St. Mary Magdelene’s Day

 (22 July)

The Collect:
ALMIGHTY God, whose beloved Son restored Mary Magdelene to health of mind and body and called her to be a witness to his resurrection: Mercifully grant that by your grace we may be healed in body and soul, and always serve you in the power of his risen life; who is alive and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

The Readings:
Zephaniah 3:14-20; Psalm 30:1-5; 2 Corinthians 4:14-18; John 20:11-18

Reflection:
Saint Mary Magdalene was a woman who had been afflicted by seven demons until Jesus cast them out.  After this healing she followed Jesus and came to be the first witness to his resurrection, as described in today’s Gospel.  The image of healing echoes in the Old Testament, for God “removed disaster” from her.  The witness to the resurrection also is a source of hope both anticipated in the Psalm and explicitly taught in the Epistle.  Thus the Collect takes both themes, of healing and resurrection hope, and asks God that we may enjoy them too.

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The Fifth Sunday after Trinity

 (20 July 2014)

The Collect:
GRANT, O Lord, we beseech you, that the course of this world may be so peaceably ordered by your governance, that your Church may joyfully serve you in all godly quietness; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings:
1 Kings 19:19-21; Psalm 84:8-12; 1 Peter 3:8-15a; Luke 5:1-11

Reflection:
Today’s readings show that when the world is peacefully working the way it should, the Church also prospers.  Both the Old Testament and the Gospel readings depict times when the recruitment of ministers to serve in God’s mission goes unimpeded.  After all, as the Psalm says, “better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere.”  This does not mean that Christians should fear adverse conditions in the world – the Epistle encourages us not to be discourages when we suffer as innocents, as long as we don’t return evil for evil.  Yet we can still pray for the world to be “so peaceably ordered” that the Church may serve God with joy and peace.

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Union with Christ: some mixed metaphors

For a while I’ve been aware of a strand of Evangelical thought regarding union with Christ, sometimes also referred to as “union and communion,” which on the surface sounds very healthily traditional and biblical but has left me feeling like there’s something missing to it. We so quickly fall into our self-centered ways, even in the Church and our relationship with the Body and with God… something isn’t adding up here.

It finally occurred to me that the common evangelical “union with Christ” concept is closely linked with the concept of self-offering: “O Lord, I bring an offering to you;” “I give myself away, so you can use me;” “I give you my heart;” “I’ll take this life and lay it down, I’m letting go.”  But this is a mixed metaphor.  Union with Christ and Self-Offering are two different images in the Bible used for different purposes, and too many people are blurring them together – losing the clarity of both.

Oblation / Self-Offering

Let’s start with the Self-Offering theme (more formally called an “oblation”).  In the Bible, an oblation, or offering, or sacrifice is something that is given away from a human (or from humanity) to God.  In its spiritual sense it does denote an abandonment of self in God.  What a lot of the songs that use these themes often leave out is that sacrifices to God end up in one or two ways: burned or eaten.

That’s right, when you sing “I give myself away, so you can use me,” a key part of that biblical imagery is actually “I give myself away, so you can kill me.”  It makes for a much creepier lyric, but it’s just as biblical if not moreso: we are called to die to self daily and take up the Cross of Christ.  When we offer ourselves to God as “living sacrifices” we are handing ourselves over to him to glorify him by being transformed (by him) into something holier.  This is sanctification, which is related to union with Christ, but is not the exact same thing.

Spousal Union with Christ

One of the primary images in the Bible for our union with Christ (even in the Old Testament as well as the New) is that of a husband and wife.  Jesus is the husband and we are the wife.  That means Jesus is the initiator/giver and we are the receiver.

Now the contradiction with the “self-offering” image should become clear.  In union with Christ, God is the giver, author, the beginning, not us.  To describe union with Christ as something we initiate by offering ourselves to him is inconsistent with our bridal identity. To make ourselves the giver and initiator is a sort of spiritual sexual confusion!

To put it bluntly, consider the sperm and the egg.  The egg is (relatively) stationary; it is the sperm that comes to the egg.  We do not and can not swap roles; we are the feminine to God’s masculine.

Untangling the Images

Now, I did say that these are related images.  Both speak to different aspects of our salvation.  The spousal image of union with Christ is God’s calling and invitation to us to receive him.  As we receive him, and begin to be unified with him, he starts to fill us with his holiness.  Only then, with the holiness (and righteousness) of Christ in us, can we offer ourselves to God.  Without Christ in us, we’re useless and insultingly sinful offerings, so God’s self-offering to us must initiate our union with him.  Our offering is a response to his, and is enabled by his.

So by all means, keep singing “I give myself away” if you’re into that song.  Just remember that in so doing you are not initiating union with Christ, but responding to the union that he began in you himself.

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Where are you going?

This is my homily on 13 July 2014 (for the 4th after Trinity) at Grace Anglican Church.  The primary text is Romans 8:18-23, and the other two mentioned are Genesis 3:17-19 and Luke 6:36-42.

Who are you? Do you have a sense of self-identity? What is your purpose in life? Do you feel aimless, lost, or confused? The scriptures today help us to answer a question that underlies such big existential questions like those; particular the one question: “Where are you going?”

Where are you going?

In Romans 8 we find a marvelous treatment of this question. This particular section of Romans 8 is near the climax of the book up to this point. Particularly the great themes of sin & salvation have been building throughout this letter. And now, finally, in the middle of chapter 8, we a big picture of the entire salvation story. Our entire salvation from beginning to end is summarized right here. In particular, it gives us a glimpse of the destination of the Christian life.

This is what’s called an apocalyptic vision. Apocalypse is fancy Greek word for “revelation” “unveiling” or “revealing.” It’s about the big appearance or unveiling of God, in which we can see and understand him in a new and powerful way. Much of the book of Revelation is apocalyptic – describing the final and full revelation of God – and several other books in the Bible also contain this kind of literature. And here, in Romans 8, we get a brief but beautiful example. In verse 18 we find Paul writing that he considers the sufferings of this present time not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed. This is the apocalypse word here – that glory would be revealed to us.

And this little phrase, “revealed to us,” is an interesting one. It has a couple different translation, depending on which book you look at. This is not a revelation “in us” as if it were the final triumph of mankind on our own. This is not a revelation, strictly speaking, “to us” as if we were spectators of God’s triumph. Rather, this is a revelation “into us” or “for us,” meaning we are participants in the triumph of God. It’s not something that we accomplish on our own; it’s not something that God does and just makes us stand and watch; it’s something that he does, inviting us to share or participate in his glory.

And it is our participation in this glory which creation is eagerly awaiting. In verses 19 and 21 we get a clear description that creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God! The sons of God! Or, in verse 21, the children of God. It’s referring to us as children of God, meaning that we are inheritors. We’re not simply bystanders, we’re not merely slaves, we’re inheritors, we’re co-heirs with Christ. This is taking us back to the original state of creation. This is saying that we are going to be taking up the mantle of leadership or stewardship as it was in the beginning. And only then, with God’s order restored, will we and creation truly be free! This is what verse 21 says: creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

Now, what does creation have to do with this? This may seem a little odd to us, perhaps. Normally we think of God’s glory and triumph in us being about the forgiveness of sins and making us new in Christ. Well, verses 20 & 22 give us a little more context for this. The creation was subject to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it – and in verse 22 – we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. What is this pain in creation? And why is it awaiting our glory, of all things?

To understand this, we need to go back to what happened in the beginning. God created all the universe, and then he created mankind to rule, steward, and care for this creation. In the garden, we made a terrible mistake. The Devil, taking the form of a serpent, thus representing the creation that we were supposed to be looking after, tricked us: convinced us to listen to him instead of listening to God. And by listening to this serpent we turned our allegiance upside-down. Rather than listening to God in order to rule over creation, we listened to creation in order to rule over God! And this is significant, this is huge! We had care over creation; we were supposed to be protecting it. That means that when we fall from grace, it’s not just us who fall! It’s us and everything in our protection, everything in our care. So when we fell, when we received the curse of sin, creation fell under a curse also, because it belonged to us – we were supposed to be protecting it. And when we forsook that protection, Satan took over. And so the creation is subjected to pain, to futility. Things don’t work in creation the way they were supposed to.

So, in the meantime, in this age before all things are fixed, there is pain and futility as we plod along through a broken life in a broken world. Now, don’t get me wrong, we were made to work. Caring for creation, acting as stewards, is work. However, ever since the fall in Genesis 3, our good work has been turned into a laborious chore. That is the curse that Adam particularly received, which we heard in the readings this morning. So it is because of this curse that we and all creation suffers from, and the future revealing of God’s glory in us, that there is a tension. Things are not now as they ought to be. There is a tension as we labor toward creation’s liberation and our liberation from sin.

This is what verse 23 is saying: both the creation and we ourselves, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we eagerly await for adoption as sons and the redemption of our bodies. This is the restoration of creation, both around us and in us. And we, as Christians, especially should be feeling this tension because, as this verse describes, we have this Holy Spirit at work within us. The Holy Spirit is here to change us, to transform us, to make us from Old Creation into New Creation, fixing us, cleansing us from sin, and making us the way we were meant to be!

Therefore, we should be groaning with creation. Now, what does this mean? It means going to the places of sin and pain and injustice; and it means laboring with God to birth something new from that sin and pain and injustice. This is what it means to be merciful, and not condemnatory. As the Gospel reading describes, we are still suffering: there are still specks and logs in our eyes. But the reason that we’re able to even talk about helping others, in the midst of our own sin and brokenness, is that we have seen this revelation, this unveiled glory. We have gotten this glimpse of what this world is supposed to be – and, even better – what this world is going to be! And so, with that glorious vision in sight, we are able to come before the world with good news: with news of restoration and healing.

Where are you going?

That is the creation that Romans 8 has been describing. So think about that for yourself: where are you going?

When you think about salvation, do you have the restoration of creation in mind? Or are you thinking about a personal heaven with a personal Jesus? ‘Cos that is what our culture, both in and out of the Church, often encourages us to imagine. A personal heaven with a personal Jesus to fulfill your personal faith, to make your personal life better… because when it’s your personal heaven and your personal Jesus and your personal faith, that’s okay for you, because it’s personal for you. It doesn’t have ramifications for anyone else. But, as St. Paul beautifully describes here in Romans chapter 8, salvation is not just about a personal heaven and personal Jesus, not at all! It is about the restoration of the entire universe. Everything will come under the work of the Holy Spirit. This is not Universalism, this is not saying that everyone will accept God’s transformation into perfect glory. It just means that everything will be brought before God, one way or another.

So when we think about the question “Where are you going?” this is not just about where you and me as individuals are going, this is about where the entire universe is going! The entire universe is being renewed, recreated, brought back to God, and re-ordered the way it was originally designed to be.

Only with that full picture of redemption of the entire creation sight, can we know what the journey there is like. This is a journey of laboring with God to transform sin and pain and injustice into goodness and holiness and perfection. And by the way, the purpose of the Church in this light is not so that we have a hiding place to hole up and wait for the end. It’s a place, rather, in which to be strengthened, and from which to be sent out so that we can bear with the world’s sufferings until Christ returns. That is where we are going, and we’re going there together.

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The Fourth Sunday after Trinity

 (13 July 2014)

The Collect:
O GOD, the protector of all that trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy; Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, you being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal: Grant this, O heavenly Father, for Jesus Christ’s sake our Lord.

Readings:
Genesis 3:17-19; Psalm 79:8-10; Romans 8:18-23; Luke 6:36-42

Reflection:
Life is full of hard and difficult work, even pain and suffering and futility, as the Old Testament and Epistle attest.  But there is a glorious hope of restoration promised in the Epistle also, which all of creation “eagerly awaits.”  It is this bright future on which we must keep our eyes fixed, so we can “pass through things temporal” without losing “the things eternal.”  The Gospel tells how this looks in everyday life: be merciful, and don’t condemn people as if you’re the second coming of Christ, lest you end up as the blind leading the blind.

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The Third Sunday after Trinity

 (6 July 2014)

The Collect:
O LORD, we beseech you mercifully to hear us; and grant that we, to whom you have given a hearty desire to pray, may be comforted in all dangers and adversities; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Readings:
2 Chronicles 33:9-13; Psalm 55:17-23; 1 Peter 5:5-11; Luke 15:1-10

Reflection:
This week begins the long haul discipleship course until the end of the calendar year.  And the opening topic, appropriately enough, is repentance.  The Old Testament and Psalm demonstrate the reality that when people repent and turn to God for forgiveness and the help of salvation, they can be confident in his answer.  The Epistle puts it another way: humble yourself “that in due time he may exalt you;” and the Collect also gives us an example of such a prayer that we can make at any stage of the Christian life.  The Gospel, finally, gives us a key underlying truth: God loves to come to people’s rescue, and rejoices in their restoration.

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St. Thomas’ Day

(3 July)

The Collect:
ALMIGHTY and ever-living God, who for the more confirmation of the faith did suffer your holy Apostle Thomas to be doubtful in your Son’s resurrection: Grant us so perfectly, and without all doubt, to believe in your Son Jesus Christ, that our faith in your sight may never be reproved. Hear us, O Lord, through the same Jesus Christ, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be all honor and glory, now and forever.

The Readings:
Job 42:1-6; Psalm 139:1-11; Ephesians 2:19-22; John 20:24-31

Reflection:
As the Gospel reading relates, Saint Thomas had a hard time believing the news of Jesus’ resurrection and so, like Job, he demanded further evidence.  And also like Job, he received both an answer and a rebuke from God.  Something we learn from this is that while it’s alright to have questions, God wants us to have a sturdy enough faith in him even when we don’t get all our questions answered.  After all, “the foundation of the Prophets and Apostles,” including Job and Thomas, provides a solid witness for us to stand on.

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