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Thursday, September 28, 2017

Our Heavenly Family

16th Sunday in Trinity 2017
Grace and Glory: the whole family in heaven and earth

Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Paul’s Anglican Church
Oct. 1, 2017
Examining St. Paul’s Epistle selection from Ephesians, one comes to a very interesting and wonderful conclusion: Christianity offers 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. Right? What else could God give us?

First of all, Paul tells 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 that Ephesus contained one of the great worship centers to Diana, the Greco-Roman huntress-goddess. She was worshipped everywhere. In fact, there was 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! 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”, to use a modern term.

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?

The difference is this: we talking about the fallen families of man, with all the nastiness, anger, greed and self-service that they imply. On the other hand, how 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. Imagine being with a group of people withwhom you will never disagree, have any conflict, or a troublesome situation.

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.

Aside from the familiar aspect of Heaven, consider the fact that our growth in Heaven will never end. We will know and enjoy God for all Eternity. 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. God our Father, Christ our Brother, and the Holy Spirit our Sanctifier, all desire to have you in their company 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 merely a vague, feel-good sensation?

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 to recognize the immensity of God’s love for us, as much as humanly possible. It is our 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 seize God’s love for us and cling to it, 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

Amen, and amen ...
1 Acts 19:24-26
2 Calvin, John, “Commentary on Ephesians 3”
3 Ibid

4 Eph. 3:21-21

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Rejection and Grace

14th Sunday after Trinity 

Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Paul’s Anglican Church
September 17, 2017

Micah 6:1 Hear ye now what the LORD saith; Arise, contend thou before the mountains, and let the hills hear thy voice.

Our Old Testament lesson from the prophet Micah is amazing. Why? It is amazing because when one hears the lesson with the new ears of Christ, one hears wonderful, yet poignant things. One alsoe sees an amazing picture of God and Man. In these eight verses we learn of the perversity of mankind counterbalanced by the overflowing love of God. We also learn what God truly wants from us.

One might, however, be tempted to question such a profound statement. After all, how can one see an Old Testament lesson through New Testament eyes? In other words, how can one see the Chosen People of God, governed by the Law, through the New Testament lens of grace? This is the crux of the matter, yet when we consider Scripture as a single piece, like the woven cloak of Christ – without seam - the issue becomes more transparent.

Let us consider how this passage reveals our paucity of spirit, contrasted with God’s infinite well of grace. Hear this amazing statement, “Arise, contend thou before the mountains, and let the hills hear thy voice.”1 The prophet commands the mountains to hear the Lord’s “controversy” with His People. He beckons verbally to the strong foundations of the earth to heed the controversy.

What is the nature of this conflict? What could be so extreme that God is willing to “plead” with Israel? Why would Almighty God have His prophet use such language? The cause is one of extreme injustice and lack of love towards God. Israel has, by this time in history, so corrupted herself with paganism and hypocrisy that God is willing to “plead” with her.
The Jews have so alienated themselves from the Covenant that they have smitten God to the heart; so that Micah asks, “O my people, what have I done unto thee? and wherein have I wearied thee? testify against me.”2 Do our ears deceive us? Through His prophet, is this God Himself asking his wayward people how He has wearied them?

Recall that this is a people who have become infatuated with every corrupt Canaanite religion, all of them involving ritual drunkenness and ritual fornication, let alone the gross idolatry associated with them. Jewish homes had various pagan images in them, and the great Temple itself was a hotbed of idolatry. Some Jews were even indulging in the vile practice of ritual infanticide to satisfy the Canaanite gods. Meanwhile, our God asks how He has wearied them? It would be laughableIf it were not so very serious.

Yet we know how serious it is. So much so, that Micah has stopped preaching to the people and instead, addresses the hills, mountains, and earth! The People have become so stiff-necked and so hard-hearted that evidently there is no longer any point in addressing them.3 As further evidence of this, John Calvin mentions that the mighty prophet Isaiah was Micah’s contemporary, actually preaching and ministering at the same time.4 Israel’s situation was so bad that God sent two prophets simultaneously to bring the message of repentance and salvation, if only the people would reject their obsession with idolatry. We know from history how bad Israel’s state was, as God finally executed judgment upon them by the hand of the cruel Assyrians.

Having the luxury of looking back at history, we see how strictly the Jews were punished and conversely, how fierce was God’s love for them. It was so strong and so passionate that God Hmself would actually “plead” with His People. God Himself knew how dreadful and how merciless the Jews’ treatment would be in the days to come. He knew how greatly they would suffer for their idolatry.

We see this clearly in God’s patience with them and the untiring efforts of many prophets sent to turn them from their paganism. Yet, as we know from history, the Israelites would continue in their sin cycle until God’s patience was finally exhausted.

Now, we know that God is incapable of being hurt, or suffering rejection, or even having anger and rage. He simply is, in complete serenity. Yet, in order to understand Him even a little, perhaps it is necessary to anthropomorphize, that is, give him human attributes so that we can relate. We know in our innermost being that God sees all of eternity as a single glance, in which His glory is preordained for all time. Yet, in our finite, fractured way we need to think that God feels what we feel. Of course, in the case of God Incarnate, Jesus Christ, we know exactly how He felt, because He was one of us. He experienced everything we experience, every joy, sorrow, and temptation, yet without sin.

we know one thing more. We know that God is capable of love that transcends our understanding. He is capable of showing such patience with us that he will hold his mighty Wrath for literally hundreds of years. How do we know this?

This is illustrated very clearly in the passage is God’s treatment of His People. Not only did He deliver them from bondage in Egypt, but he set before them great leaders such as Moses, Aaron and Miriam. Moses was once a great prince in Egypt, and became a prophet and a lawgiver. Aaron was the first of a priestly line that guided Israel. In addition, for all those who think that God is a misogynist, consider the mention of Miriam here, a prophetess and great leader in her own right. In short, God’s People didn’t lack for leadership.

At this point, one may ask, if God so loves his People, how could he allow them to pass through such massive suffering, which was to transpire in the relatively near future? How can a loving God allow this? Two answers suffice for this. First, we know that God’s ultimate Holiness cannot be mocked indefinitely. God’s People could not claim the benefits of the Covenant, that is protection and grace, and still engage in flagrant violation of His laws. At some point, God’s integrity must be reaffirmed in the hearts of his People. Without being tedious, we know that God had to punish His People in order to show that.
His judgment was not done not out of cruelty, vengeance, or even retribution, but out of infinite love. Rather than lose the souls of his People to eternal perdition, he chose to chasten and correct them, so that they might turn to Him.

Yet Man, being Man, always wants to be in control in some way. In fact, Man wants to justify himself in the eyes of God. The Jews, given their ritual system of sacrifice and purification, became the ultimate participants in this game of seeking favor from God. In fact, the Jews not only sought favor from God, they actually demanded it from Him. Their supposed righteousness in following the sacrificial system actually made God a debtor in their eyes. They thought that God owed them forgiveness and expiation of sin because of their righteousness.

Yet, the prophet asks, “Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”5 What does the Lord really care for our religious acts, especially when they are based in arrogance, self-righteousness, or pride? Does anyone really think that God took pleasure in some poor beast’s death in order to wipe away a man’s sin? We think not. Sacrifices merely served to remind man that consequences always exist for sin, not to please God with the shedding of blood.
We come at last to God’s expectation of us. Is this more sacrifices and gallons of holy oil? No, rather He wants a transformation of the heart and spirit. He wants us to walk uprightly, yet humbly before Him. He wants us, in short: “to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”6

What an amazing requirement! He wants us to echo His own qualities of love, of mercy and of good will without pride or self-righteousness. He wants us to be reflectors of Him and to let His Light shine through us to the World.

If we do this, it is better than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.
1 Mic. 6:1
2 Mic. 6:3
3 Calvin, Commentary on Micah ,
4 Ibid
5 Micah 6:6-7

6 Ibid 6:8