In the beginnings

One of the coolest things about the Bible’s text is that the first book literally starts “In the beginning…”  I mean, of all the things it could start with, it just makes perfect sense that it would start with the beginning.  And when you finish that sentence you find that the “beginning” is eternity past – before time itself was created.  In the beginning, God created.  You learn so much about God in that phrase – his distinction over against all created things, his omnipotence over the same, his very being belonging beyond not only physical existence but also beyond time.  I’m really into science fiction, especially Doctor Who, which deals constantly with the ins and outs and paradoxes of time travel.  So it’s kind of strange, in a marvellous way, to find a truly “timeless” deity proclaimed in the opening words of Sacred Scripture.

But then you get through the first couple chapters and the debates start flying thick and fast – how did God create the world?  Are there conflicts between the various pieces of the text?  Are these writings meant to be taken literally?  What, even, is the literal meaning?  All this and more quickly rises to the forefront of a Bible Study, sermon, or discussion on the opening chapters of the book of Genesis; it’s almost inescapable.  So let’s side-step that direction of argumentation and look at Genesis from a birds-eye view.

“In the beginning, God created…” (chapter 1, verse 1)

  1. This is the Genesis of the heavens and the earth (2:4)
  2. This is the Genesis of Adam (5:1)
  3. This is the Genesis of Noah (6:9)
  4. This is the Genesis of the sons of Noah: Shem, Ham, and Japheth (10:1)
  5. This is the Genesis of Shem (11:10)
  6. This is the Genesis of Terah (11:27)
  7. This is the Genesis of Ishmael (25:12)
  8. This is the Genesis of Isaac (25:19)
  9. This is the Genesis of Esau (36:1)
  10. This is the Genesis of Jacob (37:2)

The word in English is sometimes rendered “generation” or “generations” or “family” or “descendants”, but the underlying word is the same.  It’s interesting to note that there are ten such Genesis Statements, mirroring what will be found in the giving of the Law of Moses in the book of Exodus: ten commandments.  This highlights the essential unity of the Pentateuch (the five books of Moses), and reminds us that Genesis is functioning as a prologue to the books of Law.  Genesis, after all, is never officially classified as an Historical Book, but as Torah – law, teaching, instruction.  Its job in the biblical canon is to give the necessary background context to prepare us for the content of the Law that would follow, starting in the middle of the book of Exodus.

Anyway, what we’re invited to see here in this conspicuously symbolic arrangement of the book of Genesis is that God is no “clock-maker god” like 18th century deists believed, setting the world in motion and then sitting back to let it run its course, but a God who is actively involved in every aspect of creation and in every time.  He created the cosmos before man, he was creating in Adam, he was creating in Noah, and Terah (Abraham’s father)… he’s even at work in Gentile family nations outside of the initial Abrahammic Promise such as Ishmael and Esau.  I’m writing this in Epiphanytide which has a particular attention to the in-gathering of the nations – the Gentiles – to worship Christ and form what the New Testament calls “the Church”, so it’s fresh on my mind to note that the “dead end” stories of Ishmael and Esau, and their descendants, are justified precisely by their inclusion in the Gospel of Jesus Christ (which was prophesied by a few Old Testament divines like Isaiah).

In that light, it’s rather a shame that so many of us spend so much time and energy arguing over the nature of the first Genesis Story, to the potential neglect of the other nine.  Isn’t it interesting that Adam and Eve feature in both the prologue of the book (1:26-30) and in the Genesis of the Heavens & Earth (chapters 2-4), before getting their own actual Genesis Story in chapter 5?  Isn’t it interesting to see how the entire flood narrative in chapter 6-9 is actually the next Genesis Story, in which God (re-)creates the entire world?  Isn’t it interesting to note in the Genesis of Terah that God creates something new by making a covenant with Abraham to extend through his offspring (singular) to the entire world?

You can even explore other parts of the Old Testament and find this reality continuing throughout.  I read from Jeremiah a week ago (or thereabouts) this text:

I looked on the earth, and behold, it was without form and void;
    and to the heavens, and they had no light.

There, in 4:23, Jeremiah tells us that God is looking at the world in a state of uncreation.  Using the same language of the opening verses of the book of Genesis, Jeremiah speaks of the sinful state of Israel as a sort of nonexistence, an empty chaos, a darkness or death.  What is needed is creation, light, life, anew.  The Gospel implications here are staggering!  But let’s save that thought for a moment longer.

Each and every Genesis Story is a real Genesis, a Beginning, a Creation.  We do the book of Genesis (and ourselves, and the rest of the Bible) a disservice if we get overly hung up about one of them at the expense of the others.  Some will say “yes, well and good, but let’s not lose sight of the bigger issue: the historical framework in which all of these ought to fit!”  Historical accuracy is a big deal, sure, and some are more strict about it than others.  Personally I’m not as concerned about it as the average conservative interpreter, though I also have little patience for the haphazard manuscript-hacking that modernists are prone to carry out.  That being said, there is an all-important summation of the Genesis Stories that I would argue is the overriding truth governing not only the Book of Genesis but pretty much the entire biblical corpus.

Turn to the fourth gospel book, John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word…

In a way it’s a shame that John has ended up the fourth instead of the first gospel.  Yes, this was the fourth one to be written, so it makes chronological sense.  But theologically it’s got an amazing beginning, written intentionally to match the opening of the book of Genesis.  The prologue of Genesis is a beautiful picture of the ordering of creation; the prologue of John, however, is a beautiful picture of God Himself!  I dare to say that that is far more significant for us to think on than the historical or poetic or imagistic or literal senses of Genesis 1.  The Gospel is built upon the person of Jesus, not the age of the Earth, after all.

What’s more, if you follow Genesis 1-2:3 and John 1-2:2, you’ll find that both walk through a seven-day period of time.  Genesis’s seven-day prologue culminates in a day of rest (prefiguring heaven and salvation) and John’s seven-day prologue culminates in a wedding where Jesus performs his first “sign” or miracle (again prefiguring heaven and salvation).

I’m not saying that all discussion of the historical-versus-symbolic meaning of the creation of the heavens and earth is a total waste of time; it does have its place.  But we really ought to be spending our primary interpretive efforts looking at Jesus and the Gospel he brings about.  In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth; this the Genesis of the heavens and earth, this is the Genesis of Adam, this is Genesis of Noah… but really, in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  The age of the earth and the process of creation are interesting academic question that have some bearing on biblical interpretation, but this – this! – the pre-existent Word-who-is-God, this Jesus-before-all-time, this is divinity, this is Gospel.  Of all things, it is Jesus whom we seek when we read the book of Genesis, and indeed all of Sacred Scripture, the God who was, and is, and is to come.

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Jesus is the Answer

Christmas Sunday Homily, 2019

Jesus is the answer.

When Solomon prayed for Wisdom, and when we follow his example (as in Wisdom 9:1-7), Jesus is the answer.  “O come thou wisdom from on high, and ordrest all things mightily….  Rejoice, rejoice Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”

When looking for joy, looking for love, the world offers so much to try and fulfill us.  Some of it’s good and some of it’s bad.  But in Revelation 21:9-14 we are shown a bride, a glorious city that has the glory of God.  It is the Bride of Christ, to be married to the Lamb, Jesus.  Like a rare jewel and precious stone, Jesus is that greatest treasure and giver of love to whom only we can turn for eternal satisfaction and glory.

When, like Isaiah (in 61:10-62:5), we find ourselves Forsaken, and Desolate, in a land that is barren of God’s Word full of people like sheep who have gone astray, everyone to his own way, we see that Jesus is the answer.  He is the one that makes us the Delight of the Lord and Married.

When we feel like slaves, or (as it’s put in Galatians 3:23-4:7) at best endless students without hope of graduation, always yoked to rules we cannot keep, and second-class citizens to the holier people of ages past; and when the barriers of the world hold us apart even from one another in an endless battle of the sexes and racism and other prejudices, again, Jesus is the answer.  Baptized into him we find the barriers of the world are divided, and gender and race and country are no longer means of separation but simply new parameters toward worshiping him.  No longer slaves, we are counted as children of God; Christ becoming our brother rather than our master.  And perhaps most amazing of all, this makes us heirs of God with Christ Jesus.

And this is not a new answer.  Yes, St. John’s revelation pointed him back to Jesus whom he’d known, and St. Paul’s epistle looks back on the power of Christ in church life, but we find this same answer is the writings of Isaiah the Prophet, centuries before Jesus was born.  So too with the Wisdom of Solomon, written in the name of that famous king well before Christ, the ancient quest for wisdom is put into the context of a light no darkness can quench, the light of life itself.  Isaiah and Solomon and the other authors of ancient scripture did not know Jesus as a man, but they did know him in other ways.  For (John 1:1-18) in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.  All things were made through that Word; in that Word was life, and that life was the light of men, which was coming into the world, shining (sometimes lonely) in the darkness but never overcome.  When he did come into the world, as the man Jesus, he was not readily recognized by many, yet he gave many the right to become children of God once again, giving them a supernatural birth into his supernatural family.

The Word was made flesh when Jesus was conceived in the womb of the Blessed Virgin, but in Christmastide we celebrate the birth of that child, when the Word of God became truly visible for all to see.  The wisdom from on high, the hope and desire of nations, the wonderful counselor, the prince of peace, God of God, Light of Light, the answer, finally dwelt among us.  No more let sin and sorrow grow, nor thorns infest the ground: he comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found!  Venite adoremus Dominum – O come let us adore the Lord.

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Will the Real Catholics Please Stand Up?

In common parlance, the word “catholic” is synonymous with the Roman Catholic Church.  There are a number of Lutherans and Anglicans around who refer to themselves as catholic – I’ve been one of those for around ten years now.  Some of us quibble over calling ourselves Catholic versus catholic, as some save the large-C for Romanism and the small-C for more generic catholicism.  Looking to the language of the Creeds and virtually all of the Early Church Fathers, the word “catholic” has always been used for the true church.  With that in mind, no Christian who believes him-or-herself to be a true Christian, should ever shy away from the label “catholic”, capitalized or otherwise.  And so, I’ve always tried to make a point of calling myself “catholic”, or, to avoid confusing strangers, “Catholic, but/just not Roman Catholic,” and encouraged those in my pastoral charge to think of us the same way.

But in recent reading of the Anglican divines of the 16th and 17th centuries, I see that insistence on our catholicity taken to a new level.  Not only are we, Protestants, truly and fully Catholic, but the Romans or Papists are NOT truly and fully Catholic.  Indeed, they never seem to afford the Roman Church the attribute of Catholic.  Why?  Because the Reformers believed with full conviction that the Roman Church was in error and therefore unworthy of the term.  How’s that for epic seriousness!

A few days ago I finished reading a classic short book from 1562, An Apology, or Answer, in defence of the Church of England by John Jewel.  This is one of those books that really ought to be required reading for every would-be Anglican clergyman.  After the official formularies, this is one of the most important documents in our tradition.  I’m a little embarrassed that I’ve been a priest for over six years before ever picking it up.

In it, Jewel organizes his thoughts into six sections:

  1. Of true religion
  2. Doctrine received in the church
  3. Source and origin of heresies
  4. Popes claiming headship of church
  5. Church fathers & councils
  6. Of great councils, abused by papists

In logical and charitable (yet forceful) fashion, he moves from subject to subject with a steadfastness that inspires.  He outlines the history of God’s religion, both Old Testament history and New, noting that the powers of the world always persecute the Truth.  Many a time, before Christ and after, God’s faithful people have been accused of being heretics, often by people and factions more powerful than they.  This brings him to the central issue this book addresses: The Pope (and the then-recent Council of Trent) has declared the English Church and all other Protestants to be heretics.  Is this a fair accusation?  Jewel argues “no.”

The first step of his defence, therefore, is to outline what the true catholic faith is.  He basically follows the order of the creeds: detailing the trinity, christology, the Holy Spirit, ecclesiology, the ordained ministry and the power of the keys, matrimony (of ministers included), the Scriptures, the Sacraments (especially of Holy Communion), liturgy and worship, and sin and salvation.  He backs up his statements with a number of Scripture quotes, but even more with references to the Early Church Fathers.  This is not because he’s light on Scripture, but because he’s showing that the Bible-based faith of the Reformers is fully in accord with what the Church has always believed.  John Jewel’s understanding of Protestantism is Catholicism.

He then goes on to address the question of heresy of which the Pope has accused us.  Because of all his references to the Early Fathers already, he is able to take a strong first swing at the Pope by declaring that if he would accuse the Reformers of heresy, “his Suit should rather have been commenced against Christ, the Apostles, and the Holy Fathers; for these Things did not only proceed from them, but it was by them also that they were ordained“.  He calls out malpractices and abuses rampant in the Roman Church and asks for their origin in Scripture or the Early Church.  He lists the ancient heresies condemned by the Early Church and affirms the Reformers’ rejection of the same.  He addresses the issue of division among Protestants with the observation that there was division among Romans, too, over a number of practices and teachings.  Yes, there were radical reformers out there with some very divisive and strange doctrines, but Jewel marks a sharp separation from them:


He then goes on the offensive, attacking the Roman doctrine of the primacy of the Pope over all other bishops, archbishops, and patriarchs.  He notes the many evil men who have held the role of Pope, he quotes many saints and fathers of old who held little faith in the integrity of the Roman See, and most importantly he argues from the Scriptures and the Early Fathers that Roman primacy is not the way of catholicism.  He digs into the Fathers and the General Councils (what we today usually call the Ecumenical Councils) to show that the relationship between Pope and Church claimed by Rome is not in accord with how things once were.  He calls out the Papacy for claiming a higher authority even then those great Councils, and argues further that the so-called General (Ecumenical) Councils convened by Rome in the previous few centuries were utter farces – how could a Council be properly Ecumenical if the bishops of Greece and Alexandria, etc. were absent?

The Council of Trent, especially, is discredited by John Jewel’s arguments, because that council, condemning Protestants, did not even listen to a defence from any bishop or representative of the reformed churches.  It was what we would call a kangaroo court – an instrument to carry out the will of just one man: the Pope.

Granted, a great deal more water has gone under the bridge since 1562.  In some ways, the Papists have really cleaned up their act; in other ways, they’ve really dug in to some of their grievous errors.  In some ways, we Protestants have recovered elements of catholic piety that the Reformation had set aside; in other ways, we’ve splintered and relinquished our claim to true catholicity.  Jewel’s book is out of date in some ways.  But the basic arguments – that Scripture and Early Church history are the foundation of Protestantism – are as relevant as ever.  It’s a real shame that we’ve lost the resolve of Jewel and others, and in many cases tacitly handed the Early Church over to Rome as if the Saints of old are more properly theirs than ours.  Protestantism is seen today as antithetical to Catholicism… and that means in the war for language and words, the Papists won.  Shame on us for surrendering!

Anyway, this is an excellent read and an inspiring text that will boost your confidence in the faithfulness of the Anglican tradition not only to the Bible but to the Early Church.  You can find a copy of it (with mostly-modernized spelling) online here:

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Eternal Life: Rightly understanding the scriptures

a sermon from Luke 20:27-38

The Set-up

Can God make a rock so heavy that even he can’t move it? – oh what a clever question.  It’s the perfect logical trap: if you say yes, then you admit God is not all-powerful for being too weak, and if you say no, then you admit is not all-powerful for being unable to create something.  All the skeptic has to do to discredit your belief in God is just ask you that question and BOOM! you’re trapped; game over.

Except, of course, the question is an absurdity.  It pits the power of God against himself, and has no sense of context or divine purpose.  It’s not a question about faith, it’s a thinly veiled attack on the rationality of religion.  Our Lord faces a question very much like this one in our Gospel today (Luke 20:27-38).  “What happens when a woman marries seven different brothers, and fails to produce heirs from any of them?  On the day of resurrection, which of them will be her husband?”  Like our Giant Rock question today, this snarky question attempts to trap Jesus in an absurd conflict, and their intention is to discredit the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead.

The way they do it in this question is by pitting the finer points of the Law, namely levirate marriage, against the much bigger question of resurrection and eternal life.  Levirate marriage was the practice of a wife marrying her husband’s brother or next-of-kin if he died before she produced him an heir.  The idea was that by having children with her late husband’s brother, they would produce an heir to take the dead man’s place in the allotment of family property.  The entire story of the book of Ruth centers around this sort of situation and the fulfillment of that law.

The Backstory

One may be tempted to think that the Sadducees are asking a silly question – a woman marrying a total of seven brothers, and coming out childless on all counts, sounds pretty extreme.  But actually, this is very close to a story that they all were familiar with: the Book of Tobit.  Rejected by the Jews for their Hebrew Bible but preserved in the Greek Old Testament tradition, Tobit is a story of a faithful Israelite during the exile who sends his son Tobias to collect his money before he dies.  On his journey, the son learns of a woman who has been married seven times, and each time a demon has killed her husband immediately, so she’s had no heir from any of them.  Tobias turns out to be the right sort of tribal match for the woman, and they agree to marry.  Thanks to the help of an under-cover angel, Tobias is able to drive away the demon and their marriage is a blessing and a success.

The Sadduccees took the scenario from that story and posit the question “what if it didn’t have a happy ending?  You who claim there’s a resurrection, what will be her status when she’s had seven husbands and produced no heirs with any of them?  They’re all genealogical dead-ends!”  They think that their interpretation of the law of levirate marriage rules out the possibility of the resurrection of the dead, and if the situation in the book of Tobit had ended differently it would be all the more messy for Jesus and the Pharisees, who all preached the resurrection.

Good doctrine comes from right interpretation

When Jesus answers their question, he side-steps the absurdity of their forced conflict.  The law of the levirate marriage existed to protect the stability of the civil life of ancient Israel and make sure that the property rights never left their allotted tribes and families for too long.  Using it as an argument against the resurrection is a complete mis-use of scripture!  So instead Jesus picks up a text that does deal with the resurrection of the dead.  And it’s not what one might expect.  He goes back to the book of Exodus, in chapter 3, where Moses encounters him at the Burning Bush.  There, God is proclaimed as the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob.  Jesus then adds the assertion that God is the god of the living, not god of the dead, and that therefore Abraham and Isaac and Jacob are still alive, and therefore the resurrection of the dead is true.

What this shows us is that if we are to understand the scriptures rightly, we have to read it in the right way.  The Sadducees were interested in legalism, like the Pharisees, just with a different focus.  When they picked up the sacred scrolls, they were looking for affirmations of their own power and authority as priests.  They sought a religion that would keep Jewish society peacefully functioning under Greco-Roman rule.  Eventually the Temple would be destroyed and the Sadducees’ power and theological perspective would essentially be wiped out.  When Jesus picks up the same sacred scrolls, he read them quite differently.  They weren’t about maintaining the priestly status quo for the Sadducees, and they weren’t about legalistic holiness as the Pharisees taught, but rather they’re about the work of God in creating and redeeming his people.

Something that might be a little off-putting here, for us as well as for the Sadducees, is the realization that if you want to understand the Bible rightly, you have to come at it with the right lens.  If you take a bad interpretive model, you’ll get bad theology.  What if I do it wrong?  How do I know if I’m reading it correctly?

How To Read the Bible According to God

Thankfully, Jesus went on to instruct his disciples in the right reading of scripture.  In Luke 24, the very evening after his resurrection, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, [Jesus] interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”  A week or so later he explained further: “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”  Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.  You are witnesses of these things.”  This is how the Church has aimed to interpret the Scripture ever since: they are about Jesus, they are about the Gospel, and they are about the work of the Gospel.  What the Apostles saw in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus were not only the fulfillments of Old Testament Prophecy, but the true meaning and purpose of the Old Testament!  When we pick up the Bible, we are looking for Jesus, whether it’s an Old Testament lesson or New. Yes, the historical and grammatical meaning of scripture is valid and useful, but if that’s all we ever do, then we’re being like the Sadducees – confining the text of the Bible to a very narrow field of meaning and twisting it away from what God is truly saying to his people.

Many of you probably memorized the Apostles’ Creed at some point in your lives: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty.  I believe in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord; who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, suffered, died, and was buried…” and so on.  If you’re a careful student of the Communion liturgy, you might even have the longer Nicene Creed memorized.  Either of these are excellent tools for understanding the Bible.  These creeds are summaries of the Christian faith, and as such you can pick up virtually any text in the Bible and find an echo of at least one line of the creed therein.

“All live to him”

As to our text today, we are reminded of the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead.  Or, better yet, as the Apostles’ Creed words it, the resurrection of the body.  Jesus specifically says here that God is not the God of the dead, but of the living; for all live to him.  This is a critically important doctrine – all live to him.  All those who have departed this life are dead with respect to the flesh, we see them no more, but (at it is written) “the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them” (Wisdom 3:1).  This is why St. Paul wrote that when we mourn, we do not mourn as people without hope.  This is why our Burial Service is able to direct us to a praiseful ‘alleluia’.  This is why we remember the departed in our prayers, and take encouragement from the examples of the saints before us.

In death, life is changed, not ended, for we know that those who are united to Christ will never be separated from him, and not even death can take him from us, or us from him.  This is why, of all the virtues, faith, hope, and love are theological virtues, as they accompany us through not only a good life, but into eternal life.

Let us pray.

O eternal Lord God, you hold all souls in life: Shed forth upon your whole Church in Paradise and on earth the bright beams of your light and heavenly comfort; and grant that we, following the good examples of those who have loved and served you here and are now at rest, may enter with them into the fullness of your unending joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.


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Do Exegesis and Theology matter?

It’s a big question for a lot of people – what’s the big deal with exegesis and/or theology?
“I don’t care about all that theology stuff, I just believe what the Bible says.”
“Don’t listen to doctrines of man, just listen to Jesus.”

Trouble is, of course, that the moment you make those sorts of statements – about believing the Bible and listening to Jesus – you’re entering into the world of biblical interpretation, exegesis, and theology.  Whether we are aware of it or not, theology is always at work when reading the Bible.  Here’s an introduction to how some of that works out:

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The Gospel of All Saints’ Day

All Saints’ Day is one of the seven principle feasts of the church year, according to our prayer book’s interpretation of the liturgical calendar.  Those seven principle feasts are, in calendar order, Christmas, the Epiphany, Easter, the Ascension, the Day of Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, and All Saints’ Day.  If you’re not accustomed to the liturgical mindset this might sound strange – one of these is not like the others!

Christmas is about Jesus
– it’s his birthday, where we especially celebrate his full and true humanity.
Epiphany is about Jesus
– it’s his revelation or manifestation as God-in-the-flesh, celebrating his divinity.
Easter is about Jesus
– it’s his resurrection from the dead vindicating his innocence and his sacrifice.
Ascension is about Jesus
– it’s his return to the right hand of the Father to intercede on behalf of us all.
Pentecost is about the Holy Spirit
– descending upon the Church and indwelling all God’s people.
Trinity Sunday is about the fullness of the godhead,
– revealing and celebrating the three-in-one and one-in-three.

But All Saints’ Day… that’s about people, sinners now known as saints.  What is this doing on par with the first six?

Well, All Saints’ Day is actually the next logical step in the biblical story of salvation.  Our salvation begins in childbearing: God chooses Mary and Mary says ‘yes.’  The fruit of her womb is Jesus, known as the Christ, or Messiah, or Anointed One, whom we then follow for much of the year: his birth demonstrating his humanity, his worship by the magi and the events at his baptism demonstrating his divinity, his death as a man and his resurrection in divine power, his ascension into heaven and his sending of the Holy Spirit in his place, thus revealing the fullness of the Trinity.  But what happens next?  Our salvation doesn’t end there.  On the Cross he died for our justification from sin; that sacrifice is complete.  But he also ascended and sent the Spirit to us in order to sanctify us.  That is the process of salvation in which we are all now living – we’re being sanctified, being made holy, being made into saints.  The feast of All Saints is the celebration of that completed work of sanctification in those who have gone before us.  And we celebrate it with a particular attention to those whose examples of sanctification are particularly worth noting and modeling and imitating.

You see, in Jesus we see full and true perfection.  He never sinned at all.  So when we look to Christ, we see our destination: true unmitigated holiness.  But in the Saints of old we see our journey: growth in grace, struggling against sin, and finally, a victory.  Some people say that it is pointless to celebrate Saints and pay them any attention when we have Jesus, the truly perfect and holy one.  But they’re wrong – the stories of the Saints before us are also valuable.  We see Jesus struggle with sin and win – that’s inspiring and instructive for sure, but we never see Jesus mess up, have to make amends, and start again.  In the lives of the Saints we do see failures, setbacks, fears, and despite all that, a victory.

The traditional Gospel lesson for this great holy day is the “Beatitudes”, Jesus’ string of “blessed are those…” statements.  Historically this has always been taken from St. Matthew’s Gospel, but our new lectionary also permits it to be taken from Luke’s, so I’ve decided to opt for that this year (6:20-26).  I chose it mainly because Luke has been the primary gospel for this year in the lectionary, but also because in this version he followed the blessings with woes.  In the life of Jesus and in the victory of the Saints we see examples of the beatitudes – the blessings.  But only in the lives of the Saints can we also find the woes – the failures.

But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.

There are places in the Bible where wealth is interpreted as signs of blessing.  Most of the proverbs and other wisdom writings tend to assume that God rewards the faithful with riches.  King Solomon, and others, are described as having been made wealthy by the hand of God because of their pursuit of godly wisdom.  But there are also places where wealth is made into a snare.  That same King Solomon fell from faith and obedience to the Lord, in part, because of his wealth – he interpreted his prosperity as a sign of personal success rather than divine grace, and so he went from a blessed to a woe.

We who are called to be saints of God must take care how we deal with our wealth – be it large or small – lest we seek our “consolation” in our retirement plan, and lay our trust in our nest egg, rather than continuing to place our faith in Christ.

Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry.

When we’re comfortable we tend to get lazy.  In one of my favorite pastoral manuals – books of advice for pastors – the author wrote that one should never eat so much that it is uncomfortable to get up back to work afterward.  If you’re too full to work, then you have already committed gluttony and are on track to commit sloth also.  This applies to much more than just food.  Whenever our life circumstances are favorable, the temptation is relax, let down our guard, take it easy, and act as if victory and peace is assured.  Some people like to speak of a “God-shaped hole in the heart”, and that if you try to fill it with anything else you will always be hungry.  St. Augustine wrote of the “restless heart” which never finds true rest until it rests in Christ.

We who are called to be saints of God must be careful about where we take our rest and find comfort, lest we end up making peace with our three-fold enemy – the world, the flesh, and the devil – rather than aim for Christ’s eternal rest in heaven.

Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.

There are so many things that can make people happy.  A good drink can make me happy.  Watching, reading, or listening to Doctor Who stories makes me happy.  Playing video games makes me happy.  Take a survey of what makes people happy and the list will explode: watching Patriots games, playing with grandchildren, eating desserts, making love, listening to music… all sorts of things can make us laugh for joy.  And most of that is good – God created all of creation for the benefit of its inhabitants.  Psalm 104 says that he made wine to gladden the heart of man, but we also know that too much wine makes us drunk.  God gave us ears and eyes, and so we can enjoy music and art, but we also know that songs can have lewd lyrics and beauty can be defaced.  God made all manner of plants and herbs which can nourish us and even treat diseases, but we also know that such drugs can also be dangerously abused.

We who are called to be saints of God must see that we enjoy such worldly pleasures in their right moderation, seeking our highest joy in Christ, lest we attempt to fill our hearts with the things of this earth that are passing away, and find them miserable in the company of our Savior.

Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.

Boy, do I want to be liked and respected.  Some people want to be famous, well-known, trusted as experts in their field.  Some people have less ambition, but we all want at least to be liked.  Early in St. John’s Gospel, a pharisee named Nicodemus met with Jesus by night to discuss his teaching on new life and second birth.  He came to him at night presumably because he didn’t want other people knowing he was talking to Jesus.  Later he spoke with Jesus more openly and hesitantly defended him at his trial, but he was still silenced by the question “are you his follower too?”  Even St. Peter himself denied Jesus when push came to shove.  It’s so much easier, and feels so much safer, to go with the flow.  But we must pay attention to what we’re doing in those moments.  A man cannot put his wife on hold and pretend he’s not married for a few minutes just so that he can attract or enjoy the attentions of another woman for a little while.  A soldier cannot take a break from the battlefield on a whim of personal convenience.

We who are called to be saints of God must take care that we do not forsake Christ for the sake of our reputation in this temporary life.  It is easier to fly under the radar, so to speak, but to do so is to follow in the footsteps of false prophets, people who chose treachery against their Lord.  Rather, we must cling to Christ and accept the realities that faithfulness to God is not always personally, politically, or even privately expedient.

In place of those four woes, let us pursue the corresponding blessings.  “Blessed are you who are poor… Blessed are you who are hungry now… Blessed are you who weep now… Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man!”  To be in that place where you accept the hardships of this life in anticipation of the perfection of eternity is to be in a blessed state.  There are times, perhaps too many times, when we live in ways that merit Christ’s woe.  But as people called to be saints of God, we both actively pursue and faithful trust the way of blessing that Christ has set out for us.  The examples of the Saints show us that no failure is ultimate failure.  God “has promised forgiveness of sins to all those who sincerely repent and with true faith turn to him”.

We can, therefore, nay, must, join the great train of Saints from ages past, following Christ Jesus, who is the Way, and the Truth, and the Life, from the old life of sin to the new life of true blessedness, sanctity, sainthood.  That’s the Gospel of All Saints’ Day – today we celebrate our destiny in Christ.

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And his hand is stretched out still

As we read through chapters 9 and 10 of the book of Isaiah, a repeated refrain stands out several times:

For all this his anger has not turned away,
and his hand is stretched out still.

Stretching from 9:8 through 10:4, this prophecy is a word of judgment against the people of Israel (Samaria) and Judah both, who have on the whole turned their backs on God.  They have become arrogant, oppressive, turning to infighting and idolatry.  Those in liturgical churches heard this Sunday morning the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, with their very different prayers in the Temple.  The one was arrogant and self-assured, the other was penitent and self-effacing.  One went home unchanged, the other went home justified.

The people addressed in this prophecy are of the first type – people who show up to worship God for the sake of lip service and duty; they are comfortable with themselves, “you do you!” could be their slogan.  And so, in four rounds, Isaiah rails against their wickedness and warns of God’s destructive judgment upon them and their doomed kingdom.  They continue in their wickedness, they will not even beat their breast and cry out “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner”, and this God’s anger will not turn away, and his hand is stretched out still.

But for those who are penitent, for those who would recognize their sinfulness and cast themselves upon the mercy of God, like the Tax Collector in the aforementioned parable in Luke 18:9, there is a word of hope.  The beginning of Isaiah 9 is much more famous: its iconic “to us a child is born” text, in verses 6 and 7, is one of the classic Old Testament readings around Christmas.  This prophecy, interestingly, is addressed to “the people who walked in darkness“, that is, the Gentiles.

This is one of Isaiah’s particular emphases that not a lot of the other Old Testament Prophets spend much time with – the inclusion and redemption of the Gentiles, that God and his Gospel are universal (in terms of accessibility).  The God of Israel is the God of all creation, and members of any tribe and nation can call Him their own with just as much integrity and right as any Israelite or Jew.  For those who recognize the darkness in which they live, and cry out for the light of truth, the light of life, God has provided a child, a son.  He will take the throne of David, but he will, in the zeal of the Lord, be a King for all peoples.  This is Jesus, of course, and all who throw themselves upon the mercy of God (rather than trust in their own spiritual self-sufficiency) will find his light shining upon them, increase of joy, salvation.

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