they are going to lose forever.  Pray God that we can minister to some of them, to give them the Good News of Salvation. Pray God that they will receive it.

Likewise, we who have trusted in Christ, will hear those blessed words from Matthew 25:34  “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:” We will ascend because Christ ascended before us. We will be able to lead victorious lives because the blessed Holy Spirit is among us, indwelling us, and empowering us.

Thus, we must take heart and be encouraged.  We are not alone, we are not deceived, nor are we mistaken.  We know whom we follow and whom we have believed,. Armed with truth like that and the power of the Holy Ghost, coming to the Disciples (and to us) on Pentecost, our joy is magnificent, ebullient, and unquenchable.

Jesus is promising that He will send us a Helper if He returns to Heaven. This is the promise that Christ sealed for us in His Ascension.  This is how he defined our salvation, for as He is, so shall we be. 

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Sprit.

Amen.


[1] Acts 1:5

Ascension 2012- Like as we do Believe


The Rev’d Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
Ascension Day, 2012
“Like as we do believe…”
Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be alway acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.  Amen.

Acts 1:9  Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight.”

Tonight we celebrate one of the most important feasts of the Christian year, the Feast of the Ascension.  At the same, we suggest that it is vastly undervalued and does not enjoy the emphasis that it should. 

The reasons for both are manifold.  Ascension marks the end of Christ’s time on earth, or, as Merrill Unger puts it, the “capstone of his earthly ministry.”  It clearly identifies Christ as Divine, as he is received up into glory in the sight of the disciples.  It has fundamentally important theological reasons for its pre-eminence as well, chief among those is Christ’s physical ascension, taking his body (and Man’s nature) to heaven with him.

Yet, for all these reasons, Ascension is largely ignored by many Christians, who, by most measures, are pious and devout.  Could it be because it is a mid-week service?  Perhaps, yet Ash Wednesday is also midweek, and I daresay that it is better attended than Ascension. 

It is my firmly held opinion that, if Christians really understood the significance of Ascension, our churches would be full.  If they really understood that Ascension actually defines their salvation, our churches would be full.   
Finally, if they really understood that without the Ascension, Christ would be just another great teacher, misunderstood and martyred by the Authorities, our churches would be full on this night.

Let’s consider these points in turn.  First, we should recognize that the Ascension really does sum up the whole of Christ’s ministry.  He told his disciples, “I came from the Father and now I go back to the Father.”  Christ came, the Dayspring from on high to tabernacle with us and to take our nature upon us.  He was born the normal way, he grew, matured, and became a man.  He taught, healed, did miracles, drew crowds and amazed many. He gathered disciples, drew the ire of the Jewish authorities, was accused falsely, was condemned and ultimately killed by sinful men, nailed to a cross to endure a horrible torture death. 

If this was all, Jesus Christ would have been known as just another great man.  But, we know that this was not all.  On Easter morning, Christ rose from the dead, showing that the g rave had no power over Him.  As St. Paul says in Colossians 2:15  15And having spoiled 1 principalities and powers, he 2 made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in 3 it.”  The Geneva Bible notes say, “The cross was a chariot of triumph. No conqueror could have triumphed so gloriously in his chariot, as Christ did upon the cross.”

Truer words were never spoken.  The Resurrection is the greatest act that a mortal man can imagine, as one is victorious over man’s greatest nemesis, Death. Yet, even the Resurrection, as marvelous and cosmically stupendous as it is, is not enough to completely fulfill Christ’s Ministry.  If He has risen from the dead, merely to spend another 60, 70 or even 80 years before eventually succumbing to eventual physical death, there would be no ultimate victory.  But, there was an ultimate victory.

Christ led His Disciples out to Bethany, teaching them on the way.  He then blessed them, lifting up His Hands.  As he did this, He was lifted up into Heaven, until a cloud received Him out of their sight.  This is the same Cloud that covered the Tabernacle in the Wilderness when Moses spoke with God.  It is the same Cloud that Ezekiel saw from the inside out, full of innumerable saints of God.  Many commentators think that this was the Shekinah Glory Cloud, so often mentioned in the Old Testament.

Christ entered into this Cloud and thus into Glory, not just the great Teacher, not just the great Miracle worker, not even just the Great Martyr for Righteousness’ sake, but as the Son of God returning to His Father.  Matthew Henry asks us to imagine the scene in Heaven as Christ returns to take his rightful place at the Father’s right hand. What a celebration, what a mighty shout of triumph from an incomprehensible number of angels that must have been! Yet, even at this might moment of victory and joy, Christ thinks of His Disciples by dispatching two angels to say to them, “Acts 1:11  "Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven."  In Henry’s words, these two angels, who would rather had been in Heaven to witness the Son’s homecoming, obeyed His command and ministered to the disciples. Even in His hour of triumph, Jesus thought of us.

Thus, Jesus takes his rightful place at the right hand of God the Father. Having done all that He was to do, having served as the Lamb “slain from the foundation of the World”, he is enthroned on high to receive everlasting glory and honor and dominion. Amen.

He thus completes the great Cycle of Salvation, beginning with his Incarnation, then his Nativity, next his Atonement, His Resurrection, and finally, His Ascension.  For this reason alone, Ascension is a significant day.

Ascension also defines our salvation.  When Christ ascended into Heaven, He wasn’t just an ethereal spirit, or some nebulous apparition. No, Christ took a real flesh and blood body with Him to Heaven. Granted, it was a glorified body, but a body it was just the same.  Thus, we know that if Christ rose from the dead, so shall we.  If Christ had a real Body in his ascended state, so shall we.  As He ascended into Heaven, He took our human nature with Him to be glorified and exalted forever.  Remember, what Christ did not assume, he could not justify.  What he did not take with Him to Heaven, He could not glorify.  Yet, He did.  In his Incarnation, He took our human nature upon Him and atoned for it on the Cross.  In His Resurrection, He arose in his Human Body, thus giving it (and us) victory over the grave. Finally, in His Ascension, He arose to Heaven, glorifying our natures, our souls and bodies.

On the Last Day, Christ shall call all from their graves and they shall appear for judgment in their flesh. Those who have trusted in Christ for their salvation will reign with Him in eternal glory.  Those who rejected Christ in their lifetimes on earth will also be rejected.  There will indeed be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” I weep for the unredeemed, for those who know not Christ, for they know not what they are going to lose forever.  Pray God that we can minister to some of them, to give them the Good News of Salvation.

But, Praise God, not so with us.  We who have trusted in Christ, will hear those blessed words from Matthew 25:34  “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:” Not in a sense of Christian triumphalism, but in humility and love will we welcome those words.  Because Christ, our Great Captain of Salvation, paved the way before us, will we ascend.

Thus, it is fitting and right that we give thanks and praise this night.  For now is Christ our Lord glorified and magnified.  Now has Christ our Lord taken His rightful place as Son and Heir to the Kingdom, to regain the glory he had from everlasting with the Father. He accomplished his mighty mission of salvation. His mighty cry from the Cross, “It is finished!” attests to that.  Pray God that we and all the world may let those words ring in our innermost souls.

Thus, we must take heart and be encouraged.  We are not deceived, nor are we mistaken.  We know whom we have believed, our mighty re-ascended Lord. With truth like that and the power of the Holy Ghost, our joy is unstoppable.

One last point needs to be made about the Ascension.  Without the Ascension, there would be no transcendent Holy Ghost to cheer, guide and strengthen us.  Remember that Christ said in John 16:7  1”Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you.”

These are blessed words.  Jesus is promising that He will send us a Helper if He returns to Heaven.  This Helper or Comforter, is not just a fond wish or good feeling, but the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, God Himself, to be with us until our eventual journey to Heaven, where we will be united with God forever in complete love and bliss, forever.

This is the promise that Christ sealed for us in His Ascension.  This is how he defined our salvation, for as He is, so shall we be. 

This is indeed a glorious thought.  This is the significance of the Ascension.

Acts 1:11  "Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven."

Sunday, May 6, 2012

"Can these bones live?"


The Rev’d Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
The Fourth Sunday after Easter
 May 6, 2012
James 1:18 ” … so that we might be, as it were, the first fruits among His creatures. “
And
Ezekiel 37:3  “And he said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live? And I answered, O Lord GOD, thou knowest.”

Allow me to have you consider one thought for today: first fruits.
This is the major insight available to us today from the Word of God taken not only from the Prophecy of Ezekiel, but also the Epistle of James.  In these important passages, something incredible is bestowed on the people of God as we see the “golden thread” of the Gospel running through both, as the major theme of first fruits shines clearly through.

First, let us consider one of most instructive, yet terse books in the New Testament, the Book of James.  It was a book that was not admitted into the canon of the New Testament without some controversy, according to John Calvin.  He mentions that he accepts it as having apostolic authority, but not without noting that he believes it was written, not by James the son of Zebedee, but rather James the son of Alphaeus. This is the same James whom Paul mentioned in his Epistle to the Galatians as one of the ‘pillars” of the Church. Calvin’s reason for thinking this is the fact that Herod martyred James the son of Zebedee soon after Our Lord’s resurrection.[1]

At any rate, as interesting as this may be to Biblical scholars and to those of us interested in Biblical orthodoxy, the real message comes from James’ instruction in righteousness. James tells us that every good and perfect gift comes from God, with whom is no “variation or shifting shadow.”  In other words, all good comes from God. In fact, every “perfect” gift comes from God as well.
While we would not doubt that, being fully persuaded of God’s absolute goodness, James wrote this in answer to those who felt that God brought evil as well as good.[2]  We Christians also believe that God does not bring forth evil, for this is against His nature.  Notwithstanding this, it is likely that God allows men to exercise their natural sinful impulses in order to accomplish some divine purpose.  For example, the impulses and desires of a suzerain like Nebuchadnezzar served God’s purposes, as he allowed him to conquer many peoples, including Israel and Judah.  Later, God would allow the apostasy of Judah to follow her natural consequences as she rebelled against God, her heavenly ruler and also Nebuchadnezzar, her earthly ruler.  This rebellion, both on a theological and temporal level, led to the destruction of the Temple and much of Jerusalem, including its wall.  This was the beginning of sorrows for the Jews of the Southern Kingdom. In short, their personal heterodoxy led to national rebellion and thus to its natural consequences.

Yet, as important as this information is, it is not the real message in this passage, which James reveals next.  He tells us that God brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first fruits among his creatures. We are called to be something fresh, something new to mankind and to the world. We are to be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to wrath. We are to put away “all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness” in order that we may receive the word of salvation engrafted in our souls.  To accomplish this, we are to be doers, not just hearers of the word. By remembering this call to action, we will remember who we are and our calling.  In short, we are to be the “first fruits” of righteousness.  We are to show forth new life.

The reading from Ezekiel also foreshadows this.  Israel, the Northern Kingdom, found itself in a position similar to Judah, but many years earlier. She too had rebelled against God and she too were conquered and taken captive by a foreign power. This time, rather than the Chaldeans under Nebuchadnezzar, it was the Assyrians under their suzerain, Tiglath-Pileser.  Ezekiel’s ministry was centered on his work among the exiles.  He brought them a word of hope in their gloom, as he foretold the rising again of the house of Israel. Our reading about Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of Dry Bones clearly shows this, as he is placed among an exceeding great pile of dry bones, of which he is told, prophetically, is the whole house of Israel.


Both Ezekiel and James tie speak as one voice on the beauty of regeneration, new birth, or first fruits. Ezekiel sees the pile of dry bones, stretching out as far as the eye can see. From an initial viewpoint, this is a dead scene.  Yet, the Lord asks him, “Son of man, can these bones live?” The Lord is about to demonstrate the principle of regeneration.  All life is His and He is about to give Ezekiel a lesson in new life and new hope.  Even though Israel has lost hope in their captivity and exile, the Lord has plans for them.  Referring to Ezekiel 37:11-12   “11 Then he said unto me, Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel: behold, they say, Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost: we are cut off for our parts.  12 Therefore prophesy and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, O my people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel.”  What is the message here? Simpy this: when man has lost hope, God never does. It is impossible for Him to do so, because he always views every act as complete.  That is, God beings forth every act with the end pre-ordained.

Thus it is with Israel in this situation.  God would and will never forsake His People, even though He may allow them to wander in the wilderness for while and to suffer oppression. In Ezekiel’s vision, the army stood upon its feet, but there was no breath in them, no life. Ezekiel is commanded to prophesy upon and to command the four winds to breathe upon them.  He does so and they are an “exceeding great army” .  What is fascinating about this is that the word used,  x;Wr (Heb. - rûaµ, ) is the same word used when God breathed life into Adam in Genesis 2Thus, in effect, God is recreating Israel from death to life and from hopelessness to vibrancy.  Despite their sinfulness, He wants to regenerate them to be a kind of first fruit among the peoples.

Note also that the word of God through prophecy is that which brings life. Ezekiel speaks life to the bones and they live. Similarly, God speaks life to us through Christ and we live. The message is the same, both in the O.T. and the N.T: God’s Word brings light and life to all who listen.

If we return to James, we read that we, as the first fruits, are not only to hear the word but to do it.  In James’ mind, receiving the word means acting on it as well.  We are not to simply hear, nod our head and walk away.  Doing this, we very well may forget what we have heard, just as a man may forget his own looks after viewing them in a mirror.
No, we are to act upon the Word as it impacts our soul.  We are to “look into the perfect law of liberty” and abide in it, becoming habitual in doing as well as hearing. As we do this, we will truly become the first fruits of God and do what pleases Hm.

Yet, having patience with ourselves, as God certainly does, we must realize that we will not become holy at all once.  Returning once again to John Calvin, we hear:”And this doctrine is very useful, for spiritual generation is not a work of one moment. Since some remnants of the old man ever abide in us, we must necessarily be through life renewed, until the flesh be abolished; for either our perverseness, or arrogance, or sloth, is a great impediment to God in perfecting in us his work.”

Just as Calvin recognized, as did Luther, that the “old man” is persistent in his ways, we who wish to be holy someday must be patient. Our growth in holiness may be more immediate, or it may be the work of a lifetime.  At any rate, let us all begin this important work.  Let us beseech God that He see fit to call us to repentance and new life in Him. Let us ask Him to renew us, build us, restore us and empower us.  Finally, let us, like Ezekiel, find new hope breathed into our very souls.

If we hear the Word of God and act upon it, we will find new life. As we begin to be both hearers and doers of the Word, we will note the spiritual health of our being. Perhaps, like Ezekiel, we feel that all hope is lost and we are cut off. Perhaps. It happens to all of us at some time or another. We must reject that thought and instead hear the prophecy of life blowing into our souls.  We will breathe again the new life of faith, of hope, and of love. We too will stand upon our feet again, an “exceeding great army” of the faithful, full of the grace and strength of God.  We will know that God has accomplished this and we will act accordingly, “not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer.” [3] In so doing, we shall be blessed in what we do.

James 1:22 “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.”

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

 

AMEN



[1] http://www.biblestudyguide.org/comment/calvin/comm_vol45/htm/vi.htm
[2] Calvin, op.cit.
[3] James 1:25