The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity

(31 August 2014)

The Collect:
O GOD, who declares your almighty power most chiefly in showing mercy and pity; Mercifully grant unto us such a measure of your grace, that we, running the way of your commandments, may obtain your gracious promises, and be made partakers of your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Readings:
1 Kings 3:5-15; Psalm 28; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 18:9-141

Reflection:
Perhaps the primary theme here is the mercy of God. The Collect asserts that God mainly declares his almighty power in showing mercy, and each scripture reading reveals a different angle of this truth. In the Old Testament, King Solomon humbly asks for wisdom instead of long life and wealth, and God grants all three. In the Gospel parable, the Tax Collector confesses his sins and goes home justified. In the Epistle, St. Paul describes God’s mercy upon him as a former persecutor of the Church now a hard-working Apostle. The Psalm, also, refers to a situation where one can finally exclaim God “has heard the voice of my pleas for mercy!” Finally, the Gospel also has a word of application: the parable was given to those who were self-righteous and held others in contempt. Therefore, we learn that God’s mercy is for all, and keeps us healthily humble.

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Thoughts on Theocracy

Theocracy is a delicate word in modern usage.  Some see it as an ideal government as intended for ancient Israel.  Some see it as the corruption of American right-wing politics.  But, as the great Inigo Montoya once said, “you keep saying that word… I do not think it means what you think it means.”

What is a Theocracy?

Theocracy is a very simple word: theos + cratos = God + ruler.  It refers to the ruling of a country alongside Democracy (ruled by people), Monarchy (ruled by one), Oligarchy (ruled by a few), Meritocracy (ruled by gifted people), and so on.  This brings two major issues to my mind immediately.

First, it occurs to me that believing in the words of the Christian Bible, one must confess that the entire universe is under a theocracy.  Ever since Jesus defeated sin and put death to flight at the throne of his Cross, he has been the ruler of the world.  As he himself testified:

Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.”  He said this to show by what death he was to die. (John 12:31-33)

In this light, it seems silly to try to identify individual countries as “theocracies,” because in the grand scheme of things, God is in charge no matter who the President, King, Emperor, Governor, or other ruler is.

The second issue that comes to mind is that it is ridiculously difficult to form a theocracy in real life.  If the government is God Almighty and none other, then who gets to police his laws?  Are there even any laws?  The Old Testament Law of Moses exists, and was put forth for the ancient Israelites, but because it has its fulfillment in Jesus, we know it’s no longer appropriate for us to adopt it wholesale.  To do so would be to take a drastic step backwards, away from Christ, and thus away from God.

The closest thing I can think of a theocracy in the modern world is ISIS.  They have an army and are ousting government control from parts of Syria and Iraq, and instead of replacing those governments with their own, they’re enforcing Sharia Law, which is about as close as they can get to having Allah in charge according to Muslim theology.  My point is not that theocracy leads to terrorism, but that it is simply not practiceable.  As Christians, we don’t have a built-in means for socio-political organization.  The ancient Jews had civil laws built in to their religious law, and the Muslims have a tradition of civil law, but we don’t.  The closest thing we have to being organized is having the Church.

How about an Ecclesiocracy?

When most people in the USA complain about Christians pushing for a “theocracy,” what they often see and mislabel is the push for an Ecclesiocracy (the Church ruling the land).  Think about it: imagine some Christians trying to enforce a “theocracy.”  How would they do it?  Who would be the judges of the law?  Who would hold authority and influence?  In short, who are God’s representatives?

In ancient Israel the answer was simple: the Prophets, the Priests, and the Kings.  These three offices were anointed by God to be his mouthpiece within certain parameters.  Prophets preached and enforced the Law; Priests performed the religious functions and (with the Levites) taught and settled disputes; Kings managed the civil law and provided organization for the whole land.  All that to say, even the so-called theocracy of ancient Israel was really administered through intermediaries.  It was a religious monarchy, perhaps, or a politicized ecclesiocracy, but not a theocracy.

In the Church today, who are God’s representatives?  The historic answer would be the clergy, according to their respective functions.  And while a number of Christians in the USA right now might still agree with that, plenty would be uncomfortable with such a notion.  This is because of our radical cultural striving towards the ideal of “equality” and especially “liberty.”  (In my view, Lady Liberty, as I’ve argued in the past, is the true goddess of America.)  In short, the prevailing non-denominational attitude of American Christians today would make it nigh impossible to form a theocracy.  Competing interpretations of Scripture would tear it apart without a united form of organization.

That is actually why the founding documents of the USA forbade there being a national state religion: too many denominations already existed to make such an enterprise feasible.  And many of the founding fathers were more interested in individual liberty than the truth of God.

So what is a Christian nation?

In light of how impracticable it would be to institute a real Theocracy as Christians, and how divided Christians are to form a stable Ecclesiocracy, it seems pretty straightforward to me that there can be no such thing as a “Christian nation” until Jesus returns and takes the throne visibly and finally.

Sure, you can have a nation built on “Christian principles,” but even there you’ve got the problems of competing traditions within Christianity (divine right of kings versus democratic rule, just war versus pacifism, allowing divorce versus banning divorce, equal rights for non-Christians versus second-class citizenship).  And besides, Christian principles or values removed from their theological foundation are no longer reliably Christian!  The reason for this is simple: the political foundation of the country is still political, not religion.

Trying to make a “Christian nation” is like mixing water and oil.  If you keep stirring, they’ll remain somewhat mixed, but they naturally separate on their own.  I’m not saying that religion and politics don’t belong together, they’re both liquids, after-all, and both necessary ingredients in baking a yummy cake.  But until Christ returns to put our broken world back together, we have certain limitations regarding how well we can handle politics and religion and other features of culture.  A more unified Church would certainly be a helpful step, but that’s not looking likely anytime soon in the USA, given our national devotion to Lady Liberty and her dogma of individualism.

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St. Bartholomew’s Day

(24 August)

The Collect:
O ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who did give to your Apostle Bartholomew grace truly to believe and to preach your Word: Grant, we beseech you, unto your Church, to love that Word which he believed, and both to preach and receive the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Readings:
Genesis 28:10-17; Psalm 15; Acts 5:12-16; Luke 22:24-30

Reflection:
Very little information is available in Scripture about the Apostle Bartholomew (known in the Gospel of John as Nathaniel). Nevertheless, as one of the twelve, he is held in high esteem by the Church. The reading from Acts tells us of the great ministry shared by all the Apostles, and the Gospel reading tells us of the great authority given to the Apostles by Jesus himself. The Old Testament, meanwhile, provides a typology for us: just as Jacob had a special vision of angels ascending and descending a ladder from heaven to earth for the benefit of those who came after him, so has Bartholomew (and the other Apostles) had a special vision of Christ ministry on earth and ascending to heaven for the benefit of those who came after him! And so we are encouraged by the Psalm and Collect to imitate his righteousness of life and commitment to the Word of God.

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The Tenth Sunday after Trinity

 (24 August 2014)

The Collect:
LET your merciful ears, O Lord, be open to the prayers of your humble servants; and that they may obtain their petitions make them to ask such things as shall please you; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Readings:
Jeremiah 7:9-15; Psalm 17:1-8; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; Luke 19:41-47a

Reflection:
Today we receive the painful but crucial lesson that spiritual arrogance and pride can be deadly. Both the ancient Israelites described in the Old Testament and the 1st century Jews described in the Gospel had lapsed into a dangerous position of taking God, and their status before him, for granted. Having the Ark of the Covenant or the Temple was not a free ticket to salvation, and the New Testament makes it clear that the same is true for us as Christians today: simply claiming the name of Jesus is not enough; only the Holy Spirit can enable us to call upon God in the way that the Psalm so beautifully describes. Thus, as the Collect prays for God’s guidance of our very prayers, we are reminded to beware of all spiritual arrogance and pride and always humble ourselves before him.

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The Ninth Sunday after Trinity

(17 August 2014)

The Collect:
GRANT to us, Lord, we beseech you, the spirit to think and do always such things as be rightful; that we, who cannot do any thing that is good without you, may by you be enabled to live according to your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Readings:
Numbers 10:35-11:3; Psalm 95; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 16:1-9

Reflection:
Today’s Gospel parable tells the story of a steward who was unfaithful to his master but faithful to his own interests by lightening the load of his master’s debtors. The history of the Israelites wandering in the desert, described in the first three readings, tell a similar story: God’s people are given miraculous gifts from God, including what the Epistle describes as a sort of prototype of Baptism and Communion. The lesson given to us there is that we need to be faithful stewards of what God has given us. The Collect takes this to prayer by acknowledges our inability to do what is right without God’s help.

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the Blessed Virgin Mary’s Day

(15 August)

The Collect:
O GOD, you have taken to yourself your holy servant Mary, mother of your incarnate Son; through the Blood of your Son Jesus, may we, like her, come to the glory of your eternal kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.

The Readings:
Isaiah 61:10-11; Psalm 45:10-17; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 1:46-55

Reflection:
St. Mary the Virgin is unique among the Saints by virtue of her motherhood of God – our Lord Jesus Christ. Even in the midst of her humble obedience to God, she recognized the uniquely special role to which she had been called; her own psalm in today’s Gospel indicates her realization that “all generations” will called her blessed. The Old Testament reading and Psalm also provide earlier echoes of her song, describing the glorious salvation of God as clothing and jewels like on a bride and groom. The Collect also refers to the glory that she now enjoys in heaven with Christ her Son and her God. And in the midst of this, the Epistle stands out, reminding us that because Jesus was “born of a woman” we can receive adoption as sons. In short, Jesus’ birth from the Virgin Mary is the beginning of our salvation, and as we are adopted into God’s family, we’re brought intimately close to Mary (amidst the entire Communion of Saints) as well.

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Sons of the Father

This was my sermon for the 8th Sunday after Trinity 8 at Grace Anglican Church.  The scripture readings were Jeremiah 23:16-24, Psalm 31:1-6, Romans 8:12-17, and Matthew 7:15-21.

Last week we were described as slaves of God. Today that image is expanded to encompass another critically important metaphor. We are adopted sons of God.

What does sonship entail?

Romans 8:12-17 describes sonship to God in several ways.

  1. Like being a slave, sonship comes with a position of debt and obligation (v12-14). As a part of God’s family, it no longer becomes us to act like we’re part of someone else’s family – be it a religion power, political power, social power, or any other sort of organization; God’s fatherhood over us is a supreme headship to which we must conform and defer.
  2. Sonship comes with a position of relationship that other workers don’t have (v15). Consider:
    1. A son doesn’t work for wages, but for an inheritance based on a promise. (We’ll revisit this later!)
    2. A son shares the desire and goal of his father, according to biblical ideals. (Notice our need to reorder our desires according to God’s!)
    3. A son shares a mutual love with his father. (This alone changes the whole dynamic.)
    4. A son gives us up his freedom to work with his father (a slave can’t disown and leave).
  3. Sonship comes with a position of confidence (v16). As our Psalm this morning described, we know that we can trust and take refuge in God the Father. He’s not just the company CEO or the head farmer, but also an approachable friend. As St. Paul describes it here, the Holy Spirit himself bears witness within us, telling us that we can call God “dad.”
  4. Sonship comes with a position of expectation (v17), and this goes both ways. St. Paul describes us as “co-heirs with Christ,” which sets up a crucial picture of the Christian life and journey: on one side, we can expect a marvelous inheritance from God as sons of God alongside his firstborn Son, Jesus Christ! On the other side, God can expect us to be like his firstborn Son, Jesus, by the time he hands that inheritance over.

What is our inheritance?

Let’s dig into the meaning of this inheritance now, and the expectations that we can have from God, and God from us.

One of the chief images for our salvation that the Early Church drew upon was the Exodus. (To this day, many of the Holy Week and Easter liturgies feature Scripture readings about the Exodus and the Passover and the parting of the Red Sea and the giving of the Covenant.) Comparing a few of these biblical parallels can help us to understand the nature of our adoption to sonship, our life of sonship, and the inheritance it yields.

First, let us consider the story of the ancient Israelites.

  1. They start out as slaves to the Egyptians.
  2. God saves them by sending his Prophet, Moses, who institutes the Passover sacrifice to break the Pharaoah’s hold over them, then leads them through the waters of the Red Sea into a new life.
  3. Through Moses, God initiates a covenant with them, giving them the Law as their guide.
  4. False prophets arise along the way, complaining about their hardships in the desert and advocating a return to Egypt.
  5. Finally, they reached their inheritance: the Promised Land, where they could live in peace and prosperity.

Second, let us consider the story of the Christians.

  1. We started out as slaves to sin.
  2. God saved us by sending his Prophet, Jesus, who instituted the Eucharistic sacrifice on the Cross to break Satan’s hold over us, then leads us through the waters of Baptism into a new life.
  3. Through Jesus, God initiates a covenant with us, giving us the Holy Spirit as our guide.
  4. False prophets arise, complaining about the hardships of the Christian life and advocating a return to sin.
  5. Finally, we reach our true inheritance: the Kingdom of God, where we can live in sinless glory.

And in between these, Jesus himself has a similar story.

  1. He started out as the invisible Word of God.
  2. He did not need salvation, of course, but he did enter into a new life, conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.
  3. Through John the Baptist, God sends the Holy Spirit upon Jesus to initiate his ministry.
  4. False prophets arise, complaining about Jesus’ teaching, and advocating the sufficiency of Torah and Temple.
  5. Finally, Jesus reaches his inheritance, which Psalm 2 describes as “all nations” – the whole world.

The similarities are similar and great, as you can see! St. Paul himself wrote some comments on these parallels. To the Corinthians he wrote that the crossing of the Red Sea was like the Israelites’ baptism, and that Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross is our Passover and therefore let us keep the feast! So too, in today’s reading from Romans 8, Paul has in mind the parallel of inheritance: as Israel was promised a new and better home, so are we. This is one of the chief benefits of being God’s people – especially God’s sons – our new home will be with him!

Beware the danger in the road.

And yet, in both cases, we hear about false prophets. For Israel, they advocated a return to the old ways: the old homeland (as much as Egypt was a homeland), the old gods, the old slavery. And this took many forms throughout the Old Testament, including our reading this morning from Jeremiah. It’s exactly the same with us: false prophets tell Christians to return to their pagan gods and lifestyles, to return to Judaism and the yoke of the Law, to return to that independent spirit of Atheism, or to flee to the supposedly greener pastures of worshiping another god, another society, another king or government or power.

One of the underlying sins here is covetousness – the inordinate desires for something someone else has. This is not the same thing as envy, which is focused against another person directly. Covetousness, rather, is like saying that ‘the grass is greener on the other side of the fence.’ I’ve seen this with sheep and they do this a lot: no matter what side of a fence they’re on, they often stick their heads through and graze on the other side. It’s comical to watch, especially when you can see perfectly good grass just beside them on their own side of the fence! But with God’s people this turns quickly from comedy to tragedy, seeing people who confess Christ but then resort to karma to explain their ups and downs in life, or stake the salvation of the world upon the existence of modern Israel, or proclaim the superiority of America as God’s chosen country, or have their own children murdered in the womb. All these errors and sins are proclaimed, taught, rationalized, and encouraged by false prophets. And since we cannot see into the hearts of others, we are taught by Jesus (in today’s well-known Gospel passage) to look at the fruits of others’ lives. Good trees produce good fruit, and bad trees produce bad fruit.

A quick example of this from the past week is the Ebola epidemic in western Africa. While many American missionaries and doctors left, quite understandably, a few chose to stay and fight the disease, potentially laying down their lives in sacrifice to save others. What beautiful fruit that is, to see the unselfish love of Christ shining forth in these people. Let us be sure to pray for Dr. Kent Brantly and other who have put their lives on the line in the service of Christ. Conversely, we’ve seen the bad fruit of worldly reasoning by people like Ann Coulter, denouncing the ministry of Dr. Brantly and insulting the Gospel ministry by asserting that if he had instead “practiced at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles and turned one single Hollywood power-broker to Christ, he would have done more good for the entire world than anything he could accomplish in a century spent in Liberia.” Remember Jesus’ words, “whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.” Caring for the needy is just as legitimate as caring for the rich – if not moreso! It doesn’t take a bible scholar to see the fruit of this tree; let us also pray for Ann Coulter and those who listen to her, that they would be filled with the love and compassion of Christ that they desperately need.

Conclusion

Returning, finally, to the topic of our sonship to God, examining the fruits of our own lives and the lives of others helps us to see how we’re doing. Are the fruits of our lives evidence that we’re carrying out our debt of obligation to our heavenly father? Are the fruits of our lives evidence that we’re in a relationship with God characterized by mutual love? Are the fruits of our lives evidence that our confidence is in God above all others? Are the fruits of our lives evidence that we’re expecting an inheritance from God, and not from a false prophet’s version of the Gospel? We all fall short, and so we pray:

O God, whose never-failing providence orders all things both in heaven and earth: We humbly beseech you to put away from us all hurtful things, and to give us those things which be profitable for us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

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