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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.


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.