St. Michael & All Angels

(29 September)

The Collect:
O EVERLASTING God, who has ordained and constituted the services of Angels and men in a wonderful order: Mercifully grant, that as your holy Angels always do you service in heaven, so by your appointment they may aid and defend us on earth, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Readings:
Daniel 10:10-19a; Psalm 103:17-22; Revelation 12:7-12; Matthew 18:1-10

Today we remember and celebrate the invisible realms of God’s creation – the whole diverse orders of angels and archangels, particularly with Michael as their leader.  His role as a warrior against Satan and his armies is highlighted in both the Old and New Testament readings.  And, remembering that they do this battle for our sake (and especially for the young and innocent as described in the Gospel), we both ask God for their continual protection over us, and that we can join in their unending worship of Him in heaven.

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Christian Identity Crisis

This is my sermon for the 15th Sunday after Trinity at Grace Anglican Church.

“Neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.  And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.” – Galatians 6:15-16

Who are we?

            We live in an Age of Information. Thanks, at first, to the invention of the Printing Press, the proliferation of books over the past couple centuries, and now the advent of the Internet, there is almost nothing we cannot learn. If you want to know something, you just look it up on Google. If it’s too complicated to read about, you just look it up on YouTube for some visual instructions. There is so much information out there that we don’t know what to do with it all. After all, once you learn something new, there’s almost always a list of new questions that emerge from it, and so the more you know, the more you know you don’t know! It can honestly get really confusing sometimes.

Of course, when it comes to the deeper questions of life, the universe, and everything, Google and YouTube tend to fall short. Perhaps the deepest question is “Who are you?” The struggle to label, realize, and comprehend our own identity is one of the most fundamental questions of all. As Christians, we believe we’ve found the best set of answers to that question. We are God’s creation. We are God’s stewards. We are God’s servants. We are God’s children. We are beloved!

Taking that a step further, Christians are part of this group called the Church. What is the Church? It’s God’s family, the Body of Christ, a royal priesthood, and a chosen people. But how do we make that real? How do we protect that and define that? Getting this question wrong is probably the #1 source of all divisions in the Church throughout our entire 2,000-year history. It began even while the original Apostles were still alive.

 The Judaizers had an identity crisis.

            Perhaps the very first identity crisis in the Church took place when Gentiles started converting to the faith. The first few thousand believers were all Jewish, so they had a common cultural heritage to draw upon as they initially understood the Church, but once these non-Jewish people started to believe the Gospel and commit to Christ and join the Church, things started to get confusing. We can read in Acts 10 about how Saint Peter wrestled through this issue, and some time later in Acts 15 there was a council held in Jerusalem to work out how Jews and Gentiles would get along with each other in the Church. And for the most part it worked.

But not everyone was happy with that arrangement. There was a group called the Judaizers: they believed that everyone who would become Christian had to become Jewish also. They looked at what the Old Testament said and what the Apostles preached, and concluded that the Church’s identity was built upon the foundation of the Law of Moses. And so, just like Jesus, we all have to become circumcised and live according to the Law of Moses. After all, Jesus said that our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees if we are to merit the Kingdom of Heaven.

 They imposed Law & Circumcision upon Gentile Christians.

What the Judaizers did, therefore, was impose the Law and circumcision upon all the Gentiles who became Christians, even though St. Peter learned that this was not necessary in Acts 10, and the Jerusalem Council declared this was not necessary in Acts 15. And, for whatever reason, the Judaizers were particularly powerful in the region of Galatia. In response to this, St. Paul wrote a letter to them, which we have in the New Testament as the book of Galatians. While most of his epistles include a thanksgiving for the given church to which he’s writing, Paul offers none for the church in Galatia. Instead, he pulls no punches and cuts to the chase: he is astonished that they’re deserting the one who evangelized them (likely Paul himself) in favor of “no gospel at all,” or, in short, heresy. And heresy on this level deserves being declared “anathema,” often translated as “God’s curse” or “eternally condemned to hell!” In short, this identity crisis that the Judaizers had, and were imposing upon others, was not just an innocent mistake, but a fatal mistake! He had to nip this one in the bud quickly and decisively.

 Saint Paul corrects them, emphasizing his authority and the true gospel.

In order to set the Galatians straight, St. Paul had to go back to the basics. The whole letter to the Galatians revolves around two basic themes. First, he was reestablishing his authority as an Apostle, especially helping them respect their rightful leaders. Second, he was re-explaining the Gospel, especially helping them to untwist what the Judaizers had twisted.

To reestablish his authority, Paul recounted much of his personal testimony, pointing out both his unique calling from God on the Road to Damascus as well as his later approval from the other Apostles. Not only did he have a personal testimony of God, but it was also affirmed by the other leaders of the Church. The Judaizers had no right to ignore or contradict him.

To re-explain the Gospel, however, took a bit longer. In fact, more than half of the book of Galatians is on this subject. He breaks it down into a two-pronged argument: first dealing with God’s Law given through Moses, and second dealing with God’s covenant with Abraham and circumcision.

With regards to the Law, Paul essentially argues that the Law is powerless to save us. In the end, all it does is set limits and define sin. The better we know the Law, the more we realize that we are completely unable to keep it. And because the Law is just a written set of rules, there is no power there to help us out. It’s not all bad, though. In fact, the Law was – and remains – extremely useful. Paul compares it to a guardian or a tutor: the Law helps us to learn about God, and especially about God’s will. But in the end all that really does is convict us of our sins. We need the Gospel of Christ to save us from those sins. Thus the Law is not enough.

And then, with regards to Abraham, God’s promises to him, and the practice of circumcision, Paul points out that the underlying ingredient behind all of that is faith. It was by faith that Abraham received promises from God. His faith even preceded circumcision, and that’s important. For, a lot of Jews by that time had come to view circumcision almost as magical: once a boy was circumcised, he was part of God’s covenant-people no matter what. Paul pointed out that, in the beginning, it was faith that made someone part of God’s covenant-people. So even though circumcision was commanded to be administered to boys when they’re only eight days old, it was still a sign of the underlying faith that really brought people to God.

 The Church is Israel, not needing the Law and Circumcision.

            One of the most ground-breaking things that St. Paul writes to the Galatians is in chapter 4. There, he draws up an analogy between Abraham’s first two sons: Ishmael and Isaac. Even though Ishmael was born first, he did not receive the covenant of God’s promise. You see, Ishmael was born to Abraham through his wife’s personal slave. And so, because God had made promises to Abraham and his wife, the identity of being part of God’s covenant-people was passed on to their son, Isaac, instead.   Even though Ishmael was a child of Abraham, he was not part of God’s people. Paul takes this fact and applies it to the rest of history. Being a part of God’s people is not about who your parents are, but about faith in God’s promise. Therefore, just because someone’s born Jewish, that doesn’t guarantee that they are part of God’s people. Now, this should not have been ground-breaking news: the Old Testament prophets said the same thing. Even Jesus said the same thing. But the Judaizers missed the memo.

The other, and probably most ground-breaking thing that Paul wrote to the Galatians is in chapter 6, which we heard read to us this morning. In verse 15, he wrote, “neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.” This is huge. First of all, he’s saying that it doesn’t matter if you’re circumcised or not. Instead, what counts toward being part of God’s people is the “new creation.” This is an allusion to Baptism, in which we are made new, in which we die to sin and are raised with Christ in new life. (He writes of this more extensively in Romans 6, and I encourage you to explore that on your own time as I can’t go after that rabbit-trail today.)

As if that wasn’t enough, he continues in verse 16: “And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.” This may be a little awkward to read in English. In Greek there are a couple different words that can be translated as “and.” One version of ‘and’ means “and also” like you’re making a list. The other version of ‘and’ is one of equation or identity; that’s what’s used here. So what verse 16 is saying is that all who walk by this rule of a new creation is the Israel of God. Simply put, God’s chosen people, known as Israel, is made up of those who have received new life in Christ. If you want to be part of Israel, you just need to be a Christian. All you need is Jesus. If you’re in Christ, you’re in Israel. It no longer matters if you’re Jewish or Greek, or any other ethnicity or race. It no longer matters if you’re male or female: circumcision, which is obviously a male-only rite, has given way to Baptism, which is for everyone!

This is an important lesson that many Christians have forgotten in recent years, particularly since (back in the 40’s) a new country was created in the Middle East called Israel. We’ve reached a point where many Christians seem to have lost track of the ancient understanding of the Church as the New Israel, even though both Early Christian writings and the New Testament itself is full of that imagery. There are twelve Apostles, just like there were twelve tribes in Israel. Jesus promised the twelve Apostles that they’d sit on twelve thrones to judge the twelve tribes. In the Revelation of John we see twenty four elders sitting on thrones: depicting the twelve tribes of Old Israel and the twelve apostles of New Israel in perfect unity. It feels strange to be preaching this in a Jewish Synagogue, but then again, this is one of the reasons Christians were kicked out of the synagogues: the Gospel asserts that God’s people are not the Jewish race, but those who believe in Christ and are baptized into his Body.

 Look to the spiritual, not to the flesh.

            One of the basic principles of Christianity that results from this is the opposition of the spirit and the flesh. Last week, for example, we looked at Galatians 5 and the two opposing lists of the “works of the flesh” and the “fruit of the Spirit.” It’s the same with our very identity: who we are as Christians has nothing to do with the flesh – our humanity, our gender, our race, our socio-economic status – and everything to do with our spirit – is the Holy Spirit living in you?

When it comes to our personal identity, this can be very challenging and difficult. I enjoy the fact that my dad is from England, and I celebrate that heritage in many ways. It’s a source of pride, in its own way, and it defines a significant portion of my life. Other people feel that way about different ethnicities, or about being a woman, or being a man, or being wealthy, or being frugal, or being the first college graduate in their family, or about their healthy lifestyle, or a million other things. These things are all fine, but there are two conditions: first of all, we should not be proud of sin. If I’m really good at lying and cheating, that’s not something I should ever be proud of or flaunt. And secondly, even these good things about us cannot be allowed to become more important than the spirit – than the faith of the Gospel which is ours in Christ Jesus. To do so would be idolatry, and that’s a dangerous sin.

 What other identity crises do people have today?

            Now try to imagine that on a large scale, in which a whole group of Christians share the same idolatrous confusion over who they are supposed to be as Christians. What starts off as an already-dangerous sin for the individual can become a very dangerous heresy on the large scale.

Imagine a congregation that brought into its worship service rituals from other religions.

Imagine a congregation that imports our culture’s values into the teachings of the Bible.

Imagine a congregation advocating an ideology based on the US Constitution instead of the Bible.

Imagine a congregation more concerned about physical needs than about spiritual needs. We heard about this one in the Gospel reading; we are not to be anxious about such things as food, drink, clothing and shelter. Yes we can be concerned about them, even interested in them and passionate about them! But Jesus tells us to seek after his Kingdom and his righteousness above any earthly concern.

So the final word for us is simple. As Joshua said to the ancient Israelites, so Paul said to the Galatians: choose for yourself this day whom you will serve. Will you stake your identity in the God of the Bible, with the Gospel St. Paul preached, or in something else? Will we, as a congregation, choose to follow the teachings, commands, and calling of Christ, or in some other agenda? Will our decisions and desires be ruled by the Spirit or by the flesh? These are decisions that we must make individually and corporately, not only once, but frequently. And as often as we turn back on that commitment, we must repent, which means returning to Christ and starting again with a clean slate.

Therefore, let us stand together and recommit ourselves to the faith, in reciting the Creed;
then recommit ourselves to prayer, in the Prayers of the People;
then recommit ourselves to Christ, in the prayer of confession;
then recommit ourselves to His Church in the Offertory;
then receive him in Holy Communion.

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The Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity

(28 September 2014)

The Collect:
KEEP, we beseech you, O Lord, your Church with your perpetual mercy: and, because the frailty of man without you cannot [help] but fall, keep us ever by your help from all things hurtful, and lead us to all things profitable to our salvation; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Readings:
Joshua 24:14-15; Psalm 92:1-6; Galatians 6:11-18; Matthew 6:24-34

We seem to have a natural tendency to worry about various things, be it money, food, clothes, all of the above, or other things. But the Gospel tells us that just as we can’t serve the two masters of God and money, so also can we not serve any other distraction in life in God’s place. Like the Israelites of old, we not must choose whom we will serve. We, as the “Israel of God” (as the Epistle describes us) must seek after living as in the New Creation and boast in the Cross of Christ only. So as we realign our desires toward praising God (as in the Psalm), we pray (such as with the Collect) that God would keep us all close to him, since without him we cannot help but fall.

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The Bible’s Natural Habitat

There’s a lot of talk about why to read the Bible.  There’s a lot of talk about how to read the Bible.  But there’s not as much talk about where to read the Bible.  At first glance, it seems like a silly question… why should a Christian worry about where they should be picking the Bible and reading it?  Well, the catch is that I’m not asking so much about the physical location of the reader as I am asking about the Bible’s natural habitat.  Where does it belong?  In what context or “place” is it best read and best understood?

To a large extent, this question overlaps with the big question how to read the Bible.  And indeed I’ve touched on that subject from time to time already, particularly the two series lectia biblia 1 2 3 4 5 and levels of biblical interpretation 1 & 2.  But now we’re on to a slightly different track: where is the Bible’s natural habitat?

We begin with one of the few direct references that the Bible makes about itself:

the Holy Scriptures … are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.  All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

According to what St. Paul wrote to Timothy here, Scripture is God-breathed… that’s very similar language to how the giving of the Holy Spirit is often described.  So there’s something definitely spiritual about this book we call the Bible.  But the book of Hebrews takes this a step further:

the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

So not only is the Bible “God-breathed,” but it also has a life of its own!  So what does this say about how we should read the Bible and where it belongs?  Well first of all it belongs with God – specifically the Holy Spirit who inspired it.  After all, if it’s breathed out by God, then we should not be subjecting it to mere human interpretation (as St. Peter also argued).

Ironically, focusing on human interpretation is precisely what many seminaries teach us to do these days.  We study the original languages, we look at some of the manuscript differences in an attempt to dig our way back to the original text, we work through the grammar of the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic to reveal what the original texts meant, and in all this seem to equate the Bible’s human authorship with its divine authorship.  And while these are certainly useful and valid, because human authors definitely were involved in the writing and shaping of the Scriptures, this cannot be the whole picture.  When interpreting the Bible is reduced to translation, grammar, and linguistic analysis, biblical theology becomes more a matter of archaeology – digging up information from a dead past.

But the Bible is not just God-breathed, it’s living and active!  As a current Eastern Orthodox scholar has put it,

Scholarly interpretation has been governed by an overriding concern to establish the original text and meaning. But there are many circumstances in which this is either not appropriate or not the whole story. For the Scriptures do not simply belong to their original context: they have been read and re-read over the centuries. When we venerate the Book of the Gospels we are acknowledging it as something that belongs to the present: it bodies forth Christ now.
—Andrew Louth, Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology, p. 9

Regardless of denomination, all Christians do believe this – the Bible is the word of God, and therefore is an embodiment of the true Word of God, Jesus.  Sure, some of the more liberal traditions have played upon this fact to try to pit “Jesus” against “Bible” and pick up only what they want from the ashes, but that’s not what this is about.  Rather, just as Jesus is living and active, interceding for us to the Father, so is his Spirit and his Word and his Body:

  • The Spirit of Christ (the Holy Spirit) is actively sanctifying us and leading us into all the truth of Christ.
  • The Word of Christ (the Bible) is actively shining the light of Christ’s truth into the world, in the capable hands of the Spirit and the Church.
  • The Body of Christ (the Church) is actively proclaiming the Gospel unto the ends of the earth, ministering in Christ’s Name.

So where is the Bible’s natural habitat?  As the Word of Christ, it belongs with the Spirit of Christ and the Body of Christ – it belongs in the Church.  That means that the “best place to read the Bible” is in the Church.  I don’t mean you and I physically have to go into a church building, sit in the pews, and only there crack open our Bibles.  I mean that the Bible is best read, best understood, when read by the Body of Christ – when the Church is gathered to be the Church.  As this article puts it:

The way of understanding sacred writ in the early Church and down through the centuries–many years before widespread literacy and the advent of the printing press–was in how they were utilized in our daily, weekly, and annual liturgical celebrations.

To explain this practically; the way that Scripture readings are arranged, and how the Scripture passages are chosen for a given worship service on a given day are in themselves tools for understanding the Bible.  The themes of the Scripture readings on certain days give birth to Christian holidays, and the themes of the Scripture readings over a period of time give birth to Christian seasons.  A whole liturgical calendar is formed by the way that the Bible is read together by the worshiping community!

Some people today look at this liturgical framework and calendar and accuse us ‘traditionalists’ of imposing upon the Bible a limitation that binds it down and controls it according to our own weird catholic agenda.  But in reality, the liturgy and the calendar join with the Bible naturally and on a more equal basis.  The Bible gives shape and meaning to the liturgy; the liturgy gives us a lens to understand the Bible.  The relationship is mutual.  The Bible is living and active.  The liturgy is its ecosystem, its natural habitat in which it thrives and propagates its truth into the hearts of the faithful.

This habitat of the liturgical life of the Church for the Bible gives room for a more robust approach to Scriptural interpretation than we often realize.

  1. The literal, grammatical, historical approach to understanding the Scriptures is affirmed as real people and real events are celebrated throughout the year.
  2. The moral (or tropological) approach (think of “sermon applications”) to understanding Scripture  is affirmed as Scripture readings match each other highlighting certain lessons and themes.
  3. The allegorical approach to understanding Scripture is especially preserved in how Old Testament prophesies and events foretell aspects of the life and ministry of Jesus, such as in when we read about Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac on Good Friday.
  4. The anagogical or spiritual approach to understanding Scripture is also maintained.  For example, our movement from reading the Old Testament, to the New Testament, to the Gospel, to the sermon is a sort of re-enacting the long history of God’s revelation to his people, culminating in the arrival of Jesus – God in the flesh.

When the liturgy, calendar, and lectionary (Bible reading plan) are sufficiently robust, all four of these approaches to understanding the Bible are not only available to us, but also in perfect harmony.  They need not conflict with each other.  In fact, if handled rightly, they all match and complement one another perfectly.  Generally speaking, the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Anglican Communion each have strong traditions of a robust set of liturgy & calendar & lectionary.  Obviously the Anglican one is my favorite, but each has its own flavor, strengths, weaknesses, and style.

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St. Matthew’s Day

(21 September)

The Collect:
O ALMIGHTY God, who by your blessed Son did call Matthew from the receipt of custom to be an Apostle and Evangelist: Grant us grace to forsake all covetous desires, and inordinate love of riches, and to follow the same thy Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end.

The Readings:
Isaiah 33:13-17; Psalm 119:65-72; 2 Corinthians 4:1-6; Matthew 9:9-13

Before Saint Matthew was an Evangelist (Gospel-writer) and Apostle, he was a tax collector – a profession known for its extortion and love of money. Thus the Collect, Old Testament reading, and Psalm all have references to the superiority of following Christ over having lots of money. Going deeper, there is especially the superiority of following God’s Law and Gospel. As the Epistle describes, the world is blinded to the Gospel unless God opens their eyes with the light of Christ. This is what Jesus did for Matthew, and what Matthew subsequently sought to do for others, along with the other Apostles.

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The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity

(21 September 2014)

The Collect:
ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, give unto us the increase of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain that which you do promise, make us to love that which you do command; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Readings:
2 Kings 5:9-16; Psalm 118:1-9; Galatians 5:16-24; Luke 17:11-19

The Epistle reading contains a popularly-known quote: listing “the fruit of the Spirit.” What’s particularly important in this Sunday’s context is what St. Paul wrote about the opposition of the Spirit and the flesh – the desires of the flesh keep us from doing what is right. As the Collect reminds us, faith, hope, and love are gifts that God gives us, and as we grow in them our hearts are transformed also to love God and his commands. Then, with the fruit of the Spirit, we’ll become more like the Samaritan leper who actually returned to thank Jesus, and not hesitate in obeying God as Naaman did. For as the Psalm says, “it is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man.”

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The Man of Prayer 3/15

He always lives to make intercession for them. – Hebrews 7:25

Michael Ramsey was the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury, reigning from 1961-1974.  In 1979 he wrote a fantastic little book called The Christian Priest Today in which he has a number of short chapters about various aspects of the priesthood.  Many of these chapters were addresses or homilies said to a group of seminarians.  Chapter 3 is called Man of Prayer, and is a marvelous reflection on the prayer life of the priest.  Although it is written especially for, to, and about priests, the insights about prayer are valuable for any Christian seeking growth in closeness with God.  Each of these fifteen posts (which I will endeavor to maintain as a weekly series on Thursdays) is a reflection on one paragraph from the late Archbishop’s chapter, Man of God, from his book The Christian Priest Today.

Jesus died, rose again, and ascended into heaven.  The disciples now believed that he, exalted as he was in the Father’s glory, was still near to them: near, sharing, bearing as in the former days.  They could not doubt that his prayer continued.  This conviction underlies the imagery, both in St Paul and in the Epistle to the Hebrews, of Jesus as the high priest whose intercession continues: “he always lives to make intercession for them”.  Amidst the blended images of the ascended Christ as priest, prophet, and king, which the Reformation divines called the triplex munus, we should not miss the simplicity of what is meant by his continuing intercession.  He prayed on earth: he goes on praying still.  The nights of prayer, the prayers a great while before day, the prayer of the garden, are somehow not of the past alone.

Growing up in a nondenominational evangelical church, I never really heard about the reality of Christ’s continued intercession; it was never emphasized, in fact, almost completely ignored.  In teaching others about the continued intercession of Christ I actually have had some pushback from well-meaning Christians.  The verses of Romans 8:35 and Hebrews 7:25 have been missed by so many people.  And that is a great loss: the knowledge of Christ’s continuing prayers on our behalf in the presence of the Father is both an encouraging comfort that we’re not on our own and a cautionary reminder that we still rely on Christ as our mediator.

The three-fold office of Christ (known in Latin as triplex munus) provides a framework for understanding Christ’s intercession.  Specifically in the image of Christ as our high priest, one of the priest’s primary functions is to make intercession on behalf of the people.  So although his priestly work of the sacrifice on the cross is finished, the intercession before God which follows the sacrifice is still taking place.  And, going deeper, because we are one body with Christ, members of him and of one another, the unity we have with Christ is such that time & space don’t matter so much anymore.  His prayers in the Scriptures are living and active today, just as his prayers in heaven right now.

As we enter into prayer to God, there is a sense in which we are kneeling down alongside Jesus, who is already (and always) praying on our behalf.  Thus, once again, the prayers of Christ that we find in the Bible are valuable resources for meditation as we draw near to the One who prays perfectly, and who invites us to pray with him too!

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