Third Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 8, Year C
June 30, 2019
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
The audio recording of this sermon can be found here.
When I lived in France working as a missionary, my boss and his wife were an American couple named Scott and Mentanna. In one of our many discussions about the faith, the topic of “freedom” came up. “For Freedom, Christ has set us free,” St. Paul said to the Galatians in our epistle lesson. What does this Christian freedom mean? Doesn’t freedom mean that I get to do whatever I want to do? How can we be free and still have rules to follow? Mentanna had a small dog named Gidget, and being Parisians who lived in a sixth-floor apartment, they had to walk Gidget around four times per day. She liked to use Gidget as an analogy about Christian freedom. “When we lived in Texas,” she said, “we had a back yard with a fence. Gidget wanted badly to get beyond the fence, but clearly, we didn’t think that was best for her. Was she truly free in the backyard being able to run and play and bark at dogs that pass by, or was the fence preventing her from being truly free? The fact of the matter is this: she may have thought that removing the fence would make her truly free, but she would have run out into the street and been hit by a car in no time. God’s freedom always involves boundaries for our own protection.”
My concept of Christian freedom was shaken a bit when we got our little 30 pound rescue dog named Jake. We already had a doggy door into the back yard, but quickly became concerned when we’d heard Jake barking at passersby…from the front porch. It turns out that Jake has absolutely no problem climbing metal fences.
We’ve had him for 6 years, and still can’t trust him in the back yard by himself. I was reminded of the story of Gidget and the fence, and wondered if Jake’s jail-breaking activities made him any more free than Gidget was.
“For Freedom, Christ has set us free.” What is Christian freedom? Is it permission to do whatever we like? From what is it that we are freed?
St. Paul tells the Galatians to “Live by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.” He’s not using the term “flesh” throughout this passage in a negative way, as if the human body is inherently sinful or evil. Rather, “flesh” is often Paul’s shorthand for self-centered living as opposed to God-centered living. He seems to be asking the impossible of us: to resist “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, and carousing”…and if that didn’t cover it, “and things like these.” Works of the flesh aren’t just material things, they’re spiritual too: “idolatry and sorcery.”
How in the world are we supposed to resist these and all the other self-centered behaviors? How are we to instead bear the fruit of the Spirit which is love, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? Not by trying really hard, not by pulling ourselves up by our boot straps…but instead by relying on the Holy Spirit.
“Live by the Spirit,” Paul says, “and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.” Living by the spirit means recognizing that I’ve committed to a new way of life, living for the other rather than for myself. Living by the Spirit means recognizing that I’ve committed to living a life of spiritual discipline that includes daily prayer, contemplation, serving others, receiving the Sacraments, and so on. This life of spiritual discipline is somewhat like training for a marathon. You start out by running perhaps a mile each day, then two, then six, and then ultimately all 26 miles. The more and more we spiritually train, the more and more spiritual habits we form that ultimately change not only our behaviors, but our desires.
The desires of the flesh lead us to self-centered action. Wanting sexual intimacy, we pursue fornication; wanting contact with God, we pursue idols; wanting joy, we party too hard. The freedom we have in Christ should lead us to rely on the Holy Spirit who can help us train for the spiritual marathon that has been set before us.
So, to circle back, yes, in a sense, Christian freedom means we get to do whatever we want. But by choosing to follow Christ and submitting to the Holy Spirit, what we want…changes. Training for the spiritual marathon transforms our desires and we want something different. It is as if God’s grace changes our taste buds. The spiritual cravings we have are no longer for the selfish things on the Paul’s naughty list, but instead, we crave to love God and our neighbor.
Let’s talk about Paul’s naughty list. There isn’t anything particularly special or serious about this list of sins, rather it’s a list representing the various sorts of selfish actions human beings are prone to do. I’ve heard sermons that try to analyze this list of sinful activity and make arguments about what each one means, but that really isn’t a helpful exercise because it’s missing Paul’s point entirely. This isn’t an exhaustive list of things to avoid, it’s simply a small portion of the self-centered things that human beings often do.
It is tempting to use our freedom in Christ as an excuse to self-indulge. Paul reminds the Galatians not to use their freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.
This is what it means to “live by the Spirit.” Either you say yes to the desires of the flesh and exhibit selfish unrighteous behavior, or, by God’s grace, you say yes to the Holy Spirit and display loving, self-sacrificial righteous behavior. This is a choice we have to make over and over again in our lives. It’s a choice that we won’t escape, no matter how hard we try, until we die. It’s the way of life we committed to at our baptism. And despite our desires being changed over time as we form healthy spiritual habits, despite the fact that we desperately want to live by the Spirit…we will sometimes listen to that old menace, our Old Self, the one who had the selfish desires. When we are hungry and presented with two pieces of fruit: one, a selfish desire of the flesh, and the other, a fruit of the Spirit, we will remember how good the first piece of fruit used to taste. And we’ll eat it, despite knowing that it will make us sick, for the memory of the delicious taste sometimes seems overpowering. When we do, until the day we die, there is always the opportunity to choose to live by the Spirit in the next moment, even if in the previous moment we’ve gratified the desires of the flesh. For in the Lord there is mercy and forgiveness, and and despite the bump in the road in our spiritual training, we continue with perseverance running the race set before us, looking to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.
Friends, no matter what we’ve done in life, no matter how ashamed we are, no matter how tempting the first piece of fruit is, let us strive to live by the Spirit. For we who belong to Jesus have “crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” Let us exercise self-control and put the needs of others ahead of our own needs. Let us do the training needed to run the spiritual marathon, spending time in prayer daily, reading the Scripture, serving those around us in need, and regularly receiving God’s grace in the Sacraments of the Church. As St. Paul says, let us, through love, become slaves to one another. For in so doing, we find the greatest freedom we will ever know. Amen.
 David Lyon Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 187.
 Hebrews 12:1-2.
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
June 23, 2019
Those of you who were raised in a Protestant tradition can relate to me when I say that I was intrigued by all of the ritual and peculiar practices in the Episcopal Church. And so many of the strange things are made even more peculiar by being referred to by a Latin name.
For example, I remember the first time I learned about the existence of the piscina. The piscina is a special sink that drains into the earth instead of the sewer. In some of the older churches in Europe, it’s a niche in a stone wall close to the altar, but in modern places like ours, it’s a metal sink that looks like every other sink, connected by a pipe called a sacrarium in Latin that leads directly to the ground. A piscina is primarily used for washing the communion vessels after Mass. Why do we need a special sink with a special drain with Latin names? For two reasons: first, the communion vessels have been consecrated (formally set apart) by a bishop for holy use, but more importantly, because there are remaining particles of consecrated bread and wine left on the vessels.
While theologians have been fighting about precisely what happens to the bread and wine at Holy Communion – and how it happens – the bottom line is that we believe in the “real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist”, a doctrine that leads us to reverently consume the leftovers after Mass, and that further leads us to treat even the most minute particles of the consecrated elements with utmost reverence.
In the upper room so many years ago when Jesus said, “This is my body”, he didn’t say “This has or will become my body” nor “This symbolizes my body.” He says, “This is my body.”
And in today’s gospel lesson from John, Jesus says, “I am the bread of life…I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Those listening to him got confused and asked, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” To which Jesus responds, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life…for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” It is hard not to hear Eucharistic overtones in this passage.
The Episcopal Church’s catechism says that the Eucharist is the inward and spiritual grace of the Body and Blood of Christ given to us in the outward and visible signs of bread and wine. This is the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. And despite what my former Baptist friends and colleagues may think, the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist has been believed by Christians since the very beginning. Even a cursory review of the early Church Fathers reveals a deep and universal belief that the that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, with many of the Fathers referring to the consecrated elements as the same flesh and blood that suffered and died on the cross.
It was not until the early Middle Ages that the Church felt the need to further define how the change occurred. Like many dogmatic statements throughout the centuries, the formal doctrine of transubstantiation was formulated in response to a French theologian who, in short, denied the doctrine of the Real Presence. This notion of transubstantiation restated the doctrine of the Real Presence, which is fine, but it but went further in trying to explain how the change happens by superimposing Greek philosophical terms like “substance” and “accident” onto Christian theology. There had never been a need to even talk about how the change happened, and this overreaction on the part of the Church helped contribute to the schism that happened a few hundred years later. Since then, theologians have been fighting about precisely how it happens, but in my view, they’ve continued a discussion that continues to be unnecessary and unhelpful. In the opening hymn, we sang these words, speaking about the Jesus in the Eucharist: “Thou art here, we ask not how.”
Around the same time that the doctrine of transubstantiation was defined, today’s feast of Corpus Christi – the body and blood of Christ – became widespread. It grew out of Maundy Thursday which we celebrated nine weeks ago. On that day, the Church celebrates the institution of the Holy Eucharist in that upper room so long ago. But Maundy Thursday also commemorates the institution of the priesthood, and Jesus’s washing of his disciples’ feet, making it quite the busy liturgy. Because the Eucharist can easily get lost in all of the hustle and bustle of the Maundy Thursday, and in conjunction with an increasing number of the faithful being devoted to the Eucharist in a special way, there began to be calls for a special feast solely focused on the Eucharist, and the feast of Corpus Christi was instituted throughout the whole Western church in 1264 A.D.
Fast forward to the Protestant Reformation a few hundred years later. Corpus Christi was abolished in England. Why? Because Corpus Christi had come to represent all of the excesses of medieval Catholicism that disgusted folks like Martin Luther and Thomas Cramner. Many churches celebrated a procession after Mass on this day in which the Blessed Sacrament is placed in a monstrance and carried by the priest under a tent throughout the neighborhood. To give you a feel for the Reformers’ view on Eucharistic exposition, all I have to do is quote Article XXV from 39 Articles of Religion, the original doctrinal statement of the Reformed English Church: “The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them.” Or how about this from Article XXVIII: “Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by Holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.”
Remember that the Articles of Religion were formulated in a time when yes, there were Eucharistic processions, but practically speaking, lay people weren’t allowed to receive communion except for a few times a year. The average Christian’s Eucharistic piety was not about receiving the body and blood of Christ for his or her redemption, it was all about gazing upon it – when the priest elevated the host and the chalice during the Eucharistic prayer, and at moments when the sacrament was exposed in a monstrance. The Reformers responded by saying, no, the primary purpose of communion is to eat it, as Christ commanded us to do, but they may have overreacted a bit in response to the Roman excesses of the day. And despite claiming that they never change their minds on matters of doctrine, sometimes Rome comes around to our position on things. In 1971, the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission reached agreement on Eucharistic doctrine, relegating the term “transubstantiation” to a footnote, in which it is said to affirm the fact of the ‘mysterious and radical change’ rather than to explain how the change takes place.
On Maundy Thursday, the joy of commemorating the institution of the Eucharist is overshadowed by what we all know will happen the next day: the Lord’s awful death on that tree at Calvary. It is meet and right for us to rediscover the baby that the Reformers threw out with the bathwater when they abolished this great feast of Corpus Christi. And as much fun as a Eucharistic procession around downtown Kansas City sounds, we’ll have to wait until next year, for the canopy or tent we have is in ill-repair and is a bit too somber. Next year’s procession will be grand!
In the meantime, let us rejoice in the great gift God has given us in the Holy Eucharist in which the inward and spiritual grace of the Body and Blood of Christ is given to us in the outward and visible signs of bread and wine. Let us sing hymns of gladness, and wear the finest vestments, and use the gold communion vessels. Let us revel in the mystery of what we’re about to behold at this altar – that God would use ordinary creatures of bread and wine to join us with all the saints in heaven and on earth in the eternal banquet of love which began on the hill at Calvary and continues each time we obey Christ’s commandment to “do this in remembrance of me.” Let us give thanks to God that while we may struggle with the mysteriousness nature of the change that happens, in the bread and the wine we are made one body with Christ, that he may dwell in us, and we in him. And as we gaze upon the elements at the elevations in a moment, let us join with St. Thomas Aquinas in proclaiming these words which the schola will sing at the offertory: “Hail, true Body, born of the Virgin Mary, having truly suffered, sacrificed on the cross for mankind, from whose pierced side water and blood flowed: be for us a foretaste in the trial of death! O sweet Jesus, O holy Jesus, O Jesus, son of Mary, have mercy on me.” And let our pious gazing upon our Lord in the bread and the wine make us yearn to receive Him just as the deer yearns for streams of water. Amen.
 F.. L. Cross and E.. A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 1637.
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
The Rev’d Charles Everson
Isaiah 6:1-13, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11
June 9, 2019
The audio recording of this sermon can be found here.
When I think of Pentecost Day, I immediately think of the scene as Luke describes it in the book of Acts with the tongues of fire and the and the early Christians being given the ability to speak in other languages.
The apostle John’s version of Pentecost is quite different. Instead of large crowds and what appeared to be drunken behavior, we get the intimacy of Jesus’s final moments with his disciples. These are the same disciples who followed him during his ministry on earth only to be devastated by his execution at Calvary. While they were overjoyed to discover that he rose from the dead three days later, his post-resurrection appearances were confusing to them, and ultimately, when Jesus ascended into heaven 40 days after Easter, they were faced with this question: What happens when Jesus is no longer around? Will we ever get to experience his presence again, or will we be left all alone?
The opening line in this scene is Philip prompting Jesus to “show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Just before this passage, Jesus tells the disciples that he’s going to the Father and about his desire to take them with him. Thomas interrupts Jesus to ask him how they can “know the way” to where he is going, and Jesus responds, “I am the way, and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
So, we shouldn’t be surprised at Jesus’ rebuke of Philip’s somewhat silly request. I mean, Jesus had just explained all of this. But he uses Philip’s prompting to go deeper by describing his relationship with God the Father. This relationship might be described as a “mutual indwelling.” “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” John uses this mutual indwelling between Jesus and the Father as a window – an icon – into how God will relate to the community of faith we call the church.
We could spend a lot of time getting into the nuance of Trinitarian theology, but let’s just cut to the chase about the nature of this relationship: Jesus promises his fledgling church that he will not leave them orphaned. In the King James translation, which you will hear the choir sing in a moment, he says, “I will not leave you comfortless,” one of the most beautiful promises in all of Scripture. This term “comfortless” or “orphaned” signifies the lack of parents and the unconditional love that good parents exhibit toward their children. Jesus says, “I will give you another Comforter, the Holy Spirit…you know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”
Just as Jesus is in the Father and the Father is in him, so is the Holy Spirit in the Church and the Church in the Holy Spirit. To this fragile community of new Christians, these words were words of balm and peace. No, he would not leave them comfortless. Through the Spirit, they would have constant, eternal access to Jesus, and to the Father.
Thanks be to God, the nature of the Holy Spirit’s presence in the church isn’t left up to our imagination. Jesus says that the Holy Spirit will remind them of all that he said to them. The Spirit doesn’t teach new truths, or do things differently than Jesus did. The presence of the Comforter brings Jesus to mind, and it is Jesus who is the way, the truth, and the life. The Holy Spirit quite simply points us to Jesus.
Over the past two years, I’ve told you all many stories about my time as a Southern Baptist minister – some several times, I’m sure! – but I think this story might be new to this pulpit. The pastor at the little country church where I served as music minister in college didn’t have much theological education under his belt. His sermons were very similar week after week, but unlike most Southern Baptists, he paced back and forth and got very worked up emotionally…especially when talking about the Holy Spirit. Bro. James liked to refer to the “Holy Ghost” like we do in our liturgy, but unlike what you’re experiencing right now, mentions of the Holy Ghost were usually accompanied by fist waving…like this. One day, he and I were talking, and I brought up some area in my life where I was struggling and asked him to pray for me. During his prayer, he began to “speak in tongues.” I won’t try to imitate what he was doing, but I was awfully confused and felt uneasy…almost eerily afraid. These utterances coming out of his mouth were strange. It sounded like he was repeating himself over and over again in some sort of simple language I’d never heard, but with a repetitive cadence that was quite frankly creepy. I remember thinking, “Is this what the early Christians sounded like on the day of Pentecost when others thought they may have been drunk?” I never felt like my question was answered satisfactorily until I came to St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Kansas City. One of our members who isn’t here today and thus can’t defend himself came out of the Charismatic Movement and demonstrated to me how he was taught to speak in tongues. I mean, it was almost exactly the same thing that I heard that day in 2001 in rural Arkansas, but this time, the person “speaking in tongues” explained the vocal and nasal inflections needed to make these particular sounds. We would need at least an hour to dive in to the merits of the theology behind speaking in tongues, but I want to point out what St. Paul said to the Corinthians at the end of his discourse on speaking in tongues: “God is not the author of confusion, but of peace.”
After announcing the coming of the Holy Spirit to his disciples, Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
The peace that Jesus is talking about isn’t the opposite of war. He’s not talking about a peaceful moment in the mountains, or the peace that one might feel after drinking a few glasses of wine. Jesus is talking about a deeply rooted peace that comes when you humble yourself before God and say, “I’m a sinner in need of redemption. I can’t do this alone. I need to be in community with other people who feel this way too.” Jesus is talking about a peace that only comes when you allow yourself to recognize that despite all of your flaws, despite your desire to sin and your repeated decisions to commit sins, despite the fact that you’ve failed to love God and keep his commandments…despite all of that, you allow yourself to recognize that you’ve been unconditionally forgiven. That you are loved. This is the peace that comes when you view yourself the way God views you – as the Beloved.
The catechism in our prayer book poses the question, “How do we recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives?” “We recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit when we confess Jesus Christ as Lord and are brought into love and harmony with God, with ourselves, with our neighbors, and with all creation.” This is the peace that Jesus left with his disciples. He promised that he would not leave them comfortless. And he fulfilled that promise by giving them the Holy Spirit, the Comforter. God longs for each of us to see ourselves like he sees us: sinners in need of redemption, but ultimately, completely and totally loved by God despite all of our faults. He longs for us to be in love and harmony with Him, with other people, and even with all of creation. And he longs to give us that peace that the world cannot give by pouring out his grace on his Church – even here at 13th and Holmes in the year 2019.
In a moment, God’s grace – God’s unearned and undeserved favor toward us – will be poured out by the power of the Holy Spirit on this altar in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. As a community of believers, we will offer and present ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a living sacrifice to God. And of his great mercy, God will fill us with his grace and make us one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him.
Of course, there’s a rich irony in the contrast between the outpouring of the Spirit in the craziness of that first Pentecost Day, and the orderliness of the Spirit’s outpouring at a Solemn High Mass in a Gothic church with exquisite music and liturgy. This irony highlights the fact that while we are sure that Holy Spirit works through the Sacraments of the Church, she is not constrained by them.
Friends, this Pentecost Day, let us pray for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit on this community – St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. By the power of the Spirit, let us confess Jesus Christ as Lord and be brought into love and harmony with God, with ourselves, with our neighbors, and with all creation. Let us recommit ourselves to coming together as a community to faithfully receive God’s love outpoured for us in the Sacraments of the Church day in and day out, and let us open our hearts and minds to how the Holy Spirit may be at work around us in unexpected ways. In the words of our closing hymn, let us pray that the Spirit’s flame may break out within us, fire our hearts and clear our sight, till white-hot in God’s possession, we, too, set the world alight. Amen.
 John 14:1-7.
 David Lyon Bartlett, and Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009, 29.
 This paragraph is largely from Bartlett 22, Theological Perspective.
 1 Cor 14:33, KJV.
 BCP 852.
 BCP 336.
 Michael Hewett, Praise the Spirit in Creation. The Hymnal 1982 #506.
The audio recording of today's sermon can be found here.
Today’s Gospel reading from John recounts the final words of Jesus before his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. In anticipation of his separation from his disciples, Jesus gathers them for their last meal together, preaches his final message to them, and concludes with a parting prayer – his farewell. In the prayer, Jesus asks God to unite his disciples and followers and make them all be one: “For you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us…The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me that they may become completely one…” (John 17:21-22). In his prayer for unity, Jesus envisions the relationship of the Father and the Son as the model and foundation for the relationship of his followers to one another. Just as the Father and the Son form a perfect and harmonious union, we, too, are called to be united with one another.
But if we look at the historical experience of the Church over the past two thousand years, we have fallen far short of this goal of unity for which Jesus prayed. Christian history is filled with strife and division. From the letters of the Apostle Paul in the New Testament, we read about the various theological disputes in the early church, such as whether to keep Jewish customs like circumcision and dietary laws. Then, there are the many heresies and schisms that plagued the first centuries of the church: Gnosticism, Arianism, Pelagianism, and so on. About a thousand years after the founding of the Church, the Christian world in the eleventh century suffered its first major division, when the churches on the eastern side of the Mediterranean and those on the western side mutually condemned each other. The eastern wing of the Church became the Orthodox, and the western, the Roman Catholic. Then, about a half century later came the Protestant Reformation, when the unity of the Church in the West was forever shattered, and countless different churches proliferated. You probably didn’t realize you were going to get a lecture on church history today, but that’s what you get when you hire a historian as your priest. I will restrain myself, though, and stop there – at least for now.
One of the most common questions that both Christians and non-Christians ask about Christianity – and it is often a stumbling block to faith – is why there are so many churches: Episcopal, Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Roman Catholic, Orthodox. The fact of the matter is we Christians have not done such a good job fulfilling Jesus’ prayer for unity. Even in our own denomination, the Episcopal Church, we have recently suffered tragic divisions over issues of gender and sexuality.
And I have to confess that I am no impartial observer of the divisiveness. I am symptomatic of the divisiveness. I am complicit in the divisiveness. Let me give you a very recent example. This past week, I went to my office as usual at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg where I teach. As I drove in, I saw all these people, mostly young teenagers, that I would ordinarily not see on campus. The boys were wearing monochromatic dress shirts with slacks, and the girls were wearing long dresses, some of them wearing head coverings. This was quite a change from seeing our students during the school year with their sweats, flip-flops, and even pajama bottoms. It turned out that the university had rented space to a fundamentalist Christian group that runs private schools and homeschooling, and they were holding their annual conference. In my initial response, my prejudices and biases immediately kicked in. I thought to myself: “They look and act strange. They hold onto values that contradict my own.” Quite frankly, I found their presence intrusive and inconvenient. Needless to say, I wasn’t thinking very positive thoughts. And I am sure that if they were to see me today in my vestments and our liturgy at St. Mary’s or if they had seen me this past Friday evening at our church booth for the Kansas City Pridefest, they wouldn’t think such positive thoughts about me.
If I could have it my way, I would prefer to avoid or ignore such people altogether. But here is the problem. They belong to the same Christian faith that I profess, and, what’s more, Jesus calls us to be one. How do we do that? How do we work for unity with people who are so different from us? For many of us, the issue of Christian unity is more than just an abstract theological problem. We have family, friends, neighbors, and work colleagues who belong to different and often conflicting branches of Christianity. In what ways can we achieve in our daily, personal interactions the kind of unity of faith envisioned by Jesus?
The technical term for working toward Christian unity is ecumenism. And I am no expert on ecumenism. But I would like to offer up some ideas and suggestions as we reflect on this challenge of Christian unity. To begin with, we can focus on what we share in common rather than what divides us. In spite of the variety of different expressions, there are certain basic, core beliefs and practices that define us as Christians. The great Anglican writer, C.S. Lewis, calls this “mere Christianity,” and it is the title of his book, which many of you may have read. The book explains the core of the Christian faith, our common ground with all Christians. This ecumenical vision is also central to the work of our current Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry. He calls our church “the Episcopal wing of the Jesus Movement.” Whether you call it mere Christianity or the Jesus Movement, all Christians hold in common the core beliefs that Jesus Christ is Savior and Lord, and that the Bible is the Word of God. Moreover, central to the practice of our faith are the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion; these are the core rituals that define and distinguish Christian faith. In a moment, Norah will be baptized, and in the waters of baptism, she will be uniting not only with our community of faith here at St. Mary’s but with the community of all Christians on earth and in heaven. Likewise, as we come up for the Eucharist, we will join countless other Christians around the world this day to unite with Christ through his Body and Blood. Sadly, in the midst of all our divisions and squabbling, we often lose sight of these common bonds of faith.
Another way to work for unity in our faith is to pray together. This past Thursday, we had a glorious Evensong and Benediction in celebration of the Ascension, and, following the service, several of us have accepted the invitation from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, to join him in the global prayer movement called Thy Kingdom Come. From Ascension to the Pentecost, which is next Sunday, we will join Anglicans around the world as well as with Christians from many other denominations in daily prayer as we seek to bring more people to come to know Jesus Christ. Through such movements of common prayer, we lay aside our differences and divisions, and unite and lift up our voices together to the throne of God.
Focusing on our common faith and praying together can promote Christian unity, but for the ultimate answer to the question of how we Christians can become one, we return to the passage from the Gospel of John that we heard earlier. It is here that Jesus himself points the way to unity. In the conclusion to his prayer, Jesus asks the Father that “the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (Matthew 17:26). Love defines the relationship between the Father and the Son, and it is that same love that will bind together all of us. Perhaps the most eloquent and concrete definition of Christian love in Scripture is found in the words of the Apostle Paul in that famous chapter on love from I Corinthians 13:
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (I Corinthians 13: 5-7)
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, let us join together to work for the unity and oneness of faith for which Jesus prayed. Let us focus on what we share in common, let us pray together, let us love one another as Christ has loved us. In spite of our divisions, we are, in the end, one family of faith – children of God.
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
The Rev’d Charles Everson
May 26, 2019
The audio recording of this sermon can be found here.
We’ve been working through John’s fantastical vision in the book of Revelation, and today we hear the end of the vision. Last week, John told us that he saw from afar the holy city, the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven. And now, we get to hear at least a bit about what he saw when the Spirit carried him away to show him this city. It’s a pity that the lectionary authors cut out most of chapter 21, for it is in these missing verses that John describes the city itself. Beyond the sheer beauty of it, this city is chock-full of symbolism. The city shone with the radiance of a very rare jewel and had a great, high wall with 12 gates, and at the gates 12 angels, and on the gates are inscribed the names of the 12 tribes of Israel. This wall has 12 foundations, and on them are the 12 names of the 12 apostles of the Lamb. The number 12 represents wholeness or completeness. Then, John describes the measurements of the city which are also symbolic. It is a perfect, symmetrical cube, lined by walls built of jasper, with the city being pure gold, clear as glass. The foundations of the walls are adorned with every jewel (12 of them, of course), with streets of gold. This four-walled, perfectly symmetrical city in all of its beauty – this New Jerusalem represents the Church.
Then John commented that there was no temple in the city. Whether Revelation was written before or after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD is a matter of debate, but in any case, the idea that the New Jerusalem had no Temple had to be mind boggling for the original audience, especially for Jewish Christians. For the Temple was necessary for the priests to offer up sacrifices to atone for the sins of the people, and this most holy rite could only be done in the Temple. The measurements of the city specifically symbolize the Holy of Holies, the part of the Temple where only the high priest could enter, and even then, only once per year. In the New Jerusalem, this atoning work is no longer necessary, for the Lamb that was slain has atoned for our sins once and for all. The city itself is a new temple, the Church, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone. No longer are the deepest parts of the faith reserved for the 1%. No longer are people excluded from the inner sanctum of holiness. In this new temple, the prophets and the apostles point us toward Jesus, and each of us is a living stone that makes up a part of the temple.
Finally, we hear John describe this beautiful scene of the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God through the middle of the street. This water brings life – the “tree of life”, in fact, which takes us back to the Garden of Eden. If you remember, the inhabitants of Eden – Adam and Eve – were created to live eternally, but they were told, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it, you shall die.” We know how that turned out for them, and for us. Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate a piece of fruit from that tree –traditionally depicted as an apple – and they became subject to evil and death and everything that comes with that. Because they chose to eat it, Adam and Eve lived lives full of suffering and pain. And they died. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
John sees a new tree in this vision. In the New Jerusalem, the tree of life has all kinds of fruit growing on it, and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. There are no restrictions on what we can eat. The fruit of the first tree didn’t fulfill humanity’s hunger, but the fruit of the new one certainly does.
Many of you choristers, and perhaps a few other liturgical music nerds, know the choral piece from Lessons and Carols called Jesus Christ the Apple Tree . We are so used to hearing the Choir of Kings College, Cambridge sing it year after year at Christmas, typically beginning with the boys of the choir singing the first verse in unison. But it is verse three of this carol that comes to mind:
For happiness I long have sought,
And pleasure dearly I have bought:
I missed of all: but now I see
‘Tis found in Christ the apple tree.
I’ve looked for happiness in all sorts of things. I’ve looked for happiness in my banking career, in academic success, and in several different types of sin, some of which are inappropriate for the pulpit. I’ve eaten of the forbidden fruit. It doesn’t satisfy. John is telling us that in the new Jerusalem, the river of life will feed the tree of life which will give us fruit that will not only sustain us, it will bring perfect and complete healing. Despite knowing that the fruit from the new tree will satisfy my every longing, I sometimes choose to eat the apple from the first tree. When I choose the apple – when I choose to disregard God’s will and seek my own pleasure – I am not satisfied. Maybe for a while, but not in the end. When I instead turn to Jesus, I find what I’ve been seeking. Happiness, yes. But not happy as in “bliss.” A better word is “wholeness.” Completeness.
Now that I’ve eaten something that satisfies my hunger, I have to admit, I get sad when I see my co-workers, and friends, and family eating the proverbial apple. I want to tell them that it’s a trick…that eating the apple won’t make them full. They won’t get what they expected. I want to tell them that there’s another option. There’s another tree that is like the one they see. But this tree is renewed and restored. Eating the fruit of this tree unfortunately won’t take away the deceiving power the first tree has over them, for that apple will still seem luscious and tasty and satisfying. But in the words of that 18th century carol, this new fruit “makes my soul to thrive, it keeps my dying faith alive. Which makes my soul in haste to be with Jesus Christ the apple tree.”
It’s no accident that the lectionary authors paired the end of John’s vision with the first lesson from Acts when we heard of Paul’s vision that led him to Philippi to a river to share the Good News with a woman named Lydia. When we hear about Paul’s missionary journeys, it’s easy to think, “But Paul was extraordinary. He was called to spread the Gospel to the Gentiles, and no one has been called in such a way since. I wasn’t called to be a missionary! I work for a local bank. Paul’s missionary stories don’t relate much to my everyday life.”
The story of Paul sharing the Good News with Lydia is just as applicable to you and me as it is to someone called to be a full-time missionary. Before he encountered Jesus Christ, Paul hated Christianity and all it stood for. Upon encountering Christ on that road to Damascus, he realized that his entire understanding of God was wrong. Paul realized that the apple from the old tree didn’t satisfy. He tasted of the fruit of the tree of life in the New Jerusalem and was satisfied, and he felt compelled to share that Good News with everyone.
As is always the case, it wasn’t Paul’s convincing arguments that won Lydia over. Luke tells us that the Lord opened Lydia’s heart to listen eagerly to what Paul said. You and I can describe the new Jerusalem in all its beauty, and the new tree, and the new fruit, and all that it has meant to us. We can do all of that, but unless the Lord opens the other person’s heart, it’s all for naught. The call to share the love of God in Christ with those around us is first a call to pray for them, and then it’s a call to share our story in word and deed.
Friends, the city of God is no longer reserved for a particular race or tribe or language or culture. The city of God is for all people, and by the power of the Spirit, we are called to invite all who would hear to drink from the springs of the water of life and eat of the fruit of the tree of life.
 Same Old Song podcast, Mockingbird ministries. https://www.mbird.com/podcasts/
 Genesis 2:16-17
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
The Rev’d Charles Everson
May 19, 2019
The audio recording of this sermon can be found here.
St. John’s heavenly vision continues in the lesson we heard from Revelation. Same as last week, it seems to be focused on unrealistic, heavenly things far, far away from our existence.
John saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and first earth had passed away. He is describing his vision using imagery that he and every other good Jew knew all too well as found in the latter part of the book of Isaiah. Isaiah quotes the Lord God, “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” Isaiah wrote these words to the Hebrew people after they’d spent nearly 70 years in exile – in slavery – in Babylon. When the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple along with it in 587 BC, their entire worldview was utterly and completely turned upside down. The Temple was literally the center of the universe for the Hebrew people. It was their central bank, a sort of flea market if you will, but most importantly, they believed that Yahweh, their god, actually resided there. Within the Temple, the Holy of Holies was where God physically dwelt amongst them. Along with Jerusalem and the Temple, the Babylonian captivity ended the monarchy in Israel despite the fact that God had promised that the Davidic line would be established and maintained forever.
It isn’t really possible for us as 21st century Americans to even begin to fathom how devastating the sack of Jerusalem was to the Hebrews. 9/11 doesn’t even come close. And to top it off, the Hebrews were then ripped from their homes and hauled off into exile. In 538 BC, Persia overtook Babylon and the Hebrews were allowed to begin to come home. But they came home to a Jerusalem in shambles. Their world was upside down and there was no hope for the future.
For the Hebrews, the Temple was the center of creation, and God’s promise of a new heaven and a new earth was nothing other than a promise of an entirely new creation. In John’s vision of this new creation, he says, “the sea was no more.” This sea refers to the primordial chaos of creation in the book of Genesis, out of which evil continually threatens to undo the goodness of God’s creation. This passage, from the end of the Bible, returns to the ancient images of the creation stories from Genesis. No more evil, no more chaos, no more shame, no more death.
Yes, like last week, the message is that there is hope in the midst of despair. The orderliness of creation that was turned to chaos by sin will finally be renewed and restored. But it won’t be restored exactly to what it was. It will look different. In Genesis, paradise is not in a city, but in a garden. When Cain kills his brother Abel, he’s banished to a city. The new heavens and the new earth aren’t symbolized by a garden, but rather by a holy city. And cities are full of people and culture and food and resources. And unlike most cities, this one includes a river and trees and ample water. This isn’t unrealistic, heavenly imagery that is solely focused on things far, far away from our world. The new creation will be communal, filled with fellowship with other people, with plenty of resources to provide for our every need.
This blessed city, this heavenly Jerusalem, came down out of heaven from God. Then, John heard a loud voice proclaim that the “home of God is among mortals.” The word translated as home in Greek is the word “tabernacle,” and the word “dwell” is the verb form of the same word. “See, the tabernacle of God is among mortals. He will tabernacle with them; they will be his people, and God himself will be with them.” For the original Hebrew audience, the word tabernacle brought to mind the stories not only of the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem, but even further back, of the portable tent where God dwelt physically with the Israelites under Moses in the wilderness.
Quite simply, in this scene, heaven descends to earth. The new heaven and the new earth is the place where God is, and where humans are fully united with God. Unlike in our St. Peter-at-the-pearly gates cartoons and memes, heaven and earth are not separate, unrelated realities. John notes earlier in the book of Revelation that heaven and earth have an open door between them in the present age, and that events in heaven can determine the course of human events, and vice versa. Satan’s expulsion from heaven comes as a result of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead (12:5,7), and the same fallen angels work their revenge on the saints of God. In the present age, then, there is a strong connection between the world above and the world below. Last week’s heavenly scene from chapter 7 of the great multitude from all peoples standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, worshipping God with the angels and the four living creatures – this scene reveals the strongest connection of all between heaven and earth: the liturgy of the one holy catholic and apostolic church.
“See, the tabernacle of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his people, and God himself will be with them.”
This word tabernacle is the same word we use in the church today for that box above the altar in which we keep consecrated bread. The altar party, and many of you genuflect or bow before sitting down, or when you pass in front of the Tabernacle. Why do we do this? Because this box, this work of human hands, contains within it the very God who created all things and is renewing all things. In this box is found the One who humbled himself to share in our humanity in order that we might be re-united with God in this world and the next.
A little over a month ago, you and I and the whole world watched in horror as Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris burned. Fr. Fournier, the chaplain of the Paris Fire Brigade, risked his life to go into the burning cathedral to rescue the relic believed to be the Crown of Thorns Jesus wore at his crucifixion, but more importantly, to rescue the Blessed Sacrament – the consecrated bread in the tabernacle.
Since then, some have been surprised – maybe even shocked – that so many people showed such deep emotion for a building made by human hands when so many people are suffering in the world. And some have decried the amount of money already raised to rebuild it. And some, I’m sure, have thought that it’s ridiculous for a man to risk his life to save a piece of bread.
The Archbishop of Paris said these words in a sermon shortly after the fire:
"We must ask why Notre Dame was constructed. Why this human genius? Because they could have done something functional. It's far more than functional. And why? Because what is honored there is absolutely splendid, that's what we believe. And if you want to ask the real question, what jewel is this jewel box for? It's not for the Crown of Thorns, you know? It's for a piece of bread. It's astonishing. How can one construct such a work of art for a piece of bread? That piece of bread is the Body of Christ. And that endures. Nobody will ever be able to destroy it."
John heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his people, and God himself will be with them.” Amen.
 Isaiah 65:17, NRSV.
 David Lyon Bartlett, and Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. Kindle edition, location 15336, quoting Ps. 74:13-14; Isa 27:1.
 Most of this paragraph comes from ibid 15331.
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
The Rev’d Charles Everson
The audio recording of this sermon can be found here.
I’m not sure about you, but when I hear passages from the book of Revelation, I’m emotionally moved…sometimes to tears…at the beauty of his description of the vision he sees. And I’m usually comforted in some way. And yet, the supposedly intelligent part of me thinks, “This isn’t real. It’s a fantastical vision that can’t possibly be describing something real.”
The book of Revelation is apocalyptic literature. Apocalyptic literature is a genre of writing, like historical narrative or poetry or Law or a letter. It was popular in post-exilic Jewish culture and among early Christians. As a genre, apocalyptic literature details the author’s visions, usually delivered by an angel, and the vision is usually of some heavenly scene in what seems like an alternate universe. This isn’t a genre of literature that exists in 2019 in English, making it all the more difficult for us to interpret. Muddying the waters even more is the tendency amongst certain evangelicals to interpret John’s Revelation literally, resulting in book and movie series like Left Behind which portray events in John’s vision as predictions of events that will happen in the future. Apocalyptic literature is not 20th century journalism, nor is it meant to predict specific events that will happen in our world at some future date. Reading Revelation in one hand and the New York Times in the other, trying to find correlations between the two, is quite frankly dangerous and is missing the entire point.
But that doesn’t make the book of Revelation any less real.
At this point in his vision, John sees a great multitude of people from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages robed in white worshipping the Lamb of God. Their clothing was made white by being washed in the blood of the Lamb. The white garments represent the purity and cleanliness that comes from our baptism, a symbol that persisted for centuries as new Christians were baptized in a simple, white alb like this one.
These white-robed worshippers had just come out of the “great ordeal”. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that it’s God’s job to keep us and our loved ones safe from all harm. On the contrary, John’s vision shows us that pain and suffering are inherently part of the Christian life. These worshippers not only underwent a great ordeal, they are in need of shelter. They have known hunger and thirst and scorching heat. They have tears in their eyes. In other words, they are not immune to human suffering.
And neither are we immune to suffering. Sometimes, we may think that our entire life is one “great ordeal,” to use John’s words. Whether it’s the burden of caring for a loved one who cannot care for themselves, or trying to pay all your bills on a shoestring budget, or dealing with a frightening medical diagnosis with a bleak outcome, you and I suffer in a multitude of ways each and every day.
During these great fifty days of Easter, the Church shouts from the rooftops that our Lord Jesus Christ has won the victory over suffering and evil and death by his resurrection from the dead. At Easter, the Passover Lamb was sacrificed for us, and at our baptism, our souls were marked like the doorposts of the Hebrew people at the first Passover. And while the Resurrection of Jesus doesn’t mean that our suffering ends right now, by the message of an angel, we are given a foretaste of that day when all our suffering will end:
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
What hope! What balm for the soul when we suffer! And thanks be to God, this hope is made tangible to us today in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. St. John Paul II, speaking of this heavenly vision in Revelation, once said,
This luminous image of the heavenly glory is anticipated in the Liturgy of the Church. Those who celebrate it here, live already in some way, beyond the signs, in the heavenly liturgy, where the celebration is totally communion and feast. It is in this eternal liturgy that the Spirit and the Church make us participate, when we celebrate the mystery of salvation in the sacraments.
Friends, it is in the sacraments of the Church that we are given the sustenance we need to continue to faithfully follow our Lord in the midst of our suffering.
John’s vision is not meant to be taken literally, but that makes it no less real. In his bodily resurrection at Easter, Jesus Christ defeated suffering and evil and death once and for all. We will not fully see the culmination of this great victory on this side of the grave, but we are given a foretaste of that heavenly banquet in this bread and this cup. What hope! As you receive the pledge of your salvation at the altar rail today, know that one day, God will guide you to the springs of the water of life, and he will wipe every tear from your eyes. Amen.
 David Lyon Bartlett, and Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. Kindle edition, location 14590 of 18450.
 Vs. 15-17.
 http://www.newliturgicalmovement.org/2014/12/the-book-of-revelation-guide-to.html#.XNcIVY5KjD4. He was actually speaking of a similar scene in Revelation 5 which is somewhat of a sister passage to this one, but I didn’t want to take the time in the actual sermon to explain that.
The Third Sunday of Easter
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
May 5, 2019
The audio recording of this sermon can be found here.
Have you ever been asked this question: “Are you saved?” This question usually is posed by an evangelical Christian who is trying to ascertain if you’ve invited Jesus to come into your heart and save your soul. Because in their way of thinking, that’s the prayer that seals-the-deal. It’s called The Sinner’s Prayer. Once you pray that prayer, heaven is guaranteed. All is well and there is no further reason to fear damnation to the fiery pains of hell.
If you haven’t been asked this question, just come down to 14th and Main downtown sometime over the lunch hour and you’ll hear one of those street preachers with a megaphone. He not only asks this question, he denounces every group of people he doesn’t like. If you come to try to hear him, you might just see me in street clothes scurrying to lunch with noise-cancelling headphones on.
Many evangelical Christians describe with genuine emotion what they felt when they prayed the Sinner’s Prayer. And no, I’m not lumping them in with the annoying street preacher – most evangelicals tell their story sincerely and without demonstrating hate toward others. They remember the time they invited Jesus to come into their hearts and be their Lord – they remember truly feeling different.
It’s almost as if they think the dramatic story of St. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus that we heard this morning is the norm.
I say St. Paul because that’s how we refer to him now, but Paul was no saint. [By the way, Saul was his name in Hebrew, and Paul was simply the transliteration of this name in Latin]. Whether it’s Saul or Paul, he was no saint. He had just taken an active part in the stoning of Stephen, the first deacon in the church. He was a religious leader who had just actively participated in a ritualistic and barbaric execution of someone for his religious beliefs, and then continued to persecute others who believed like Stephen did. We hear Jesus say to him on the road to Damascus, ““Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
At this point, Saul hadn’t made a choice to stop persecuting Christians. He hadn’t decided to confess his sins and repent. God chose him while he was still actively living an evil life. God met him where he was. We see this approach all throughout Scripture. God called Matthew while he was still a corrupt tax collector. He called Peter – the future leader of the disciples and arguably the most prominent leader in the early church – when he was a simple fisherman. And he called Paul, a notorious murderer who hated Christianity and all that it stood for. Our Lord meets people where they are. He doesn’t wait until they’ve cleaned themselves up, he meets them where they are when they least expect it.
When Paul gets up off the ground after this encounter, he’s suddenly blind. Jesus then comes to Ananias in a vision and asks him to lay his hands on Paul so that he might regain his sight. Ananias’s response is understandable: he’s hesitant as he’s heard of the evil Saul had done to the saints in Jerusalem. But Jesus responds to his hesitation, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before the Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel. I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” After being blind for three days, his sight is restored, and he is baptized. Saul, a notorious sinner, dies with Christ and is then reborn with him in the waters of baptism. We know from the rest of the biblical record that Paul’s future will indeed be filled with both joy and suffering for the sake of Christ.
How would Paul have answered the question, “Are you saved?” According to New Testament scholar Bishop N.T. Wright, the only explicit account we have of Paul referring to what happened to him on the Road to Damascus is this from his letter to the Galatians:
“But [when] God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles…
Paul says nothing about repentance and faith, and certainly nothing about praying a specific prayer and finding his heart being strangely warmed. Paul’s re-telling of his initial conversion story is this: through God’s grace, he stopped persecuting the church and began announcing the Good News of Jesus Christ to the nations.
When this Southern Baptist boy began rubbing shoulders with Christians from the Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches, I quickly learned that most Christians don’t have a dramatic, heart-warming conversion experience. In fact, many folks in the church are hesitant to tell others how they came to faith in Christ because they feel ashamed that their story isn’t as flashy and exciting and emotional as the person next to them in the pew.
Thanks be to God, St. Paul’s experience shows us that God meets us where we are, and usually, when we least expect it. Sometimes that’s in the midst of notorious evil living; sometimes it’s in the doldrums of a seemingly boring life filled with work, eat, TV, repeat; and sometimes, it’s in the midst of loneliness and despair. No matter where Christ meets us, it is through God’s grace given to us in baptism that we are called to follow Him and proclaim the Good News of his salvation to the world.
When someone asks me today, “Are you saved?”, my short response is, “"I have been saved; I am being saved; and I will be saved." For despite having received God’s grace at baptism, I am desperately in need of the same grace each and every day in order to follow Christ and share his love with the other people I encounter. It is through the Christian disciplines of prayer and contemplation and service and the like…it is through sinning, repenting, and receiving God’s unconditional forgiveness that we are continually being saved. It is by receiving the Sacraments of the Church day-in-and-day-out that, in St. Paul’s words, “all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”
Friends, it isn’t enough to invite Jesus into your heart and be done with it. A simple prayer, no matter how sincere you are when you pray it, won’t make you spiritually invincible to the forces of evil and death. From a technical standpoint, Christian salvation begins with baptism and is fulfilled at death. But God has revealed his son Jesus Christ to each of you in different ways in your lives, and your story – your spiritual journey is no less valid than mine.
Let us pray that God will open our eyes, as he opened St. Paul’s, to the saving power of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When Jesus meets us where we are, let us respond as Paul did by choosing to follow him wherever he may lead, even into suffering for his sake. And empowered by God’s grace, let us tell our story of how we came to faith in Jesus Christ to those around us in love – boldly and without shame. Amen.
 Galatians 1:15-17, NRSV.
 N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013), 1421.
 2 Corinthians 3:17, NRSV.
The audio recording of this sermon can be found here.
Our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles sets the stage for today’s entire service, and indeed for the next six weeks: St. Peter exclaims: “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.” While Easter Day past us seven days ago, the celebration of Easter and the resurrection of Jesus Christ continues for 50 days, seven full weeks, all the way until Pentecost. God has raised up Jesus who had been killed. There has been a great reversal, a great overturning, a great undoing. Death is the most certain and stable fixture of natural human existence, the great enemy of insatiable appetite, who ultimately devours all life, from whose jaws no one escapes. Death steals from us everything we love, being a constant source of sorrow and grief. This great enemy has now been shown to be vulnerable, conquerable, and indeed their destruction reversible. Jesus has burst his three-day prison of death, re-entering the realm of life, light, love, and joy.
Surprisingly, the announcement of this great reversal of life over death in Christ was not popular with the political and religious leaders. The religious leaders shouted, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching.” Why the great objection to this message of hope, rebirth, and renewal? One reason is because death, the great and invariable constant of human experience, has suddenly become vulnerable, movable, and even removable. Therefore certain structures of human experience less certain than death, such as political, religious, and social hierarchies, have that much more become destabilized. And that unsettles the people perched at the the top of those hierarchies.
Our Psalm for today, Psalm 118, continues this theme of reversal, though having become a part of Jewish worship well before Jesus walked on the earth. There is a surge of triumphant joy at the beginning of the portion we heard: “There is a sound of exultation and victory in the tents of the righteous,” because God “has become my salvation.” In the preceding section, the Psalmist describes their situation of distress: enemies “hem me in, they hem me in on every side…They swarm about me like bees; they blaze like a fire of thorns…I was pressed so hard that I almost fell, but the LORD came to my help.” Though it looked like all hope was lost, the Psalmist makes a defiant declaration: “I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the LORD.” They experienced such a profound and great deliverance, it was almost like being brought back from the dead.
Our third reading is from the book of Revelation, a wild, kaleidoscopic, apocalyptic narrative describing the spiritual conflict between Christ’s rulership and kingdoms of this world. And the message to the world’s empires is this: your peace is rooted in violence and bloodshed, your prosperity is grounded on exploitation, your justice is a perversion, your freedom is an authoritarian deception. The kingdoms of this world are a counterfeit and farce in the light of Christ’s reign of liberating and life-giving love—where suffering is alleviated, nations are reconciled, every person is endowed with sacred worth, and tears are wiped away from all faces.
In verse five of chapter one we are told Jesus Christ is “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.” To be first implies a sequence. To be firstborn from among the dead means to be the first of many siblings who will experience the resurrection to eternal aliveness. St. Paul uses a similar expression when he calls Christ the “first fruits of those who have died” (1 Cor. 15:20). Christ’s rising from the dead is the first fruits in a sequence of actions that comprise a single harvest. Jewish expectation around the time of Jesus, as described for example in the Book of Daniel, did not conceive of isolated and individual resurrections. Rather the resurrection was part of a single complex event where the regeneration of life, the restoration of all things, and the renewal of all creation was experienced by the faithful all together at the end of time. At Easter we announce Christ is the firstborn in that resurrection event that has already begun. Christ is the firstfruits of a single harvest that has already begun— “the first-fruits of the holy harvest field, which will all its full abundance at his second coming yield.” But the radical, radical proclamation in this verse is that this complex event of regeneration, restoration and renewal has already begun in the raising of Jesus Christ from the dead. It is not only for some time in the distant future. It begins now.
There is a line in the prayer book funeral service: “In the midst of life, we are in death.” This captures the truth that even while we are still alive before we die, we experience within us and around us the ravages of sin and death. During Easter we celebrate the inversion: “In the midst of death we are in life.” In the midst of a world marred by death, while living among the kingdoms and empires of the world marked by violence, exploitation, injustice, and oppression—in the midst of death, we are in life, through our union with the Christ who is himself the resurrection and the life. Through Christ, and with Christ, and in Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, the whole creation cries, “I shall not die, but live!” With Easter faith we boldly confess that the entire world will be renewed, and that renewal has already begun in Christ’s resurrection. And it continues through the Church who is the body of the resurrected Christ.
Theologian Jürgen Moltmann describes it this way: “those who believe that in Christ the redeemer is already present, and those who sense in themselves the first signs of the life of God's Spirit, know that in fact true life does already exist in the midst of the life that is false. The future has already begun. The conflict between the rising sun and the departing shadows of the night is already being fought out. There is already a struggle for justice against injustice, and a protest of life against the forces of death.”
In our Gospel reading we find the disciples the evening after Jesus rose from the dead. Yet they are experiencing nothing of the renewed and restored life of resurrection. In their minds Jesus is still dead and we see them exhibiting three features:
1) Negative emotions
3) Loss of meaning
1) Negative emotions—they are full of despair, fear and anxiety, despairing the loss of Jesus, anxious for their future, fearful of their lives, hiding from the same powers of injustice that killed Jesus.
2) Disengagement—they are detached in their own enclosure, cut off from the outside world behind locked doors, engaged in no tasks other than self-preservation
3) Loss of meaning—before Jesus died, the disciples believed they were part of something bigger than themselves. They experienced solidarity in serving a larger purpose, in contributing to a larger cause. Now there was nothing. Just themselves and the walls around them.
And while the disciples were huddled behind locked doors, experiencing negative emotions, disengagement, and loss of meaning, “Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” Having believed Jesus was still dead, the resurrected Christ appears bodily before them. People often marvel that Jesus here apparently either walked through the wall, or teleported into the room. But what happens next is much more significant: “Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you. When he had said this, he breathed into them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” As God sent Jesus to effect a great reversal, to inaugurate the resurrection, the restoration of all things, and the renewal of the whole creation, in the same way Jesus now sends us. In the midst of death, we experience life—and are sent to bring life. In a world of violence, exploitation, injustice, and oppression, we are sent to bring peace, equity, justice, and liberation. And in doing so, we experience our own liberation. We awaken to the positive emotions of love and joy that come from whole-hearted engagement in tasks that enrich the lives of others. And when we engage in these tasks together—in partnership with one another, we find both the relationships and sense of purpose that give life meaning.
In this endeavour we are not sent empty-handed. Jesus breathes into the disciples the Holy Spirit. The same spirit that hovered over the waters when God brought forth creation in Genesis 1, the same Spirit that God breathed into the first humans in Genesis 2 to make them alive, and the same Spirit that God sent to raise Jesus Christ from the dead (Romans 8:9-11) is sent to live in and through us. When we receive the Holy Spirit in Baptism and are renewed by the Spirit in Confirmation we receive into ourselves the very power that reanimates life, that reinvigorates hope, that renews this suffering world. And when we come to the Altar at Holy Communion, we receive into ourselves and become united with Jesus Christ who has been raised from the dead and inaugurates in himself the renewal of all creation. We begin to experience liberation from the dominating grip of negative emotions, the paralysing disengagement, and the loss of meaning that so plague our age. We find courage to have hope and joy in the face of life’s challenges. We find courage to emerge from behind self-preservation to engage in significant tasks and risky endeavours. We find courage to discover meaning beyond the narrow confines of our own self-interest—to give ourselves to a larger purpose—to join with God in the renewal and restoration of life that began in Christ and continues in and through us, the Body of Christ.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Jurgen Moltmann, The Source of Life: The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997).
 Martin E.P. Seligman, Flourish (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012)
Famous Last Words
John 18:1-19:42 | 4/19/2019
An audio recording of this sermon can be found here.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This Holy Week, we remember the famous last words of the condemned man, Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews. His ultimate utterances are profound. They are entirely consistent with the society-shaking, history-changing, God-revealing course of his entire ministry. In fact, his last words are the crowning moment of his life. They are not cries of desperation but declarations of victory. “Woman, here is your son,” says Jesus to his mother. “Here is your mother,” he says to a disciple standing beside her (John 19:26-27) (v. 28) It is finished,” he proclaims (v. 30).These are his last words, his famous last words. But for many people, their meaning is unclear. And how can it be said that they are profound, triumphant and entirely consistent with the course of his ministry? Also puzzling.Jesus said, “It is finished.” What did he mean?To understand Christ’s parting thoughts, we have to begin with his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and look at how Palm Sunday leads straight to Good Friday. Jesus doesn’t begin the week as a rock star and end it as a falling star. Instead, he starts the week in glory, and ends it in even greater glory ... in the shocking, surprising and scandalous glory of the cross.On what we now call Palm Sunday, Jesus enters Jerusalem, and the great crowd gathered for the Passover festival takes branches of palm trees and meets him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord — the King of Israel!” And Jesus finds a young donkey and sits on it, fulfilling the prophecy, “Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” (12:12-15).So far, so good. Jesus comes to town as the king of Israel. The crowd grasps this and they praise him, praying that he will become their national savior and restore God’s kingdom in their country. They see that Jesus is a triumphant king — something that even the disciples are still struggling to grasp — but of course none of the onlookers has any idea just what kind of king Jesus has come to be.Fast-forward to the end of the week. Here is where most Christians assume that the story takes a turn for the worse: Jesus is betrayed by Judas and arrested in the garden, put on trial and mocked, and then crucified and killed. But the gospel of John refuses to portray Jesus as a passive, silent victim, at the mercy of evil forces beyond his control. Rather, John makes it clear that it is the premeditated — if not painful — plan of Jesus, not the scheme of others, that leads decisively to his death.This is shocking stuff. It means that the crucifixion has a profoundly positive meaning, and that Jesus’ famous last words are words of triumph — not defeat. Biblical scholar Dorothy Jean Weaver points out that Jesus is anything but powerless during his passion, and engages in vigorous verbal exchanges — sharp commands, feisty challenges, penetrating questions, deep observations and poignant words of comfort — from the moment of his arrest to the final moments in which he hangs on a Roman cross. He orders Peter to put his sword back in its sheath, challenges the brutality of the high priest’s slave and engages Pontius Pilate in extensive philosophical discourse. On the cross, he offers words of comfort to his mother, and links her to his beloved disciple. Jesus is in control, even from the cross. When he says, in the first of his famous last words, “Woman, here is your son” ... “Disciple, here is your mother,” he is creating a new family of God, one that exists even in times of suffering and death. This is truly good news for us, for we are all part of this new family created by the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.Then Jesus cries, “I am thirsty.” This is, for us, a reminder that Jesus entered fully and completely into human life, thirsting and hungering and suffering as each of us does. He certainly felt pain as he went to his death on the cross, and no talk of the positive meaning of Good Friday can eliminate this excruciating reality. But the fresh message for us in this famous last word is that Jesus is with us in all of our earthly agony. Nothing in all creation — neither death, nor life, nor things present, nor things to come, nor anything else we might face — will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39). Jesus is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, because he has been tested as we are; since he has walked in our shoes, he knows what we are going through, and can walk beside us on the road to his Father’s house. This last word of Jesus matches the mission of his life, and there’s certainly something comforting about this kind of consistency.Finally, Jesus says, “It is finished” — probably the most widely misunderstood of his famous last words. This expression is not a whimper of defeat or despair, but a shout of confidence in his completion of God’s mission in the world These words are the cultural equivalent of an emphatic, “Yes!!” — picture him coming off the cross, flexing the knees, bringing his arm around in an arc, pumping the air, throwing his head to the sky and shouting “Yes!!!” He stayed on the cross. He didn’t say “Yes!!” He said, “It is finished!” It is “completed.” He did what he set out to do. We have to remember that he knew what his mission was all about. A few months before his death, Jesus announced, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” It is finished! Much earlier, he said to Nicodemus, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (3:14).It is finished! And on Palm Sunday, Jesus predicted “when I am lifted up from the earth, [I] will draw all people to myself” (12:32).It is finished! With his famous last words on the cross, Jesus completes the mission that God has given him to perform in the world. According to John, his death is not a terrible tragedy, nor is it an awful mistake; instead, it is an act of ultimate self-sacrifice, one which Jesus performs for the benefit of his followers and all the people of the world. When Jesus is lifted up on the cross, we are able to see, more clearly than ever before, the suffering, self-sacrificing love of God. AMEN
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