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Monday, April 22, 2013

Ash Wednesday: Appearance vs. Reality

Appearance vs. Reality
Ash Wednesday 2013

Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
February 13, 2013

Luke 11:17  “But he, knowing their thoughts, said unto them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and a house divided against a house falleth”.
Nothing defeats evil like the force of pure, cool, logic, especially when it comes from a godly source. The scene from our Gospel selection is one of my favorite confrontations of Christ with the Pharisees, as he coolly destroys their feeble argument that he is casting out demons by the power and authority of Satan. One source says this: “Some of the Jewish leaders reacted vehemently to Jesus' healings and exorcisms and they opposed him with malicious slander.”[i]   Indeed.  The Pharisees and Scribes were so incensed by Jesus’ success and popularity that they now sought to tie his healings and miracles in with the chief of demons, Beelzebub.  If it weren’t so malicious and so hateful, it would be laughable in its futility.
Cyril of Alexandria, a 5th century church father explains the force of Jesus' argument. He said:
“Kingdoms are established by the fidelity of subjects and the obedience of those under the royal scepter. Houses are established when those who belong to them in no way whatsoever thwart one another but, on the contrary, agree in will and deed. I suppose it would establish the kingdom too of Beelzebub, had he determined to abstain from everything contrary to himself. How then does Satan cast out Satan? It follows then that devils do not depart from people on their own accord but retire unwillingly. “Satan,” he says, “does not fight with himself.” He does not rebuke his own servants. He does not permit himself to injure his own armorbearers. On the contrary, he helps his kingdom. “It remains for you to understand that I crush Satan by divine power.” [Commentary on Luke, Homily 80] [ii]

In this case, Christ asks a question, as he almost always did in these confrontations with the Pharisees.  He asks: “And if I by Beelzebub cast out devils, by whom do your sons cast them out? therefore shall they be your judges.  20 But if I with the finger of God cast out devils, no doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you”[iii] 
No doubt Christ is referring to Exodus 8:19 here, where Moses is confronting Pharaoh with his sins, both by keeping the Israelite people slaves and his obstinate refusal to see God’s power. 
In that scene, Aaron had just stretched out his rod over the dust of Egypt and it became lice, following Moses’ command from God. Then, the Egyptian magicians said to Pharaoh,This is the finger of God: and Pharaoh's heart was hardened, and he hearkened not unto them; as the LORD had said.  Christ was calling back to their memory a momentous occasion in the life of Israel and tying it to Himself.  Just like Pharaoh, they were seeing the “finger of God” right before their very eyes. Just like Pharaoh, they too were engaging in the very same sin of obstinacy.  Of course, at this moment, they were not concerned with the physical captivity of an ancient people.  Instead, Christ is confronting them with a new kind of personal captivity, the bondage to sin.

He goes on, telling us about a situation where a “strong man” keeps his palace his good are in peace. When one stronger than he comes, he overcomes the original owner and seizes both his goods and his weapons.  Christ here is clearly asserting his power over the realm of the unclean, the demonic, by asserting that He is indeed casting out demons with the “finger of God” and overcoming a “strong man”, in this case Beelzebub. [iv] Seen in this light, the Jews’ assertion that Christ is aligned with Satan is even more ridiculous.

Now, Jesus draws a rather somber picture of the plight of a soul being released and then recaptured by the force of satanic occupation. He describes a spirit coming out of man, for whatever reason.  Maybe that soul has successfully resisted sin in some fashion, or had some sort of conversion experience. At any rate, the sprit wanders the earth, looking for a host.  In this case, it does not find as hospitable quarters as it had before, so it decides to return.  It returns to find that its host has done some housecleaning, for its finds the soul refreshed and refurbished.  Now, finding a welcome spot, it takes seven other spirits even more wicked than itself and they enter in and put the soul in a worse state than before.  What a dreadful picture!

This brings us to the current season, Lent, and the current year, 2010. Once again, we are on the threshold of the somber, yet beautiful season of Lent.  Because of its very nature, Lent focuses, like a laser beam, on our interior selves and how they relate to God. In many ways, Lent is very like the “Finger of God” pointed right at us.  God expects something from us during this holy and solemn season. Just like the freshly swept and garnished house in Christ’s parable, we can have a real spiritual “house cleaning” this Lent.  We can, through daily meditation, abstinence, and weekly worship, achieve something wonderful and holy this Lent.  

Just like the soul in the parable, we have the opportunity and the power to cast off the snares of sin this Lent, the power that holds all of us captive in some way.  We can experience the clean, free workings of the Spirit in our souls, unhampered by the cloying power of sin. This is what Lent is all about, as we engage in spiritual housekeeping in preparation for Easter 40 days from now.

Yet, also like the soul in the parable, it is not enough to simply “give something up” for Lent.  Please, we are not denigrating the power and beauty of abstinence; it is truly powerful and beneficial for us, as we demonstrate the lack of power things have over us.  We do this by foregoing them for the period of Lent.  This is a worthy and good exercise in godliness.  Yet, by itself, it is not enough and can even be detrimental, as evidenced by the replacement of one spirit by seven in the parable.  What we must do when we give something up for Lent is to replace it with something.  That something is what our souls long for, namely that the ”Lord Jesus wants to fill our hearts and minds with the power of his life-giving word and healing love.”[v]  This is not mere pie-in-the-sky spirituality. Instead, it is the very meat and drink that our souls need if they are to grow into the mature beings that Christ wants them to be.  Yes, we must seek to banish evil, selfish thoughts and our deeds from our souls, through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Yes, we must meet our Lord in daily prayer and meditation, fed by the life-giving Word of God in our private devotions.  Yes, we must meet together to worship and be fed by the life-giving Sacrament of the altar. By doing these actions, we will do our part to have a holy and blessed Lent. 

In so doing, God will do His part.  He will reward you with the most blessed reward of all, Himself.  Unlike the swept, garnished and empty house, which simply invites more of the same to enter, your spiritual house will be full of light. Your spiritual house will be full of joy, albeit quiet Lenten joy. Your spiritual house will have no room for “seven other spirits, more wicked than” than the original. It will be a place where God dwells, a place of holiness and truth.

In a few minutes, we will place ashes on our foreheads.  We will do this ancient rite to show that we know who we are, creatures of the earth, will all the frailties and failings of the same.  Ashes show that we know that we are sinners, indeed needful of the spiritual housecleaning open to us during the Lenten season.  Yet, our ashes show something else too: our willingness to turn from our sins and seek the goodness of God.  It is here, in our willingness to cast out the bad and to seek the good that our spiritual regeneration begins.  It is here that we begin again to clean our spiritual houses, preparing them to receive the goodness and fullness of God.

[i] As quoted in “A Gospel of Luke: a meditation”; Don Swager,
[ii] Ibid
[iii] Luke 11-19-20
[iv] Swager, op.cit.
[v] Ibid

Combat Without Violence

The Rev’d Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
Easter I, 2013

Combat without Violence

1 John 5:4-5   4 For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.  5 Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?

The Apostle John, “the beloved disciple”, makes a wonderful and sweeping statement in our Epistle selection for the day from the first Epistle of St. John.  He says something that seems to belie logic and the “real life” situation here on Earth.

We are told that “whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.” On our first inspection of this statement, surely we must exclaim, “Why, it’s simply not true! We see and hear of Christians all over the world in perilous straits.  We know that they are being persecuted and harassed in places like the Middle East, in China, and in Africa. What can this possibly mean?”

Seen in this light, it is an incredulous statement.  That is, until we dig deeper into the Word of God and understand what the Holy Spirit is teaching us through the Apostle John.  What we know about the God’s Word is that it witnesses to us on several levels simultaneously, and that this witness includes the transcendence of normal time. What do we mean by that? Simply that the Word constantly speaks to us about “now” and “not yet.”  We are taught lessons for our temporal, fleshly life, while being constantly reminded of our real life, our larger life, to come in the next world.  This time duality, or continuum, if you will, is the dramatic tension under which all Christians live.  This sense of the “here and now” vs. the “yet to come” is both a challenge and a comfort to the Christian.
The Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity asks that “we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal.”  This is every Christian’s challenge, that we can pass through this world, dealing with it and its various triumphs and vicissitudes in such a way that we do not surrender our soul to it.  Yes, we must survive, and hopefully prosper in it, but without giving ourselves over to it. The challenge is how to do well in this world while not becoming a servant to, or participating in, its wickedness. In short, we must not become doulos, or slaves to it.
For those who seek to be godly, this “survival without surrender” is our daily task and challenge.   This is the “here and now” for which the Word provides instruction.

Then, we have, most blessedly, the “not yet”, or “here to come” to consider.  It is in our consideration of it that our comfort springs forth. As we celebrated last week, and as we continue to celebrate in our hearts this Easter season, we Christians have something to look forward to.  Christ, through His victory on Easter Day has opened unto us the gates of larger life. Through Him and by Him, our ancient, rebellious Foe is defeated and we are admitted into blessedness, forever.  In very simplistic terms, we are indeed in “stage one” of Eternity.  Our earthly existence is but the first step in our journey into timelessness, where we will be still and know God forever. It is a state that belies all imagination and all logic, for in that state we will have no past, nor any future.  We will be translated out of time into the eternal “Now.” We will simply “be” with God, in an existence without time. How glorious is that?

Yet, we must take many steps in our flesh before we arrive on the eternal shore, and here it is that we return to our current, temporal, state. St. John tells us that our victory in overcoming the world is our faith.  It is our faith that Jesus is the Son of God, and that it is He that has truly overcome the world, the flesh, and the Devil.

The question is, how do we receive the faith to have this sure and certain knowledge?  How do we know, not merely think, or feel, or surmise, that we have salvation? Ah, this is the question… I once had a very young person ask me, “Yes, but how do you know?”  The answer to her, and to you, is this: faith knows. Then, the question changes to, “How does one get faith?”

Here, the answer gets a little simpler, and yet more difficult.  One must pray for it.  In so praying, one must ask for the Holy Spirit to make His abode with him and bring the gift of faith.  In so doing, one can be enabled to believe, and what’s more, to know.  This is the simple part.  One must simply open up one’s heart and ask God, from whom comes every blessing.  God answers prayer, and this is one in which He especially delights.

In prayer, one becomes open to the Infinite.  This means, through earnest, fervent prayer, one’s soul is open to Almighty God and, in some mysterious, wonderful way, communication takes place.  We don’t always have an immediate answer to our prayers, nor do we always sense that our prayers are even heard.  Yet, they are. In prayer, our soul speaks to God, and more importantly, God the Holy Spirit speaks to our soul. This quiet conversation takes place on a level far below our consciousness, yet it occurs. This is why it is essential that a Christian come to church, and participate in the most powerful prayer possible, communal prayer. When we, with one heart and one mind, pray the liturgy together, we are a much focused, very powerful prayer force.  The Holy Spirit broods over and delights in places where such prayer is offered.

Yet, when we pray, another phenomenon happens. Now, comes the more difficult part. When a soul seeks to draw closer to God, another, more malevolent attraction happens.  Satan and his host know when we pray.  They hate it, and they will assault and attack the soul when they can, at every opportunity, to deflect us from our prayerful purpose.  Matthew Henry tells us the Devil is an “implacable foe” to God and that the “the enriched soul must be doubly on its guard” against the wiles of the Devil.

This is when we Christians must engage in combat without violence.  That is, we must pray doubly hard for two things. First, we should ask that we are shielded and protected from the diabolical host, especially when we pray.  Second, we should pray that God’s Will be done in our lives.  These two prayer statements, prayed with fervor, will yield to us blessing and peace.  It is only in a serene acceptance of, and a joyful looking for, God’s Will for our lives that we will experience true peace and true joy.

Some of us, including this priest in younger years, used to scoff at the power of prayer.  “How can prayer change the world?” we said. “It can’t.  It’s pure mystical non-sense,” we said. “Prayer is just mumbo-jumbo, or worst, just “vain repetitions.”

That was before. That was before we realized that prayer changes the world because it changes us. It was before we allowed the power of Jesus Christ, though His Holy Spirit and the divine Grace of the Holy Sacraments, to infuse us.  We started to pray.  We started to read the Holy Word with delight and even eagerness. Then, we saw the world with new eyes and new faith. Then, we meditated with divine joy upon those mighty acts which procured us our salvation.   Then, we rejoiced in the assurance of our eternal life with God.  We accepted the truth that (1 John 5:12) He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life”  Finally, we realized, with bright eyes and sparkling soul, washed with the blood of the Lamb, that we too have overcome the world.

1 John 5:4-5   4 For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.  5 Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?

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

The Finger of God...

 “The Finger of God”
Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
3rd Sunday in Lent 2012
March , 2013

(Luke 11:20)  But if I with the finger of God cast out devils, no doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you.

Have you ever been touched with the “finger of God?”  That is, have you ever had an experience that could only be described as miraculous?  I dare say that many of us have, be it an amazing incident of healing, or an answered prayer, or simply an experience of God’s overwhelming Presence in our lives. The fact is, all of us have felt, or better said, have known, that God is with us in some strange and wonderful way.

It may be something rather remarkable, as in the case of a lady I know personally who actually had a beatific vision when she was a small child.  In this case, she was walking slowly up the stairs in her aunt’s house, when she saw a patch of mist on the landing between the levels.  In the center of this patch, she saw the hem of a robe.  Beneath it, she saw two feet, each with a large nail hole.  She knew, and we know, whose feet they were…

Perhaps rather than asking the rather obvious question, “who”, it might be more profitable to ask the question “why”.  That is, why would our Lord and Savior choose to manifest Himself to a small child at bedtime? Why, indeed…
Have you ever felt the magnificent presence of God in nature?  For example, have you ever stood on a very high hill or even a mountain, and felt the cool rush of fresh, cold, air in your face? As you experienced this, perhaps even fighting a bit to catch a breath because of the fierceness of the cold, oncoming air, you may have had a moment of realization as you were wrapped in something far greater than yourself. At that moment, you may have even realized, at least to some degree, the overarching magnificence of God’s power. 

Permit me to give you a personal example…This past week, in fact I believe it was Monday night, this priest was stationed at a place called Boulevard Place in the Galleria area.  It is situated at the corner of Post Oak and Ambassador Way, and is an area of high-end offices, restaurants, and shops.  You will recall that the cold front had just moved in that evening about five o’clock that evening.   Well, about nine that night this priest had one of those “finger of God” moments. Imagine this scene if you will: the cold wind was howling and the trees were whipping; the air was cold and fresh, and the night was incredibly clear.  Even the darkness seemed to have a luminosity about it as the as the various street lamps and pole lights accentuated themselves against the pitch black around them.  Standing in the middle of a parking lot, this priest looked around him and beheld the monuments to man’s ingenuity, these large class-A office buildings and high-rise apartment complexes.  All of them had some yellowish or whitish light projecting from their windows.  It was very striking and even beautiful in the wild, cold, windy, night. 

Then, this priest raised his head and looked up.  Heretofore unnoticed was a large, pale, full Moon, hanging over the scene.  The Moon was up and ebullient in his own luminosity. Of course, around the Moon were stars, which, miraculously for Houston, could actually be seen clearly.  They were bright, beautiful points of lights all above.

At that point, this priest was filled with the presence of God. Surrounded by large works of man’s ability to build, itself a gift from God, one could almost be a bit awed.  Then, to look up and see further evidence of God’s immense Glory made my heart and spirit full of thanksgiving and praise for Him who doeth all things well…

If any of these experiences sound familiar, then in the words of Theodore Roosevelt, “Bully for you!” We say that, because these experiences are not only a gift from God, but are sent to us for a specific purpose. What is that purpose, one might ask?  It is, as God always wants, for the purpose of achieving greater fellowship with us.  God is constantly calling us, seeking us and giving Himself to us, as we grant Him entrance.  Our Father God, through His Son Jesus Christ, and with the facilitation of the blessed Holy Spirit, wants to come to us and make His abode with us. In the classic Protestant or even Fundamentalist sense, God comes to us and makes his dwelling.  In the classic Catholic sense, we are in God.
In the classic Anglican sense, we are both, as we accept Jesus Christ into our lives as our Lord and Savior, and as we participate in the nourishing life of the Church through worship, sacrament, and fellowship.

One point needs to be made, however.  The Holy Spirit does not deign to dwell in a place in which He is not welcome.  If we constantly shun God, or prove by our actions that we simply don’t want to be on his side, or never keep Him in mind, He will graciously give us our desired state.  God rarely forces Himself on anyone.  That soul, who has rejected God’s repeated callings through his earthly life, will, through an exercise of free will, be granted that desire through eternity.  It will exist without God and will be absent all the attendant blessings of the same.

On the other hand, that soul who had been attentive to God’s callings  will have a different state, both in this life and the next.  Here, in this “vail of tears”, we will have difficulties, trials, tumults, and temptations.  This is certain and no one is exempt.  In fact, sometimes it seems that the Christian gets more than his share of this challenging experiences, according to God’s mysterious and holy Will.  Yet, even in the midst of trial, tumult, and temptation, there is joy, mysterious joy available.  There is a quality of life that only the Christian who seeks God’s face knows, even in the midst of trouble.

That quality of life comes to us as we seek, and are led to, those “finger of God” moments.  In an ever-enfolding cycle of revealing, God gives Himself to us as we seek His face. As we desire more and more of God in our lives, He will grant us that request.  Like the fresco of Adam touching the finger of God on celing ofthe Sistine Chapel, let us too reach out our hand for God.  Surely, He will not disappoint us.

We are in the proper season for such an effort.  Through sacrifice, prayer, worship, and fellowship, let us draw nigh to God. Let us seek Him in this holy season of Lent. We are not promising you a miraculous, spectacular, spiritual experience all at once, necessarily, although that may happen.  What we are promising you is that if you plant the seed, the plant will grow.  If you nourish the plant with prayer, worship, and fellowship, it will flourish.  If you tend and prune the plant through spiritual discipline and through restraint of the flesh, it will produce fruit for all men to behold. 

This fruit will be: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith,  meekness, and temperance.[1]  It will be visible to all men here on earth, whle we pray that ”as we grow in age, we may grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” [2]  Best of all, it will be part of our blessed heritage in Heaven.

Luke 11:20: “But if I with the finger of God cast out devils, no doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you.”

Glory be to God the Father, and to God the Son and God the Holy Ghost, now and forever.   AMEN

[1] Galatians 5:22-23  
[2] Book of Common Prayer, p. 588

Doubt, Temptation, and Certainty

“Doubt, Temptation, and Certainty”
1st Sunday in Lent 2013
Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church

Mat 4:3
“And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread.”

Three words: doubt, temptation, and certainty. These three words sum up the Lenten experience for some.  It also sums up the Christian life for most.  As we  enter into this most blessed, most spiritually intense, yet potentially rewarding season, let us consider these three words. If we are being honest with ourselves, it is our belief that we will experience all three in the Season of Lent.

Similarly, the Gospel for the day goes to the very heart of what we believe as Christians , as it focuses on these three powerful realities.  It is about as basic as that.  In the opening lines of the Gospel passage we read, from  Mat. 4:1:”Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.”

Recall that at the end of the previous chapter of Matthew, Chapter 3, Christ has just come from His baptism in the river Jordan at the hands of John the Baptizer.  In that amazing scene, the Spirit of God had just descended upon Jesus and a voice from heaven had said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Christ submitted to baptism even though He had no original sin to wash away, thus giving us the model of Christian Baptism.  He also received glory and recognition from God the Father.  As an aside, note the inference to the Holy Trinity in this passage, as we see Jesus recognized by a “voice” that says, “this is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”  Such a statement necessarily implies a Father. In this amazing scene, the Holy Spirit comes to him in bodily appearance, “like a dove” and lights upon Him.
Why is this scene important to us? It is simply this. Those who have doubts as to the Trinitarian nature of God need to review this word of Scripture. It clearly references all three Persons of the Holy Trinity. Thus, the early church Fathers used this important passage as they culled the doctrine of the Holy Trinity from the Scriptures.

In our Gospel selection, St. Matthew describes the temptation of Christ.  In it, Satan tries to do something bold, audacious and evil. In effect, he attempts to undo God’s Plan by the invocation of one little word, “if.” Christ had just been exalted, and now as Matthew tells us in Mat 4: “Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.”  Oftentimes, honor precedes humbling or trials; as one commentator tells us: “After we have been admitted into the communion of God, we must expect to be set upon by Satan. The enriched soul must double its guard.”[1] If we see Christ, the Lord and Captain of our Faith set upon by Satan after having received great honor, should we expect different treatment?  We think not.

Many commentators on this passage have mused as to why Jesus Christ would need, submit to, or even agree to such a situation.  Although there is much discussion of this, we may safely assume three areas of consensus:
1.                  Christ suffered temptation that he might fully identify with all aspects of         our human condition, yet without sin.
2.                  Christ battled with Satan and overcame him, not in evidence of divine power, but in the absence of any outward manifestations of power.
3.                  Christ, in his human nature, exhibited complete reliance upon His Father and his Holy Word, thus giving us the perfect model.

Turning to the temptations themselves, note that there three of them. 
The first temptation deals with Christ’s physical well-being, as we see Him hungry and in the wilderness, tempted by Satan to make bread out of stones. 
Note that this attack is both insulting and predatory.  Satan introduces the assault by saying, “If thou be the Son of God…”  Satan the Great Deceiver is seeking to cause Jesus to doubt himself in his physical weakness.  As ludicrous as it seems, this is the case.  Satan, in his hubris and arrogance, evidently thought this attack might work. Of course, to we committed Christians; the idea of causing the Son of God to doubt himself is absurd and fanciful.  Yet, once again, the point is plain; if Satan tried to get God Himself to doubt, what will he try with us?

This leads to the predatory aspect of Satan’s attack on Christ and on us.  Being the wicked and brilliant tactician that he is, the Devil attacks us when we are weak. Be it through physical need, be it through sickness, be it through melancholy, be it through (God forbid) despair, he seeks a chink in our spiritual armor.  He wants to insinuate his infernal suggestions, temptations and fears, about which we must be aware and prepared to resist. Of course, there are times when all of us, being mere flesh and subject to the weaknesses of the same, fall prey to his devices.  Yet, if we keep our minds and our spiritual eyes on Christ, we will “frustrate” the plans of the devil.  In this instance, Christ dismisses Satan’s assault with a word of Scripture.  From Deut 8:3, Christ said: “And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the LORD doth man live.” Satan is rebuffed.

Having failed in his first attempt, Satan then takes another approach, this time appealing not only to Jesus’ physical safety, but to the very image of who He Is. We see Jesus taken by the devil to a pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem.  Again there comes the insult and the word of doubt: “If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down…”  Here is a great lesson concerning evil, the nature of sin and Our Adversary’s dealing with us.  Note that Satan does not throw Christ off the pinnacle himself, thus doing Him direct harm, but rather, suggests that Jesus “cast” himself down.  Thus, we see that Satan has no direct power over us but is limited to the power we give him in our lives.  Sin always requires an active response from us in some assent of the will

In this case, Satan’s temptation is obvious and flagrant.  Once, again, Christ repels him with a word from Scripture, “It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.” Some commentators have interpreted this as “Don’t presume on God to save you when you engage in some self-destructive or sinful act, in exercise of your free will.”[2]  Yet, even when we act stupidly or behave in a flagrantly sinful way, or are self-destructive, God in his mercy often mitigates the ill effects of our actions. Somehow, by common grace, He does not allow to be as bad as we could be. He may also allow us to realize the consequences of our sins to teach us. While God forgives us our sin, the “scar tissue” of our misdeeds remain.  Forgiveness abounds from God’s mercy when we truly repent, but the consequences of our sin are a lasting reminder of our rebellion against God.

It is not so with Christ.  Satan is defeated again with a rebuke from Scripture, but being both insidious and persistent, he makes one more attack by an appeal to Jesus’ pride.  In a twisted, perverted view of Christ’s Kingship, Satan shows Jesus all the earthly glory, or at least the satanic version of it.  In Mat 4:8 “Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them.” Here is where Christ’s patience is exhausted at last, for as the Tempter says, “All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.” Christ expels him a command: “Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.”

This is the so-called “last straw” for Christ. The idea of the Lord of Heaven and Earth prostrating Himself before this hideous fallen angel is too much.  Christ speaks with authority and the Devil leaves, defeated and frustrated. The victory is won and the angels, who had been watching this whole contest with worshipful admiration, come and minister to Jesus, tending to His needs. Satan had done his best and had failed.  Just as Christ would defeat Satan on the battleground of Calvary later in His ministry, so he vanquished him now.

At the start of this homily, I mentioned that this passage “goes to the very heart of what we believe and experience as Christians.” It speaks to the twin infernal phenomena of doubt and temptation. Concerning doubt, Satan used the “if” word three times, once for each temptation: “if thou be the Son of God, “if” thou be the Son of God, and “if” thou wilt fall down and worship me.”  Each of these is a conditional statement that seeks to provoke doubt or sin. Each time, Satan seeks to cause Jesus to question Himself, and/or he mockingly insinuates that Jesus Christ is not the One, the eternal Son, and the Spotless Lamb of God.

If this were true, Christianity would be shattered.  If Christ is not who He says He is, the Son of the Almighty God and the Lord and Savior of Mankind, we are confounded and hopeless.  If Christ is not the Son of God, we might as well submit to the toothless doctrine of the Enlightenment, where Christ’s dying on the Cross is not substitutionary, but merely a supreme example of what a good man does.  Finally, if we worship an “If” God, we Christians are, in the words of St. Paul, the most miserable of all people. 

Thanks be to God because instead of doubt, we have certainty. St. Paul says, “But, now is Christ risen from the dead and become the first fruits of them that slept.” [i]  In the eternal sense, now is our Savior Christ victorious over sin, death, hell, and the Devil.  We can meet the twin evils of doubt and temptation and emerge victorious. We do not worship an “If” God. No, we worship an “Is” God, a God of certainty. We worship He who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.  The Great “I AM THAT I AM” does not exist in the past, He does not exist in the future, He simply exists.  Thanks be to God for his blessed and complete certainty and our sure and certain salvation!

Glory be to God the Father, and to God the Son and God the Holy Ghost, now and forever.   AMEN

[1], Mathew Henry, “Commentary on Matthew”
[2] Ibid

[i] I Cor. 15:20

A Little While....

The Rev’d Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
The Third Sunday after Easter

April 21, 2013

“A little while…”
John 16:16  “ A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see me, because I go to the Father.”

From one of the most beloved books of the New Testament comes this interesting and puzzling statement.  John the beloved disciple tells us that Christ speaks to the apostles thus, both puzzling them and intriguing them at the same time.  In fact, in the verse following this one, some of the disciples openly questioned this.  They asked, “What is this that he saith unto us, A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see me: and, Because I go to the Father?18 They said therefore, What is this that he saith, A little while? we cannot tell what he saith.?”[1]

In short, they were baffled.  As a boy, listening to this passage in Trinity Episcopal Church in Monmouth, Illinois and again as a teenager at St. Joseph of Arimathea Church in Hendersonville, Tennessee, I too was puzzled.  I remember one time walking out of church shaking my head at it.  Evidently, our rector didn’t choose to elucidate that particular piece of Scripture that day. Perhaps he should have.

What Christ says here is both simple and profound, as always.  As the second member of the Holy Trinity, Christ always speaks to us in ways we can understand, while also speaking of things beyond our natural understanding; that is, absent the illumination of the Holy Spirit. 

This is one of those sayings.  On the surface, we understand, especially with the aid of 2000 years of Christian tradition behind us.  That is, we have the Word of God to inform us that Christ did indeed die and was buried. Thus, “a little while and you will not see me.”  We also understand the part where he says, “and again, a little while, and ye shall see me:”[2]

Obviously, this is in reference to His post-resurrection appearances. First, he appeared to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, then to the gathered disciples who were assembled, “for fear of the Jews”, in a locked room[3], and also to the disciples while fishing in John 21. Finally as St. Paul tells us in 1st Corinthians 15:6, “After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once;”[4]

No doubt the disciples’ joy was immense. Christ even compares it to the joy and relief a woman feels after the agony of childbirth. The disciples’ joy was to be similar, so great and real that they would forget the pain and grief they knew when Christ was parted from them. One of them, John, felt this pain most acutely because he, Mary the mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdeline witnessed his death at the foot of the Cross.

Thus far, we understand the meaning of these words.  Yet, in the next statement, Christ throws his disciples into confusion when he says, “because I go to the Father.”  This is what really bothered them.  It stuck “in their craw”, so to speak, to use a country colloquialism.

As well it might in ours, if we didn’t have the historic Christian experience and calendar to guide us.  In His last, most puzzling statement, Jesus is telling about His last mighty act in this world.  He is, in fact, foreshadowing the glorious completion of the earthly ministry.  

This final act is the completion of Christ’s ministry as he ascends to the Father, returning back to the Glory from whence He came, some thirty-three years before. The final act we will celebrate on May 9th, better known as Ascension Day, which is one of those important, but usually inconvenient and sparsely-attended mid-week services.

Ascension marks the final act of Christ’s life in all its major scenes, including his Immaculate Conception, His humble Nativity, His daily Ministry, His woeful Passion, His glorious Resurrection, and finally, His Dazzling Ascension. The Ascension marked the final chapter in the earthly saga of the Christ on Earth.

We will speak more on the importance of Ascension later, when we celebrate the Day itself. Suffice it to say that its importance is immense, as well as the immense amount of neglect it receives.  However, one point must be mentioned, namely that without the Ascension, our exaltation into Heaven as the family of Man would be impossible. Thus, Jesus, on His way to the ultimate exaltation in Heaven, as He rejoins His Father in unspeakable splendor, came to visit and reassure us. When He does come out of the grave in glorious resurrection form, both showing Himself and enjoying fellowship with His disciples, he tells them that your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you.”[5]

This statement is most profound and poignant, simultaneously. The reason for this profound sense of joy comes from Christ’s earlier mention of the expediency of His going away in verse 7 of this same chapter.  Christ is going away, yes; Christ is leaving His disciples in bodily form, yes, but Someone else is coming. Following on the heels of Ascension is that great New Testament celebration of the Holy Ghost, or as the Authorized Version calls him, the Comforter. The Third Person of the Holy Trinity comes to us, to lead, guide, instruct, comfort and strengthen us.

Thus, this is an amazing time of year.  Perhaps the historic church calendar truly captures the fullness of the Christian faith as we celebrate Ascension first, honoring the Son, then Whitsunday (Pentecost), where we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, then finally Trinity Sunday, where all three members of the Holy Trinity are celebrated together. We sing and worship the fullness of the Three Persons of God, one being in three Persons: Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
Truly, if one is living one’s life in accordance with the Church year, this is amazing and most fulfilling.

Returning to the one theme on which we can seize for the day, it might very well be that of Joy.  Jesus said that our joy...”no man taketh from you.”[6]   So we hope it is for you.  When one considers the sheer enormity of what Christ accomplished for us, our joy should be full. When one considers the durability of our forgiveness and the permanence of our salvation, our joy should be full.
What does this mean? It means that when Christ forgives us our sins, they are remembered no more. There is no sneaking, half-remembrance of what we did in the past.  It is covered with the precious Blood of Christ in complete forgiveness. Simply said, God remembers no sin for which one exhibits true repentance and amendment of life. Surely this is an occasion for joy, as well as immense thanksgiving.

Our joy, which no man can take from us, must stem from another source as well.  While this may seem incredibly obvious, it stems from the fact that we Christians even have a God like unto our God.  Unlike what the Existentialists once believed, we don’t stumble, Godot-like, through our lives.  We don’t face the Universe alone and un-befriended. We don’t have to make those brave existential decisions to prove that we are. With all due respect to Albert Camus and Jeam-Paul Sartre, theirs was a unnecessarily lonely and erroneous position as to the orientation of Man.  We are not alone. We are not lonely, in the recesses of our soul, unless we want to be, or have allowed the deceptions of the Devil to convince us so.  For the spirit-filled Christian, it is just the reverse. Our position, the Christian position, is completely opposite the sterile, sad and hopeless state of the atheist or existentialist.  We are not filled with the sad darkness of the deceived, we are full of light. We are not aching with loneliness in a dead universe, vainly searching for meaning from a cold and passionless void. We are filled with the fellowship of the Holy Ghost, who brings us into full relationship with God the Father and God the Son. We are not sad and depressed as we try to fill our emptiness with counterfeit or fabricated experiences. We have the real experience of Christ in our hearts, our minds, and our souls as we move forward to our eternal Home with Him.

We Christians can’t claim to have cornered the market on joy. That would be absurd and even a bit egotistical, perhaps. After all, many things in this life can give us joy.  There is a difference, however, between true Christian joy and that of the World.  Whereas joy from things in this life is fleeting and transient, only the joy in Christ can withstand the test of time. There is a joy which no man can take from you. It is the same joy that Christ promised to His disciples so long ago.  It is the same joy available to us today.
John 16:22  22 And ye now therefore have sorrow: but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you.”

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

[1] John 16:17-18
[2] John 16:17
[3] Ibid 2019
[4] I Cor 15:6
[5] John 16:22
[6] Ibid 16:22