Frequently Misused Verses: I know the plans I have for you

For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. – Jeremiah 29:11 (ESV)

What’s the issue?

This is one of those heart-warming verses that people like to put onto wall-hangings, internet graphics, and use as words of encouragement when people are feeling down.  I’ve heard people quote this to assure friends that God will find them the right spouse at the right time, or that will God will provide them with a job, or otherwise.

Although these are indeed words of comfort to God’s people in distress, we have a tendency to stretch their application far beyond what they’re meant to cover.  Consider Jesus; he died on the Cross.  Was that God’s wonderful plan to prosper him and not harm him?  Consider the twelve apostles (besides St. John) – they all died martyr’s deaths.  Perhaps a picture will speak louder than words:


Spoiler alert: all the Christian hostages in this picture died.

Exploring the context of this verse

As usual, the best way to understand these words is to look at the passage in which they are found.  Jeremiah 29:1-23 is a letter that was sent to the Judeans in captivity in Babylon.  In this letter, he’s telling them that God wants them to invest in their new lives in captivity.  They’ll be away from Jerusalem for a long time, so they are to build homes, have families, plant fields, and pray for their oppressive overlords.  After 70 years, God promises to bring them back to their homeland: that is the “plan to prosper you” or the “plan for your welfare” that our famous verse 11 is talking about.  It’s an affirmation that life stinks at the moment, and an assurance that God will bring them home in due time.

Our popular misuse of this verse reduces it into a short-sighted “prosperity gospel” mantra that falls flat the moment you hold up the Cross next to it.  Instead of looking for earthly prosperity and welfare as God’s great promises to us, we are supposed to see the same thing Jeremiah’s audience saw: God’s great promise to bring us home.  Where is our home?  The new heaven and new earth, where we’ll be living in perfect peace, without sin, in perfect fellowship with one another, and finally seeing and worshiping God face to face.

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Frequently Misused Verses: “Judge Not”

This is my sermon for the 4th Sunday after Trinity at Grace Anglican Church, examining Luke 6:36-42.

America’s Favorite Bible Quote in the 21st Century: “Judge Not”

This brief quote has been used by many people lately, both by Christians and by non-Christians, to argue that Jesus does not want us to be judgmental. We are told that calling out sins in other people is rude, unloving, hypocritical, and unchristian. This individualistic attitude of “mind your own business” has begun to permeate our cultural mindset, and has severely weakened the ministry of many churches along the way.

However, if you read on to see what Jesus says next, you will find that he is not exactly telling us simply to “mind our own business.” Certainly there are some strong warnings against being hypocrites, but there are also instructions as to how to judge people properly. He begins with some teaching, and follows it up with a parable.

Examining Jesus’ Instruction (v36-38)

“Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”

This verse begins us off with the context of mercy. In some ways this statement is finishing the previous teaching on loving your enemies, but it’s also acting as a transition into the topic of judging and forgiving. We are instructed by Jesus to be merciful just as God the Father is merciful. That doesn’t mean we never punish and ignore sin, but that we don’t use the full extent of the law against people. God, after all, held back punishment upon Israel for a very long time, making enormous allowances for the possibility of repentance. We would do well to imitate that mindset in our own interactions with others.

“Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned.”

These two statements form a pair which literary scholars call “synonymous parallelism.” That means that two phrases are used to say the same thing in slightly different ways. You’ll find this style a lot in the Bible, especially in the poetry of the Psalms, the Wisdom books, and the Prophets. Here, Jesus is making this nifty little statement about judging and condemning, and how we’re not supposed to do them. The first word, judge, is the normal generic word of judge: κρινετε. The second word, condemn, is a very particular word in Greek: καταδικαζετε. It means to “declare guilty or innocent,” and is based on the word δικαιος, which means “righteous.” By putting these two terms in parallel with each other, Jesus is specifying that we are forbidden from a specific type of judgment: we are not allowed to make ultimate pronouncements on peoples’ guilt or innocence before God for their sins. We do not the power nor the authority to decide or declare who is righteous before God; God alone makes that decision.

Instead, we have power and authority to forgive and to give. Jesus gives us another synonymous parallel statement here:

“Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.”

Again we have a lovely poetic teaching here, beautifully reflecting the previous line: “no judgment and no condemnation” gives way to “forgive and give.” Already we’re given a hint that the statements “judge not” and “condemn not” aren’t quite as simple as they seem, because we’re now being told to forgive. How can we forgive unless we recognize that we’ve been sinned against? And if we do recognize that we’ve been sinned against, haven’t we just made a judgment in our minds? Yes, we have made a type of judgment, and Jesus teaches us more about that in the brief parable which follows.

Before we get there, however, we should pay attention to the dynamic of forgiveness Jesus describes here. Genuine repentance & faith leads us to forgive others. We should not think of God’s forgiveness of us as a reward for our forgiving others. Rather, we forgive because we are forgiven. Think back to the first verse of this passage: we are to be merciful because God first shown us mercy. It is the same with forgiveness; we forgive because we are forgiven. We pray this also in the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our trespasses (sins), as we forgive those who trespass (sin) against us!”

“Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap.
For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.”

Jesus describes how we are to give and to forgive with this interesting string of expressions which don’t even form a proper sentence in the English language. Imagine measuring a cup of flour: you could just pour the flour into a cup and leave it at that. Or you could pour it in, being sure to make a good measure, and press it down, shaking it together so there are no hidden gaps inside the cup, and then top it off so it’s running over. It’s a picture of generosity: don’t be stingy in how you forgive people, or how you give to others; be abundantly generous! For, just as passing condemning judgment on others gets us in great trouble with God, being abundantly generous toward others makes us more like God.

A prominent 18th-century Bible commentator, Adam Clarke, wrote about this. To paraphrase him: “We live a sort of society that makes mutual help necessary. And since self-interest, pride, and other corrupt passions always end up in our interactions, we can’t help but to offend one another at times. In civil society we must, in order to have some peace, resolve to bear with our neighbors; we must suffer, pardon, and give up many things. Without this giving and forgiving spirit, both our civil society and even our church congregations will end up with nothing but divisions, evil assumptions, hateful arguments, outrages, anger, vengeance, and, in a word, a total break-down of the mystical body of Christ. Thus our loud calling both in society and in the Church is to GIVE and to FORGIVE.”

Examining Jesus’ Parable (v39-42)

Now we turn to the brief parables that Jesus used to elaborate on this teaching.

“Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit?

The same commentator, Adam Clarke, wrote about the blind leading the blind: “[One] who is not illuminated from above is utterly incapable of judging concerning spiritual things, and wholly unfit to guide others.” Just as someone who is blind cannot be a guide to another as they walk down a rocky path, so too is it impossible for an unspiritual person to lead other Christians without ending in disaster.

“A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.”

Jesus gives us the important reminder that a disciple is not above his teacher – we are all taught by Jesus through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and no human teacher will ever surpass that. This is why good preaching is always drawn from the Bible, not from the pastor’s personal experience or wisdom. Nevertheless, we human disciples can be taught to be good leaders and teachers. The phrase “fully trained” here is a rich word in Greek also meaning “put together,” “mended,” “instructed,” or even “united” to God. Someone who is fully trained in this sense “will be like his teacher” and able to guide others in the Church accordingly.

“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.”

The speck, or mote, or splinter, is a tiny piece of dust that disrupts your vision a little bit. A log, or beam, is like a tree branch. Imagine a branch as big as your arm sticking out of your face! Not only would it be very difficult for you to see with that in the way, but it’d also be nearly impossible to get near other people without slapping them in the face! When we have unresolved sin in our lives that we haven’t recognized, and sought repentance for, we’re under a form of spiritual blindness. It’s a compromise that makes it very difficult for us to minister to others in their sinful conditions without doing more damage of our own along the way. If we are to minister to others effectively, and with integrity, we need to be living lives of active self-examination and repentance ourselves. Otherwise we’re hypocrites, and Jesus has a lot of strong words against hypocrites.

This is where today’s culture’s misuse of the verse “judge not” is actually right: we’re not supposed to be hypocrites who try to fix the sins of others while ignoring our own sins. What our culture doesn’t understand, however, is the solution: they say that the solution is to ignore all sin as if it doesn’t exist, and simply mind your own business. Jesus’ solution is quite different: examine yourself, identify your sins, address them, and repent of them. Then, you’ll grow in spiritual maturity, and become more able to help others do the same.

Judging & Discernment in the Church

As I said earlier on, we are not allowed judge in the condemning fashion in which we decide who is righteous or unrighteous before God. The final judgment of salvation or condemnation is entirely in God’s hands. What we are allowed to do, and are actually commanded to do, is to carry out a different kind of judgment, also called discernment. We do this first by taking the logs out of our own eyes. The Prayer of Confession that we use here in the Communion service is just one example of how we can examine and express our sinfulness before God in a spirit of repentance. The more often and the more carefully we judge ourselves, the more deeply we discover how sinful we are. This accomplishes two things: first it helps us to be more humble before a holy God who himself is utterly sinless; and second, it helps us to act more loving toward others in their sins, just as our loving God acts toward us.

Then we will be in a better position to be merciful, as our heavenly Father is merciful. We will be in a better position to forgive others, as we have been forgiven, and to be generous as God has been generous to us. And finally, we will be in a better position to be discerning, able to recognize when others sin, and help them to overcome them. The world already has enough angry hellfire preachers telling everyone to repent. But we always need more discerning, loving witnesses who recognize sin for what it is, call it for what it is, and offer their love and tangible support in overcoming that sin. That is who God is; that is who we are called to be also. Amen.

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Gender and the Image of God

What with all the media hubbub raging across the internet these days in the wake of Bruce Jenner’s transformation into Caitlyn Jenners, it seemed like an appropriate time to revisit what gender is, in the Bible, and see how Christians ought to respond to this marvel of scientific achievement and courageous challenge to a culture only on the brink of accepting such an action as a gender change.

For those who have mercifully avoided the hype (both supportive and critical of Jenner’s life choices), I point you to Wikipedia as a handy starting point from where you can branch out to other sources as desired.  In short:

“VanityFairJuly2015″ by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

From a theological perspective, Jenner’s relational history is a tale of contradiction and turmoil: three serial marriages to three different women, a self-identification as asexual, a self-perception to be a woman in a man’s body… and despite all this is “a professed Christian, leans politically conservative, and is a Republican.”  Both the religious and political declarations seem surprising.  Clearly, William Bruce (now Caitlyn) Jenner has faced a great deal of conflict throughout his life, bouncing between women, and uncertain of his own identity (sexually or otherwise).  Regardless of where one stands on this, morally speaking, it must be recognized that he must have gone through a lot of pain.  And though I can neither delve into Jenner’s personal feelings, beliefs, and views, I can speak from where I know – the teachings of the Church as founded in the Scriptures.

The earliest teaching in the Bible that we find concerning gender is in Genesis 1:27.

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (ESV – English Standard Version)

Let it be understood that “man” in the first phrase is a genderless term, meaning mankind, or humanity.  God created the human race to be a reflection of the divine, and that reflection (or imaging) is found in both male and female.  What I’m seeing Western culture doing now, however, is rewriting this verse:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female and created them, but sometimes he got them mixed up. (WCV – Western Culture Version)

For, as many transgender folks have said (and as a documentary on the subject has been entitled), I was “born in the wrong body.”  Now, in many world-views, maybe even most world-views today, that’s a perfectly acceptable quote.  But in a Christian worldview, where the perfection and sovereignty of God is a theological given, this phrase is rather blasphemous.  Taken seriously, the claim to have been “born in the wrong body” is essentially a declaration that God made a mistake in assigning that person’s gender, be it physically or dispositionally.  Granted, there are cases in which people are born with unusual combinations of reproductive organs that defy the classic definitions of gender, but that’s a another scenario for another time.

Rather, the biblical information we start with is that God created the human race in his own image, using the genders of male and female.  The basic application and understanding of this, both among Jews and Christians, has been that marriage is an institution created by God to be between a man and a woman.  But the deeper theological reason behind that wasn’t explicitly explained until the New Testament was written.  Ephesians 5:31-32 says:

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”  This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.

Basically, the union of male and female as husband and wife is an image of God because it is a profound mysterious (or sacramental) demonstration of the life union of Christ and the Church.  Jesus, the bridegroom, and his people, the bride, are united in a marital union.  When husband and wife are joined together, a picture of that heavenly marriage is made manifest in our world.  Marriage is a picture of salvation!  Or, as Christopher West puts it, our bodies proclaim the Gospel!  When we tamper with gender, and earthly marriage, we re-write the theological picture of our salvation through union with Christ.  The complementary differences between male and female are significant pictures of the complementary differences between Christ and us.  Salvation cannot be portrayed as a union of humanity with humanity, or deity with deity, but only as deity with humanity.

How do we respond to this case of Bruce-become-Caitlyn (and the many other cases of gender reassignment that have taken place over the past few decades)?  In some countries (like Iran and Thailand) the procedure has become relatively common for various reasons.  Some people, especially on the right-wing extreme, have declared that they will never call Jenner by the new name, Caitlyn, asserting “that’s not his name and I’m not going to refer to him as a she. He’s a he. He’s a he in every single solitary cell of his body, he will be until the day that God calls him home.”

Theologically, this response is on the right track, but in terms of human relations it is not.  First of all, I’m pretty sure that William Bruce Jenner’s name has been legally changed to Caitlyn, so there’s no reason not to call him Caitlyn.  To make a sticking point of that is to be needlessly combative, not to mention rude.  But do we as Christians have the right to call Caitlyn a woman?  Apart from the myriad social issues possibly involved considering his unrepentant divorces and multiple marriages, his exposure to the famously-dysfunctional Kardashian family, and the obvious social and emotional pressure of self-identifying as the opposite gender despite his body, there’s still the biblical bottom line to face up to: did God make a mistake when he made Caitlyn a male at birth?

Seriously, was that a divine “oops” moment, or is Caitlyn really supposed to be a man after all?

I do not believe that God makes mistakes.  I do believe, however, that we sinful humans make mistakes.  We even make mistakes about our identity.  I know a few people who thought they were called to the celibate priesthood, but eventually realized that they were called to marriage.  I’ve known people who thought they were called to one job, but ended up in a completely different career direction.  I, myself, associate having long hair with my own identity, which is probably insignificant to who I really am; I’m just caught up on this fiddly detail and am too afraid to change it.

So rather than taking the easy way out and claiming that Caitlyn was born in the wrong body, biblical Christian theology frames the issue for us such that we must conclude that Caitlyn has made a mistake (or perhaps a series of mistakes) that lead him to the erroneous conclusion that he’s supposed to be a woman.

But before we get all uppity about how terrible a sinner he is, let us remember how difficult this type of situation is.  Identity is a very precious thing.  When people are interested in Christ and the Gospel, self-identification is often the last thing we want to let go of.  Even for myself, growing up in the faith my entire life, there was a point at which I finally realized that I had to set my desires and self-perceptions aside in order to acknowledge Christ’s utter lordship in my life.  Repentance and turning to Christ in true faith is a complete and total surrender, and that’s really scary and difficult.  I would imagine that many non-christians who read that statement would find it horrifically self-abasing.  But, between the depths of human sin and the perfection of God, there is no alternative: we need God to be the definer of our lives and identities… even over our self-perceived sexual identification.

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Lest We Forget

As the famous poem by Lt. Col. John McCrae goes;

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The red poppy has become a symbol of remembrance for those who have fallen in war.

Of all our Patriotic American holidays, Memorial Day strikes me as the most sacred and Christian-like among them.  It has that balance between sober remembrance and joyful celebration.  It forces the stories of those who never returned home to come before our attention, even as we prepare for family cookouts at the beginning of summer.  This dynamic of solemnity and joy, fasting and feasting, is very much akin to how we celebrate our Christian holidays too: solemn or penitential preparation leading to joyful feasting and celebration.  Most recently, we moved through the quiet and prayerful Ascentiontide (the 10-day period following Christ’s ascension into heaven) and arrived at the great joyful feast of Pentecost.  This week (“Pentecosttide,” if you will) continues that celebration of the outpoured gift of the Holy Spirit, until we arrive at Trinity Sunday, which brings the Springtime sequence of special holidays and seasons to its close.

In the American Memorial Day we remember those who fought and died protecting this country, or protecting others across the world.  By doing so we don’t blindly assume that every war has been just; rather we remember the obedient devotion and service of these men and women who paid the greatest price one can pay, in the service of our country.  Regardless of how perfect our country might be at a given time (especially considering how corrupt the Roman Empire was when St. Paul wrote in Romans 13:6 that the Emperor was God’s minister for secular rule), our Christian mandate is to be good citizens and respect our leaders, and so it is a right and good and joyful thing to honor our fellow countrymen who laid down their lives for the sake our communities, local and national.

Very similarly, the Christian Church has had a tradition of remembering her own great servants and martyrs throughout history.  The mentality is much the same: heroes of our community (in this case, the Church) have given great service to Christ and His people, and we do well to remember them, their teaching, their examples, or whatever else they did, and to give thanks to God for them.  If you dig around through calendars old and new, you could find thousands of saints to fill the entire year, so there’s always some selection that has to be made to work out who is “more beneficial” to our spiritual growth for us to remember.  One such example, whose feast day is today, May 26th, is Saint Augustine of Canterbury.

This St. Augustine was born in Rome in the 500’s and sent to England in the year 597 to reconvert the British Isles to Christianity.  Although the Roman Empire had brought Christianity there only a few years after the Book of Acts leaves off, subsequent invasions had diminished the Christian population, and fresh evangelistic effort was needed.  St. Augustine was sent to lead a tiny mission; the local king granted him some land in the town of Canterbury to set up an abbey from which to base his work, and the rest is history.  He was the first Archbishop of Canterbury, and his remembrance is one that links us not just to the post-reformation Anglican identity, but to the deep roots of Christian history.  Through the remembrance of individuals such as Augustine of Canterbury, we are drawn deeper into the realization that the Body of Christ is bigger than our local church, our diocese, our tradition, or even our world, but also the many centuries of Christ-followers preceding us.  We are all united in Christ.  Additionally, I am a member of a Fraternity of clergymen that has been formed in the Anglican Church in North America, named after St. Augustine of Canterbury, which is dedicated to fostering and teaching that historic (or catholic) root behind the Anglican tradition that enriches our life and worship with not just 500 years of Christianity (since the Reformation) but 1,500 years of Christianity and beyond.

So as American Memorial Day draws us closer to those service-men and -women, most of whom we never knew, reminding us that we are one family as Americans, so too do saints’ days like today remind us that we are one family as Christians.  And this reality is empowered by the Holy Spirit, whose gift we especially celebrate this Pentecost Week.

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The Holy Spirit and Baptism

This is my sermon for the Day of Pentecost, Sunday 24 May 2015, at Grace Anglican Church, preceding the Baptism of William Brench. “We believe in the Holy Spirit; the Lord, the Giver of Life.”

Who is the Holy Spirit?

We’ve made it to Pentecost, the day we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit! It is a day we’re prompted to revisit the question, “Who is the Holy Spirit?” The Nicene Creed gives us a precise answer. The Holy Spirit is the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son He is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the prophets. This means that the Holy Spirit is, first of all, God. Specifically, the Spirit is the power of God at work in creation, sent forth from God the Father, causing the Word of God to come to pass. When we worship God the Father and Jesus, we are also implicitly worshiping the Holy Spirit. And when we read the Bible, we are benefiting from the work of the Holy Spirit in ages past, who spoke through the many human authors of Scripture. The Creed is an important place to start; we get all these nice grandiose statements about the Holy Spirit that way. For, too often, we reduce the Holy Spirit just to his gifts & fruits, which are the results of his work in us. Or worse, sometimes people have reduced the ministry of the Holy Spirit to New-Agey inspirational garbage, as if the Spirit is some sort of mystical force that can be tapped into, channeled, and controlled. He is not about parlor tricks, he is God!

The Giver of Life

The aspect of the Holy Spirit that I’d like us to focus on today is his attribute as the “Giver of Life.” This is always the best starting point for understanding the Holy Spirit, in my estimation, because when we jump straight to the “fruit of the Spirit” (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, etc.) or to the “gifts of Spirit” (be they supernatural or otherwise), we end up gravitating toward a self-centered understanding of the Holy Spirit. Rather than asking who he is, we are tempted to ask “who he is to me.” So let’s begin who he is as the Giver of Life. We see this image of God’s life-giving Spirit, or wind, or breath, all over the Bible. In Genesis 1 the Spirit of God is hovering over the waters, about to blow life into creation. After the great flood in Noah’s time, Genesis 8 tells us that God “made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided,” thus restoring life to the world. In Job 33:4 we hear “The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.” Psalm 104 praises God because “When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground.” Several times in Romans 8, just before where today’s Epistle reading picked up, we see Paul referring to the Spirit of Life who has set us free in Christ from sin and death, so that to set our mind on the Spirit is life, that the Spirit is life because of righteousness, and that the Spirit who gave resurrection life to Jesus also gives new life to us. These are just a few examples of the life-giving work of the Holy Spirit. And as we’ve already begun to hear from Romans 8, the Holy Spirit is not just in the business of making the Old Creation, but also in making the New Creation.

The Work of the New Creation

Although the Holy Spirit is the chief worker in both cases, the Old Creation is different from the New. In the beginning, God created ex nihilo, he made the universe from nothing. First, nothing but God existed; then, something else existed. That was the work of the Old Creation. The New Creation, however, is worked out quite differently. Rather than starting from scratch, God is transforming the Old into the New. This is attested to throughout the Bible. Our epistle reading from Romans 8 describes this transformation from Old into New: “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” There, not only are people being born again into Christ, but the entire universe is going through childbirth. “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” When Christ died and rose again, he was not only bringing about the salvation of those who turn to him in faith, but the whole of creation with them! After all, God’s redeemed people will need a redeemed world in which to live! We see this in the book of Revelation as well: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.  He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”” This work of “making all things new” is precisely what the Holy Spirit is doing.

Discerning the New Creation

Now the question that probably comes to mind is “What does this look like?” If we say that the work of New Creation began with Christ’s victory on the cross, and the subsequent outpouring of the Holy Spirit, how do we see this renewal of creation at work? We’re used to talking about believers being “born again” or “born from above,” but how does this apply to the rest of creation? Well, just as the New Creation of a person’s spiritual birth is only discernible spiritually, so is the New Creation of other things only discernible spiritually. It might sound like a cop-out, saying that the New Creation is basically invisible, but we’ve got to remember that spiritual realities are just as real as physical realities. After all, God himself is invisible, yet we don’t consider him any less real than ourselves! And in the few special times that God did make himself visible to people, it was always in the form of a physical reality so that they could relate to him somehow. Discerning the New Creation is exactly the same: we look through a physical reality to behold a spiritual reality. There are many different examples of how this looks, but I’ll just give three big examples for today. First, there’s the Bible. Take a look at it. It’s a book. It looks like a book, smells like a book. When I tap on it, it sounds like a book. When you open it up, it’s got ink on a page, just like any other book. The Bible is a book, plain and simple. But wait, you say; the Bible isn’t just a book, it’s the Word of God! How can you tell? There is no way of knowing, according to my human senses, that there is anything special about this book. Only when we engage with this book spiritually can we find it to be God’s Word. It’s an inward spiritual reality hidden behind its outward physical reality. A word that the Church has long used to describe this phenomenon is “sacramental.” Through an outward physical thing, we find an inward spiritual thing at work. Second example: Holy Communion. It’s bread and wine, plain and simple. You can smell it, feel it, taste it; it’s bread and wine. But at the same time, when Jesus spoke of it, he said, “This is my body.” And when St. Paul wrote of it, he said, “the bread that we break is the communion of the Body of Christ.” We see an outward physical sign that points us to an inward spiritual reality beyond it. When we approach the Altar, it isn’t ordinary physical bread we seek, but the Bread of Life which is Christ himself. Thus we partake of spiritual food to sustain our spiritual life. Third example, is the water of Baptism. As St. Peter wrote, “Baptism now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” As far as we can see, at a baptism, a person gets wet. But we look through that physical reality, through that water, to discern the spiritual reality: the power and presence of the Holy Spirit washing away a person’s sin. Just as ink on a page in the Bible communicates God’s Word, or as the bread and wine of Holy Communion communicate Christ’s Body and Blood, so too do the waters of baptism communicate the washing work of the Holy Spirit. Let’s expand on this topic of Baptism, since that is what we are preparing to do, in just a few minutes. In the Bible there are two distinct types of baptism described: one from St. John the Baptist, and one from his cousin, our Lord, Jesus.

John’s Baptism of Repentance

St. Luke (in chapter 3 of his Gospel book) gives us the most detail about John’s preaching and ministry. There, we find that John was sent by God to administer a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” This meant that he would preach the Gospel – the impending arrival of Christ – and call people to repent from their sins. They were then to be baptized as a sign of their repentance, and thus also know that they’ve receive God’s forgiveness. It was, in short, a ministry of preparation, helping people to recognize Jesus when he arrived so that they’d listen to him and follow him as Christ and Lord. This is important to recognize as a ministry of preparation, because John himself attested that “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16). In short, his baptism of repentance was not going to be enough; when Jesus arrives, he’ll give you what you really need.

Christ’s Baptism of the Holy Spirit

What is it that Jesus added to John’s baptism of repentance? The Holy Spirit! As the Church grew, the Apostles encountered people who’d been baptized by John, but had never heard of the Holy Spirit. You can find one of these stories in Acts 19. Their response was to teach them the Gospel of Christ “more accurately,” and then baptize them with Jesus’ baptism: in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The New Testament makes the link between Baptism and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit clear in several places. On the Day of Pentecost, Peter preached, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul tells us “in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.” In Titus 3, Paul reminds us that God “saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” Christian Baptism, therefore, is the work of the Holy Spirit to give us new life in Christ!

Abiding in the New Baptismal Life

This brings us to an important and final point: after baptism, it is up to us to “abide in Christ.” This is a fancy way of saying that we’ve got to stick with it. New birth into a new life is just the beginning. When you look at a newborn and say “he’s perfect!” you don’t mean that they ought to remain exactly as they are. They do still need to grow up and live the life they’ve been given. So whether the one being baptized is an infant, a child, a teen, or an adult, we do not claim that they have reached perfect faith, fully attained salvation, or are now exactly as they ought to be. It is always up to them to abide in Christ, feed on Him in their hearts by faith, and read His holy Word. Can anyone do these things on their own strength? Absolutely not! Paul explicitly denies this: “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? (Gal. 3:3)  The point is, again, that Baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit are only the beginning of the Christian life. The Holy Spirit then ministers to us as we grow and mature in Christ. Additionally, Paul is writing here in the plural, addressing a group of people. Not only do we need the Holy Spirit within us individually to help us grow, but we need the community of believers – the local Church – to be a place where the Spirit can do his work. Thus, when we perform a baptism, the whole congregation pledges to help their new brethren to grow. So as we go through this baptismal liturgy now, I want you to pray these prayers with me in your hearts. And when you speak, speak with conviction. We do not make promises before God flippantly; we stand witness to the Lord, the Giver of Life, at work!

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Now What?

This will be my Ascension Sunday sermon at Grace Anglican Church.

 Introducing the Ascension

Thursday this last week was Ascension Day, when Jesus was taken up, body and soul, into heaven to be seated at the right hand of God the Father. As the book of Acts tells us, Jesus presented himself alive to his disciples after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. Those forty days after Easter finished on Thursday. What happened that day, Luke goes on to describe in Acts 1:

Jesus ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

The disciples were looking forward to the re-founding of the Kingdom of Israel, but Jesus corrected them, saying that they will not be given political power to set up an earthly kingdom, but that they would be given spiritual power to set up a heavenly kingdom. Rather than being princes, they would be witnesses. Rather than training an army, they would be training more disciples. Rather than sending military campaigns throughout the world, they would be sending missionaries. Make no mistake, they were commissioned to build God’s Kingdom. What turned out differently than they expected was that the population of that Kingdom is no longer Jews only, but all who believe in Christ; the territory of the Kingdom is no longer limited to the ancient boundaries of Israel and Judea; the enemies of the Kingdom are no longer human beings, but spiritual beings.

This is still the case today. To be worshiper of God you don’t have to be Jewish or become Jewish; the Kingdom of God is bigger than what we commonly call “the Holy Land”; our enemies are not flesh and blood, but the spiritual rulers and authorities and powers behind the visible things of this world. This means even Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving Boston Marathon Bomber, is not our enemy; he was a mere human, like us, who got caught up too deeply in the machinations of the Evil One. He is still responsible for actions, as are we all. We each have to choose our allegiance: do we pay fealty to the Kingdom of God and bow before the throne where Christ is seated, or do we obey the alluring powers of the world, the flesh, and the devil?

 Introducing Ascensiontide

Perhaps a different metaphor is in order here. We speak of Kingdoms a lot, in the Church, and while that is a biblical and accurate way to speak of Christ and his Gospel, sometimes it helps to bring it a little closer to our own experience. So I’d like to make an analogy for you. Think of the life and work of Jesus in terms of schooling. Even in the letter to the Hebrews, this analogy is hinted at: “Although Jesus was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.” So think of Jesus’ death on the Cross as the final exam. It, above all other signs and teachings, was the ultimate test of if Jesus really was who he claimed to be. The resurrection, three days later, was like getting the exam results back: he passed with flying colors! He then had forty days to spend time with his disciples until graduation day, when he ascended into heaven. His earthly ministry was finished, and his heavenly ministry had begun.

But from the perspective of his disciples, still on earth, that leaves this strange period of time between Ascension Day and Pentecost Day. Jesus had told them to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” So there they were in Jerusalem, waiting, praying, and wondering what exactly would happen. They had been promised the power of the Holy Spirit, and probably had a sense of what that might be like, having participated in the Spirit-filled ministry of Christ for the past three years or so. But it was still an unknown future before them. It’s like that time between graduation and starting the new job, or getting married, or whatever comes next.

In the Church today, we re-live that ten-day period between the Ascension and Pentecost with a time of special prayer. We began our worship service this morning with the Great Litany for that very reason; it’s a special time of more focused and intentional prayer. For the most part, though, we’re looking ahead to Pentecost and praying for the outpouring of God’s Spirit upon us. Yes, we look back to the Church’s first Pentecost described in Acts 2, and yes we celebrate the fact that the Holy Spirit has been given to all who have believed and been baptized, yet we continue to pray for growth and strengthening of the Spirit’s work within us and among us. The Kingdom of God is still being built, and we are his laborers. Celebrating the Day of Pentecost is kind of like renewing our employment contract: we pledge our loyalty to God, and God pledges his gifts of grace to us. And, as with every holiday like this, echoes of these pledges are made in every corporate worship service, be it weekly or daily.

 Preparing for Pentecost

So we have one more week until Pentecost. On that day we will celebrate the work of the Holy Spirit not only in the past, but the present as well. We’ll be baptizing William here next week, bringing another precious soul into God’s Kingdom. We will pray for the Holy Spirit’s presence in his life, and as we commit him to Christ, we recommit ourselves to Christ as well. In the meantime, as we prepare for that day, we ought to be praying earnestly for the work of God’s Spirit in our lives and in our community. To help us with that, I want to point out some Scripture readings that the past few weeks have brought to our attention.

Half-way through the Easter season, the Gospel readings at our Sunday Communion services have been from the “upper room discourse” in the Gospel of John. There, in chapters 15 & 16, Jesus tells us about the ministry of the Holy Spirit whom he was promising to his people.

On April 19th we heard about how the Holy Spirit would transform our sorrow into joy. This was true not only in the fact that the disciples got to see Jesus resurrected from the dead, but also as a feature of the ministry of the Spirit: revealing Christ to us as a source of joy, even when our lives might otherwise be grievously upsetting.

On April 26th we heard Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit to be a Helper, or an Advocate. In those capacities, the Spirit convicts the world about Christ, leads us into all truth (that is, the way of Christ), and reveals the true nature of divinity: that the Father is God, Christ the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. Thus the Holy Spirit both provides and enables the entirety of our faith and religion.

Last week we heard Jesus’ statement that he will be with the Father, meaning we can pray to the Father in the name of Jesus and be assured that he will hear us. This doesn’t mean Jesus is our magical good luck charm, but that when we enter into true and authentic prayer, Jesus is right there with us. He told us that so that we might have peace, knowing that he has overcome the world. So now the only thing that can ever come between you and God is your own back.

And finally today we heard from the Gospel of John that Jesus would send the Holy Spirit to be a witness of Christ, to make us witness for Christ, and to keep us with Christ through times of trial. Rather than falling away, turning our backs on God when times get tough, the Holy Spirit is with us to encourage us with the truth of Christ and strengthen us with the Gospel.

 a Prayer Assignment

So as you prepare for the Day of Pentecost, next week, consider these themes in prayer. Does God intend to refresh your joy in the midst of sorrows? Does God intend to awaken deeper faith within you, or increase your religious devotions in word and deed? Is God calling you to turn around, and look at him, and finally listen to him rather than to the lies of this world? Is there encouragement and spiritual strength that you lack, which the Holy Spirit can give or replenish? Take these questions up with God this week. Read John chapters 14 through 17 on your own to revisit all these rich teachings and promises about the Holy Spirit, straight from the Lord Himself. And as you are drawn deeper into the identity and ministry that God has for you, remember the words of St. Peter: “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.”

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Which Lives Matter?

For all the complaints I’ve heard lately about how badly our public schools are overrun with the “liberal agenda,” there is something I think it really did right in my experience: presenting a healthy view of racial equality.  For the vast majority of my childhood, whenever I heard of this thing called “racism” it was always in the past tense.  Not until High School did I begin to become aware that race relations were still very poor in some places.  And that’s when I began to lose my innocence.  I was raised relatively color blind, so to speak, but as I became aware that others had issues, I began to question whether or not a given situation or location would bring it up.

I’m not saying that I developed a fear of black of people as a result of growing up.  I’m saying, rather, that as a kid it didn’t occur to me that the various ‘races’ in this country didn’t all get along.  And once I started traveling outside of New England (especially solo a couple times early in college), that’s when my self-assumed openness was put to the test.  The most noticeable experience of racial tensions in my life was in Philadelphia.  Blacks and whites were in equal numbers on the public trains.  They weren’t segregated into sections, but there was little interaction between them, and I just felt this air of nervousness.  Were there people there who hated or distrusted each other?  Might I somehow offend someone in my naivete?

Neither then, nor since, have I personally witnessed direct racial conflict.  Even now, I live in a relatively poor neighborhood, and the demographics are mixed: white, black, hispanic.  On one hand, the saying “birds of a feather flock together,” and that’s fine.  Yet, I have seen white kids playing basketball at the predominantly black-kid-used playground nearby.  I’ve seen hispanics and whites walking down the street together after school.  So it seems that racial relations are healthier here than in cities further South.

Either way, the Church has to think about these issues.  One of the major themes of the Gospel is reconciliation.  Liberal Christianity takes the reconciliation theme and jumps straight to our world’s situations of class and race where recent events have proven powerful divisions are still at play in our society at large.  This is a noble and important task of social justice that needs to be undertaken, no doubt.  But Christians are supposed first to seek to understand the Bible according to its own framework, before applying its teachings to our own day.  Reconciliation appears 13 times in the New Testament (in the ESV translation), used accordingly:

  • Reconciliation between believers (Matt. 5:24, Acts 7:26)
  • Reconciliation with God (Romans 5:10-11(3x), 11:15, 2 Cor. 5:18-20(5x), Eph. 2:16, Col. 1:20, 1:22)
  • Reconciliation between estranged spouses (1 Cor. 7:11)

A few of these also include strong elements of Gentile-Jewish reconciliation in Christ.  But that’s just the catch that the more liberal churches all-too-often miss: the ministry of reconciliation that we bear, as Christians, is based in unity in Christ.

This is critically important for us to realize.  For how can two completely different people with two completely different backgrounds ever be reconciled?  What they need is common ground, a bridge if you will.  All nationalities and races are welcome (and indeed called) to be reconciled in Christ, that is, in the Church.  As we turn to Jesus and worship the Triune God, we grow in unity.  When we are baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, we receive new identities as Christians which override our racial and national identities.  We don’t become “color blind,” as I imaged as a young child, but we ought to come to place where race doesn’t matter in our judgments and evaluations of others.  For it is not their race that makes people poor or rich, happy or discontent, it is their economic and social situation.

And, try as we might, we will probably never be able to fix all these problems.  Jesus himself observed “the poor you will always have with you.”  He didn’t say that to discourage us from caring for the poor though, but to point out that the work of compassion will always continue.  So rather than focusing solely on “making the world a better place” and “making racism history” and so forth, we also minister the Gospel to people, pointing the way to the ultimate reconciliation – reconciliation with God.  When we know that perfect love from our creator, we become able to share that with others.  In short, reconciliation with God precedes true reconciliation between people.

Now, I might be tempted to conclude this blog post with the revised slogan “all lives matter.”  That has been my reaction a number of times over the past few months to the various “black lives matter” campaigns, hashtags, and so forth.  But I recently read someone pointing out that nobody runs into a Cancer Center and tells the staff “There are other diseases out there too!”  Of course there are other diseases that need to be cured; their focus happens to be cancer.  Similarly, yes, all lives matter, but by pointing out specifically that black lives matter, we focus on the particular racial issues that our society is experiencing.  Along those lines, there are two other challenging issues that we should probably consider: “poor lives matter” and “pre-natal lives matter.”

At the end of the day, though, slogans are just slogans.  They can be used to inspire good and godly work, and they can be used to justify wickedness.  Recent events, especially in Baltimore, suggest that the (relatively) small group of rioters have hijacked the “black lives matter” slogan from the (substantially) larger group of peaceful protestors in that city.  This is both disappointing and unsurprising; our media almost always highlights bad news at the expense of good news.  (I daresay it’s far more entertaining to watch rioters on TV than to watch peaceful protestors holding up signs.)  So again, a Christian response ought to be sober and vigilant, attentive to truth and compassionate to others’ needs.  All lives matter.  But until we break that down into specific real-life examples, we’re being just as naive as I was when I was a child.

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