Using the Apocrypha / Deuterocanon

Perhaps one of the more startling features of Anglican worship, to our fellow evangelicals, is our occasional reading and use of certain books that aren’t found in Protestant Bibles anymore.  To Protestants, these books are known as the Apocrypha.  To Roman Catholics, some of these books are known as the Deuterocanon (which means “second canon” or “secondary canon”.  To Protestants, these books are an intrusion upon the Old Testament; to Roman Catholics these books are a final wrap-up for the Old Testament era of sacred writings.

How do Anglicans use them, and why?

In one of our most important historical documents, The 39 Articles of Religion, the following is written about these books in question.

VI. Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation.
Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. In the name of the Holy Scripture we do understand those canonical Books of the Old and New Testament, of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church.

Of the Names and Number of the Canonical Books.
Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, 1 Esdras [Ezra], 2 Esdras [Nehemiah], Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes or Preacher, Cantica or Songs of Solomon, Four Prophets the greater [Isaiah, Jeremiah & Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel], Twelve Prophets the less [Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi].

And the other Books (as Jerome saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine; such are these following:

3 Esdras, 4 Esdras, Tobias [Tobit], Judith, Song of the Three Children [Daniel 3], Story of Susanna [Daniel 13], Bel and the Dragon [Daniel 14], the rest of the Book of Esther, Wisdom, Sirach [Ecclesiasticus], Baruch, Prayer of Manasseh, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees.

All the Books of the New Testament, as they are commonly received, we do receive, and account them Canonical.

That’s our official statement on the matter of biblical canon.  As you might imagine, there is some ongoing discussion among Anglicans over just what this means.  In general we have low-church perspectives (favoring Protestant thought) and high-church perspectives (favoring Catholic thought).  We’ll look at both takes on the issue before settling into the practical solutions worked out in our most important document: The Book of Common Prayer.

What does this Article VI say, from a Protestant perspective?

In line with the Reformers in continental Europe, the stance taken in the 39 Articles sets out a distinction between the undisputed Hebrew Old Testament and the controversial additions found in the Greek Old Testament.  They are listed separately in Article VI and a different level of authority is attributed to either group: the undisputed books carry the full weight of biblical authority, while the “other books” are not read “to establish any doctrine.”

Although the document does not use the word “apocrypha,” that is the term that people of this perspective tend to use to describe the “other books.”   Apocrypha means “hidden” or “unknown,” and is usually used as a derogatory term to push aside the extra books as spurious, questionable, and unnecessary.

What does this Article VI say, from a Catholic perspective?

In line with the majority of Christian practice before the Reformation, the stance taken in the 39 Articles maintains a place and use for the “other books” listed.  Most significantly, it says that “the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners.”  This rules out the usual conclusion of the Protestant view – to remove them from our bibles and stop reading them altogether.  In fact, a sort of middle-road solution was the norm from the time of the Reformation until the mid-1800’s or so: the additional books were still included in Protestant Bibles in an appendix between the Old and New Testaments.  That way they’re separated out to note their distinction apart from the regular Old Testament, but not entirely absent so they can still be studied and read.

Although the document does not use the word “deuterocanon,” that is the term that people of this perspective tend to use to describe the “other books”.  Deuterocanon means “second canon” or “secondary” canon, thus recognizing a distinction between the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek additions yet retaining a place for these books in the canon of sacred Scripture.

How has the Prayer Book handled this tension of perspectives?

Where the 39 Articles can only make statements of belief, the Prayer Book actually provides the unifying practice that Anglicans actually say and do in the course of public worship.  As far as historic prayer book study goes, people often point out how the very first Prayer Book (1549) leaned more Catholic, the second one (1552) learned more Protestant, and the third and fourth editions (1559 & 1662) took a more balanced approach between the first two extremes.  But something that remained unchanged in each of them was the lectionary (Bible-reading plan) for daily Morning and Evening Prayer.

In that lectionary, the New Testament was read three times through, the majority of the Old Testament once, and parts of the Apocrypha/Deuterocanon also were included.  From the 14 books or parts of books on the list quoted in Article VI, only Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, and Sirach were read through in the original lectionary.  The additions to Daniel and Esther, the Prayer of Manasseh, the extra books of Esdras, and the Maccabees all were left out.  Later versions of the daily lectionary, starting in the 1800’s, started shortening the readings across the board, but somehow managed to start including parts of the books of the Maccabees while thinning out its coverage of Wisdom and Sirach, as well as other parts of the Old Testament.

For what it’s worth, the original lectionary for Sunday and Holy Day Communion services included no readings from the disputed books.  However, that lectionary often included nothing from the Old Testament at all.

There is a practice today of stating “The word of the Lord / Thanks be to God” at the end of Scripture readings, but the original Prayer Books had no such feature.  Each reading was concluded with the statement “Here ends the reading/lesson,” thus offering no liturgical statement about the nature of the reading’s authority or canonicity.  Common practice among evangelical Anglicans today is to say “the word of the Lord” after all Scripture readings, but resorting to “here ends the reading” after a reading from the apocrypha/deuterocanon.  This practice implies that the additional books are not the word of the Lord.  However, in some early Anglican homilies (including at least one listed in a book of authorized homilies elsewhere in the 39 Articles) quotes from the book of Sirach are labeled as the divine word of God.  This reveals that either the additional books were considered God’s Word back then, or that the phrase “God’s Word” was used rather more loosely then than we use it today.

How is the Anglican Church in North America dealing with all this?

The Church province of which I am a part – the Anglican Church in North America – has been developing its position statements and liturgies over the past few years, and the use of the additional books speaks volumes about the expectations of our liturgists (worship planners).  At first it looked as though we were heading in a Protestant direction: Question 37 in our official catechism, To Be A Christian, says thus:

37. What other books does the Church acknowledge?

The canon of Holy Scripture contains all things necessary to salvation.  The fourteen books of the Apocrypha may also be read “for example of life and instruction of manners,” but “not to establish any doctrine.”

Almost verbatim, this takes the Protestant emphasis of Article VI and codifies it.  The additional books are shoved more clearly aside, and for the first time in Anglican history, the word “Apocrypha” is used in an official document as a label for those contested writings.

Despite this Protestant-favoring direction, the official liturgies and lectionaries that have been released over the past couple years have revealed quite clearly that this “apocrypha” is here to stay.  The daily lectionary still contains portions of Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach, and the books of the Maccabees, as well as a couple isolated appearances of a couple other “apocryphal” writings.  When the daily lectionary has such a reading on a Sunday, it makes an allowance for a regular Old Testament reading to replace it, but for the regular weekdays it makes no such exception.  As Article VI unavoidably says, “the other books… the Church doth read.”

Furthermore, the new lectionary for the Communion service on Sundays and Holy Days contains six different days in its three-year cycle that have a reading from the apocrypha appointed.  This is pretty similar to recent Anglican lectionaries both in America and abroad, indicating that despite our catechism leaning Protestant on this issue, our practice will remain in step with historic and global Anglicanism.

How am I, Fr. Brench, handling the matter in light of all this?

Even before I entered into the Anglican tradition, I held the books of the deuterocanon / apocrypha in high regard.  I was satisfied with the solution in the 39 Articles – that we still read them albeit with a different use in mind compared to the regular Old testament.  As such, I have always tried to resist calling them either the Apocrypha or the Deuterocanon, as reflected in the writing of this article.  I don’t like how Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles integrate the additional books into the Old Testament as if there was no controversy about their use.  I equally dislike how Protestant Bibles omit those books completely.  If forced to choose between either extreme, I’d take the Catholic/Orthodox choice because (at the very least) the Anglican lectionaries demand use of the additional books, and I’d rather have them in the wrong place than not have them at all.

Another challenge, from a logistical standpoint, is that the list of “other books” that we have in Article VI contains writings that the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox omit from their Bibles.  The Prayer of Manasseh and 3 Esdras are not found in the Roman Catholic Bible, and 4 Esdras is found in neither the Roman nor the Orthodox Bibles.  Thus, in order to accommodate the full range of the Anglican lectionaries, we actually need a different Bible edition from either Roman or Orthodox practice!  This can prove challenging for us, as the glut of translation options in the Protestant world right now almost never covers the additional books at all, keeping our options limited to only a short list of Bible editions out there.

What about preaching?  I can and have both privately taught and publicly preached from the additional books before.  One accusation that might be brought against me here is that in so doing I elevate those writings to the level of canonical Scripture in violation of Article VI.  But I would point out that Article VI authorizes the use of the additional books for reading and instruction, just not for establishing doctrine.  Sometimes preaching is theology-heavy and sometime preaching is exhortation-heavy.  According to Article VI, the “other books” are best suited to the latter sort of preaching, and that is precisely what I do.  When I include those writings in my pastoral work, it is as supplementary to the theological basis of the uncontested Old and New Testaments.  Besides, when establishing doctrine in teaching and preaching, one never relies on one verse alone anyway.  There are many cases where sound biblical doctrine is reflected in the additional books, and to quote them in defense and explanation of biblical teaching is no more a sin than to quote J. I. Packer or Richard Hooker or Martin Luther or Saint Augustine to defend and explain biblical teaching.

I recognize that there are many evangelical Anglicans who feel very uncomfortable with the Apocrypha; I grew up in that kind of environment myself.  But I take consolation and encouragement in the fact that these books don’t show up in the liturgy very often for the typical Sunday-Communion-only church attendee, and in the rare instances they do appear they’re very usefully synchronized with the rest of the Scripture readings, making it both easy and beneficial to re-introduce them to skeptics in a positive light.  As with all writings, familiarity with the text is crucial for beneficial and proper interaction with the “apocrypha,” so the less foreign it is to people, the more we can benefit from them rather than hide from them in fear.

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Christ the Judge

Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead: a sermon for Christ the King Sunday, 2016

Our hymn from Lyra Fidelium describes how the Day of Judgement will unfold, and sets it into its larger context.

Stanzas 1 & 2 begin with a remembrance of the Ascension of Christ.

MISTFUL are our waiting eyes, Philippians 3:20, As of them who saw Him rise From that mountain to the skies.  Acts 1:10

Then the holy Angels near, Acts 1:10-11, Gave them tidings of good cheer:  “Jesus shall again appear.”

Stanza 3 addresses the present day: we are waiting for the return of Christ.

And we wait an Angel’s cry, 1 Thessalonians 4:16, Piercing earthward from the sky:  “Now, behold your Lord is nigh!”

Stanzas 4-6 deal with the day of Christ’s return in great Glory (which we discussed last week).

Yet, who shall abide that day, Malachi 3:2, When the judge with dread array Comes for universal sway?      2 Timothy 4:1

Dreadly shall His summons sweep, Romans 14:10, Heard by those who wake or sleep, 1 Thessalonians 4:15, On the height or in the deep:

Heard by Life ‘mid all its bloom, 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, Heard by Death in every tomb –  Terrible decree of doom.  Psalms 96:13 & 98:9

Note, in stanza 6, that doom means judgement, both for good and for bad.

Stanzas 7-9 actually deal with the final judgment itself.

As the fisher parts his prey, Matthew 13:47-48, Casting these from those away, So it shall be on that day.

For the gathered souls who stand, Matthew 13:49, Waiting that supreme command, He shall part on either hand.

To those souls of quick and dead, “Come,” shall be the blessing said, Matthew 25:34, “Go,” shall be the cursing dread.  Matthew 25:41

Stanzas 10-11 end the poem with a prayer to be with Jesus.

Lord, dwell in us now, we pray, 2 Corinthians 6:16, That, in the dividing day, We be not the cast away!

So shall we till Thou appear Blend, in longing eye and ear, Titus 2:13, Holy joy with holy fear!

Note that judgment is both a source of fear and of joy for the Christian.  It is scary and painful to be confronted with the full scope of our sinfulness, but we take comfort in the knowledge that Christ made the perfect sacrifice that encompasses the full penalty of all our sins.  Though we are all guilty, we don’t have to suffer that guilt in eternity!

Two other songs provide examples of how judgment day has been understood throughout history.

The first example is an old Latin hymn called Dies iræ, dies illa.  It is at least 700 years old, and could be more than twice that age, depending on who originally wrote it.  Its first verses begin:

Day of wrath and doom impending. David’s word with Sibyl’s blending, Heaven and earth in ashes ending.

Oh, what fear man’s bosom rendeth, When from heaven the Judge descendeth, On whose sentence all dependeth.

Wondrous sound the trumpet flingeth; Through earth’s sepulchres it ringeth; All before the throne it bringeth.

Death is struck, and nature quaking, All creation is awaking, To its Judge an answer making.

It goes on to describe the opening of the Book of Life, the vast discrepancy between the all-powerful and majestic God and the feeble human sinner, the atonement Christ made on the Cross, our undeserving of that grace, our powerlessness to save ourselves, and a final plea for God’s merciful loving-kindness:

Ah! that day of tears and mourning, From the dust of earth returning Man for judgement must prepare him, Spare, O God, in mercy spare him.

Pie Jesu Domine, Dona eis requiem. Amen.

Lord, all-pitying, Jesus blest, Grant them Thine eternal rest. Amen.

This hymn has left its legacy both in liturgy and in the broader culture of Western music.  It is the traditional Sequence Hymn in the Catholic funeral mass, and a version of it exists still in our own hymnal, #468.  The tune of the plainchant, also, has become very well known.  If you’re a music buff you might recognize it echoed in the works of a number of famous pieces of music: it’s in Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, “Saturn” from Gustav Holst’s The Planets, Gustav Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, several of Rachmaninoff’s symphonies and piano pieces, and has even found its way into the folk music tradition and the occasional TV show or movie soundtrack.

Both in its musical and liturgical use, it is an icon of death and its mournful side.  In recent decades it has become more fashionable to downplay the mourning of death in favor of highlighting the future hope in the resurrection.  So from our 21st century eyes, Dies iræ seems excessively morbid.  It plays up the sense of fear surrounding the day of judgment.  Hope is present, but a lot more attention is given to the sense of fear and dread.

My other musical example reveals how the day of judgment has often been politicized by many different people throughout history, including in our own Anglican history.  During the English Civil War, the Church of England was accused by the Puritans of being the evil Babylon foretold in the Book of Revelation.  And so there are songs, poems, and hymns from that period of history which mix the political situation of the 1640’s with the religious language of the Book of Revelation.

Hail the day so long expected, Hail the year of full release. Zion’s walls are now erected, And her watchmen publish peace. Through our Shiloh’s wide dominion, Hear the trumpet loudly roar, Babylon is fallen to rise no more.

All her merchants stand with wonder, What is this that comes to pass: Murm’ring like the distant thunder, Crying, “Oh alas, alas.” Swell the sound, ye kings and nobles, Priest and people, rich and poor; Babylon is fallen to rise no more.

Blow the trumpet in Mount Zion, Christ shall come a second time; Ruling with a rod of iron All who now as foes combine. Babel’s garments we’ve rejected, And our fellowship is o’er, Babylon is fallen to rise no more.

Almost the entire song is a rehash of chapters 18, 19, and 20 of the book of Revelation.  But, just as with some of our examples last week, the image of Christ’s final judgment over creation is brought into a political scenario that felt like a triumph of God’s judgment amidst a sinful people.  Or at least, it felt like a triumph to some people.  Where the Puritans won a 20-year period of rule over England with Christmas abolished (along with Bishops, the Prayer Book, hymns, and the remnant of church art that survived the Reformation), the Anglicans came out with a martyr of their own: King Charles I who chose to die for the Church and the Crown rather than acknowledge the authority of Puritan usurpers.

Today we face similar temptations.  When big events rock the countries and governments that we love or loathe, we are frequently tempted to cloak it in the language of God’s judgment and attribute it as a sign that Christ is about to return.  This is where we must be very careful.  Jesus did indeed say that the heavens and the earth will be shaken when he returns, so on one hand such big world events should remind us that Christ could come back at any moment.  But on the other hand we must remain calm and skeptical: just because we feel like the world is being shaken, it might not seem that way to others.  Remember what the Puritans thought was a victory the Anglicans thought was a defeat.  We have to remember to escape the trap of thinking inside our own bubbles.  “The world” is a lot bigger than “America,” and the problems we face are hardly unique in the course of world history.  Certainly, we should use the present time of strife and division to remind us that Christ will come back to bring his final judgment upon us all; but it would be arrogant of us to assume that the present strife and division is somehow the “last straw” that heralds his return.

Perhaps this is why Judgment Day is associated with such doom and gloom.

There’s so much mystery surrounding the “when” and “how” of Christ’s return, and we tend to have an innate fear and awe of the unknown and the unknowable.  But we must remember, God is much the same way – He too is beyond our comprehension.  We have many authoritative ways to describe him: Trinity, Father, Son, Holy Spirit, love, just, merciful, covenant-keeping, holy, I Am, unchangeable.  But there’s also a great “Cloud of Unknowing” that surrounds God; we cannot understand him completely.  That’s part of the bliss of communion with God – we will finally have eternity to see him face to face – and it will take an eternity of such gazing to understand him!

And that, I think, is what Judgment Day boils down to for us, as Christians.  Yes it’s scary and unknowable, but it will be the beginning of our life with God unhindered by sin.  It will be the end of death.  It will be when the entire Creation is reordered aright, where the sun and moon won’t outshine Christ, where the darkness of night and the chaos of sea no longer hold sway over us, where we won’t need a Temple building because God will be with all and in all.

All that’s left to us, in the meantime, is to wait.  We know that Jesus is the Kyrie Pantokrator – the Lord and Ruler of All – and that he will come back to begin that rule.  For those who want to spend eternity getting to know him better, the Day of Judgment will yield eternal bliss.  For those who don’t want to spend eternity getting to know God, the Day of Judgment will yield eternal torment – not because God wants to pick on them, but because God will be Ruler of All, and if they aren’t happy with that, they won’t be happy with the New Creation, and forever “kick against the goads” as did Saint Paul before he was converted.

Are you looking forward to being with Christ face to face?

Then take comfort in the final words in the Bible: ““Surely I am coming soon.”  Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus!

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Signs of the Times

This was my sermon on Matthew 24:23-31 upon the 25th Sunday after Trinity.

If you’ve been following the daily Scripture readings on the back of the bulletin, you’ll have noticed a very interesting passage on the evening of election day.  In 1 Thessalonians 4:16, hear the Word of the Lord: “For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the Trump of God.”  There, you see?  A prophetic word for our time!  The election of Donald Trump as God’s anointed was foretold in the Holy Bible, and it is a sure sign that he will usher in Christ’s Kingdom on Earth right here, right now!  Except, of course, you know that isn’t how the Bible works.  The word “trump” means “trumpet,” and the silly pun only works in English… it’s just a silly joke – nobody would take that argument seriously.

Or would they?  Eight years ago, Barak Obama was elected President for his first term, and there were quite a number of strange end-times “prophecies” cropping up around him.  I can’t find the source anymore, but one intrepid and determined individual set out to prove, from the Bible, that Obama was going to turn out to be the Antichrist.  He did this by finding out what “barach obama” means in the Hebrew language.  Barach means “blessed” or “blessing”, but occasionally it means the opposite – a “curse” – an ironic sort of way.  Bamah, apparently, means “beast,” and if stick the Hebrew letter waw in front of it (which means “the” in Hebrew), you’ve got Barak Obama translated to “Curse of the Beast.”  Never mind that the letter waw is never pronounced as the letter O at the beginning of a word, or that barach primarily means “blessing” rather than “curse.”  Again, it’s a ridiculous scam – someone was working very hard to twist the Scriptures and the Hebrew language to attribute some religious significance to his political views and fears.  But hey, we’ve got a month and a half left, maybe Obama will finally take away his guns?

Anyway, the strange mix of politics and Bible interpretation in the midst of end-times fervor is nothing new.  There have been constant predictions of the return of Christ since the mid-19th century, several of which have spawned whole groups of new denominations, further dividing the Body of Christ.  Many of the Reformers and early Protestants were convinced that the Pope was the Antichrist and the Roman Catholic Church the Whore of Babylon.  When the year 1,000 approached, and the Byzantine Empire was slowly collapsing as various Muslim caliphates grew in the East, and various barbarian hordes were overrunning many of Europe’s Christian cities, many feared the end was nigh.  After the city of Rome was sacked by King Alaric of the Visigoths in the year 410, Saint Augustine had to write a whole giant book to assure people that the world wasn’t over.  It’s pretty safe to say, both from historical experience and biblical teaching, that pretty much every attempt to prognosticate about the end of the world and the return of Christ is junk.  Rather than listening to the alarmist cries of angry and fearful men, let us hearken to the words of our Lord himself.

Matthew 24:23-31

Our Gospel lesson today is in the middle of a chapter that’s full of teachings about times of suffering and trial, the return of Christ, and the resurrection of the dead.  Let’s look at these verses carefully and try to unravel any confusion that might have crept in concerning what they mean.

Then if someone says to you “behold, the Christ” or “here!” don’t believe; for false christs and false prophets will arise and show great signs and wonders so as to lead astray even the elect, if it were in their power.  Behold I tell you beforehand.  If, therefore, they say to you “behold, he is in the desert,” don’t go out; or “behold, he is in the upper room,” don’t believe.

These first verses start us off with a very important lesson: Christ will not return in secret.  If anyone claims to have any “secret knowledge” about his return, the command is simple: don’t believe them.  Don’t even go check, “just in case.”  They are wrong, plain and simple.  They are deceived, and they seek to deceive others.  And, encouragingly, our Lord is skeptical that they’ll even have any meaningful success in their deceits; for when he notes that they’ll try to lead astray “even the elect,” he adds the words “if possible” or “if it is in their power,” hinting that the elect – the true people of God – will not be drawn away by false christs or false prophets.  As I said last week as well, “the gates of Hell will not prevail against” the Church.  So, having established what will be wrong about his return, Jesus next explains what his return will be like.

For as the lightning comes from the East and shines to the West, so is the Parousia (the return) of the Son of Man.  Where be the corpse, there will gather together the eagles (or vultures).

In contrast to the liars and deceivers who claim secret knowledge and private revelation, Christ’s return will be publicly visible.  He compares it to two things: lightning in the sky and a carcass in the desert.  Lightning is plainly obvious and visible, when lightning strikes you don’t need anyone to run outside and tell you to get back in the house; it’s bright and it’s loud.  So will be the return of Christ.

And, by way of a useful side note, his description of lightning coming from East to West has had an impact on the tradition of Christian worship – this is reason that so many churches have been built “facing East,” such that the worshipers are watching for the return of Christ!  And even if the building itself isn’t oriented East, the location of the Altar becomes what we call “liturgical East,” and worship ad orientem (to the East) means that we all are facing East together when we pray.  It’s a helpful reminder that I’m not turning my back on you during the Communion prayers, but that I’m joining you and leading you in our common prayer to God.

The second image Jesus uses to describe his return may seem a bit strange at first – a carcass in the desert with eagles or vultures circling it is hardly a majestic image.  But think about desert living, especially in the region of Palestine and Israel.  It’s very rocky and barren throughout much of that region.  A carcass, with all the birds flocking around it, would be a spectacle visible for miles!  And, to take this a step further, the carcass is life-giving to all sorts of creatures around.  Similarly, Jesus, in his death, became the life-giver to all who come to feed on his Body and Blood!  Just like the Cross, an image of gruesome death is transformed into an image of wondrous new life.

But immediately after the tribulation of those days, “the sun will be darkened and the moon not give its light, and the stars fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens” will be shaken.  And then will show forth the sign of the Son of Man in the heavens, and then will mourn all the tribes of the earth, and they’ll see “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” with power and great glory.

These verses begin with a different word than the other paragraphs in this Gospel text: the word “immediately.”  Where the length of time leading up to the false prophets and the return of Christ like lightning is indeterminate in verse 23, verse 29 here makes clear that the return of Christ will be “immediately after” the tribulations of the deceits of those false christs and false prophets.  As many theologians have observed on this point, the time of confusion and trial is kept short so as to minimize the damage done against God’s people.  And so, in a sense, everything will happen at once: deceivers will arise, these cosmic events will take place, and Christ will return.  Let’s look at the cosmic events described here; they get batted around in debate quite a bit sometimes.  Many interpreters in modern times have approaches these words in a rather simplistic manner, taking them at face value, but throughout the history of biblical interpretation, rather deeper and more biblically-astute observations have been made.

The great 4th-century preacher, St. John Chrysostom, wrote a sermon on this passage that is pretty representative of the sorts of observations that Christians have made here over the centuries.  When it says the sun and moon will be darkened, he points out that Jesus does not indicate the sun’s destruction; rather, the sun and moon are outshone by Christ, who is himself the light of the world.  As it says in Revelation 21:23, heaven “has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.”  Similarly the loss of the moon and the stars’ light are because there will be no more night, again matched in Revelation 21:25 and 22:5.  The shaking of the powers of heaven can be taken in two ways.  Chrysostom takes “shaking” in a sense similar to “trembling,” as in the context of worship, which yet again has its echo in Revelation 4:10.  But you could also see the “shaking” of heaven’s powers as the language of judgment, like we heard in the book of Haggai this summer.  In any case, these cosmic events point to greater heavenly realities that highlight the glory and majesty of Christ as the returning King of all Creation.

Then things get a little more complicated.  First the “sign of the Son of Man” appears, and shortly thereafter the Son of Man himself descends on the clouds of heaven.  St. John Chrysostom, like many theologians after him, took the Sign of Christ to refer to the Cross.  Lift High the Cross!  That is the standard of judgment: that is where the redeemed will look and find the glory of eternal life, and that is where the unbelievers will look and mourn for their unrepented sins.  As the prophet Zechariah wrote about the mourning of the nations, “they will look on him whom they pierced” (12:10-12).  And with that proclamation as his herald, Christ himself will follow, no longer on the Cross, but on the clouds of heaven – no longer suffering and dead, but alive and conquering.  And then the final verse adds one more important dimension that great day.

And he’ll send out his angels with a great trumpet call, and they’ll gather in together his elect from the four winds – from one end of the heavens to the other end.

There’s that trumpet call I joked about at the beginning, St. Paul described the same thing in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17.  The trumpet call is part of that lightning flash of Christ’s return: it’s loud and unmistakable.  It’s “loud” enough to gather us to Christ in his arrival.  In 1 Thessalonians we’re described to be “caught up with him in the clouds.”  This trumpet is even “loud” enough to awake the dead, and gather them up to join Christ at the same time!  So we will all get to join the great victory procession of Christ’s return to his creation!  Again, it is no accident that many worship services begin and end with processions.  It’s not (only!) that clergy like to play dress-up, but the procession is a picture of the Ascension and Descent of Christ.

Angels also play a prominent role here.  Chrysostom observed that this was a special honor for God’s people; Jesus sends each of us our own personal escort from our graves to bring us up to join the festal throng on that great day!  And let’s think about that resurrection for a moment, too.  Jesus was resurrected where he was buried, and is promised to descend as he ascended; it is commonly understood therefore that we will be resurrected where we buried.  That’s one of the reasons that we have graveyards – so that families and neighbors will be together even at the very moment of resurrection.

Think about it, though, how shocking must the experience of resurrection be!  After that time of waiting, in death, only to wake up again on that last day, it might be a terrifying experience!  For God’s people, an angel will arrive with the much-needed message they so often have to say to people, “be not afraid,” and lead us to Jesus.  But for those who have not called upon his Name, the resurrection will likely be a time of fear and mourning.

On another sidenote, there’s something that I haven’t mentioned here which some of you may have heard about before.  One of the teachings about the end times that has become very popular in this country is the concept of the Rapture.  It’s the idea that Christ will take his people away from earth into heaven before he comes to judge the earth.  This is a false teaching, and wreaks havoc on the biblical teachings of the last day in a number of ways.  The union of the return of Christ and the gathering of his people and the resurrection described here in Matthew 24 (and other places) is broken up by Rapture Theology, which insists that Jesus comes “near” the earth to take his people up, and then comes back later to finish his day of judgment.  It also smacks of Neo-Platonism, a Greek philosophy that upholds spiritual existence as “good” and physical matter as “evil.”  We are not saved to become spirits freed from bodily existence; no, our hope is in the bodily resurrection and eternal life with Christ in the heavens and the new earth.  Our Old Testament reading this morning is one of many examples that disprove Rapture Theology, when it says, “he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life” (Isaiah 4:3).  Proponents of the Rapture talk about how important it is to be “taken” by Jesus at the end, because those who are “left behind” will face judgment and destruction, but the teaching of Scripture, such as here, is that it is the righteous who will “remain” in the earth, and the wicked who will be “swept away” in the judgment.

Historic Preview

Now, one of the reasons these end times teachings are confusing is because the disciples asked two questions at the beginning of Jesus’ discourse: Jesus started out by saying ““You see this Temple, do you not?  Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”  Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:2-3).  So Jesus was stuck answering two questions at the same time: when will the Temple be destroyed, and when will Jesus return?  Unravelling Jesus’ answers to those two questions can be tricky to work out.  For the most part, the first part of Jesus’ speech in chapter 24 is his answer to the first question – the destruction of the Temple – and the second of the chapter is his answer about his return.  The entire text that we read this morning falls in the second half, dealing with Christ’s return, and in a couple weeks we’ll actually get a chance to read a little further into this chapter to see more of what Jesus has to say about it.

But it’s worth mentioning the first half of chapter 24 and its teachings about the circumstances surrounding the destruction of the Temple because in many ways that historic event, which took place in 70AD, serves as a prototype for what the day of Christ’s return will be like.  As predicted for the Last Day, so also leading up the year 70 were there many deceivers working false miracles, desert cults, backroom cults, all claiming secret knowledge about the Jewish Messiah.  A war of rebellion cropped up – the Jews tried to overthrow the Roman authorities, believing that their Savior would appear and finally deliver them from the tyranny of the Gentiles, not realizing that their Savior had already come to deliver them from the tyranny of sin.  And so their rebellion failed, the Romans squashed them and slaughtered them.  The Temple was desecrated by what the prophets foretold as a “abomination of desolation,” and then utterly destroyed.  It was like an act of judgment – the sign of the Son of Man – coming down upon those who would be God’s people, and making it clear once and for all that the Covenant of Moses was over.  And as a result, God’s “angels” were sent to the four corners of the earth, as Christians spread the Gospel throughout the Roman Empire and beyond!

The description of Jesus’ return fits so well to the story of the Roman-Jewish War and the destruction of the Temple that some scholars have understood the entirety of Matthew 24 to refer to that historic sequence of events.  While I think it would be incorrect to go that far, I do think the close resemblance to past events should make us extra-skeptical of anyone who tries to use these words of Christ to describe supposedly-unique events in our own day.

Exhortations

So, with these teachings of the Lord’s return in place, you might ask, what do we do about them?  First, I’d start you off with Jesus’ own words here: when people claim that they know when Christ will return, or that Christ has already returned in secret, “don’t believe them” and “don’t go out to look.”  Know that when Jesus comes back, it will be so obvious you won’t need a special self-proclaimed prophet to tell you so.  Don’t even humor them and buy their books, or go to their special events, much less join their cults.  Instead, stay where you know Christ is: in the Church, in the gathering of his people, in the proclamation of his Word, in the celebration of his holy Sacraments.  For in Christ alone our hope is found; we already know where to find him, and when he comes back to us, we’ll know.

A second exhortation we ought to receive in view of the eventual return of Christ is that we must prepare for his arrival.  The season of Advent begins in two weeks (on November 27th), and one of the major themes of that season is preparation.  Even now, though, the liturgy is pointing us in the direction of preparation for Christ’s arrival.  Both the Collect of the Day and the Epistle reading (1 John 3:3) call us to “purify ourselves as He is pure.”  Granted, this is not something we can do by ourselves, but it is something we must participate in.  For every image used in the Bible for the day of Christ’s return, there is a useful metaphor for our preparation: if the Last Day is a wedding banquet, our preparation is getting our wedding clothes ready and building up an appetite; if the Last Day is like a thief in the night, our preparation is keeping our lamps light and our eyes open.  We’re going to be spending eternity with God and His people; we would do well to start getting comfortable with Him, His people, and His ways sooner rather than later.

And finally, as you look ahead towards that day of Christ’s return, consider telling people about it.  A couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses once came to my door and handed me a pamphlet, simply saying that there’s an event that’s going to happen soon all over the world, and maybe I’d like to know about it.  That is probably not the best example of how to go about telling people about the return of Christ.  First of all, Jehovah’s Witnesses aren’t even Christian, and they believe a number of strange things about God, their version of Jesus, and the end times.  But that aside, making vague and awkward references to the Day of Judgment doesn’t really have much appeal, nor does it normally make for much of a conversation starter.  Instead, talk about what you do know, what you believe, what you’re looking forward to.  If death doesn’t scare you, say so!  If there are people you are looking forward to seeing again, don’t be embarrassed to admit it!  I’m only in my 30’s and I already have a shortlist of people I look forward to catching up with after the resurrection.

Too often the end times and the return of Christ and the final judgment are topics that get shrouded in unnecessary rhetoric, mystery, and fear.  Certainly “doom and gloom” are involved on some level, but so too is glory and joy!  In general, people are more interested in what gives you glory and joy than what fills you with doom and gloom.  So think on these things, those last days, when Jesus returns and the dead are raised, and God’s people are reunited with Him and with one another.  Let the glory and the joy fill your heart and capture your mind and reorient your life.  Let it protect you from deceivers, and spur you on to greater holiness, and fill you to overflowing with the good news of Christ that this world so desperately needs to hear.  Lift high the Cross; the love of Christ proclaim ‘till all the world adore his sacred Name!

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Against Christian Hypocrisy

Back on Sunday, many of you probably heard the Beatitudes read for All Saints’ Sunday.  Today’s Gospel lesson picks up where that one left off.

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid.  Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.  Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them.  For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.  Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  (Matthew 5:13-19)

This can be summed up in two statements: 1) Your life is to be an example of Jesus Christ to the world around you.  2) You don’t get to change the rules in order to make following Jesus “easier.”  This can be boiled down even into one statement: don’t be a hypocrite.

The Problem of Hypocrisy

If we are going to call ourselves Christians, then we must actually follow Christ.  And if we are actually going to follow Christ, then we must do so on His own terms.  If we follow Him but decide to change His teachings about marriage, we’ve become hypocrites.  If we follow Him but decide to ignore the plight of the poor, we’ve become hypocrites.  The Law of Christ, to love God and neighbor, is not at our disposal to interpret as we wish.  And yet so many people do rewrite God’s Word to fit their various agendas.

To see the damage done by hypocrisy we need only look at our country’s condition today.  The political party that prides itself on its progressive and open-minded policies has been exposed to have rigged its own primaries to ensure the “right” candidate got the nomination.  And the political party that prides itself on standing for traditional American family values went ahead and nominated a candidate who in no way represents traditional American family values.  The hypocrisy on both sides resulted in one of the ugliest election seasons we’ve ever seen, and a lot more anger and mud-slinging than usual.  It could be years before either party recovers from their respective slip-ups.

As Christians, we face the same public scrutiny and condemnation on a regular basis, and all too often it is fully justified as we prove guilty of hypocrisy of one sort or another.  For example, just the very word “televangelist” brings up images of men who sweet talk people into donating money so they can live it up fancy cars, giant houses, and private jets.  The hypocrisy of claiming to serve Christ and fleecing the people is unspeakably evil!

The Battle Against Hypocrisy

So, rather than live in denial, we have to learn how to receive and accept the shame of our failings such that we actually grow into better followers of Christ in the long run.  Our Lord Jesus himself said “light your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”  Does your lifestyle reflect the holiness of God?  Do people look at you and say “that person’s god is worth checking out”?  Jesus’ words challenge us to consider our ways, to see what of His light we are shining to the world about us.  All too easily we end up casting shadows of our own that obscure the light of Christ.

He does give us some encouragement, however.  If we fail in this life to be effective bearers of Christ’s light, we are not doomed.  Just as we are not saved by our works alone, neither are we damned by our works alone.  Jesus said “whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments… shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven.”  He didn’t say we’ll be cast into the outer darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth.  That warning is for those who turn away from Him completely, placing their faith in the false promises of false gods – a much more grievous position.  No, if we simply mess up in the Christian life, we don’t get thrown out of the Kingdom of God.

Nevertheless, the standard of holiness is strict – we are to be holy as Christ is holy – and the labor of the Christian can be difficult at times.  But when we stand with Christ and do not resist His Holy Spirit, we find that his burden is easy and his yoke is light.  We can’t outsmart God by changing the rules, but when we join with Him in His work and calling we will find a fruitful harvest in the end.  Let us look to the hope of that calling, as laborers in God’s vineyard, and endeavor to fashion our lives more perfectly according to the teachings of His holy Word, that we may see most clearly the foretastes of His eternal kingdom.

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The Testimony of the Saints

Towards the end of the Christian Calendar year, on November 1st, we find the last major holiday: All Saints’ Day.  The second half of October leads up to this day with three other Saints’ days: St. Luke the Evangelist (October 18th), Saint James of Jerusalem (October 23rd), and Saints Simon & Jude (October 28th).  This is an unusually thick part of the calendar – for most of the year there are only two holidays per month and here there are four within three weeks!

What’s the point of all these Saints’ days?

A lot of Protestants today find themselves in churches that do not celebrate Saints’ days, and generally assume them be one of those “weird Catholic traditions” that have been done away with.  But in actuality there are Saints’ days in Lutheran, and Anglican calendars, as well as in a few other traditions like some Methodists and Presbyterians.

And before you scoff at these traditions, saying “how boring!” let’s take a look at why these holidays exist.  They don’t exist so we can worship the Saints; that is idolatry and is forbidden across the board.  Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Protestant, Pentecostal, we all agree that we worship God alone: the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  But these Saints’ days are also not mere history lessons – they’re not just about obsessing over the past, but are very pertinent to the present and future of the community of the faithful.

What does Scripture say about remembering such Saints?

Ephesians 2:17-21 says “Jesus came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.  So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord.”  There are other places in the Bible that talks about Jesus being our rock and foundation, but in this particular instance, St. Paul describes the foundation of the Church to be “the apostles and prophets.”  To some extent this can be understood to refer to their writings: it was Apostles wrote the New Testament and Prophets who wrote the Old Testament.  But in its plain sense, this text is referring to the people themselves – the apostles and prophets form the foundation of the Church, the household of God.  Jesus is still the cornerstone; the building cannot stand without him; he is still first.  But with the Church understood as a building, we are built together upon the lives and testimonies of those who have gone before us.

Jude 3 says “Beloved, being very eager to write to you of our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.”  Again, the faith was delivered to the saints – to the holy people of God.  St. Jude is careful to state this in a completed sense; the faith has already been delivered in its entirety.  This is an emphasis on the work of people in passing on that faith: Christ called his disciples, and they went out and made more disciples, who continued that pattern all the way down to us today.  You did not hear about the Gospel from Jesus, you heard about the Gospel from your parents, or your pastor, or a neighbor, or some sort of minister.  God was speaking through them, certainly, but it is through people whom God speaks!

1 John 1:1-3 says “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us – that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”  Notice how St. John ends this opening statement to his epistle: fellowship with God comes through fellowship him “us” – the apostles.  He’s not setting himself and the other apostles up as intermediaries through whom we must go in order to find God.  But he is pointing out that if we are to find God, it will be with them.

Putting all these together, we are drawn to realize that we stand on the foundation of the Saints, we receive the Gospel from the Saints, and we have fellowship with God with the Saints.  Even for Bible-centered evangelical Christians, we still find ourselves relying upon the witness of those who have gone before us as necessary vehicles of God’s self-revelation.

What do we do about Saints’ days?

Hebrews 12:1-2 tells us that “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”  Here we are shown a double purpose in remembering the Saints: 1) their testimony is to inspire us to cast off sin and run race of faith; 2) remembering them is to point us to Christ.  Notice how these verses seamlessly connects together both of these purposes.  The right celebration of the Saints does not step on the toes of our attention to Jesus, it enhances our attention to Jesus!

Hebrews 13:7 says “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith.”  If we can be told to imitate our earthly spiritual leaders, who are still alive in this world and struggling against sin like everyone else, how much more should we imitate the Saints whose lives have ended and whose race is done?  When reading this verse in chapter 13, we should remember what was said at the beginning of the previous chapter about the “great cloud of witnesses.”

Now, on a practical level, we do recognize that even the greatest Saints of old had their flaws, failings, and sins.  But what’s handy about the departed Saints, especially those who’ve been gone for a long time, is that there’s been plenty of time for the dirt to come out, their hype and popularity to fade, and for people to think back from a more critical and objective viewpoint.  The good and the bad can be more clearly identified, and the relative “value” of their personal witness to the faith can be evaluated – after all, some people are better examples of Christ-like living than others.  And so, when we look at the Saints of old, there is usually just one or two aspects of their lives that reflect Christ and the Gospel particularly well.  And so when we observe a holiday in commemoration of a Saint, we tend to focus on exactly how he or she reflected Christ in his or her own day.

By focusing on a Saint’s most Christ-like aspects, our vision is sharpened on Christ.

For sake of examples, let’s look at the three Saint’s Days leading up to All Saints’ Day.

A prayer for St. Luke’s Day reads, “Almighty God, who called Luke the Physician, whose praise is in the Gospel, to be an Evangelist, and Physician of the soul: May it please you, that, by the wholesome medicines of the doctrine delivered by him, all the diseases of our souls may be healed; through the merits of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.”  One of the appearances of Luke in the Bible mentions that he was a physician.  And so, in line with the image of Christ as being “the great physician,” we emphasize the work of healing that is accomplished by the right application of biblical teaching, as Luke, after all, did write two books of the Bible.

A prayer for St. James of Jerusalem’s Day reads, “Grant, O God, that, following the example of your servant James the Just, brother of our Lord, your Church may give itself continually to prayer and to the reconciliation of all who are at variance and enmity; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.”  This refers, in part, to the story in Acts 15 where James presides at an important ruling acknowledging the equality of Gentile Christians alongside Jewish Christians.  James thus is a picture of “the ministry of reconciliation” which is ultimately brought about in the person and work of Jesus himself.

A prayer for Sts. Simon and Jude’s Day reads, “O Almighty God, who has built your Church upon the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone: Grant us so to be joined together in unity of spirit by their doctrine, that we may be made a holy temple acceptable unto you; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  This points us back to the first verses quoted in this article, Ephesians 2:17-21, which describe the people of God as a Temple building established upon the apostles and prophets.  Celebrating the Apostles Simon and Jude, of whom we know very little in the Bible, we are reminded of the solidarity we have with all God’s people no matter how well we may happen to know them.  We have brothers and sisters all over the place, and yet we are unified in the bonds of love.

Perhaps this prayer for All Saints’ Day sums up the point of celebration Saints’ Days best:

O Almighty God, who has knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: grant us grace so to follow your blessed Saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those unspeakable joys, which you have prepared for them that unfeignedly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

This gives us the whole scope of the reality of this “communion of saints” for us.

  1. We are One Body with the past: we are united even with the Saints long-departed this life.
  2. We are One Body in the present: those who have gone before us provide us with inspiration and examples for our present pursuit of holiness.
  3. We are One Body into the future: the Saints departed have gone ahead to where we also shall one day go – to the unspeakable joy of heaven.

Saints’ days are not about idolatry.  Saints’ days are not about history lessons.
Saints’ days are about celebrating God’s family members so we can become more at home in His household.

For Further Reading…

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How to Build a Christian Moral Life

The problem with building a Christian moral life is that you cannot just start with the rules.  If you start with the rules you essentially have the same problem as in the Old Testament of having everyone trying to follow the laws.  This is a disaster waiting to happen; as St. Paul observed, “if it had not been for the law, I should not have known sin.  I should not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.”  But sin, finding opportunity in the commandment, wrought in me all kinds of covetousness.  Apart from the law sin lies dead (Romans 7:7-8).

Rather, what you need to build a Christian moral life are raw materials and tools. For the Christian, our raw materials are to be found in the Bible and in our theology. Knowledge of Christ and knowledge of God’s word are the necessary building blocks upon which we build a Christ-like life in accordance with God’s word.  The tools, then, are spiritual disciplines: it is in our prayers and our worship and our other devotions that we take the raw materials of Christian faith & knowledge and work them, with love, into a Christian lifestyle.

It is then, with the Christian life built up in the knowledge and In Worship, that the Christian character can begin to emerge.  Without the raw materials, the life that is built will not be a Christian life, but a secular life.  Without the tools, the life that is built will be very easily knocked down or invaded by outsiders, no matter how good the raw materials are.

This means that if we want new believers to become virtuous and upstanding Christian men and women, we must teach them and equip them.

They need to be taught the basics of theology and the contents of the Scriptures.  These, as the raw materials of a Christian moral life, are absolutely necessary – if you don’t know who God is and what He’s like, you have no chance of living in any way like Him.  There are many ways to do this, and most Christian traditions have a catechism or confessional document that can be used.  The issue is rarely a lack of teaching material, but a lack of actually using it.

They also need to be equipped with a range of tools with which to work on those raw materials.  As critical as knowledge is, knowledge alone doesn’t change us.  Again, as St. Paul observed, “the commandment came, sin revived and I died; the very commandment which promised life proved to be death to me” (Romans 7:9-10).  It is the tools of spiritual disciplines – of praying, of drinking from the fountain of the Spirit through the Scriptures and writings of the Saints and other great Christians, of tithing and almsgiving, of fasting and self-denial – that transform systematic theology into ascetical theology, that transform the proclamation of the mind into the proclamation of the heart.

Again, various Christian traditions provide various resources for developing one’s spirituality, and here is a place where modern Protestantism has widely lost track of its resources.  Anglicans and some Lutherans and Presbyterians still have a decent hold on the treasures of the past as far as schooling believers in the life of worship, but for many Evangelicals the wheel is constantly being re-invented, and it still doesn’t have a strong axle on which to roll.

What happens when the right tools are used properly, applied to the right raw materials?  Something gets built.  A strong foundation in Christian teaching which is heartily engaged with through prayer and worship other spiritual disciplines will eventually yield growth in Christian character.  This could be summarized more succinctly: Believe, Belong, Behave.  First, if we don’t know what we believe, we will never belong and never behave.  Second, once we know what we believe, then we can settle in and learn to belong.  Thirdly, and finally, it is only in the nurturing context of believing and belonging that we can begin to heal from our sinfulness and begin to behave as Christians.

This, of course, can be a bit of a challenge.  How do we get new Christians into a place where they can be taught the faith, and equipped with the tools of a spiritual life that will together enable them to grow in the ways of Christ?  Preachers often have a favorite subject – telling people what to believe, or how to belong, or how to behave.  It can be difficult to balance out all three.  It’s a similar situation with Sunday School programs and small group ministries and parachurch organizations – a particular group or program often tends towards only one of those three focuses.  So we need to be more attentive to what we’re putting out there, and what people are receiving in abundance versus what people are lacking.

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Back to Basics: The Strength to Go On

a homily on John 4:46-54

It happens every now and then – you’re tired, you’re discouraged, you’re depressed.  You don’t know how things are going to work out.  Circumstances are overwhelming; life’s burdens have become too much to bear.  What do you do?  How do you cope?  Where do you find the strength to go on?

The sermon series we’ve done, going through the Old Testament stories of God’s people surviving in the midst of hostile cultures has also provoked similar concerns about our state of affairs today on a larger scale.  How do we go on being Christians in a world like this?  Last week I addressed that question on the larger scale, summarizing each sermon from the entire series.  Now we’re looking at the same sort of question on a more personal level. How are you, how is she, how am I, going to find the strength to go on being a Christian in today’s world?

It’s popular wisdom to say “when your schedule is full, cut something out.”  It’s exactly the same on the spiritual level; when you’re exhausted from the demands of religion, put aside the extras and focus on the basics.

To give an example, our worship service today is cut back almost to bare bones.  Almost all the optional bits are removed, laying bare the basic essentials.  Even though music and candles aren’t required, I’ve kept them in anyway because certain people really enjoy them.  But look at what’s left: some prayers, some Scripture, some more prayers, some scriptural prayers, and the Body and Blood of Christ.  This is a great example for us.  When the Christian life feels like it’s too difficult to keep up with, it may be time to drop the usual “devotionals” that we frequent, and get back to basics.

Think about the hundreds of years of history when most people didn’t learn how to read.  All these books and pamphlets and internet articles that vie for our attention today would have been of no interest to the ordinary Christian in those days.  Instead they had to memorize the core basics.  Three of the most important things learned were the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments.  There we find the basic foundation of Christian teaching, the basic foundation of Christian worship, and the basic foundation of Christian behavior.

Sometimes we might feel overwhelmed by all the things demanding our attention and attracting our interest: a worship event to attend here, a certification course there, a project at work, a ministry opportunity through the church, volunteer work, small groups, personal downtime for leisure and fun.  How do we maintain that basic but necessary link to Christ and His Body?

A few examples of the basics we need to return to can be found in this morning’s Propers – the Collect and Readings.

#1 – Faith

The Collect of the Day, for this 21st Sunday after Trinity, is a prayer that is also used in the Daily Office; it is a prayer for forgiveness.  After we confess our sins, we pray for God’s pardon and peace so that we can have the strength to go on and live godly lives filled with His peace.  But notice how the Collect begins: “Grant to your faithful people.”  Assurance of pardon, the forgiveness of sins, is not something God throws around willy-nilly in some arbitrary fashion.  Rather, it is given to those who turn to him in faith.  Jesus died for all who put their trust in him.  The whole world is invited to the Cross, even drawn to the Cross, but only those who recognize the Cross as the only sufficient sacrifice for their sins will receive the benefits of the Cross, namely God’s pardon and peace.  So we must turn to the Lord in faith, and thus we can confidently ask and pray for forgiveness of our sins.

#2 – Word & Spirit

In the Epistle reading from Ephesians 6 we heard the famous passage about the Armor of God.  As with the Collect, the role of active faith in Christ is highlighted as a strong source of divine protection.  But what these verses particularly add to this discussion is the offensive weapon: the sword of the Spirit, which is also the Word of God.  This union of Word and Spirit is echoed in many parts of the Church’s ministry.  We see it in the Bible – God’s written word made effective in the hearts of His people by the operation of the Holy Spirit.  We see it in the Sacraments – God’s spoken word made effective in the hearts of His people by the operation of the Holy Spirit.  Indeed, the dynamic of Word and Spirit is the very stuff of our salvation: the Word of God died for us on the Cross, and the Spirit of God applies the benefits of that sacrifice unto our own spirits.

#3 – Immaturity

But it is the Gospel reading (John 4:46-54) that I most want us to explore this morning.  There we find all the themes at work together: faith, the Word, and the Spirit.  Jesus, the Word of God, is speaking the word of God, calling a man to true faith.  The official wants to see a miracle, some extraordinary work of God to make manifest His power.  Jesus sees a problem here.  “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe,” he rebukes the man.

This is a classic problem that we see today too: we often find ourselves wishing and asking for some sort of sign.  Copies of the Bible are on our shelves, by our bedsides, on the internet, in our phone apps, in the church facilities, all over the place, and here we are wandering around wishing God would speak to us.  And so people eagerly chase after all sorts of visions and prophecies by popular Christian authors who claim to have heard these words from Jesus himself.  Similarly, the Sacrament of Holy Communion is celebrated weekly, even daily in some churches, and yet here we are wandering around wishing God would work some sort of miracle.  Is the Spirit still alive and active, we wonder, as we scroll past emails about Confirmations, Ordinations, Baptisms and the like being celebrated all over New England, the country, and the world?  “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe,” Jesus wisely rebukes us.  If we would just open our Bibles and read, we would hear the word of the Lord we so desperately need.  If we would just visit our churches’ worship services, we would see the powerful work of the Spirit we so aimlessly seek.

#4 – The Need

Undaunted, however, the official keeps up his request to our Lord: “Sir, come down before my child dies.”  Regardless of the state of his faith, the man knew that he had a son who would die without God’s help.  It’s all well and good to be rebuked about insufficient faith and a lack of maturity in discerning God’s Word and Spirit, but how does that help his son right now?  We might almost perceive Jesus’ rebuke as somewhat coldhearted, there’s a boy’s life at stake, and he’s fussing around with the state of one man’s faith?  Perhaps this should give us pause for thought: the state of one person’s faith is itself a matter of life or death, not just for this world but also for the next!

The official was concerned about the life of one person, good for him.  Jesus was concerned about the eternal life of one person, even better!  So our earthly problems, while very real and very valid, are often a lot smaller than the bigger problems of life and death, salvation and damnation.  Before we freak out about money, employment, and comfort, we should be sure to know where our faith truly lies.

#5 – The Test

And so, with this official’s persistent asking for healing for his son, Jesus gives the man both an answer and a test: “Go, your son will live.”  Here’s a big moment of decision for the man.  He has been asking Jesus to come and rescue his son from certain death.  Jesus challenged his own faith first, but now is saying that the boy will live.  Is Jesus just brushing him off, or can he really be trusted to be right even though he’s not answering the request in the expected way?  The man wanted Jesus to heal the boy in person, but can he trust Jesus to heal from a distance?

This is much like the examples I’ve already talked about – we so easily and often want to hear God’s Word and see the work of God’s Spirit in one way, while God has already promised the effective presence of both in another way.  Is the Bible really good enough to be God’s voice to you today?  Is the sacramental ministry of the Church real enough for you?  Is it not enough to see people converted from service to the devil to service to Christ, or does the Holy Spirit need to sweep through the congregation with gifts of tongues and extraordinary visions for you to know for sure that He’s there?

#6 – The Provision

So this is a big moment for the official; what is he going to make of Jesus’ unexpected response?  Thankfully “the man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went on his way.”  He didn’t get what he came for in the manner in which he asked, but he decided to trust that God had somehow done what needed to be done.  And as the final verses describe, he got home and confirmed with his servants that his son began to recover at the very hour that Jesus had spoken the word.  And finally he and his household believed.  He had asked for a sign, Jesus warned him that faith based on signs alone was a weak foundation, and he provided a sign on his own terms, and the man accepted it and believed.

This, too, is our position before God.  God does not heartlessly brush off our childish prayers and requests; He hears them all and provides for us, but He does so on His own terms.  St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians begins with the thanksgiving that God has “blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (1:3).  That means, in a sense, that everything we could ever ask for, God has already provided.  Every sign, every strengthening, every empowerment, every testimony for true faith, is already available to us through the ministry of the Word and the ministry of the Sacraments.  The Bible may not be written in a style we like, the Sacraments may not be as vivid as we might like, but they are all gifts from God that bear His promises of His presence and action.  As Isaiah said about God’s Word, “it will not return to me empty; but it will accomplish that which I have purposed, and prosper in that for which I sent it” (55:11).  And as Paul said about the Sacrament of Holy Communion, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?  The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16).  These are the basics of our spiritual life, the solid foundational promises of God’s continued active presence among us through the course of everyday life.

Back to Basics

Jesus’ challenge to the official in our Gospel reading this morning remains a challenge for us to this day.  When life gets busy and complicated and overwhelming, we naturally tend to respond with better time management, time-saving devices, and organizational assistants, all of which eventually seem to make life even more complicated than before.  There comes a point when we’re forced to see the wisdom of the simple call to return to the basics.  What do I really need to know?  What do I really need to read?  Where do I really need to look for God?  The answers, simple and predictable as they may feel, are all but staring us in the face.  Pick up the Bible, listen to it read and preached, get a chance to study it with others.  Attend the worship services of the Church and participate in her three-fold cycle of guilt, grace, and gratitude, where we are confronted about our sinful natures, given grace to heal from our sin-sickness, and have opportunity to express gratitude to our God who has done all this for us.

There are many resources out there to help us overcome this or that challenge in life, but it’s a huge red flag that when you walk into a bookstore you’ll usually find the Religion and Self-Help sections kind of jumbled together.  That may be accurate for some religions, but that is completely untrue for Christianity.  Self-help, ultimately, is worthless.  As sinners, all we can do is sin more.  It is only the grace of God, the work of the Holy Spirit, that lifts us out of the mire and gives us fresh strength and new life.  As Solomon or his spokesman wisely observed, “The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (Ecclesiastes 12:11-12). That one Shepherd is Jesus Christ, and his collected sayings through the Prophets and the Apostles is the Bible.  This doesn’t mean that all other books are worthless, but that we can drown in them if we don’t keep coming back to the one book that God wrote.  If you have time and energy for reading theology, or lives of the Saints, or devotionals, or other such Christian books, that’s a great and useful thing.  But if you only have time and energy for a little bit of reading, make sure it’s the Bible you’re reading.  Of all the books, that’s the one we really need the most.

So, when in doubt, go back to the basics.  It’s no use burning out on busy and complicated things when we could be living simply and strongly on the firm foundation of Christ and his promised provisions in the Church.  Thanks be to God.

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