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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.