Sunday, January 25, 2009

Sermon for the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul
Preached at St. James – Quitman January 25, 2009

This morning is not simply the Third Sunday following the Epiphany, but it is also the date in which the church commemorates the Conversion of St. Paul. It is quite appropriate that the church would have a date on its calendar to celebrate this event since Paul is the author of the majority of the books in the New Testament canon. The church has used his words to develop many its doctrinal statements about the Trinity, the Dual Natures of Christ, as well as, areas of theology that deal with pneumatology, which is the study of things pertaining to the Holy Spirit, ascetical theology, which is the realm of how we live out the Christian life, and many others. Without the Pauline group of writings, Christianity would certainly be drastically different from how we know it, experience it, and live it today.

Most of us know the story of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, but I think it is always appropriate to hear the story again within the context of our worship so that we might meditate on those words again, and do so within this Epiphanytide in which the revelation of God was manifest to us as part of the plan of salvation from the very beginning.

Hear again the words from the Acts of the Apostles:

But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?" And he said, "Who are you, Lord?" And he said, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do." The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, "Ananias." And he said, "Here I am, Lord." And the Lord said to him, "Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight." But Ananias answered, "Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name." But the Lord said to him, "Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name." So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, "Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit." And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened.
For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, "He is the Son of God." And all who heard him were amazed and said, "Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?" But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ. (Acts 9:1-22)
There are so many different areas I could delve into with this passage, but I believe the role of Ananias in the story is so incredible, and so challenging to wrestle with. It says in the passage that Ananias received a vision, a dream, a message from God that he was to seek out this man, Saul. This is one of those places in Scripture where I wish we had more than just the written text. I wish we could hear the tone in which Ananias answered God. I wish we could have had his body language. I also wish we had those thoughts that were running through his head that were obviously never recorded.

If you want a modern image of this, imagine receiving a revelation from God tonight that said that you needed to go to a particular home across town and Osama bin Laden would be waiting for you to give him instructions on increasing the spread of Christianity back in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan. If anyone had a right to have a Jonah moment and see how far in the other direction I could go, hoping and praying the God wouldn’t find me that would be the one. And yet, Ananias fulfills the title that is attributed to him – disciple. He is willing to follow the directions of the Lord, his Master, even if it required him to do one of the most unthinkable tasks. He is prepared to meet the man who he knows has already had Christians imprisoned and executed, and is armed with paperwork to haul more off to jail as he speaks.

Ananias is an example of what true discipleship truly looks like. He is the embodiment of someone who doesn’t count the personal cost of what it means to follow Jesus, and simply submits fully to His will. There are other times in Scripture where others answer in a similar fashion when God calls. The call of Isaiah should immediately come to mind when the Lord asks “Whom shall I send? Who will go from us?” and the prophet proclaims, “Here am I, Send me.” When the Lord called out to Samuel three times and he went running into Eli’s room, finally, he receives instructions to answer quite humbly and simply, “Speak for your servant is listening.” In those two instances, God is calling out to those He has chosen to be his instrument for the in-breaking of His Kingdom. I hope you caught the intentional use of the word instrument there because that is the same word used to describe Saul to Ananias. God says that Saul is to be an elected or chosen instrument.

One of the most remarkable things about the Christian faith is that God chooses us – fallen, sinful creatures to be his tools in spreading His message. In the medical industry, doctors and nurses refer to the tools of their trade as instruments, say in an operating room. I’ve never been in an OR before, but the visual images I have of the implements for a surgical procedure laid out neatly for the work they are about to do quite amazing. The attention to detail, the precision and care with which they are handled. They look nothing like the tools in my toolbox at home. Rather, the surgeon would be at an absolute loss in the practice of medicine without his instruments. I don’t want to push this analogy too far of course, because God would not be at a loss without us, His instruments, for God is perfect in His own right as a Trinity in Unity. However, he does intend for us to be readily available when called upon for service or work. He intends for us to be clean and sanitized, free from the infection of sin and stain so that we might not pass on those germs to others. He intends for us to perform as we were intended. We are made in His image, we have His spirit and breath within us. Therefore, when God uses us for His work, those who see us, should immediately see him.

We come this morning to receive the life-giving Body and Blood of Christ so that we might be His living instruments in this world. When we make our Confession of Sin, and receive Christ’s absolution, we are being cleaned and sterilized from the sin that attacks us on every front, every day of our lives. When we participate in the liturgy we are performing the fundamental nature of our existence – we were created to worship God. The only way that we can perform as God’s instruments as intended is to adopt the call to, “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” Finally, we must be ever attentive to God’s call in order that we might be ready when we are pressed into service.

Ananias was just this type of person. He answered when God called to him. He did as the Lord commanded, laid hands on Saul, and baptized him. He ultimately faded into the background so that God might be seen, heard, obeyed, and followed. We really know nothing else about this vessel Ananias. He did one thing, and one thing only, he showed Saul, Jesus. If our tombstone had one sentence on it that read, “He showed others Jesus,” then the sentence that would resound in our ears at the Resurrection would be, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant, enter into your reward.” Amen.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Sermon for Epiphany II
Preached at All Saints' - January 18, 2009

"This Life's dim Windows of the Soul Distorts the Heavens from Pole to Pole
And leads you to Believe a Lie When you see with, not thro' the Eye."

In 1757, poet, painter, and printmaker William Blake was born in London. Most people know William Blake as the author of the poem The Tyger, but the quote I just read is contained in a work known as The Everlasting Gospel. The poem is a wonderful example of Blake’s Romantic Period poetry, and displays a spectacular command of the Christian faith expressed in verse. I believe these lines are also quite appropriate as we examine the words of St. Paul to the church in Corinth that we heard this morning.

Our Epistle lesson picks up part way through the sixth chapter, and deals with a number of quite relevant topics. Paul is trying to convey a message to his audience; he is attempting to dispel a false sense of entitlement that the church has begun to portray. They have fostered the notion that just because they have Christ, they have inherited a license to do anything they want. Obviously some have begun to think that now that we are no longer under the curse of law, everything is now lawful. Paul is quick to point out that just because things appear to be lawful they are not necessarily profitable. Paul wants the church, and us as well, to recognize that all things created good can lead to evil.

Take a look at society today. We need only look at television, magazines, the Internet to see what is happening to our young people and how images dictate what is beautiful, what is attractive, what we should look like. If we go back to the line in the poem, we are tricked into believing a lie because we are seeing with the eye and not through it. We should see with our conscience, and not simply with the images burned into the back of our eyes. As Ravi Zacharias puts it, “instead of seeing through the eye and with the conscience, we are seeing with the eye completely devoid of a conscience.” In this the information age, we are constantly bombarded with images, and rather than learning to process ideas, thoughts, problems using our imagination and conscience, we immediately scroll through a list of pre-programmed data and therefore making a decision by what we see, and not by what we should know to be right.

What once would have been considered sinful and aberrant starts to look intriguing and appealing. Then those things that were once intriguing become normative, and we have become incapable of determining what is good and what is garbage. I just read a news article last week where Larry Flynt, founder of Hustler magazine, is suing his two nephews in court for the use of the Flynt name in the pornography market because he said the two were slandering his name by making “sub-standard and inferior” porn. I do not want to know exactly what his criteria for judging such smut is exactly, but I hope you see what happens when society gradually moves in this direction. We believe the lie when we see with and not through the eye.

Paul also addresses the issue of sexual immorality that has become a besetting sin for members of this faith community. Apparently the Corinthian church began adopting some of the pagan practices of their Greek neighbors, and lived with the false sense of security that since they had Christ they need not worry about how they lived their lives. One of the most significant reasons that Paul is quick to correct the Corinthian church regarding sexual sins was because of the spiritual nature of those sins, as well as, the notion that they were a direct affront to Christ himself. In much of Jesus’ ministry, He uses metaphors and imagery such as bride, bridegroom, and consummation to speak of the Church. He does not do so carelessly, but he is very particular in using this language because it so clearly conveys the sacramental nature of His relationship to His followers. Sexual immorality is an affront to everything that Jesus bore witness to in His earthly ministry.

Jesus throughout everything that he endured on our behalf remained stedfast in his calling to be the one and only faithful bridegroom to us, His followers the Church. He has given us a glorious example of what that spotless example looks like. The only way for His sacrifice to be fully efficacious for the sins of the whole world is for Him to be a lamb without blemish. That type of language in the Old Testament sacrificial priesthood system was not random or without meaning. When the Levitical priests offered sacrifices on behalf of the people, they were to be choice, without stain or spot, perfect specimens for God’s altar. The only problem is that animal sacrifices were not fully effective in purging sin forever. Jesus actually had to become sin so that we would know sin no more. The image of a blameless sacrifice was etched in the hearts, minds, and souls of the people of Israel, and now Jesus has come in the flesh to be that blameless sacrifice once and for all.

Paul concludes this section when he declares, “know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.” This morning’s collect expresses the theme of bringing glory to God as we prayed that we might be “illumined by thy Word and Sacraments [and] shine with the radiance of Christ’s Glory, that He may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the end of the earth.” The great theme of Epiphany is light and revelation, but its counter theme is one of witness, and brings me to my final point.

Our calling as Christians is to know Christ and make him known to others. The first part of that statement is knowing him. We must know him intimately, as he knows us. The Bible often uses the term ‘to know’ in a sexual connotation referring to husband and wife. We must know Jesus that personally, that deeply, that intimately. The only way to do so is through the light of his Word and Sacraments. We must delve deeply into Holy Scripture and allow God’s word to speak to us. We must partake of the Sacraments as we prepare to receive Christ’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist. We must commit ourselves to fervent prayer in all things, and as St. Paul says we are to pray without ceasing (I Thes. 5:17). Only then can we begin to make Christ known to others.

There’s one thing about making Christ known to others that is most remarkable. We don’t necessarily set out and say in our minds, “Hey, I think I’m going to go and make Christ known to someone new today.” Rather, we must do what our Lord Jesus said in the Offertory sentence, “Let your light so shine before men that they will see your good works and glorify your Father which is in Heaven” (Matt. 5:16). God is the one doing the work here on the other person. Our job is to do our part and let God do His. I’ve always been intrigued when I hear someone say that “they led someone to Christ today.” That person might have been the catalyst that God used to reveal Himself to someone new, but it was the Almighty who prepared the heart to receive the Message.

As we have traveled from Advent to Christmas and now into Epiphany we hear again the message of revelation, and how we are called to witness that revealed light to the world. Blake also pens these wonderful words in The Everlasting Gospel “God’s high king and God’s high priest [s]hall plant their glories in your breast” (Lines 33-34). God wishes to illuminate each one of us with his glorious radiance so that we might bear witness to the one true Light which has come into the world, to save us from ourselves, so that we might live forever with him in glory everlasting. To Him be ascribed all might, majesty, power, and dominion this day and for ever. Amen.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Sermon Preached at St. John's - Moultrie
Epiphany I - January 11, 2009

There is an interesting dimension to this mornings Gospel lesson from Mark that I have always found intriguing. I believe that one of the reasons I find it so intriguing is because it is found only in Mark. Mark’s Gospel is of course the shortest of the 4 Gospels and most Biblical scholars believe that it was the first written. Many believe that Matthew and Luke had copies of Mark’s Gospel in hand as they wrote their particular accounts of Jesus’ life, and that is why you almost always have a parallel passage from Mark when looking at an event in either Matthew or Luke. Mark contains what many Biblical commentators and scholars have called the “Messianic Secret.” Throughout the book one finds many instances where Jesus performs a miracle, or seems to be on the verge of revealing himself, and he slips away, the scene changes, or he admonishes someone not to tell people who he is, or what he had done. He constantly chides the demons he casts out to be silent, for they knew exactly who he was. Mark’s account is fast moving and the scenes are always shifting from one to another. However, in this morning’s account of Jesus’ baptism, we find a peculiarity unique to Mark alone.

All of the Gospels contain some account of John the Baptist, and Jesus’ subsequent baptism in the Jordan River. One cannot think of Jesus’ earthly ministry without first recalling his baptism by his cousin. All four provide a picture of God’s spirit descending upon Him in the form of a dove – one of the ancient symbols for the Holy Spirit. The Gospel writers also give record of a voice calling out from heaven. We are not sure who exactly heard this voice, whether it was just Jesus and John, or was it the crowds that were also gathered. In either case that voice proclaims the same statement that Jesus is a beloved son who has brought great pleasure to His Father.

In most instances, the particular nuance we find in Mark’s account usually goes unnoticed. Many English translations do not even convey what I believe Mark is trying to stress when he speaks about what happens to the heavens as Jesus comes up out of the water, as the spirit is descending upon him, and as God begins to speak.

As much as I dislike the NRSV translation of the Bible, here is one instance where they actually got it right and bring out the nuance. In both the RSV and King James, one would not notice any difference at all because all three say simply that the heavens were opened. However, Mark uses a different verb than Matthew and Luke when he speaks about what happens during this event. Mark uses the Greek work skidzo which literally means “to divide by force, split, divide, separate, tear apart, tear off” (BDAG, 981). This is the same word in Greek from which we derive the word schizophrenia. A combination of skidzo and fronasis – a tear or rending in one’s frame of mind. Literally speaking, Jesus has come to earth, and the very fabric which separates heaven and earth has now been rent in two, the future will never be the same. What makes this nuance even more significant is the other place within the Gospels when we find the word skidzo.

Mark uses this word at Jesus’ death when he took his last breath and gave up his spirit. He says that the veil of the temple was torn in two from the top to the bottom when Jesus died. Therefore, the same word used to speak of heaven at Jesus’ baptism is used again at his death. One could make the assertion that the rending of the heavens at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry was repeated by the rending of the gates of Hell at the culmination of His ministry.

This is of course significant when we speak of the link between the theology of baptism and the atonement. Jesus’ death marked the end of the repeated sacrificial system as the people knew it, therefore the curtain between the Holy of Holies and the people no longer needed to be veiled. There was no longer a barrier between God and Man. The God Man – Jesus performed the never-to-be-repeated, fully efficacious sacrifice to atone for the sins of the world. When we receive the waters of baptism in the name of the Holy and Blessed Trinity, we speak in terms of regeneration, being born again as Jesus told Nicodemus. We speak of the washing away the stain of Original Sin, and rebirth and new life in Jesus Christ. We speak of being a new creation and being baptized into Jesus’ death. This is a tearing and rending of our old self, and putting on the new.

Mark links baptism and death together with this one word. The heavens were rent apart at Jesus’ baptism when God declares that this is His beloved Son, who shunned not the Virgin’s womb, who for a time was made a little lower than the angels. He was made a little lower than the angels and was crowned with honor and glory because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for every one (cf. Hebrews 2.8,9). The space between heaven and earth come crashing together as they touched one another. Heaven does not actually envelop or absorb earth, but rather they intersect with one another, and that intersection occurs through the person of Jesus Christ.

The intersection of heaven and earth occurs again each week when we receive Christ’s precious body and blood in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Through the invocation of the Holy Spirit in the species of bread and wine, Jesus is again truly present. And, when we approach this altar in faith, having examined our conscience and come with an humble, lowly, obedient, and penitent heart, we receive him anew as our source of life. In just a few minutes, Christ bids us anew to draw near with faith, take this Holy Sacrament to our comfort, and take part of heaven and earth touching each other. Every hindrance to God has been rent apart and torn open, so that we might have full access to God the Father, through His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, by the never ending power of His Holy Spirit. To Him be ascribed all might, majesty, power, and dominion, both now, and evermore.