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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

"Arise and Walk"

The Rev’d Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
19th Sunday after Trinity 2014
October 19, 2014

Matthew 9:5   For whether is easier, to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and walk?
Have you ever witnessed a public scandal?  Have you ever heard someone say something so outrageous that it took your breath away? In short, have you ever heard something that literally shook you to the roots?

We have an example of that in today’s Gospel.  Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ says something that shakes the scribes to their very roots.  Recall that these men were the ones who had devoted their very lives to the preservation of the Law.  The scribes were in charge of copying the Talmud and the Torah, all without a single mistake.  In addition, they would make pronouncements based on the Jewish Scriptures, always with an eye on complete compliance with the Law.

Now, here comes into their midst a seemingly simple rabbi from Nazareth who says, Matthew 9:2: “Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee.”The sheer audacity of the statement must have been most upsetting and unsettling to them.  How dare he say such a thing?  What a scandalous thing to say! Imagine how you would feel.  Let’s say a person walks into your office or place of business and presumes to know everything about what you are doing, and then makes a pronouncement that strikes at the very root of our profession.  In other words, the very boldness and audacity of the statement makes your jaw drop.

This is exactly what Christ did in this situation.  Note, Christ did not merely heal the man and send him on his way. That would have been too easy (for him) and would not have provided the witness that He wanted at that time.  After all, our Lord had been doing miracles for some time now and his fame would have spread far and wide, else why would the men come to Him?

For example, in the Book of Matthew up to this point, Christ has healed the leper, the centurion’s servant, Peter’s mother-in-law, and the demoniac.  In addition, he rebuked the storm on Lake Genessaret and astonished his own disciples.  These, of course, are only the documented miracles and healings.  There were no doubt hundreds of others in addition to these.  Thus, the healing of the man with the palsy was not the question.

Christ wanted to make a statement about himself, in such a way that told the scribes and Pharisees who He was without an overt claim made by himself.  After all, a self-proclaimed prophet or messiah is usually met with extreme cynicism, and even scorn.

Christ’s intent was not to talk about himself.  Instead, Jesus constantly provided signs which pointed to His Lordship.  For example, the entire Book of John is constructed around signs, all of which point to Christ.  With the idea of signs in mind, let us look at this particular one.

Once again, note that Christ did not merely say to the man, “Arise, take up thy bed and go unto thine house.”  Although this was the outcome of the event, it is presented almost as an afterthought.  Instead, he first looked at the man, and said, (Matthew 9:2) ”Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee.” This is the scandalous statement that shocked the scribes present.  These holy men thought to themselves, “This man is a blasphemer.  Who can forgive sins except God?”

Then, Christ draws the sign to a close by asking a simple question, (Matthew 9:5-7) “For whether is easier, to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and walk?”  While they were pondering this, Our Lord continued: “But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (then saith he to the sick of the palsy,) Arise, take up thy bed, and go unto thine house.  7 And he arose, and departed to his house.”The sign is complete.  Christ clearly drew the comparison that the One who could forgive sins was also the One who could heal a sick man with a word.  He left it up to the scribes to make the obvious connection.

No doubt they did make the connection, but not being mixed with faith, it was impossible for them to realize what was really happening. Again, although they saw the sign, they did not have the gift of faith to see that God Himself was among them. Emmanuel had indeed come, according to prophecy, but their minds were closed. 

God uses signs everyday to point us to Himself. For traditional, historic Christians such as ourselves, we have the most powerful and readily accessible signs available to us.  These are the Word of God and the Holy Sacraments, both of which are meant to point us constantly to Jesus and his saving grace.  When we think of our advantages as modern Christians, it seems it would be so much easier to believe, doesn’t it?  After all, we the Word of God readily available in every bookstore, even every supermarket, all over the Internet, and broadcast on the airwaves.  We have churches on virtually every corner all over this country, and we have the Holy Sacrament available on a wide-scale basis.  In short, we have signs literally shouting the name of Christ virtually everywhere.

Why then, are not all churches full?  Why, with all the abundance of signs, is not this country, even all the world, literally bursting with vibrant enthusiasm for God?

The fact is that signs alone are not enough.  Note that Christ saw the men bringing the sufferer into His midst, and “seeing their faith”, proceeded to heal him.  Signs merely point out the way to us.  It is up to us to follow their direction. 

Whatever they may be, and however they may show up in your life, watch for your personal signs that point you to Christ.  Look for signs in your own spirit that lead you to a greater awareness of His power in your life. Above all, use the signs available to us to take the right road to Christ.

Then, when God calls us to heed a certain sign, let us all hope and pray that we have faith sufficient to take the road He has pointed out to us.  It is that road that leads to our ultimate fulfillment.

Matthew 9:2 : “And, behold, they brought to him a man sick of the palsy, lying on a bed: and Jesus seeing their faith said unto the sick of the palsy; Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee.”


AMEN






Constancy, Glory, and Redemption: The Feast of All Saints 2014


Rev. Stephen E.  Stults
St. Paul’s Anglican Church
Feast of All Saints, 2014

Please consider these two selections of Holy Scripture for our consideration today of the Feast of All Saints:

First, from our Epistle for the day, Revelation 7:9-10:  9 “After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands;  10 And cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb.”

And, from the book of Hebrews:
Hebrews 12:1 “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us,”

Both of these passages of Holy Writ have bearing on what we observe today.

Today we celebrate a great day in the life of the Church, the Feast of All Saints.  Today is a special day, for today we commemorate all of the Saints of God:  those for whom God has opened the gates of larger life in the Church Expectant; those who are present now in the Church Militant on earth, and for all of those Christians, we included, looking for the complete and eternal glorification in the Church Triumphant.  Let us briefly consider each group and what they have to teach us about being saints.

Sometimes it seems as if we only focus on a certain group of Saints, whether it be those great Prophets of the Old Testament, or those Apostles of the New.  Perhaps, you may, as I do from time to time, muse upon the various great figures of the Bible with considerable envy.  “Oh” say I, “if only I had the wisdom of a Solomon, or the patience of a Job, or the leadership qualities of a Moses, or even the tenacious persistence of a Paul!  How blessed I would be!”

These are valid thoughts, I believe.  It is true that we who are in the historic Church and who believe in the primacy of Holy Scripture have a unique and wonderful perspective when we look back on the history of the Church. Quoting Sir Isaac Newton in a letter to his rival Robert Hooke, in 1676: “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants."[1]  We in the historic Church have indeed stood upon the shoulders of Giants.  The great men and women of the Church have and do serve as examples to us. We are indeed blessed to have their godly examples before us as we seek to emulate them.  These are people that God blessed with a great portion of His spirit and thus shine with  light perpetual throughout the ages.  Again, Thank God for them. 
Yet, when we do look back with wondering hearts and eyes, we may have a certain temptation to say or think:  “That was then…this is now. Surely saints like that don’t exist anymore.  After all, these are figures in the Bible.  Things like that don’t happen now.”  There actually is some truth to that statement.  In our modern faithless society, God may not pour out His Spirit in exactly the same way that He did in the Book of Acts, where St. Peter’s shadow could heal the sick, or when St. Paul could rebuke a spirit with a word, or even raise the dead with a prayer. 
Maybe those were signs for the Church that don’t necessarily apply to the Church today.  Perhaps.  Perhaps those were signs meant for the building up of the 1st century Church.  That could be. 
Yet, that does not excuse you or me from being what God in Christ has called us to be.  Just because we don’t or can’t work great miracles doesn’t mean that we can’t be great saints.  Just because we don’t speak in tongues doesn’t mean that we are not “saved”, as some ultra-fundamentalist groups believe.  In short, just because we don’t exhibit the externalia of the Spirit doesn’t give any indication of our spiritual condition, or more importantly, our standing with God.
Usually, the work of the Spirit is usually a quiet thing, growing inside us, sanctifying us, making us holier than we were this time last year.  Along this line, recall the classic Anglican belief about salvation:  “I am saved; I am being saved; I hope to be saved.”  That is, my salvation is an accomplished fact through Jesus Christ; my continued sanctification is an on-going work of the Holy Spirit; and my eventual glorification in Heaven is my hope, the thing to which I look forward.  Not “hope” in the sense that I might not get it, but “hope” in the sense of something eagerly awaited. In the words of St. Paul from Philippians 3:14 “I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. “  This “pressing forward” is our calling as the saints of God and should be our foremost spiritual activity.
This realization is critical to us here in the Church Militant on earth:  we are called to be saints. We, here and now, are called to be saints to all those around us. Our speech, our actions, and our demeanor should bespeak our condition as the elect of God.  Not in some dour, “holier-than-thou” attitude of “spiritual one-upmanship”, but in a genuine, overwhelming sharing of our joy and love based on the reality of our salvation.
 Our foremost calling is to love God with all of our hearts, with all of our minds, and with all our strength; then to love our neighbor as ourselves.  When we approach our ideal, we will be saints indeed.
It is my firm conviction that those who have left a church building or a church structure, or something warm and familiar for the sake of truth, are saints.  Those who have preferred the sharp, clear, sometimes uncomfortable brilliance of truth over the fuzzy opaque-ness of heterodoxy, not matter how comfortable, are saints.  Finally, those who have loved their Lord Jesus Christ to the exclusion of being with the “right” crowd are saints. It may be uncomfortable, it may be inconvenient.  It is certainly not easy.
We come here each Sunday to celebrate something.  On the surface, it seems as if we are just preserving some 17th century ritual or liturgy.  It seems like we are just preserving the old and accustomed, as opposed to the new and adventurous, the progressive, the modern.  “How could you do that, the world exclaims?  The language is so funny!” 
Well, to the uninitiated, the language is funny, the actions quaint and un-modern.  But, beloved in the Lord, this is not why we do this.  True, we all think that the liturgy is the time-honored way to worship, dating from the primitive church.  True, we think that reading the Scriptures each Sunday is the best way to ground our worship in the Word of God. It is true, also, that we think that liturgical prayer is the most powerful way to pray, focusing all of our prayer efforts in a single, condensed direction.
Yet, for all of these advantages, this is not the reason we gather here each Sunday.  The reason that we gather here each Sunday is that we put forth and celebrate the Truth.  That truth is Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. That truth is so profound and so self-evident that it offends the world around us, which prefers to rest its hope in moral equivalency, or even moral ambivalence. 
That is, the world looks at us askance, even aghast and says, “How can you claim to have the truth?  How dare you to make such a claim!”
We make this claim for several reasons, first, because the Church throughout the ages has given us her testimony.  Simply, it is what the Church Militant does.  It is our job to bear witness to the truth.  In that vein, millions of saints have gone before us, worshipping and testifying to the saving grace of Jesus Christ.  Second, we have the Word of God to comfort us, strengthen us, and to guide us.  When we read the Holy Word of God with faith, His Spirit is always there to support and defend us with His almighty power.  Third, when we come together to celebrate the historic Eucharist, we invoke the power of God upon us.  Not bringing Christ down to us, as the medieval church believed, but rather the lifting up of our hearts and spirits to God. In faith, we have a tiny glimpse of the glories of heaven each Sunday in the Holy Eucharist as we celebrate the Holy Mysteries.  We say:” Therefore with Angels and Archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious Name; evermore praising thee and saying Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts, Heaven and earth are full of thy glory: Glory be to thee, O Lord most high.”  Who can say those words with faith and not be moved?  This is what the Church Militant on earth does: it actively, vigorously celebrates the mystery of Christ in the Eucharist and in our lives.
Someday, beloved, all of us will move through the constriction of this limited life through the gates of larger life. There, with the redeemed in Christ, we will await our final glorification with the Church Expectant.  What the nature of this intermediate state is, we do not know.  True, all of us will stand before the judgment seat of Christ someday, but blessed be to God, our judgment will not be as those who have not trusted in Christ for their salvation. 
We who have been washed white in the Blood of the Lamb will not come under judgment, that is to say, condemnation, but rather will pass from death unto life. We who hold up Christ as our only justification for salvation will enter into life everlasting. We will join that great “cloud of witnesses”, beholding all events both in heaven and earth.
The last stage of our eternal journey is our final glorification as the Church Triumphant.  That will be that great day when all enemies of Christ, including Satan and all his evil angels, will be bound under the feet of Christ in abject submission.  In that great day, no evil will rear its ugly head, no rebellion will be uttered, but all things will be in order under the rule of Christ.  We who have trusted in Christ will have completed our journey from earthbound, fallen creatures to our eternal destiny as sons and daughters of the living God.  Washed in the waters of Holy Baptism, nurtured by God’s Holy Word , and fed by the Body and Blood of Christ, we will be carried by our ark of salvation, the Church, to our final and blessed home.
We celebrate that journey today.  With all Christians, past, present and future, we affirm the truth of our inheritance.  Above all, we give thanks to God, the author and finisher of our faith, confessing this: “Holy God, we praise thy Name; Lord Almighty, we confess thee; All the earth doth thee acclaim and in awe and wonder bless thee; Thou who wast before all time, Art eternal, high, sublime.”[2]
AMEN 

  




[1] The Phrase Finder, www.phrases.org
[2] “Te Deum” Hymn 273, The Hymnal of the Protestant Episcopal Church, Church Pension Fund, New York, 1940