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Monday, August 26, 2013

Sufficiency and Selflessness

Twelfth Sunday after Trinity, 2013
Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
August 18th, 2013

Beloved in the Lord, consider these two words: sufficiency and selflessness.  We will submit to you that this is the theme that runs through our Epistle and Gospel today.  Regarding this theme of sufficiency and selflessness, we hear the testimony of the Apostle Paul from the Epistle, as he tells us, “Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think anything as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God;…”[i]

 Let’s stop for a moment and consider the word itself: sufficiency. Sufficiency means “to meet ones needs, or the quality or state of being sufficient.”[ii] Thus, we can draw an elemental conclusion that God meets our needs.  Yes, this is obviously true, but there is so much more that St. Paul is talking about here.  Perhaps a clue is given in what comes next in the Epistle reading, when we hear this: 2 Corinthians 3:6: “Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.”[iii]

What is St. Paul talking about here in regards to sufficiency?  Is he saying that God certainly meets our needs, but perhaps in a way that we neither expect nor deserve? Ah…perhaps.  Let’s take a look at the life of St. Paul to gain a better understanding of this.  First of all, we know from his own testimony in the Books of Acts and Philippians that Saul, later Paul, was a Jew’s Jew.  In Acts 26:5, we hear “that after the most straitest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee.” Also in Acts 23:6, he proclaimed, “ Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee.” In Philippians, we hear his famous self  description: (Philippians 3:5-6) “Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee;  6 Concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.”

Let us “fast forward”, so to speak to today’s selection from II Corinthians.  Here is this model Hebrew, a man totally imbued with the Law, proclaiming that he is no longer sufficient of himself. That is, he is no longer filled with the self-righteousness that comes from slavishly obeying a code. We know that under the Law, one was saved by one’s works, i.e. following the law.  Yet, even St. Paul admits, in several of his epistles, that this is impossible.  Recall last week that we referenced the Mitzvoth, or the Rabbinic additions to Moses’ law, which eventually became 613 commandments. Recall further that under the Law, if one offended in one point, one was considered guilty of all. Thus, here we have an impossibility. No one could obey the Law perfectly, being human and fallible.  This brings to mind the disciples’ astonished question, “Who then can be saved?”, from Matt. 19, when Christ made the amazing statement that it is easier for a camel to go through an eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God.  Recall Christ’s amazing answer: With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.”[iv]

This brings us back to the discussion of sufficiency.  Just as God is sufficient enough to change the hearts of some who worship money, so that they can love Him and enter the Kingdom of God, so He is sufficient to affect a change in this Pharisee.  The change in St. Paul, due to God’s complete sufficiency, was such that it changed the course of human history through his evangelism and ministry. It was enough that, despite all of the schisms, disagreements, objections and accusations surrounding him, St. Paul was able to proclaim that God is his sufficiency.  He was able to deliver a consistent, coherent message of the Gospel, and to create an apostolic legacy through the laying on of hands that continues unbroken to this day. We in the orthodox Anglican Communion are blessed to continue that apostolic succession without interruption or dismissal. It is our apostolic legacy, and a genuine blessing to us.

One might say, “Father, Stults, that’s all well and good on the corporate level, but what about sufficiency on the individual level?  What does it mean to me?”

Simply this: if we, like the apostle Paul, can proclaim that God is our sufficiency, it means that a dramatic and positive change has happened in our lives. It means that deep down, we have had a shift in allegiance.  No longer do we look to the illusory reinforcements of this life, nor to the deceitfulness of sin in which they are sometimes wrapped, but in the completeness of God in our beings.  Again, what does this mean? Ultimately, if one looks to the temporal realm for ultimate justification, or better said, a complete reaffirmation of one’s peace, one will be disappointed. Just as St. Paul found that adherence to the Law of Moses became insufficient for him, as he became the chief minister to the Gentiles, so we must look to the Limitless love of God to fill our incompleteness. Stated again, when we become lost in the love of Jesus we will find our true selves, and be sufficient. We will, through a daily surrender of the will, and a constant prayer that God’s will be done in us, know that God is all in all. Then, as we go about our daily lives in whatever callings we find ourselves, all will be sufficient.  There will not be a thirsting, empty, ravenous need for self-aggrandizement.  There will not be a craving for something more, something on the horizon, unless it is a craving to know God better and better.  God will be our sufficiency, and we will know it. 

We think that’s when life truly begins for the Christian.  When we say, “life”, we mean, of course, the realization that the Kingdom of God is upon us. Recall the scene from Mark 12, where a scribe asks Christ what is the great commandment in the Law. Recall that Christ answered him with what we know as the Summary of the Law: Love God with all of your being, and love your neighbor as yourself. This same scribe repeats back what Jesus has said, but with the wise conclusion that to love God as much as one can, and to love his neighbor as himself “is more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”[v]  This answer obviously pleased our Lord, because he said, “Thou art not far from the kingdom of God.”[vi] This scribe realized that the “golden kernel” of faith, so to speak, is not transactional, based on works, but is something far more profound.  Life with God is based on relationships: ours to Him, and ours to our fellow man. When we grasp this point, we too are not far from the Kingdom of God.

Our selfhood falls away as our sufficiency in God increases. Not that we ever lose ourselves completely, for we are separate and distinct beings and always will be. This is especially true in our day-to-day struggle with the old man, who is always with us.  Yet, as continue to affirm the sufficiency of God in us, the old man loses his grip on us, and we continue to grow as new creatures in Christ. This growth begins now, today, and continues everyday as we grow in Christ.

Yes, separate and distinct as we are, yet growing in relationship with God, what will be the end of all this?  How can our finitude be merged into His Infinitude?  This is a great mystery and one we cannot answer or begin to comprehend in this realm.  Yet, we do know this: as our realization of His Sufficiency in us grows, we become happier, more joyful and more serene. Our lives in this world, at least from an interior point of view, become better.  Our externals will still be challenging, no doubt about that. In the end, however, it does not really matter what our external conditions are, because in the deep secret recesses of our souls, we are sufficient. As difficult, pressing, and downright troublesome as our daily lives sometimes are, we know one thing as we seek the Father’s Face: all will be well.  As this realization grows, we too will be able to proclaim with St. Paul: ”Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think anything as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God;”

For this, we give undying thanks and praise to Him who completes all in all: our Lord, our God, and our Sufficiency.

Jude 1:25 “To the only wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen.” 

[i] II Cor. 3:5
[iii] II Cor. 3:6
[iv] Matt 19:26
[v] Mark 12:33
[vi] Mark 12:34

Dependent, yet Free

Dependent, yet Free
The Rev’d Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
The Ninth Sunday after Trinity
July 28, 2013

“Grant us, O Lord, the spirit to think and do always such things as are right; that we, who cannot do any thing that is good without thee, may by thee be enabled to live according to thy will; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  AMEN

If there were ever a more perfectly formed plea for grace to live the Christian life, it would be difficult to phrase it any better than in this prayer. This Collect for the 9th Sun. after Trinity, must have been written by a very mature Christian mind, because it recognizes the true nature of life on this earth. It grasps the reality that we need the right “spirit” to help us do the things that we should do.  This prayer affirms that the nature of this world, at its core, is spiritual and that we need the right spiritual orientation in order to behave correctly.  That is, God, the “ground of being”, to quote the “progressive” German theologian Paul Tillich, can only be approached on a spiritual basis. Or putting it more simply, St. Paul tells us in Eph. 6:12:
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”
The real battleground of this world is, and always will be, spiritual.

As St Paul tells us in Romans, this concept is impossible for the carnal man to accept.  Some people, because they have not responded to the call of God in their soul, never recognize and thus accept this reality.  Sadly, they remain firmly rooted in the material world and never realize the unlimited potentiality of life in its true spiritual state.

We inhabitants of Earth are the agents of change, however.  Influenced, subject to suggestion, and even sometimes swayed by the “spirit” of things, we make things happen, for good or ill.  Thus, the importance of praying for the “the spirit to think and do always such things as are right cannot be underestimated.  Notice the word used here is “think”, not “feel”, not “dialogue”, nor “experience.”  We pray that we may “think” the right things, which is proceeded by doing the right things.  Thus, it is very, very important what we think and that we know what we think, especially in matters of faith.  It’s been said, “Right thinking leads to right believing, which leads to right actions.”

This is why studying works such as the 39 Articles of Religion is so important, so that we know what we believe and what we think about our faith. That is why we urge you to attend the adult Bible Class so graciously conducted by Fr. Heard. All of us need to know what you believe so that we can frame (or adjust) our thinking accordingly. A prominent member of our congregation has mentioned on several occasions: “We need to be a congregation of catechists.”  That is, there are times we should be able to (1 Peter 3:15)  and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you…”[i]

Also, in the collect for the day, note this statement: “we who cannot do any thing that is good without Thee.” Once again, the Christian maturity of the writer’s mind recognizes the utter dependency of the Creature upon the Creator, in order to bring forth any true good in the world.  It is factual that we “cannot do any thing that is good” without God.

It is this priest’s contention, that contrary to the world’s viewpoint, the more dependent one is on God, the more powerful and free one becomes.  Obviously, not only does one tap into an inexhaustible source of power, but one, over time, will surrender the ego and all its assorted baggage.  Then, the soul, stripped of such human encumbrances as: pride, anger, vainglory, hate and vengeance, becomes a fit dwelling place for the Holy Ghost.  Sooner or later, the fruit of the Spirit will manifest itself: love, joy, peace, gentleness and contentment.  Have you ever noticed that some people draw you in with the peace and “settled-ness” they have in Christ Jesus? What a goal for all of us!  This peace, this sense of joyful stillness, doesn’t happen overnight, nor does it occur easily, in most cases. Unfortunately, like most things in this life, it’s a battle.

This may why Christ said in Mat 10:34 “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.” Jesus knew that He was about to upset the whole world order to rearrange things on a cosmic scale.  Consider this: Pre-Christ, man was in bondage to sin and death; post-Christ, man is free from the effects of sin and is given, freely, the miracle of new life.  Do you believe this? Do you?  Is it a resounding, “hard shell” truth in your soul?  This priest  hopes so, so that when life’s ups and downs inevitably occur, you may turn to your hope in Christ, your power in Christ, and know, again, what is real and right and true.

One might say that Christianity is a religion of movement, or better said, of growth. This concept of constant growth may be why Our Lord consistently used agricultural examples in His parables.  An excellent example of this is the Parable of the Sower, where Christ spoke of a sower spreading seed on the earth. Or, in his discourse on faith, Jesus told us that if we had true faith, even measured by the tiny mustard seed, we could command nature and it would obey us. Our point, is that,  in a vibrant and living Christian life, one should see a growth, or a movement from one state to another, in a positive way. For example, one may move from sickness to health, from depression to joy, from spiritual “blah” to spiritual vitality, and of course, from physical death to life everlasting. Then, in heaven, we will continue to grow in grace, in the presence of the Lord, for all eternity.  Quite a glorious thought, isn’t it?

This, our journey to eternal life, our movement and our growth, is prefigured in the Epistle for the Ninth Sunday in Trinity for the Holy Communion service, which is taken from 1st Cor. X. In its reference to the fourteenth chapter of Exodus, it details the movement of Israel through the Red Sea.  St. Paul tells us that they “were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and the sea.”  That is, under the promises of the Old Covenant to Abraham, the people of Israel were being reborn, from the huge mass of Hebrew slaves to the nation of Israel.  This happened as they passed through the Red Sea, out of Egypt towards the Promised Land.  They entered on one side as slaves, they emerged on the other side as a free nation under God.

We know that our Christian baptism works in similar fashion, but obviously with fundamental differences. The methodology and symbolism is the same, as one passes under the water (symbolized by sprinkling or pouring water on the head) and moves from spiritual death to spiritual life.  Now, whereas the Israelites were baptized “into Moses” and the Old Covenant, we Christians are baptized into the New Covenant of Jesus Christ.

What is miraculous about all of this is God’s wonderful consistency throughout history.  He used water and the process of baptism (figuratively) with His ancient people to lead them to new life then, and He uses water and the process of baptism now as a sign and seal of our salvation through Jesus Christ.  

Yet, guiding and undergirding all of the movement is the right spirit, which animates all. We hope and pray for “the spirit to think and do always such things as are right”, but that spirit must be rooted and grounded in the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, the Holy Spirit, for it to have any chance of spiritual success. Absent the Holy Spirit, the natural spirit of our fallen natures will come to the fore and will bear its bitter fruit. Then, rather that our growth in holiness and godliness, we will experience the opposite.

It doesn’t have to be that way…. Our lives, fueled by prayer, fed by the Holy Sacrament of the altar, and constantly reinforced with the Holy Word of God, can be something better.  We can have the growth and positive upward movement in the right spirit, always and forever.

Thus, our faith is a religion of movement, of growth, powered by the right spirit, the Blessed Holy Spirit. It should never be stagnant, but should reflect the very nature of God Himself: limitless, boundless, and full of the love and joy of life.  My prayer for you is that you perceive the ever-growing fruits of redemption within you and are filled day by day, with the overflowing love of God.

Let us all petition God that we always have the right spirit to think and to do what it right.

[i] !st Peter 3:15

Spiritual Gifts and Giving

Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
The Tenth Sunday after Trinity, 2013
August 4, 2013

Spiritual Gifts and Giving

1Co 12:1-2  Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I would not have you ignorant. Ye know that ye were Gentiles, carried away unto these dumb idols, even as ye were led.

Our Epistle selection is another one of those wonderful, yet potentially frustrating sections of the letters of St. Paul.  It is wonderful, because it tells us that God has bestowed spiritual gifts on His children.  At the same time, it can be frustrating if one is stymied as to what one’s spiritual gift is, or if one is coveting a spiritual gift that may not be extant anymore, or else is not meant for that specific Christian. More on that in a moment…

St.Paul begins this particular lesson by reminding the Corinthians of their former Gentile past.  They were, in fact, pagans, “carried away unto these dumb (speechless) idols”.  They engaged in various pagan festivals and rites, which usually included a great deal of wine consumption, as well as vigorous activity among the genders in an intimate way.  In short, they engaged in bacchanalia, as well as idolatrous worship.   They did this, not out of maliciousness or wickeness per se, but out of ignorance and tradition.  But with the advent of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, everything changed for the Corinthians.

St. Paul is reminding the Corinthians that their lives have a new dimension to them now. In the past, their pagan lives were riotous, active, but ultimately empty. They had no true spiritual grounding. Recall that in the latter stages of the ancient Greek and Roman world, many people were beginning to doubt the validity of the pantheon of gods and goddesses.  They probably sensed that that was something more than just worshipping marble statues and honoring ancient myths.  Their had to be something more. Then, in the fullness of God’ mercy, the Gospel came through Jesus Christ and St. Paul, bringing with it one of the penultimate themes of the New Testament, salvation by grace. 

St. Paul, in bringing forth the message of Christ, told the Corinthians that even though they were formerly pagans and idolaters, through the munificence of God grace has been poured out on them by the Holy Ghost.  This grace had mainly taken the form of various manifestations of the Holy Spirit and because of this, Paul took pains to point out that the origin of these gifts was divine. Thus, it could not be a source of arrogance or pride.  Furthermore, Paul told them (and us) that no can speak ill of Christ if he is under the Spirit, just as one cannot affirm that Christ is Lord without the influence of the Holy Spirit.  Similarly, enemies of Christ cannot be under the Spirit, just as believers cannot praise Jesus as Lord without the Holy Spirit indwelling them.

This is both comforting and dangerous.  It is comforting for those who perhaps look with doubt or uncertainty in their own souls for the presence of the Holy Spirit, as this priest once did as a young man.  It is comforting to know that when one says the Creed with conviction, it is by the power of the Holy Ghost, or when one says, “Jesus is Lord”, it is with spiritual impetus.  Perhaps a committed atheist or agnostic might be able, physically, to say “Jesus is Lord” if one used coercive force, but it would never happen spontaneously or freely, as when a Christian praises God. In short, being able to affirm, with love and force, that Jesus Christ is Lord takes something beyond oneself.  It takes the glorious grace of God, which has taken root in the believer’s soul.

In first-century Corinth, something was the matter, so much so that St. Paul found it necessary to instruct the church as to the origin and uses of spiritual gifts.  First, he tells them that there are many types of gifts, but it is the same Spirit of God giving them. Also, there are various types of service (ministries) that these gifts encourage, but it is still the same Lord providing all of them.  Finally, there are different kinds of ways these gifts are worked out, but it is the same God “working all things in all.”[1]

 St. Paul’s point is plain:  no matter the diverse types of gifts given to man, or how they are ministered to the Church, or even how they actually are presented, it is all God.  He provides them to the Body for encouragement, for teaching, and most importantly, for a testimony to His Glory.

Let us make a point here. Over-emphasis on spiritual gifts can also be dangerous or even destructive to the Church.  Just as in Corinth, as some became “puffed up” because of their own particular receipt of spiritual gifts, so it is in some parts of the Church today.  Some Christian groups still regard glossothalia, or the speaking in tongues, as being the sign of a “real” spirit-filled Christian.  In their mind, there are two types of Christians: those who exhibit spiritual phenomena and those who don’t.  Those who don’t just aren’t as “spirit-filled” as those who do.  They are, in some sense, second-class Christians. 

Without going any further, one can see how destructive this can be.  It is even more dangerous when one considers that many scholars and commentators, including most Anglicans, think that the marvelous deeds done in Acts and referenced in today’s Epistle were outpourings of the Spirit meant specifically for the first-century Church.  One commentator says, “What these gifts were is at large told us in the body of the chapter; namely, extraordinary offices and powers, bestowed on ministers and Christians in the first ages, for conviction of unbelievers, and propagation of the gospel.”[2]  They are gifts that are not in great abundance today in precisely the same form as when they appeared in the first century.  For that very reason, to discriminate against or denigrate those who do not exhibit these specific gifts is erroneous, uncharitable and unkind.

Now, let us return to the hopeful and positive aspects of this lesson in righteousness.  The fact is, all of us have spiritual gifts born of the Holy Spirit.  The very fact we are all gathered here today is evidence of that, for without the gift of faith, we wouldn’t be here at all. We would be doing something else. For example, for many the golf course beckons, or the Sunday paper, or just relaxing at home. Yet, there is something that draws us here to worship.  That willingness to be drawn by the Spirit here and to do something that we know our souls need is a gift in itself. 
Instead of being lost sheep, wandering among the various “wolves” of this life, we are led each Sunday to be fed by Jesus our Shepherd, and to lie down in the green, restful pastures of worship with Him. This is also a wonderful gift.

All of us have other gifts as well. It may be the gift of wisdom; it may be the gift of helping, or it may be the gift of knowledge. It may be the gift of a current or former occupation, now yielding fruit to the Church. In every way, for all of us, our gifts are merely the things God has given us and now we seek to return them to the Church in whatever way we can, but always for the purpose of God’s Glory, never for our own self-magnification.

Thus, continue to ask God how you can use your own gifts for His Glory.  Pray for discernment, meditate on it, give thanks for every gift, and then pray for direction.  As you do this, our Lord will direct you, support you and empower you to give back what He has given you.  In the end, we find that our giving to Him does not diminish or deplete us, but instead is magnified and multiplied. We simply cannot out-give God.

Above all, as you consider your own individual gifts and calling of God, pray for one more thing. Pray that you may be gifted with joy in everything that you do. Pray that all you do is done joyfully, cheerfully, and with a glad heart.  As you go about giving of yourself to the World and most importantly, to God, you may find that this is the greatest gift of all. AMEN.

[1] I Cor, 12:6 (MKJV)
[2] Henry, op.cit.

Trinity Sunday 2013

The Rev’d Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
May 26, 2013

Trinity Sunday 2013

Let us all praise and bless God today….why, you may ask, aside from His general goodness towards us? Why is today a special and wonderful day? To this query, the average person, and even the average Christian, will scratch his head and mutter, “I dunno…”

On the surface, this day is only special to those so-called “religious” people, those in the ministry, or those in religious communities, such as convents or monasteries. Yet, when one truly considers this Sunday, it should be a day special for all Christians, big and small, old and young, and all those who love the Lord.

Once again, why? Let us answer that question by saying that today we are celebrating and pondering together the central mystery of the Christian faith, out of which all other mysteries flow. At this, some may say, “Father Stults, that’s a mighty big claim. Are you sure about that?” This priest will answer, “Without a doubt, for out of this mystery comes the very nature of God Himself, and thus His dealings with us.”

Today, we celebrate the wonderful mystery of the Holy Trinity. Today, we ponder anew the mind-boggling nature of God, as we recognize the makeup of the Divine Godhead: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.  Today, we are reminded of the completely peculiar and distinctive nature of Christianity at its very core.

Let us recap.  God is one Being, in which there are three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There are not three Gods.  There are not three Fathers.  There are not three Sons. There are not three Holy Spirits.  There is one Father, one Son, and one Holy Ghost, all of which are God, and all of which are co-eternal, co-existent, and co-eternal.  All three Persons of the Holy Trinity are God, yet the Father is not the Son, nor the Holy Spirit.  The Son is not the Father, nor the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is not the Father, nor the Son.  Yet, all are God, without co-mixture, or confusion. 

Confused yet?  Does your brain hurt yet?  It gets better.... Even though the members of the Holy Trinity are co-equal, why does Jesus say in John 14:28, “…for my father is greater than I.” Isn’t this an apparent contradiction to historic theology?   Well, of course our Lord is correct.  Jesus is inferior to His Father in respect to His manhood, yet He is equal to his Father in respect to his Godhood. As far as the Divine Community is concerned, Jesus is equal to his Father, for, as He said in John 10;30, “I and my Father are one.”  This statement so infuriated the Jews, that they picked up stones to stone Him.

So it has always been with the Holy Trinity.  For those not of the community of faith, it is a source of infuriation, or of disbelief, or of scorn. St Paul once remarked in 1 Corinthians 1:23  23 But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; “  The same can be said in boldface with italics about the Holy Trinity.  Recall that this central mystery is also the chief stumblingblock for orthodox Christianity for many.  It is also foolishness for many. But, here it is: it is the chief truth of orthodox Christianity, one that must be affirmed to be saved, in the words of the Athanasian Creed, which we just said during our service of Morning Prayer.

Let’s explore this a little more….Unless one has the gift of faith, one cannot affirm the Trinity.  Recall that every single cult, Christian or not, does not affirm it.  They do not because they cannot.  This is a mystery, and one only can affirm with the help of the Holy Ghost, in much the same way that one cannot say, “Jesus is Lord” without the Holy Ghost.

Here’s the big point, beloved.  Just as St. Athanasias teaches us in that historic creed, one must believe in the Trinity to be saved. Why? Because one must believe in the right nature of God to be saved, as outlined in the Creed.  What is that nature? Without getting caught up in a tautology, it is the nature of God as revealed in Scripture: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

We as Christians must never get caught up in the erroneous concept that everyone can believe what he or she wants, and yet be saved.  On the drive home yesterday, I heard an excellent thought, in fact, just this one: just because we believe something does not bind God to it, or change His Holy Will.  Yet, there are an alarmingly growing number of people who adopt this semi-Universalist view.  That is, they believe that since they are basically “good” people, God wouldn’t dare send them to Hades, or eternal death, or whatever.  Yet, the creed we just said states “He therefore that will be saved must thus think of theTrinity.”  We can reject that thought, or we can seek some other way, but it does not change who or what God is.  It does not change the fact that Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  Finally, it doesn’t change the fact that no one comes to the Father except by Him.

Sounds terribly absolutist, doesn’t it? Surely there must be a softer, more individualistic, more humanistic way to salvation. Surely, like Islam, we can earn our salvation through good works and following the precepts of the Koran. Maybe, like the Hindu, we can re-cycle our time on earth enough times until we get it right. Maybe even, like the Medieval Church, we can burn away our sins for a thousand years in Purgatory, then enter the delights of Heaven…Surely there must be a way where this Trinity business is nice, but not absolutely necessary to salvation. Surely there must be a way whereby all men can be saved, without all this theology.

Well, no….  Once again, consider John 14:6  “Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” This doesn’t leave much “wiggle room.”  So, to be terribly dogmatic, one must accept Jesus as one’s Lord and Savior, thereby accepting His gracious gift of salvation and eternal life, or not.  If one chooses not, then that choice has consequences.  At the Last Day, when we all stand before the Throne of Judgment, our choice will be known.  Then, we will truly understand the words of Christ from Matthew 22:14  14”For many are called, but few are chosen.”  That is, all mankind are called by Jesus’ universal call of grace from the Cross, but not all blessed with the gift of faith, for some mysterious reason. On that fateful day, those making other professions will be judged accordingly.  Then, the separation will occur.

Thus, let us all praise and bless God for all of His benefits to us, not the least of which is this precious gift of faith. We in this room can affirm the reality of the Trinity, even though we don’t understand it.... We can affirm the Lordship of Jesus Christ, although we certainly can’t understand His makeup as perfect God and perfect Man.  Nor do we understand the enormity of His sacrifice for us.  Yet, we believe and bow our heads in love, reverence, and worship.  This gift doesn’t come of us, but from the Holy Ghost.  Only he can visit us and grant us the ability to believe that Jesus Chris is the only-begotten Son of the Father.  Only the Holy Ghost can grant us the ability to believe that God the Father loves us so much that He gave His only Son for our redemption. Only the Holy Ghost is our constant companion to lead, instruct, comfort, and strengthen us. When we believe these things, we affirm the Trinity, and when we affirm the Trinity, we affirm our salvation.

Thus, we ask you, do we have cause for celebration today?  Do we have a reason to give thanks to God with buoyant spirits and enkindled hearts?  Do we say to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, “we thank thee, we praise thee, and we give thee glory forever and ever?” Yes, yes and yes….

It’s important that we do this. It’s important that we believe correctly, and that we know what we believe.  Trust me, the enemies of Christianity certainly do. That is, whatever creed they hold, they really, really believe it, even to the point of death and destruction, even their own. 

The blessed new is that we, beloved, are not of such ilk. We don’t trust in bombs, or terrorism, or fear to hold believers.  We don’t threaten converts with death if they seek to leave the cult. Instead, we trust in the ever-flowing love of God as we know Him: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. 

This is the reality is which we trust.  This is the reality in which we believe.  This is the reality which will secure our eternal blessedness, forever and ever, world without end. Amen.

Repentance and Character

The Rev’d Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
The Third Sunday after Trinity
June 2, 2013

Repentance and Character
1st  Sunday After Trinity 2013
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

Today’s Gospel selection tells a story that is both comforting and chilling, at the same time. It is one that is filled with great hope for the disenfranchised of the world, while yielding a severe warning to those who have, or who are reaping, life’s benefits and luxuries.

Here we have the story of Lazarus, with which we are all familiar.  This man, reduced to beggary for whatever reason, is lying outside the gates of a great home. He is truly destitute, even desiring to be fed with the table scraps that fall from the rich man’s table, here called “crumbs”.  This always puzzled me as a boy when I listened to this particular Gospel selection. My thought was, “Even if he could get the “crumbs”, how could this keep a man alive?”  Well, a particularly astute rector clarified this for me.  He explained it was the practice of the very rich, while dining, to wipe their hands on a piece of bread, then discard it under their table, presumably to be picked up or given away, or whatever.  Imagine that a man would wipe sauce, or fat, or whatever, on the bread before throwing it away.  This could be quite a tasty treat for a beggar, if only he could access them.

Well, evidently, Lazarus was denied even this simple comfort, for in due time, after being covered with malnutrition sores, he dies of starvation and privation.  Now, our Lord tells us of the comfort of this man, for he is carried “into “Abraham’s bosom”, which is a symbol for Paradise. It is also particularly touching, for the imagery of the hereditary father of the Semites comforting this poor unfortunate is quite tender. This is the comfort of this passage, for we know that there will be ultimate mercy and justice for the poor of this world.

On the other hand, we also learn of the fate of the rich man, which is quite chilling and terrible… It is also quite succinct in its description, for we learn that “…in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments,” The rich man, after having led a life of luxury and ease, is thrust into “torment”, in a place far different from where Lazarus is. Talk about a lifestyle change! After all his years of comfort and luxury on Earth, he is in a completely opposite situation, and this time, it’s forever. 

Let us make a point about riches and prosperity here.  God is certainly not against success or riches, or abundance. Far from it.   He is the Creator and Great Steward of all abundance. Note that the rich man is not in Hell for being rich.  He is in Hell because of his attitude towards riches.  They became his god, not the Lord.  He didn’t care about anything else except his own aggrandizement, as witnessed by Lazarus’ blatant suffering at his very doorstep! This is the reason for his predicament in perdition, so to speak.

A priest friend of mine once noted something about his own father.  The man, a successful attorney, was wealthy, which, as we’ve noted, is not a bad thing.  What is unfortunate is the statement made by his priest son.  He said that his father always worshipped money. His relationship with our Lord was nominal at best, and thus would yield nominal results to his spiritual well-being, in much the same way as our rich man in the parable.

Note also that the rich man is completely unrepentant, even in the flames of torment.  Instead of any sort of remorse or regret, he asks Abraham to “send Lazarus.”  Even in the midst of the fires of Hell, he still thinks he is better than the beggar, who is surrounded by unspeakable bliss, while he suffers.  He actually attempts to treat Lazarus like an employee or servant, something he didn’t even do when in life.  In fact, had he treated Lazarus like a servant, rather than completely ignoring him, he might not have ended up where he was. Servants, after all, do get fed and housed.

Abraham’s response is cool and gentle, yet very firm. He reminds the rich man that he had a life of complete ease, while Lazarus suffered. He had, in fact, “Received thy good things”, which became his focus of worship, while Lazarus received the evil cruelty of the World.
Yet, in the complete mercy and justice of God, the beggar is comforted, and the rich man is tormented. Once again, he is tormented not because he was rich, but because of his blatant disregard for the abject suffering around him, compounded by his complete self-absorption.

Abraham then reminds the man that his request is impossible anyway, because of the “great gulf” fixed between the blessed and the damned. Any sort of commerce or visitation between the two realms is impossible. One cannot cross over once one is in either state. This is a chilling thought.

Of course, the moral of the story for us is that we have our entire lives to repent and build a relationship with Almighty God, through His Son Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Ghost.  God calls us, calls us, calls us, and calls us while we live. It is not his desire that any should be lost; yet in so many ways, He allows us to exercise our own free will.  Obviously, this can be to our own detriment or betterment, yet He allows us the free choice. The point, however, is that there will be a day when repentance is no longer possible, nor any sort of hiding from God.

Again, we have this lifetime to build and enjoy our relationship with God, or not…  In this case, the rich man is experiencing the “or not” aspect of eternity without God.

All of us have “Lazarus moments” and we have “rich man” moments, to greater or lesser degrees.  That is, all of us have, or had had moments of great poverty, physical, emotional, spiritual or otherwise.  Sometimes the forces of life threaten to overwhelm us and we experience the hurt of life.  Take comfort. Be of good cheer. We shall be comforted and consoled, to an immeasurable degree, someday.

On the other hand, watch out for so-called “rich man” moments, which we all have or have had, at one time or another. Be wary of those moments when we feel like the world is our oyster.  Maybe for a while….yet there will be a reckoning, when all are brought low before the piercing gaze of the Almighty.
Sometimes, our leveling may occur in this life, as a sign to repent and get right with God.  If so, give thanks, for your God cares enough about you that He will chastise you, in order to lead you to repentance. Or, unfortunately, He may leave one to one’s own devices, like the rich man, who has not the least amount of repentance, even in the fires of torment.

After failing to use Lazarus for himself, he seeks to make him his errand boy to save his (evidently) wicked brethren, of whom he has five. Abraham rebuffs this just as adroitly.  He reminds the rich man that his brothers have Moses and the prophets to guide them away from Hades.  Note here that the rich man knows his brothers too well.  He knows that they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, but pursue a path similar to his. He fears for their eternal destination, lest it be like unto his own.

In a stirring close to the conversation, Abraham tells him this tactic, too, is futile.  Obviously, the habit of sin is so ingrained in the brothers, and their obstinacy so strong, that even if one rose from the dead, it would not deter them.

Let us pause just a moment.  What does this sound like? Whose resurrection is being foreshadowed here? The answer is obvious….Christ!

Please note, too, the foreshadowing here of the reaction of many after Jesus’ resurrection.  For example the leaders of the Sanhedrin and the Pharisees had to bribe the temple guards into saying that while they slept, someone came and stole the body. There are still many, many, people in this world today who don’t believe Jesus rose from the dead, in fact, they scoff at the very idea. In effect, even though one (Christ) rose from the dead, they don’t believe.  What an amazing parallel with the parable!

Having disregarded the Word of God written, and the constant quiet calling of the Holy Spirit throughout their entire lives, they will go into judgment naked before God, without having on that all important wedding garment of Christ.
They will attempt to enter the eternal wedding supper of the Lamb, without Christ, which is impossible. Their fate, without Him, will be dreadful.

Thus, today, now, let us praise and bless God for our salvation. Let us give thanks for our eternal comfort like Lazarus, while we know that without Christ, we deserve the fate of the rich man… thank God we don’t get what we deserve!

Perhaps, our prayer should be that we deal wisely with our abundance, praying always that it never becomes a bar to Almighty God. After all, it is our attitude that really counts.
The thirteenth chapter of Hebrews, sixteenth verse, sums it up very well.  It says, “To do good, and to distribute, forget not; for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.”

Amen and amen to that…

Excuses and Calling

Excuses and Calling
The Rev’d Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
The Second Sunday after Trinity
June 9, 2013

Luke 14:16-24.

Our Gospel for the day contains one of the great parables in Christendom, that of the parable of the Great Supper. The reason that it has such significance is that it contains themes that are central to our salvation and to the Christian faith in general.  It contains such themes as: the Grace of God, our election in Christ, our response to the call of God, his mysterious divine Will and the concept of predestination. All of these themes are contained in about eight Bible verses. If you ever doubt that the Bible is the inerrant, inspired Word of God, this passage should go a long way towards dissuading you from that position.

The setting is this: Christ is in the home of a chief Pharisee on the Sabbath, having been invited to dine with him.  As always, the Pharisees “watched Him”, always trying to find a way to trap him in his talk or to find something with which they might accuse him. Jesus has just healed a man of the dropsy, after having asked the Pharisees whether it was legal to heal on the Sabbath or not, to which they gave no answer.  You’ll remember that earlier, He equated healing the man with pulling out an ox or an ass that had fallen into a ditch on the Sabbath day.  Of course, the Pharisees were speechless, because the answer is self-evident.

Christ then instructs his listeners about humility, telling them to assume the lowest place at a feast, “lest a more honourable man” be bidden of him. After this lesson, a listener says, “Blessed is he that shall eat bread in the kingdom of God.”

This naturally leads Jesus into this truly remarkable parable in today’s Gospel selection.  He begins with, “A certain man made a great supper, and bade many:” (pause) Who is this “certain man”?  We can safely say that the “certain man” is God the Father, who “made a great supper and bade many”. We are safe to assume that this is meant to symbolize the Marriage Feast of the Lamb, where the believer and Christ are co-joined spiritually in ecstatic union eternally in Heaven.  Often, this has been symbolized by a banquet that occurs eternally.

What is interesting here is that St. Luke doesn’t tell us why the “Great Man” prepared the great supper; in fact no motive is given.  Perhaps, like God the Father, he just desired to do it. This is an aspect of the mysterious divine Will of God that we will never understand, except to acknowledge with humble hearts that God wants to save us! God, who is serene, unknowable, yet knowing all things, desires you to have eternal, blissful fellowship with Him. Why?

The Bible tells us God’s motivation for this is love and that “we love Him because He first loved us.” (1John 4:19) Even if we can get around the enormity of His love for us, which we, of course, can’t, the question remains, Why? Why does He love us so absolutely, so completely? No one has that answer, but perhaps some hints of it lie in this parable.

The Great Man sends his servant to call those who have been “bidden” to the supper.  Now, who is this “servant”?  It could be one of the prophets, a Jeremiah, a Jonah, an Isaiah, a Zechariah or one of the many others whom God sent to call Israel and Judah to repentance and to fellowship with Him. Think of it. God sent these men over a period of several hundred years to speak with his people.  Sadly, the vast majority of them were martyred. Or,the “servant” could be also be a figure for Christ Himself, who was sent to preach to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel. This thought echoes the idea of the Messiah as the suffering servant found in the Book of Isaiah.

At any rate, this parable was certainly preached against Israel, and more specifically, the Scribes and the Pharisees. After all these were the leaders of the Chosen People, those who had been given the Law, the Prophets, the Covenant and the Promises. They were supposed to be a kingdom of priests, leading all mankind to righteousness through a right relationship with God.

However, we know what happened.  In the words of the parable, “And they all with one consent began to make excuse.”  For example, one man had bought a piece of land and needed to go see it.  He was too busy with business to care for God.  Another had just purchased five yoke of oxen and needed to try them out. He was too busy with his new purchase to come to the supper.  The last man had just married a wife and thus was too entangled in family and personal relationships to get involved with the supper. 

The point is this: Israel was offered salvation and eternal fellowship with God, but rejected it in favor of worldly things. In fact, it got much, much worse, as Israel chose false, heathen idols over the one true God who brought them out of bondage in Egypt  In the book of Ezekiel, we are even told that the Temple courtyard itself was filled with pagan statues and idols.  Thus, over time, Israel would utterly reject God. 

What is God’s response to all this?  Christ tells us that the “Lord of the manor” turns from his invitees to call the poor, the maimed, the crippled and the blind. He thus turned from the Chosen Jews to the Gentiles.  Unflattering as it may seem, we are the poor, the halt and the blind. St. Paul reminds us that we, the Gentiles, are the “wild root” grafted into the true vine. He also tells us never to exult in our inclusion over the Jews, simply because those whom God has grafted in, may also be grafted out as well.

“Yet there is room.”  Even after the servant has scoured the city, there is still room in the Lord’s house.  So, the Great Man tells his servant  to go into the highways and hedges and compel them to come in.  In my mind, when I hear this, I think of Christ’s all-gracious call from the Cross.  Remember when He said, in Joh 12:32 “ And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.”  Christ’s sacrifice for us is all sufficient and all efficacious.  It also refers to Christ’s instructions in Mat 28:19:  “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:”

This parable also hints at judgement.  After the house is filled, the Lord of the Manor says, in Luke 14:24: “For I say unto you, That none of those men which were bidden shall taste of my supper.” What this simply says is that those who exclude God from their lives will in turn be excluded from fellowship with God for eternity.  After all, this is just, because God is just.  He will not force Himself on anyone, but will continue issuing gracious calls until death overtakes them and they, in turn, continue in exclusion from God.  Does this mean a fiery hell, filled with wrathful devils?  Perhaps. We don’t know for sure.  What we do know from reason is that exclusion from God means exclusion from all good.  That is, no warmth, no love, no mercy, no grace, no pleasure.  Since God is all good, the opposite of God is all non-good.  Personally, that thought for me is too terrible for me.

So, as incredible as it may seem, this little passage of eight verses is the Gospel in a nutshell. God creates something good, offers it to some members of mankind, who reject it.  God then calls others, who accept his graciousness and are saved.

As we see Israel rejecting God, worshipping idols and falling away, only to be punished until they seek repentance and re-admittance to God’s grace, we may be tempted to judge. But, we can’t do it.  Remember, just as Israel was to be the role model for mankind in righteousness, they also are role models of our human-ness. You see, we also at various times “begin with one consent to make excuse” in little and big ways.

The question is this, when God calls us, how do we respond?  When He lays “a burden on your heart”, how do we answer?  When God calls us to church, or to Bible study, or to a certain church ministry such as choir, or altar guild, or to ground work around the church, how do we respond?  If one were to substitute modern excuses for those given in the parable, we’d find it’s exactly the same as in Christ’s time. 

But, on the positive side, when we do respond to God, we get to “taste of the supper”, that is, we taste of the sweetness of God.  We taste of the fulfillment of our being, or as St. Francis once said, we fill the “God-sized hole” in our souls.

Beloved, when we answer the call of God, and when we don’t make excuses, we will do the things that please Him (and actually for our own good). We will begin to live in the eternal “Now” and we will experience not only a sense of joy and serenity here on earth, but we will also be looking forward to that eternal, ecstatic, perfect banquet with God.

Luke 14:17

“And sent his servant at supper time to say to them that were bidden, Come; for all things are now ready.”