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Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Calling and Condition

The Rev.  Stephen E. Stults
St. Paul’s Anglican Church
5th  Sunday in Trinity 2016

Our Gospel from St. Luke brings forth some interesting questions. How does God call us?
How do we know when God calls us? What is the nature of our call? Finally, how do we respond?

First of all, we know that God calls each of us in different ways and fashions. Each man and woman hears the call of God in a different, yet intensely personal way. Our Lord speaks to us all individually, if we are inclined to listen.  What is fascinating is how He does it.

To His glory, God uses both unity in diversity and diversity in unity when calling us.  What do we mean by that? Simply that Our Lord uses the same general means to call us, yet it is perceived and received in a myriad of ways.

God uses both a general call as well as an individualized one that all men are issued at some time in their life.

The general call of grace is one that was issued from the Cross. Christ, through His one- time Sacrifice, called all men unto Him. John 12:32 says:And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.”. There was, and is, a general outpouring of grace from this act. Some hear and are moved to respond. Their response may be a great commitment, a greater yearning, or even just a greater curiosity. At the same time, there are many who never listen to this general call of grace.

 All people also receive an individual call from God as well.  He calls all people, someway, sometime in their life. Many people are led to follow that call. These people are destined to grow in the faith to whatever degree God has willed for them.  They are to enjoy the fellowship of the Spirit and of the Church. There are also many other people who are called, but do not answer. That is a profound mystery known only to God Himself. 

Within the general call of mankind there is a special subset for those whose call is deeper and with a more persistent nature.  These people respond with a stirring of the heart and of the spirit to God.  These are those souls for whom the Spirit does not return empty. Rather, through the advocacy and facilitation of the Holy Spirit, there is a communication, a link, a response that says “yes” to Him.

The question is, how do we know when God call us and what is the nature of that call?  This is difficult, and the answer may not be satisfactory to those who admire clear, crisp answers. The reason is that one can’t give a perfect answer, except that one will simply “know” when He calls us. Here is where the diversity in unity is apparent.  While His Call is general, our perception of it is individual and specific. As a younger man, searching for God, it was frustrating trying to hear the voice of God, most probably because I was seeking the wrong things. God is heard more often in the quiet, small voice than in the babbling of many tongues.

Also, while “crash-boom” spiritual experiences are more dramatic, they are less common and may be less meaningful over time as well.  How many of us have known someone who has had a remarkable conversion experience and has turned their life over to Christ, only to revert to their old, unsatisfactory ways some time afterward?  Unfortunately, it happens, especially if one is looking for the quality of the experience, rather than the durable nature of a changed life.

Consider the” home-grown” conversion; one that is private, deep and meaningful, without the spiritual fireworks. In the quiet interior of our souls, we sense God’s call. This may begin as a “drawing towards”. Something in us simply wants something, although it is not always apparent what that is. It is also an unfortunate fact that a calling comes usually not from a sense of comfort, but discomfort. That is, only in answering the call will that soul find peace. 

Despite what our call may have been, or how it was received, the last and most important question is: how do we respond to it? Let’s look to our Gospel selection for answers.

First, we recognize that Christ was simply following ancient Jewish tradition in gathering disciples to him.  Jewish doctors of the law often recruited disciples to teach Torah.[1] Yet Christ did this not by going to the Temple to select the “best and the brightest.” Instead, He went to the lake of Genessaret and taught the common crowds as they “pressed” upon him by the lake.  They were hungry to hear him, for the people perceived the truth in what He was saying, as well as they way He delivered it. You’ll recall that one of the Gospels (Mat. 7:29) says, “For he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.”   In this case, as He was teaching by the Sea of Galilee, the people were actually “pressing” Him into the water!

Jesus needed a place to teach, so He enters into one of the fishing boats nearby and asks the fisherman to push off a little into the lake so He can address the crowd.  After speaking for a while, he turns to the fisherman, Simon Peter, and tells him, “Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught.” Simon’s answer is instructive: he says, “Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing: nevertheless at thy word I will let down the net.  In other words, “we’ve worked all night, we’ve caught nothing and we’ve even cleaned our nets, but if you say so, we’ll let down the net.”

Jesus’ calm, commanding presence compels him to do so and his attitude changes dramatically.  Why? The miraculous draft of fish is so great that the net begins to break and they fill both boats full to the point of sinking!  Note Peter’s reaction.He recognizes the ultimate holiness there with him, and is terrified. Recall that an ancient Hebrew believed that if one were to come in contact with God’s holiness, the result would be instant destruction.

Jesus calms Simon and issues His call, saying “Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men” He calls Peter just as he is, where he is. This is exactly what God does for us.  He calls us as we are and where we are.  He calls us “To launch out into the deep and to let down our nets for a draught.”

We, like Peter, are often afraid, or resistant.  Perhaps we too have “toiled all the night” in the deep, dark places of our souls “and have taken nothing.” 

That is, until Christ calls us, our lives’ nets are empty until they are filled with the miraculous “catch” of His love.  Certainly, one can seem to have it all: job, money, family, success. But without God, there comes a moment in everyone’s life when they realize they “have toiled all the night and have taken nothing.” You see, our lives’ nets are truly empty without Christ.

Luke 5:8   “When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”

[1] “Commentary on Luke 5-11”

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Travail and Deliverance

Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Paul’s Anglican Church
June 19, 2012

Our Epistle comes from one of the “core” sections of N.T. Scripture, St. Paul’s  8th chapter of Romans.  Some commentators have called this Epistle Paul’s tour de force, as he expounds on the doctrines of grace, hope, sin, justification, forgiveness and salvation.  It is certainly one of this priest’s personal favorites, as it was chiefly responsible for his adult “re-conversion” at the tender age of 22.  Romans reawakened my own slumbering faith and made me see my desperate need for a Savior.

We know God constantly calls us into repentance, forgiveness, and restoration. He does this first through our baptisms, as the taint of original sin is washed away by the water of rebirth. We are also restored through the Holy Ghost, as he pricks our consciences and guides us, if we will listen to Him. All of us need to heed that small, still voice of the Spirit. Yet, we all know how easy it is to ride roughshod over the Spirit and go our own way, usually to our own detriment. Possessing free will, so often we flaunt our will in the presence of divine guidance.. Our raging human will, led by the impulse of the flesh, wants to have its own way, rather than let God be our master

There is a better way. St. Paul’s message today is about our restoration, and it is about a message of hope that all committed Christians possess.

St. Paul says: (Romans 8:18-19) “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.  For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God.”

St. Paul often draws our attention to the here and now versus the hereafter. He has a keen vision of the life to come, while fully appreciating the tribulations of our earthly life. Citing Philippians 1:23-24, he says: ”For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better: Nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you.” Paul was awaiting his second appearance before the Emperor Nero, where he was expecting to be condemned and sentenced to death.  We can be assured that Paul met his fate with courage and joy, as he looked forward to his reception in Heaven

Similarly, St. Paul draws the contrast to the sufferings of the present time with “the glory that shall be revealed in us.” He is speaking of our own glorious reception in Heaven. We shall experience a restoration of our rightful places as heirs of the Kingdom of God.  This should be “an earnest expectation” for all of us, and for the glory that awaits us.  Conversely, we should not totally disdain our life on Earth, although many isolated monks, hermits and aesthetics have. While we must admire their devotion, if not called to this life, let us regard our current life as a gift from God, and glorify Him for it.
At the same time, our devotion to this life should not so be complete as to lose our eternal life awaiting us in Heaven. As committed Christians, let us view this life as the first step of eternity. In Christ, we have effectively entered into our eternal life; we have just not yet seen its glorious fulfillment.

This is the hope that awaits all of us.  The challenge is to live in this world in such a way as to pass directly from this life to judgment, and then to life eternal.  We know that there will be Judgment, as all of us will be judged for our deeds in the flesh. As we contemplate the things we have done and left undone, this is a terrifying thought.  How many of us could be deemed to deserve the joys of Heaven?  Recall that Christ Himself said to the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:17,
Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God…”  None of us can get to Heaven on our own deserts. Yet, there is mercy. This sinner knows that when he stands before the Judgment Seat, all he can do is hold up Jesus.
Through Christ, all of Creation will be delivered from its pains and travail, thus creating the “anxious longing of the creation (that) waits for the revealing of the sons of God”?   How?  The answer is revealed in: (Romans 8:21) because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.”  Putting it all together, all Creation waits for the consummation of history, when all things will change.

Our situation is now vain or futile in this sense:  we humans expect all things to go on the way they are now, even ourselves.  While we know intellectually that all things change, decay, and eventually pass away, we really don’t want to believe it. Thus, love songs speak of “forever”; grants and trusts have language with the words “in perpetuity”; and the Psalmist says, “Men call the land after their own names.” Yet, as Ecclesastes reminds us, “Vainity, of vanities! All is vanity.”(Eccl. 1:2).   

Yet, why would the Apostle say that we are “subjected in hope”?  While all things have a passing, they also have a resurrection.  We and all Creation will be set free from our “slavery to corruption” into the freedom of glorious perfection in Christ. Just so, the Book of Revelation speaks of Jesus presenting Creation as his spotless Bride to the Father.  We will change this corruptible body for an incorruptible one, and our mortality for immortality.  We will escape our bondage to finality.

In the meantime, we have work to do on Earth.  Our job is to love God with our whole heart, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We are to show God’s love for us by loving others in the same way.  The word that fits the bill is charity. We are to be charitable in our thoughts, in our words, and in our actions.  We are simply, to treat others the way we want to be treated.

As we struggle against sin and strive to persevere in righteousness, let us also strive for joy.  Ours is certainly not an easy journey, nor one without pitfalls and dangers.  We have enemies and adversaries, both spiritual and temporal.  As we seek holiness and godliness, do not expect the world’s approval, but rather its scorn.  Remember, if we were of the World, the World would love us.  We are not, however seeking the approval of men, but of God.

Let us do this with joy. Difficult as it is, we can be filled with hope and with help.  We are never far from our Helper, as He seeks to tabernacle with us.  We are never far from help that is fresh, ever-present and abundant.  We are never far from Joy, if only we would seize it!

Take hold of this joy then, and cherish it.  This is our comfort, our aid, and our hope as we wait for “the redemption, to wit, the redemption of our body.”

Romans 8:22  “For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.”

"He that loveth not, knoweth not God."

The Rev’d Stephen E. Stults
St. Paul’s Anglican Church
Trinity I, 2016
29 May, 2016

Last week on Trinity Sunday, we spoke about the common denominator of the Holy Trinity: love.
Our Epistle from the 1st Letter of St. John continues on this theme. In fact, it is a “love letter” from God to us.  Why? Not only does it come from the apostle “whom Jesus loved”, but also from the only apostle who had the courage to stand by Jesus while He was crucified.  It is evident that John reciprocated Jesus’ love by this action.

John’s writings speak so consistently and persuasively about love being the chief quality of God.  In the first sentence of today’s Epistle selection we read: “He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. “  [i] The entire 4th Chapter of this letter repeats one theme:  God is love.  John tells us : “ Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God”[ii]

How are we to know that God is love?  The answer, according to John is this: “In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him.  10 Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”[iii]

Thus, the Love of God is manifested by one monumental event: the coming of Jesus Christ into the World. It is the absolute proof of God’s love for us.  One can say that God’s love is manifested forth by the beauty and magnificence of His Creation. One can also say that God’s Love is shown forth by the natural love mankind shows one to another. Both these statements would be true.  Yet, the love of man is only a faint reflection of God’s overwhelming love for us.

Lest this is too abstract, let us bring it down to a human level… Many of us in this room are parents. Do you remember the first time you held your newborn son or daughter? Do you remember the attachment that happened naturally at that moment?  This was your daughter, or your son. He or she came from you and bore certain similarities. Now, come forward a few years when that child had first fallen off their bike, or had some sort of accident.  They came to you crying, and maybe even bleeding a bit. Do you recall your anguish at that moment? What wouldn’t you have done at that time?  Most of us would have even taken on that pain ourselves, if we could have, to spare our child.

Now, imagine God the Father surveying the scene on earth, as His beloved Son, who as God, is the absolute ruler of all, now accused falsely, lashed savagely like a common criminal, and nailed brutally to a wooden cross, to endure an agonizing, horrible, slow death. Additionally, think of Jesus hanging upon His Cross, praying for and forgiving His torturers.

You see, Christ did what we earthly parents cannot do.  He took the pain of death and eternal separation from God from us.  If this is not love, what is?

Beloved in Christ, this did happen through the incomprehensible love of God. With adoring eyes, we see Christ on the Cross;, our spirits, aided by the Holy Ghost, burn with gratitude for what He did for us.  We recognize the terrible danger of separation from God, from which He delivered us. Yet, the scope of this hard, beautiful love is too much for us.  We cannot understand its magnitude. The scope of it is just too great. All we can do is worship, lost in awe and wonder.

God’s Love knows no bounds; it has no limits. It cannot be measured by the breadth of men’s minds.
It can only be summed up by this: “Hereby know we that we dwell in him, and he in us, because he hath given us of his Spirit.  14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world.”[iv]   AMEN

[i] Ibid
[ii] Op. cit.
[iii] I John 4:9-10
[iv] 1 John 4:13-14

Friday, April 29, 2016

Mystery, Glory and Thankfulness

The Rev’d Stephen E. Stults
St. Paul’s Anglican Church
Maundy Thursday, 2016

This is a glorious night.  On this night, approximately two thousand years ago, Jesus Christ changed everything.  On this glorious night, mankind’s salvation was translated from a works-oriented system to one based on faith and on the limitless mercies of God.  On this glorious night, Jesus Christ changed the way we believe and the way we remember our salvation. It was on this night that Jesus Christ ushered mankind into the New Testament era, one based on hope and faith and trust.

How did this happen?  How could this happen? Let’s review just a bit.  St. Paul tells us in today’s Epistle from 1 Corinthians that Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it and distributed it to the disciples.   He said, “Take, eat: this is my body, which is given for you.  This do in remembrance of me.”  He then took the cup and did likewise, saying, “This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye as oft as ye shall drink, in remembrance of me.”  These words changed everything.  Christ now offered Himself as the Passover Lamb to take away our sins. Moreover, this sacrifice was not temporary, needing to offered year by year to atone for the sins of the people.  Rather, it was, in the words of the Prayer Book: “the one oblation of himself once offered: a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.”

The best authority to help us understand this is the Epistle to the Hebrews, chapter 9:
“For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling them that have been defiled, sanctify unto the cleanness of the flesh: 14 how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish unto God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?”  We know from our study of the Old Testament that the High Priest of Israel went once a year into the Holy of Holies in the Temple and offered blood for the sins of the people. This was what God commanded.  It was not, however, a permanent or durable sacrifice to take away sins.  It also could not purge the conscience of sins.  Yet, in the fullness of time and in the wideness of God’s mercy, Jesus came.  As the first chapter of Hebrews tells us: “God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, 2 has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; 3 who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4 having become so much better than the angels, as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.”

Thus, Christ came, spoke, ministered, and died for us.  He was betrayed into the hands of sinners, as we read tonight. As we discussed on Palm Sunday, despite man’s best efforts to kill Jesus for the world’s reasons, God’s Will was done.  Returning to the ninth chapter of Hebrews, we read: “And for this reason He is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.”

Thus, we reformed Christians, we Anglican Christians, don’t have to rely on a system of good works to try to earn our way into heaven, thank God.   This is impossible, due to the fallen nature of mankind, our own inherent sinfulness.  We rely instead on the “one, perfect and sufficient sacrifice” of Jesus Christ.  That is what our Lord bequeathed to us in the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist. 

Through the Supper, we remember His sacrifice of Himself for us.  Through the Supper, we receive grace to be Christians, “little Christs” in the world; and through the Supper we are fed spiritually with Christ Himself. 
As Bp. Sutton once said, “Through the liturgy of the Eucharist, we take Christ into ourselves, and we become part of Christ.  This is a great mystery.’

Indeed it is.  It is one of the greatest mysteries known to man, or better said, known to the household of faith.  For it is only in the Body, the Church, and its graceful fellowship that one receives this mystery. Christ gave us the Church, he gave us the Eucharist, and now he gives us grace to carry on in His name, until we feast with Him in heaven.

This is indeed a great mystery.  This is indeed a great gift to us.  This is indeed a glorious night.

! Cor. 11:26 “For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink the cup, ye proclaim the Lord's death till he come.”

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


Bread, Miracles and Signs

Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Paul’s Anglican Church
March 6th, 2016

We have a wonderful reading from the Gospel of John to consider today. It is one of the best known of Christ’s miracles, and it confronts us completely with the enormity of Christ’s Kingship.  From it, we recognize our role as humble penitents preparing for Christ’s Resurrection in our hearts and souls at Easter.

The portion of the Book of John from Ch. 2:1 through Ch. 12:50 has been called the “Book of Signs.”  Christ performs seven signs that clearly demonstrate both His divinity and His unique relationship to God the Father. Up to the point of the feeding of the five thousand, he had performed three signs: the changing of water into wine, the healing of the nobleman’s son, and the curing of the paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda.[1]  Each of these signs clearly point to His Lordship over natural events, as well as the universality of his healing message. This is clearly shown as the nobleman’s seeks him out, despite the vast differences in their social standings.  The message is plain: Christ’s healing is meant for all, rich and poor.

Let us examine this grandest miracle in all. Christ sees the multitude coming to him, numbering in the thousands. He purposefully asks Philip: how were they going to feed this vast crowd? Philip puzzles over this before admitting that "Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient for them, for everyone to receive a little."[2] Christ has the answer and proceeds to the solution, performing one of the most noted events of all time.

There are at least three ways to view what happened on that grassy plain.  One view is that a miracle occurred in the hearts of those listening to Christ.  That is, the “selfish” shared their provisions with the needy, and all were fed. Perhaps, but it is not likely…

Another view is that this feeding should be seen as a precursor to the Holy Eucharist, in that each participant received a tiny bit.  This view is contrived and does not do justice to the plain sense of Scripture, because the passage clearly says that Christ gave to the disciples and they distributed to the people, “as much as they would.”  The Scriptures clearly say the people were “filled”, not tantalized with a mere morsel.  So, we discard this view.

The third view of this passage is that Christ performed a genuine miracle.  Christ, as God, took gifts of his own bounty in the form of five loaves and two small fish, and multiplied them beyond all measure.  He didn’t, like a magician, create an illusion that bread and fish appeared, but actually multiplied them. The disciples distributed an immense amount of food, completely satisfying the multitude. As such, this is the fourth great sign of the Book of Signs.[3]

It is at this point that two great insights should become apparent to us.  The first is very obvious, but is also very profound.  This is simply the contrast of Philip’s perplexity with our Lord’s serenity.  Philip saw thousands of hungry people coming to them and no solution in sight.  Our Lord saw a large flock of needy sheep (people) looking to Him the great Pastor for instruction and sustenance.  Our Lord chose this instance to not only perform an act of mercy and pastoral care, but also to manifest forth his glory.

Here then, is the simple and profound truth: how often do we, in our human finitude, see an overwhelming situation and grasp helplessly for a solution, when God, in His Omnipotence and eternal Wisdom, has already prepared a solution?  It’s been said that God has a solution prepared for the faithful even before they see a problem. 

The other insight is to consider the very act of the sign itself.  Obviously, it demonstrates clearly Christ’s absolute Kingship over all Creation. That is a given. As the fourth sign in the Book of Signs, it is the greatest in magnitude. There can be no doubt who is the performer of the great sign; thus, this miracle is for those who see with the eyes of faith.  It is undeniable.  As such, it is also the only miracle, with the exception of the Resurrection, that is recorded in all four Gospel accounts.[4] That is a testament to its significance.

Yet, there is another great spiritual truth for us today, that tells us about God’s magnificence and Man’s blindness.  This great truth is that Christ, in performing these mighty signs in John, did exactly what was demanded of Him by the Scribes and Pharisees in virtually every confrontation he had with them.  Recall that these self-important and pompous men demanded that Jesus give them a sign from Heaven in order to prove his Lordship.  Christ ignored these requests from the Pharisees, knowing their source and motivation.  He knew that even if He were to bring down fire from Heaven, similar to Isaiah, it would have no impact, or even be turned against him, as in the case where he was accused of casting out demons by the chief of demons. Thus, he refused to honor their spurious request, instead revealing His glory to the unlettered masses, or to specific individuals.  Why?  It is very simple.  The Scribes and Pharisees were not called to hear the message. Their hearing would not be mixed with faith.  Thus, it would not matter what Christ said or did, because these men, with a couple of  notable exceptions, were not able to believe.

Contrast that to those whom Christ did reveal Himself.  These blessed sheep were called to hear Christ and to acknowledge His Reality.  Perhaps not all of them were prepare to call Him God or even Messiah, but many of them were. Many of them, such as Mary Magdalene, were able to see Jesus as the Christ, just as are we. Somehow, through the mystery and magnificence of God’s Grace, we are called, here, to receive this message of hope and salvation. 
Today’s Gospel gave us a message of bread, miracles and signs. For us, today, it is a message of hope, love and salvation.  That is, we hope, or look forward to, receiving the truth of Christ’s Kingship in our hearts. We pray that we love Him as much as He loves us, and finally, that this love be translated into eternal life with Him. We pray that we experience the salvation that His love calls us into.

Beloved in Christ, if you grasp one message from today’s Gospel, it is that of love.  God wants one thing from us, this Lent and for evermore.  He wants our love.  If we can love Him more than we love ourselves, we will satisfy God with our love.  That is what He wants. This is exactly what he did for us on Calvary.  He loved us to the exclusion of everything else, even to life itself.  He loved us with a love that is profound and eternal. He offers us a love that is ever-present, dynamic, and eternal.  Not only did Christ show this by providing earthly sustenance to a hungry crowd, but he also allowed them to witness His Glory.  This He denied to the Pharisees and Scribes. 

Let this knowledge be a light in your Lenten Journey.  Let it fill your heart with joy.
For reasons only known to God, he has chosen us to receive the most glorious of all messages.  The message is this: Christ is King and Lord. Christ is God Almighty, who loves us with an everlasting and wonderful love that is meant for us, and for us alone.  Not for the high and mighty, not for rich and pompous, but for us simple Christians.

To His everlasting glory, let us give thanks to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, now and forever.


[2] John 6:7

[4] Ibid

Suffering and Grace

Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
2nd Sunday after Easter 2016
April 10, 2016

1 Peter 2:20: “For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God.”

Is God the ultimate Sadist?  Does He take pleasure in our pain and suffering? Looking at Peter’s statement, perhaps… It almost seems as if God takes pleasure in our patient suffering.  While this is what it looks like on the surface, we know that surface reflections can be deceiving.

Two clarifications need to be made.  First, one cannot ascribe to God Almighty the concept of “feelings” or even emotion.  We mortals ascribe to God human feelings and emotions, when His Serenity is so perfect as to above such things. Still, we do it, we suppose, to keep some connection to a Being that we cannot approach or understand, except through Christ.

The Bible does speak of the wrath of God. God’s Holiness was offended by the various sins of Israel, most of all their apostasy.  He reacted by sending various armies, captivities and afflictions upon them.  Yet, one cannot make the mistake of thinking that God, who sees all eternity as one continuous scene, became suddenly angry with His People and decided to punish them.  Once again, this limits the limitless nature of God and His complete, serene Holiness.

Note two things.  First, this is an area of deep mystery.  Secondly, God works all things to His Purpose and Design, to His own mysterious and wonderful Glory. This is unfathomable to us, except that we participate with all faithful Creation to give glory and praise to the Holy and Blessed Trinity.  In this sense, we can both understand and participate in the ultimate reality of God.

That may be as far as it goes, however.  Recalling how God spoke to Job, asking him who has the mind of God, that he may instruct Him?  The answer is rhetorical. Thus, we wonder why God would find it acceptable that Christians accept punishment patiently when it is not merited. 

The example of Christ gives us an answer. The reason for God’s “acceptance”, if you will, of our patient suffering is perfectly modeled in Christ.  Peter reminds us that Christians are called to suffer as Christ suffered for us. Christ did not revile, He did not threaten, and he did not complain. He led the only sinless life ever and was crucified…  Quoting 1 Peter 2:21: “For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps,” These are the words that Peter tells us and with them, perhaps God’s purpose for our endurance of unjust suffering becomes clear.  In short, it is this: if Christ our Lord and Savior suffered, the just for the unjust, what is our calling?  Not that we choose suffering or that God delights in it, but rather if it occurs, our Christ-like reaction to it is crucial.  If we, like Jesus, endure and accept suffering for righteousness’ sake, this is pleasing to God. If we take it patiently, without murmuring against God, this is acceptable to Him; if only for the reason that we are modeling His Son’s behavior. When we do it well, we are actually offering God the sincerest praise we can, simply because we are imitating Jesus.

There is a connection between suffering and holiness.  Suffering can draw one closer to God and it often does. One may cry out to God in the midst of their suffering for comfort, for help, or just for something to lean on.  This is wonderful and blessed, for even in the midst of our suffering, we know God hears us. 

Yet, it is difficult. As one experiences hardship and pain, it may cause an opposite reaction to God.  Some may blame God for their troubles and loss, running from Him rather than running to Him.  This is a common reaction and is understandable, if unpalatable to the mature Christian.

Why? Simply because the mature Christian knows that suffering and grace go together.  There is suffering in life, there is hardship, but thanks be to God, there is grace as well.
While the Christian may understand the reaction of the one running from God because of hardship, he rejects the idea that God takes some random pleasure in it, or that there is not some purpose in it. The latter is the most difficult, as in the loss of a loved one or the visitation of a grave disease.  One person’s faith will say, “Why, God?” while another’s will say, “I do not understand, but thy will be done.”  In these two cases, which of the two, the questioner or the accepter, will receive more grace?  Perhaps both, but the odds are greatly in favor of the one who accepts God’s Will and prays to see the sense in it. He may be given that answer, but very likely he will not.  He will have to content himself with the thought, “Glory be to thee, O Lord, thy will be done.” This very acceptance brings grace and peace, even in very difficult circumstances.

One’s reaction may be according to the faith that one is given. While we are unable to probe the mysterious and unlimited Mind of God, except as it is revealed to us in Word and Sacrament, we do know that God calls people to Himself. Each call is different, in that God calls each individual soul, yet there is one determinant that God reserves to each man: his own free will.  In this instance, some use their free will to cling to God during times of trouble.  Others use their free will to question, complain and ultimately flee from God. After all, He brought all this upon them, right? Another uses his free will to embrace the will of God and thus receives grace in times of suffering, trouble and pain.

Perhaps one of the most profound and difficult concepts for the Christian to accept is the use of suffering by God to shape and mold the Christian’s character.  God knows our spiritual disposition and often put us in situations to teach us.  If we accept that fact that suffering is not
 meaningless, as one with an existential bent might say, we know that a lesson lies in it somewhere.  That lesson may be simply the availability of grace.  That is, Love is the force behind it, as difficult the path to it may lie. It may also be the most troubling lesson for the mature Christian, in that somber time when God withdraws Himself from a soul in order that it may learn its utter dependence on Him. The old adage says that with absence, the heart grows fonder.  Nothing could be truer, especially when the needy soul is gasping for the presence of God.

The atheist and agnostic will no doubt turn up their noses at this, saying “it simply proves the superstition of religion, or worse yet, the need of a “bloodthirsty” God who demanded that His only Son be sacrificed for His satisfaction.  How barbaric, how savage, how primitive, they may think.  People today are simply too civilized to accept such a messy, transactional scheme of salvation.  This Christianity stuff is simply a myth cooked up by those who need a celestial father figure. After all, I’m OK.  I don’t need a Savior.”

“Not so fast”, says the Christian.  To the atheist and the agnostic he says, “Your view is too simplistic. You simply do not understand the gravity of your situation, nor do you understand the spiritual wasteland inside you.  Your soul, despite all temporal efforts to satisfy it, is still empty. Only one thing can fill it and that one thing cannot be obtained by you. You must look to something, or someone else. Finally, you must suspend your questions and your arrogance in your need to bring God to your level.  Acknowledge God for whom He is: Omnipotent, Omniscient and Omnipresent.  More importantly, recognize Him as the One who has what you need and yet, gave everything that you could have it.”

“Moreover”, says the Christian to the questioner, “Suffering may have been the gate to lead you to this point.  Perhaps your need for God has finally grown to a point where you can surrender your pride so that Grace may enter in.” Perhaps now you can see the seriousness of your sin and extreme nature of it, so much so that “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross that you might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.”[1]

Your sins and my sins put Christ on the Cross, but it was the Love of God that took Him off.  That is, having declared his triumph, he showed it openly, forever defeating sin, death and the grave.

This suffering of Christ and his magnificent love brings us home at last.  As Peter tells us: “For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.”[2]

[1] I Peter 2:24
[2] 1 Peter 2:25

Doubt, Temptation, and Certainty

Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Paul’s Anglican Church
Feb. 14th, 2016

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

Three words: doubt, temptation, and certainty. These three words sum up the Lenten experience for some.  It may sum up the Christian life for most. Let us consider these three words: doubt, temptation, certainty. If we are being honest with ourselves, it is probable that we will experience all three in this season of Lent.

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

Recall that at the end of the previous chapter of Matthew, Chapter 3, Christ has just come from His baptism in the river Jordan at the hands of John the Baptizer.  In that amazing scene, the Spirit of God had just descended upon Jesus and a voice from heaven had said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Christ submitted to baptism even though He had no original sin to wash away, thus giving us the model of Christian Baptism.  He also received glory and recognition from God the Father.  

Oftentimes, honor precedes humbling or trials; as one commentator tells us: “After we have been admitted into the communion of God, we must expect to be set upon by Satan. The enriched soul must double its guard.”[1] Thus, in our Gospel selection, St. Matthew describes the temptation of Christ.  In it, Satan tries to something audacious and evil. In effect, he attempts to undo God’s Plan by the invocation of one little word, “if.” Christ had just been exalted, and now as Matthew tells us in Mat 4: “Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.” 

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

We note with interest that there were three temptations. The first temptation deals with Christ’s physical well-being, as Satan tempted him to make bread out of stones. This attack is both insulting and predatory.  Satan introduces the assault by saying, “If thou be the Son of God…”  Is Satan, the Great Deceiver, seeking to cause Jesus to doubt himself in his physical weakness?  As ludicrous as it seems, this is the case.  Satan, in arrogance, evidently thought this attack might work. Of course, the idea of causing the Son of God to doubt himself is absurd and fanciful.  Yet, once again, the point is plain; if Satan tried to get God the Son Himself to doubt, what will he try with us?
This leads to the predatory aspect of Satan’s attack on Christ.  Because he is wicked and a brilliant tactician, the Devil attacks us when we are weak.
Be it through physical need, sickness, melancholy, or (God forbid) despair, he seeks a chink in our spiritual armor.  He wants to insinuate his infernal suggestions, temptations and fears. Yes, there are times when all of us, being  subject to the weaknesses of the flesh, fall prey to his devices.  Yet, by keeping  our spiritual eyes on Christ, we will frustrate the plans of the devil.  In this instance, Christ dismisses Satan’s assault with a word of Scripture.  From Deut. 8:3, Christ said: “And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the LORD doth man live.” Satan is rebuffed.

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

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

It is not so with Christ.  Satan is defeated again with a rebuke from Scripture, but not without one more insidious and persistent attack; by an appeal to Jesus’ pride.  In a twisted, perverted view of Christ’s Kingship, Satan shows Jesus all the earthly glory.  In Mat 4:8 “Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them.” At last, Christ’s patience is exhausted, for as the Tempter says, “All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.” Christ expels him a command: “Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.”

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

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

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

Thanks be to God, because instead of doubt, we have certainty. St. Paul says, “But, now is Christ risen from the dead and become the first fruits of them that slept.” [i]  In the eternal sense, now is our Savior Christ victorious over sin, death, hell, and the Devil.  We can meet the twin evils of doubt and temptation and emerge victorious. We do not worship an “If” God. No, we worship a God of certainty. We worship He who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.   


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

[i] I Cor. 15:20