a sermon to be preached at Christ Episcopal Church, Accokeek, MD on the 2nd Sunday after Christmas, a.k.a. 5 January 2020, and based on the Gospel for the day, St. Matthew 2:1-12
Dear Friends in Christ,
I want to open by saying for one last time, “Merry Christmas everyone!” Because it is still Christmas. Today is the 12th day of Christmas. It can be marked by singing the final verse of that song about all those lords a’leaping, gold rings, turtledoves, and the rest. Or maybe by thinking about Shakespeare’s play ‘Twelfth Night’ (although the play really has nothing at all to do with the liturgical date). Or it could even be marked by a rector and his family having the congregation over to the rectory. There are lots of ways to note the end of the Christmas season.
But I would propose instead to mark the day by looking both backward and forward; backward through Christmas, and forward into Epiphany. What today’s Gospel presents us is the story of the wise men, the Magi, from the east coming to look for the one born King of the Jews. One place to start is to say something about just who those people were. The Magi seem to have been a high-ranking class of royal advisors, maybe priests, who gathered their advice from the stars. So they were astrologers, really. Or maybe, as they spent time observing the natural world, you could think of them as ancient scientists. They’d have been considered to be well-educated in the things of their time and place, therefore making them “wise men.” (And almost certainly, yes, “men” is correct.) “Kings” seems to be the wrong thing to call them. And most assuredly, they were Gentiles, non-Jews, foreigners, outsiders.
On Christmas Eve or early Christmas morning the angels sang in the presence of Jewish shepherds out in the fields watching their flocks by night. But you have to read Luke’s Gospel to hear that story. Here in Matthew, that whole familiar narrative is compacted down to “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea.” (Matt. 2:1). And if you read our text closely you’ll hear Matthew dropping in clues that this bit with the Magi happened a good chunk of time after Christmas Eve, even more than 12 days later. For example, the Magi come looking for “the child” (v. 2) and not ‘the baby.’ When they locate Him, Jesus is in “the house” (v. 11) and not in some temporary setting because there was no room for them in the inn. And finally, when Herod realizes he’s been tricked by the Magi he has his death squads go to Bethlehem and murder all the children there who are “two years old or under” (v. 16) because he had “learned from [the Magi] the exact time the star had appeared.” (v. 7). Herod knew how old the Savior was at that point.
I. Well, so the Magi make a long trip from their homes in the lands east of the Holy Land. Between seeing the star, interpreting its meaning, deciding to go find the King of the Jews whose birth the star indicated, choosing and packing the gifts, getting together their own food and supplies together, securing a leave of absence from their supervisors, loading up the camels or whatever transportation they had, between all that — and don’t forget the actual travel time — it took them a while to get to Jerusalem. It was quite a commitment to a task that they didn’t fully understand. The part they understood best was that they wanted to give this new King something that only they could give Him.
Herod had been ruling some 3 decades at this point and was not at all ready for someone (least of all some foreigners) to tell him there was a new King on the scene. Herod actually had something he could have offered to Jesus, too. He decided against it. And rather than simply getting his immigration and customs people to walk the Magi back to the border, Herod determined to try to uproot this new King altogether. He kept for himself what he could have given Jesus.
Actually, everybody in this story had something they could have given the child Jesus, but only the Magi followed through and gave Him their’s. And I’m not speaking about the gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Those three expensive gifts are partly where we get the idea that the Magi were kings in their own right (who could afford expensive gifts given to a new peer). And the three gifts are definitely where we get the idea that there were 3 Magi (but you notice that the Bible never gives us a head count).
II. Here and now, each of us has the opportunity to come to Jesus and give Him something particular, something our own. Think about the things you’ve already brought to Jesus. I’m guessing here, but I’ll say that most of us have probably brought Jesus our requests when we’ve prayed. We ask Him for lots of things, probably constantly. We ask Him for healing. We ask Him for peace. We ask Him for work, and for safe travel, and to make some things happen or to prevent other things from happening. So we bring Jesus our wants and our needs.
We also bring Him our burdens and cares. We bring Him our pain and sorrow. We bring Him our grief. We bring Him our sins. We bring Him our joys.
And sometimes, yes, we bring Him our version of gold and frankincense and myrrh. Over the years people have found symbolism in the Magi’s gifts (myrrh, for example, is said to have been one of the spices used in burials). And more recently I’ve read remarks that if they’d been the 3 Wise Women, they would have brought practical gifts like diapers and a casserole. But remember that the exotic gifts they brought were fairly easily convertible into cash and therefore very practical. Our own versions of these gifts to Jesus are quite the same when you think about it: gold maybe, or pieces of paper we call checks that are easily convertible into cash; and even skills like plumbing or the ability to teach that are freely given here at church, saving the congregation money. But frankly, anybody can write a check.
There’s still something, though, that only we can give Jesus.
III. It comes up 3 times in our text from Matthew. First, the Magi show up in Jerusalem asking for the child born King of the Jews, saying that they wanted to give it to Him (v. 2). Herod, that snake, picks up on their language and echoes it back to them when he sends the Magi off to Bethlehem to find Jesus (v. 8). And finally in verse 11 the Magi locate the Holy Family and are able to give their unique gift to Him. Again, it isn’t the expensive gifts. That’s not what Jesus most wanted from them. Expensive gifts are not what He most wants from us.
What the Magi first wanted to give — what Herod lied about wanting to give — what the Magi finally did give — and what every one of us here can give too, the special thing that only you can give Him, that special gift … is our worship.
In verse 2, Matthew records the Magi saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” They don’t want to ask Him for something. They don’t want Him to fix things for them. They don’t want healing. They don’t want the King to take away their guilt. They don’t even merely want to give Him the presents they have in their luggage. The Magi say they have come to worship Him.
Then toward the end of this passage, in verse 11, the Magi went “into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him.” Only after achieving their goal, only when they had done this thing they had come to do, only then did they open their treasures and offer Him their gifts.
Worship first. That’s the lesson I am drawing from the story about the Magi this morning. Worship first. Your personal worship of our God and King is something that only you can give to Jesus.
And it’s something He wants, too. Remember how just a couple weeks back there was someone among your family or friends to whom you wanted to give a gift, but you kept thinking, “Well, I don’t know what he wants. He certainly doesn’t need anything.” You could say that God doesn’t need anything from us either. But He does still want our worship.
It’s a deep privilege Christians have, to be able to worship Jesus. It’s something that doesn’t cost money; we don’t need to bring gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We can worship Jesus wherever we are; we don’t need to ride a camel for a year searching for where He is. It doesn’t take fancy words, and carefully crafted speeches; our text doesn’t record that the Magi said anything at all. Worship isn’t the words in the Prayer Book, or the actions and gestures of the priest, or the embroidered vestments, the organ and choir and hymns — although, be sure that all of those things can enhance and enrich our worship! Worship is a right attitude of the heart in the presence of God.
Here’s how it plays out as we are knocking on the door of Epiphany – the season in which we remember Jesus, the light of the world, being revealed to the world beyond the people of His own family and tribe and nation. The “presence of God” is in every place we can imagine, and places we can’t. God is wherever and whenever we can possibly be (as well as places and times we can’t possibly be). So with the right attitude of heart we worship God in all places, at all times, while we do whatever we are doing.
It’s good for us, though, to clear away the noise and distractions as much as we can from time to time. It’s good for us to focus on God instead of just to continue ‘doing whatever we are doing.’ It’s good to come together here at church to worship. And it’s good to sit silently at home daily to worship. No words are necessary. No music. No grand thoughts. Just start with the fact that our God Who is everywhere has forgiven all your sins and lets you be with Him. Your heart will know what to do.
Our right attitude of heart is born in us ‘by water and the Word’ (The Church’s One Foundation; prob based on Ephesians 5:26). Our right attitude is fed and nurtured by the bread-made-Body and the wine-made-Blood of the Eucharist. And crucially, our right attitude of heart is only able to guide us into kneeling before Jesus because He was put to death by being nailed to a cross (partly with the connivance of another Herod, a grandson of the one in today’s Gospel), and because three days later Jesus’s cold dead body was brought back to life and lives still today.
If you’ve followed the Magi to Bethlehem and knelt down before the Child to worship Him, then you’re ready for Epiphany. With the Magi we ‘return to our own country’ perhaps taking a different road. Now we worship our God out in the world wherever we go. We take the light of Jesus, the King of the Jews, to the Gentiles, to the nations, to the ends of the earth. Maybe your personal reach is as far away as New Guinea, or maybe it’s only ever going to be here in Accokeek. Probably it’s somewhere in between.
Today, and through Epiphany, and through the rest of your life, give the King that thing only you can give Him: your worship. Here, and to the ends of the earth, and wherever you find yourself, give the King your worship. In all places, in all times, it is what He wants from you. Be one of the Magi; worship the true King. Amen.
And may the peace of God, that passes all human understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen
a sermon to be preached at Christ Episcopal Church, Accokeek, Maryland on the 19th Sunday after Pentecost (20 October 2019) and based on the Epistle for the day from Proper 24: 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Grace, mercy, and peace be yours in Christ Jesus, our Lord,
Dear Friends in Christ,
This lesson from Paul’s second letter to Timothy begins rather abruptly. It may even be the most abrupt beginning of a lesson in the whole church year: “But as for you….” Clearly, we’re starting out in the middle of something. And it doesn’t help to look back to last Sunday’s Epistle, because that ended with chapter 2, verse 15. The people setting up the Lectionary skipped 11 verses from chapter 2, and 13 verses from the beginning of chapter 3. “But as for you….” well, as for you, you’ll get a quick little summary so you can see what Paul is contrasting his next words with.
In the end of chapter 2, Paul describes strategies for proper combat with the false teachers that Timothy and his congregation were facing. Then at the start of our chapter 3, he kind of zooms in on what the future will be like especially where those false teachers are not overcome.
2 Timothy 3:1-5:
“understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.”
That’s pretty grim. When I read that while preparing this sermon, I couldn’t help but think that St Paul was describing our world and our day. Fortunately, though, he’s got some Gospel to follow that Law. He uses himself, his own life, as a contrast to the distressing times of the last days. But as for you, you “have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra—which persecutions I endured….” (3:10-11) He reminds Timothy that he’s already a believer, already a Christian, already someone who models his own life on Christ, by following Paul’s example.
Then Paul is ready to set up the final opposing picture so he can write the words of today’s Epistle. He writes in verses 12 and 13: “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.” That’s what you need to have in the back of your minds when reading today’s lesson: “evil people and impostors” — those he described in the opening verses of the chapter as “lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant” and so on — those folks “will go from bad to worse.”
“But as for you….” With these words we get to the heart of the matter. Now we get to what St Paul wanted Timothy to do from this point on. And by extension and application, it’s what Paul wants each of us to do instead of living like those evil people and impostors, instead of living like the people in those last days of difficulty. They might tell us to drop what they would call the old tired teachings of Paul. “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed.”
The false teachers in the world may try to tell us that we should keep up to speed by listening to and following every new personality and self-appointed leader and best-selling book coming over the horizon, but as for you continue in what you have learned, knowing from whom you learned it. Timothy had learned from childhood what the Scriptures said, he had learned them from his mother Eunice and grandmother Lois (2 Tim 1:3). The Bible of his youth was, of course, only that part we call the Old Testament, but he had been thoroughly soaked in it. God’s Word had become part of who Timothy was. And it was enough to lead him to and keep him in the faith.
Some people these days will try to tell you that God’s Word is really not all that reliable, and so on, but as for you, remember that “all Scripture is breathed out by God,” that is, it is all inspired by God. It says what He means it to say to us.
False teachers will tell you that Scripture is completely trapped back in the time when it was written and that it has no real bearing on our lives today, that it is culturally and chronologically conditioned, that it probably meant something back then, but that today it’s only relevant as a historical document. But as for you, know that it is and continues to be “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”
We want to know that the Word does those things because those things will complete each of us and equip each of us for every good work. Good works, Paul says, grow out of the Bible’s God-breathedness. While the unbelieving world wants to get you to think that just anyone doing anything nice to another person is a good work, that isn’t what we get here from 2nd Timothy. As for you, know that to be a good work in God’s eyes, your works need to grow out of the ground of Scripture held in and filling your heart, somewhat like potting soil is held in by and fills a clay pot.
As an illustration, reflect on the parable Jesus tells in today’s Gospel (Luke 18:1-8). That man we call the unjust judge did eventually give the widow justice. But that wasn’t any gold star on his record. He only did it because he was annoyed and wanted to shut her up. He was not being a loving civil servant. His giving the widow justice was not a good work. On the other hand, if he had been motivated by the love of God, or had been acting in faith and trying to live out the will of God in his workplace, then we could maybe talk about his good works.
The society we live in and the culture that surrounds us will tell us that our main occupations in life should be trying to get ahead, trying to feather our nests and storing up riches for long and comfortable retirements, but as for you, well, you already know that’s not what Paul is going to tell Timothy and not what he’s going to tell us.
When I was at seminary, people often called him “young pastor Timothy.” He was younger than Paul, anyway, and Paul had sent him out to lead several churches, several congregations so we can think of him as a pastor. That’s why Paul is going to remind him here about the work he had been ordained to do.
Here’s the thing, though: all Christians can take these next words and live them out in their own lives even though most Christians are not set apart by the Church as pastors.
The world says do whatever you want. Paul says ‘but as for you,’ “preach the word.” (2 Tim. 4:2) “Preach” is the term we use for pastoral proclamation from the pulpit, you know that; but you’ve all also heard the proverb that ‘actions speak louder than words’ and that may well be a way that all of you could “preach” louder than a pastor. People will see what you do, how you treat others, whether you’re honest, and so on. Members of a congregation have a real multiplication effect on Gospel proclamation because all together know and talk with way more people in many more places than a pastor sees in a typical week. And don’t discount your words. People see how you act; they hear you, too.
When it comes to faith, the world says we should take it easy. Don’t push your religion on people, society tells us. But as for you, Paul says to be ready in season and out of season, be prepared to speak when everything is aligned for success and also be prepared when there’s no chance at all.
Society says to be nice, don’t ruffle anyone’s feathers. But as for you, Paul tells us to “reprove, rebuke, and exhort.” (2 Tim 4:2) In short, speak the hard words that need to be spoken. AND, he continues, do this “with complete patience and teaching.” (2 Tim 4:2) Or, if and when you ruffle feathers, help smooth them down again. So he isn’t really encouraging us to leap into the angry word battles that surround us. Times when we need to speak hard words of rebuke should be the times when we are most patient, when we carefully and quietly teach.
And one more from Paul: he tells Timothy that the time is coming when people with “itching ears” (2 Tim 4:3) will look around for smooth-talking teachers who will only tell them pleasant things, who won’t challenge them, whose teaching actually isn’t going to be solid. Paul may again have been predicting our age with these words. But as for you, he goes on, “always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.” (2 Tim 4:5) These things are particularly important directions for a pastor like young pastor Timothy, but again they apply to all Christians. Even “fulfill your ministry.” Every child of God has something that is their own avenue of service. Maybe it’s being on Vestry, or teaching Sunday School, or singing in the choir … or maybe it has nothing to do with congregational life. Your ministry could be some service completely “out in the world” at work or on some sports team or whatever.
Now then. If you’re at all like me you might be feeling a little burdened down by all these directions St. Paul is dropping on us. Everybody says to do A, but as for you do B; everybody says to do C, but as for you do D, E, and F. It’s a lot to take in.
Here’s the thing, though: the world, society, everybody else, they all tell us we should try to be tough and self-sufficient and big shot, independent heroes. That’s actually the message for itching ears.
What we have learned and firmly believed is that while God does indeed love and save us as individuals, He also places us into a community we call the Church. And not just this local congregation where we are this morning. God places us into a Church that stretches to all parts of the earth, and that runs back and forth through all time.
We have Christian brothers and sisters who were at Sunday morning worship today in Nigeria, and Syria, and Siberia. We’re united in the faith with believers in Guatemala, and Chile, and in western Canada who will be reading the same Bible lessons and praying the same prayers as us when they gather in their churches in a few hours. We struggle against the same temptations that bothered St Teresa in 16th century Spain, and Bernard in 12th century France, and Ignatius of Antioch in the 1st century as well as Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, centuries before Christ.
We are united with all of them at the foot of the cross of Christ. We are united with all of them by having been washed in the same Baptism. We are united with them because we all share the same bread and wine that is the body and blood of Jesus.
Jacob in today’s Old Testament in Genesis 32 can be an illustration of this. He was surrounded by community, by his family. Afraid of the his brother might receive him — especially when he learned that Esau was coming his way with 400 men — Jacob wisely divided his folks into 2 groups. If one should be ambushed, the other might survive. Then he sent his family across a stream and stayed behind where — when Jacob was all alone, in the middle of the night — some stranger started wrestling with him. And what a match it must have been. At dawn Jacob let his opponent go, but only after getting a blessing from him. And then Jacob realized he’d been wrestling with God. All night.
So Jacob wrestled with God by himself. But he also had his community nearby safely divided into two camps and his family just on the other side of the stream.
People you’re afraid of may come at you with 400 men, but as for you take care of your family and wrestle out your doubts with God (even if it takes all night).
You can look at a lot of life’s situations like this. Tell yourself that “People will say…, but as for me…” There’s godly wisdom in not following the crowd. There’s godly wisdom in sticking with the truth you learn from Scripture instead of chasing after every chance new wind that blows across your way. There’s godly wisdom in fulfilling your own singular ministry; in gathering around the cross of Jesus with fellow believers; and in applying the true medicine of God’s Word and the Sacraments so that you don’t suffer from itching ears and wander away after false teachers. God grant you that wisdom.
The peace of God that passes all human understanding keep you hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.
a sermon to be preached on the Second Sunday of Easter, or 28 April 2019, at Christ Episcopal Church, Accokeek, Maryland, and based especially on the Gospel for the day: John 20: 19-31
Grace, mercy, and peace be yours in Christ Jesus, our Lord,
Dear Friends in Christ,
So: Thomas. Maybe we should cut him a break. Or at least try to understand him and his story a little better. Because I believe he’s a lot like us. I mean, who among us hasn’t had a bad day, or bad week, at least once in our lives? And here, with Thomas, his bad week saddled him with a nickname that’s come down through the centuries to our day. You’ve heard it. I’ll just say it once, so it’s out in the open. We’ve all called him “Doubting Thomas.” Right? But that’s not his whole story.
Let’s start with re-creating the scene in today’s Gospel. The disciples are gathered together in a locked room, one week after the first Easter. A week before, that is on Easter evening, just hours after Jesus rose from the dead, hours after he appeared to Mary Magdalene outside the empty tomb, that evening Jesus came and stood among the disciples.
That first Easter evening Jesus told them “As the Father sent me, I am sending you.”(20:21) Then He breathed the Holy Spirit onto His disciples; and He told them, “If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (20:22) Seems like a pretty short encounter if that’s all there was to it. But you can be sure there were questions in the minds of the disciples. St Luke gives us a little more about what happened that Easter evening, how the Emmaus disciples had hurried back to Jerusalem and told their story, how Jesus the came among them all, how the Lord showed them His wounds, how He “opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures” (Lk. 24:45). All wonderful stuff. Fearful disciples transformed by their experience with the risen Jesus, and by hearing His words, into excited, knowing, more fully believing apostles.
But Thomas. Thomas wasn’t there that evening. Where was he? If you spend but a minute thinking about it, you’ll likely come up with several possibilities. Where was Thomas Easter evening? Maybe he was holed up somewhere that he didn’t feel safe leaving “for fear of the Jews.” (Jn. 20:19) Or maybe he wasn’t afraid of the Jews and was even hurrying from house to house whispering what the women had told them that morning after seeing the angels in the otherwise empty tomb. Or maybe he was working out how to cash in his discipleship chips and cast his lot with some other Teacher. Maybe all or none of those or something else altogether.
How about maybe Thomas was still dealing with his grief? What if he was so struck by the death of Jesus that he wrapped himself up in his cloak in a dark corner of a borrowed room in someone else’s house, crying his eyes out Friday night. And all through the Sabbath. And all of Sunday, to boot. Maybe he was known to his friends as ‘Sensitive Thomas’ or ‘Emotional Thomas.’ It could be that his love for the Lord Jesus ran so deep in his heart that when the Master was so quickly and violently ripped away from all of them, that Thomas had a huge amount of pain and sorrow to deal with. It could be that his way of dealing with emotional pain was, as it is for many animals and at least some people, to go off someplace quiet and private to work it through in silence by himself. I don’t know. Thomas could even have missed all the morning buzz about the resurrection.
Then here we are a week later. The disciples are again gathered (and I wouldn’t be surprised if they had been gathering in the same place every night, hoping to see Jesus yet again). And this Sunday evening Thomas is present.
But in the meanwhile he’s made it clear to his friends that he’s “Thomas the Scientist.” He needs evidence. Something observable. Preferably repeatable. Oral testimony is great and all, but Thomas wants — he needs — to know in a physical way that what the others said is true. He won’t just take somebody else’s word for it. ‘Unless I see those nail marks with my own two eyes, and unless I can touch Him, I won’t believe,’ he said. He’s the researcher, the investigator, the scientist.
But, I think he’s also a believer.
In the last week, the other disciples had fanned out across Jerusalem and found Thomas. They’d talked to him. Comforted him. Encouraged him. They got him to re-join their band. Something about their enthusiasm and certainty must have moved him. He had his doubts, sure. But I think Thomas really did want to be convinced. What he wanted was his own encounter with Jesus. He was demonstrating for us that we can’t rely on someone else’s faith. We need our own.
So he’s there behind the locked door this week. Then “Jesus came and stood among them.” (20:26) And the Lord went right to the heart that needed Him most at that moment. Right away, He spoke directly to Thomas and — echoing the disciple’s words — said “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach your hand out and put it into my side.” Just as if Jesus had heard Thomas tell the other disciples that that’s what he would need to do in order to believe Jesus is alive . . . because, of course, Jesus did hear him.
Jesus heard Thomas. He heard his prayers and praises. And He heard his doubts. Because Sensitive Thomas the Scientist was doubting. Jesus the living Lord tells Thomas “Do not disbelieve, but believe.” (20:27) Or in the NIV translation “Stop doubting and believe.” It sounds like Thomas was trying to contain both doubt and belief in his heart at the same time. It’s as if Thomas were re-enacting the internal struggle of the father in Mark 9 whose son was tormented with an evil spirit, the father who told Jesus, “Lord, I believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”, (Mk. 9:24) Because people can have both faith and doubt at the same time.
The great thing is that Jesus always hears us, too. He hears our prayers and praises. And He hears our doubts. Jesus hears you and me expressing our doubts alongside our faith. And it’s as if the two were in a foot race down the center lane of our soul. Which will win? The one we cheer on, the one we support, the one we feed regularly at the Lord’s table.
Unless, of course, you never have any doubts. Then the race has been won already. If that’s the case then your vision of the Lord Jesus is probably less that of Thomas in the locked room, and more that of John on the island Patmos. John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” was an old man in exile when he received the lengthy vision he recorded in Revelation. What an amazing portrait of Jesus he gives us there. Same Jesus that Thomas saw, but also a whole different one.
We read this lesson from Revelation chapter 1 earlier this morning. John writes, “I saw … someone ‘like a son of man’ dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet with a golden sash around his chest. His head and hair were white as wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. … His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.” (Rev. 1: 13, 14, 16) John’s reaction? “I fell at his feet as though dead.” (v. 17) I think that’s understandable, don’t you?
When I picture Thomas realizing who it was standing in front of him, I picture him dropping to his knees in adoration. Dropping at least to your knees is the appropriate posture before the Holy One of Israel, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Yes, of course, we can be familiar with the loving Lord Jesus who is our gentle good shepherd; but we dare not forget just who He is. Jesus is our friend, and He is our Lord and our God.
Thomas saw Jesus, risen from the grave, and believed. But most of the believers through time have not seen Him with physical eyes. Most of us have not seen and yet have believed. Even if still, like Thomas, we doubt once in a while.
And that’s where his story hits ours head on.
Because we all have doubted from time to time. I have. You have. Pretty much everyone has. Maybe not, we would pray, doubted the whole revelation, but surely some little thing here or there. Maybe not, again we would pray, for very long, but surely for brief spells now and again.
But here is what the experience of Thomas can teach us: even though we doubt, we can still believe. When we doubt, we need not despair. When we doubt, we are still in relationship with our Savior because He always keep up His side of the relationship.
Thomas and Jesus show us today that doubting is not in itself sin. It could, perhaps, lead us to sin, if doubting leads us to reject God, to reject the Scripture, or to reject what the Bible teaches us especially about how the death and resurrection of Jesus gives each of us eternal life. But in itself doubt is more like a temptation, which itself is also not a sin.
Jesus — faced with one of His close disciples who had told the others “Unless I see the nail marks in His hands … I will not believe” (John 20:25) — Jesus lovingly told Thomas to go ahead and put his finger in the nail marks if he still wanted to, just as long as Thomas would “stop doubting and believe” (verse 27). It’s like Jesus is saying, ‘Come on, Thomas, I know you’ve got that faith inside you, I’ve seen it before, we’ve talked about it together, let it out Thomas, let it out.’
Jesus says basically the same thing to each one of us whenever doubts creep into our own hearts. Maybe we read something by a rank unbeliever, an enemy of the faith. Maybe we follow some aimless path on the Internet one day that ends up in the middle of irreligious conversation. Maybe our minds are just creative or speculative enough that we have spontaneous doubts all on our own. Whatever our doubts might be or wherever they might come from, Jesus gently and patiently calls us back to the right path of faith: ‘C’mon show Me that faith we both know is in your heart.’ He wants to see it. And deep down, you want to show it.
So now we know that we aren’t left on our own in a land of doubts. Jesus constantly calls us. He holds out His hand to us. He pulls us close to His wounded side. He has breathed His Holy Spirit into the world to inspire us. He has left us His Word and the Sacraments. All of that combines to make it so that today we are among those “who have not seen and yet have believed.” (v. 29)
Take your doubts to Jesus as Thomas did. Take your fears and your joys. Take your griefs and hurts. Take Him your hopes and dreams, too. Take it all to Jesus our risen Savior. He comes to each of us the same way he came to Thomas, with open arms, a loving smile, and warm words. And Jesus draws us close. He pulls us in tight despite our doubts, even though we feel the need for evidence, even when He has to remind us to “Fear not!”
You may think that Thomas really had it pretty easy. He did, after all, get to see the risen Lord Jesus in flesh and blood. We don’t get to see Him yet with our physical eyes, but we will one day. In the mean time we see Jesus in the faces and actions of our brothers and sisters in Christ, fellow Christians here and in the wider Church. We don’t now get to see the physical hands of Jesus and the nailmarks there; but we do see the hands of Jesus in the way Christians treat those around them. Other people see Jesus in how we treat them. How are we loving God with all our heart and strength? How are we loving our neighbors as ourselves? That’s how Jesus becomes visible between the Ascension and the Second Coming.
So maybe Thomas didn’t have it that easy. Not any easier than us, anyway. He saw the risen Lord that night in Jerusalem, and then again a few times over the next 40 days. You and I can see Jesus every day, many times a day.
Don’t doubt, but be believing. Be among the blessed who have not seen and yet believe.
And may the peace of God that passes all human understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
A sermon to be preached at Christ Episcopal Church, Accokeek, Maryland on Sunday 24 February 2019, the Second to Last Sunday after the Epiphany, and based on all three of the appointed lessons in the ACNA lectionary: Romans 10:9-17; Isaiah 61:1-4; and John 20:19-31
Grace, mercy, and peace be yours in Christ Jesus, our Lord.
Dear Friends in Christ,
I’d like to start this morning with a brief pointer to the Church’s calendar. We are nearing the end of the season of Epiphany, which began back on 6 January. This season has traditionally been about Jesus, the light of the world, being revealed to the world. It starts with the wise men showing up in Bethlehem, the first non-Jews to worship Jesus. And the season has wound its way to this Sunday, marked as one on which we note an emphasis on world missions.
In the history of the immigrant church body of my youth we talked about two kinds of mission work. In German it was Innere Mission and Aussere Mission, that is, Inner Mission and Outer Mission. Briefly, the difference could be thought of as ‘home missions’ and ‘foreign missions,’ as Christian mission work nearby and far away. Back in the late 19th and very early 20th centuries it also meant German-language mission work, and non-German-language mission work.
One place in Scripture where that mission work was based is today’s lesson from Romans, especially 10:13-15. In a chain of questions, Paul writes: For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?
Circle that word “sent”.
That’s the real core of the problem we are looking at this morning: how can anyone call on the name of the Lord and be saved, unless someone is sent to preach the good news to them so that they can hear it, so that they can believe it, so that they can call on that name of the Lord? Back when Saint Paul wrote these words, back in the earliest days of the Christian church, it was absolutely necessary that individual people were going from place to place to share the amazing message of salvation face to face. It’s still needed today, and with modern communication methods sometimes, clearly, the sending is virtual. That is, sometimes today the mission is carried out in print and in broadcasts and, of course, over the Internet.
But however it is done, the sending is still required. And it still happens. And it happens with great regularity.
Before we look for how it is Christian people get sent to do mission work, maybe we could look to see what can be included in the commission that a sent person receives. Christians are sent to the other side of the earth to speak the Gospel to others. They are sent to translate the Scriptures. They are sent to celebrate the Sacraments.
There’s actually a better description of all this in today’s Old Testament lesson from Isaiah 61. There we read: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion—to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.”
These, my friends, are the core duties of Christians who are sent on missions for God. Each of us has particular ways in which we carry this out. But as imitators of the Lord Jesus, these activities of proclaiming and binding up and opening and comforting and giving, they’re underneath and behind what we do. Do you know why? Because they are what Jesus did. We have Jesus’s own words that this prophecy from Isaiah was fulfilled in what Jesus did.
Lest my shift in language was too subtle – that shift from speaking of ‘those missionaries out there, sent to the ends of the earth’ to speaking about ‘us and what we do’ — lest you miss the point, let me speak plainly: each and every Christian is sent into mission work for God.
Some are still sent far away, yes. But this is key: some people are sent much closer to home.
How can I claim that? How can that be true?
I invite you to turn your attention now to today’s Gospel. In John 20:21-23 we read: “Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”
Here near the end of John’s Gospel, on the evening of that first day of the week, the evening of the very first Easter, the same day Jesus rose from the dead, Jesus says to his disciples, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”
Now, it is a little unclear whether the “disciples” Jesus mentioned were only 10 of the 12 apostles, or whether there were others there that evening. We get to 10 because Judas the betrayer had gone off and committed suicide by this point and because for some un-named reason Thomas was absent. But we can think more expansively because the Gospel writers use word “disciple” to designate a larger group of those who followed Jesus. Just the chapter before this one, for example, St. John writes that Joseph of Arimathea “was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews.” So I believe that when Jesus breathed his holy breath on the disciples, he was sending out and giving the Holy Spirit to more than just the special close-in group of apostles.
Back in 2017 a man named Sam Kean wrote a book called “Caesar’s Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us”. The title comes from a thought experiment. He asked himself what are the chances that the molecules in Julius Caesar’s last breath — he died in 44 BC — are currently in your lungs, after having circulated throughout the atmosphere for centuries? With some estimates and quick calculations, along with his knowledge of physics, he figured out that there are likely 1 to 2 molecules of oxygen from Caesar’s last breath entering your lungs each time you breathe. Interesting, but so what?
How about this? Julius Caesar died in 44 BC and his last breath was one single exhalation. Jesus was standing among his disciples in that locked room in AD 33 and consciously breathed 10 or more than 10 times so that each of the people there that evening received the Holy Spirit. So even if Sam Kean’s calculations about Julius Caesar are off a little, if looks to me that it is even more likely that every time you and I breathe we are inhaling oxygen atoms that Jesus exhaled when he breathed on his disciples and told them “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
Let me say that again. My pious conjecture, my guess, is that every time we breathe in, we are inhaling some of the same oxygen atoms that Jesus breathed on his disciples. That is, I am saying that his breath – his Spirit – is our breath – is our spirit,
The Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit, is in you. Now.
All of us who are disciples of the Lord Jesus, all of us who are baptized with the Baptism he gave the Church, all of us who receive the body and blood of Jesus in communion at the altar, all of us who confess our sins and hear the announcement of our forgiveness, each and every one of us has been given the Holy Spirit. Each and every one of us is sent out in the same way that the heavenly Father sent out Jesus. Each and every one of us is on a mission from God.
By God’s grace we can each recognize that the Holy Spirit is in us. By God’s grace we can live into and inhabit that precious truth. By God’s grace, I say, we can each begin and continue to grasp our individual vocations, our particular callings as 21st century disciples of Jesus.
The list of functions from Isaiah should guide us in figuring this out. “To bring good news to the poor” … how can I bring good news to the poor? “To bind up the brokenhearted” … what can I do or say that binds up brokenhearted people? “To proclaim liberty to the captives” … to what people who are captive to what kinds of things can I bring a proclamation of liberty? And so on.
This Scripture gives us a list specifications for building the Kingdom of God and we are all called and sent out to do this. Overseas; here in our own hometown; through the Internet; in face-to-face conversation; at work; in school; around the dining room table; while we drive; wherever we are and whatever we are doing, you and I and every Christian around the globe are on our own mission from the Lord to bring good news, to heal, and to free.
Now, I can’t tell you exactly what your God-given mission is or how you are meant to carry it out. Those details are for us to discern in prayer. But the fact that we are each sent on mission to preach in our various ways as are suitable to our station in life seems pretty settled. Every Christian preaches in word and deed so that others can hear. They hear, which makes it possible to believe. They believe so they can call on the name of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. It all starts with you being sent.
May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
a sermon to be preached at Christ Episcopal Church, Accokeek, MD on the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, 19 August 2018, and based on the opening verses of the Epistle for the day Ephesians 5:15-17
Grace, mercy, and peace be your in Christ Jesus, our Lord.
Dear Friends in Christ,
In the Gospel for today “the Jews” who were listening to Jesus, that is the Jewish religious leaders who were there, continued a vigorous discussion amongst themselves. Back in John 6:41 they began to complain to each other about Him, to criticize him, to murmur against him because he had said that he was the bread that came down down from heaven. Now here in verse 51, they’re out and out arguing amongst themselves saying “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
They couldn’t quite understand what He was teaching. Apparently in the 10 verses between 41 and 51 some had become convinced or perhaps had become bold enough to venture that Jesus might be speaking truth. But not all of them. (That’s how they got to the stage of arguing.) All of them did not see or understand what Jesus was saying. All of them did not believe. They chose poorly. The believers among them, however, chose wisely.
Saint Paul’s words to the Ephesians that are the opening verses of the Epistle counsel taking this road of wisdom. The apostle writes there: “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” Now, I’ve done a little walking in my time, and all of it hasn’t been on smooth sidewalks or asphalt bike paths. Some of my walking has been on rocks or roots or mud. Sometimes all at the same time. In that environment, one has simply got to pay attention, to look carefully how one walks. It could be that Paul had that kind of path in mind in writing to the church at Ephesus. He certainly understood that all kinds of spiritual dangers, temptations, and pitfalls were waiting to trip up believers in their journey through life, their journey with Christ.
And now it’s our turn to pay attention to how we walk. It’s our turn to look out for the dangers. It’s our turn to be wise about our choices on life’s road.
Let’s look first at this word “wise.” Wisdom is talked about throughout Scripture. As a matter of fact, many of you might already know that a goodly chunk of the Old Testament (think of the books like Psalms and Proverbs that aren’t the Law, the histories, or the prophets) are called “wisdom literature.” And even beyond that there are references to wisdom and to the wise person all over the place in the Bible. Just for example listen to Proverbs 9:10 “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” Or about the good wife in Proverbs 31 (verse 26): “She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.”
We Christians should be like Jesus, should be little Christs. We are called to be like our Lord who, when he was little, “grew and became strong, filled with wisdom” (Luke 2:40) and when he was a teen “increased in wisdom and in stature, and in divine and human favor.” (Luke 2:52).
Wisdom, of course, is not the same as intelligence. One can be wise without ever having gone to school, let alone without having done really well in school. And being smart in book learning doesn’t guarantee any wisdom; it may even count against becoming wise.
In spiritual matters, there’s also a big difference drawn between earthly wisdom and wisdom from above. For details, see the end of James chapter 3. There the apostle writes: “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambitions in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such [so-called] wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. … But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” The contrast James draws between the two is pretty stark.
So what Paul writes about in our text is really this holy wisdom that, as James says, comes down from above, not any earthly wisdom. Holy Wisdom, Hagia Sophia in Greek, was the name of the largest cathedral in the world for 1,000 years or so, from about 500 to 1500. It’s an immense building, still standing in Istanbul, Turkey that was converted to a mosque for roughly 500 years and since the 1930s has been a museum. The full name of the church was “Shrine of the Holy Wisdom of God,” that is, Jesus, the Logos or Word (John’s Gospel, chapter 1). Much of that is beside the point here. The point is that God’s wisdom, wisdom from God and of God, this wisdom should be guiding us as we walk. (Remember how Paul started the first sentence of our text: Look carefully then how you walk.”)
Paul draws a contrast for his readers. I think it’s interesting that his next words are “not as unwise but as wise” when he could have written “not as foolish but as wise.” Why did he contrast wisdom with being “unwise” rather than being “foolish”? I think a point he is making may be about substance and heft.
Think of it this way: if wisdom were on a scale of 1 to 100, Jesus would be out past 100 someplace and each of us could be located somewhere along that line. I said “could be” because maybe we are really making positive fools of ourselves for some reason. In that case we could be somewhere on a 1 to 100 scale in the opposite direction, or -1 to -100 for those who remember math classes. The idea would be that this would display a range from complete wisdom to complete foolishness.
Then what about being “unwise”? I think it might be any place on that scale further toward the foolish end than one ought to occupy. You might still be classifiable as “wise” if you’re displaying, say, 27 or 31 units of holy wisdom. That’s okay, of course, unless you were given and expected to use 78 to 80 units. Being foolish, itself, has some substance, just in the negative direction. But being unwise shows a lack of substance, a degree of emptiness where there should be fullness and depth.
I want to suggest that Saint Paul is urging his readers – both the original ones in Ephesus and those of us in Accokeek this morning – to use and exhibit the full range and depth of holy wisdom with which God has blessed each and every one of His children.
Paul goes on to say that we should live this way in order to make “the best use of the time because the days are evil.” I don’t care what your news sources are, they all tell us that the days are evil. California is on fire and the smoke has reached our area. Our brothers and sisters in the Catholic Church are cringing at the Pennsylvania grand jury report on clergy sex abuse that came out this week. There are murders and terrorist attacks and wars and executions and disease. Only this week did the last homes of Americans in Puerto Rico get electricity after almost a full year. Floods and drought strike countries at the same time. The “days are evil.” I don’t have to tell you that.
So Paul tells us to make the best use of the time. But be careful here. Don’t think of this as a clock ticking down the time until … what? the end of the world or something. Time is certainly passing, and the clock is certainly ticking closer to the final tick and tock before Jesus’s return. Paul’s got something different in mind, however.
You know how the Bible says that “in the fullness of time” Christ came into the world? That’s Saint Paul again, but in Galatians 4:4. He wrote that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law.” That’s the same kind of time Paul’s talking about here in Ephesians. It’s actually a great image. It’s like — and maybe some of you did this — a very pregnant wife might look at her husband and say “It’s time.” This kind of time is something almost touchable, full to overflowing, ready to go, like the countdown to a rocket launch or a party. It’s not time running out and down the drain, it’s time building up.
Paul isn’t saying here ‘make the best use of your every passing minute’ but ‘make the best use of now, of your present moment, of when and where you are, because you are in the midst of the culmination of history even as we speak.’ This moment started when Jesus came as a baby in Bethlehem; this moment continues through his coming in the Eucharist; and this moment itself wraps up when Jesus comes again. Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again. He was and is and is to come. This is where and when we are. This is what Paul wants us to make the best use of.
So, how? How do we do that? How do we make the best use of this fullness of time? Read on in the text. Paul ends these verses saying “do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” When we understand the will of the Lord, we will know how to make the best use of the present moment. … Ah… Well… This is one of those things that sounds easy, but takes some unpacking to fully grasp.
All the evidence we have — that is the Scripture and the subsequent history of the Christian Church — shows us that sometimes people discern the will of God and sometimes they don’t. Or, to put it another way, sometimes things go well and sometimes they flop. What we would like, I often think, is to be able to read in the Bible something clearly directed to ourselves, or alternatively to hear a physical voice from Heaven directing us what to do in a particular situation.
But often, it seems, we want good answers to the wrong questions. Take jobs, for example. God wants us to serve and honor Him with our work, but I don’t see where He necessarily wants you or me to work in a particular profession or at a specific site. Just this week I told my spiritual director that even though I’m paid as a librarian – and believe I’m doing God-pleasing work there – I could just as well serve the Lord as an architect or a sandal maker. Maybe for some people it does matter to God, but if so, it would be obvious. And anyway, the Almighty can use and shape any godly work to His own good ends.
So does understanding what the will of the Lord is help us know where to live? Where to get an education? When to retire or leave a job? What car to buy? What to make for supper? Which socks to wear? God can use all our decisions and choices, but I think that also means that maybe the specific details don’t always matter so much. He can be honored with whatever car we buy, or whatever house we live in, and so on.
This is key: Just aim for goodness, truth, and beauty in your decisions. That is the Lord’s will. “To do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). That’s what the Lord requires of us. Be godly as best you know how from your reading the Bible, listening to sound teaching and preaching, and from hanging around other Christian folk. Here are just three Scriptures to note about God’s will: first – in case you’re not sure what God’s will is for you – 1 Thessalonians 4:3 “For this is the will of God, that you should be holy.”
And sticking with St Paul in Thessalonians, here are his directions on how to head in the direction of being holy: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
Paul, of course, is not the only biblical writer talking about the will of God. St Peter writes in his first letter, 2:15-16, “For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish. As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil.”
So the Lord’s will is that we be holy; we head in that direction by rejoicing, praying and giving thanks; and we live as free people in God’s will in order to silence the foolish, the unbelievers. This is how Christians look carefully how we walk. This is how we live wisely. This is how we make the best use of the time we are in.
Here’s a plan. First, be well-grounded in the basics: God loves you. Even when you sin. Even while you’re sinning. Jesus died on the cross to gain forgiveness for those sins. That forgiveness is yours when you have faith that it is. The Holy Spirit brought you to faith and currently lives in you, actually sanctifying you (making you holier). You’ve shown your faith by being baptized and in regularly receiving Communion. That is God’s will for you. You are now walking in His will. Yes, we all fall off the path from time to time (and often more frequently than that). But the Spirit picks us up, dusts us off, and sets us on the right path again. Just don’t get in His way. Love God; love people; and so be within the will of the Lord.
God bless you in your walk.
And may the peace of God which passes all human understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.
a sermon to be preached at Christ Episcopal Church, Accokeek, Maryland on Sunday, 3 June 2018, the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, and based on the Holy Gospel for the day, St. Mark 2:23-3:6
Grace, mercy, and peace be yours in Christ Jesus, our Lord,
Dear Friends in Christ,
What I propose this morning is to look at this text through three lenses, and asking three questions: I. What is the Sabbath? (mostly an Old Testament view) II. How is it ‘made for man’ rather than the other way around? (the New Testament view) and III. How do we keep the Sabbath? (a present-day view)
Two incidents contained in today’s Gospel are both intimately tied to the Sabbath observances of Jews at the time of Jesus, so it’s good to review just what that was about. In both of the stories — the grainfield and the man with the withered hand — there are Pharisees watching Jesus and the disciples closely to see how well they follow the Sabbath laws. Those laws were important to the Pharisees.
You may recall that there were hundreds of laws and regulations specified in the Old Testament. There were laws about welcoming in strangers and aliens. There were laws regulating the animal sacrifices. There were what we might think of as “regular laws” prohibiting murder and protecting property and regulating marriage. Two large areas of the Jewish law were about clean and unclean things (the ‘kosher laws’), and the laws about the Sabbath.
The Sabbath in the Old Testament and in the Gospels is the last day of the week, the seventh day, what we call Saturday. The word Sabbath itself comes directly from the Hebrew word for ‘rest’. On the Sabbath, the basic idea was that the Lord rested on the seventh day from the work of creation, so His people the Jews should rest from their own work on the seventh day. It both honors the Lord by pale imitation of His own rest, and it sets His people apart because there were no other peoples then who had this weekly day of rest. That sounds plain enough, but probably right away people started asking all sorts of clarification questions.
Like, “Is it work if I do this or that?” The discussion and decision process really took years and years before it was first written down, and actually still continues. The law and subsequent decisions had then to be applied to all sorts of new situations as they came up. It’s sort of like the way our courts interpret our laws over the years and keep refining what those deceptively simple words in the Constitution and its amendments mean today in a new situation. I’ve read that there were 39 different broad kinds of work that were prohibited among the Jews, things like plowing, sowing seed, threshing, baking, shearing wool, lighting a fire or putting one out, carrying something from one place to another.
And the rabbinic discussions about the Law are the very definition of legalism. You can’t light a light a candle on the Sabbath, so you can’t turn on your electric house lights either: you light them before the Sabbath, or have them on a timer; and you need to be careful of, say, opening your refrigerator unless you unscrewed the lightbulb inside before Sabbath, and did something to make certain that the motor would not kick on because you had the door open. It’s against the Law to carry something on the Sabbath from a private place to a public place, so what if that something is in my pockets? No that’s not allowed. But, say with your handkerchief, if you pin it to your jacket then it’s considered part of your clothing and may be carried. An even more creative legal solution is the “eruv.” That’s a way of creating private space out of public space; so you might see families eating a Friday meal in a courtyard between homes which would make that shared outdoor space family space; or, even, more creatively some Jewish communities have strung a wire high up on poles around whole groups of city blocks so that they are “enclosed” and therefore within the private space in which people may walk and visit and carry things on Sabbath.
In essence, observant Jews have worked very hard to make sure that they don’t “work” on the Sabbath.
That’s certainly one way to observe the Sabbath. It does pretty much meet the letter of the Law in the 3rd (or 4th, depending on how you count them) Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy. What it seems to me to miss, however, is the spirit of the Law. This is where Jesus reaches in with today’s Gospel words and makes it clear to His hearers what should be going on during the Sabbath.
Our text from Mark 2 and 3 is divided into two parts. First there is the incident where Jesus and the disciples were walking through the grain fields and some of the disciples — maybe idly, maybe deliberately — plucked some of the seeds. The Pharisees immediately jumped all over them: ‘Hey, cut that out! You know that harvesting grain is not allowed on the Sabbath!’ Jesus intervenes by reminding the Pharisees of a story recorded in 1st Samuel 21 where David was in serious need of food, so he asked for (and received from the priest on duty) some of the consecrated bread at the Tabernacle. Jesus is saying in essence that if the great David could eat the consecrated bread, then surely we can pluck some some raw grains out of some guy’s field. Besides which, He says, the Sabbath is made for man, for people, not the other way around; people aren’t made to serve the Sabbath.
The second part of the text, the first 6 verses of Mark 3, is a real life demonstration of how Jesus viewed the Sabbath. On some other Sabbath (Luke says it was a different one) Jesus was in a synagogue for the weekly worship and the eagle-eyed Pharisees were watching to see what He would do about a man there with some sort of physical handicap. They knew that Jesus had this healing way about Him, and their interpretation of the Sabbath law would have said that practicing medicine was work, and therefore forbidden on the Lord’s day — plus, the man’s condition was a chronic one, not a sudden life-threatening one for which the Pharisees could more easily see an exception. Jesus, of course, sees to the true core of the Law and asks these experts whether it is permissible to do good or to do harm, to save a life or to take it. The Pharisees should have known better than to challenge Jesus. Their minds were all silently clicking through all the possibilities of permissions and prohibitions, “Well, on the one hand…. But on the other hand….” Jesus cut through the silence by asking to see the man’s withered hand. The man stretches it out like he probably hadn’t done for ages and found that he was healed.
So what these two incidents show us is how the Sabbath is made for our benefit. Jesus teaches both by His word and then by His deed that the true purpose of the Sabbath had been perverted, even way back then. Instead of focusing on what God had done for humanity, the focus had shifted to what people do and don’t do. Instead of letting the Sabbath be a break in the necessarily hard labor of those days, it had become another burden, an extra stress, an added difficulty.
What the Sabbath was supposed to provide God’s people was a break from their routine. If they were not working, then they would have a day of unspoken-for time that they could use for worship and praise, for prayer and supplication, for study and teaching. Men and women both went to synagogue at the time of Jesus. It was a time for all Israelites to fill up their spiritual gas tanks. This was not supposed to be a time for more burdens, more lists of dos and don’ts.
The flip side of the coin was, as I just said, the worship of the Lord. Incumbent upon His followers every day, worship was especially called for on the Sabbath. It’s maybe good to view it as a two-way street: God’s people receive the blessing of Sabbath rest from Him, then they give worship back to Him.
Which is also where Christians, you and I, have adopted and adapted the Sabbath. Of course we do not make our regular time of corporate worship as a congregation on Saturdays. Christians since the earliest days of the Church have gathered on the first day of the week, not on the seventh. We do it (whether we think about it or not) as a way of remembering the Easter Sunday resurrection of our Lord. But, and here’s an interesting point, we do it in a way that fulfills the Old Testament’s commandment “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.”
We keep this commandment first of all for the sake of our body’s rest. It breaks our week’s routine. Secondly, we keep these days of Christian sabbath so that we have time and opportunity to participate in public worship, here with each other. Not that we restrict our worship to this day only, because actually there should be worship daily — as there is in various places throughout the Church. Most Christians will probably fulfill that part of the commandment through personal Bible reading and maybe reading a devotional booklet, and praying on their own. Either way works.
God wants this particular day to be holy for us, so the commandment says “…to keep it holy.” That basically means devoting this day to holy words, to holy works, and to a holy life. We don’t get to that point simply be refraining from work, whether it’s not plucking grain or any of those other kinds of work outlawed by the rabbis. We get there by occupying ourselves with God’s Word. So here we are with Scripture readings, yes, and a sermon based on one of the lessons. But also with our liturgy, so much of which is taken directly from Scripture. And [in our second service] hymns based on God’s Word. Here we are at church where through most of the year we teach God’s Word to our children in lessons directed at their learning level. And where, also through most of the year, we have an Adult Forum after second service where we can discuss the sermon and Scriptures asking questions and seeking understanding.
But, again, we Christians should make every day holy, as we occupy ourselves with holy living everyday of the week. We can make each and every day a sabbath day. They won’t be ones where we avoid our jobs, but they will be days where our relationships rest in God. We can tuck His Word into little corners of every day, and the more we do so the easier it actually gets. We will start to think of this or that Bible verse, this or that hymn, this or that snatch of prayer at times throughout the day. And slowly but surely our every day will be sanctified. Slowly but surely this commandment will be fulfilled. Our every day will be a sabbath unto the Lord.
This is a real treasure we’ve been given. And as Saint Paul wrote in the Epistle for today, we hold it in clay jars (his way of speaking about our physical bodies), jars that are usually sturdy enough, but could just as easily go smash to bits. We are afflicted in every way, but we believers are not crushed because we have Christ and His Word in us. We are perplexed but not driven to despair because we know Christ is our Savior. We’re persecuted, but not destroyed, since we have God’s Word of promise living in us. We are “struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.” (2 Cor. 4:8-9) That, my brothers and sisters, is how every day of our lives becomes a Sabbath day, how every day is made holy. Paul, the former Pharisee, was right on target writing to the Corinthians. He knew his Jewish Law. But he also knew that in Christ the old Law is both expanded and made lighter all at the same time. It is expanded to cover all our days (not just Saturday) and to include all people (not just the Jews). It is made lighter because we follow it out of joy and gratitude to God for the death and resurrection of Jesus which free us from having obsessively to try to follow every little interpretation of every possible facet of every law in hopes that we do not offend the Lord. We are forgiven people. Christ has set us free. And His sabbath rest serves us.
May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen
a sermon to be preached on Trinity Sunday, 27 May 2018, at Christ Episcopal Church, Accokeek, Maryland, based on the Holy Gospel for the day, St. John 3:1-17, but especially verses 16 and 17
Grace, mercy, and peace be yours in Christ Jesus, our Lord,
Dear Friends in Christ,
When I was a kid, maybe 5th grade or so, we would occasionally break out into a little playground song that started: “Nobody likes me, everybody hates me / I think I’ll go eat worms!” It’s the sort of song lyric that appeals to 5th grade boys. Especially the squeal-producing descriptions of the actual worm-eating.
I don’t believe — although I don’t really know — that any of my friends back then really felt when they sang the song that nobody liked them, or that everybody hated them. We had each other, after all. We had our classroom and playground friends. We looked around and didn’t think that we saw anyone for whom the lyric was truth. Which just means that they were invisible to us. They were there among us. We just didn’t recognize them for who and what they were.
Back in that somewhat simpler time of black and white TV, a time before computers or cell phones, there were indeed people in school who felt totally unloved. Today they might bring a semi-automatic assault rifle to school. We’ve been fortunate that we haven’t had a mass school shooting nearby us, but you know as well as I do that violence is not far away. Whether it’s domestic violence, or police shootings, or gangs and drugs, you know it’s not that far away from our doors. Clearly these are all complicated issues, but I’m pretty sure that feeling un-loved is in there among the causes.
It can be really hard to recognize that people around us might be ready to sing that old playground song, that they really feel as if nobody likes them. I look around this church on Sunday mornings and I don’t think I see anyone who could sing that song truthfully. But I don’t really know that. If you’re here knowing you really could sing the “Nobody likes me” song, please know also that I’m sorry for not knowing. I don’t do small talk or groups or socializing very well, so I haven’t gotten to know you. Even with the way that support is built into our shared DNA as a congregation (partly because there is a LOT of shared DNA here), maybe we don’t recognize that feeling among us.
But here’s the thing: Jesus has something to say to us this morning about your pain. As well as about the pain that so many many people feel when they start thinking about God for whatever reason. You see, while some of us feel cut off from other people, rejected by false friends, even hated by everybody; at the same time there are people who are afraid that God in Heaven feels that same way about them. That God is a determined spiteful judge who is more than ready to bring down his hammer and declare us guilty. Right? God is perfect, we aren’t, which is true, so some people are just always a little afraid — and maybe a lot afraid — that God is just waiting for the right moment to call down the punishment we deserve.
Well what is it that Jesus said about all this? Bump down to the end of the Gospel in your bulletin. This text does NOT support the idea that God is an angry, vengeful judge who is eager to pound the gavel that will send us off to judgment. In John 3, verse 16 Jesus says that God loved the whole cosmos so much that He sent His only beloved Son (Jesus’s way of speaking about Himself), but not as a police officer, an investigator, or a detective, not as a prosecuting attorney, not as a judge. God the Father loves the cosmos so much that He sent His Son so that whoever believes in Jesus will by that faith be saved. And keep reading to verse 17: God didn’t send His Son into the cosmos to condemn it, but that the whole cosmos might be saved through Him.
Maybe you noticed that I used the word “cosmos” where our bulletin translation has “world.” When Jesus said “world” He didn’t mean the physical earth. Nor did He mean something like ‘all that sinful stuff’ like when Christians sometimes talk about ‘the world, our sinful flesh, and the devil.’ The Greek word here is “kosmos” that includes the sense we have in English of “everything that is.” The whole cosmos includes stars and planets and comets and black holes. The whole cosmos includes pandas and flowers and monarch butterflies. The whole cosmos also includes deer ticks and poison ivy and erupting volcanoes. The cosmos includes people, too, of course: newborns and our ancestors, religious saints and religious heretics and school shooters, too.
How does God show His love to all of these? By sending His Son into the middle of it. Remember, too, that Jesus did not come on a mission to condemn, but in order to save. (John 3:17) His motivating power is love. His mission is to save.
But then why do we read so many times in Scripture that at His second coming Jesus will come to judge, or that the Lord will judge, or that God is our judge? Well, because He is. Now this is important: As judge, God is going to look at all the facts before rendering a decision. He looks at us. He looks at our situation. He looks at our past acts, both our sins and our good deeds. And here is the good news, here is the best news, here is the Gospel: God looks at each person and when He is looking at a person of faith, God sees His only Son, the One Whom He sent, sent out of love. And God pronounces His judgment; and it’s not a condemnation. He says ‘You have eternal life, I do not condemn you.’
On this Trinity Sunday — when much of the Christian Church pauses over the eternal mystery of just how the three persons of the Trinity who are revealed to us in the Bible are three persons but only one God — on this Trinity Sunday we can also ponder the mystery of just why God determined that this was how salvation history should play out. We don’t know why, but we do know that. We know that God saves us because we believe in Jesus, but we don’t exactly know how.
I also don’t know how God reveals Himself to the rest of the cosmos that He loves so deeply. other than by the sending of His Son. I don’t know whether God reveals Himself in other particular ways to the deer ticks and pandas, to the flowers and poison ivy, to the stars and volcanoes, and to all the other marvelous and wondrous creatures both animate and inanimate that make up the cosmos. I don’t know; God’s Word doesn’t spell that out. Maybe He doesn’t need to, especially if they never fell into sin (although I do have questions about the ticks on that score). Or perhaps God does reveal Himself in special ways that are beyond our comprehension. After all, Jesus says explicitly that “God so loved the whole cosmos” and that the Father sent Jesus not “to condemn the cosmos, but that the cosmos might be saved through Him.”
Here is a great solution to whatever the worm song is in your life, to whatever might cause you to want to sing a lament, a “woe is me.” Live in John 3:16 and 17. Live in it. Dwell in it. Settle down on those verses like a hen arranging herself over some eggs she has in a nest. Then hatch the promises latent in this text.
Here they are in outline:
- A. You, yourself, you are very deeply and personally and thoroughly loved by God;
- B. You are not condemned by God, even though you are judged, because when He looks at the evidence it all points to Jesus; and
- C. You are even then ransomed by God, purchased and won, bought back, delivered, saved.
You, yes, and the rest of the cosmos: the pandas, and the volcanoes, and the school shooters, and the poison ivy, and the chipmunks, and all the rest of this cosmos that God made and loves.
We know that these unbelievable truths are believable because we find them in God’s Word. And as we go forth into the rest of our lives on earth, we go forth doing what God commands us to do. Which is what?
Saint John, by the grace of God and through his inspired inkpot, recorded for us what it is that God commands. John chapter 6, verses 28 and 29. I believe this is one of the most important texts in the Bible. Listen: “Then they said to Him, ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.'” Period. End of quote. “Believe in Him.” It’s the same thing Jesus told Nicodemus in our Gospel for today: “Whoever believes in Him….” That’s the work of God. That’s what God wants you to do. That’s what it takes to respond properly and fittingly to the love God has for us. And remember that this isn’t a mere intellectual assent to the existence of God (even the demons go that far). Believing in Jesus is the kind of faith that is willing to fall backwards off the boat into the deep ocean of God’s love, trusting that the scuba gear you put on will let you breath underwater.
Workers deserve wages. In our Gospel Jesus goes on to describe the wages we get: “Whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but shall have eternal life.”
Let’s call on our Epistle for today to help us remember that this idea is not isolated to John’s Gospel. Saint Paul writes starting in Romans 8:13 that “if you live according to the flesh, you will die” so of course we don’t want to do that. “But,” he continues, “if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” So that’s what we do.
“By the Spirit,” Paul says. That’s the same Holy Spirit who came into us and called us by the Gospel, enlightened us with his gifts, sanctified and kept us in the one true faith. The Spirit Who participated in our Baptism. The Spirit of Christ Who comes to us again when we eat and drink the body and blood of Jesus in the Eucharist. “That very Spirit,” (quoting Paul again in Romans 8:16) who is “bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (imagine that! God’s very children!!) “and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”
Now think for a minute about what it means to be a joint heir with Christ. We inherit what Christ inherits. Amazing. He’s the Son of God. Everything has been placed in His hands. And we are co-heirs with Him. This is way better than winning the lottery. And way, way better than eating worms. It’s something to take home with you today. May our triune God bless you as you do that.
And may the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.