Monday, October 26, 2009

Sermon for Feast of St. Luke
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
October 18, 2009

There are many instances when I believe that we Americans got it right when we revised our Prayer Books and parted ways with the Mother Church of England. Certainly there were some fairly easy changes that absolutely had to be made such as prayers for George our King. After 1776 that really didn’t seem to fit too well any more.

When the colonies achieved independence from England, the American church had a slight problem in that she had no bishops to be able to ordain new clergymen. To further complicate matters, one of the requirements for ordination in the Church of England was the swearing of an oath of allegiance to the crown, and for newly elected bishop Samuel Seabury of New York, this was unacceptable. After a series of delays, Seabury was not discouraged, but rather, appealed to his ingenuity and headed north to Scotland where three nonjuring bishops consecrated him to the episcopate. In exchange for his consecration, Seabury promised them that he would utilize the Eucharist service from 1637 Book of Common Prayer from Scotland, rather than the 1662 book from England when the American church was crafting its first Book of Common Prayer in 1789. The Eucharistic canon from Scotland is much more Catholic in its theology, and that carries over into our American books as well. Even though the order is a bit different, the Eucharistic canon that we use every Sunday morning here at St. John’s is much closer in theology to the Church of Scotland than to the Church of England. Perhaps I’ve stumbled upon a Christian Education topic for later this fall!

In light of this morning’s collect, commemorating the Feast of the Evangelist St. Luke, I must tip my hat to the English version of the collect appointed for today as opposed to the one that appears in our American Prayer Books. Their version prays as follows:

ALMIGHTY God, who calledst Luke the physician, whose praise is in the Gospel, to be an Evangelist, and Physician of the soul; May it please thee, that by the wholesome medicines of the doctrine delivered by him, all the diseases of our souls may be healed, through the merits of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Two clauses within this collect stand out to me as a wonderful diagnosis of the human condition. The best thing about its diagnosis is the fact that it leaves us with a solution to our problem.

One of my heroes in Anglicanism is The Rev. Dr. Paul F. M. Zahl. Dr. Zahl was the Dean at the Cathedral of the Advent in Birmingham, AL, and Robyn and I had the opportunity to be parishioners of his when we were newly married and living in Birmingham. After leaving Birmingham he was Dean of Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA, and most recently retired as Rector of All Saints’ in Chevy Chase, MD. One of the books that Paul co-authored with Fred Barbee was a series of reflections on the Collects of Thomas Cranmer in honor of the 450th anniversary of the publication of the Book of Common Prayer. These reflections are a must own for Anglicans, and I will gladly share that title with any of you if you would like.

One of the things that Dr. Zahl would stress in his preaching and teaching was the fact that Jesus’ entire ministry was a teaching of law and then grace. He would always stop right there. One of the great temptations within some streams of Christianity is to get the original order correct, but then feel compelled to heap on more law. There’s only one problem with that. Jesus never heaped on more law, why should we?

What do I mean here?

As St. Paul expands upon most clearly in his epistle to the Romans, he fully understood that the more the law was preached, the more defeated he felt; he realized how far short he came to measuring up to God’s standards; actually, he says that the more the law came in the more he felt tempted to break it. Isn’t that the case with you and me?

As a child growing up, whenever my parents told me not to do something, the temptation to do just that entered my mind. It would have never dreamed of watching that particular television program, or reading that particular book, or whatever else they didn’t want to do. But just as soon as they said no, my mind said, why not? Why can’t I do that? What kind of fun will I be missing out on by not doing it?

The law comes in and increases that trespass that is within. The only way to overcome that trespass is through grace. Grace is the only thing that can change hearts, and minds, and wills. The law will never do it, and that is why the correct order and the only order that works is to preach the law, and then preach a Gospel of Grace, and leave it there.

From a practical sense, telling our children not to drink, or smoke, or have sex outside of marriage, or experiment with drugs, or any other vice doesn’t work if all we do is condemn them with a simple NO. We have to leave them with grace, and then let the Holy Spirit do his work in their lives.

Our collect this morning emphasizes just this, and does so in a most beautiful way.

It clearly portrays the human condition as one that is sick and in need of healing. The prayer acknowledges that our souls are diseased. Our souls actually are infected with a terminal illness for which there is no human cure. The prognosis is fatal.

However, the collect says that St. Luke proclaimed the “wholesome medicine of doctrine.” The doctrines that we believe and proclaim embody the very medicine that will help cure what ails us.

I can’t remember the number of times in our current church climate that I’ve heard someone say that we don’t have to worry so much about doctrine - we just need to leave that up to the theologians. There’s a major problem with that line of thinking. If you look at what the word theologian means, it includes each and every one of us. It’s not just those who teach at seminary or write massive volumes of work. The word theologian is the combination of two words which literally mean - the words of God. All of us who speak about God, or read about God, or speak to God are theologians. That means that doctrine had better be something we think about, read about, and pray about.

St. Luke has presented one particular Gospel record of the comfortable doctrines of our Lord Jesus Christ. These doctrines have been upheld by the Church for two millennia and shape who we are as Christ’s disciples. We submit our hearts, our souls, our minds to these teachings in order that we might know our Lord more each day.

One of the things about Anglicanism is the fact that we don’t have a confessional statement like the Lutheran Church which clearly states our official church doctrines. We don’t have a Magisterium like the Roman Catholic Church. What we have are our Anglican Formularies in the Book of Common Prayer, the 39 Articles, and the Ordinal. If someone says they want to see our doctrinal formulas, we show them our Prayer Book. When someone asked Paul Zahl that question, he would tell them to read the collects in our prayer book. Why would he ask them to do that? He did so because Archbishop Cranmer understood the Gospel in a wonderful way, and his gift to the church catholic is in the compilation of the collects that we still pray each and every day.

He completely understood that the Good News of Christ was the presentation of the law in all of its attributes, and then a presentation of the Grace of God. This coming week, I would suggest you take some time to read and pray the collects in our prayer book. As you are reading and praying them, notice their structure, and see if you don’t agree with me. The prayers and petitions we make to God acknowledge who we are as sinners, and then appeal to His grace and mercy. Then and only then can we have a heart open to hear what He commands, and then strive to live that out every day of our lives.

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