The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

A sermon preached at St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Southampton on Sunday July 9, 2017.

RCL Texts: Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Psalm 45:10-17; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

“And they called Rebekah and said to her, ‘Will you go with this man?’ She said, ‘I will’…Then Rebekah and her maids rose up…and the followed the man” (Gen. 24.58, 61a)

Who doesn’t love weddings? Even those who are cynical about ‘love at first sight’ or uncomfortable with the more ‘mushy’ aspects of romantic love have to admit that there is something special about weddings. Despite cultural variations in how weddings are celebrated, weddings remain a universal human phenomenon, a practice with historical roots as far back as recorded history. We need only consider the total amount spent on weddings in Canada per year to see the centrality of weddings in the human experience. Anyone care to guess the amount? (over 4 billion dollars) Over four billion dollars was spent on weddings in Canada in 2015, with the average wedding costing almost $31,000. Can those of you who’ve been married for 30+ years imagine spending $31,000 in today’s money on your wedding?

Nevertheless, weddings still occupy ‘top spot’ in the list of human celebrations. In 2011, over 2 billion people – or nearly 30% of the global population – tuned in to watch the royal wedding of Prince William and Katherine Middleton. Perhaps this number is largely comprised of residents of Commonwealth nations; however, it is a significant number of people watching a wedding on television, which, even with all the pomp and ceremony of a royal wedding, still boils down to a rather common occurrence. After all, the average number of marriages performed in Canada on a daily basis is 405. Even in a culture where nearly 40% of modern marriages end in divorce (which can cost anywhere between $2,000 to $50,000 in legal fees) and where the number of weddings per year is steadily falling, weddings remain a significant rite of passage and celebration.

So, why do weddings continue to be such a big deal? Part of the reason behind the exorbitant amount of money spent on weddings in Canada and other Western cultures is a direct reflection of our consumerist and individualist culture and the desire for the perfect ‘fairy-tale wedding’: I will get the wedding I want, tailor made to make my dreams a reality, and I don’t care how much it will cost. This mentality explains the popularity of such reality television shows as ‘Say Yes to the Dress’ and ‘Bridezillas’; the drama is palpable!

The wedding business and reality television aside, weddings continue to be such a big deal because marriage is a big deal. Weddings are not meant to be celebrated as a means to their own end. Rather, weddings are a public celebration of marriage: two consenting adults making a public promise to, in the immortal words of the Book of Common Prayer, “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part” (566). Properly celebrated, weddings are about two people making a covenant of fidelity and commitment within the context of a monogamous sexual relationship. And this remains something worth celebrating, especially in a hyper-sexualised culture awash with high divorce rates, and cynicism about the very institution of marriage. Whether our culture wants to admit it or not, there remains a lingering sense and hope that there is an inherent goodness to marriage. This is precisely because marriage is reflective of who we are as embodied creatures created in God’s very image.

The Church knows this all too well, which is why it has continued to uphold the goodness of marriage. To be clear, this does not mean that those who are unmarried or are divorced are lacking fulfilment or are morally deficient. It is precisely because the Church maintains the goodness of marriage, that it also upholds the goodness of singleness and celibacy. Moreover, the fragility of human relationships and the heartbreak and trauma involved when they end calls and requires the Church to exercise careful and gentle care for all affected by divorce as it offers God’s healing touch.

But why does the Church place such an emphasis on weddings and marriage? Given the contentious and divisive discussions that took place around divorce and re-marriage in the 1960s in the Anglican Church of Canada and the equally, if not more so, contentious and potentially divisive discussions occurring around the proposed change to the Marriage Canon, wouldn’t it be best if the Church simply got out of the marriage game altogether in order to avoid controversy and discord? Wouldn’t it be better to let the State become the sole administrant of marriages?

The reason the Church continues to emphasize the importance of marriage, even when it means entering into contentious discussions and debates is precisely because God loves weddings. Marriage is the “primordial sacrament”.[1] Although it does not look like modern marriages, the Bible begins with a wedding: that of Adam and Eve. One of the most enduring tropes of our age is that of romantic partners being ‘made for each other’. Well, in the case of Adam and Eve, this is literally the case. Upon awakening and seeing Eve for the first time, Adam rejoices with delight: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen. 2.23a). It was truly love at first sight. However, as we know, trouble in paradise was soon to follow; the harmony and balance of Adam and Eve’s partnership quickly became one of self-righteous blaming. Marital relationships, it would seem, are almost destined to turmoil, if not failure.

And yet, God loves weddings. It is not because God has a soft spot for blushing brides or enjoys ripping yarns told by the best man. Rather, God loves weddings because human marriage “foreshadows God’s own incarnation, a union of two natures, within the person of Christ Jesus”.[2] In other words, marriage offers us a picture of who Jesus is: fully God and fully human, God-in-the-flesh. Through the primordial sacrament of human marriage, “God orders the destiny of humankind along the axis of Jesus Christ”.[3] In marriage we see a glimpse of Christ’s other-centred, self-sacrificial love being reciprocated by those being wed.

Furthermore, “human marriage anticipates the final historical union of Christ and his Church’s people at the end of time”.[4] Just as the Bible begins with a wedding, the Bible ends with a wedding: the wedding of Christ, the Bridegroom and His Bride, the Church. In the final chapters of the book of Revelation, we are given a poetic description of the final consummation of the new heavens and new earth. The poetic imagery is rich and multifaceted, drawing on deep resonances throughout Scripture.[5] Suffice it to say, this apocalyptic marriage is but the beginning of an eternal wedding banquet, a feast we anticipate and participate every time we celebrate the Eucharist. This is probably why Jesus was a frequent guest at weddings and parties – He is looking forward to that final day of eternal feasting with His beloved bride, the one for whom He came to earth, the one for whom He will move heaven itself in order to be united to her.

Marriage remains, therefore, the central image or figure of God’s relationship with His people. Human marriage is, according to St. Paul, “a great mystery” that applies to “Christ and the church” (Eph. 5.32). Throughout the Scriptures, perhaps most memorably in the book of Hosea, we seek God using the nuptial metaphor to describe His desire for His people, calling them to renewed faithfulness. From beginning to end, Holy Scripture is one long love story between God and humanity that culminates in a wedding of cosmic proportions. I’ve said it before and I will say it again: coincidences do not exist in the Bible. God has providentially ordered Scripture so that what might appear to be coincidences are actually intentional connections reverberating and pulsating with gospel truth. The key to making and understanding these connections is through Jesus. Jesus is, therefore, all over today’s Old Testament reading.

Simply put, Isaac, the promised and long-awaited son, is a figure of Jesus. He is seeking a Bride so that covenant promises God made to Abraham may be continued though his family until their fulfilment, a fulfilment embodied in Jesus Christ. While the details of Ancient Near Eastern marriage practices seem strange and perhaps regressive to our modern ears, Rebekah, like the Blessed Virgin Mary, remains a figure of the Church. Rebekah is given the choice whether or not to go with Isaac. Like the “Here I am, the servant of the Lord” (Lk. 2.38a) uttered by her descendant Mary, Rebekah’s simple ‘I will’ is a profound statement of faith, a willingness to entrust herself to the loving care of God.

St. Paul makes our predicament quite clear; we want to say ‘yes’ to Christ’s wedding proposal, and yet inner conflict remains. And so, we find ourselves following the well-trod path of unfaithfulness, spurning God’s patient love in favor of fleeting infatuation with temporal things and the pursuit of satisfying our selfish desires. But Jesus refuses to leave us captive; rather, He comes to rescue us by destroying the power of sin and death. The words Jesus uttered on the cross – “It is finished” (Jn. 19.30) – are translated into Latin as consummatum est: it is consummated. The marriage of Christ and the Church is consummated on the cross. From his pierced side from which flowed water and blood are given to us the gifts of baptism and the Eucharist.

The fruit of this consummation is Christ being born in us through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. Marriages devoid of passion are dull and life-draining. However, marriages that are able to keep a fire kindled, a fire not of mere sexual gratification, but of mutual delight, give birth to life and joy. The passion of the Church’s marriage to Christ begins with His passion, for it is on the Cross that we witness the extent of Christ’s love for us.  As a Church, we are called to respond in faith like Rebekah, thereby opening ourselves to work of the Holy Spirit. We are called to bear the living water of Christ to a thirsty world. The consummation of Christ and His Church gives birth to new life in all its fullness – forgiveness and reconciliation, healing and restoration, joy and renewed hope. The mission of the Church is to bear witness to this new life made possible by Jesus Christ.

So the question is: Are we feeling the passion? Are we ready for a life of faithfulness to Christ?

Are we ready to say ‘I do’?

If so, then let the wedding feast begin!

Amen.

[1] John Paul II in numerous places throughout his magisterial Theology of the Body refers to marriage in as the primordial sacrament.

[2] Ephraim Rader, Hope among the Fragments, 132,

[3] Ephraim Rader, Hope among the Fragments, 132.

[4] Ephraim Rader, Hope among the Fragments, 132.

[5] Cf. Brant Pitre, Jesus the Bridegroom

Easter II(A) – A Sermon

A sermon preached at St. John’s Anglican Church, Port Elgin, ON.

RCL Texts: Acts 2.14a, 22-33; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

Jesus said to Thomas “Do not doubt but believe. Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’” (Jn. 20.27b-28)

Poor Thomas. Other than Judas, Thomas is the disciple that will forever have a cloud hanging over his reputation. Even Peter, who denied Jesus three times and whom Jesus himself once referred to as Satan, will never have as negative reputation as ‘Doubting Thomas’. References to ‘Doubting Thomas’ are meant as a cautionary tale: don’t be like Doubting Thomas! Have faith! However, there is something unsettling about this simplistic injunction to our postmodern ears. This is precisely why in the past few decades, St. Thomas has received renewed attention. Now, he is valorized as a saint precisely because of his doubt: Saint Doubting Thomas.

However, these understandings of St. Thomas are problematic. They are directly shaped by particular worldviews and fail to take into careful consideration both the text of Scripture and the enduring impact of St. Thomas’ faith. Indeed, in the early church, Thomas was lauded for his missionary work and more than likely died a martyr’s death, which is to say he died because of his professed faith in Jesus. Nevertheless, more people know about ‘Doubting Thomas’ than of St. Thomas the missionary.

In order to unpack the nature of Christian faith, its relationship to doubt, and how this relates to the Church’s mission, we need to consider how St. Thomas evolved from a missionary into a harbinger of the intellectual virtues of the Enlightenment into a the patron saint of postmodernism: St. Doubting Thomas.

Along with Rene Descartes – the French philosopher who coined the phrase: “I think therefore I am” – Thomas is the patron saint of the modern age. You see, Thomas is not easily duped into religious superstition. Like his Enlightenment-era descendants, Thomas demands proof. More specifically, he demands quantifiable, measureable, physical proof. After all, the Scientific Method is the most sure and certain way of knowing anything in our world; it is rigorous, replicable, and universally applicable. Knowledge is born of careful and rational consideration of all the facts – the raw data – as they present themselves and are organized into a coherent hypothesis. In other words, faith is only valid insofar as it corresponds to verifiable knowledge. Consider the following:

Fact #1 – the tomb is empty. Without adequate evidence, there is no way to conclude what happened.

Fact #2 – some of the women claim that an angel – and even Jesus Himself – visited them and told them that Jesus is alive. However, this is hearsay; anecdotes cannot be considered hard evidence.

Fact #3 – 1o of the disciples claim that Jesus appeared to them. Again, this is hearsay and cannot be considered hard evidence.

Conclusion: without any physical evidence, any claims regarding Jesus’ physical resurrection from the dead are inconclusive at best and superstitious hysteria at worst. Knowledge is solely based on rational acceptance of quantifiable facts. Thomas is a saint because of his demand for and acceptance of facts.

At this point, some of you are thinking – ‘wait a minute! Jesus didn’t extol Thomas for his calculating demand for evidence; if anything, Jesus scolds him for this!’

To be clear, there are those who, in response to the scientific claims of the Enlightenment, respond that Thomas is wrong precisely because of his demands for proof. Faith, they reply, is the complete opposite of doubt. Regardless of what scientific evidence might say about the age of the world or evolutionary biology, the Bible says that God created the world in 7 days, so I have to take that to be the truth on faith. To doubt that this is true is to be no better than Thomas. This view is known as fideism. In this view, faith is independent of and even hostile to reason; faith is accepting certain intellectual propositions as inherently true without debate or scrutiny.  In the end, faith is the superior and only true way of knowing.

I think we would all agree that there is something theologically and existentially unsatisfying about this understanding of faith. The claim that faith is at odds with and is superior to reason is problematic for a number of reasons, including theological ones. Throughout the history of the Church, theologians have insisted that there is a close and mutually enriching and overlapping relationship between faith and reason. Indeed, as Pope Benedict XVI once remarked, the Christian tradition “has always rejected the so-called principle of ‘fideism’, that is, the will to believe against reason”.

This is where St. Doubting Thomas comes in. Whereas the Enlightenment-era St. Thomas was extolled for his demand for physical evidence, postmodern St. Doubting Thomas is celebrated for his doubt, for his refusal to simply accept what others were telling him as truth. St. Thomas needs to find his own truth according to his values that fit with his understanding of the world. In the postmodern view, doubt and skepticism are considered theological and intellectual virtues because it opens the way to self-authentication; I don’t need anyone else to tell me what to believe because I am the only one who can do that for myself! Moreover, faith elicits a form of certainty that is unwelcome because our culture views certainty as oppressive and non-inclusive of others’ viewpoints. Therefore, doubt is to be embraced. Indeed, doubt is a postmodern expression of faith; the only thing I know is that I don’t know. While this initially sounds like a very humble statement, it is in fact nothing but an inverse form of fideism. It is nothing more than preaching to the choirs of our culture, telling them what they want to hear.

To be clear, there is a central place in Christian faith for wrestling with difficult questions. Indeed, the history of theology is but one long conversation wrestling with difficult questions: who is God? How can a good God allow suffering? How does Jesus’ death and resurrection change anything? However, this kind of faithful wrestling is qualitatively different than embracing doubt and skepticism and rejecting authority as a matter of principle; these are contemporary phenomena. Moreover, the postmodern embrace of doubt is exegetically and missionally problematic. Genuine faith is both more infinitely complex and elegantly straightforward than fideism in its modern and postmodern forms would have us believe. We have St. Thomas to thank for making this clear.

Thomas does not remain in doubt; he offers what is one of the most succinct summaries of the Christian faith: “My Lord and my God!” (Jn. 20.28). This simple declaration is the true focal point of the story. While some translations phrase Jesus’ response to Thomas’ declaration as a question: “Have you believed because you have seen me?” It is also equally plausible to translate Jesus’ response as a statement: “you have believed because you have seen me”. Interpreting Jesus’ response as a question assumes that Jesus is chastising Thomas. However, interpreting Jesus’ response as a statement affirms Thomas’ demand for proof; Thomas wants direct access to Jesus in the flesh. In the end, neither interpretation clouds detracts from Thomas’ declaration. Thomas makes his profession of faith “because he recognizes the wounds on the glorified body of Jesus as a sign, a disclosure of his divinity through his glorified humanity”.[1] Thomas has “arrived at full Easter faith because of the proof that has been given to him” (344). The crucified and risen Lord in the flesh is both the response to Thomas’ demand for proof and the source of Thomas’ clear declaration of faith.

But this straightforward declaration is not the end of the story; indeed it is but the beginning of Thomas’ mission. This is where the nature of faith becomes complex. Thomas is almost single-handedly responsible for bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ into Asia, hence his identity as the patron saint of India. This was not doubt at work; this was faith at work. Doubt is incapacitating; it leaves one waffling, sitting on the fence. Doubt leads to inaction. While Thomas’ demand for physical proof of the resurrection could be understood as doubt, it is hardly fair to continue calling him Doubting Thomas when one considers the profound impact of Thomas’ ministry. Thomas is faithful to Jesus and the mission on which Jesus sent the apostles, which is why he is properly remembered as saint.

The story of Thomas is instructive in many ways for those who follow Jesus today. In this story we see both the simplicity and complexity of faith on display. Faith is more than intellectual assent to facts and it is more than personal experience, though, to be clear, assent and experience are part of faith. Faith is fundamentally commitment and devotion to the crucified and risen one, the one who calls us to new life in Him. This allegiance is not passive and it is not hanging on the coattails of others; rather, this allegiance involves a summons to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. Therefore, faith is allegiance to Jesus, an allegiance that is embodied as we participate in the mission for which Christ sends us into the world. Our faith – our allegiance to Christ – pushes us into action.

As the Father sent Jesus and as Jesus sent the apostles, so too he sends us – those who claim Him as our Lord and our God – into the world to proclaim the good news of Easter: that because Christ is risen, sin and death no longer have dominion, that because Christ is risen, the invitation to new life is extended to all who pledge their allegiance to Him in faith.

Therefore, let us follow the faithful example of St. Thomas: let us seek earnestly after the risen Lord, discerning Him in the sacraments and hearing Him in the Scriptures.  Let us proclaim our allegiance to Him. And let us recognize Him in those to whom we are called to proclaim the good news.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Francis Martin and William M. Wright IV, The Gospel of John, 344.

A Sermon for Palm/Passion Sunday (A)

RCL Texts:

Liturgy of the Palms: Psalm 118.1-2, 19-29; Matthew 21:1-11

Liturgy of the Passion: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31.9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 27:11-54

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

We tend to assume the uniqueness of Palm Sunday. It is, after all, the beginning of the events that kicked off the first Holy Week some 2,000 years ago. However, while Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem is extraordinary, there is more going on in this event than initially meets the eye. Jesus is recapitulating – that is to say, he is bringing to fulfilment and completion – the history of Israel. He does this by fulfilling prophecy, as St. Matthew notes. But, as he has done several times already in his ministry, Jesus also re-enacts a particular episode in Israel’s history. In the Triumphal Entry Jesus is fulfilling the story of Jehu, a military commander and the 10th king of Israel.

Perhaps some of you are wondering – who is this Jehu? Well, Jehu is one of those stories that the Revised Common Lectionary omits from the three-year cycle because he is deemed to be, by modern standards, a rather unsavory biblical character. And yet, the story of Jehu is necessary to unpack the story of the Triumphal entry.

Jehu is “one of those hyper-violent Old Testament characters who make Christians uncomfortable”.[1] God appointed Jehu to exterminate, with extreme prejudice, the entire house of King Ahab. Suffice it to say, Jehu performed this mission with gruesome efficiency; you can read about all the gory details in the book of 2 Kings. At first glance, Jehu seems to have very little to do with Jesus; what does a violent king from the Old Testament have to do with Jesus? Nevertheless, Jehu is a figure of Jesus Christ; the connection is revealed in the cloaks put on the ground.

After one of the servants of the prophet Elisha anoints Jehu as king, the soldier’s under Jehu’s command ask him what has happened. After Jehu announces that he was anointed Israel’s new king, his men “all took their cloaks and spread them for [Jehu] on the bare steps; and they blew the trumpet, and proclaimed, ‘Jehu is king.’ (2 Kgs. 9.13). Other than the Triumphal Entry, nowhere else in the Bible do subject lay down their clothes to honour a king. This is no mere coincidence, but is part of God’s providential ordering of both Scripture and human history.

Once Jehu is the new king of Israel, he sets out immediately to fulfill his God-ordained mission to kill Ahab’s family. It was Ahab, and more specifically his wife, Jezebel, who brought the worship of the god Baal into Israel. In his zeal to purge Israel of Ahab’s legacy, Jehu effectively ends all Baal worship by killing all the priests of Baal and their followers, demolishing the pillar of Baal and destroying the temple of Baal, turning it into a latrine (cf. 2 Kgs. 10.18-28a). Jehu is not merely securing his throne; he is avenging the deaths of God’s prophets who died at the command of Jezebel. Jehu is cleansing and purifying Israel so that they can return to the Lord in covenant faithfulness and fulfil the purpose for which God has called them. Jehu is zealous for the Lord (cf. 2 Kgs. 10.16). Yet, despite this zeal, Jehu himself falls prey to the temptation of all earthly rules who want to retain power: he tolerates the worship of golden calves at Dan and Bethel (cf. 2 Kgs. 10.31). In the end, Jehu stands along with many of Israel’s other kings with a mixed record.

Centuries later, the kingdom of Israel is under the power of Rome with King Herod acting as a puppet-ruler. It is in this context that Jesus arrives in Jerusalem. Though he does not ride a war horse, he is greeted as a king: the crowds throw down their cloaks in homage. In public defiance of Roman power, Jesus is heralded as “the Son of David”: the rightful heir to Israel’s throne (Mt. 21.9). While the expectations of the crowd – that Jesus will defeat Rome and restore the fortunes of Israel – are unfulfilled, leading the same crowd who welcomed him with cries of liberation to turn against him less than five days later, St. Matthew makes it clear that the proclamation that Jesus is the true king of Israel, and indeed king of heaven and earth, rings loud and clear.

Like Jehu before him, Jesus is zealous for the true worship of God. Immediately upon entering Jerusalem, Jesus heads to the temple where he clears it of the money changers and those who sought to turn this most holy of places of prayer into a marketplace. Jesus comes to Jerusalem full of zeal “to defend the honor of his Father against those who defile his Father’s house”.[2] Indeed, in St. John’s account of cleansing of the temple, we read that upon witnessing Jesus’ actions, his disciples “remembering that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me’” (Jn. 2.17b). This quotation is from Ps. 69, a Psalm written by David. Just as the words of Ps. 22 are on Jesus’ lips on the cross – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, so too the entirety of Ps. 69 is enacted by the Son of David on Good Friday in His zeal and in His desire to see God execute righteous judgment.

Like Jehu before him, Jesus enacts God’s judgment. However, whereas Jehu enacts God’s judgment in bloody fashion and, the only blood spilled by the Prince of Peace is His own. Jesus exercises God’s judgment not by killing those who betrayed him by demanding his crucifixion, but by sacrificing himself in order to reconcile humankind to God. Jesus enacts God’s judgment of the world on the cross. Through the cross, Jesus takes the violence and death-fixation of the world upon himself and so undoes the very power of violence and death through his resurrection. Jesus defeats death by his death and he vanquishes the power of sin by becoming, as St. Paul says, “sin for us” (2. Cor. 5.21).

Overall, Jesus takes the bloody vengeance and flawed reign of Jehu to its perfect completion; what Jehu foreshadows, Jesus fulfils. Just as Jehu resisted the seduction of Jezebel who sought to woo him to avoid her own destruction, in the book of Revelation we read of Jesus’ defeat of the harlot. So too in the book of Revelation, we read of a multitude “that no one could count from every nation, for all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their lands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Rev. 7.9-10). Here we see not only a glimpse of eternity, but also the assurance that we here today are part of his multitude who sing the praises of the slaughtered Lamb, the Son of David, who takes away the sin of the world. This much is clear in our Eucharistic liturgy, where we echo the proclamation of Palm Sunday: “Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

While we are not expected to carry palm branches or to throw our coats to the ground, we can expect that Jesus will come and meet us, even today. However, we must be careful that our own expectations do not govern how we welcome Jesus, lest our cries of ‘Hosanna!’ turn to ‘Crucify him!’  We must see the true Christ, not Jesus meek-and-mild, Jesus the spiritual sage, or Jesus the pushover. We must welcome him as King. To be sure, he is a king that is markedly different than the often capricious and callous rulers of our world, but he is a king nevertheless – indeed, he is the King of kings – and therefore deserving of our reverent praise. The good news of Palm Sunday is that the true King of the world has come. He left his heavenly glory in order to bring his kingdom to earth by taking on a crown of thorns and enthroning himself on the cross. It is this King who invites our allegiance and bids us follow Him.

We must welcome him as the Prince of Peace. Yet, the peace he brings is not merely the absence of war or some romanticized notion of inner-peace that is so popular in our culture; His is a peace that comes through the utter surrender of my entire being to His allegiance. His is a peace that comes that the price of letting Him so cleanse and purify my heart and mind, that my only response is ‘Hosanna!’ which literally means save or rescue. In other words: “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!” Our praise of God begins with our humble admission that, despite our best efforts, we cannot save ourselves; that we are in need of liberation from the devices and desires of our hearts. It is this Prince who will deliver us.

So, let us welcome our King with the expectation that He comes and meets us in Scripture and Sacrament. Let us welcome the Prince of Peace into our hearts and minds and find true freedom in him.

Hosanna in the highest heaven! Blessed is the Son of David! “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen”. (Rev. 7.12)

[1] Peter Leithart, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2017/04/jehu-on-a-donkey. Cf. also Leithart’s commentary 1 & 2 Kings, Brazos Press, 2006.

[2] Leithart, 1 & 2 Kings, 224.

Lent V (A): A Sermon

A Sermon preached at St. John’s Anglican Church, Port Elgin, ON.

RCL Texts: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 6:8-11; John 11:1-45



“O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord…Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live” (Ek. 37.4b, 5b)


I.

According to my count, passages from the book of Ezekiel are read only four times in the three-year cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary. This is doubtlessly because some of the passages in Ezekiel are rather explicit; the imagery is rather lurid and unsettling. Nevertheless, today’s rather graphic passage from Ezekiel is included in the lectionary. It is a scene that could come straight out of a horror movie: a valley full of bones suddenly comes to life as tendons and muscles, blood and guts, and finally skin cover the skeletal remains. The children’s Bible from which Natalie and I read to our children depicts this story in vivid illustrations of humans in various states of what I guess you could call ‘recomposition’. As a witness to this visceral scene, Ezekiel must have had a strong stomach.

Indeed, the Bible as a whole, if you will pardon the pun, makes no bones about physical reality. The Bible is unabashedly materialist. However, the Bible is also unabashedly spiritual, which is to say, infused with the Holy Spirit. To be clear, I do not mean that the Bible simply talks about the Holy Spirit, but more importantly, that the Holy Spirit speaks to us through the Bible. This is precisely why the Bible is referred to by some theologians as the viva vox Dei – the living voice of God. This is the same word of God that created everything that is out of nothing simply by speaking. This is the same word of God who took on human flesh and dwelt among us. This is the same word of God who died on the cross and rose again from the dead. It is this word which speaks to His people.

Therefore, this visceral scene of bones being brought back to life is not meant simply to grab our attention to make a point; it is God speaking to his people, both then and now, calling them to resurrected life.

II.

But why are there bones to begin with? How did God’s people end up dead? Did God neglect His people, forgetting His promises and turn a deaf ear to their cries? (cf. Ps. 130) No. The valley of dry bones represents God’s “wholesale judgment on the people for their apostasy and faithlessness”.[1] We know from the narrative of Scripture that time and again, God’s people turn away from God, refusing to live according to His ways and breaking covenant. These bones are “not just dead, they are dead in sin” (603). However, God does not leave His people dead in their sin. God’s people are, as Shakespeare once put it, “condemned into redemption” (602). God takes judgment and redemption with equal seriousness. Indeed, redemption is impossible without judgment, otherwise from what are we being redeemed and liberated?

Nevertheless, our culture tells us that we should be uncomfortable with the language of judgment and Sin. After all, these concepts are relics from a bygone era rooted in religious superstition. We are more evolved now; we’ve realized that ‘tolerance’, ‘inclusion’, and being ‘non-judgmental’ are better concepts than archaic theological language. Plus, didn’t Jesus embody these very things? However, in the end, this is nothing but pious-sounding sentimental hogwash that attempts to baptise Jesus into the image of our contemporary jargon and pet-causes. Don’t get me wrong, words like ‘tolerance’ and ‘inclusion’ certainly sound nice and non-judgmental, but they are empty words that can be filled with whatever meaning suits our ends. The reality is that regardless of what our culture tells us to the contrary, we are dry bones. We need only look at the current state of the Church in Western culture to see evidence of this; the Church’s attempts to remain in lock-step with the dictates of culture will not bring about revival or resurrection.

Despite our best efforts at self-justification, our attempts to explain away the reasons for the wrong that we do, our acquiescence in buying the lie of our culture that morality is relative – a matter of personal opinion – the reality is that we are all ensnared in the web of Sin. However, we are not only victims of Sin, powerless to resist; we are also agents who possess a staggering and “chronic inclination toward sin”.[2] So, we turn to ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ to assuage our guilt and to convince ourselves that we really are nice people with good intentions. However, the stark truth is “we can no more improve our spiritual lives than we can raise ourselves from the dead”.[3] We are dry bones; like Lazarus, we are dead, rotting in a tomb. Death is not an event to occur; death is our current condition.

Now some of you are probably at the point where you are saying to yourself: wait a minute – this is all a bit much, Father! Could you try to be more upbeat, more positive! Let me be clear, I am not trying to be a downer; it is Lent, after all, a time when we focus on Sin and repentance. I am trying to be faithful to God’s Word given to God’s people. It is only in hearing God’s word of judgment that we can hear God’s word of grace and mercy. The gospel of Jesus Christ is good news because it is both judgment and mercy. George MacDonald aptly describes the nature of God’s judgment and mercy: “If a man will not come out from his sin, he must suffer the vengeance of a love that would not be love if it left him there” dead in his Sin.

The miracle of the dry bones is good news because in this story we see the Word of God and the Spirit of God give new life to His lifeless people. Those who were once dead to Sin are now alive. The valley of the dry bones harkens back to the story of creation itself, where after fashioning man out of dirt – physical material – God then breathes life into the creature created in His own image. This story also echoes Pentecost, where the wind of the Holy Spirit gives birth to the Church. In Ezekiel, God re-creates by bringing life out of death. In chapter 36, we hear God say “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances…You shall be my people, and I will be your God” (Ek. 36.26-28).

This is not God simply letting bygones be bygones. Rather, God is taking direct action. God rectifies “his people’s wholesale violation of his commandments by breaking the bond of Sin”; God obliterates “not only the consequences of Sin but also the memory of it”, erasing Sin and all its power and reducing it to non-existence (603). God accomplishes this through the crucifixion and resurrection of the Word of God, Jesus Christ. On the cross of Christ, we see God’s judgment, God’s justice, and God’s mercy revealed in graphic and gory detail.

Indeed, the passion of Jesus is the key to reading the entirety of Scripture, including the story of the dry bones. “Before the incarnation and self-abasement of Christ [on the cross], the whole world was in a state of ruin and decay [due to the power of Sin]”; however, “when he humbled himself, he lifted the world up. He annulled the curse, put an end to death, opened paradise, destroyed sin, flung wide the gates of heaven”.[4] God’s people are condemned into redemption.  Not only does Christ’s death and resurrection destroy the power of death in its physical manifestation, so too does Christ’s death and resurrection destroy the power of death in its spiritual manifestation. Through Christ, those who were “in the flesh”, that is to say, those who were dead to Sin, are now resurrected to new life in the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8.8).

This new life begins with the impassioned cry: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner”. This simple prayer rejects all attempts at self-justification and lays the facts bare: we are dry bones whose only hope is in the resurrecting Word of God. This prayer of repentance is not about beating ourselves up or being too focused on the negative; rather, this prayer is submitting to the work of the Holy Spirit who dwells in us (cf. Rom. 8.9), brings us to new life, forming us into the image of Christ, the Word of God. God’s Word alone can speak life out of nothing. God’s Word alone can bring both physical and spiritual life. God’s Word alone can speak the dead back to life.

III.

So, where does this leave us: those who were once dead in Sin to whom the Word of God spoke: “Come out” (Jn. 11.33b)?

Simply put: as people resurrected by God’s Word, we are called to be witnesses to this resurrecting Word. The mission of the Church is to live in the Spirit of Christ, to be a people who live not by bread alone, but by every Word that comes from the mouth of God. This begins by attending to the Word of God as it comes to us in Scripture and Sacrament, nourishing our spirits and equipping us for mission. The mission of the Church is rooted in communal worship, where we gather as God’s people to receive God’s Word.

Having receiving this Word, we are sent into the world to proclaim this same Word. We do this by doing what the Church has always done: telling others about Jesus, teaching the faith as received from the apostles, tending the needy and vulnerable, transforming our culture, and treasuring the good gifts we’ve receiving from God. In so doing, the Holy Spirit opens our eyes to see where God is bringing resurrected life: in the profession of faith of the newly baptised, in the reconciliation of estranged family members, or in the prayers of a repentant sinner.

Therefore, let us daily attend to Holy Scripture, harkening to the living voice of God speaking to us in words that are simultaneously ancient and new.

Let us hear ever anew the living Word of God as it speaks to us and calls us to resurrected life and reconciled fellowship with God.

Let us proclaim with tenacious courage and exuberant joy the good news that Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord, is calling dead and dry bones to new life in Him.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

[1] Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion, 603. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from this book and noted by page number parenthetically.
[2] Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option, 31.
[3] John Webster, The Grace of Truth, 149.
[4] St. John Chrysostom, as quoted https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2017/04/01/he-annuled-the-curse-put-an-end-to-death-opened-paradise-destroyed-sin-flung-wide-the-gates-of-heaven/

Lent II (A) – A Sermon

A sermon preached at St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Chatsworth, ON. An audio recording of the sermon is available here.

Texts: Numbers 21:4-8; John 3:1-20

Cloister Cross

The picture above is the Cloister Cross, an altar cross from the 12th century. It is made of walrus ivory. The image at the cross beams is of Moses raising up the bronze serpent.

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (John 3:14)

I.

While John 3.16 is probably the most well-known and often-quoted Bible verse – think of that one guy in every football game holding up a John 3:16 sign – today we are going to focus on verse 14, the verse I just re-read. In last week’s sermon, we unpacked what St. Paul meant when he said that Adam was a ‘figure’ or ‘type’ of “the one to come”, which is to say Jesus (Rom. 5.14). You will recall that I described the figures or types of the Bible using the image of a typewriter – a type writer writes type. To recap, a type is a symbol that points to and represents the antitype in the same way that the type left on a sheet of paper made by a typewriter points to and represents the type bar, the metal bar that makes the type on the page. The Bible is full of types, most of which point to and represent Jesus Christ. This is an ancient way of reading the Bible called a typological or figural interpretation.

Now, perhaps some of you aren’t convinced; this way of reading the Bible seems too convenient, takes too many creative liberties, and perhaps reads too much into things. Well, if you aren’t convinced, I submit John 3:14 as evidence for my case: Jesus himself read the Hebrew Scriptures, that is to say the Old Testament, typologically. Jesus interprets the story of Moses raising the serpent on a pole in the wilderness as a type that prefigured his own crucifixion. So, if Jesus reads the Bible typologically, I think it is safe to say that we should follow his reading. As St. Augustine once remarked: “The Old Testament is the New Testament concealed and the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed”. If the entirety of Holy Scripture finds its meaning and fulfilment is Jesus Christ, then we are best served if we expect Christ to meet us on every page of the Bible, revealing Himself through types and figures.

II.

In his nighttime meeting with Nicodemus, Jesus makes some remarks that would have doubtlessly struck the Pharisee as rather odd. Indeed, the text indicates as much; Nicodemus wonders at how a grown man can be reborn in the same way that he came into the world the first time (cf. Jn 3.4). Jesus seems a bit frustrated at Nicodemus’ lack of understanding: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” (Jn. 3.10). So, Jesus appeals to a story that Nicodemus would certainly know: that of the wilderness wanderings of their ancestors, making a specific reference to the story of Moses making a bronze serpent to heal the people from poisonous snake bites. However, Jesus does not merely reference this story; he interprets it as a reference to his own being lifted up. Of course, as those who read this text after Good Friday, Easter Sunday, and Ascension Day, we have the benefit of knowing exactly what Jesus is talking about: his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. However, during their conversation, Nicodemus certainly has no clue what Jesus is talking about. This is likewise true for those who would be reading this text of Scripture for the first time without knowing how the story ends, much less the reference to the Old Testament.

Jesus is talking about God’s judgment against a people who “loved darkness rather than light” and his redemption to eternal life for those who believe in Him (Jn. 3.19). This is heavy stuff – a matter of life and death. Although God’s judgment is real and should be taken with uttermost seriousness, Jesus also makes it clear that God the Father did not send God the Son “into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (Jn. 3.17). And how does Jesus save the world? Through his enactment of God’s loving judgment on the Cross. This is truly good news.

Furthermore, it was good news to Nicodemus as well, who although he did not initially understand Jesus, we have every reason to believe he did following Jesus’ crucifixion. John 19.39 tells us that Nicodemus helped to prepare Jesus’ body for burial by “bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighting about a hundred pounds”. This is no small gift –as one commentator notes, the amount of spices indicates that Nicodemus sees Jesus’ burial as a “royal burial”.[1] This brings to mind the story of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with lavish perfume. Christian tradition venerates Nicodemus for his loving care of Jesus’ body. It is Christ’s own body lifted up on the cross, lifted up from the grave, and lifted up to be seated at the right hand of God the Father that opens the way of salvation, of re-birth through water, which is to say baptism – a baptism into Christ’s own death and resurrection – and the Spirit.

III.

To further unpack the meaning and depth of Jesus’ death on the cross, we need to read backwards, we need to turn back to the Old Testament and read it through the ‘Jesus-lens’.

Snakes are never a positive symbol in Scripture (Matt. 10.16 could be read as an exception) Already in the beginning, we see a serpent tempting humanity to doubt God’s provision and ordering of creation. In scripture, serpents are symbolic of sin and fallen powers. Just as a serpent plays an antagonistic role in the Garden in the beginning, so too a serpent is one of the primary antagonists in the end, which is to say in book of Revelation. Likewise, in today’s Old Testament reading, snakes are “a judgment upon Israel that reveals and symbolizes their sin”.[2]

But why does God send snakes? Is God merely trying to punish the perpetually complaining Israelites in creative fashion? No. God’s judgment is giving people exactly what they want. And when things get difficult, what do the Israelites want, time and again? They want to return to Egypt. God has liberated them from the bondage to Pharaoh, and yet they would much rather return to a life they knew, regardless of how awful it was, then to trust in God’s promises and provision and follow Moses’ leadership. Better to be enslaved yet rooted in one place than to be free and wandering in the wilderness. Verse 4 tells us that the people were “impatient”. The word used could also be translated as ‘discouraged’ or ‘fainthearted’. Indeed, as one commentator notes, “the souls of the people were shortened”; they lacked “the soul for enduring their long and difficult journey” (Stubbs, 167). Life with God in the wilderness was simply too hard for them; they wanted relative comfort, even if it meant living in slavery. The difficulty and risk of following God were simply too much to ask. The people’s lack of faith leads them to assume that God wants them to die. The people’s focus on the immediate gratification of their desires leads them to forget God’s provision for them. How fickle God’s people can be, over and over again.

So, God gives the people exactly what they want: snakes. Wait a minute, you’re thinking, how did the people want snakes? Egyptian religion at the time considered the god Apep as the antithesis to Ra. Apep was depicted as a snake and symbolized darkness and evil to the Egyptians. In God’s sending snakes to torment Israel, God is essentially saying: you want to go back to life in Egypt? Well, let me remind you what like is like in Egypt…

In instructing Moses to fashion a snake, God is reminding His people of his victory over Egypt. God’s people did not liberate themselves; how could they? They were powerless slaves. Rather, God alone liberated His people. The people could not feed themselves in the wilderness; they had to rely on God’s provision. Similarly, it is not the bronze snake itself that saves the people; it is the God who delivers His people, the God who does not want His people to die, but desires abundant and flourishing life for them if they would but turn to Him. Looking at the bronze snake was an act of faith because it required trusting in God’s promise that “everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live” (Num. 21:8). [3]

IV.

The snake on the pole and the cross of Jesus Christ are both about liberation and healing. Beginning with the temptation by a serpent, all of humanity is enslaved to sin. Rebelling against God’s ways and grumbling about God’s provision seems to be our default setting. In response to our rebelling and grumbling, God gives us exactly what we want, leaving us to wander in the wilderness, a place where abundant and flourish life seem to be nothing but a mirage. And yet, God does not leave us in the wilderness to die. Rather, God shows and provides us with the way to new life. However, this pathway to new life requires that we, like the Israelites in the wilderness looking at the bronze snake, look at our sin directly, that we face it head-on in repentance in order to receive rebirth. God enacted His judgment against Israel in the wilderness by exposing the sin of the Israelites through the symbol of the serpent; God enacted His judgment against humanity on the cross of Jesus Christ by exposing the lengths at which we will go to rid ourselves of God.

Yet in both stories, God’s judgment is not the end of the story; indeed, God’s judgment is simultaneously the means by which God brings healing and salvation. Just as the Israelites looked to the bronze snake to receive physical healing, we look to the cross to see the lengths at which God would go to reconcile Himself to humanity. Furthermore, it is because of the Cross that we have the assurance that despite the suffering and difficulties we experience in this life, we too will be lifted up with Christ.

Lent is a season in which we prepare for life in the wilderness by fixing our eyes on the Cross. By doing so, we are opening ourselves to the work of the Holy Spirit within who will open our eyes to see signs of resurrected life, of new and abundant life, even in the wilderness. Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but to make peace “through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1.20).

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week

[2] David L. Stubbs, Numbers, 168.

[3] Perhaps unsurprisingly, the people kept the bronze serpent and worshipping it as an idol until King Hezekiah destroyed it (cf. 2 Kings 18.4).

Last Sunday of Epiphany: A Sermon

RCL Texts: Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9

As both geographical locations and symbols, mountains play an important role throughout Scripture. Growing up as a grandchild of Dutch immigrants to Southwestern Ontario, mountains were the stuff of fantasy – the big hill my siblings and I used for tobogganing was a mountain in our eyes. So, when Natalie and I moved to Japan and found ourselves living in the middle of the Japanese Alps, I discovered that what I thought was a mountain as a child did not even count as a foothill. Even for those who grew up and live around them, mountains evoke a sense of wonder and grandeur. No wonder that mountains play an important role throughout Scripture: they are the place of God’s revelation, the place where God speaks and shows Himself.

In both of today’s readings, mountains are front and centre as the place of God’s revelation. But you may have also noticed that mountains are not the only connection and similarities between these two passages. There are supernatural clouds from which God Himself speaks, the presence of God’s glory, and, strangely enough, Moses plays a central role in both passages. What is going on here? Are these parallels merely coincidental?

At this point, I must confess that I read the Bible in a very ancient way, that is to say, in the way that the early Church Fathers read the Bible. One of the best ways of summarizing this way of reading the Bible is from St. Augustine: “The Old Testament is the New concealed and the New Testament is the Old revealed”. What this means is that we read the Bible as a unified whole with Christ himself as the key to unlocking its meaning. After all, on the road to Emmaus following his resurrection, Jesus said that the entirety of the Law and the Prophets, which is to the say, the Old Testament, are about Him. Jesus speaks through every page of the Bible to those who have ears to hear.

Therefore, there are no such thing as coincidences in the Bible because God providentially orders Scripture to His own ends. In other words, when we see clear parallels and connections in the Bible, we can be sure that God is saying ‘Pay attention to this – this is really important!’ So, the parallels in today’s readings are not coincidental; God wants us to pay especially close attention to what is happening on these mountains. Mountains are the place where God most clearly reveals who He is.

In the Old Testament, Mount Sinai is the place where God makes a covenant with His chosen people, providing them with the Torah – the ordinances God’s people were required to keep, you know, the stuff that we tend to skim over when reading the Bible because it seems so dull, so historically dated and culturally backwards. It’s not – but that is a sermon series for another time. In this morning’s reading from Exodus, we are right in the middle of God giving His Law to Moses. But then, God shifts gears for a moment and tells Moses to come up to meet Him on Mount Sinai. This is reminiscent of Moses’ first encounter with God on Mount Horeb when God speaks to Moses from the burning bush and identities Himself as “I Am”. It is in this first encounter that God commissions Moses to speak to pharaoh on God’s behalf, demanding that the Hebrew people be freed from slavery. Now, Moses is once again preparing to meet God. This time God is going to give Moses the tablets of stone which contain the Law, including all the instructions for building the tabernacle. The people stand in awe at the foot of the mountain because “the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain” (Ex. 24.17). Moses is standing in the midst of God’s devouring fire. After this second encounter, Moses’ face is shining “because he had been talking with God” (Ex. 34. 29).

In today’s Gospel reading, Matthew is making a clear reference to Moses’ mountaintop encounter with God. However, the Transfiguration is not “merely an episode in the story of Jesus”; it reveals something true “about the whole of who he is, of all he does”.[1] Who is Jesus? He is the one about whom Moses himself prophesied when he said “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you” (Deut. 18.15). Just as Moses called for the sacrifice of the lamb at the first Passover as God’s people prepared for their Exodus from Egypt and journey into the Promised Land, Jesus is the Lamb of God who will deliver God’s people from bondage and into the Kingdom of Heaven. Like Moses, Jesus’ face shines with the glory of God. But Jesus is more than just a prophet, a new and improved Moses; He is the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets because He Himself is the glory of God the Father. Moses and Elijah stand as representative figures of the Law and Prophets, representatives of God’s covenant relationship with His people. Jesus is revealed as the promised Messiah who inaugurates the New Covenant; Jesus alone completed “the work of redemption that [Moses and Elijah] foreshadowed”.[2]

People can only know God through God’s self-revelation. Just as God revealed Himself to Moses and the Hebrew people at Mount Sinai in a cloud and a devouring fire, now God reveals Himself to Peter, James and John through Jesus, His Son. Jesus is the One of whom the Father, speaking from a cloud, says “this is beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him” (Matt. 17.5). God reveals Himself most clearly and definitively in Jesus Christ. To see Jesus is to see God (cf. Jn. 14.11). However, humans have a tendency to try to fashion God into our own image, to domesticate God. Awestruck by being in the presence of God’s glory, Peter’s impulse is to try to contain God’s glory, to keep it within easy reach. Time and again God’s people wrongly think Jesus is such another prophet and teacher and that we can somehow manage God’s glory and holiness. However, God’s glory and holiness are “God’s utter uniqueness; the majestic, undefeated freedom in which [God] is who he is”.[3] In the Transfiguration, we see that God is this one: light from light, true God from true God, the Son who took on human flesh and invites us into reconciled fellowship with God, the crucified and risen one, the one who makes it possible for us to participate in God’s glory. Like Moses, Peter, James, and John, to see God, to hear God, to be in God’s very presence is to be devoured by fire. One cannot see God or hear God’s voice and remain unscathed and unchanged.

But what about us today – how are we to see and hear God? How does God reveal Himself now? The clue to this answer lies in clouds and fire. Throughout the Bible, clouds are visible manifestations of God’s presence – shekinah – say it with me – shekinah. The same cloud that lead the Hebrews through the dessert was the same cloud that appeared on Mount Sinai was the same cloud that entered the tabernacle and, later, the Temple, is the same cloud that appeared at the Transfiguration. This cloud was almost always accompanied by holy fire – the devouring fire on the mountain, the fire that did not burn the bush, the fire that consumed Elijah’s sacrifice and altar on Mount Carmel and took him to heaven in the form of a chariot, the same fire that came with gushes of wind at Pentecost. This fire is a visible manifestation of God’s presence. This fire is the Holy Spirit, the Comforter and Advocate who empowers us to see Christ through the eyes of faith.

So, how does Christ reveal Himself today? Where can we expect to see and meet Christ?

First, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus who did not immediately recognize Jesus after his resurrection, we see Jesus in the opening of Scriptures and in the breaking of bread. We read the Scriptures with the expectation that God will speak to us and reveal Himself through Jesus Christ. The cup of blessing and the bread that we break are, in the words of St. Paul, a participation in the body and blood of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 10.16). Both Word and Sacrament are visible manifestations of God’s presence among His people. Therefore, if you want to see and meet God, go to Church. Communal worship – the opening of Scripture and the breaking of bread – is the mountain where God meets His people, feds them, and transforms them into the image and likeness of Christ through the fire of His devouring love.

Second, we, Jesus’ disciples, go into the world as Christ’s body to seek the lost and proclaim the good news of God’s reconciling love. The mission of the Church is to bear Christ’s image, to reflect the glory of God, to have our very lives shining with His light. The Church is central to how God reveals Himself to the world. Like Israel before us, we, the Church, are called to be a distinct people – a holy nation and a royal priesthood. Our distinctiveness is not about self-protection or becoming more ‘religious’ or spiritually enlightened; rather, our distinctiveness is meant to be a witness to the way of Jesus Christ. Therefore, we are called to invite anyone and everyone to come and meet Jesus, to be consumed by the refining fire of the Holy Spirit.

Third, we go into the world to seek Christ with the expectation that He will meet us in the stranger, the poor, the sick, the lonely, and yes, even our enemies. In describing what will happen upon His second coming, Jesus reminds his disciples that when we serve others, we are serving Him: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me…Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me” (Matt. 25.35-36, 40).

As God’s chosen people – holy and dearly loved – may you see and know God in Christ Jesus.

May you be completely devoured by the passionate and transforming embrace of Christ.

May the Holy Spirit empower you to see, hear, and know Jesus in the opening of Scripture and in the breaking of bread.

May your lives reflect the light of Christ to everyone you meet. And may you meet Christ in those whom you are called to serve.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] John Webster, The Grace of Truth, p. 114.

[2] Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, The Gospel of Matthew, 218.

[3] Webster, 201.

A recording of this sermon is available here

“You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am Holy” (Lev. 19.2)

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5:48)

This is a tall order – indeed an impossible order – to fill. It seems as though in requiring perfection, God is setting up His people to fail. This hardly seems fair, after all, God better than anyone the human propensity to mess things up. How can we fallible humans be expected to be perfect?

To get at the heart of God’s demand in Leviticus, a demand directly referenced by Jesus, we need to first unpack what ‘holiness’ means in reference to God and then reflect upon what holiness means in reference to God’s people. This kind of unpacking and reflection will require that we get theological, which is to say, it means we will need to talk about God, which means things might get a bit complicated, so bear with me.

“I, the Lord your God, am Holy”.

Holiness is who God is. God is holy. We claim as much in our liturgy, echoing the song of the angelic hosts in Isaiah and Revelation: “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty” (Is. 6.3; Rev. 4.8).

God does not depend on anything or anyone for His existence; God is holy because God is God. To be holy is to be singular and distinct. God’s singular existence is perfection and beauty. “God’s own holiness is the sheer uniqueness of his being”.[1] In other words, because God exists as God and not as anything else other than God, God is holy and perfect. As one theologian put it – “God is not part of the furniture of the universe”[2] – God cannot be moved around or changed or refashioned according to human tastes because God is. And because God is, God is holy. It is as simple as that.

However, in thinking of God’s holiness, there is a tendency to slip into conceiving of God as remote and inaccessible – a divine tyrant out there somewhere who is narcissistically focused on His own holiness and generally uninterested in human history, unless it serves His own ends. Indeed, there are many who argue – wrongfully I might add – that this is the God portrayed in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament. If we were to leave the definition of God’s holiness as remote transcendence, then this portrayal of God would be accurate.

Except, this is not the God who meets us in Scripture. This is not the God who comes to meet us in Jesus Christ.[3]

The very fact that God meets us in Scripture and that God comes to be with us in Christ is also reflective of God’s holiness.

Holiness is not simply a matter of who God is; holiness is equally a matter of how God is. In other words, God’s holiness is “the coincidence of his very being and act”.[4]

God is Triune: God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The persons of the Trinity are mutually self-giving; they exists in a divine dance of eternal self-emptying love, or what the early church Fathers called ‘perichoresis’. So, we could say that God exists as love from Godself to Godself.

This self-emptying love of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit pours itself out to us: “God is from Himself, and from himself God gives himself”.[5] God is holy because God gives himself and brings us into fellowship – into communion – with him. God is holy because He is God, utterly transcendent and singular, but God is holy because He is the God who comes to be with us and draws us into fellowship with Him. God’s holiness is intimacy: intimacy within Godself but also intimacy with humanity. This intimacy is what makes God’s holiness upsetting; if God’s holiness were simply a matter of divine transcendence, we can easily keep God at arms’ length. However, because God’s holiness is also a matter of intimacy, we often become desperate to push God away. God is holy because God can be seen and known by humans. Moreover, it is because God is holy in this way that humans can be made holy

God makes us holy by bringing us into reconciled fellowship and communion with Him. Holiness is not something we can achieve by being ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ or ‘moral’; holiness is a gift from God. God alone makes people and things holy. This is potentially terrifying because it exposes all our presumptions and pretentions about who we are as God’s people and what God is calling us to do. “‘You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy’ is a calling uttered in love by God” (Radner, 206).

The one, holy, and Triune God elects – chooses – a particular people to be holy. God calls this people to be a “holy nation and a royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2.9; cf. Ex. 19.6). Indeed, God’s holiness is exemplified in His electing first Israel and then the Church into covenantal relationship in order to enact His purpose for the world. What is God’s purpose for the world? To reconcile all things to Himself and to bless all things.

That God chooses particular people for a particular purpose is scandalous to our modern sensitivities, curved as they are toward notions such as ‘inclusivity’, whatever that might mean. Nevertheless, God is holy in His electing love, scandalous as it may seem, because God chooses the few on behalf of the whole. God’s election of a few is not about who is ultimately ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ and it is certainly not for the elect to lord over others. The holy God sets apart a holy people for a holy purpose: to worship Him and to witness to the world about His salvation.

This is exactly what the laws and rituals of Leviticus are all about. We tend to stay away from Leviticus: it only shows up once in the three-year cycle of the lectionary. It is a peculiar and bloody book, full of strange rituals and what strike us as odd fixations with various bodily fluids, dietary requirements, and sexual taboos. And yet, this strangeness is precisely the point: God called Israel to be separate from the nations. God called Israel to be strange in the eyes of the world because they worshipped this God in this way. The requirements for ritual and moral cleanliness in Leviticus are preparing and directing God’s people into the way of holiness.

You see, all the ritual and ethical requirements of the Torah in general and Leviticus specifically are God’s way of preventing God’s chosen people from falling into idolatry on the one hand and injustice on the other. The worship of un-holy gods almost certainly results in injustice; and the inverse is also true: unjust practices almost certainly result in idolatry. Idolatry and injustice create a vicious cycle that divorces people from God and creates systems of exploitation. God’s purpose for the world is to put an end to all this, to destroy that which destroys His good and beloved creation. All the sacrificial and moral requirements of Leviticus point to and anticipate the way that God will enact His purpose: through the sacrifice of the unblemished and perfect Lamb – the sacrifice to end all sacrifices – the death of God the Son, Jesus Christ.

Although Christ’s death and resurrection put an end to the sacrificial system of the Old Testament, the call to holiness and perfection remains in full effect. We are called to live in renewed and reconciled fellowship with God; this fellowship is intimate and begins with my recognition that God is holy in both His simple perfection but also in His closeness and desire for communion with me and indeed with all humanity, even those who seem to be anything but holy.

We are then called to walk in His ways, to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. We do so not by merely imitating Jesus as a moral example, but by participating in His ongoing life and ministry. Participating in Christ requires being in fellowship with other disciples as we worship together, hearing God’s words to us in Scripture and receiving the heavenly food that are Christ’s own body and blood. Participating in Christ means creating time in our lives for prayer and silent reflection, embracing intimacy with God as Christ himself did on earth, and as he does in his ongoing ministry as our heavenly high priest. To participate in Christ is to grow into what St. Paul describes as “the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4.13).

Furthermore, “Holiness is a calling to be with God where God is and where God goes” (Radner, 204). We know where God is because we know where Jesus was when He walked the earth: hanging out with outcasts and sinners, extending to them the lavish mercy and grace of God without condemning nor condoning their sinful actions. To be God’s holy people, therefore, requires that we embody God’s heart for outsiders, for the poor and lonely, and that we are willingly to take the risk of leaving the safety of our church walls in order to seek out the lost and share with them the good news of Jesus Christ. This is the priestly ministry for which God chose us and the reason why God is making us holy: that the world may know the holy, reconciling, and transforming love of God made known to us through Jesus Christ.

As God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, may you know the sheer singularity of the Triune God and may you embrace the warm intimacy of this God as you grow into the image and likeness of Christ himself so that the world may see and know the love of God.

Amen.

[1] John Webster, The Grace of Truth, 200.
[2] The full quotation is “God is not part of the metaphysical furniture of the universe”, Stanley Hauerwas, With the Grain of the Universe.
[3] Cf. Mk. 1.24 and Lk. 4.34 where Jesus is identified as “the Holy One of Israel”.
[4] Ephraim Radner, Leviticus, 204.
[5] John Webster, God without Measure, 19.