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Thursday, November 19, 2015

Grace and peace from God

Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Paul’s Anglican Church
Sunday Next before Advent, 2015

Philippians 1:1   Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons:  Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ.

In this statement, St. Paul bids peace and grace to the congregation at Philippi, both in his own name and that of his traveling companion, Timotheus.  This is, of course, the same Timothy to whom Paul would write two epistles, called “the Pastorals”, which are still used in diaconal exams to this day. Later in history, this same Timothy would become the first bishop of Crete and would help spread the Gospel for years after Paul’s martyrdom in Rome.

Of interest also is mention of two of the Church’s historic orders, as St. Paul mentions the bishops and deacons in the church at Philippi. This is interesting, and instructive as well, for it shows clearly that these orders existed in the earliest days of the Church.

Why is the office of the priesthood, not mentioned?  Simply because that at that time it did not exist. The priesthood did not exist until later, when the Church had grown so much that bishops simply could not handle the ministry work load.  At the same time, it was not thought prudent to consecrate many more bishops just to baptize, celebrate the Eucharist, and to perform other duties considered beyond the diaconate, but not necessarily rising to the level of bishop. The office of priest was to do this work of the Church. Thus, the office was created.

The reason we mention this is twofold. First, we want to reinforce the validity of clerical orders in the Church, and by so doing, show that we orthodox Christians seek to preserve the Church according to its earliest model.

Secondly, we want to emphasize the orderly nature of God.  As most of us have heard many times, we worship a God of order.  He is not a God of confusion or chaos.  He is never hurried, hasty, or uncertain.  He simply IS.  God, in His complete serenity, sees eternity at a glance. Better said, He IS eternity.
From the burning bush, Moses heard (Exodus 3:14): " And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.

With that thought in mind, let us briefly consider the perfect plan God prepared for the salvation of mankind. In our epistle selection, God speaks through the suffering prophet, Jeremiah. We hear a statement very fitting for this Sunday Next before Advent: (Jeremiah 23:5-6): “Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth.  6 In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely: and this is his name whereby he shall be called, THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS” 

In other words, God the Father didn’t suddenly decide one day that Jesus Christ should leave His glory, take the form of a man, and come save mankind from his sins.  Rev. 13:8 speaks of the “…lamb slain from the foundation of the world." In other words, the advent of Christ was conceived from the beginning of the world.  Seeing eternity in one view, God knows all things, sees all things, and in a strange and mysterious way, directs all things.

In our limited reality, we are experiencing the Sunday Next before Advent.  In the church year, we re-live the spectacle of salvation from its prophetic beginning to its dramatic conclusion on Easter morning.  Consider these words from Jeremiah 23:7-8: “Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that they shall no more say, The LORD liveth, which brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt; 8 But, The LORD liveth, which brought up and which led the seed of the house of Israel out of the north country, and from all countries whither I had driven them; and they shall dwell in their own land.”

At first glance, these words may hold little significance for us.  A closer examination shows they have monumental significance. The first part of the statement says that the people, both the Jews and the redeemed in Christ, will not just say that their God lives who brought them out of Egypt. In other words, God is not just the Lord of the Old Testament - the witness of the deliverance from Egypt.  In the more perfect revelation of God received by the people, they will now affirm that their God will restore them to their own land, from which He had driven them because of their sin. 

While the deliverance from our original state of bondage was wonderful, symbolized by the Jew’s deliverance from Egypt, their salvation was not complete. Later in the Bible, we see the complete fall into sin by both Israel and Judah. The Law was not enough, nor was the witness of all the prophets who were sent to warn them from their sin. Something else was needed. 
This complete salvation is symbolized by the people’s worship of God as He restores them to their original land.  This “land” is, of course, more than the restoration of the Jews to Palestine. It is our eternal home with God.  It is that perfect country which we seek, brought about by the Gospel message of the New Testament.  Thus, while the first statement glorifies God in the Old Testament’s witness of deliverance from bondage, the second statement glorifies Him in the New Testament’s witness of restoration and homecoming.

How will this restoration and homecoming be accomplished?  In God’s perfect Mind, it has already been accomplished through the King about whom Jeremiah prophesied. This Messiah will deliver Israel from her sins and lead her to righteousness.  We Gentiles, who have been “graffed into” the Tree of Life, are included in the family of God by Jesus Christ. [i]

This is what we are preparing for this Advent Season.  Not for the family gatherings, the presents, and the decorations of the Christmas Season.  All of these things occur because we are celebrating the fulfillment of prophecy. It is a prophecy that came true in the Person of Jesus Christ and one that can come true in our hearts today, as we prepare for the Advent season.

Thus, grasp this Advent Season with all of your spiritual strength and hold it close to you.  Take from it all of the meaningful inklings of the coming Christmas Season. Discard from it all distracting and ultimately meaningless celebrations that do not honor Christ.

Let this Advent be a time of preparation and anticipation for the fulfilling of Jeremiah’s prophecy.  

Jeremiah 23:6 “In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely: and this is his name whereby he shall be called, THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS.”

[i] Rom. 11:17

Thursday, October 1, 2015

"What is the great commandment in the Law"

The Rev’d Stephen E. Stults
St. Paul’s Anglican Church
18th Sunday after Trinity 2015

(Mat 22:35)  Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law?

This passage of Matthew from today’s Gospel is one of the pivotal moments in the New Testament and, even for the entire Christian faith. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, in what Jesus says, he upsets the entire religious system of the ancient world.  Second, he gives us testimony as to who He really is.

In the story, Christ was “tempted” by a lawyer. The Pharisees were playing their deadly game with Him, so they might accuse him.  They made the study of legal minutiae their life’s work, so we presume they were trying to get Jesus to emphasize one part of the Law over another., This would leave him open to a theological charge that Jesus was denigrating one section of the law, while exalting another, or that he was invalidating the Law altogether.

This is a trap which Jesus deftly sidesteps, while profoundly altering their understanding of the Law. In his reply to the lawyer, He completely alters the way Man looks to God and the way God appears to Man. How?

The answer lies in the question of the lawyer itself.  He asks, “Master, what is the great commandment in the Law?”  On the surface, it sounds like an honest question.  Yet, the word in the Greek is (peirazo {pi-rad'-zo}) meaning “to test one maliciously, craftily; to put to the proof his feelings or judgments, or to try or test one's faith, virtue, character, by enticement to sin.” [1] It is translated in the Authorized Version as “tempted”. 

It also shows the understanding of the ancient Jewish mind, in regards to Deity.  What was the basis of the Law? How did Man relate to God? We know that it was based on obeying the precepts of the Law and included frequent sacrifice. One became righteous by doing, by acting, and by performing.  In short, one became righteous because of what one did, not because of what one was. Righteousness and salvation were based on works. One built, through “sweat equity”, one’s own personal house of salvation in the ancient world.

The problem is, as St. Paul reminds over and over again, is that such a house is built on sand. No one is justified by his works because, despite our best efforts, we run into our own sinfulness again and again.  Recall St. Paul’s cry of frustration from Romans 7:24:  “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” This cry comes at the end of a long discussion of his desire to do what is right, as well as his utter inability to do so.  Despite the fact that the World desperately wants to believe the heart of man is basically good, we know that it is just not so.  History belies that wish with complete consistency.

Works are not the answer.  There is not one commandment in the Mosaic Law that Man can do to save himself.  His work and effort come to naught because salvation does not come from works. Instead, Christ sums up the law by saying that man can do one thing: he can love. Simply, 1) love God with your whole being: with all of your heart, with all of your mind and with all of your soul; and 2) love your neighbor as yourself.  In beautiful brevity, Jesus “boils down” the hundreds of legalistic commandments developed by the Scribes and Pharisees to two short commandments: love God and love your neighbor. 

This was so radical that it must have shaken the Pharisees to their very roots.  Their whole belief system was threatened.  Now, man need no longer to looks fearfully to the heavens to placate the Deity through legalistic obedience and sacrifice. Now, because of Christ, things were changed. Now man was called upon to love his God with his entire being and to love his neighbor as himself. Man was called upon to open himself to the possibility of an infinite Love. Man’s understanding of God, through Christ, had been altered irrevocably. Love is the answer for man’s salvation, not his own feeble works.

Lest any of us think this is simply a platitude, let us remind ourselves what life in the ancient world was like. It did not run on love, but on raw power, merciless military might, the subjugation of entire peoples, and ruthless exploitation. Let us say that the ancient world machine moved on the pitiless lubricant of human misery.  To top it off, it was ruled by Law, stern and foreboding.

Now, comes Jesus Christ with this radical statement: Love God with all of your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. For those who heard Christ in the past, are hearing Him in the present, and will hear Him in the future, things will never be the same.  A new law has come to town.
 The other important point in this passage of Scripture is that Jesus testifies to Himself as the completion of the Law and Covenants in an indirect, yet forceful way.

Jesus turns the tables on the Pharisees by asking them a question: (Mat 22:42) “What think ye of Christ? whose son is he?”  Their answer is instructive, as they respond, “The Son of David.” It is correct, being taken out of the Prophets.  Yet, Jesus shows their incomplete understanding of the Messiah when He says,

(Mat 22:43-45) “He saith unto them, How then doth David in spirit call him Lord, saying, The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, till I make thine enemies thy footstool? If David then call him Lord, how is he his son?”

What Our Lord is talking about here is the miracle that is Himself.  He is referring to that once-in-history happening when God took on manhood.  Thus, Jesus is the son of David in the flesh, as he is of the house and lineage of David. Yet, he is also God, whom David in spirit and in devotion calls Lord.  Jesus Christ is where God and Man co-inhere perfectly in one Person, without mixture or confusion
This perfect God-Man came to save us from our fallen-ness so we may be united with Him forever in bliss.
This Christ is not only the complete revelation of the Law; he is also the complete and final covenant with Man.

Col 1:18-19  sums it up And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence. For it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell;”

This is what Christ was telling the Pharisees.  Evidently, they got the message, if not to the point of belief, at least to the point where they realized that further debate was pointless.  The Gospel tells us: (Mat 22:46) “And no man was able to answer him a word, neither durst any man from that day forth ask him any more questions.”

So it is when the arrogance of man meets the infinitude of God.

Instead of faithless questions, may we ever offer endless praise to Jesus Christ, our only Lord and Savior.

(Jud 1:25)  To the only wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen.

[1] Bibleworks, Matt. 22:35, Strong’s notes.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Pride and Perfection

Trinity XVII
St. Paul’s Anglican Church
Sept. 27, 2015

“O Lord, let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart be alway  acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. ”

Luke 14:1 “And it came to pass, as he went into the house of one of the chief Pharisees to eat bread on the sabbath day, that they watched him.”

Our Gospel for the day gives us a familiar picture, Christ amongst the Pharisees. We see Christ entering a house to partake in the Sabbath feast at the house of one of the “chief” Pharisees.  We know from Rabbinical sources that the Sabbath day was intended for feasting, for celebration, and for rest.  One commentator tells us, quoting a Rabbinical precept:  "Meet the Sabbath with a lively hunger; let thy table be covered with fish, flesh, and generous wine.”[1] The food, in accordance with Sabbath principle of no work being done on that day, was prepared the day before.  Thus, the day was set aside for feasting, rest and for recreation.

Instead of using the day for its intended purpose of godly fellowship and relaxation, the Pharisees around Jesus “watched” Him.   This was typical any time Jesus was with them.  Some godly Pharisees, like Nicodemus, were curious and wanted to hear more from Jesus.  Most however, had an ulterior motive: they wanted to “entangle Him in His talk.”  We know from the Gospels that Christ drew large crowds wherever He went, and thus, many of the Jewish leaders were consumed with jealousy and envy.  They were concerned for their exalted position in society; thus, the close attention they paid to Christ, but not for a beneficent reason.

This scene was created perfectly for a confrontation: “And, behold, there was a certain man before him which had the dropsy.”   We don’t know if the man was a “plant”, or whether he took advantage of the open nature of the Middle Eastern house to draw near in hopes of a healing.  All we know that this man was there for the glorification of God and of Christ’s sovereignty over the ills of man.

Christ asks the penetrating question: “Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath day?”  This is addressed to the Pharisees and the “lawyers”, better known as “scribes”; the ones entrusted with copying the Law with “zero tolerance” for errors. The Pharisees and Scribews were, indeed, the guardians of the Law of Moses, along with the manifold additions of the priestly class over the generations since Moses. By this time, there were several hundred aspects of the Law that governed Jewish life.  These were not God-given, but rather the additions of man.  Recall what Jesus told us during another confrontation with the Pharisees in Matthew 23:23: Woe unto you you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.”

Thus, when Christ asked the question, He already knew the answer. The Mosaic Law permitted one to rescue a beast fallen into the ditch or a hole, to rescue a child fallen into the sea, and to administer some types of first aid. The obvious answer is a resounding “yes.”  Yet, due to the hardness of their hearts, they kept silence: “… they held their peace.” Why?  Another commentator says: “If the lawyers and Pharisees declared it lawful, they defeated their plot, and if they said otherwise, they involved themselves in an argument with Jesus in which, as experience taught them, they would be humiliated before the people. Hence, they kept silence, but their silence only justified him, since it was the duty of every lawyer to pronounce this act unlawful if it had been so.”[2]

Jesus, according to Luke, “…took him, and healed him, and let him go;” Christ then followed this up with the Rabbinical principle that they all knew, but would not admit:  “Which of you shall have an ass or an ox fallen into a pit, and will not straightway pull him out on the sabbath day?”

Consider the absolute hardness of these men’s hearts. They had just witnessed, first-hand, a miraculous healing; yet all they can worry about is breaking the law of the Sabbath!  It is simply amazing.  God’s Power is so very clearly and convincingly shown to them, laid at their feet, but they can’t see it.  They can’t see it for a very special reason, which Christ makes clear in the parable He relates next.

Christ says:  “8 When thou art bidden of any man to a wedding, sit not down in the highest room; lest a more honourable man than thou be bidden of him;  9 And he that bade thee and him come and say to thee, Give this man place; and thou begin with shame to take the lowest room.  10 But when thou art bidden, go and sit down in the lowest room; that when he that bade thee cometh, he may say unto thee, Friend, go up higher: then shalt thou have worship in the presence of them that sit at meat with thee.”

Certain seats at a feast were considered the most honorable, yet Jesus’ instruction insists upon humility.  Christ gives a spiritual meaning to the social instruction[3]. A noted commentator has said, “The reward of pride is dishonour, and the reward of true modesty is glory.”[4]  Thus, seeking the lowest place for oneself has its own reward.

This lesson of humility is very clear. To sum it up, Jesus says (Luke 14:11) ”For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”

There we have it.  Christ exposes the one special reason why they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, see what was happening. That reason, simply, was pride. Pride in their position in society, pride in their erudition in the Law, pride in the deference they were paid by men, and most of all, their over-weaning spiritual pride.

Pride is often the chief barrier to the acceptance of Christ and his saving message.  God’s Grace will not enter a prideful heart, but, according to Psalm 51:17: “a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.”

And so it is with us.  Not that anyone here could be accused of having the pride of a Pharisee.  God forbid. Yet, for all of us, including your rector, pride is a constant enemy to spiritual growth. In my own life, it’s probably impossible to say how many times pride has gotten me into trouble, or, at the very least, into some degree of humiliation when I thought too much of myself, or attempted something that was beyond me.

Yet, we have a defense against our old spiritual enemy, pride. That defense, so easily used and yet so little availed, is a sense of our true standing before God: that of miserable sinners in need of redemption. When we constantly confess our sins and humbly seek absolution and restoration, God’s Grace flows to us like a river of blessing.  While God resists the proud, He readily accepts those who acknowledge their need of Him.

Then, we receive the bountiful blessings of His Grace in our lives.

Luke 14:11   For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.

[1] B.W. Johnson, B.W. Johnson’s Bible Commentary, BibleClassics,com
[2] McGarvey and Pendelton, Commentary on the Book of Luke,
[3] Ibid
[4] Calvin, John, Commentary on the Book of Luke, BibleClassics, com

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Grace and Glory: the Whole Family in Heaven and Earth

Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Paul’s Anglican Church
Trinity VX1
Sept. 20, 2015

Examining St. Paul’s Epistle selection from Ephesians, one comes to a shattering conclusion: our God offers to us something we can’t get from anybody else.  God offers us something that is truly unique. What might that be, one might ask?  After all, those of us Christians who are truly committed to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ already trust in Him for our salvation.  Those of us who partake of the holy mystery of the Eucharist already have a deep abiding faith in our eternal life with Him.  If we have this saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, what else need God give us?  After all, this wonderful sense of our salvation through Christ is really the “big idea” of Christianity. What else could God give us?

First of all, Paul enjoins the congregation at Ephesus to “faint not at my tribulations for you.”  This may refer to the trouble that he suffered at Ephesus spreading the Gospel.  Recall the Ephesus contained one of the great worship centers to Diana, the Greco-Roman huntress-goddess.  She was worshipped everywhere there.  In fact, there was quite a lucrative trade in silver Diana statuettes, shrines and necklaces flourishing in that city. In Acts 19 we learn of the craftsmen’s concern that, with the appearance of Paul and this “new” religion, their “craft is in danger to be set at nought.”[1] Thus, the great uproar that caused Paul and his companions to be dragged into the city’s amphitheater, where, the crowd cheered Diana for about three hours before the town magistrate finally broke it up.   

St. Paul mentions that his tribulations are “your glory.”  He actually rejoices in suffering for the Lord Jesus!  Paul then follows this up with the wonderful statement, (Ephesians 3:15)  “Of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named,”

This is a key point. We mentioned that only God could give us something that nobody else could.  Could this be it?  Could this be the one thing that only God can give us?  Yes, yes, and again, yes!  Only God in Christ can give us the one thing that will never pass away, a true, permanent and eternal family.  Through Christ, we become members in the one family relationship that is not tainted by death, decay or sin.  Only God in Christ can give us the true family in which there never will be any rancor or disagreement.  Imagine that.  Imagine a loving family that never passes away and is never “dysfunctional”.

Is such a thing even possible?  Those of us who have had some family friction simply shake our heads.  How God could frame His heavenly organization in such a fashion, knowing the failings to which all families are prone?  

That is true …yet, are we talking about the fallen families of man, with all the nastiness, anger, greed and self-service that they imply, or are we talking about the perfected, glorified company of the saints?  In Heaven, we have the perfect, joyous group of the Church Triumphant, contrasted with the faint earthly reflection of it here.  After all, the best things on Earth are but a faint reflection of things in heaven. Thus, imagine the very best family gathering you ever experienced, magnified to an infinite degree.  

Another corollary to this is the situation of the orphan.  Consider those who have never had a family.  Those poor, isolated souls who have never had the embrace of a family’s love, flawed though it is, will have the fullest expression of familial love in its perfection.

Consider this: our growth in Heaven will be eternal.  We will know and enjoy God in all His Eternality.  Our growth in holiness, however, begins here. John Calvin once said, “The highest perfection of the godly in this life is an earnest desire to make progress. This strengthening, he tells us, is the work of the Spirit; so that it does not proceed from man’s own ability. The increase, as well as the commencement, of everything good in us, comes from the Holy Spirit.”[2]

Calvin’s point, and that of the Epistle selection, is really one of grace. Citing an O.T. reading from Deuteronomy, the major realization we must make as Christians is that God set his grace upon us, not because of our deserving, but because of His ebullient Love for us.

This brings us back to relationship and from there, back to family.  Christ our Brother, God our Father and the Holy Spirit the Sanctifier, all desire to have you for all eternity. This is simply amazing. As the inspired Word of God tells us, God desires a close, personal relationship with us.

How does this happen?  How can we enter into such a relationship with our Lord and Master?  Once again, we ask, perhaps in stupefied amazement, how is such a thing possible?  Turning back to Calvin, he says: “This deserves our careful attention. Most people consider fellowship with Christ, and believing in Christ, to be the same thing; but the fellowship which we have with Christ is the consequence of faith.” Completely agreeing with this, St. Paul says that he wishes that we all, ”according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man;”[3] This “might” of which St. Paul speaks is the power that comes from faith.  This is the faith that we have a Heavenly Father who, through the Holy Spirit and the intercession of Christ, always hears our prayers, supplications, thanksgivings and praises.  This is the faith that allows us to call upon God for all our needs, big and small. Finally, it is the faith that allows us to cherish a relationship with the Almighty that is both strengthening and nourishing to our souls and spirits.  What is the result of this faith?  Is it a warm, fuzzy feeling that all will be OK?  Is it a vague, feel-good sensation that resembles a cosmic dose of Valium or Librium? 

By no means!  This is the faith that makes alive.  This is the faith that procures strength when we think that we cannot go on.  It is the faith that allows us to experience real, life-changing fellowship with God.  Returning once more to John Calvin, hear these words of wisdom and perception:  “No man can approach to God without being raised above himself and above the world. On this ground the sophists refuse to admit that we can know with certainty that we enjoy the grace of God; for they measure faith by the perception of the bodily senses. But Paul justly contends that this wisdom exceeds all knowledge; for, if the faculties of man could reach it, the prayer of Paul that God would bestow it must have been unnecessary.”

The result of this faith is that Christ may dwell in our hearts by faith, and that we are “rooted and grounded” in love.  When we reach a realization of Christ’s love for us, we too may “may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height;  19 And to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God.”  In other words, our faith will allow us get a handle on the immensity of God’s love for us, as much as humanly possible.   It is my humble opinion that we flawed humans, so hopelessly marred by sin and rebellion, cannot possibly understood the infinite degree of God’s love for us.

Yet, we must try. We must grab God’s love for us with both hands and hug it to our breast, knowing that because God so loves us, we can love others and ourselves. We are actually unable to love others until, through the Grace of God, we are able to love ourselves completely in Christ. This overwhelming love of God for us is then projected to others… 

It is at this point that we begin to grow into the person God wants.  Not weak, but strong in faith. Not hateful, but strong in love. Not faithless, but faithful in God through Christ. Not sorrowful, but moving through the sorrow of this fallen world in joy and hope.

Listen to this wonderful closing benediction from the end of the 3rd chapter of Ephesians: “Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, 21 Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.”[4]

What more can be said?

[1] Acts 19:24-26
[2] Calvin, John, “Commentary on Ephesians 3”
[3] Ibid
[4] Eph. 3:21-21

Friday, September 11, 2015

Abundance and Faith

15th Sunday after Trinity 2015
St. Paul’s Anglican Church
Rev. Stephen E. Stults

13 September, 2015

This is the third and last Sunday that St. Paul speaks to us on the topic of law vs. grace, from the epistle to the Galatians. As you will recall, this was the theme of the last two weeks’ epistles.  

Why is this worthy of notice, you may ask?  Put another way, in the great scheme of things, why is this important?  The answer to this question is only important to those who meditate upon their metaphysical state and salvation. That is, those who consider weighty questions such as: what is the nature of the human soul; why am I eternal; and, does my soul truly live forever? 

If one will make a positive response to all three questions, then all these questions have value; in fact, in the truly long view of existence they are the only questions that matter.

It is this context that St. Paul speaks to the Galatians (and to us) about the weighty question: who will be our master?  Looking at the Galatian Church, St. Paul was dealing with a very real and determined threat from a group called the Judaizers.  They were backers of a strict adherence to the Law of Moses. Paul was literally “dogged” by this determined group of opponents who followed him from town to town and threatened to undo all the evangelism he had just accomplished.  The Book of Acts details this tension several times, as Paul’s spread of the gospel of grace was nearly undone by this powerful and persuasive group of Jews.
Over time, the primitive church prevailed and grew, only to face other dangers and persecutions, most notably from the Roman authorities themselves.

Thus, the question is, will we be guided by grace or by law?  In short, which will be our master?

Turning from St. Paul the Apostle to Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we see a similar question posed to us by the Gospel selection from St. Matthew.  Now, Law and Grace have become Mammon and God.  Yet, the question is the same: who will be our master? 

Our Gospel selection comes from that great body of Christ’s teaching called the Sermon on the Mount.  In this famous sermon, recorded in Matthew over three chapters, Jesus covers a host of topics including: prayer, almsgiving, fasting, marriage, divorce, hypocrisy and our material life.  It is truly one of the great discourses of all time, known for its wisdom, its simplicity, and its breadth.  This particular section of Scripture shows Jesus in his role as Teacher, a role that was especially admired during the Enlightenment.  It was because of this emphasis on Christ the Teacher that Thomas Jefferson produced his own version of the Bible, one that emphasized the rational teachings of Jesus, in line with Enlightenment thinking, and expurgated the miraculous aspects of Jesus’ ministry. You see, miracles have no place in a universe ruled by pure reason. This section on the Sermon on the Mount was one that Jefferson admired because it was one of the finest examples of Jesus the Teacher.

Jesus does indeed teach us as he says: (Mat 6:24) “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” This topic has been attacked from every angle for hundreds of years, and deals with our attitudes towards money and our material success.

Christ is certainly not putting down material goods, or success, or even wealth.  You’ll recall that Jesus never does this in any of the Gospels. Instead, He attacks our attitude towards wealth, bringing out the concept of divided loyalties. Thus, Christ talks about “serving” mammon as opposed to using or even creating wealth.  Herein lays the crux.

The whole question, then, comes down to our loyalty.  Whom will we serve, Christ and His Kingdom, or “unrighteous Mammon” and the World? The choice is ours. Just keep in mind that we must choose.  Neutrality is not an option.

What’s fascinating about this sermon is that Christ moves directly from a discussion of
mammon to trust and God’s Providence. Simply put, this is a teaching about faith and all that it entails.  Just as the lilies of the field grow without worrying about their height or their splendor, and just as the ravens of the air are fed by God without worrying about sustenance, we  too are to trust in God for all that we need.

This leads us to consider what we think we need versus what we really need. Although Jesus brings it to a very basic level in this teaching, it is equally applicable to every aspect in our lives.  Christ says, “Do not worry about food, or drink, or raiment.  Trust in the Lord and these things will be provided. “What Jesus is really saying here is if we live in Covenant with God, He will provide for us. Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not to own understanding, as Proverbs says.

Thus, Jesus addresses our needs, but how about our wants? Ah, this is always the catch.  While our needs are finite, our wants are a different story.  As you all know, most of my corporate life was spent in the area of sales, sales management or sales training.  We were always told to focus on our wants when visualizing our goals. We were told to do this so that we would visualize ad infinitum. After you’ve sold enough for one material object, there is always more. Thus, the modern sin of always more, more, more.  Enough is never enough, especially in sales.

Applying this to our lives, just what and how much of “what” do we truly need?  This is a question that only the individual can answer. I will submit for your consideration that the Christian’s answer will be vastly different than the non-believer.  The Christian’s answer will, or should be, tempered by the Holy Spirit.  Again, I am not speaking against material abundance at all, but rather, just how close are we to it?  Christ says to our spirit, “Do you love this more than me?”

The point is, of course, how healthy are we, spiritually, in regards to our material goods?  It may be time for a spiritual “check-up” in regards to our possessions. Always remembering that we are but stewards of all that we possess, as good stewards we are called to accumulate, manage and safeguard what we have. But, we cannot let our “stuff” consume us.  On the other hand, we should not waste our abundance or mis-use it.

Christianity is not a call for rapacious accumulation of “stuff”, under the guise of covenantal blessings or conversely, to carelessness regarding material things, but it is a call to Godly wisdom.  When we recognize that all that we have belongs to God and not to us, that is wisdom. When we know that we are simply stewards of all we have, that is wisdom. When we agree with the Prayer Book on page 587, as it says, “Almighty God, is whom we live and move and have our being”, that is wisdom.  Consider what is elegantly stated in Proverbs 1:7, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

I pray that we understand and give thanks for the knowledge that all things belong to God.  When we make an offering, remember that we are merely returning a portion of what is His. Amen.

“You cannot serve God and mammon.” Matt. 6.24.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Civilization and the Gospel

Trinity IV, 2015

Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Paul’s Anglican Church

Luke 6:38 “Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom. For with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again.”

It’s been said that the Bible contains all the answers to man’s quandaries, no matter what they may be.  Christians claim that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, infallible and inerrant, containing all truth.  Christians say that no matter what your question or problem, the Bible can answer it, or at least shed light on it in a real and meaningful way. 

That’s a mighty big claim.  “How can a book, written over thousands of years by many, many voices contain such truth?, ask modernists and liberal scholars.  How can such a book that’s been translated into more languages than any other book in history have any semblance of consistency, and how can it have any application to modern folk today? 

That’s an excellent question, one that’s been asked ever since the canons of the Old and New Testaments were finalized.  When critics begin their attack on Christianity, they usually begin with the Bible.  Bring down the Bible, they say, and one can bring down the Christian religion.  Prove the Bible to be ultimately inconsistent or untrue and one can destroy Christianity.  Some sects and cults even have their own versions of the Scriptures, edited and expurgated to fit their own doctrinal views. Thus, as we are all aware, there are those in this world, inspired and energized by Satan, who would like nothing better than to see Christianity fail.

Yet, Christianity prevails.  The Word of God still speaks to people with a gentle force that is un-reckoned in this world.  The Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion are still efficacious to those who use them faithfully.

The Holy Spirit of God still hovers over His People, guarding, guiding and shepherding them.  The promise of Christ still holds true: “Matthew 18:20 “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”  Finally, the Golden Thread of the Gospel, despite two thousand years and innumerable translations, still shines brightly through the pages of the Bible.

That Golden Thread of Truth shines brightly in today’s Gospel as well.  For example, it’s been said that “Reciprocity is the basis for civilization.”  If that’s true, and one can hardly refute that statement, then Jesus Christ has given us some of the greatest truth of all time. 

This portion of the Gospel comes from one of Christ’s great discourses from Luke 6, called “The Sermon on the Plain.”  The entire sermon is simply self-evident truth.   For example, in the section chosen for today’s Gospel, Christ tells us several principles on which we should base our lives, for they provide the basis on which one can build a society.  Allow me to summarize them briefly:
1.      Judge not and you shall not be judged.
2.      The measure that you give is the measure that you get.
3.      Can the blind lead the blind?
4.      The student is not above his master.
5.      Avoid hypocrisy

The first point, “judge not and ye shall not be judged” is a favorite verse that atheists, agnostics the general non-believing population like to use against Christianity.   For example, they say that Christians are “judgmental” when we condemn their unrighteous behavior, whether it is sexual sin, including homosexuality, adultery, the practice of serial marriage, or their drug use; as well as their blatant dishonesty, or their approval of abortion on demand.   “Don’t judge me”, they say, meaning don’t disapprove of my behavior, despite its horrific consequences to the individual and to society. 

The Christian is supposed to go on their way, meekly turning a blind eye to blatant sin and rebellion.  If we say something is wrong, then we are accused of being “judgmental.”  To the modern, godless mindset, there is only one unforgivable sin, the so-called sin of “intolerance.”  Everything else, as long as it works for you, is OK.

Yet, in typical modern inconsistent style, the people of today have many, many rules.  They have a clear sense of right and wrong; it’s just not the same set of rules that we strive to live by.  If you listen to teenagers and “20 somethings”, you will discover that they have many rules, and woe be to those who violate them! Talk about social exclusion!

The point is, we all have rules.  The meaningful question is: whose rules are they?  People today just want their own rules, not the time-tested rules of Truth given by Christ.  It’s the oldest story ever, dating back to the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve wanted to make their own rules.  Despite what many humanists and social engineers want to believe, human nature is real and basically unchangeable, absent the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit.

Thus, we are to judge; but according to Christ, when he said in John 7:24 “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.”  The result of this is that we see the world correctly, make non-malicious judgments and in general, get a better reception from those around us.

The next law is the one that really undergirds society.  It’s been called the “reciprocity rule.”  What it says, is that what you put into something is what you’ll get out of it.  The more you give, the more you get.   It works in finances, it works in the workplace, it certainly works in marriage.  It’s almost too simple, for it says that the more effort, money, time and emotional involvement one invests in something, the more one will receive.  Of course, there are exceptions, as life always has variations, but in general, it works and it works largely.    

Next, Christ uses an apt parable when he said, Luke 6:39” Can the blind lead the blind? shall they not both fall into the ditch?”  Very simply said, if the leader lacks vision, where will the followers be? As we’ve seen at least since 1930’s, the vision of a man-made utopia, without the guidance of the Bible or Christian doctrine, is not a vision at all, but rather a blundering path that leads into the ditch

The point is, we (mankind) really need a Shepherd to stay in the right pasture.  When we depend on His eyes, we will always stay on the right path.

In the middle of this lesson, Christ inserts a seemingly incongruous statement. “the student is not above his master.”  At first glance, this may seem out of place, but when we look at it in the context of these other statements, it makes perfect sense.
 Christ has been teaching us all along about the value and nature of relationships in this lesson.   Do not make unfair or malicious assertions about people, give largely and you will receive largely, and trust your path to a wise and visionary leader, to name the first three rules.  Now, we learn that the student is not above his master. 

Although it was a hard lesson for me to learn, one day I realized that I just didn’t know it all.  I realized that there people who were much smarter, much better educated and certainly more godly than I was.  As the bumper sticker says,
”Those who think they know it all really irritate those of us who do.” Well, the lesson here is humility and the respect for one’s betters.  It’s fair to say humility is one of the greatest (and least practiced) of the virtues.  Yet, it keeps us out of trouble, both temporally and spiritually.  Christ is simply telling us to respect those who have more knowledge, virtue, talent or godliness than we do, learning from them as we can.

The last point is probably the greatest of all: avoid hypocrisy.  Live as you would have others live, treat others as you would have them treat you, and do what you say you will do.  Don’t do things personally that you would condemn in others. In short, have integrity in everything that you do. 

This is one of the greatest lessons Christ can teach us.  When we are consistent in our actions and our speech, and when our actions mirror our beliefs, we are on the way to true godliness and peace. Best of all, we avoid that most common accusation leveled against Christians: “They’re all a bunch of hypocrites.”  You see, when one tries to live a godly life and set high standards, it’s only natural that one will fail occasionally.  This is when our enemies attack us, for they seize upon our occasional failure and hold that up for the norm.  Every time a Jimmy Swaggert figure falls, they rejoice and trumpet the prevalence of hypocrisy in Christianity. What they don’t see are the millions of ordinary Christians going about their lives and trying the best they can to emulate Christ. 

That’s really what we are about today.  We are trying to follow Christ. We are trying to preserve sanity and godly order in a world gone its own way.  We certainly have a good start in these five simple rules.

 As always, keep your eyes fixed firmly upon Christ and all will be well.  As with the rule of reciprocity, the more that we cling to Christ, the more strength, love, joy and peace we will possess.

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