The Measure of Grace

The Measure of Grace: A Sermon for the Sixth Sunday After Trinity

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord my Strength and my Redeemer. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Suppose I were to ask you how long the front edge of this pulpit was. You might have a good guess, but the only way to know exactly would be to measure it with a reliable tool, like a ruler or a measuring tape, which had a standard that could be counted on to be accurate. Imagine if you hired a carpenter to do renovations to your house and you found him using his hands, thumbs, hips, and shoulders to guesstimate the measurements of your house. Quickly you would probably invite that person to take his skills elsewhere. You wouldn’t want to live in a house built by such guesswork – it wouldn’t be safe. Well, when it comes to the question of living a good life, which is far more complicated than building a good house, we have a culture which encourages moral guesswork. Like our imaginary carpenter who eyeballs what makes a reliable house, we look at issues of right and wrong and use an inner sense of what feels acceptable to us. But the problem is that with such guess work, we are building a house of cards. How can we build a good life on reliable principles? Well, just as the builder of a house leaves blueprints in case another person might come work on it, the author of life has given us Scripture to measure our lives, a theme which we can see at work in our Epistle and Gospel lesson today. The fundamental measuring tool of Scripture is grace, the grace God extends to us. This grace manifests in three ways: through the law, through the Gospel, and through our new life in Christ which flows out from that Gospel. We will look at each of these measures of grace today.

The Measure of the Law

It may sound odd to call the measure of the law a matter of grace, as often we hear these things set in opposition to one another. But in fact, as God is One, he is always consistent with himself, which means that the God who sets the standards of goodness also sets the standards of forgiveness and grace. Although it is vitally important that we do not fall into the error of legalism, we should also see in the Gospel that  Jesus does not teach that the Law has no bearing on our lives as Christians – rather, shockingly, he says, “Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.” We’ll discuss more what he means by that shortly, but the weight of this statement won’t hit us properly if we only think of the Pharisees as bad guys, as they often were in Christ’s ministry. They were in fact dedicated to the effort of measuring their lives by the law, and although they failed to submit that goal to grace, that effort had truth to it. See, as with the construction worker trying to build a house without good tools of measurement, in our efforts to build a good life, without a reliable guide we don’t know if we’re on the right path. We might be going astray, and Scripture is there to let us know – to be a light unto our path, as it says in Psalm 119. If someone you love is going the wrong way, you would tell that person as an act of love to put them on the right way. For example, consider what Christ says in our Gospel lesson this morning: “Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.” This teaching, which clarifies that God wants our acts of worship towards him to be done in fellowship, clarifies the point that we cannot fulfill the first greatest commandment when we neglect the second. Without God’s revelation, because of our moral confusion we wouldn’t know when we’re off track or not. So God revealed to Moses the right track, and this offers clarity as to where we are. And in many practical ways this can be quite the relief, because it answers questions about how to live that we would never know for sure. In this way, the measure of the law is a means of grace.

However, there is another, even more important way, though, too, which is that the measure of the law shows us the need we have for the Gospel. Which of us can say we know the law as well as a Pharisee did, or that we strive to live it out as ardently as they did? But Christ says that our righteousness must exceed theirs. And that poses quite a problem. See, Romans 3:23 teaches that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Think about how much impact a few small mistakes in building a house might have. A few weaknesses in the foundation and there might be a collapse. Some errors in the wiring and there could be an electrical fire. Such dangerous buildings have to be condemned. Well, measured against ultimate, perfect goodness, the blueprint which God has laid for individual righteousness, we are all building soul-shaped houses that on our own effort will receive, in view of the law, the same status: condemned. You know, people tend to speak as if the Old Testament law was impossible and Christ came along and made moral living easy. But actually, what he did was to show that the moral law is even harder than it appears. He says, “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: but I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.” I find it pretty easy to not kill people – so far I’ve managed to keep the letter of that law my whole life. But Christ teaches the spirit of the law is to not kill people with my words or with my heart, and I confess that in that respect, something is deeply wrong with my heart in a way that just obeying the commandment not to kill doesn’t fix. If it’s true that we’re all just basically nice people who just need some love and some kind words and some cake and coffee, then Christ dying on the cross seems like a lot of fuss over nothing. Mind you, I have nothing against cake and coffee. But what the law shows us is that we do not measure up to perfect goodness. And doing so awakens a longing to be set right, to have our hearts be restored to the way God meant them to be. And just as a broken house cannot fix itself, we cannot make ourselves worthy – we have to turn to a supernatural power that has righteousness which exceeds that of the Pharisees. It’s no accident that Jesus was a carpenter by trade – and he continues to be one, but in a greater, spiritual sense. We need to let Christ take over the project of renovating our lives. Knowledge of that comes from understanding the measure of the law.

The Measure of the Gospel

The Law alone can make our sense of shortcoming feel hopeless. How can we as sinners ever hope to approach God? We might refuse to see our own flaws, out of fear of seeing things we really don’t like. But fear of our imperfections is the wrong use of fear. Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and when we do fear the Lord, and fear Him more than we fear our own sin, we find that his perfect love drives out fear (1 John 4:18). Because God knows that we fall short and cannot make ourselves right with him, that is why he sent Christ, to do for us what we couldn’t do on our own: make us worthy to stand before the throne of the Father. This is what Paul is teaching in Romans 6:23, today’s Epistle reading, when he says, “KNOW ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” So in proper Christian living, there should be no place for spiritual pride. We were all born with the same spiritual condition, and if we were born in a church going family, we should never think we are better than those who were not by virtue of any merit apart from our baptism into Christ. In the first generation of Christians, nobody was born in a Christian family. Every Christian individual or household was converted from a state of separation from God. We all start as pagans in our sin nature, and because God loves us, he is inviting us into adoption into his family through the finished work of Christ on the cross. When we see people outside of the church sinning, our attitude should be, I understand that struggle, because I have that same impulse in me. When we see people who are in church sinning, we should see that as fellow soldiers as part of the same fight. You in your sin are just as rescued by Christ as I am in mine. When I was younger, I sometimes wondered why when a person becomes a Christian God doesn’t just zap us and make our sin disappear. But Hebrews says we have a high priest who understands our condition – Christ knows what our temptations are like. And so every evangelist, every Christian has deep sympathy with the struggle of sin because he is still dealing with it, and so can say to the person seeking God who wonders, How could God ever accept me? The Christian can and should honestly reply, “I wonder that about myself too.” And the Christian who feels like a phony because he continues to sin has in his company St Peter, who lied about being Christ’s friend and Thomas, who doubted his Lord’s resurrection, and so many other examples of saved Christians who went to Heaven not because of what they did for God but because of what God did for them. There won’t be a single person who gets to Heaven because of what he did for God, not one. Everyone there is there because of the measure of the Gospel, which overwhelms our shortcomings and saves us from ourselves.

The Measure of Life in Christ

But if we turn to Christ and make him our Savior, that doesn’t mean we live in complacency with our sin either. One of the means of grace God provides through the Holy Spirit is repentance. What repentance does is relieve us from the burden of sin we might slip into while striving to live the Christian life. When we take our sin and measure it against our salvation, what we realize is that our sin is undesirable. Paul teaches, “For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.” We discover that we don’t want sin around us, because it is deadening and we want to be alive in Christ. We don’t repent merely that we can be saved, but because the joy of a life in Christ is hampered by sins which separate us from him. Christ’s salvation secures our life after death, but we want to repent now because we want to have life before death! We want, and should want, to have it now! Christ wants us to live more abundantly, not just to be in a battle with our sin until we die! Paul said, “Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” When I read this Epistle I am reminded of “A Rose for Emily,” the story by William Faulkner. It recounts the funeral of an esoteric woman named Emily, whose strange behavior had become the talk of the town. After her death, they discover that she had been keeping her deceased husband’s corpse in her bed, and had been sleeping by it because she couldn’t bear to let him go. Disgusting as that image is, it is an evocative metaphor for what it’s like to keep our old man around in our hearts. Our old life of sin was never good for us, and continuing to invite it in is like sharing space with the corpse of a former life. The truth is, until Christ returns and we see the final consummation of the Church with Her Lord and Savior, we will always be fighting that old man. John makes this clear in his first Epistle, where he writes to the Christian community, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Yes, we still struggle with the old man of sin. But we shouldn’t for that reason surrender to him. For the sake of an abundant life in Christ now, for the sake of our testimony to others, for the sake of our gratitude and joy at having our relationship with God restored through the cross, we should not be complacent with our sin. John goes on to say, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness,” and this is the important work we do in the prayer of confession and of humble access. This is where the measure of grace is most important, to realize that if any Christian sin, “we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the Propitiation for our sins.” And every time we stumble we can ask him to lift us back up, and to measure ourselves by the grace of God who loves us so much that he sent Christ to die not only for the sin nature we were born with but for every specific sin we would actually commit! Christ went to the cross knowing the sins of every wicked thought, of every harsh word, and every unwholesome deed we would each commit, and saw them as surely as he saw the soldiers crucified him and said, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Those words bring to mind one of my favorite hymns, which reads this way:

1 Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended,
that we to judge thee have in hate pretended?
By foes derided, by thine own rejected,
O most afflicted!
2 Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee!
‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee;
I crucified thee.

As it says in today’s collect, God wants to pour into our lives such good things as pass all understanding, by letting Christ’s victory against death on the cross bring us back to life. There’s no guesswork or faulty carpentry in God the Father’s Christ-centered plan for rebuilding our lives, which is for us to have an abundant life filled with love of our God and love of our neighbor – that is the miraculous measure of grace. Amen.

The Trinity

A Sermon for Trinity Sunday

Anthony G. Cirilla

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord my Strength and my Redeemer. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

I was raised hearing that the Trinity was a mystery that Christians had to believe in. I was also taught that it was a biblical doctrine. I never really had much trouble believing that aspects of God would be mysterious to us. I mean, just think about how much we don’t know. Even when it comes to the total of what humans do know, we have still ourselves each only encountered a small fraction of the vast quantity of information available out there. In our short lives we will only know a small part of all of the human-gathered knowledge. And all available knowledge is itself limited. Think of how much science has progressed only recently! There is so much mystery out there in realms of this physical world that we haven’t reached. All of that mysterious world, of which we have grasped so little, was made by God. So God, who authored the entire matrix of all things that puzzle and confuse us about this world, had better be mysterious. If you are worshiping a God you can fully understand, I would argue you’re not worshiping God. Anselm said God was the greatest good that can be conceived – and that his goodness is greater than can be conceived. The Bible tells us this too. In Isaiah 55:8-9, the Lord declares, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” So take it as a comfort: if you are troubled by the fact that the Trinity is mysterious, I would argue that this is actually a profound piece of evidence that you’re actually seeking God. He has to be as mysterious as the world he created, and he has to be more mysterious than that because he has the powers of creation. It just follows logically that any account of the Creator will be surprising, and the Trinity is quite a surprise. It was a surprise even for the Jews, who were God’s chosen people.

For a long time, though, I struggled with the Trinity. That was partly because I didn’t understand the concept, but it was also because I couldn’t see the evidence in Scripture. It wasn’t that I didn’t know the Bible verses related to the Trinity, but hadn’t been given a persuasive explanation of how the verses taught the Trinity. When I was younger, I encountered an argument against the Trinity which claimed to be based in Scripture, and those who promoted this teaching denied the full divinity of Christ and they also denied the Personhood of the Holy Spirit. And they had explanations as well for any Bible verse you could think of that the verse in question was not in fact teaching the Trinity. Because I was confused by the Trinity and had not been given a sound foundation in how to answer these arguments, for a time I was lost, confused, and without a church home as a result. Ironically, when the grace of God brought me back to historical faith, the name of the church he brought me to was Holy Trinity Anglican Church. But before that, when a false teacher came with a skewed interpretation of Scripture, I wasn’t prepared to give an answer for my faith, and it harmed me spiritually. So as Christians we need to know the Bible deeply, because we need to be on guard against those who may know the Bible well but may have an interpretation which distorts the full presentation of Scripture. 

Of course, Scripture is complicated and some guidance in reliable interpretation of it is profoundly helpful. This is why the Church has developed the Creeds – particularly the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. As Anglicans, we use the Creeds, the Book of Common Prayer, the 39 Articles, and the Book of Homilies to summarize the best, traditional, most universal interpretations of Scripture that have been tested by the generations of the best readers of the Bible throughout the centuries. In fact, that is what the word catholic means in a Christian context – the word catholic means universal, and as Christians we strive to take the most universally received interpretation of Scripture found among those writers who established the process of reading Scripture. We don’t accept every idea that comes out of tradition because tradition is imperfect and only Scripture is the perfect revealed word of God, but we do have humility in our effort to interpret Scripture because it is so important to Christian life to consider the wisdom which the Church has provided when approaching Holy Writ. And so through these documents, the Creeds and the Articles, we express our assent to the best informed explanations of the Bible that can be found in the early church. In that sense, one of the most universal, Catholic, essential teachings of Scripture is that God is One God, and Three Persons. God is a perfect unity of three – a tri-unity, which is where we get the word Trinity. So what I am going to do today is present from the Bible this truth: that God is One, that the Father is God, that the Son is God, and that the Holy Spirit is God, and knowing this perfects our intimacy with our Creator.

God is One: Deuteronomy 6:4 reads, “The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!” Christ reiterates this truth in Mark 12:29: ” ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one Lord.” The fact that God is One is a truth of incredible benefit both psychologically and morally. From a psychological point of view, to live in a polytheistic world is distressing because we don’t know what standards to live by. As Plato pointed out long ago, to live in a world of many gods is to live in a world of confused standards, because those so-called Gods do not agree with themselves. One god says to kill, another says to be peaceful. One god says to be faithful to your spouse and another celebrates promiscuity. What’s the truth in that system? Now, today the danger of literal polytheism is less than it used to be. But Christ made it clear that the problem of idolatry as a sin in the human heart doesn’t just go away when he warned us that we can’t serve both God and Mammon. The fact is, idolatry shows up in our hearts when we have loves in our lives which compete with the first and greatest love, the love we owe to God with our whole heart, soul and mind. When love of money, or reputation, or influence, or any of the gifts of this life which come from God become a rival to our love for God, we become divided in our souls. Our minds become confused, agitated, and stressed, because we don’t keep our eyes trained on the singular, unified light that is God’s love. We don’t love our neighbors properly when we don’t love God more than other goods because we start to see other people as an obstacle to the things we want instead of fellow bearers of the image of the oneness of God. Listen to the words of Paul in Ephesians 4, who brings home the incredible benefit to not only us as individuals but to the Christian community when we center our hearts around the Oneness of God: “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

Now, in His complete oneness, the three persons of the Triune God also have what the illuminating theologian Augustine called missions, or purposes in respect to Creation. So we should see first the Scriptural basis for the divinity of each Person of the Trinity, and how they, in total unity with one another, work to lead us into God’s love.

The Father is God: We see a picture of the divinity of the Father in today’s epistle lesson. “a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne. And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald.” From Revelation 5:6-7 we have an indication that this may be a representation of the Father specifically, because it reads, “I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain… And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne.” The Lamb is of course Christ, and so here we have an image of the Father and the Son interacting in their missions as distinct persons of the Trinity. What is interesting is what is written on that Scroll, which reads this way in Revelation 5:9-10: “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” Sometimes as Christians we tend to think of Christ as simply rescuing us from the wrath of the Father, and it is true that Christ’s sacrifice removes the penalty of wrath for sin. But that sacrifice, as it is depicted in this scene from the heavenly court, points out an important truth: the Father authorized, signed, and sealed the salvation which Christ provides. This moment in Revelation takes us deeper into John 3:16 which you know says, “For God so loved the world, that He sent his only begotten son, that whosoever shall believe in him shall not perish but shall have everlasting life.” The Father desired our salvation! Listen to the beautiful love the Father has for us which Paul explains in Ephesians 1: 3 “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ: According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will.” Think of a good father who goes out and works and prepares the way for his children’s needs to be met, who ensures that there is a home for his children to come back to, who takes care to nourish his children and devotes his time and his thoughts to their well being, and you have there a glimpse, an image of what love God the Father has towards us as his children. God the Father loves us and elects us for our destiny as joint-heirs with Christ.

The Son is God: In today’s Gospel Christ makes a fascinating connection between himself and the snake in the wilderness. He says, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” This references an event in Numbers 21 where the Jews wandering in the desert were being killed by the venomous bites of serpents. As an act of compassion, God commanded Moses to bronze a serpent and lift it up on his staff, so that when anyone was bitten they could look at it and be healed. The bronzed serpent had been endowed with God’s power, so that gazing upon it was a conduit of bodily salvation in response to the serpent venom. Christ compares this to how the Father sent Him to be sacrificed for our sins, and when we gaze upon the work he did for us there and believe in our hearts that because of that our sins are redeemed, like the Israelites spared from serpent venom we are spared from the damnation which comes from the venom of our own sin. But the comparison also invites an important contrast. With the bronzed serpent what happened, instead of giving glory to God for using this means of grace to heal them, they began to worship it. And so it was taken away. So consider something. If Jesus is less than God, then what God has done is commanded us to continually be grateful for the sacrifice Christ made for not only our bodies but also our souls!…. Without worshiping him? Out of gratitude for their physical life being saved, the Israelites struggled not to worship a dead snake on a stick. Christ, on the other hand, is alive in his human body at the right hand of the Father, and he prepared a way for us as our high priest, and is the propitiation for our sins. Are we to not respond to Christ by worshiping him? As the snake was taken away, would Christ be taken away from us if we worship him? The answer to this question is answered by the author of the Hebrews, who tells us that God the Father has said of Christ, “But about the Son he says, ‘Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever; a scepter of justice will be the scepter of your kingdom.’” Remember the throne in heaven we mentioned when discussing God as Father? In Revelation 7:17 it says, “For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters.” The Lamb is in the midst of the throne because he shares in the full authority of the Godhead. God the Father has, through God the Son, revealed His own character so that drawing nearer to Christ draws us nearer to the father. Growing up I remember hearing this phrase about a father’s son: he’s his father’s spitting image. Well, Hebrews 1:3 says something along the same lines but in more beautiful language: “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.” That Christ is God in the flesh, Son of God and God the Son, not only makes possible the cleansing of our sins in him but also provides in human flesh a body we can relate to. See, Scripture says that God is  Spirit (John 4:24), and because we are physical beings it can be hard to relate to a Spirit. So the Second Person of the Trinity manifested God to us in the Incarnation so that, in Christ, we can fulfill both the first and second greatest commandments at once by loving God with our whole strength, heart, soul, and mind, and loving our neighbor as ourselves. If we are joint-heirs with Christ, then Christ is our neighbor, and if Christ is God in the flesh, then God is our neighbor. This is the beautiful intimacy with God that is made possible by the truth that Jesus Christ, Son of God, is God the Son in whom our Father is pleased and by whom can be pleased in us.

The Holy Spirit is God: In my sermon on Ascension Day, I mentioned that we can see the divinity of the Holy Spirit in Hebrews 3, where the Holy Spirit identifies Himself with God by saying, “That is why I was angry with that generation; I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray, and they have not known my ways.” The Holy Spirit claims the just ways of the fulfillment of the Law with His own will. We see how the Holy Spirit is associated with the Throne of God in today’s epistle reading, where it says, “there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God.” One commentator explains that ‘The Spirit of God in His manifold powers is thus described under emblems of fire,” so the seven lamps represent seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, possibly those enumerated in Isaiah 11:2: “The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord. And his delight will be in the fear of the Lord.” Wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, fear of the Lord and delight in Him are here seven spiritual blessings of the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist said Christ would baptize us with the Holy Spirit and with fire, and as we saw with Pentecost the Holy Spirit manifested in the image of fire as well. The Holy Spirit’s fire of wisdom burns away our folly, his understanding burns away our confusion, his counsel burns away our concerns, his might burns away our weakness, his knowledge burns away our ignorance. The Holy Spirit’s fire uses fear of the Lord to burn away fear of men and to light a fire of delight and joy in desiring God. Our Gospel lesson today teaches that the Holy Spirit is the means by which we are born into the Kingdom of God, and the lamps of fire symbolize that it is by the Holy Spirit that we can live out and grow in the godliness which the Father wants for us. God the Holy Spirit works in us the regeneration from our sins by means of the sacrifice of God the Son, to put into action the plan of God the Father which from before all worlds he designed to bring us to salvation.

Today we have seen that God is One, that the Father is God, that the Son is God, that the Holy Spirit is God, and that through Scripture these three distinct persons can be proved  to be one God. But though it is assuredly biblical, the doctrine of the Trinity still perplexes us because it is a spiritual truth and we still see the world through a glass darkly, our vision clouded by the world, the flesh, and the devil. But if we seek God, relying on the redeeming blood of Christ and the sanctifying fire of the Holy Ghost in order to delight in the throne of the Father, then one day we will stand before the throne that flashes lightning and the light will break out before us and we will see the full unity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost manifested there, and seeing the fullness of that glory we will laugh at the thought that once we could not understand. In this life, to reference something CS Lewis said of Christ himself, the mystery of the Trinity is somewhat like the sun – it’s hard to look at it directly, but because it’s there it keeps us in the light, keeps us warm, keeps our whole world going. In the light, warmth, and strength of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, we can say now as we will more perfectly say then, “Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure we are, and were created.” Amen.

One for the Lonely

One for the Lonely:

A Sermon for the Sunday After Ascension

Anthony G. Cirilla

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord my Strength and my Redeemer. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Today we stand between the commemoration of two important occasions, Ascension Day this past Thursday and Memorial Day tomorrow, both of which in my view involve loneliness as a major factor. Although Memorial Day can be a lot of fun for families, who go on BBQs or picnics, for many it is a crushing reminder of those they have lost who laid down their lives for this country, who for their fellow man went into fatal danger to exhibit the love of John 15:13. Everyone admires the young soldiers who sign up to serve, but as they stand there, handsome, beautiful, and brave, their families know there’s a chance they won’t return. Spouses, children, parents, and others face a fearful loneliness, and those for whom that fear came true spend Memorial Day with an acute pain that is hard to fathom if it hasn’t been experienced. I’d go so far as to say that even those who have experienced it still cannot fathom it.

I have never served in the military, not being cut from that sort of cloth. But I do know something about loneliness, though it is not associated with such honorable commitments. My relationship with loneliness is much more common. Today I have a beautiful and caring wife, a warm and welcoming church, good friends, and a great community among my colleagues at work. But feelings of loneliness still visit me on occasion, and sometimes it’s hard to put my finger on why. I remember, though, times in my life where it was much worse. I have gone through times when the loneliness was so deep, so bitter, so overwhelming, I thought it would just swallow me up. I remember times when I would try to find an isolated place because being around others actually made me feel more lonely.

This sermon is one for the lonely, because I know, too, that all of you struggle with loneliness of different kinds. Perhaps it is Memorial Day loneliness – someone you lost through their patriotic service. Or you lost someone through illness or other kinds of tragedy. Maybe you’re suffering the fear of a different kind of loss – the fracturing of a relationship that once meant so much to you, but trauma and tension has made that relationship difficult. Or perhaps you’re suffering the loneliness of an outlook on life others around you just don’t seem to understand. I know, when I was at a secular college, I often felt lonely as a Christian surrounded by atheists and agnostics who openly sneered at my faith. Once a classmate said she thought Christians should be burned at the stake like witches. To say I felt lonely when others laughed at her comment really hardly captures how frightfully isolated that comment made me feel. Maybe you are the only Christian in your place of work, or maybe it’s even other Christians who make you feel lonely by not listening to your different opinions or taking an active enough interest in your life. Maybe sometimes, the loneliness just can’t even be explained – it just comes over you sometimes, and you don’t know why.

By no means do I mean to assert that this is the only or even the most important aspect of today’s Epistle and Gospel lessons. But as I read today’s readings and thought about the meaning of Ascension Day and the specific association between the Ascension of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit, I pondered how this passage is a powerful response to the problems of loneliness we all face. To put it in perspective, remember that 40 days prior to the ascension of Christ was the Day of his resurrection. The day prior to that was Holy Saturday, the day when Christ lay dead in the tomb. It is actually before his Crucifixion that Christ speaks these words of comfort concerning the Holy Spirit. I have often thought about the devastating, traumatic loneliness the disciples must have felt on that day. Can you imagine having the Savior there with you in the flesh, to teach your mind with his words, to soothe your spirit with his truth, to touch you with his comforting and loving hands – and then he is gone, dead, after a brutal execution? The 12 Apostles and Christ’s other disciples on that day went from walking and talking with God in the Flesh to having him sealed away through the greatest isolating force in human existence – death itself. The relief of seeing Him returned from the dead was in a sense almost as traumatic. It reminds me a bit, though the mood is very different, of “The Story of an Hour,” where Kate Chopin tells the tale of a woman who believed her husband dead, and when she sees him alive again it’s so startling she dies from a heart attack. So the disciples had to go through the heartbreaking trauma of losing Christ, and then the heart-stopping joy of having him back again – and for forty days no less, just enough time to get used to having him back, maybe even to start to take it for granted. And now, having gone through all of that, they discover that He is to leave again! Certainly there is joy – he goes to prepare a place for them, and that’s exciting. But it also means they won’t have him there until he returns on the last, triumphant day. 

I think it would be fair to assume this was something of an emotional rollercoaster for the disciples. When I left for Buffalo only a couple of weeks ago, Camarie was not happy. And I was glad about that – to think we’ve been married three and a half years and see each other virtually every day, and she still misses me even when I go to work for the day, nevermind going to Buffalo for a week. What a blessing! It’s such a privilege to be loved that way, and a gift to have someone to love that way. But the absence, whether temporary or lasting, is all the more difficult to bear when the bond is strong. Christ knew the hearts of his followers, and he knew the grief of loneliness that would be left behind when He ascended to the Father’s right hand. Among other things, I think that is one reason He assured them of the presence of the Holy Spirit. Christ knew that His disciples, and the Christians they would convert, would struggle with the cold pain of emotional, physical, and spiritual isolation. Today’s Gospel ends at John 16:4, but in 6 and 7 he goes on to say: “6 But because I have said these things unto you, sorrow hath filled your heart. 7 Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you.” To ease the sorrowful burden of their Lord and Savior’s absence, He assured them that they would not be alone – the Holy Spirit would be present with his followers as a companion, a comforter, and a guide.

Before considering how exactly the Holy Spirit offers comfort in loneliness, we must define who He is. Often when we think of God, I think our attention tends to fix on God the Father and God the Son – we desire atonement with the Father, and we gaze with adoration upon what Christ has done to make that atonement possible. But we need to remember that the Holy Spirit is by no means the third wheel of the Trinity. First, the Holy Spirit is fully God, and second, the Holy Spirit is a Person distinct from the Father and the Son. We can see both of these truths in the third chapter of Hebrews, where in verse 10 the Holy Spirit says of the disobedient Israelites who committed idolatry while Moses received the 10 Commandments, “Wherefore I was grieved with that generation, and said, They do alway err in their heart; and they have not known my ways. So I sware in my wrath, They shall not enter into my rest.” Notice that in His own words here the Holy Spirit identifies Himself with God – they have not known His ways, and so they were rejected from entering the promised land. The fact that the Holy Spirit speaks these words testifies that He is a Person and that He is God. But He cannot be the same person as Christ, because Jesus has clearly told us that the Comforter cannot come unless he leaves. He also is not the same Person as the Father, because His duty is to testify of the Father. And so, although He is as God fully one with the Father and the Son in terms of his divinity, He is also a unique Person with a particular mission, as the great theologian St. Augustine put it, towards us as believers.

I believe that an element of this mission is to see us through the painful period of loneliness which began when Christ ascended to the right hand of the Father until He shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead. See, I think loneliness really stems from one of three things: a sense of separation from God, a sense of separation from our neighbor, and a sense of purposelessness that leaves us feeling adrift. Concerning the first one, I think it is beneficial to consider loneliness as a gift from the Holy Spirit which actually compels us to seek God more earnestly. In Matthew 4:1, we see that it is the Holy Spirit which actually led Jesus into isolation: “Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.” In our world of psychologists and self-help gurus, we might think of loneliness as a mental plight that needs to be immediately remedied. With that way of thinking, it becomes all too easy to try and cover up the loneliness with distractions – with vapid entertainment, busywork, or seeking out a shallow interaction, rather than stopping to consider that maybe who you’re feeling lonely for is actually God rather than man. 1 Corinthians 2:10-11 reads, “For to us God revealed them through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God.” Ecclesiastes 3:10-11 tells us that God has put the desire for eternity in our hearts, which means that our hearts are actually lonely for a relationship with an eternal person. So while human fellowship is certainly essential to the Christian life, we should also turn in to the Holy Spirit, who is promised to be our guide by Christ later in John 16, verse 13: “when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth.” When our faith wavers and we feel uncertain about whether God is really there, when we feel like we are alone and there is no one interested in our well being, we can pray in the Spirit to ask for the comfort of confidence in the promises of God.

Loneliness can also be provoked by our duty to proclaim the truths of the Gospel in a culture increasingly unfriendly and suspicious of our beliefs. Christ says, “ye also shall bear witness, because ye have been with me from the beginning. These things have I spoken unto you, that ye should not be offended. They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service.” In the task of bearing witness of Christ, Christians in many countries risk intense persecution. I read a statistic that said that 360 million Christians faced significant religious persecution in the global scene in 2021, which was a 24% increase from the previous year. Now, we need to be careful as Christians not to cultivate a persecution complex. Someone disagreeing with us is not persecution. A TV show deciding to portray practices we know are not biblical is not persecution. But these things can make us uncomfortable, and we may find ourselves having painful conversations with friends or family members when we explain that we have to reject something the culture is pushing. I pray that the sort of persecution of Christians we are seeing in the global scene will not come to American soil, but protecting our right to speak our beliefs requires that we speak. If we stay silent and do not proclaim Christ and His Gospel, the culture will take silence as consent in the face of attitudes at odds with a biblical worldview. And when we articulate why we cannot go with the flow on certain things, we will find that some we talk to will respond negatively, sometimes harshly. This response is all the harder to bear because of our duty to exhibit love towards those we meet, because we feel vulnerable when we speak speech seasoned with salt as Paul commanded and we are met with anger and scorn. Such treatment, or even just fear of it, can make us feel desperately alone. But Christ warned us that this would happen: “And these things will they do unto you, because they have not known the Father, nor me. But these things have I told you, that when the time shall come, ye may remember that I told you of them.” And in John 16:14 Christ promises, “[The Holy Spirit] shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall shew it unto you.” If you stay in the Word and in fervent prayer, the Holy Spirit will give you confidence in God’s promises in the face of adversity, whatever form it may take.

So we have seen that loneliness can come from the Holy Spirit making us aware of an unacknowledged desire for intimacy with God. It can also come from alienation experienced from those who lash out when we proclaim our faith with boldness and love – in which case we are comforted by the steadfast companionship of the Holy Spirit. What of the personal loneliness of our need for friendship and love? What are we to do when we miss a loved one, when we can no longer hold or be held by that beloved soul? What are we to do if we feel separated or alienated from our fellow Christians by differences of perspective or life situation? Even here in this church, full of love though it is, we may notice that we don’t look at things the same way, and that can be hard to bear or to understand. But if we see our fellowship with members of the Body of Christ as an extension of our fellowship with God by the promptings of the Holy Spirit, then we can see that the Spirit is able to forge unity in spite of and often even out of our differences. Ephesians 4:4-6 reads, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.” Unity would be no impressive achievement if we were all the same. Just as God can make the material world harmonize despite differences into one created order, just so in the Body of Christ He is the architect of a unity through the headship of our Lord and Savior Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, that supersedes those things which threaten to drive us apart. 

I don’t mean to say, by the way, that if you are suffering from acute loneliness that it’s a bad idea to seek out therapy. It isn’t – a therapist can help you to sort out your emotions. But that should be supplemental to, rather than a replacement for, our walk with God and the Body of Christ. Often one of the best remedies for a burden of the heart is comforting someone else who has the same burden.  If you feel alone, reach out to someone who looks lonely. Maybe your loneliness is a means by which the Holy Spirit is calling you to serve the Body of Christ in a new way. In our Epistle reading Peter tells us, “And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins. Use hospitality one to another without grudging. As every man hath received the gift, even so minister the same one to another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.” Such gifts, we are told by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:4, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit.” I want to recognize those of us who do so much for this church. I believe it is the Holy Spirit which gave Jane the heart for fellowship that inspired her to suggest game night. I believe it is the same Holy Spirit which gives Judy the gift of hospitality that prompts her to help with hospitality during the coffee hour. The members of the altar guild, the members of the vestry, those in the music ministry, those who help with Sunday School, our lay readers and our clergy are all listening to and responding to promptings from the Holy Spirit to serve God in a manner consistent with the teachings of Scripture. These are more than kind gestures – these are all important labors in the Body of Christ, and we are so thankful for what all of you do. If you are feeling lonely, maybe that is God’s way of telling you to become more active in the opportunities God has put before you to be involved in this Church, or perhaps simply to realize that much of the loneliness is really an illusion. 

You are not alone, because the Holy Spirit is grieved by your grief and longs to let Him hold you if you miss someone. He calls you to spend more time with God in intimate friendship through reading Scripture and personal prayer. He calls you to not let how others might see you from faithfully and joyfully proclaiming the salvation of our Risen Lord. He calls you to share your gifts of personality and presence with this church and with those you meet. Through the liturgy, we are reminded of God’s presence in every facet of our being – even in our sin. Our sin can be a chief and great source of isolation, because Satan uses it to trick us into thinking that we’re alone, that we’re cut off, that we aren’t worthy to be a part of all of this because of how we have fallen short. But Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper because He knows we’re lonely in our sins and He wants us to come to Him, to have fellowship with Him and His Body, to fall on our knees with His Body, to Break Bread with his Body, to drink Wine with His Body, to praise Him as part of His Body.. The 39 Articles explain that when we partake of the Lord’s Supper we do so in a heavenly and spiritual manner, which means that it is by the Holy Spirit that partaking of the bread and the wine together our loneliness is driven out by God’s unifying love as he brings us closer and closer together. You are not alone, because Christ is at the right hand of the Father where he ascended to make a place for you. You are not alone, because the Holy Spirit is available to you to help you draw closer to God. You are not alone, because here you have fellow lonely lovers of god and lovers of neighbor who want to serve you and whom you can serve. You are not alone, because there is a testimony of angels, archangels, and the whole heavenly host, who with you testify the lordship of our Savior Christ. You are not alone, because Christ is with you until the end of the age, and the Holy Spirit is here, through all of these means, to let you live confidently in service to your God, “that God in all things may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom be praise and dominion for ever and ever.” Amen.

The Prince and the Pauper

The Prince and the Pauper

A Palm Sunday Sermon

Anthony G. Cirilla

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord my Strength and my Redeemer. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Before I begin, I want to give you a piece of instruction. Whenever I say, “Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord,” I want you to wave your palm branches and say, “HOSANNA IN THE HIGHEST!” A hosanna, by the way, is a song of praise. Let’s practice.

The prince had all he needed – a comfortable home, plenty of food, honor, and dignity. Where he went, people followed and took care of his needs. When he gave an order that order was obeyed. At home he had respect, trust, good will, and, above all, love.

The pauper, a young, poor boy, had nothing. He had a cruel home where his abusive father who drank too much took little interest in taking care of his son. Where he went, people chased him away as if he were a pest. When he asked for something he was sent away empty handed and with an empty stomach. In his home he had fear, uncertainty, ill will and malice that plagued him all the time.

One day the prince and pauper met and they were fascinated by each other. They looked like twins, but their lives were total opposites. Curious to experience life in each other’s shoes, they traded places, and discovered a whole new world. The pauper discovered a world of wealth and comfort, and the prince discovered a world of pain and heartache. He could not believe what his lookalike had to deal with. When he resumed his rightful place on the throne, the prince become king elevated his lookalike to the station of King’s Ward, and ruled with compassion over his people because he had experienced what it was like to live without the benefits of royalty.

I was very sad, though not surprised, to discover that the comparison of this story to the life of Christ has already been made, but I think it gives us a useful way to think about the specific readings for today. In Twain’s famous novel, The Prince and The Pauper, Edward VI and a young pauper named Tom Canty trade places. Twain has in mind, I think, a reminder to those in high social standing to remember people who do not share their good fortune. But in today’s reading, we see the ultimate Prince and Pauper story: Christ, Son of God, becomes a pauper even though he is a prince rather, the Prince. In fact, Palm Sunday is a crucial day because it recognizes Christ as both prince and pauper – the God-Man, coequal with the Father in majesty, riding on a donkey. Though those in the audience on the original Palm Sunday didn’t know it, they were not simply celebrating the Messiah but the ruler of the universe, present among them. They correctly praised him, “Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord,” but did not realize that he not only came in the name of the Father and was himself Lord.

This is why the Epistle Reading was chosen for today, to underscore Christ’s princely divinity and the significance of his decision to let himself suffer disgrace despite the fact that he merits the highest honor. We read in Philippians 2:6 that “Christ Jesus, who being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God.” The word for being in Greek here is hyperarchon, and it is in what grammarians call the present participle. What that means is that Christ was before his Incarnation, and was during his Incarnation, and is continuing now to be in the form of God. Elliott’s Commentary on this verse says, “The word ‘being’ is here the more emphatic of the two words so translated, which lays stress on the reality of existence.” The word form might seem to undercut this – playdough can be shaped in its form to one thing and another. But the Greek word here is morphe, and Elliott likewise comments on this by saying, “in classical Greek it describes the actual specific character, which (like the structure of a material substance) makes each being what it is.” The Pulpit commentary likewise writes that we should take this idea of “being in the form” as asserting “the sum of its essential attributes: it is the form, as the expression of those essential attributes, the permanent, constant form; not the fleeting, outward…fashion,” which is mentioned later. Christ is in the form of God, but takes the fashion of humanity on for our sakes.

So to get the full implication, the weight of this truth, you have to put yourself deeply into the truth of John 1:1 which says that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” On page 603, the first Article of Religion teaches that Christ has this relationship to God: “in unity of Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” Philippians 4:6 is a major text where this teaching becomes clear: Christ, who exists by his essence in the form of God as the Second Person of the Trinity, has a right to all of the glory, dignity, joy, and exaltation that comes with being God. From eternity to eternity, Christ receives the perfect and pure light of the love of the Father, and has by his nature a right to bliss in that relationship infinitely superior to any pleasure any earthly prince has ever felt. Imagine giving up your house for charity to live in the streets, and you’ll get only a meager glimpse of just what Christ surrendered to walk in the fashion of man here on Earth. Everything that was made by God, everything we enjoy, was made by God, which means it was made by the Second Person of the Trinity! It’s said that Shakespeare sometimes acted in his own plays – imagine the genius, gifted, brilliant playwright becoming just another actor on the stage. And often he took minor, unimportant roles rather than the roles of the main characters. On a far greater magnitude, the all-powerful and all-satisfying divinity of Christ didn’t stop him from humbling himself and becoming a character in his creation, an object of scorn when he should be an object of praise, subjected to mortal pain when he is the author of godly pleasure, put to death when he is the font of life. Isaiah called him the Prince of Peace, but for us he became on the cross a pauper of agonizing propitiation.

Christ’s procession into Jerusalem mirrors this – he processes as a prince of Peace instead of a warlord. It has often been observed that Christ rode on a donkey in reference to the tradition of kings processing into a city to show that they had no intent of bringing military action against the city. Palm Sunday is such an important event that it is recorded in all four Gospels. The designers of our liturgical calendar thought it was so important that it would begin the liturgical year, with the first Gospel lesson in Advent being the account Matthew gives in Chapter 21, which you can find on page 91 in your Book of Common Prayer. It says, “ And a very great multitude spread their garments in the way; others cut down branches from the trees, and strawed them in the way. And the multitudes that went before, and that followed, cried, saying, Hosanna to the son of David: Blessed is he that cometh in the name ‘of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest. And when he was come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, Who is this? And the multitude said, This is Jesus the prophet of Nazareth of Galilee.” Coming in humility and peace, in the form of man, Christ the King of Creation receives here a foregleam of the prophecy given by Paul that will only be completely fulfilled in the end times: “Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him and given him a name which is above every name: that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow… and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” His death is less than a week away, his humanity is beset by all the fragility common to man, he rides on a donkey instead of a valiant steed, and yet, even then, he is still essentially being in the form of God as he receives the praise, “Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.” Holding these palm branches, shouting out “Hosanna in the highest,” we are partaking in prophecy – worshiping the Prince who for our sakes became a pauper.

You see, Palm Sunday commemorates a moment in Christ’s story that also captures the entirety of the Gospel. The shocking truth of human nature is that we are more than paupers in our bodies – we are paupers in our souls. We are so impoverished in our moral natures because of original sin that we merit total rejection from the treasures of life in heaven. Romans 6:23 says that “the wages of sin is death,” and 1 John 1:8 says that “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” There’s a phrase about Americans that says that we tend to live as if we’re embarrassed millionaires. You might say that the sentiment of the thought is that we live like we’re royalty, like our bank accounts right now are just a circumstance and eventually we’ll get back to that material prosperity we all deserve. But the fact is that the default setting on life is poverty. We are born with nothing by our own rights, and it is only through the means of grace that we have through our families and communities any sustenance at all. But because of Adam’s sin we are born with a greater spiritual poverty than our bodies – we are born with a proclivity to rebel. God is King, and if we lay bare the hard, cold truth, we will see that we have broken the King’s laws. That’s why it’s so important to reflect on the Decalogue and the Summary of the Law. In some fashion, we are all criminals in the court of divine justice. Job struggles with this problem, when he says of God in Job 9: “32 For he is not a man, as I am, that I should answer him, and we should come together in judgment. 33 Neither is there any man betwixt us, that might lay his hand upon us both.” You see, each of our sins is an infraction against the perfect justice of God. As humans we like to live in the gray area and see morality as a muddled confusing mess. But before the throne of God there is no gray. Our sins are filthy in the sight of God, and before the judgment seat there will be no excuses – sin is rebellion against the immutable laws of God’s holy nature. 

So what are we to do? Make ourselves holy? But every effort we take to do so will be interspersed with the same sinful nature that caused us to sin to begin with. Is God to simply forgive, to just let it go? But He cannot because that would be inconsistent with His nature. God is perfectly holy, and creation belongs to him, and sin which happens in his creation is an infraction against his court of judgment. As a righteous God he cannot let unrighteousness slide. This is why we must understand that the Trinity is not just some strange, obscure doctrine for theologians – God is a Trinity huh? That’s confusing. Anyway, let’s just focus on Jesus’s death for us. No. Wrong. The Trinity is the first Article listed in the Articles of Religion for an important reason: If Jesus is not God, then his death doesn’t mean anything, other than being just one more sad example of bad things happening to good people. The theologian Anselm made this clear: if Jesus was just a good man, or even some kind of angelic being, then his death cannot satisfy God’s justice. If he wasn’t God, we couldn’t be saved. Think of it this way: if you overdraw on your account, the bank charges you a fee. The fee is proportional to the bank’s authority over you: they help you to manage and protect your money, and if you mismanage it, then they can charge you a certain amount. But if you overdrew a dollar and they charged you a thousand dollars, it wouldn’t be proportionate. That’s because the bank doesn’t own you or all of your resources. But if you sin against God, you are making an infraction against an infinite being who provided you with all you have. God is absolute and as Scripture says he is holy, holy, holy, and so any sin, however small, incurs an infinite penalty. So if an infinite penalty has been incurred, how can the death of an animal, a man, or even an embodied angel pay for that? If I am overdrawn on the bank, I have to put into the account what I overdrew and the penalty amount. But how can I pay back an infraction against the infinite justice of God? This is why God, in spite of asking for sacrifice in the Old Testament, also underscores that no sacrifice of lambs or other animals can save the soul. An actual lamb does not have truly infinite value, and so cannot pay for the sins of the world. Even a good man does not have the property of infinitude. Some have argued that Christ is less than fully God, but we have seen in our reading of Philippians that that cannot be so. But it relates to us immediately that Christ is the incarnate God Man, the Second Person of the Trinity. If he was the Father, how could he intercede for us for our sins? But he is not the Father – he is the Son. But if he were not God, how could he offer infinite payment for an infinite penalty? So he must be God and not be the Father. And he must be Man, Son of God in a real man’s body, for he must have a mortal nature to be able to die and he must be of the human race to pay the penalty for humanity. So if Christ wasn’t fully God and wasn’t fully man, we couldn’t be saved. This is why we must worship God as Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and confess the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity, who through his continued divinity could lay himself open to death and become the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. He is the Divine Prince become the Mortal Pauper, so that we paupers of sin could become Christ’s joint-heirs through his sacrificial salvation. This is why we say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord: Hosanna in the Highest!

This is why on Palm Sunday, the day that recognizes Christ’s princely decision to accept humiliation by receiving praise while riding on a donkey, we read of Christ’s death. Because where he had been recognized as the blessed one who comes in the name of the Lord, he is sarcastically recognized as the King of the Jews in his crucifixion. But you see, even there prophecy is being fulfilled. Even if it was written in sarcasm, the sign nonetheless claimed Jesus as King of the Jews. Only the death of the sovereign God, Prince of all Creation, could fulfill the mission of the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Every prophet came to foretell this fact – only Christ came to accomplish it. But here is where another mistake must be rejected. The death of this Christ is not a metaphor, or a myth, or a symbol. Today you will have some well meaning individuals who want to see the death and resurrection of Christ as some kind of psychological symbol. But our sins are not symbolic – they are real. If Christ only paid a symbolic penalty, then our soul’s real poverty has not been paid and then Jesus was only another pauper like us. Death on the cross only means what it does if Jesus was God in the flesh. Paul warns against symbolic interpretation in extreme terms when he says in 1 Corinthians 15:14, “And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.” We simply don’t have the option of thinking that Christ was just a good man with nice teachings, because if so it invalidates his own teachings about what his death meant. Did you notice that Paul said that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth”? He is referencing there the second commandment: “Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image, nor the likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath.” Paul intentionally uses language that evokes the second great commandment against false worship because he regarded Christ as fittingly worthy of the same worship given to the Father. And so his death is a princely price that can pay the king’s penalty, and rescue us from our pauper’s debt of sin. The emotion of gratitude for that realization is what should be behind us saying, Blessed is he that cometh in the Name of the Lord: Hosanna in the Highest!

Christ is the prince who became a pauper for us. But we are already paupers. We are poor in spirit. Notice what Paul is commanding us: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.” What Christ did on the cross for us was foreshadowed by what happened upon his death: “many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.” There is no greater poverty than death, but so great was the power of Christ’s sacrifice that people rose from the dead at the very moment when Jesus laid down his life. That same power, that brought the actual dead out of their graves, is what Christ wants to share with us: he wants to make us princes and princesses in the kingdom of God. We are low and full of sin; he wants to lift us up and crown us with glory. When we hold these palms in our hands we recognize that Christ is the crown prince of the paupers, who makes us joint heirs with him. Christ was fulfilling a prophecy, but right now, as you hold this palm, you are a fulfillment of Paul’s prophecy too. So let’s obey Paul and let the mind of Christ be in us, as we say together, BLESSED IS HE THAT COMETH IN THE NAME OF THE LORD – HOSANNA IN THE HIGHEST! Amen.

Sin is Dumb

Sin is Dumb:

A Sermon for the 3rd Sunday in Lent on Luke 11:14

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord my Strength and My Redeemer. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

When I was a teenager, I said a lot of dumb things. Sometimes I remember them vividly and cringe to recall that I actually said that. So I’ll confess one dumb thing I said, and it really is painful to admit. I was having an argument with my mom. I don’t remember what it was about anymore. But in a desperate bid to win the argument, I said something really stupid. I said, “I hate you,” and I slammed the door behind me as I marched outside. What happened next is sort of funny. Contrasting the dark clouds of emotion in me, the sun was shining, the sky was blue, and our neighbor, who had heard my foolish, immature outburst, was peacefully watering his flowers. I felt so silly. There was this mismatch between my anger and standing in the light. I just knew the two didn’t go together – it was like burping at a fancy restaurant. It just didn’t fit. My sin had made me feel dumb, and I wanted to get rid of it. So I went in and apologized to my mother.

Before I get started let me address how my title might be misunderstood. When I say sin is dumb, I am not saying the issue of sin isn’t a serious one. I am also not encouraging judgment of others who are struggling with sin. The biblical response to other people’s sin is, “But for the grace of God there go I, and as a matter of fact, my righteousness is already filthy rags.” So my point is not to encourage calling others who are sinning dumb, because they aren’t any dumber than you. And that leads to my second point. If you are struggling with sin, I am not insulting you, because when it comes to sin, you are not any dumber than me. When earnestly dealing with sin in yourself you should never berate yourself or let toxic guilt or self-shaming abuse take hold – and you shouldn’t do that to someone else, either. Although I wrote it to get our attention, let me be clear: the dumbing effects of sin afflict us all, and we should look at our own sin and the sin of others with a compassionate heart for the weakness of our flesh, combined with an earnest desire for the improvement of our state, just as we would hope for someone dealing with a serious illness to get better. So let’s look at how the Gospel and Epistle readings illustrate the dumbing effect sin has on us.

  1. Sin mutes our voices. “JESUS was casting out a devil, and it was dumb. And it came to pass, when the devil was gone out, the dumb spake.” Like this example of demonic possession, sin takes away our voice. We tend to think of sin as part of us – part of our identity. Maybe we fall into thinking of our sins as particular little qualities that just go along with our personalities. But that’s a mistake. Sin actually chokes out our ability to be who we are. It distorts our words. Much like with how I spoke in a sinful fashion to my mother, when we are in sin, we don’t communicate in a healthy manner. In the Epistle of James we read, “And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell” (James 3:6). Have you ever noticed that when you don’t acknowledge your sin, you tend to lash out a little more? Your tongue is like a knife, that cuts and pokes at another person’s weakness, to distract yourself from the guilt? Or maybe you withdraw, because you don’t want to go through the painful process of confessing your sin to your loved one. Like a river choked by garbage. James goes on to write, “10 Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be. 11 Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter?” When we let sin rule over us, when we don’t admit our error to God and to our close Christian family and friends, we pollute our testimony, and the river of good speech is choked out. This is why it is so good, before God and each other, to “acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness” in the public General Confession of Sins. We’re clearing our spiritual throats, so that our voices can be free to speak the pure words of our Lord.
  1. Sin is dumb in that it encourages us to think we know better than God, who is all-knowing, which we see in the reaction of Christ’s detractors. “But some of them said, He casteth out devils through Beelzebub the chief of the devils. And others, tempting him, sought of him a sign from heaven.” The first group of people think they’re being clever, trying to turn Christ’s good work into a sign of why he shouldn’t be trusted – he drives out a demon by the power of a more powerful demon. Jesus points out their faulty logic: “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and a house divided against a house falleth. If Satan also be divided against himself, how shall his kingdom stand? because ye say that I cast out devils through Beelzebub. And if I by Beelzebub cast out devils, by whom do your sons cast them out?” Satan isn’t going to undo his own work. That should be obvious, but the nature of sin is that it distorts our view of what should be obvious. It should have been obvious to Eve that she didn’t need anything more than what God had given her – she already had a perfect relationship with God, a perfect relationship with her husband, and a perfect garden to feed her. Adam, who was made first, should have known even better. But Adam’s reaction, when he knew he had sinned, was to try and hide behind a bush from the all-knowing, all-powerful God with whom he had spoken and whose miracles he had personally witnessed when he had sinned. Not too bright, and what’s worse is his response when he finally fessed up: “The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.” I tend to imagine God’s eyebrows lifting up at that – Oh, it’s my fault that I miraculously crafted a perfect wife from your rib, so you just had to break the only commandment I had for you? Which consisted of not eating one fruit in a giant garden filled with tasty food? But let’s not get too judgmental towards Adam and Eve. We have six thousand years of human history, the benefit of the lessons of history, including the Fall, and we still sin. Look at the world, the state it’s in – that’s man’s way, the sinful way. Shouldn’t we know better than to choose our way over God’s by now? But every time we do give in to sin, whether we admit it or not, in our mind we are thinking, “I know better than God. He says this is bad for me, but I think it’s good for me.” As if we were the first ones in history to think we knew better than God. Again, it’s not too bright, but here we are, doing it again. The rebellious desire of sin leads us to get prideful, and pride and wisdom just don’t go together. Sin renders us unintelligent, and we need to return to Scripture constantly to restore wisdom to how we think.

Before I move on from this point I want to show you something else. They just saw Jesus drive out a demon, and while one group foolishly asserts that he does this work by Beelzebub, another group of people ask him for a sign from heaven. Jesus is a lot more patient than I am because I would go and knock on their heads and say, Hey, you’d like a sign from Heaven would you? How about I, oh I don’t know, drive out a demon from a possessed man right in front of you? Such sin isn’t as obvious as denying Christ’s power altogether, but it still shows a reluctance to trust in Him. Perhaps we don’t sin by thinking we’re smarter than God, but we sin by thinking God has to do something more to appease our wisdom. Give me another sign God, and maybe then I’ll do what you ask of me. No. We don’t need another sign. We have His Word, and we know what we’re called to do. We need to stop trying to outsmart the obligations which the Gospel places on us.

  1. Another way in which sin is dumb is our more common use of the term – not unspeaking or unintelligent but not respectable. For this point I want to turn to the epistle reading, which relates to the Gospel directly: ”But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient.” I think that people who would see a demon cast out before their eyes and immediately respond with scorn towards the one who worked that miracle have failed to recognize the truly repugnant nature of sin. By contrast, look at the dire consequences Paul outlines for sin: ”For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience.” Often in today’s society we laugh at sin. We treat it as an old fashioned idea, and even as fun. In my time as a college student I’ve heard professors mock the idea of virtue as silly and talk about biblical values concerning sexual morality as worthy of ridicule – deceivers with vain words. How much of our entertainment is based in romanticizing infidelity, greed, cruel jokes, in loving what God hates? Where is our conscience when we watch that stuff? Contrast the attitude of your every day, uncontroversial sitcom to what Paul says about sin: “And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them. For it is a shame even to speak of those things which are done of them in secret.” We have to be careful not to let the world influence our minds about our attitude towards sin. Sin is shameful. It isn’t funny, or sophisticated, or daringly edgy to glorify sin. We need to rethink how we look at sin, and through repentance and the light of God’s grace have no fellowship with it in our hearts.
  1. Another sense of dumb is to be struck silent. One thing sin does is tempt us to be silent in prayer and try to set it right without God. Christ points out this in his discussion of demonic possession: “When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest; and finding none, he saith, I will return unto my house whence I came out. And when he cometh, he findeth it swept and garnished. Then goeth he, and taketh to him seven other spirits more wicked than himself; and they enter in, and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first.” The man released from the demon tried to set his life right by worldly means. There are a lot of wonderful self-help gurus out there who will give you rules for life or steps for improving yourself, and they have a lot of good human wisdom. I remember hearing a statement in a movie, “If everyone just kept their front porch clean, the whole world would be a lot better of a place.” And surely there’s truth to that. But when we are confronted with our sin and our shortcomings and we think, okay, it’s up to me. I’ll just commit myself to better habits, to better thinking, to a set of philosophical principles to better living – you think you’re casting out the demons, but you’re really just cleaning up the house to make it more comfortable for them when they return. It’s like trying to get rid of ants by just cleaning your house more thoroughly. It won’t be enough, because even if you get rid of the crumbs you’re leaving behind, the ants left a chemical trail that will keep bringing them back no matter how clean you keep the house. You need to apply a more powerful cleaning agent to destroy the connection those ants made with your kitchen. In the same way, you can’t discipline yourself into holiness once sin has made its way into your soul. The only cleaning agent powerful enough to make that happen is Christ’s blood, applied by the Holy Spirit as you undergo the painful, submissive experience of repentance. Trying to deal with sin without prayer is like trying to deal with conflict with a friend or family member by just not talking to them about that problem. Use that strategy enough and the conflict will build and build, either until it explodes or you just never talk to them. Better to take the direct path – don’t be silent. Tell God that you’re not worthy to gather up the crumbs under his table, and he won’t treat us like pests even though we are. Instead He will share with you His mercy that endures forever.

Sin is darkness that clouds the mind; Christ is light that drives those clouds away. In the light, we can see who Christ is and who we are without Him and we will know who we are with Him. In the light, we can see what is unwise and better govern our response to sinful desire and to how we speak of sin. When we let Christ be our light, the overwhelming feeling of silence that comes with the shame of sin won’t keep us from prayer. Abandon mere shame, which can be a guilt-ridden excuse to keep sinning though at least you justify yourself by saying at least I feel bad about it. So much greater and more relieving than shame is repentance, which says that you love being free of your sin in the light of Christ more than you love wallowing in the darkness of guilt where you pretend your sins are hidden. Sin stuns us, and it stunts our minds, and it stops us from seeing that we can’t beat it. We can’t sweep it clean. If we could, God would only have given us a broom – which is the Law. But he didn’t give us a broom – he gave us his son’s body and blood on the cross, to remind us that when we get stupid with sin, Christ can cast it out and make us free again. Amen.

Seeding the Feast

Seeding the Feast:

Sexagesima – A Sermon on Luke 8:4

Anthony G. Cirilla

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord my strength and my redeemer. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

My dad was always a jokester, and there was one type of joke he repeated often (as dads do). I would tell him, I’m going to take a shower, and he’d say, “Again? You just showered last week.” He would also use this joke around meals. I’d be making lunch and he’d say, what, you’re eating again? I already fed you last month. I can tell you, very rarely do I actually encounter a meal with that attitude. Often while I’m eating lunch I wonder, what is dinner going to be? Sometimes I’m sad that my dinner will be gone after I’ve eaten it. I look at that beautiful meal Camarie made and think, it’s too bad that soon there won’t be any of this wonderful food left.

Something that can be missed in today’s parable is that when Christ talks about the sower and the different kinds of ground in which he casts his seeds is that he’s really talking about how much nutrition the seeds are able to take in, in order to grow. I went to a church once that had a lot of plants, and every Sunday I noticed the pastor’s wife watering them. Nobody ever asked her, “Why are you watering those plants? You already did that last time you were here.” We understand that the soil needs repeat exposure to the water so that the plants can be fed. Like feeding our appetite, cultivating soil takes more than one round of care.

Some of our fellow Christians who are unfamiliar with liturgical worship might wonder, Why do you Anglicans like to do the same thing every Sunday? Every Sunday, you say the same prayers, and you hear readings in the same order, and you say the same creed. Isn’t it kind of repetitive? The process of answering that question always reminds me of the training montages in those old martial arts shows, you know, Mr Miyagi, Wax on, Wax Off. The repetitive motion trains the martial artist in the basic moves that defends him from danger. That’s true in the Christian life too, because the attacks on our faith will come in similar patterns as the temptations from the world, the flesh, and the devil faced by believers indicated in this passage. Christ says, “And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it.” An attack on our faith is the world’s distraction, like the thorns that choke out the harvest by keeping our focus elsewhere than the kingdom of God. When we repeat the Nicene Creed, we clear away the thorns to refresh in the soil of our hearts the grip on those basic truths of the faith that keep us grounded in Christ. 

Jesus also says, “some fell by the way-side; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it.” He explains this as the work of the devil: “Those by the way-side are they that hear; then cometh the devil, and taketh away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved.” This attack on our faith comes in the form of aggressive doubt, from those who would question or attack our beliefs, sometimes inspired by the devil who seeks to take the seed of saving faith away. (Please understand: I am not saying all doubt, from Christians or non-Christians, is from the devil. Quite the contrary – doubt is a normal human experience. I am saying, rather, that Satan wants to prey on that doubt.) By hearing Scriptural sermons, being reminded of the Christian truths in the Articles of Religion, and hearing God’s word read aloud, our faith that Scripture is true is affirmed. 

The temptations of the flesh are also an enemy to the growth of the seed of our faith, for Christ says, “And some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture…They on the rock are they, which, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, which for a while believe, and in time of temptation fall away.” Like hardened ground, our hearts have to be softened again to the core concerns that should mark the Christian Life, and so by returning to the same prayers every week we work over fallow ground in our emotions so that we can better fight the sin of our flesh. By praying the prayer for the church militant we are reminded of the comprehensive application of the Gospel to all members of Christ’s Church, and by praying the prayers of general confession and of humble access we are reminded of the Gospel’s urgent application to ourselves.

But there’s something strange about the Gospel we don’t often focus on. Did you notice the explanation Jesus gave for why he speaks in parables? Normally we think of the parables as explanatory tools, metaphors that help us to understand God’s truth. And that is correct, they are that, for in that context Christ says, “Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God.” But did you notice that Christ says the opposite, that the reason he taught in parables was so that his listeners wouldn’t understand? He says that he speaks “to others in parables; that seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not understand.” That’s surprising – it’s not what comes to mind and probably doesn’t fit the nice, people-pleasing image of Jesus many want to promote. But why would Jesus intentionally speak in a way that would stop others from seeing and hearing?

Well, I am not saying this is everything one can say about this passage, but here’s one thing that happens: because Jesus spoke in a parable, it created an opportunity for a distinction to be made among his listeners. Some heard the parable of the sower and didn’t want any further explanation. It’s kind of strange if you think about it. Imagine – you hear Jesus tell a story about a sower who cast seed on different ground. “Huh, weird. I wonder why he told that story. I dunno. Guess I’ll go tend to my sheep or go fix my wagon or something.” Even though they knew he was a miracle worker of great wisdom, they weren’t curious about what he was trying to say. They didn’t ask, they didn’t have hunger for the nutrition that was in those words. But the disciples did. Even though they didn’t get it, they knew there was something spiritually nourishing in that parable, so they asked Jesus to feed them with its truth.

You might compare the crowd who listened to the parable to someone who watches Food Network regularly but only eats fast food. They see this amazing meal that the chef has prepared, and they respond with, wow, that’s amazing, and take a bite out of their greasy burger. They change the channel before they learn how to prepare it, how to make it edible. They’ve seen a display of a magnificent feast, but instead of asking how they might get a plateful or learn to make it for themselves, they go away and get a snack from a vending machine.

As Christians we do this with the magnificent feast of God’s Word all the time. How often do you skip those bits of Scripture that don’t quite make sense? The Book of Revelation, the more confusing books in the Old Testament, or simply those passages that challenge our preferred theology or life opinions. It’s easier to just revisit those passages that are familiar and seem to echo back what we already think. But when we don’t spend time in the Lord’s word because it’s confusing, we’re doing exactly the same thing as the crowd. Christ presents us with a feast, and we change the channel. The thing about food is, you don’t have to understand it to benefit from it. As a child I didn’t understand cooking. I saw adults do mysterious rituals around the kitchen and somehow food came out of that. Weird. But the food they gave me still fed me. Even now, it’s sort of mysterious that food feeds us, just as it’s mysterious that water, sunlight, and soil can nourish a plant, even when you understand botany deeply. 

Maybe you know a lot about nutrition and metabolism and that sort of thing, but even that knowledge can’t get around the fact that your body unlocks the value from your food in secret. You eat that food, and then your body takes over, and in the mysterious places within your body, nutrients are drawn out. A healthy diet comes from understanding what food is good for you, but healthy digestion isn’t something you can give yourself. It’s part of God’s common grace that your body came with the ability to do that. Well, when it comes to the Bible it’s the same in the spiritual dimension. Our souls can digest the Word and derive benefit even when our minds don’t fully understand the content. We know it’s a healthy diet to be in God’s word. So why aren’t we? We’re too busy? Well, are we too busy to eat? We know what happens to our bodies if we don’t eat. We get weak, faint. We’re not up to the task. Life overwhelms us. The same is true if we aren’t nourishing ourselves with the Word. Just like the seeds immersed in thorns, we’ll get choked up on a diet of spiritual junk food.

Reading God’s word to seek understanding is profoundly important, but even when you don’t fully understand it, God’s word still feeds us. Like Christ’s parable, what makes your heart good soil isn’t that you understand God’s word, but that you keep coming back to it, like the disciples asking for more. Recently, Camarie and I read through Ezekiel as our nightly Bible reading through the time of Epiphany. I can tell you, often I had no idea what specifically the prophet was communicating. I was often deeply confused, and so was Camarie (and she is a lot smarter than me, so that really tells you something). But even so, after we read it, somehow we would both have edifying thoughts about how it related to other aspects of the Bible and to our lives as Christians, even though we didn’t fully get every aspect. See, understanding might be another barrier to being in God’s word. Maybe you’re so familiar with it that you think, well, I don’t really need to read it again. I know what it says. I get it. But that’s like someone who reads articles on diet, nutrition, and healthy food, but doesn’t actually eat it. Maybe you do have a lot of good knowledge about the Bible. But knowing the Bible is not the same thing as feasting on God’s word. If I offered you a slice of pizza you probably wouldn’t say, well, I’ve tasted that before – I get it. You’d want to eat it because it’s warm and inviting and it fills you and takes away your hunger. You don’t eat for your mind – you eat for your stomach. And that is the way we should read Scripture – not only to know, but to satisfy the need we have to be fed upon the word of God. Not for our minds only, but for our souls. You know, if the only exposure to the Bible you get every week is when you heard it read in the liturgy, it’s a lot harder to digest that content. Especially with the Old Testament but with other readings too, you hear it and if you haven’t been reminding yourself of the story of God’s revelation, it will be harder to get in the context and make the reading useful to you. Coming to Church Sunday to listen to the Word without having refreshed yourself beforehand could be compared to eating cold pizza – it’ll still feed you, but it’s just not as nice.

The work of frequent Bible reading, and the work of frequent prayer and worship, which may not always feel nourishing at the time, is the work of seeding for the feast. Christ says of the good soil that it will “bare fruit an hundredfold.” We want our appetite for the things of God to grow, and much like any food that seems unappealing at first but is healthy, the more we partake of it, the more we’ll want it, and even come to love the sweet savor. Christ says, “But that on the good ground are they, which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience.” And if we’re bearing that fruit a hundredfold, not only will we be more satisfied and more energetic for our own walk with the Lord, but we’ll begin to produce spiritual bounty that can benefit others – a plenty of spiritual joys that we will want to share with people we know who need to be fed too. So every week we come here and we pray again for the same reason we sleep every night – because we need rest in prayer. And we hear sermons every week for the same reason we exercise – the work is good for our health. And we listen to the word of God and eat the Lord’s supper because we really can’t live on bread alone – we need to feed on Christ all the time or we’ll get as sick in the soul as we do when we starve the body. And when we cultivate that desire for God’s word we won’t want to skip church, or prayer, or personal devotion in the Bible any more than we’ll want to skip meals, sleeping, or breathing. After a long week away from the bounty of the feast of worship, we’ll feel eager to come to the Lord’s Table, where even the smallest crumb of Christ’s words are a feast for the soul. When we constantly fix our attention on the treasure of Scripture and read it with the same need with which we seek food and drink, then we can truly taste and see the goodness of the Lord. Amen.

Paradoxology

Paradoxology: A Sermon on Mark 1:1-9

2nd Sunday After Epiphany

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord my Strength and my Redeemer. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

We can’t offer God worthy praise because we’re sinners, but we can’t not offer Him worthy praise because He is perfectly holy and glorious. This is the paradoxology.

To a great extent, Christianity as a religion confronts us with paradoxes. God is one God but three persons. God is infinite, but became a finite man. The Second Person of the Trinity is everlasting, and yet died for us on the cross. Meditating on these paradoxes strains our minds, and yet they are the basis for our hope.

Paradoxes are different from contradictions. Contradictions are two things that simply cannot be true at the same time. For example, a man cannot be six feet tall and also five feet and seven inches tall. A dog cannot have completely white fur and completely brown fur. You can’t have thirty dollars in your wallet and also zero dollars in that same wallet. These are contradictions. Paradoxes are two things, on the other hand, that seem like they cannot possibly both be true, but they are. Paradoxes are two truths that seem to contradict each other, but are actually true because of each other.

As an educator, I am faced with a paradox: my students need to learn from my classroom, but they also need to have learning to succeed in my classroom. Learning is paradoxical because you know that you do not know, so you work to begin to know what you do not know, and then the more you know, the more you really learn that you need to learn a lot more before you learn anything. Paradoxically, one of the wisest humans to have lived was Socrates, who said that the height of wisdom was to know that you do not know. Unlike contradictions, between which we must decide one way or the other, paradoxes stretch the mind to help us to learn how to make two things we know to be true but which strain each other, and so deepen our love of the truth.

There’s a paradox under way right now. It is impossible for me to stand here and preach the Word of God. How dare I? I am not fit to speak of the Most High. He is holy. I am unholy. He is eternal, and I am mortal. His infinitely high ways are infinitely higher than my lowly ways. His words are pure, and mine are corrupt. The very idea is absurd, even blasphemous. How could I possibly speak of this perfect, loving, righteous God when I am an imperfect, unloving, and wicked man?

But then, it is impossible for me not to preach the Word of God. I know that it is true, that it contains the only means of salvation, that I am commanded by God to share the good news of His Son. How can I keep silent when the Lord of language commands me to speak? How dare I, an imperfect, unloving, and wicked man, otherwise dead in my trespasses, refuse the life-giving commands of a perfect, loving, righteous God?

Either way I go, woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips. I am unclean if I dare to speak of God, unclean if I dare not to. It reminds me of a Shel Silverstein poem that goes, 

If I eat one more piece of pie, I shall die. If I do not eat one more piece of pie, I shall die. If either way it is decided that I must die, then I shall eat one more piece of pie. 

Paradoxes about pie are silly, but the paradox of my responsibility to share the worth of the Gospel as an unworthy messenger is sobering indeed.

This paradox was the same one that confronted John the Baptist when Jesus approached him to be baptized. John said of Christ in verse 7, “There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose.” John has been called the last of the Old Testament prophets, and as such his sensitivity to the absolute holiness of God was profound, and so by extension John knew his own unworthiness. Indeed, John’s miraculous birth from Elisabeth’s otherwise barren womb seemed impossible, but was arranged by God to prefigure and be superseded by the even more paradoxical and miraculous virgin birth of Christ. John’s birth to Elisabeth in her old age recalls a similar situation with Abraham and Sarah, who likewise had to wait on God’s time to have the promise of Isaac’s birth fulfilled when Sarah was 90 years old, which seemed so impossible to Sarah that she actually laughed about it. Where Isaac’s birth was the initial fruit of God’s promise to Abraham that would lead to the establishment of the Mosaic covenant generations later, John’s birth was the hinge point that signalled a new covenant that would fulfill but even exceed the Abrahamic covenant in its glory. It’s for this reason that we are told that John was, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” A man born to a barren mother, John was himself a walking paradox, yet he still harbored original sin like you and I did. 

This is why John, as the voice of the Old Testament heralding the arrival of the Lord, was living in such a distinctly uncomfortable way. Camel’s hair is rough and coarse, and that John chooses it for his clothing shows his attempt to remove himself from the comforts of the world. Likewise he ate locusts and wild honey not because he had unusual culinary preferences, but because both were inferior forms of food that witnessed John’s penitential posture. John was living a life of intentional self-denial because he saw the same truth that Isaiah was struck with when he saw the glory of the Lord in Isaiah 6:5: “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” It seemed paradoxical to Isaiah that his unclean lips could speak of the holiness of the Lord he saw then. But Isaiah’s speech was purified: “6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” Like Isaiah, John was faced with an impossible, paradoxical task: he, a sinful man who desperately felt the need for cleansing by baptism, was asked to baptize the Holy One on whose behalf he had been baptizing others!

John was so deeply aware of the holiness of Christ that he felt it even before he was born. Luke 1:41 reads, “And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb.” Even unborn, John knew his Savior and the delight serving him would bring. So it is no wonder that when Jesus approaches him to be baptized, John is astonished. Matthew 3:13 reads, “Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him. 14 But John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?” The whole thing seemed too paradoxical, too impossible. You’re the one who makes us clean – how can I clean you? But of course John could not refuse him, because he could not dishonor his Lord by disobeying him, who said in reply, “And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness.” And John baptized Jesus. Never fall into the trap of disobeying God because you think you are not good enough to obey him.

Instead of relying on the limitations of his own human understanding, John submitted to the paradox. He did what almost seemed blasphemous to his own sensibilities – he applied the symbol of purification to the one who is totally pure and who brings us purification. And when he did, he was given the privilege of witnessing the official miracle that began Christ’s formal ministry: Mark 1:9-11 “And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan. And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him: and there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Scripture does not tell us how John the Baptist felt about this, but notice that there is no indication that this was some private vision in Christ head – it was objective, visible. An indescribable vision burst forth, and as that heavenly light cascaded over Christ, the Holy Spirit took a form distinctly visible to humans for the first time in recorded history. Although the Holy Spirit is mentioned in the Old Testament, this is the first time in Scripture that it is distinctly clarified that humans are perceiving the Holy Spirit specifically. And what’s more, John had the privilege of hearing the voice of God the Father himself speak an affirmation that Jesus was the Christ whom John had been called to testify. What an awesome vindication of his own calling, but even more what an incredible privilege – to audibly hear the voice of God the Father, whom John the Evangelist said no man has seen directly at any time!

John was asked to do something paradoxical, but in doing so he had the privilege of touching the Son of God’s body as he covered him with the baptismal waters. He had the blessing of seeing the Holy Spirit’s manifestation before his very eyes and having his ears physically filled with the voice of the Father. All of those days of hardship, preaching to skeptics, living with discomfort as he tried to work out his sins in penance, were met here. The hard-bitten darkness of his trials was rewarded with an intimate witness of the Trinity, the closest to complete experience of the Triune God that any living human has ever experienced here on earth, because he let God handle the paradoxes in his life.

Some of you here today may be living with paradoxes of your own. Maybe aspects of theology and biblical truth are confusing you. Or maybe you are struggling with guilt over sin and you wonder how you could approach this Lord’s Table and partake of the Lord’s Supper when you know you fall short. Because the burden really does seem intolerable. Perhaps you are afraid to witness about Christ because you’re afraid of being asked a question you can’t answer. How can you step into church, knowing what you’ve done? How can you participate in Holy Communion, knowing who you are? How can you have hope in Christ, knowing what is going on in your life, or in your loved one’s life, right now? The fact is that logical explanations of these problems, though possible, don’t get at the real, heart-heavy burden of the paradox of things that just seem impossible. But we worship a God who can turn the paradox into the occasion for the doxology. We look at hard situations pray to God, “Lord, this situation is impossible.” God hears those prayers and he says, “Oh, the situation is impossible? I can work with that.” 

Don’t misunderstand me here. It’s a good and wholesome thing to work to understand Scripture, to read theological books and have Bible studies, to delve into the paradoxes so that we can have our faith strengthened. But at the end of the day we have to submit to paradoxes like John baptizing Christ. We have to stand in the cold waters of discomfort and confusion and let God lead, and sometimes it won’t make sense at first. But into that darkness light can break out. Like the purifying touch of the burning coal on Isaiah’ lips, through the Lord’s Supper we can feel closer to Christ as we submit to the paradox of worship and eat of his blood and drink of his flesh spiritually  even when we don’t understand such things. Like John baptizing Christ in the Jordan, when we submit to the paradox of God calling us to be a testimony even though we know we fall short, we can witness the Holy Spirit transforming our lives and the lives of those we love, giving us the power to rise above our circumstances by God’s grace like a dove in flight. When we come at last before the Throne of the Father and we submit our broken, tear-stained, sin-stumbled lives covered with the Blood of Christ, we will hear from that throne a voice that will say, “You have lived with those painful paradoxes well, my good and faithful servant.” For Christ’s blood has adopted us into brotherhood and sisterhood with him and so into sonship and daughtership with the Most High. So when the Father sees you washed by the Son and lit by the Holy Ghost, He will say, “This is my beloved child, in whom I am well pleased.” Amen.

Rejoicing 101

Rejoicing 101

Advent 4 – Philippians iv.4

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord my Strength and my Reedemer. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Christmas time is a time of joy – a time of gift-giving, a time spent with family, a time spent remembering the miracle of the Incarnation of Christ. But for many, Christmas is not simply a time for rejoicing. For many it is a time of great stress, where the pressure to buy expensive presents push people to unwise financial decisions. For many it is a painful time where divisions in the family cut deeper, or where a lost loved one’s absence is so much harder to bear. Even the joyful mood of Christmas itself can be a burden. Have you ever been in a bad mood, and someone else was just too cheerful, and it made you feel worse? The Christmas time expectation of rejoicing may make this even more difficult to endure. Today’s epistle reading, from Paul writing to the Philippians, contains immense wisdom for how we can rejoice in the Lord always, and serves as a fitting perspective to have in mind as we approach Christmas Eve. So let’s take it verse by verse and break down what Paul is telling us here so that we can know how to rejoice in the Lord always.

  1. REJOICE in the Lord alway: 

The first thing you might notice is that this is a command. Paul doesn’t say, Rejoice if you feel like it, or rejoice when you get a chance. He says to rejoice always. It reminds me of something my stepfather would say when we were acting up as kids and heading to the movies or the amusement park. He would say, “Behave yourself, because I have been looking forward to this. You’re going to have a good time whether you like it or not.” This command can be tough to hear because we don’t always feel like rejoicing. So how can we relate properly to a command to rejoice?

I looked up the Greek for the word Rejoice, and it is Chairete – which means be joyful, rejoice, just as translated here. But something interesting I noticed is that it was also  used to say Hello and Goodbye. It’s sort of like how we say, “Take care of yourself,” or “Have a good day.” Sometimes when someone tells me to have a good day I like to jokingly reply, “Don’t tell me what to do.” So the sense in which chairete is a greeting is not a command in the strict sense but rather a well wishing – a hope. When you say, “Have a good day,” you are saying, “I want you to have a good day,” but with more emphasis – it’s like the pronouncement of a blessing. Paul wants us to rejoice in the Lord because it is good for us to rejoice in the Lord.

The tricky part of this statement is the “alway.” Are we really to rejoice in the Lord always? Some pretty hard things happen to us in the world. Are we to rejoice in the face of great tragedy in our own lives or evil transpiring in the world? Such a thing could get irritating very quickly. I recall the autobiography of Corrie Ten Boom, The Hiding Place. In that her sister Betsie would say, no matter what happens, we always have to thank the Lord. As the evils of Nazism swirled around them and they worked as a family to help Jews escape persecution, Betsie continued to maintain: no matter what happens, we have to be thankful to the Lord. Then one day they were put into a Nazi concentration camp, and found themselves tossed into a room that was filled with lice. Itching, scared, exhausted, Corrie Ten Boom heard with frustration her sister say, “We have to be thankful to the Lord.” Corrie admits that her thought was, This time, she was sure that her sister was wrong. But what happened next was they slowly began to realize that the Nazi guards of the prison were leaving them alone, not harassing them like they were doing to the other prisoners. The reason was the guards didn’t want to get the lice, and this made it easier for Corrie and Betsie to minister to the hearts of their fellow inmates. Betsie was right – the lice, of all things, became a reason to rejoice in the Lord. If God in His providence can manage to bring out a cause for rejoicing in a lice-infested Nazi prison cell, then He can bring rejoicing into our hearts in much less dramatic situations. The key part of this phrase is in the Lord. Often we hear commands from God in Scripture and think, okay, here is something I will do. But the source of joy’s power comes from God, and the reason for joy is in God. It doesn’t say to rejoice in our attitude, or rejoice about our circumstances, or rejoice in our theology. It says, Rejoice in the Lord. God is the author of joy, and he is eternal, and in him we can find the eternal rejoicing that never wearies to speak good of His name; we can rejoice in the Lord always.

  1. and again I say, Rejoice.

Paul repeats himself here as a common example of the Hebrew means of emphasis: repetition is a verbal underline in the Jewish way of talking and drawing special attention to something. According to Strong’s Concordance, the Greek word for rejoice, chairete, appears 74 times in the New Testament. In Luke chapter 1:14, an angel of the Lord appears to Zechariah to foretell the birth of John the Baptist, “He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth,” whose central purpose in life was to proclaim the meaning of Christ’s ministry, as we saw in the Gospel reading today. When the Magi were guided by the Star to Christ’s nativity, it says in Mark 2:10 “When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.” Rejoicing marked the beginning of Christ’s life, and it also marked the end.

When Christ was being crucified, the crowd mockingly said, Hail, King of the Jews! The word Hail is Xaire – they meant it sarcastically, but Christ was truthfully worthy of the title, and though they did not know it, their words contained another truth – that Christ’s death on the Cross was a work of his sovereignty and the source of the greatest joy imaginable. This sarcastic expression of joy was made real and sincere when Christ showed himself to the disciples, and in touching his hands and seeing the scars in John 20:20, “And when he had so said, he shewed unto them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord.”

I mentioned that the Greek word for rejoice can mean hello and goodbye. We see here that Christ’s coming into the world was a cause for rejoicing, and that his death and resurrection was a cause for rejoicing too. Shakespeare wrote that parting is such sweet sorrow, but our hellos and goodbyes can be filled with joy because we are like the man who heard the good news from Phillip in Acts 8:39 who went his way rejoicing. Yes, we will have times of sorrow, grief, anger, and depression. We don’t need to force ourselves to have fake joy, but should instead look into the objective treasure of the revelation of Christ. Whether we are coming or going, whether we are saying hello or goodbye to earthly joys, by always reflecting on the meaning of Christmas Eve, by never ceasing to repeat the sounding joy that comes alive in Emmanuel, we can rejoice in the Lord always.

  1.  Let your moderation be known unto all men. 

When I first read this verse I thought it had to do with financial moderation, or maybe regulating how much Christmas ham we eat. But the word translated here as moderation, epieikes, means gentleness – being mild, reasonable, moderate in the sense of attitude. So what this is actually saying is that we need to regulate our emotions, so that we provide a good testimony. But we have already been warned against doing that on our own strength when we have been told to “Rejoice in the Lord.” Christian moderation of emotions, godly self-control comes from knowledge of the truth – that the temporary upsetting circumstance cannot overcome the joy that comes from worshipping in spirit and in truth the Incarnate God. I understand the overpowering experience of negative emotions, having suffered them myself. As Camarie can attest, I do not always let my moderation be known. But we should take care to watch our tongues when we are upset. James 3:6 reads, “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” In our personal interactions, including on social media, we have to be careful to guard our testimonies, but if that moderation of attitude is sheerly an effort of self-control it won’t last. It will slip. To really let our moderation be known to all men, to have them see us as gentle and reasonable, then we have to be fully engaged in the cause for our rejoicing, which requires a full and constant participation in the basic elements of Christian life: worship, fellowship, reading the Scripture, prayer, and the sacraments. By doing so, we can rejoice in the Lord always.

  1. The Lord is at hand.

It’s interesting that this reading is paired with that of John the Baptist. As what could be called the last prophet, John was also the first model of the evangelistic calling of the Christian. Paul has just told us to let our testimony be seen before all men, and then reminds us of something that we should live in accordance with but also be making others aware of: Christ is coming back. Scripture teaches that no one knows the day or the hour when Christ will come again, but we should live in a manner as if he could at any moment. While being responsible in all that we do in business and in our obligations, financial or otherwise, we should also live in a way marked by the knowledge that Christ will come like a thief in the night. We won’t be able to be ready for it ahead of time, so we better be ready for it at any time.

Another point is worth mentioning here. When I looked up the Greek word for “at hand,” I noticed that it’s an adverb that means “near by.” In Acts 17:27, Paul tells the Athenians that God appointed the nations and their histories in such a way “they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.” Something the Anglican philosopher George Berkeley showed was that because all of Creation cannot exist apart from God’s perception of it, that means we have no secrets from God. We might feel like we are concealing things in our hearts, that we can close the door so others cannot see what we are doing. But God sees each word and deed, even each thought. That is frightening, but it also is exciting because it means that God knows exactly what we need, both in terms of eternity but also from one moment to the next. If we live both as if God’s ultimate plan for us is at hand but also that in our everyday needs he is nearby, then we can rejoice in the Lord always.

  1. Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.

When Paul tells us to be careful for nothing, he isn’t saying to be careless, so don’t use this verse as an excuse to drive over the speed limit or eat extra cookies over the holidays. In Elizabethan English, to be careful literally means to be filled with care: so don’t let yourself be so careworn that it fills you up, to where you feel like your worries are washing over you and drowning you. If you are struggling to have joy, it’s probably because you are trying to battle the care on your own strength. Whatever is flooding you with care, empty out your cup of worry before the throne of Grace. Let him know. He wants to hear it. Pray without ceasing, and ask for what you need. And take time to consider the reasons you have to truly be grateful – to be thankful for your salvation and for the immense providence of God’s Word, and to be thankful for every blessing in your life. When we realize that every good thing we have, our jobs, our families, our homes, our food, our Christmas cheer – none of it is owed to us. Cultivating a thankful heart through prayer will help us to see more objectively how serious the causes for our concern are. If we are grateful then maybe we can see that our causes for worry aren’t as big as they seem, but if they really are bigger, then immersing ourselves in heartfelt prayer with God will make it clear to us that he is bigger, that he can fill us with joy instead of care, and then by means of his grace we will be able to rejoice in the Lord always.

  1. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.

What a blessing it is that the peace which God offers us passes understanding. Thank goodness for that. Can we really understand the Incarnation? God, who is eternal, sinless, and all powerful, became a human, a creature which is temporal, beset by a sinful world, and weak. How can the limitless nature of divinity be joined to the limited nature of humanity? How can Christ be the Second Person of the Trinity but not know the day or the hour of His own Second coming? For that matter how can God be three persons but one God, one Lord? How can God be three persons and one Lord, but only the Second Person of the Trinity is incarnated and not all three of them? How can the death of this perfect, sinless, almighty, physically weak and vulnerable man, God who had become a baby, become a sacrifice for my sins? All of this is such a miracle, and all of the brilliant theology of Christian writers throughout the ages can only help us to glimpse understanding of the wonder that it is all really true. We can take comfort in knowing that God’s ways are higher than our ways, and because God made possible the impossibility of joining his eternal, holy, and ancient nature with a mortal, earthly, infant body, then those cares that would hamper our joy are light work for him to overcome. When we fix our minds on the shocking glory of the miracle of the Incarnation this week and all that it means for us and for the world, then we will not be able to help ourselves – we will be compelled by our hearts and minds, filled with the peace that passes all understanding, to rejoice in the Lord always. Amen.

Happy New Year

Happy New Year!

A Sermon on Advent 1 in Light of Romans 8:8

Anthony G. Cirilla, Postulant

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord my Strength and my Redeemer. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.

I want to wish all of you a Happy New Year! No, I am not confused. I know I am a confused person generally, but not this time. Oddly enough, although we don’t celebrate the secular new year until the First of January, in the liturgical calendar the cycle of the year begins on the first Sunday in Advent. Roughly speaking, the liturgical calendar is designed to help us meditate on the shape of Scripture as it applies to our lives. So Christmastide reminds us of the Incarnation, Epiphany of the significance of the Incarnation for Gentiles as well as Jews, Lent of the time Christ fasted in the wilderness and the time leading up to reflection on Christ’s crucifixion. Of course Eastertide focuses on the meaning of the Resurrection, and Pentecost affirms the gift of the Holy Spirit. For this reason, the longest cycle in the calendar is Trinity Season – with the fullness of God’s nature having been delivered to the church, we spend most of the year positioned in the post-apostolic age with the Scripture’s complete revelation held before our eyes. 

But if Trinity Season is the fulfillment of the liturgical calendar and so the season we spend the most time in, as it represents the general time of the Church, Advent thus calls to mind the time before Christ’s Incarnation. In other words, Advent reminds us of the time of the Old Covenant, of a world where salvation through the saving grace of Christ’s blood was not yet made fully known and truly available to the world. The Old Testament, ending as it does with the writing of the prophets, ends in a time of expectation – waiting for the Messiah. And so, our imaginations move to the time before the prophets’ expectations were fulfilled and explained. For this reason many of the Old Testament lessons throughout the four weeks of Advent are from Isaiah and Jeremiah: we are reminded that the Incarnation was fulfilling a long-awaited expectation and yet came as something of a surprise. The Jews knew that deliverance was promised, but they had not guessed the full meaning of what that promise would look like. The revelation of the Triune God and the Second Person of the Trinity was present only in a seed form in the Scriptures, waiting to burst forth like new life in the spring season.

That Old Testament atmosphere carried by Advent helps to shed some light on why our epistle reading was chosen to begin the New Year. In fact, you might notice that this same reasoning can be found in the structure of the liturgy we practice every Sunday. Every time we celebrate the Order of Holy Communion, we are reminded of the Old Testament with the reading of the Law or the Summary of the Law, of the promise of mercy found in Christ alone, of the fullness of the Faith in the Nicene Creed which reviews the doctrines of the Trinity and the established Church, and then equips us through teaching, prayer, and hymns to dwell in the Trinity Season of the Life of the Church which each Christian should always strive to inhabit. We remember the Crucifixion and Resurrection in the Prayer of Consecration, immerse ourselves in a tactile reminder of His grace in the Lord’s supper, and show forth the same faith as the Apostles in the singing of the Gloria and the blessing that calls us to live as befits our faith. You could say then that the meaning of the whole liturgical calendar is present every Sunday, but each season in the actual calendar slows that process down so we can take time to meditate on how each season within the Scriptures informs the Christian life now. This is why we begin Advent in an Old Testament register: it’s not enough to remember that Christ was born, Christ was risen, and Christ shall come again, but also to remember that his birth, resurrection, and return were all promised – enshrined in the promises of the Old Testament prophets. So it is fitting that during Advent we do not sing the Gloria: We have to remember that old covenant time of waiting to really feel the gratitude of knowing that Christ finally came as promised on Christmas Day. For that reason I have always loved Thanksgiving as a prelude to Advent.

This is also why Advent is often considered a penitential season. As with Lent before Easter, the coming of Christ was a response to the sin of Man, and so we have to remember the obligations of the Law to refresh our enthusiasm for the liberation of grace. “Love is the fulfilling of the law,” says St Paul, and we, if we are being honest, will be sensible of the fact that we are not keepers of the law because we are not naturally people who love. Mind you, this church is a particularly warm and loving place, and I am so thankful for that. But speaking of us all in absolute terms by contrast to God’s perfect love: We criticize, we despise, we argue, we put other people down, we get frustrated too easily. Or we keep at a polite distance so that we won’t see other people’s flaws and they won’t see ours. We don’t help others the way they need or we don’t confess sins we committed against each other and really seek repentance and restitution with that person. We aren’t as thankful as we should be. Often, we don’t love. At any rate, I can say I know I don’t, and the burden of the ways I do not fulfill the law through love is intolerable. I might feel love, and I try to act in love, but in the final analysis, by my own strength I just don’t love to the extent that is really demanded by God’s justice, and my breaking of the commandments confirm that but don’t even themselves fully describe how much I often don’t take the initiative the way I should.  But here I stand, at the beginning of Advent, and the memorial of Christ’s birth in the past becomes fresh news in the present. I know that my Lord is coming. He is going to be born! He’s coming to make me new! He’s coming to remake me in love. So of course I need to get ready. As the collect for purity emphasizes, I need to be prepared for my Lord’s Incarnation, so that my heart is fresh and sensitive to the meaning of the Almighty Creator taking on the body of a helpless little baby, the God who put fire in the sun and smote Pharoah with plagues is going to come to Earth and need his diaper changed and make his mother worry and cook fish for a meal and cry because someone he loves died. 

I need to see it all again, as if it’s happening for the first time. I need to “awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand.” I need to love to tell the story, the old familiar story, of Jesus and his love, with the same sensitivity and relieving surprise I felt when I first really started to comprehend the Gospel. And that’s hard because I’ve been a part of Christianity my whole life. It’s easy to treat Christian life as a habit – going to church is like reading a familiar book or going to a favorite restaurant. I like it, it’s familiar. But do I shine? Am I wearing the armor of light? Am I casting off my works of darkness? If I’m being honest, I have to say… At best, not completely. There are some parts of my armor that need to be polished. There are some dark spots in my life. I heard a psychologist recommend that we should sit on the edge of our bed in the morning sometimes and ask, “What is something I could do right now to make my life better?” It might be as simple as cleaning my room or taking more regular walks. And those kinds of life improvements are healthy. But we should do the same thing with our spiritual lives. Sit on the edge of your bed and ask, “How specifically am I not casting off the works of darkness? What works are interfering with my armor’s light, stopping me from shining out before men as I am commanded to do?” Don’t think your way into it – just let your conscience search your heart in prayer, and things will come to mind. You’ll notice those dark patches readily through the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

So the first and most important thing to do when that happens is to not rationalize that darkness away. Often I notice that when I see a dark patch on my heart I think, Well it’s not as dark as the patch on some other guy’s. It’s normal to have darkness like that – even among other Christians. Other people don’t have a problem with me, as far as I know. I’m a nice guy! But we all think we’re nice guys, and Paul isn’t telling us to put on the armor of niceness. He’s telling us to put on the armor of light, and bright light is offensive to eyes that are used to the darkness. That might be a reason why we don’t want our armor to be shined up too much – it hurts our own eyes. So we have to identify what darkness is weakening our vision and, through prayer and practical action, strip that darkness off so that the armor of God can shine all around us uninhibited by our sin. That means the second thing we have to do is want to wear the armor of light – desire not only to be free from the darkness but to be bright for God and for others. Then we need to really change. Maybe it’s something small like making sure to read the Bible every day. Or maybe it means confessing that sin that has been on my heart for so long but I just can’t bear to admit it. Or maybe it means realizing that you have been silent in the face of someone doing something really wrong and you have to tell them but you’ve been afraid to do it. Whatever it is, if you look at it honestly, you’ll see the darkness, and you’ll know, with prayer and sincere reflection on Scripture, if you’re doing anything to bring light back into that situation.

I’ve never particularly cared for cynicism about New Year’s Resolutions. I know, they usually don’t stick. January first you swear you’re going to lose weight, and January second you buy that gym membership. January third maybe you even walk into the gym and get a snack out of the vending machine, and tell yourself this is the calorie boost you need to get you on the treadmill. But the next day you realize there’s a vending machine in your office so you don’t need to go out of your way to the gym to get to it, and anyway, you feel a little ashamed of those healthy, athletic people glowing all around you. You know that glow that I mean? The glow of a healthy body of someone who pushes himself or herself physically, eats right, gets enough sleep. You see that glow in their skin and on their faces. Don’t you just hate those people? Me too. Well, if you feel jealous of someone pursuing physical virtue, which Paul says counts for something, imagine how you feel when you see someone pursuing spiritual virtue. You write them off as too Christian, a little too pious, or judgemental. Sometimes that’s true, but often it’s a spiritual version of my stubbornness about exercise. I don’t want to sweat or wheeze. I want to be comfortable. But real spiritual growth, the kind that makes our armor blaze with fiery white light that really catches the eye of others, will cause us to sweat, or to breathe deep sighs, or to weep. Fighting the darkness isn’t easy business. But what Advent does is it punctures the complacency we have fallen into. So look, if all that happens from January 1st resolutions is that you go running a few times, that’s still a few more times than you would have without those resolutions. And that’s good. So you might be weary of the idea of a spiritual resolution for Advent because you think, well, I’ll just go back to not reading my Bible regularly, or I’ll start using too much profanity again, or I’ll just fall back into that same old sin after resisting it for a couple of days. But if you sin a little less on Monday because of Sunday and go back to sinning on Tuesday, at least that’s one day’s fewer guilt you have to deposit into the prayer of humble access. Your burden will be smaller, by the grace of God, and that will be nice – no, it would be good, or at least better. So be bad at trying to be a better Christian. That’s better than just being bad, isn’t it?

One suggestion I might make for an Advent resolution is to read the daily lectionary for either evening or morning. Just do one. Read the three readings – it’s a Psalm, an Old Testament, and a New Testament reading. And you can add to this the collect for the week, which is the Collect we read at church. It only takes a few minutes, and it gets you a nice range of Scripture. You can go to http://www.commonprayer.org, and they lay out for you the readings and the collects right there on the calendar. You can scroll through the reading on your phone right before you go to sleep. If that’s too complicated, maybe just read the Book of Isaiah. There are 66 chapters in Isaiah and 27 days in Advent counting Christmas Eve. So if you read two or three chapters of Isaiah a day starting today, you’ll have read one of the most vivid prophecies in Scripture speaking to the coming of the Messiah, and on Christmas Day your mind will be filled with the longing that Christ’s birth satisfies.

After all, when parents know that a baby is coming, they start making changes. Suddenly you see a stroller, and a crib, and toys, and other things you know you’ll need for when that baby comes. We green the Church, set up the nativity and Advent Wreath before we put Christ on display, and Advent is a time when we work towards setting our spiritual lives right so we can take joy in the Incarnation with cleaner hearts. We practice walking honestly as in the day, so that when the Light of the World is shining before us our eyes won’t be as hurt by the brightness. Use advent as a time to practice killing the desires of the flesh, not making provision for it as Paul warns against in today’s epistle, so that we can renew our faith in the innocence we receive through Christ, who was as sinless the day he died as he was the day he was born. He became as a little child, and through remembering that and getting ready for it we can become little children again too – in the sense that we take Scripture at its word and we strive to live it out that way. The Lord makes all things new, and Advent turns our minds towards the time when he came to secure that recreative power by means of His Incarnation. We’re going into a new year of that old story, with fresh hope that the Incarnation’s meaning for our lives can reawaken.

I want to end by pointing something out that’s sort of strange about today’s Gospel reading. Why is it that we get the reading for Palm Sunday? That reading is about the end of Christ’s life, but Christmas is about the beginning. Well, imagine if I said the first line of a familiar song, and the song got stuck in your head. The beginning of the song would remind you of the end. Or another example, when I say the Lord be with you, you say… Right. So when we say, God came to live with us, we also say that he came to die for us, and he came to rise from the dead for us, and he went up to heaven to prepare a way for us, and he’s coming back to rescue us. Christmas shines out in the liturgical calendar because it’s the backdrop for the first line of a hymn: because Christ was born, Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ shall come again. He couldn’t have died if he hadn’t lived, and his death couldn’t have meant what it did if his life wasn’t what it was: perfect man, fully God and fully human, born of a virgin and attacked with all the temptations of this fallen world. And because he was victorious, because he brought the same innocence of his Incarnated infant body to the Cross as a righteous man, we can have hope. Because there’s a sense in which we are always in Advent, too. We are waiting, waiting for Christ to call us to meet him in the air. We don’t know when those trumpets will sound, but we’ll know when we hear them that he is going to clothe us in light, clothe us in love, clothe us in victory against sin and death. When he comes again, it will be the truest happy new year, the happy new world, the happy new life fully immersed into the joy He has always wanted us to have. In remembering to wait for the birth of Christ we learn how to desire the rebirth of the world that will result from His coming again. Oh, what a new year in Christ that will be! Amen.

Slaying the Dragons

Putting on the Complete Armor of God in Ephesians 6:10-17

Trinity 21 (October 24)

Anthony G. Cirilla, Postulant

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord my Strength and my Redeemer. Amen

The dragon had been terrorizing the village for months. Buildings and fields were still burning from the wrath of its fire, leaving some homeless and many hungry. Heroes had attempted to slay the monster but all who tried had perished. The town had taken to sacrificing their livestock to the beast, but its appetite was insatiable. Grimly, they realized that to keep the dragon from killing everyone, a greater sacrifice would have to be made. So the villagers drew lots, and it fell to the daughter of the mayor to be the sacrifice. With heavy hearts they tied her to a post and set her in a high place where the dragon would find her, then they hid out of sight. As if on cue, the shriek of the beast tore the skies, and down it swept, scales buckling as it landed on vicious claws in front of the maiden. Flames darted between the fangs of its open mouth as its yellow, reptilian eyes viewed her with hunger. Closer it approached, and helpless the maiden could only pray.

“Stay back, cursed beast,” commanded a strong voice. Both dragon and maiden looked to see a knight sitting upon a great steed. Sunlight danced on his armor, and the dragon turned and pounced without hesitation. His claws darted out but bounced harmlessly off of the Knight’s breastplate. Not deterred, the dragon opened its mouth wide and a jet of deadly flame spewed out towards the knight. Swiftly he lifted his shield, which was emblazoned with a bright red Cross. The flames broke against the shield, and as soon as the dragon had spent his fire, the knight bolted forward on his steed, and he unsheathed his sword from the girdle at his side. The blade struck true and the fierce dragon was slain. The maiden and her village were saved.

“My thanks to you, dear champion!” she said. “Who are you?”

“I am Sir George,” he replied, “but thank me not, for only by the grace of God can men slay such enemies.”

This is probably not the opening to a sermon that you are used to. Is this preaching or is it a fantasy novel? While the story of St George slaying the dragon is fictional, however, it has been used by writers, such as the great Anglican poet Edmund Spenser in the first book of the Faerie Queene, to dramatize truths of the nature of Christian life as taught by St Paul in Ephesians 6. Why does St Paul use the image of a Roman soldier’s equipment to envision Christian duty? Just to be clear, one thing he is definitely not teaching here is conversion by the sword. The Christian soldier is shod with the Gospel of peace because sharing the good news of salvation through Christ can only ever be authentic when people join the church in a voluntary way. Twisting the passage to say otherwise is not in keeping with Paul’s teachings. So unbelievers are not the enemy – rather, unbelievers are the villagers ravaged by the dragon, and the potentially new Christian is the maiden, someone who might become a Christian soldier herself when she sees the power of Christ to fight what the dragon represents.

So what is the dragon in our story? What are we to expect to fight with this armor of God? We are taught by the Book of Common Prayer of the three adversaries, the world, the flesh, and the devil. Take a look at page 276 in the order of Holy Baptism, which says this: [read from the page]. That we are to be equipped to battle these spiritual enemies is reaffirmed in the Offices of Instruction on page 283, and again in the Catechism on page 577 in the book of Common Prayer. You could say the world, the flesh, and the devil are three dragons which the Christian must face in his walk with the Lord. The metaphor used by Paul here teaches us how to understand the defenses and protection which God offers us from these adversaries, the dragons we must face in the spiritual warfare of Christian life. We will look at each piece of equipment and consider how Paul instructs us to resist these enemies to living in love of God and men.

Girdle of Truth vs Dragon of the Flesh – I should note that when Paul says that our battle is not against flesh and blood, he means that our enemy cannot be faced with literal weapons. But when he tells us to put on the girdle of truth, he is preparing us for battle against flesh in another sense – the sin that is already inside of us. The first murderer Cain found himself overcome by the dragon of the sinful flesh when he was jealous over his brother’s righteousness. God tells him in Genesis 4:7: “And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.” Sin is like a traitor from the enemy camp ready to betray us from within, and Paul recommends that we put on the girdle of truth first to break the hold this enemy has on us. I wear a belt around my waist because I trust that it will keep my pants from falling. If I was worried that this belt I am wearing didn’t work, I would get another belt I was confident in. Cultivating faith in the security of God’s word as true and committing ourselves to God’s commands protects us from our sinful flesh. Remember, the girdle is where the sword sheath hangs from – you can’t effectively wield the sword of the word of God if you don’t believe it really is the word. So put on the girdle of truth, which is the knowledge that God’s promises in Scripture are dependable and your commitment to live a biblical life will empower you, by the grace of God, to slay the dragons of the flesh.

Breastplate of Righteousness vs Dragon of the World – When we are instructed to resist the world, what the Book of Common Prayer means is what the Bible defines as worldliness – in other words, a worldview that is man-centered rather than God centered. The dragon of the world, like the dragon in my story, will go after the heart, but with attractive lies rather than violence. So the world is defined here not as particular people or governments but rather an outlook that is against God. 1 Peter 2:12-15 tells us that worldly thinking tries to “entice unsteady souls.” The world will appeal to our hearts, to our flesh, to try and lead us away from the light of the Father’s love. This is why we need the breastplate of righteousness. Philippians 3:9 tells us that true righteousness comes “through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” Christ is our righteousness, and we must seek to encase our hearts in Him, in His Teaching, in the way of thinking he provides in the Gospels and his inspired authors. When we try to be righteous by our own standards or our own strength, our hearts will be vulnerable. When we guard our hearts from worldliness with the breastplate of Christ’s righteousness, we are equipped to fend off the dragon of worldliness that seeks to lead us off the path.

Shield of Faith vs the Dragon Himself – I have been speaking of dragons metaphorically as adversaries, but in Revelation John literally sees Satan as a dragon fighting the archangel Michael. We are told, “12:9 The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.” So let’s make something clear. Satan and his demons are not a fiction or a metaphor. They are real, fallen angels, who hate us, and hate what we are doing here, worshipping and seeking God’s truth. 1 Peter 5:8 depicts Satan as a roaring lion who seeks to devour us. Satan knows about the dragon of the flesh and the dragon of worldliness, and he is prepared to use them both to his full advantage against us, as well as power beyond what is human. He is in fact aiming his burning arrows at us. But the shield of faith is a passive rather than offensive instrument. We are told in the Epistle of St Jude that when having a dispute with Satan, Michael the archangel did not himself dare to condemn him for slander but said, “The Lord rebuke you!” If a powerful being such as Michael would not try to battle the dragon with his own power, then we mortals cannot fight him with our own strength. Hebrews 12 tells us that Christ is the author and finisher of our faith, not us. If we try to make our own shield rather than take up the shield which Christ has made for us, then the arrows of Satan will burn right through like flaming arrows piercing a wooden pot lid. Faith is a gift from God and to have its protection from the original dragon, then we must ask for the protection that God gives those who serve him.

So the girdle of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, and the shield of faith all equip us to stand up to the dragons that seek to devour us. But we must still discuss three more pieces of equipment: the Gospel of Peace, the Helmet of Salvation, and the Sword of the Spirit, without which our armor is not complete.

Shod with Gospel of Peace – Why does Paul here depict the Gospel as footwear? Our feet are our foundation – the basis of our every move. Spiritually, this is even more true in the Christian walk, because it is essential to direct our steps according to the accurate teaching of salvation taught by Christ. No accident that this part of the armor is mentioned between the breastplate of righteousness that protects us from the world and the shield of faith which protects us from the evil one: to evangelize the world and protect our hearts from it we need to be rooted in and know the Gospel teaching of the good news. And we will be fast on our feet when we respond to Satan’s assaults. But that good news, the salvation which is from Christ alone, must be brought in peace – we must show respect to our fellow Christians and promote peace between one another and when sharing Jesus with non-believers, a peace that comes from certain belief available only in Christ.

Helmet of Salvation – The most vulnerable and important part of the body, the head, is specifically covered by this helmet, which pairs with the Gospel of peace to teach that we must be shod with the truth of the good news from head to toe. But this helmet, in addition to the Gospel of peace, is only on our heads if we really believe it. It is not enough to know the Good News and be ready to teach it, but hold on to the truth of it in our mind as well as to share it. Our salvation isn’t dependent upon how much theology we know or how well we can debate people who disagree with us. If we think we are earning our salvation, then we have taken the helmet off and we are vulnerable as a result. Ephesians 2:8 tells us, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” If the head isn’t protected none of the other armor will work. If you cared about your physical safety, you wouldn’t make your own helmet for bike riding, or for riding a motorcycle. Even more so if an enemy is aiming weapons at your head. You don’t want to improvise on this one. Christ alone offers this essential protection that you can put on only by the strength of his grace.

Sword of the Spirit – Notice that this is the only offensive weapon in the whole equipment. All of the others are passive – we put them on and depend upon them. Paul tells us what this sword of the spirit is – it is the Word of God, which enables us to participate in spiritual warfare. You’ve heard it said, Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight – well, don’t bring human force to the battle over souls, your soul and the souls of others. Scripture is our weapon – with it we can fight the devil as Christ did. Now imagine that you command a unit of soldiers, and you never see them practice with their weapons. They never polish their swords or exercise how to handle them properly. Will they be ready, when the battle comes? No. They have to know their weapon, how it works, and how to use it. Don’t fall into the mistake of thinking that that’s the job of the people up here in front. You can’t sit far back enough in church, or just not go to church at all, to get out of facing the dragons. You exist in a universe where this spiritual war is going on, and in the final analysis, there will be no neutral territory. The fight is coming to you, to us. It is thus of grave importance that we know our Bibles. This truth underscores the importance of Bible reading. Our Book of Common Prayer offers a wonderful lectionary that can be used to keep us in the word, but have some plan for continuing to practice with the Sword of the Spirit. Even Christ, when He was tempted by Satan in the Wilderness, fought him not by his sheer power as God, which he could have done, but wielded the Sword of the Spirit against Satan’s lies. Significantly, prayer immediately follows Paul’s teaching on the Sword of the Spirit, which shows that studying the Scriptures should naturally lead to prayer. The Book of Common Prayer is also very helpful here too, including a set of prayers for use in the family that can aid you in praying in many different situations when you just can’t find the words.

When the dragons come calling, Paul is telling us here, we can know how to face them. When our sinful desires prey on us and we feel like we’re not masters in our own bodies, the girdle of commitment to Scripture’s certain truth can make us secure again. When we are in despair that the world is set against us and, worse, is trying to weaken our faith, we can protect our hearts in Christ’s righteousness. When the Devil seems to be prowling around us in dark times in our lives, we can protect ourselves from the fires of his malice with the supernatural faith that comes from the holy spirit through prayerful meditation on the Word. With the helmet of Salvation securely placed on our heads by our Lord Jesus, we can wield the sword of Scripture against anything that seeks to defeat us in our walk with Him, and add the force of godly thinking to our prayers. Amen.