A Good Friday Sermon

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

Audio of the sermon is available here.

Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Amen

The cross stands at the heart of the Christian faith; no cross, no Christianity. And yet, despite the centrality of the cross, I wonder, does the cross, the scandal of Christ crucified capture our hearts and imaginations or have we modern Christians become unwilling and unable to hear the good news of the cross?

Jesus’ crucifixion “is the touchstone of Christina authenticity, the unique feature by which everything else, including the resurrection, is give its true significance…it is in the crucifixion that the nature of God is truly revealed”. It for this reason that the crucifixion remains “the most important historical event that has ever happened”. Without the cross at the centre of Christian worship and witness, the story of Jesus the Christ can be dismissed as “just another story about a charismatic spiritual figure”.[1] If Jesus is not God, the cross is of absolutely no significance.

Attempts to rationalize Christ’s crucifixion through arguments that seek to cast doubt on the biblical accounts and historical claims that question whether the cross was truly central to the faith of the earliest Christians speak more about our modern context and its concerns and assumptions than they do about what happened some 2,000 years ago on a hill outside of Jerusalem. We attempt to pacify the cross, to reduce it to a religious symbol that reminds us to ‘love like Jesus’ as we strive to be good people. However, if Christianity is purely a form of spiritual therapy, it is not the way of the cross. You see, the cross is not about the “exaltation of the human spirit”; it is “about God’s humiliation, God’s entry into an ugly and irreligious bit of the world”.[2]

Therefore, simple truth is this: the cross of Christ cannot be rationalized because it is utterly scandalous and offensive. The cross is, a St. Paul described, utter foolishness to the wisdom of the world (cf. 1 Cor. 1.18). Indeed, as Martin Luther once remarked: crux probat omnia, that is, the cross tests everything. Our attempts to grasp or explain the cross will ultimately fail because the cross is that which grasps us and reveals the truth about humanity. This is precisely why the gospel of the cross is so difficult for us to hear and accept; we would much rather judge the cross than let the cross judge us.

The Passion reveals to us the lengths at which humans will go in their refusal and rejection of the God revealed to us in and through Jesus Christ. Therefore, the cross announces God’s judgement that we are at enmity with God, with our neighbors, and with ourselves. The judgment of the cross rightly makes us uncomfortable because it proclaims the stark truth about our situation. Our resistance or refusal to accept the judgment of the cross because we find it morally reprehensible or at odds with my preconceived notions about God underlines the truth of this judgment: we demand a God who acts on our terms and corresponds to our demands about who God is.

And yet, the cross tests everything; it tests our self-righteous attempts at religion, spirituality, piety, and morality. The cross stands as a reminder that it was precisely those who thought they had everything figured out about God are the ones who put Jesus on the cross. Let us not for one minute self-righteously assume that we enlightened moderns would have responded any differently than the crowds and religious leaders who demanded Jesus crucifixion 2,000 years ago. The cross stands as a reminder that we did not kill a spiritual teacher and a good man; we killed the Son of God, God Incarnate, and we killed him because he did not conform to our expectations about who God is and what God is like. The cross tests everything; it stands as God’s judgment against our insistence that we really are, deep-down, well-intentioned, good-hearted people. The truth the cross reveals is that we have alienated ourselves from God by rejecting Jesus Christ, the one who fully reveals God to his beloved creatures.

However, because the cross is God’s judgment, it is also simultaneously God’s mercy. God’s judgment and mercy are two-sides of the same coin, the coin that is God’s holy love.

To help us hear afresh the cross as the good news of God’s judgment and mercy and to reclaim the cross as the centre of Christian proclamation, I invite you to reflect upon the blood and water that flowed from Christ’s pierced body. The description of the blood and water seems like an odd detail to include. Indeed, of the four Gospels, only John includes this description. Furthermore, unlike the other Gospels, John’s does not make mention of the tearing of the veil or curtain in the temple. This might seem strange and there are certainly some who will cry ‘foul!’ at this seeming discrepancy in the Gospel narratives. However, there is a direct connection between the tearing of the temple veil and the blood and water that poured from Jesus’ side. Furthermore, this connection underlines the good news of the cross.

In the ancient poetry of Genesis 1 and 2, we read of how Adam and Eve, representative figures of humanity insisted on following their own desires and in so doing broke communion with God. As the Second Adam, Jesus Christ restores this broken fellowship by standing as the representative of the whole of humanity and bearing the full weight of God’s judgment against sin.

Sin is born of our refusal and rejection of God; we would rather live life on our own terms, seeking our own way through the world, turning our backs on the God who loves us. However, God refuses to leave us alienated from him ensnared in a web of sin with no way of returning back to God. Therefore, God’s judgment against sin – God’s ‘no!’ to that which breaks fellowship between him and his beloved creation is also a ‘yes!’ to restored and reconciled fellowship. Brennan Manning describes the Lion who will kill everything in us that separates us from his love, and of the Lamb who was murdered by us to mend that separation. Jesus is both Lion and Lamb; relentless against that which is parasitic on goodness and destroys life and tender and compassionate to those caught in the thrall of sin. Through Jesus’ crucifixion, “God has taken from us the power to live apart from Him” (Webster, 108). The cross is the undoing of sin’s power and the means of reconciliation with God.

The curtain in the temple separated the worshippers from the Holy of Holies; the curtain was a symbolic division between sinful humanity and a holy God. When the curtain tore on Good Friday, the division between humanity and God, between heaven and earth was removed. Through his death, Jesus opened the way of forgiveness of sin and reconciliation with God; Christ’s sacrifice of himself ensures that all people everywhere can receive God’s forgiveness. Through Jesus Christ, our great high priest who offers himself as an atoning sacrifice, all humanity can have restored fellowship with God (cf. Rom. 5). The good news of the cross is that some 2,000 years ago, the incarnate Son of God hung, “derelict, outcast, and godforsaken; he hung there as the representative of all humanity, and suffered condemnation [and judgment] in place of all humanity, to break the Power and Sin and Death over all humanity”.[3]

As Eve was created from Adam’s side, so the Church is created from Christ’s pierced side. As Christ, the second Adam, is born of the womb of Mary, so the Church is born of the wounds of Christ. We are born of water and blood; we have reconciled fellowship with God through baptism and the Eucharist. We participate in Christ’s death through baptism and the Eucharist; indeed, “the death of Jesus Christ is the one sacrament”.[4] Because we participate in Christ’s death, we also participate in his resurrection.

This is why the absence of the sacraments is so poignant on Good Friday; we are reminded that we so often and so easily cut ourselves off form the source of life in our stubborn refusal and rejection of God. And yet, the tearing of the curtain and the blood and water that flowed from Jesus’ body stand as ever-present reminders of God’s overwhelming and singular desire to be with us and for us through Christ’s sacrifice and an invitation to participate in God’s Triune life. Therefore, the sacraments are not mere memorials of past events; they are literally a re-member-ing whereby Christ resurrects us into new life as his body, the Church. The sacraments are gifts given to us by God through the cross of Christ.

Indeed, the cross, and by extension, baptism and communion, tells us that there never was and never will be a time when God is against us; even in his judgment God remains for us because God’s will is “to destroy all that is hostile to perfecting his world”.[5] Although the language of sacrifice and blood might ring problematic to our modern ears, the truth is that Christ’s blood “suggests that there is no sorrow God has not known, no grief he has not borne, no price he was unwilling to pay, in order to reconcile the world to himself in Christ”.[6] This is good news.

Therefore, let us not rush to Easter in an attempt to avoid the offensive scandal of the cross. Rather, let us see the cross as the good news that for us and for our salvation, Christ Jesus was crucified, died as was buried, and descended to the dead. Amen.

[1] All quotations in this paragraph are from Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion, 44.

[2] John Webster, The Grace of Truth, 69.

[3] Rutledge, 610.

[4] Karl Barth, CD, IV/1, 296.

[5] Rutledge, Crucifixion, 282.

[6] George Hunsinger as quoted by Rutledge, 283.

A Maundy Thursday Sermon

This sermon would be preached tonight. However, on account of the ice-storm, the service was cancelled.

Jesus got up from the table and took off his robes. Picking up a linen towel, he tied it around his waist…and began to wash the disciples’ feet (John 13.4,5). Amen.

The account of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet stands as a narrative ‘hinge’ in John’s Gospel; this story is a transition between Jesus’ earthly ministry and his Passion. Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet is, therefore, a summary of Jesus’ earthly ministry, a ministry of serving others, welcoming sinners, and teaching about life in God’s kingdom. Indeed, immediately preceding tonight’s Gospel reading, Jesus offers us a summary of his teaching, concluding by saying: “I don’t speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me regarding what I should speak and say” (John 13:49). These words of the Father are, as Jesus describes, “eternal life” (13:50).

Everything Jesus said and did, everything Jesus says and does, reflects his Father and reveals life in his Father’s kingdom. Therefore, Jesus is the full and complete revelation of God to humanity; to see and hear the Son is to see and hear the Father. What we see and hear Jesus do in washing his disciples’ feet is a remarkable and beautiful portrait of God.

You will recall that John’s Gospel begins with a complex poetic description of the Word who created the cosmos becoming flesh and making his home among us (cf. 1.14). This Word is grace and truth; this word is Jesus Christ (cf. 1.17). In the washing of his disciples’ feet, we see God’s grace and truth in action.

Moreover, as a summary of Jesus’ earthly ministry and as ‘hinge’ joining that ministry and the Passion, the author of John’s Gospel contends that the washing of the disciples’ feet can only be fully understood in light of the crucifixion. While one person washing the feet of his friends is an intimate moment that we can easily embrace, to claim that God’s grace and truth are most clearly seen on the cross is scandalous. To claim that Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet can only make sense in the shadow of the cross is scandalous because it challenges our desire to reduce the foot-washing to an ethical example that somehow stands apart from Christ’s self-revelation as God’s Son.

Indeed, the Incarnation itself is scandalous. It is one thing to claim that God took on human flesh, becoming fully human while remaining fully God. The scandal becomes amplified when we see this God disrobe, tie on a servant’s towel, and kneel before the feet of his disciples. Jesus is not simply offering us an ethical example of how to treat people, telling us to love other people the best we can. Jesus is revealing to us the God who kneels. Jesus is revealing to us the Creator who serves his beloved creatures. Jesus is revealing to us the lengths God will go to in order to heal and restore his broken creation.

This is a mystery that is simply beyond human comprehension, which is why we tend to reduce Jesus’ foot-washing to a mere ethical example we are supposed to follow. Yes, Jesus does command his disciples to do likewise, but we do so as a form of worship and obedience to the God who kneels, the God who for us and our salvation came down from heaven, the God who “emptied himself by taking the form of a slave” (Phil. 2.7).

A vulnerable and humble God is distasteful to those who demand that only a god who wields absolute power is worthy of worship. Likewise, a kneeling servant God fundamentally challenges the claim that, when we boil things down to their essentials, all religious really worship the same god.

In Jesus Christ, we see a God who’s power is revealed both in the humility of becoming a servant and the apparent weakness of submitting to death on a cross. In Jesus Christ, we see the utterly uniqueness and singularly of the God whose power is simultaneously love. Jesus reveals a God who is neither a tyrant nor inconsequential, but rather a God who is love all the way down and, as such, is intimately involved with the world through the scandalous particularity of Jesus Christ.

Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, sandal-clad feet that are dusty to be sure, but also feet that inevitably walk through the various kinds of dirt and filth that one would find on a road in 1st-century Palestine, including the leavings of the multitude of animals crowding these roads. Our feet are a God symbols of the direction of our lives and so often we walk through dirt and filth when we insist on going our own way apart from God.

Jesus shows us a God who is unafraid to get his hands dirty in order to make us clean. Jesus alone, as Peter soon realized, is the only who can make us clean, the only one who can restore us to fellowship with God. It is only on this basis that Jesus then tells his disciples to do what he has done. The servant-king, the God who kneels, commands his disciples to go into the world to proclaim the love of God which cleans and restores.

The hard truth is that we all need to be washed by Jesus’ we all need to have the dirt and filth of sin washed from our lives. To self-righteously refuse on the grounds that I am a good and pious person is to foolishly insist that I am clean while sitting in a mud puddle. The truth that we all need to be washed by Jesus is good news; the Lord of All willingly undergoes the humiliation of becoming a slave and “becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2.8) in order to wash us, reconciling us to our heavenly Father. We can only receive this washing when we humbly receive Christ into our hearts, allowing him to wash us from the inside out.

On the night Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, Jesus also gave them a meal, the meal we know as Communion or the Eucharist. Jesus gave us this meal as a way of drawing his disciples into fellowship with him so that we “have a place” (John 13:8b) with Christ. This place is God’s kingdom, a kingdom that is enacted every time we celebrate Communion and anticipated as we go into the world to proclaim the good news of the God who kneels.

The gift of Communion and Jesus’ command to “go and do likewise” find meaning and fulfilment in the shadow of the cross. Jesus does not tell us to remember that he washed his disciples’ feet and to remember the celebration of that Last Supper; Jesus commands us to remember his death. In remembering his death in the Eucharist, we are also sent to tell the world how his death is good news and to show the world what life in God’s kingdom is like: a life of grace and truth, of life of self-giving love and mercy. Christ restores us to communion with God so that we may see and know as well as tell and show the God who is with us and for us, the God who kneels and gives us eternal life.

Amen.

Ash Wednesday: A Sermon

A sermon preaching on Wednesday Feb. 10, 2016 at St. Paul’s (Chatsworth) and St.  John’s (Port Elgin).

Texts: Joel 2.1-2; 12-17; Psalm 51.1-17; 2 Corinthians 5.20b-6.10; Matthew 6.1-6, 16-18.

“Rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Joel 2.13). Amen.

Lent is a season of paradox, which is probably why our sisters and brothers in the Eastern Orthodox tradition refer to it as the ‘Bright Sadness’. Lent is also highly countercultural. Unlike Christmas and Easter, Lent is immune from commercialization. This immunity is rooted in the solemnity and penitential focus of the season; these things simply don’t sell. Furthermore, ours is a culture in which we are expected to be perpetually up-beat and happy. Perpetual optimism is our culture’s default setting: things are going to get better! Look on the bright side! Keep your chin-up! However, these paper-thin sentiments are merely a cover for our profound inability to see the world as a broken place in desperate need of redemption. Of course, we all read and watch the news, so we know that things are not exactly perfect. Yet, our culture is unable to offer deep comfort and assurance beyond that expressed by a greeting card. However, Lent cuts through this sentimentality and names the deep brokenness of our world.

In order to see this brokenness, we also need to be willing to admit our role in creating the world as it currently is. The truth of the matter is that God did not create a broken world: we did. Nevertheless, the perpetual optimism of our culture tells us that we mostly good and can fix the world with enough will power and team-spirit. Indeed, to suggest otherwise is to diminish the power of the human spirit, to be a defeatist, a pessimist, someone who stands in the way of human progress, or so we are told. However, Lent reminds me that repentance is the first step in moving toward hope and healing.

Repentance is the work of acknowledging that not only is the world a broken place, but that I am directly responsible for playing a part in this brokenness. This is an admission that flies directly in the face of our culture’s obsession with self-help and the power of positive-thinking. To suggest that we all share responsibility for the world’s brokenness is the height of peddling guilt-inducing shame that erodes self-esteem, or so we are told. However, Lent reminds me that I cannot fix or save the world precisely because I am part of the problem as much as I refuse to admit or accept this.

You see, Lent names the brokenness of the world for what it is: sin. Talk about sin makes us uncomfortable; it brings to mind judgment, condemnation, and punishment. These are not topics for polite conversation in our culture; how dare we presume to judge anyone else, let alone ourselves! We must respect the various pursuits of happiness of all people! Live and let live, after all! Nevertheless, Lent confronts us with the bald reality of sin and death; we simply cannot ignore sin and death, as uncomfortable as they make us.

The very reason the Christian tradition takes discussion of sin and death seriously is because we take salvation and redemption seriously. In order to understand the immensity and beauty of God’s salvation extended to humanity through Jesus Christ, we need to be able to understand the enormity and destructive power of sin. The result of ignoring or tip-toeing around sin is that we diminish salvation. When salvation is diminished, Christianity is reduced to a system of ethical self-improvement by which we ‘tweak’ our goodness, give ourselves a spiritual ‘boost’, and attempt to fix the world through various well-intentioned projects.

However, Lent cuts through our attempts to water down the gospel in order to make it more culturally acceptable and presents us with the stark reality of the gospel: though the world is ensnared in sin resulting in our alienation from God, each other, and creation itself, God is reconciling himself to the cosmos through Jesus Christ, and calls us to return to his loving embrace that we might participate in his work of redemption. This is more than greeting-card sentimentality or sunny-optimism; it is the only true source of hope and healing for the world. Lent confronts us with the truth that all people, even those of us who belong to the Church, need to hear gospel truth whether we like it or not.

Lent invites us to face the reality of our broken humanity, but Lent also invites us into the way of humanity embodied by Jesus Christ. “Lent strips off layers of self-deception, self-defence, [and self-righteousness] that screen us from the Risen Christ”, and lays us bare and dying at his feet, upon which he picks us up, restores us to life, and commands us to take up our crosses and follow him.[1] “The sin and death represented by the ash cross will wash away like dust. [However], the chrism cross by which you were sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever at baptism is indelible”.[2]

Lent reminds me that I am dirt and that one day I will die and become dirt again. However, Lent also reminds me that God is not done with the dirt on either side of the grave because God love dirt and God is in the business of bringing life. God creates life out of nothing and God brings the dead back to life. Death is not final; life is. We can observe Lent precisely because we know that God has the final word on the fate of humanity, and that word is Jesus Christ.

Reconciled through and with Christ, we, those who collectively bear the cross of Christ, become the righteousness of God; the “weapons of righteousness” which we bear are weapons used not to bring death but in service of resurrected life; they are the weapons of repentance, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. These Lenten practices are profoundly at odds with our culture and seem rather weak as far as weapons go. However, they are weapons of righteousness because they do not rely on human strength or initiative; rather, they are the fruit of God’s work in our lives. Lent turns our eyes toward the cross and in so doing reminds us that the world is not ours to save because it is already saved through Christ’s atoning sacrifice. Ours is to show the world that another way of life is possible, a way of life that stands in defiance to the way of sin and death, a way of life made possible through Jesus Christ, who for us and our salvation took on human flesh, and died for us so that we might live with him. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] Peter Leithart, “40+ Reasons To Observe Lent”, http://www.theopolisinstitute.com, accessed Feb. 9, 2106.
[2] Bishop Matthew Gunter as quoted on facebook.

Transfiguration Sunday – A Sermon

A sermon preached on Sunday February 7, 2016 at St. Paul’s (Chatsworth) and St. John’s (Port Elgin).

Texts: Exodus 24.29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Corinthians 3.12-4.2; Luke 9.28-36

“Extol the Lord our God, and worship at his holy mountain, for the Lord our God is holy” (Psalm 99:9) Amen.

I.

When we see repeated images and figures within the Bible, we can be certain that God is drawing our attention to something especially important. As Christians, we read Scripture with the assurance of God’s providential ordering of the entire text. Therefore, what might strike some readers as a matter of coincidence or pure happenstance, should alert Christians to pay close attention. Though the Bible was written over a long period of time by various human authors, God stands behind and speaks through the text, ordering it to his purposes; there are no coincidences in the Bible.

If there are no coincidences in the Bible, then what are we to make of the strange images and occurrences in today’s readings? The language of journeys up and down mountains, supernatural clouds, shining and veiled faces and apparitions of prophets strikes us as the stuff born of mystical illusion. Moreover, the story of the Transfiguration is a rather strange interruption in the Gospels’ presentation of Jesus. Perhaps we can accept miracles; but what happens to Jesus and to Moses before him is mythology, sheer fantasy, right?

II.

It is precisely because the accounts of the mountaintop experiences of Moses and Jesus strike us as strange and even embarrassing that “we should take [them] with great seriousness”.[1] Indeed, the seriousness with which we should attend to these texts is underlined by God’s providential ordering of Scripture; “reading the Bible isn’t about confirming out ideas and experience and going away satisfied. It’s about being challenged, called into question”.[2]

Last Monday, Rev. Carrie, John, Ann Veyvara-Divinski, and I had the opportunity to travel to Wycliffe College to hear retired bishop Will Willimon speak. Bishop Willimon reminded us that “God uses Scripture as dynamite in our lives”. Scripture blows up all our preconceived notions of who God is; the truth of the matter is that God is not who we expected God to be. Christmas and Holy Week stand as powerful reminders of this, but so does Christ’s entire earthly ministry. The oddness of God, Willimon says, is seen Christ’s Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection. It is also revealed, I would add, at the Transfiguration.

The Transfiguration is dynamite because it blows up our tendency to create Jesus in our own image – a Jesus who never disagrees with me; a Jesus who supports everything I do, a Jesus who agrees with every opinion I have and every cause I support; a Jesus who likes the same people I do and hates the same people I do. The Transfiguration reminds us that Jesus is Holy; moreover, he is the long-awaited Messiah who will enact God’s freedom and forgiveness.

This all becomes clear when we attend to the words of Scripture as dutiful servants refusing to bend the text towards our own preconceived notions of who God is. On the mountaintop, we do not see Jesus meek-and-mild, the easy-pushover we like him to be. Rather, we see Jesus full of power and glory; we see him shining in the light of his holiness. 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”.[3] Therefore, Luke is trying to tell us something in a not-so-subtle way: Jesus shares in God’s glory and holiness. Because Jesus shares God’s glory and holiness, Jesus is God’s likeness.[4] To know Jesus is to know God. The truth of the Christian faith hangs on the revelation of Jesus as the one who is, in the words of the Nicene Creed, “light from light, true God from true God”.

Furthermore, the language of mountaintop imagery in Genesis and Exodus pre-figures the Tabernacle. Moses ascends a cloud-covered Mt. Sinai to receive the Law and directions for building the Tabernacle.[5] As Mt. Sinai was covered in cloud, the “glory of the Lord settled” upon it, a glory that appeared “like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain” (Ex. 24.17) visible to all those gathered at the foot of the mountain. Moses stands as God’s chosen representative of God’s people to stand in the presence of a holy God in the way that the high priest alone will later enter the Holy-of-Holies in the Tabernacle on the Day of Atonement.

Luke clearly evokes this tabernacle imagery in his account of the Transfiguration. Jesus stands as God’s chosen representative of sinful humanity and is revealed as the Holy One of Israel, the Messiah who will atone for the sins of the world. Jesus is the high priest who will accomplish the sacrifice to end all sacrifice because he is the Holy One of Israel and the only mediator between God and humanity.

The presence of Moses and Elijah underscores Jesus’s identity as the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets; everything about the Old Covenant God made with Moses on Mt. Sinai finds fulfilment in Jesus. Jesus inaugurates the New Covenant as the promised Messiah. Moreover, just as Moses led the people out of bondage, Jesus will free all people from their bondage to sin. Just as Moses called for the sacrifice of the lamb at the first Passover as God’s people prepared for their Exodus from Egypt, Jesus is the Lamb of God who will lead God’s people into God’s kingdom. Just as Moses fed the people in the wilderness, Jesus feeds his people with his body and blood.

You will recall that upon Jesus’ crucifixion, the veil in the temple that separated the Holy-of-holies from the sanctuary tore open; the veil that stood as a symbolic reminder that the holiness of God must remain separate from the sinfulness of humans is now rendered mute and meaningless, a pile of ornate fabric clumped on the temple floor. The sacrifice to end all sacrifice definitively overcomes the division between God and humanity; God and humanity are reconciled through the mediation of Jesus Christ.

The tabernacle imagery is not lost on Peter; he sees but he does not understand what is happening around him. As a result, he attempts to domesticate God’s holiness: “let us make three tents” (Lk. 9.33). Time and again God’s people wrongly think that we can somehow manage God’s holiness in order to use it for our own purposes, dispensing it in small amounts as needed. However, the reality is God’s holiness means “God’s utter uniqueness; the majestic, undefeated freedom in which he is who he is”.[6] Indeed, when Scripture speaks of God’s holiness it is saying that “God is who God is”.[7] In the holiness of Jesus Christ, revealed at the Transfiguration, we see that God is this one. Therefore, to say ‘Jesus’ is to say ‘God’s holiness’.

Holiness is not an abstract theological concept over which there are differing opinions. Rather, holiness is the divine life of the Trinity lived in relationship as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and holiness is that same relationship extended to humanity. Jesus Christ is the embodiment of God’s holiness and, as the mediator between the Godhead and humanity, he brings us into restored and reconciled relationship with God.

III.

While the silence of Peter, James, and John was doubtlessly born of their confusion and wonder about their experience on the mountaintop, it is clear that they did not remain silent: their testimony stands in the words we read today. And so Paul enjoins us in 2 Corinthians that we, the Church, as priests of the New Covenant, must act and speak with great boldness about the truth of Jesus Christ. Jesus did not go up the mountain alone; the one who is God’s high priest takes with him those, who like Israel before them and the Church after them, are called “a royal priesthood [and] a holy nation” (Ex. 19.6; 1 Pet. 2.9). We are not holy because of our own efforts at piety, spirituality, morality, and religion; we are holy because Christ, through the Holy Spirit, makes us Holy and gives us a holy mission: to proclaim and embody Christ’s holiness.

We diminish Christ’s holiness when we fashion him in our image; however, we magnify Christ’s image when we submit ourselves to the work of the Holy spirit as it transforms us into Christ’s image – where Christ’s holiness is everywhere visible in our lives, the lives we live both as part of the gathered community of Christ’s body in Saugeen Shores and as individuals in our lives at home, work, school, and play; the One who is the Light of the World shining forth from our lives in a way the world cannot ignore.

God is the one makes us holy because he is a God who sanctifies. Sanctification is one of those $10 they teach you at seminary. But sanctification is also something that we modern Christians tend to ignore because it begins with and requires repentance: the acknowledgement that we stand before a holy God ensnared in the web of sin. Of course, this does not fit with the regnant cult of self-help spirituality our culture prizes so highly. Nevertheless, repentance is the beginning of the way of sanctification: the process by which God makes us, his beloved children, holy. Repentance is a turning our back to false gods and toward the holy God who lavishes his grace upon us in Christ Jesus; sanctification is how God makes us into saints: those who live by God’s grace alone.

As we enter into Lent, I encourage you to focus on the sheer immensity of God’s holiness. Let us approach the foot of the cross with humility, confessing our stubborn refusal to accept God’s grace in our attempts to domesticate God’s holiness. “Let us, therefore, pray that we may be put to death by [God’s] power [and holiness] and die to the world of the wickedness of darkness and that the spirit of sin may be extinguished in us. Let us put on and receive the soul of the heavenly Spirit and be transported from…the darkness into the light [and holiness] of Christ. Let us rest in life forever”.[8] Amen.

[1] John Webster, “Listen to Him,” in The Grace of Truth, 113.

[2] John Webster, “Listen to Him,” 113.

[3] Webster, 114.

[4] Cf. Webster, 115.

[5] Cf. Exodus 24.15ff.

[6] John Webster, “The Way of Holiness,” in The Grace of Truth, 201.

[7] Webster, “Holiness”, 201.

[8] Pseudo-Macarius as cited by John Webster, “Communion with Christ” in Eilers and Strobel (eds.), Santified by Grace, 138.

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany: A Sermon

A sermon preached at Christ Church (Tara) and St. Paul’s (Chatsworth)

Texts: Jeremiah 1.4-10; 1 Corinthians 13.1-13; Luke 4.21-30

I.

Being a prophet is thankless, indeed, impossible, work. It is not a job for which people are lining up to volunteer and it’s not a career aspiration parents have for their children. Sure, there will always be those who claim to be prophets and sages with some new spiritual revelation, but in reality they are self-appointed narcissists who peddle little more than feel-good navel-gazing. The easiest way to discern if someone is a prophet is to check their lifestyle and bank account; false prophets are typically motivated by making quick profits.

A true prophet, on the other hand, is a person chosen and sent by God to speak God’s truth. In the biblical witness, true prophets are known by the near universal rejection of their message: ‘It’s too harsh!’ ‘Enough with the fire and brimstone – give us something more cheerful, would you?’ ‘I don’t want to hear about repentance! I’m doing just fine, thank-you!’ Indeed, prophets in the Bible, with the exception of Jonah, typically receive less than a warm welcome: Elijah was forced to live in hiding because of death threats; Jeremiah was attacked by his brothers, beaten by a false prophet, imprisoned by the king, and thrown into a dry cistern; Jesus was driven out of town and nearly hurled off a cliff.

Initially these reactions might seem a bit overblown – why not simply ignore the prophet instead? However, when you consider the fact that prophets are called to speak out not only against those who control power – kings and rulers – but also members of their own faith community, including family members, you can understand why God’s prophets are universally rejected and live under the threat of death. We prefer our prophets to tell us exactly what we want to hear; we want our prophets to tell us everything is going to be fine and that I’m OK and you’re OK just the way we are.

Rather, God’s prophets speak out against the ways in which we participate in and tolerate injustice toward the poor. This proliferation of injustice is, the prophets insist, rooted in the unfaithfulness of God’s people. Time and again, God’s people turn toward idols, forsaking their calling to be a blessing unto the nations, neglecting their mission to be a people that embody God’s reign on earth. The refusal to live according to God’s ways, the prophets insist, leads to injustice and moral chaos. So, God leaves his people to their own devices and desires, seemingly withholding his mercy.

But all is not lost – while the prophets condemn injustice and idolatry, they remind God’s people over and over again that God still loves us and that God remains faithful to his promises. God promises to restore and heal his people if they will turn away from idols and return to him.

However, the call to repentance is too much to bear for people who insist on going their own way and doing their own thing. Our culture tells us that no one should tell us what to do; no one has authority over me. So, one of the ways to ignore the message is to shoot the messenger. This means that a prophet must be willing to entrust their entire lives to God as they fearlessly proclaim the message with which God has entrusted them. Because this message is a matter of life and death, a prophet is willing to give their life in order to fulfill their calling to bring God’s message.

II.

Luke intentionally begins his narration of Jesus’ earthly ministry with Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth. Luke wants to emphasize that Jesus is a prophetic Messiah.[1] This means that the character of Jesus’ earthly ministry is prophetic – he will announce God’s truth; he will call people to repentance; he will proclaim the good news.

The good news is that although each and every one of us is captive to sin, poor in spirit, blind to God’s love, and oppressed by our own desires, God has not abandoned us. Indeed, the good news is that God, through Jesus Christ, is liberating his people from sin. No longer must God’s people worship idols who cannot hear and cannot speak; God has revealed himself through Jesus Christ; the Word speaks to us, coming to earth as one of us to live among us, showing us the reality of God’s Kingdom. The reality of God’s kingdom is good news for the physically poor, sick, and oppressed to because through Christ, God promises to end all suffering and death once and for all. The entirely of Jesus’ earthly ministry, culminating with his death and resurrection, is a prophetic embodiment of God’s promise.

But the message of a prophet is seldom welcomed as good news. This is because in order to hear the gospel as good news we need to accept the fact that we are captives, that we are not the masters of our destiny. Like those in the synagogue of Nazareth who were incensed at Jesus’ words, it is easier to attempt to murder a prophet than it is to heed what he is saying. We would rather accept the cheap sentimentality conveyed by the song ‘All you need is love’, than to accept the radically dangerous love of God shown to us through Jesus Christ. The irony, of course, is that it is in the very murder of Jesus on the cross, that God’s scandalous love is most clearly revealed. And yet, this remains a truth that seem too good to be true; this is a love that is impossible for us to accept.

The reality is that Jesus Christ is the love of which St. Paul famously speaks in 1 Corinthians 13. This is not love enshrined by Hallmark and romantic comedies; it is a love that can only be understood by looking to Christ and him crucified. The message of God’s prophets announce and anticipate Christ; he is the meaning and fulfilment of their message. Indeed, Christ is the fulfilment of the entirely of Scripture; the very meaning of Scripture as a whole is found in and through him. Because Christ is the fulfilment and meaning of Scripture, he alone is the one who will have final domination over all nations and kingdoms; he is the one who will build and plant God’s kingdom.

To hear and accept the prophetic witness of Jesus Christ is to repent. The work of repentance is the means by which we turn towards God’s kingdom. Jesus himself says “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news” (Mk. 1.15). And yet, repentance is impossible for us to achieve by ourselves; it is not something we can do through sheer will power or through a rational process of thought. Rather, repentance is something more visceral: it is completely abandoning myself to the love and grace of God extended to us in Jesus Christ; it is about allowing the Holy Spirit to transform me into the image and likeness of Christ. Of course, this work of transformation is not automatic; it is the work of an entire life lived in repentance, of continually returning toward the God who will always love us and never forsake us.

As Anglicans, the work of repentance is embodied in our liturgy: “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open…” is a prayer of repentance. “Lift up your hearts…” is a prayer of repentance.

III.

As Christ’s earthly body, the Church is called to prophetically embody the love of Christ as it calls itself and the world to repentance through the proclamation of the gospel. This is a difficult task that will almost certainly result in open hostility directed toward the church, even by those who are part of the church. Nevertheless, the church cannot soften its prophetic voice in order to make its message more culturally acceptable. The message with which God entrusts is a matter of life and death; therefore we cannot mince words or use flowery language to soften the impact. The gospel of Jesus Christ cannot be compromised to societal norms or suited to personal taste; the gospel is all or nothing. It speaks about the totality of what God is doing through Jesus Christ; there is no room for niceties or qualification.

Although the gospel is for all people, many refuse to accept it; it simply demands too much. Indeed, we should not be surprised when people reject the gospel. Prior to his crucifixion, Jesus reminds his disciples, both then and now: “If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world – therefore the world hates you…if they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (John 15.19, 20b).

This hardly sounds like encouragement or a recipe for church growth. How is this good news? First of all, we must remember, we do not grow the church; all growth comes through the work of the Holy Spirit, beginning with repentance. This frees the church to focus on its mission: going into the world to make baptized disciples. Secondly, the same promise that God gave to Jeremiah, God gives to his church: “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you” (Jer. 1.4). God entrusts us – and as the reading from Jeremiah reminds us – God commands us (cf. Jer. 1.7) to speak his message, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news that God has liberated the cosmos from sin and death. We are either obedient to this command or we ignore it and keep ourselves occupied with church busy-work. When we are obedient, we can be confident that God remains with us, even as we face hostile crowds who want us dead and gone.

The prophetic vocation of the church requires that we both speak and embody the self-giving love of Jesus Christ, a fearless and dangerous love that stands with the broken, the poor, and the outcast. The prophetic message of the church is: God loves you just the way you are but he loves you too much to let you stay that way.

This is a message that is for the baptized and the unbaptized alike. Indeed, it is a message that the church must be willing to hear and accept for itself before it is able to proclaim it to the world. We cannot assume like those in the synagogue of Nazareth that we are somehow off the hook assuming that God plays favorites. No; the church must be willing to allow God to break it down and destroy it; the church must be willing to name its own idols and turn away from them in repentance. It is only in so doing will the church open itself up to God’s promised growth.

Could it be that the current numerical decline of the church in North America is actually a good thing, a way of calling the church to return to its first love? Could it be that dwindling numbers are God’s way of waking us up from our cultural slumber and reminding us of our prophetic vocation?  Could it be that God’s promised growth comes insofar as the church is faithful to her calling?

The planting and building of God’s kingdom is God’s prerogative; it takes place within God’s timeframe; we cannot force immediate growth through strategic planning or clever programming. However, we can go fearlessly into the world to proclaim the dangerous and life-giving love of Christ, knowing that he goes with us along the way.

Amen.

[1] Cf. Luke Timothy Johnson, Luke (Sacra Pagina), 81.