Tuesday, July 25, 2017

An Open Door in Heaven

Genesis 28:10-19a

Last week’s Old Testament lesson introduced us to two brothers Jacob and Esau. These twins were very much opposites in temperament and struggled against one another even in the womb.  Although by the law and custom it was the first born who is the heir, the Lord tells the mother, Rebekah, that the older will serve the younger. The Lord’s favor falls on Jacob. 

Despite this, we learn from the text that Isaac their father loved Esau more. It isn’t hard to imagine how this would make Jacob feel. From his birth Jacob’s ambition and competitiveness are evident. He was born clutching his brother’s heel as if he was determined to be first. While Jacob is willing to stop at nothing to get what he wants, Esau despises his birthright and hands it over to his brother for a bowl of soup.  Jacob isn’t content with just that, however, but he even goes as far as to disguise himself as Esau and steal his father’s blessing out from under his brother. 

Cheated of his birthright and his father’s blessing Esau is enraged and prepared to kill Jacob.  Rebekah, in order to save Jacob’s life, convinces Isaac to send him away to her brother’s house to obtain a wife. With his father’s blessing, he departs on the long and treacherous journey.

Jacob finally has what he has always wanted. All his life has been a struggle. He has cheated his way to the top, but now he is alone wandering through the wilderness forced to flee from his home. He has lived the life of a loner by his cunning and stealth. His only ally has been his mother and now he is separated from her and will never see her again. This is where our reading today begins.
The sun sets below the horizon. Everything is dark. He lays his head down on a stone and sleeps.

Up until this moment, the text has given us no indication that God has ever spoke to Jacob. Jacob acts in such a way that shows that he is completely ignorant of the God of his father even though he has had God’s favor from birth.  He acts as if it were Jacob against the world, as if he had to fight for everything he had. One commentator says that “Jacob’s expectations of encountering Yahweh somewhere between Beer-sheba and Haran were about as great as Saul’s expectations of meeting Christ between Jerusalem and Damascus!”

Now however, as he dreams, God reveals himself in a dramatic way. Suddenly he sees a vision of a great ladder stretching from earth to heaven with angels descending and ascending upon it and God standing beside him!

The Lord repeats the promise he made to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham and assures him, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

In the Bible and in much of ancient culture, sleep and the state of dreaming, is considered to be a kind liminal space between this world and the spiritual realm.  It was believed that God spoke to people through their dreams.

In our state of dreaming, as our conscious mind sleeps, we become conscious of subterranean, hidden, realities that we are often unconscious of in our waking state.
Ironically it is in his state of unconsciousness that Jacob becomes conscious of the presence of God. He awakens in more ways than one and declares, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!”
There is more to the world than meets the eye. The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning writes, 

“Earth's crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes - The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.”

Sometimes we feel alone and forsaken in the world, that God is distant, and that heaven is some place far from earth on the outskirts of the universe, and yet God is beside us and Heaven lies just behind our everyday experience. We can’t normally see this reality and we don’t always perceive it, but we are surrounded with a great cloud of witnesses and innumerable heavenly hosts.

The vision that God gave to Jacob shows that there is an open door between Heaven and Earth. There is a communication between God and man. The angels—the messengers of God—descend and ascend on a ladder whose top is in the heavens but whose base touches the earth.

Spiritual teachers throughout the ages have seen in this vision an image of prayer. We ascend to God with our prayers and worship, we lift up our hearts to the Lord, and we have communion and fellowship in his presence.  But God also descends to us. Although God is high above, he has regard for his lowly creatures. He descends to us with his guidance, his correction, his love, and blessing.

What if instead of believing we have to claw our way to the top and step over our brother, we trusted in the power of God’s presence, and were content with his promise and blessing? What if we rested in the Lord as our rock and foundation, even as Jacob laid his head upon the stone? Would we not see and understand that heaven is always open to us and God is beside us?

Jacob’s vision is a symbol of God’s covenant faithfulness. It is an assurance of God’s intention to fulfill the promise he made with Abraham. God intends to make a way for fallen humanity to return to him through Jacob’s offspring. 

Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promises to Jacob. In the gospel of John he connects himself with the vision that Jacob saw saying,
“Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

 Being both God and man Christ is the true bridge between heaven and earth. In his very person the two are reconciled. He is God with us, God beside us.  He is the one who descended from heaven in order that we may ascend with him.  Through the blood of his cross the doors of heaven are open to cheaters like Jacob and sinners like us.

Alleluia to Jesus who died on the tree,and has raised up a ladder of mercy for me!

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Elder Shall Serve the Younger

If you have been following along in our readings from Genesis week to week you may be noticing certain patterns.

First, we have the infertility of the biblical mothers. God promised to make Abraham a great nation. His wife Sara was unable to conceive, but miraculously, in her old age, God grants Sarah a child, Isaac. Now in today’s reading we hear that Rebekah, Isaac’s wife, was also barren. The Lord hears the prayer of Isaac on behalf of his wife and they conceive. 

This is a theme that repeats throughout the Bible. Many of the great heroes of the Bible are born of infertile mothers. Their births are miraculous. This is true of Isaac’s mother Sarah, Jacob’s mother Rebekah, Joseph’s mother Rachel, Sampson’s mother, Samuel’s mother Hannah, and John the Baptist’s mother Elizabeth. All of these stories foreshadow the miraculous birth of Jesus, whose mother was not merely infertile, but a virgin!

But the theme I want to focus on this morning, is the theme of sibling rivalry. We have already seen the rivalry between Ishmael and Isaac, now we read of the conflict between Jacob and Esau.

 Any parent knows that siblings don’t always get along! They bicker and they argue with one another, but they also often compete with one another. Sometimes such competition is a healthy and friendly rivalry, but other times it is bitter, corrosive, and even deadly. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that siblings behave the same way in the Bible, but there is such a definite pattern to these sibling rivalries that we must conclude that something beyond natural family conflict is being represented.

It was the custom in the ancient world, including Israel, for the firstborn son to inherit before his siblings. The firstborn son is given pride of place. This is called the law of primogeniture, and the Bible mostly takes it for granted. The odd thing, however, is how consistently this custom is undermined in these stories of sibling rivalries.

In these stories, it is almost always the second that enjoys God’s blessing above the first.  In this morning’s reading God declares, “The elder shall serve the younger.” God speaks through the prophet Malachi more starkly, “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.” God chooses the second, but he rejects the first.

I’m not just saying this because I’m the second born of twins either! There is a pattern.

The first sibling rivalry in the Bible is between Cain and Abel. God accepted Abel’s sacrifice but he rejected Cain’s, which provoked Cain to murder his younger brother.  Ishmael was Abraham’s first born son, but Isaac was the son of promise. God also chose Jacob’s youngest son Joseph above his older brothers. 

In the story of the prodigal son the oldest brother has always been faithful, but it is the younger son—who returns after squandering his inheritance—that receives the lavish love of his father. 

It doesn’t seem quite fair does it? God seems to be depriving the elder son of what is rightfully his by law and custom. So why do we find this pattern so often throughout the Bible?

The reason is because it is a type. A type is a kind of prophetic symbol. It is a person or thing from the past that foreshadows a person or thing in the future; it is an earthly reality that corresponds to a heavenly reality. We have already seen in the last couple weeks how the binding of Isaac was a type of Jesus’ death and resurrection and how Isaac and Rebekah’s marriage was a type of Christ and the Church.

Saint Paul wrote that the stories of the Old Testament occurred as types and they are written for our instruction. (1 Cor 10:11)

He identified Ishmael as a type of those born of the flesh and living under the law and Isaac as a type of those born of the spirit and set free by the Gospel. This basic pattern holds true in general for biblical stories about the struggle between the younger and the elder. It is especially apparent in the story of Jacob and Esau.

These two were twins but they couldn’t have been more different. Esau was a real guy’s guy. He was strong and athletic, an accomplished hunter. He spent most of his time outdoors away from home. He was the favorite of his father Isaac who enjoyed eating the game he caught.

Esau was the jock, but Jacob was the shy introverted type. He was a homebody and a bit of a mama’s boy. While Esau is noted for his physical prowess, Jacob is noted for his intelligence and cunning.

Esau is the first born and the description of him is striking. He is almost bestial, red, and covered in hair even as a baby. He represents our lower nature which is driven by appetite and animal instinct. He is the natural man which cares nothing for spiritual things. He is the mind set on the flesh which is hostile to God.  

His color, described as red, is also significant. In fact he is often called Edom, which simply means red, not only because of his pigmentation but the mess of red pottage he sold his birthright to obtain. Edom comes from the same Hebrew root word that Adam does. Adam is also named ‘red’ after the red clay of the earth that he was made of. Esau represents the first man, Adam, who was made from the earth.

Jacob is born second, after Esau, and comes clutching his heel. His name means “the supplanter,” because although younger, he was destined to rule over his brother. He is a type of the second man, Christ, who was born of the spirit from above. Although the Son of God was from everlasting, Jesus comes after Adam. While Adam bares the curse, Jesus—the second Adam—bears the blessing.

This isn’t to say that Jacob is all virtuous and that his motives are always pure. As we shall see, Jacob himself is a divided person. Jacob, the supplanter, is later changed to Israel, which means “may God prevail.” He is both the one who struggles but also the one who at last is victorious. His brother Esau is the reflection of his own lower nature which he must overcome.

These two brothers, the flesh and the spirit, the lower nature and the higher nature, the first Adam and the Second Adam, were struggling within one womb. Their struggle was so intense that Rebekah said,
“If it is to be this way, why do I live?”

Don’t we sometimes feel the same? Don’t we sometimes feel these two principles at war within ourselves? For what the flesh wants is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit wants is opposed to the flesh. They are opposed to each other, and so you do not do what you want to do. 

We feel ourselves divided and at war with ourselves. Sometimes it feels like our lower nature is stronger. We can’t win against it and so we try to outsmart it.

Maybe we devise certain strategies to stay one step ahead of our wayward urges.  We hide the Halloween in the cupboard so as not to be tempted… Sometimes our lower nature needs to be placated with the promise of a reward before we do the right thing. Its like a child who only eats her dinner because she knows there will be ice cream if she does.

To those of us caught up in the battle, God reminds us, “The elder shall serve the younger.” Although our flesh sometimes feels so much stronger than our spiritual nature, the lower nature was made to serve the higher. Despite the appearances, “the one shall be stronger than the other.”

Saint Paul says, “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death… you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you… If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Promised Bride

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67

The most important decision many people will make in life is who they will marry, who will be their spouse, who will they spend their life with. A lot hinges on this decision. The right choice can fill your life with happiness and joy, but the wrong choice can fill your life with misery and disappointment.

The book of Proverbs says, “A wife of noble character is her husband's crown, but a disgraceful wife is like decay in his bones.”

The servant of Abraham, Eliezer, had been given an awesome responsibility: find a wife for Abraham’s heir, Isaac. This was a particularly important task because Isaac was the son of promise, the one that God had promised to give to Abraham, the one through whom Abraham would be made a great nation, the one through whom all the world would be blessed. It was absolutely imperative that the right woman be found to fulfill God’s promises.

Abraham gave Eliezer one criteria—and in doing so established himself as the first in a long line of Jewish parents—she must be a nice Jewish girl. He was not to find Isaac a wife among the Canaanites, but he had to travel back to Mesopotamia, back to Abraham’s people.

In those days there was no J-date—the leading online network for Jewish singles. In the Bible, the place where you went if you wanted to meet a potential spouse was the well. Not only did Eliezer meet Rebekah at a well, but Jacob met Rachel at a well, and Moses met his wife Zaphora at one as well. Think also of Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well.

When our reading begins, Eliezer is recounting what happened when he went to the well. Abraham told him that the angel of the Lord would go before him to direct his choice and so he asked the Lord for a sign. The woman who would give him a drink, and water his camels also, would be the one that God had chosen. This is sometimes referred to as “the Camel Test.”

There is a modern version of this test as well. When you are out on a dinner date, how does he treat the server and staff? Does he show kindness and respect to strangers? Whether or not he does, is a pretty good indicator of his character and what kind of spouse he would make.

Eliezer wanted to see if the woman he would meet would act unselfishly out of kindness of heart. Would she offer to water his camels too? Would she expect anything in return?

Rebekah, acted without hesitation to provide for his need when asked. Not only did she give him a drink, but she took it upon herself to retrieve water for his camels as well. It was second nature for her to do so. This was no small task either. Commentators remark that it would have taken 140 gallons of water to provide for ten camels. She exerted significant labor to go to the well again and again with water for the thirsty animals. All of this she did for a stranger. Abraham’s servant Eliezer watched her in silence and knew with certainty that this was the woman God had chosen.

The scriptures tell us that Rebekah was young, beautiful, and chaste but her preeminent quality was what is called in Hebrew, “hesed.” It is notoriously difficult to translate but is sometimes translated into English as the compound word, “Loving-kindness.”

Hesed is more than kindness. It goes beyond mere temperament to concrete service and action. It is kindness that acts for the good of others. It is kindness that goes above and beyond mere courtesy.  It is boundless, gratuitous, generosity. The Old Testament scholar Daniel Block defines it this way, that quality that moves a person to act for the benefit of another without respect to the advantage it might bring to the one who expresses it.” 

It was this characteristic of boundless generosity and hospitality that Eliezer saw in his master Abraham that he looked for also in the woman who would be Isaac’s wife.

It is this loving-kindness—clothing the naked,
providing shelter for the homeless, food for the hungry, assistance to the poor, visiting the prisoner, caring for the sick, comforting mourners and providing a dignified burial for the dead—love as deed that  is meant to distinguish God’s people.

Hesed is a covenant word. As well as being about love in action, it also denotes faithfulness, loyalty, and steadfastness. It is the ideal characteristic of a spouse.

It is also an attribute of God himself. Eliezer says, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken His loving-kindness (Hesed) and His truth toward my master.”

Hesed describes God’s “covenant faithfulness,” and commitment to his promises. God has bound himself in loyalty and fidelity to his people. Loyalty to God demands that our lives reflect the same “loving-kindness” and “covenant faithfulness.”

God spoke to his people through the prophet Hosea, "I will betroth you to Me forever; Yes, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and in justice, In lovingkindness and in compassion.”

All of which should be a clue that there is something more going on in this story. Just as we found last week with the story of “the binding of Isaac,” there is a deeper spiritual meaning to be found in this text. The Early Church read this story as suggesting a correspondence with God’s own betrothal of his people. As a picture of Christ and his bride the Church. We have been betrothed to Christ "at the well," in baptism.

Just as our lesson ends with Rebekah being presented to her bridegroom and the joyful consummation of their union, so scripture ends with
the marriage supper of the lamb, with his people, the New Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.

But how will Christ recognize his betrothed when he finds her? By what characteristic shall God demonstrate the she is the one he has chosen? How else but how Abraham’s servant, Eliezer, knew Rebekah? God’s chosen will be recognized by her loving-kindness, by her deeds of love, and her covenant faithfulness.

He will know her by the cup of cold water given to the stranger. As Jesus declares in today’s Gospel lesson, “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds!”

When Christ returns in glory with all his holy angels he will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in;  naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me… Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Death and Resurrection of Isaac

The story of the binding of Isaac—or as it is sometimes referred to in Hebrew, the Akedah—is a strange story. Let’s just acknowledge that up front.  It is a story about an ancient Middle Eastern wanderer who hears a voice from God that tells him to kill his first born son, and he does it! Or at least he has every intention of doing it.

At this point many modern readers say, “This is sick,” and close the book, turn on the TV, and watch the latest episode of Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad.

Seriously though, a story like this is hard for us to accept, at least coming from a religious text.  The Bible itself condemns the practice of human sacrifice (Deut. 18:10). People in Abraham’s day, however, would not have batted an eye. This was the type of thing gods regularly asked of their worshipers. 

I would like to suggest that this rather strange and troubling story makes a lot more sense when we read it as part of a larger story. God revealed himself thousands of years ago, in very primitive times, to a man who came from a tribe of moon worshippers. It took many generations, but—beginning where they were--he was slowly teaching his people who he was. This is an important chapter in a story that is still unfolding even in our own day.  God was laying the ground work—way back then—for his revelation of his character and identity in Jesus Christ.

Our text begins, “God tested Abraham.” What was Abraham’s test? It often is suggested that this is a test about who Abraham loved more, God or his son.  I want to suggest that there is something more going on here. God is testing, or proving, the strength of Abraham’s faith.  God had promised to make of him a great nation through his son Isaac. The children of Abraham would be a blessing to the whole world. Did Abraham believe that God would keep that promise no matter what?

If we take a closer look at the text we find something rather puzzling. Listen to what Abraham tells his servants, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.”

Both of them will come back? Was Abraham not being honest with his servants, or did he honestly expect to come back down that hill with his son Isaac?

We cannot know what was in the mind of Abraham, but generations later the author of Hebrews wrote,   “By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, ‘It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named after you.’ He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead—and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.”

Interestingly enough, similar ideas are presented in the Jewish Midrash (the rabbis’ commentary on scripture),

Rabbi Judah says: When the sword touched Isaac's throat his soul flew clean out of him. And when… [God] let His voice be heard from between the cherubim, "Lay not thy hand upon the lad." The lad's soul was returned to his body. Then his father unbound him and Isaac rose, knowing that in this way the dead would come back to life in the future; whereupon he began to recite, "Blessed are You, LORD, who resurrects the dead." (Pirkei Rabbi Elieazer)

Isaac’s obedience, in allowing himself to be bound and offered for sacrifice was interpreted by some rabbis as atonement for the sins of Israel and a promise of the resurrection of the dead. The Midrash goes on,

“By virtue of Isaac who offered himself as a sacrifice on top of the altar, the Holy One blessed be He, will resurrect the dead in the future…so that He may set them on their feet in the Age to Come. (Mekilta Simeon)”

Did Isaac actually die and return to life? Probably not, but the author of Hebrews—consistent with some of these traditions—seems to see in this story a type or figure of the death and resurrection of Christ.

Abraham in his willingness to offer up the son of his love is a figure of our Heavenly father who did not spare his own son but gave him for us all. Isaac in his obedience even unto death, is a figure of our Lord who willingly laid down his life as a perfect sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.

Notice that Isaac is not the unwilling victim in this story. The text says, “Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together.”

Just as Jesus is in harmony with the will of his Father in offering up himself, so Abraham and Isaac walk together. The wood for sacrifice is laid on Isaac and he carries it himself, just as Jesus bore his own cross to Calvary.  Even when Isaac is bound on the altar, there is no suggestion of a struggle. Rather Isaac goes as Christ who, “as a lamb who before the shearer is mute, did not open his mouth.”

Once again, however, we have the puzzling suggestion that there is something more going on. Isaac asks, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” 

Was Abraham merely trying to avoid the painful question? Again, we cannot know the mind of Abraham but his remark seems awfully prescient in light of what follows.
Just as Abraham is set to kill his own son, his hand is stopped by the voice of God’s messenger.  The deed is done. Notice God never instructed Abraham to kill his son. The word he uses suggests sacrifice but it literally means, “offer him up.” God had another sacrifice in mind.

Abraham raises his head, and what does he see?

He sees a ram caught in the thicket, but I want to suggest that he sees beyond the ram to what that ram represents. God reveals to Abraham that he is not like the gods of his neighbors who needs to be satisfied with the blood of sacrifice. He himself is able to atone for our sin and reconcile us to himself. The sacrifice that God himself provided was Jesus Christ, the son of Abraham—God incarnate—who laid down his life for the sins of the world.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.”

In this story, God reveals to Abraham—generations before the time—the anguish of the cross—the  anguish that God felt in handing over his only begotten son to die—but  also the joy of the resurrection. It was yet a further promise to Abraham of God’s faithfulness and of the greatness of his calling. 

Consider friends, “God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that everyone who believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” How then should we respond to such faithfulness? What sacrifice is too great?  In the words of our Epistle this morning, Let us present ourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

What is the Eucharist?

Today we celebrate Corpus Christi, or the Feast of the Body and Blood of Jesus. It is an occasion to celebrate and meditate upon the miracle of Jesus’ real presence in the Eucharist. As Episcopalians—and especially as Episcopalians in the catholic or high church tradition—the Holy Eucharist is absolutely central to our identity and our life together.

So what exactly is the Eucharist and why is it so important? It would be impossible to say everything that needs to be said about this holy feast in one homily, but I want to offer a three point definition of the Eucharist as a sacrifice, a sacrament, and a covenant.

First, why do we call the Eucharist a sacrifice? The entire context for Jesus’ last supper with his disciples in which he instituted the Eucharist is the Passover in which lambs were offered for the salvation of the people. The sacrificial lamb was consumed in the ceremony of the Passover meal celebrated in the homes of devout Jews.

But Jesus was not merely celebrating an ordinary Passover. He was proclaiming a new Passover sacrifice. There were similarities to the Passover meal, but there were also differences. For instance there is no reference to a lamb in the gospel descriptions of their meal. There may have been one present, but the emphasis is shifted away from it. Instead when Jesus explains the meaning of the unleavened bread, as it was the hosts’ duty to do, he took it and said, “This is my body.” When he took the cup of wine he told them, “This is my blood.” In doing so, he was proclaiming himself to be the Passover lamb, the sacrifice that would deliver them from sin and lead them out of bondage.

Is the Holy Eucharist then the new Passover in which Jesus Christ is sacrificed for our sins? Not exactly. Jesus offered that once and for all perfect sacrifice upon the cross. We are not re-sacrificing Christ again and again. That would imply that Jesus’ death was not enough to save us. Everything necessary for our forgiveness and reconciliation with God has already been accomplished. This should fill our heats with peace and gratitude.

The Eucharist is a sacrifice but it is not a bloody sacrifice. The scriptures speak of a number of different kinds of sacrifices, not all of them blood sacrifice. There are grain offerings, drink offerings, and also what is called a “wave offering.”  A gift would be symbolically presented to God as a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. This is how we speak of the gifts of bread and wine in the Eucharist. They are presented to God as an act of thanksgiving for Jesus’ once and for all sacrifice upon the cross.

More than a simple offering of thanksgiving, however, the Eucharist is also a sacrament. A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of a heavenly, spiritual, reality given as a sure and certain means through which we receive the grace of that heavenly, spiritual, reality.

The heavenly, spiritual, reality presented in the Holy Eucharist is described in our Epistle reading from Hebrews.  What the author is saying is that Jesus is our eternal priest interceding for us in heaven.

In the old testament times the high priest would enter the tabernacle in a cloud of incense to present God with an animal sacrifice, but  Jesus Christ passed through the clouds of Heaven, entered the true heavenly sanctuary and there, as our high priest, presented his body and blood before the Father as the one, perfect, all sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.

Our offering of the bread and wine in the Eucharist is meant to be an outward and visible representation of that heavenly reality. Under the species of bread and wine we present Jesus’ body and blood before God.

It isn’t that God needs to be reminded of our salvation in Christ, but we do. We need to be reminded again and again that we have been redeemed by the cross and reconciled to God.

The Holy Eucharist is an assurance of God’s love and the peace we have with him. The once and for all sacrifice of Christ is represented in the Eucharist, but more than that, we also receive the benefit of that sacrifice. A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, but we must remember that it is also a sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.  

In the Eucharist we receive the true body and blood of Christ. He gives himself to us there as surely as he gave himself to us on cavalry. Jesus is present in heaven for our sake as our eternal priest and he is present in the Eucharist for our sake as the Bread of Heaven and the Cup of Salvation.

Finally the Eucharist is a covenant. A covenant is a solemn binding promise made between individuals or peoples. For instance, Marriage is a covenant. Two people stand up before God and their community and make a solemn commitment to love and care for one another.

In ancient times covenants were  made with a sacrifice. God made a covenant with us through Jesus Christ, and Christ sealed that covenant with his sacrifice. Christ promised to bring us into God’s kingdom and give us eternal life. We are called to respond to that promise in faith and to keep his commandments.

When Jesus gave us the Eucharist, he also gave us a commandment. He told us to love one another as he loved us.

Whenever we celebrate the Eucharist, we renew that covenant with God. We reaffirm our faith in him and we ask his assistance in helping us to keep his commandments.

The Holy Eucharist cements our fellowship. It brings us closer to God, but it also brings us closer to one another.  Because there is one bread and one cup, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread and one cup. 

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Who is the Holy Spirit?

Pentecost is a feast of the church of which I have a particular fondness. I well recall my first Pentecost in a neighborhood Episcopal Church much like this one. I was not raised in the Episcopal Church so it was a new experience for me. As the choir and ministers processed down the aisle, a kite depicting a white dove trailed by flame colored ribbons swooped above the congregation.

I remember thinking to myself, “Why had this observance not been part of my faith growing up?” I of course was familiar with the story from Acts when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the church, but only as a kind of curious incident in Holy Scripture. This feast raised the moment to a whole other level of significance. It did something else as well, it gave the spotlight to the Holy Spirit in a way I had never seen before.  I realized then that I had not fully acknowledged the full importance and centrality of the Holy Spirit.

It has indeed been said that the Holy Spirit is the “neglected member of the Trinity.” This has been especially true here in the Western side of the Church with the exception of the Pentecostal and Charismatic traditions that have emerged fairly recently. Too often the Spirit has been a kind of afterthought. His role and identity, sadly, remains hazy to many Christians. Therefore, this morning, the Day of Pentecost, I want to address the question, “Who is the Holy Spirit?”

The first thing we need to understand about the Holy Spirit is that he is a person. Holy Scripture uses personal pronouns to refer to the Spirit. He possesses all the distinctive marks of personality.

For instance, the Holy Spirit has knowledge. As Saint Paul writes, “For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.” The Spirit imparts his knowledge through teaching and revelation.

The Holy Spirit has a will. He exercises choice. Our Epistle lesson speaks of the various gifts of the Spirit that he, “allots to each one individually just as he chooses.”
The Holy Spirit speaks. In fact, one of the things we confess about the Spirit in the Nicene Creed is that “he has spoken through the prophets.”

Saint Paul writes that the Spirit intercedes, “for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”
Finally, the Spirit has feeling and emotion. Scripture speaks of the “love of the spirit.” It also tells us that the Spirit can be grieved. It warns us, “do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, in whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.”

 The Holy Spirit is not some sort of inanimate power, or energy that can be harnessed or controlled.  The attempt to manipulate spiritual forces for one’s own purposes is called magic or sorcery. It is a practice that is strongly condemned in Holy Scripture. In the early days of the Church, there was a man named Simon the Magus or Simon the sorcerer who—after witnessing firsthand the power of the Holy Spirit—offered the Apostles a large sum of money saying, ‘Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.’ He was strongly rebuked by Saint Peter.

 Because the Holy Spirit is a person and not a commodity, we can’t get more of the Spirit, rather we develop a growing relationship with him by opening ourselves more and more to his presence.

The next thing that we should understand about the Holy Spirit is that he is God. The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Holy Trinity.  We confess in the Nicene Creed that, “With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.” The Holy Spirit is equal to the Father and the Son in his divinity. He has all the basic attributes of God: Holiness, eternality, omnipresence, omnipotence and omniscience.

He also does the work of God. Genesis says that the Spirit of God hovered over the formless deep at the dawn of creation.  It was through the working of the Holy Spirit that God became man in Jesus Christ. The Angel Gabriel told the Virgin Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most Highs will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.”
Likewise, It is also through the Spirit that believers are born from above and made holy.

Jesus spoke of the Holy Spirit as another advocate like himself who proceeds from the Father. He says, “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Advocate to be with you forever. The Spirit of Truth.”

In our Epistle reading Paul identifies the Spirit as God. He writes, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.”

All three persons of the Trinity are equally divine and therefore equally worthy of our worship and devotion. There is no hierarchy of divinity, with the Father first, the Son second, and the Spirit as some sort of third rate, C-list, deity. No! The Holy Spirit is our God to whom belongs all our love—heart, mind, and soul.

Finally, in order to understand who the Holy Spirit is, we must understand the work he has come to perform. The descent of the Holy Spirit described in our reading from Acts marks the beginning of the Church’s existence. It is an event that was prophesied and long expected. The Church was born of the Spirit and so we are a people of the Spirit. The Spirit’s presence is the animating force and life of the church, the breath of the Body of Christ. The Spirit is the one that unites us to Christ. It is through the Spirit working in us that we can know that Jesus is Lord. It is the Spirit who equips the Church for its mission.

As Ignatius of Laodicea said, 

“Without the Holy Spirit, God is distant, Christ is merely a historical figure, the Gospel is a dead letter, the Church is just an organization, authority is domination, mission is propaganda, liturgy is only nostalgia, and the work of Christians is slave labor. But with the Holy Spirit, Christ is risen and present, the Gospel is a living force, the Church is a communion in the life of the Trinity, authority is a service that sets the people free, mission is Pentecost, the liturgy is memory and anticipation, and the labor of Christians is sanctified.”

Trying to live a Christian life and be the Church without the Holy Spirit is like trying to drive a car with no air in the tires or gas in the tank. Through Baptism we each have been given the Spirit. He lives inside of us, but too often we keep him locked in the basement. We ignore and neglect him. The miraculous life of signs and wonders described in our readings is meant to be the ordinary life of the Church!

If we want to live a life of victory, strength, vitality, freedom, and mission, we need to let the Spirit loose. That is scary. The Holy Spirit is fire, wind, and a raging flood. He is dangerous but he is good. Do you trust him with your life?

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Convicted Civility on Mars Hill

1 Peter 3:13-22

In today’s Epistle Reading Saint Peter admonishes us, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.”

Have you noticed that it is becoming increasingly difficult to share our beliefs with people with whom we have strong disagreements? The Lutheran scholar and social commentator Martin Marty has noted, "People who have strong convictions are often not very civil, and people who are civil often do not have strong convictions." 

What he and many others have urged is a “convicted civility.” It is a good and necessary thing to have zeal for the truth. It is a good thing to have strong convictions. But it is equally important and necessary to hold those convictions with gentleness, respect, and reverence for the dignity of those with whom we disagree.

In a culture increasingly fueled by outrage, contempt, and a self-righteous jostling for the moral high ground this is not easy!

Many have looked to our reading from Acts—in which Saint Paul addresses the people of Athens gathered at the Aeropagus—as a model of how Christians should share their own convictions in an irenic way with those who believe differently than they.

When Saint Paul first arrived in Athens he experienced profound culture shock. The culture of the Athenians was offensive to his Jewish and monotheistic sensibilities. He was greatly distressed that the city was full of idols. We are told that he reasoned not only with the Jews in the synagogue but with the Greeks he met in the Market place. 

Many of Paul’s hearers found his beliefs offensive as well. They said, “What is this babbler saying?” Others dismissed him by saying, “He seems to be a proclaimer of strange and foreign gods.”  There were others among his hearers, however, who were intrigued by his message. Some of the scholars and Philosophers of the Stoic and Epicurean party began to debate with him. They were interested in learning more, and so they brought him to the Aeropagus or  as the Romans named it, Mars Hill.  This was a place where people gathered to discuss the legal, religious, and philosophical questions of the day.  

Now Saint Paul had very strong convictions. No doubt he wanted to come in with guns blazing denouncing their horrid idolatry and gross immorality, but—although he had very strong feelings—he practiced restraint. Instead he learned from and listened to his opponents. He tried to understand where they were coming from. He listened not only for points of difference but for places of common ground. Although he found their culture and religious practices strange and offensive, he asked himself not only, “Where are they in error?” but, “Where is God at work here? What can I affirm in their system? Where are they bearing witness to the truth?”

Paul looked upon his opponents as fellow seekers after God and truth. While acknowledging the good in his opponents view points, he nevertheless maintained his own convictions. He used what he believed was good in his opponents views to oppose what was bad. He was able to share his own deeply held convictions, and even challenge theirs, while maintaining respect and civility.

What is it that Saint Paul affirms among what he found in the pagans of Athens?

First, he admirers their piety and religious impulse. This is significant admission given how distressed he was by their idolatry. Is it a contradiction to say that Paul was simultaneously impressed by their piety and horrified by the objects of their worship? I don’t think it needs to be. Paul sees in the people of Athens a thirst to know God and to worship him, but he sees this good impulse twisted, perverted, and misdirected. Instead of directing their worship to the true God, the pagans of Athens have become consumed by idolatry and superstition. They didn’t seem to have any idea of the truth of the divine but instead ignorantly paid homage to creations of their own. They had a fear of God, but not according to knowledge. Their fear and superstition were such that—in order to cover all their bases—they created an altar to an “Unknown God.” Paul uses this as an opportunity to inform them about the God that they worship in ignorance. The true God that has been revealed in Jesus Christ.

Although they are ignorant of him, God created everything that is. He has been watching over them and providing for them. He wants to be known by them. “God is not far from them,” he tells them. Here Saint Paul is taking the side of the Stoics above the Epicureans. The Epicureans believed that the gods were distant and unconcerned with the struggles and sorrows of human life. The stoics however were pantheist, believing God to be the very soul of the world, filling all things.

Paul quotes a stoic saying, “In him we live and move and have our being.” Although Paul was neither stoic or pantheist, he affirms that God is all around us and that his power sustains us at every moment. God is intimately involved in our life and cares about the choices we make.

Finally Paul affirms that—even they as pagans—are children of God created in his image in order to reflect his likeness. This is a biblical idea but it is affirmed also by some of their own poets. Saint Paul here quotes the Stoic Cleanthes,

O God most glorious, called by many a name,
Nature's great King, through endless years the same;
Omnipotence, who by your just decree controls all
… Unto you must your creatures in all lands call.
We are your children, we alone, of all
On earth's broad ways that wander to and fro,
Bearing your image wheresoever we go.

While Paul finds much to affirm and admire in the people of Athens, he does not hold back from challenging them to repent either. In former times God was patient with their ignorance and unbelief, but now he is calling them to turn and repent and receive Christ whom he has made the judge of all the world.

Saint Paul shared his belief and hope with both conviction and civility. Can we do the same? Some of the people that day sneered at what Paul had to share, but others were intrigued. We too must accept that not everyone will agree with us. The important thing is to not hide our light under a basket but to share it with gentleness and reverence.