Saturday, June 25, 2011

Sermon for the First Sunday after Trinity
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
June 26, 2011

There is a shift in focus in our readings from now until the end of the church year and Advent Sunday, at the end of November. It has been said that the Kalendar is broken into two halves, with the first half from Advent through Whitsunday, and the second half being Trinitytide or Ordinary Time. The readings for the first half of the year speaks of the life of Christ in which our lessons speak most directly about Jesus’ life and redemptive work. The second half of the church year makes a bit of a transition and looks at the life of a disciple or our life in Christ.

One of the great benefits of the Internet and facebook in particular is the opportunity to meet people and share information. I’ve had the privilege of getting to know an Anglican priest from Canada who is currently re-publishing many great works of Anglican theology and producing some of his own works as well. I purchased two commentaries that he has written and I look forward to reading and using them in the future.

One book that he produced is an expositional commentary on the 119th Psalm. In the introduction he pointed out something that was previously unknown to me. The first Book of Common Prayer produced in 1549 had a proper Psalm appointed for each celebration of the Holy Eucharist. For this season of Trinitytide the Psalm appointed for the first 22 weeks after Trinity was an ordered reading of Psalm 119.

I’m not sure if you’ve ever studied this Psalm, but it is the longest chapter in the Bible – 176 verses. The Psalm itself is unique in its structure. There are twenty-two letters in the Hebrew alphabet, and the Psalm contains twenty-two eight-verse divisions. Each division is an acrostic because the first word in each verse begins with same letter of the Hebrew alphabet. For example, in verses 1-8, the first division that we recited this morning, the first word in each verse begins with the Hebrew letter ‘Aleph.’ The second group of eight verses begins with the Hebrew letter ‘Beth.’ This pattern continues throughout the rest of the Psalm, and thus, presents the ABC’s, so to speak, of the godly life that is deeply rooted in the Word of God.

The eighteenth century theologian Jonathan Edwards once said of this chapter of the Bible:

I know of no part of the Holy Scriptures where the nature and evidences of true and sincere godliness are so fully and largely insisted on and delineated as in the 119th Psalm. The Psalmist declares his design in the first verse of the Psalm, keeps his eye on it all along, and pursues it to the end. The excellency of holiness is represented as the immediate object of a spiritual taste and delight. God’s law – that grand expression and emanation of the holiness of God’s nature, and prescription of holiness to the creature – is all along represented as the great object of love, the complacence, and the rejoicing of the gracious nature, which prizes God’s commandments ‘above gold, yea, the finest gold;’ and to which they are ‘sweeter than honey and the honey-comb.’

Martin Luther once said of this Psalm that it was the, “gospel in a nutshell,” and that he, “would not trade one page of it for the entire world.” I don’t believe that I am going to preach 22 sermons in a row exclusively on Psalm 119, but you can count on the fact that we will recite the Psalm in its entirety over the next 22 weeks, and there will be some exposition of the eight verses assigned for each Sunday.

Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the LORD.

Just this past week I’ve been reading various news reports about a movement whose goal is the promotion of more religious tolerance amongst faith groups. According to the faith shared website they would like to offer an event, “as a way to engage faith leaders on the national and community levels in interfaith events intended to highlight respect among people of different faiths. Through photos, video clips and print coverage distributed around the world, we are looking to display visual images that reflect the mutual respect that is shared by so many Muslims, Christians, Jews and other Americans, standing together as a strong counterpoint to the negative images that have dominated the domestic and international news.”

June 26, today, is the date that a large number of churches are hosting this type of interfaith gathering that organizers hope, “will create opportunities across the United States for faith communities to strengthen ties with each other. We will counter the misperception, including in the Arab and Muslim worlds, that the United States is a nation defined by the widely covered images of the marginal few who would burn a Qur’an, rather than by a proud and longstanding tradition of religious freedom, tolerance and pluralism. In communities across the United States, this project will not only serve as a model for tolerance and cooperation and promote local faith leaders as champions of such, but it will also create a concrete opportunity to build and strengthen working ties between faith communities moving forward.”

Finally, “Faith Shared asks houses of worship across the country to organize events involving clergy reading from each other’s sacred texts. An example would be a Christian Minister, Jewish Rabbi and Muslim Imam participating in a worship service or other event. Suggested readings will be provided from the Torah, the Gospels, and the Qur’an, but communities are encouraged to choose readings that will resonate with their congregations. Involvement of members from the Muslim community is key. We will also provide suggestions on how to incorporate this program into your regular worship services.”

Why do I even bring this up? What difference does it make for us?

It makes all the difference in the world – and in the world to come. Dr. Carreker spoke so eloquently, clearly, and faithfully upon the Holy Trinity last Sunday, and asked us an important question – should we concern ourselves with a doctrine such as the Trinity? The answer should be a resounding yes, because the only way for us to wrestle with an issue such as faith shared and others like it.

The Christian life is lived in obedience to what God commands, in submission to His will, through the proclamation of His Word, and in making disciples of all nations. The only way that we can obey what God commands, submit to His will, proclaim His word, and make disciples in His name depends on one very important thing – do we know who God is? As we sang in the processional hymn last Sunday and Dr. Carreker proclaimed, we bind ourselves to the Name of the Trinity. That Name is the Trinity. The ancient Jews had a name for God that was so sacred and so holy that they would never write it or utter it out loud. Through Jesus Christ we are given the words to say and proclaim that name and we are commanded to make disciples in that name – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the LORD.

Our only source of blessedness comes through our walking in the law of the Lord. Our world presents us with all sorts of supposed blessings that knows not the law of the Lord and thus will leave us empty and longing for more. True blessing comes in one place and one place alone.

Groups like faith alive makes the fatal mistake that tolerance and pluralism is some recipe for blessing and peace. There will be those who cry peace, peace when there is no peace. If we know not the Prince of Peace, how will we ever know peace on earth and good will amongst men?

We’ve made a shift in our readings from those that speak of the life of Christ to how a life in Christ is lived in the world. May we daily bind unto ourselves the strong Name of the Trinity, proclaim that Name to a broken and hurting world, so that we might continue undefiled in the way, and walk in the law of the Lord.
Sermon for Whitsunday
St. John’s – Moultrie, GA
June 12, 2011

For the most part, everyone loves a birthday party. Even those who will turn 40 in just over a month! Why do we love birthdays even if we try and tell ourselves that we can’t believe we are getting a year older, or everything is downhill from whatever contrived age we have set for ourselves?

I think one of the reasons that we like birthdays is because it usually means being surrounded by people who love us, care for us, are glad that we are in their lives. Birthdays in some way make us think that we are special.

When kept in its proper sense, birthdays do make us special because it is an opportunity to give thanks to God for the gift of another year of life to be lived to His honour and glory. We can look back on the year past and call to remembrance those things that have happened to us, both good and bad, and know that all things work together for good for those who love God.

Believe it or not, in our church there are only two people who share the same birthday – Matt Paine and Gerry Webb. However, as members of Christ’s church we all share the same birthday as His body, and that day is today. On this the Feast of Pentecost or Whitsunday, we traditionally celebrate the church’s birthday, and it’s appropriate to do so in a special manner.

After all, the church, Christ’s Body, was the very thing He died for, redeemed, sent His spirit to empower, and prepares as a bride for her wedding day. Thus, it is very meet and right that we should celebrate this day with every fiber of our being.

Our Epistle lesson tells the traditional Pentecost story where the Holy Ghost, the Comforter who was promised to the Apostles, came to them in a most extraordinary manner. The Gospel lessons that we heard over the past few weeks alluded to the event that we just heard a few minutes ago – that first Pentecost Sunday.

The Apostles had already taken care of a bit of business after Jesus’ ascension, and that was in the selection of Matthias to take the place of Judas in the number of the twelve. Following this event we hear that the Apostles were “all with one accord in one place.” They were together, they were in fellowship with one another. They were praying, worshipping God, and recalling the events that they had witnessed over the past 50 days since Jesus’ resurrection. They were obedient to the command when Jesus departed from them on Ascension Day. As recorded in the final chapter of Luke’s Gospel, “And, behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you: but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endued with power from on high. And he led them out as far as to Bethany, and he lifted up his hands, and blessed them. And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy: And were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God.”

Melville Scott summarizes so beautifully the events of that first Pentecost:

The birth of the church can be pinpointed by both its time and its place.

These were both definite, thus marking the reality of the gift. The time when the Church came into being was a Sunday – that every Sunday for ever might be both an Easter-day and a Whit Sunday, the living commemoration of a living Saviour. The time was at a festival – that “these things should not be done in a corner,” and that it should be seen from the first that the Church was not for one nation only.
The time was at the Festival of Pentecost, in which the remembrance was made every year of the writing of the Law on tablets of stone, and thus was fitly designed for His coming Who should write upon the heart the new law of liberty (Jer. 31:33). As the festival of harvest (Lev. 23:17) Pentecost fitly witnessed the first ingathering of souls, the first swathe cut by the Saviour’s sickle and made into the bread of God. The place was significant also, for “they were all with one accord in one place,” and the Holy Spirit was thus given to the whole Church, and to individuals as members of the Church.
Its manner was most striking and impressive. The gift came from above, and came as wind – mysterious, invisible, mighty, as described by our Saviour (in S. John 3:8), and as the very breath of life. The gift as fire which should warm the cold and chilly heart, should lighten men’s darkness, soften men’s hardness, burn away men’s dross, and kindle the dead matter of the world into Heavenly flame.
He came one fire for all, for there is one Spirit and one body; but He came as fire distributing itself so that “it sat upon each one of them,” for, though given to the whole body, He is given to every member of the same for his vocation and ministry, “dividing to each man severally as He will.” There is one Fire but many tongues, many tongues but one Fire. He came as tongues, to persuade, not to force; as tongues of fire, for he persuades not by human eloquence, but by Divine inspiration.
The first result of His coming was the miraculous gift of tongues, a striking symbol of the nature of the Church of Christ. As the languages of men are the result and perpetuation of division, so the one message made plain to all was the proclamation that divisions should pass away, and that in the Catholic Church there should be neither Jew nor Greek. The Gospel addresses man as man: tells of a universal need, a universal grace, and of the perpetual expansion and adaptation of the one body for all races, times, and needs.

Mr. Scott hits on something that I’ve never heard before, and yet brings such clarity to that miraculous event – One fire, many tongues. Even though this seems completely intuitive, I’ve never thought of it that way before. St. Augustine at the very beginning of his Confessions wrestled with this notion of the indivisibility of God. He asked some very fascinating questions that speak about what the Apostles received when the Holy Ghost was come upon them that first Pentecost morn.

Do the heaven and earth then contain Thee, since Thou fillest them? or dost Thou fill them and yet overflow, since they do not contain Thee? And whither, when the heaven and the earth are filled, pourest Thou forth the remainder of Thyself? or hast Thou no need that aught contain Thee, who containest all things, since what Thou fillest Thou fillest by containing it? for the vessels which Thou fillest uphold Thee not, since, though they were broken, Thou wert not poured out. And when Thou art poured out on us, Thou art not cast down, but Thou upliftest us; Thou art not dissipated, but Thou gatherest us. But Thou who fillest all things, fillest Thou them with Thy whole self? or, since all things cannot contain Thee wholly, do they contain part of Thee? and all at once the same part? or each its own part, the greater more, the smaller less? And is, then one part of Thee greater, another less? or, art Thou wholly every where, while nothing contains Thee wholly?

Augustine was asking truly practical questions that should resonate with us as well. When we receive God’s Holy Spirit do we just receive a small portion of God, or do we receive Him wholly? When God comes into our life, we receive all of Him, not just some portion. It is not like some get more of God than others; all who call upon Him receive Him completely.

The Feast of Pentecost is one of those significant days on the Kalendar in which there are two collects, two Epistles, and two Gospel lessons appointed. The alternative Epistle lesson from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians speaks to this question as well:

NOW there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all. But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal. For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit; to another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues: but all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will. For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many.

What a glorious revelation that when we become part of Christ’s church, and receive Jesus Christ as our Lord, our Saviour, our Redeemer, and His Spirit rests upon us we receive Him in totality. We don’t have to look around and wonder if someone else is getting more of God, or a better part of God, and that we are in some way being left out or missing something. When we come to this table in a few moments, as we “offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee; humbly beseeching thee, that we, and all others who shall be partakers of this Holy Communion, may worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son Jesus Christ, be filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction, and made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him.”

Everyone who calls upon the Lord Jesus will receive him, all of him. We don’t just get some miniscule piece of God, but Him in all of His totality. What a wonderful gift to receive. The only question for us to ponder is whether or not God will get all of us in return. Will we give Him our selves, our souls and bodies, or just some portion? He gives us His all, should we not do the same?
Sermon for the Sunday after Ascension Day
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
June 5, 2011

Earlier this week I came across an article on the Internet that intrigued me simply by its title. The title of the article was “Five Words That Could Save the Church.” I was looking forward to reading it, but as I started reading I began to get quickly frustrated with what the author put forward. It was written by Ian Morgan Cron who was the founding pastor Trinity Church in Greenwich, CT, which according to the tagline is a community committed to “social justice as well as communicating the Christian story through the arts.” Since it is short I will read it in its entirety, and I think you will begin to see where I began to disagree with Mr. Cron’s arguments.

Five words could prevent the public brawls between Christians who differ in their opinions on social and theological issues.
“…but I might be wrong.”
Pepper an impassioned debate with those five words with someone you’ve previously denounced as a heretic or traitor to the cause and an amazing thing happens.
It tells your “opponent” on the other side of the issue that you care more about the mutual pursuit of truth rather than in placing another check in your camp’s win column. It communicates that maintaining Christian unity despite your differences is more important to you than scoring points and dancing in your “opponent’s” end-zone.
Who knows, if spoken with a true spirit of humility, something close to civility might break out and confused onlookers might believe Christian leaders are different than the shrill ideologues they see on cable news every night.
“…but I might be wrong.”
It would be disingenuous if we attached these words to the end of every sentence. We all have spiritual and moral convictions we believe are non-negotiable, but can’t the humility associated with those five words define the tone of our dialog?
My friend Jim Wallis of Sojourners is an exemplar of someone who practices this gracious approach to public discourse. He brings together Christians who lean both left and right to work together on poverty and caring for creation. In areas of agreement, he builds on common ground. In areas of disagreement, both he and his colleagues offer grace in the spirit of… “but I might be wrong.”
Today I’m following St. Paul’s advice “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”
It’s hard to argue against that position unless you’re certain that my decision to use the NIV translation of this passage proves I’m a heretic and that I should be publicly disgraced for it.

Certainly there are points of disagreement amongst Christians regarding some of the particulars surrounding baptism, the Eucharist, spiritual gifts such as healing and speaking in tongues, forms of church governance, even which translation of Scripture to be used in church. If we didn’t have differences regarding these issues and others, there would still be one unified catholic church, and not the appalling number of different denominations that we have today. This is definitely not what our Lord had in mind when he prayed that we might be one as He and the Father were one. I feel fairly secure in saying that many of our denominational differences grieve God’s heart and schism is a grievous sin against charity.

If this is what Mr. Cron is talking about, then perhaps he has a point. However, I believe he’s approaching things from a different perspective and one that is permeating the church from all directions. I believe that he’s coming at things through a hermeneutic of suspicion that is insidious at its core. It’s a belief system that has no real firm foundation on which to stand and everything is up for grabs. We are told in Scripture to let our yea be yea and our nay be nay. If you remember from our Lenten study of the Book of Revelation that the Laodicean church’s problem was that they were neither cold nor hot, but lukewarm and for that reason they were spewed out of God’s mouth.

When I think of the persecution of the church that has taken place since its inception, I could never ever imagine St. Peter, or St. Paul, or St. Andrew, or Justin Martyr, or Thomas Cranmer, or the martyrs of this century saying to their tormenters that they might be wrong. A statement such as that one seems to fly in the face of the blood that has been spilled for the sake of the Gospel.

I recognize that the article quoted above is not referring to attacks from outside the church, but the turmoil and strife from within. I think though if I were going to offer five words that could save the church, and that will help us all strive for that most excellent virtue of charity it would be these five words, “I apologize, please forgive me.” Those words practiced more often would go a long way in the manner in which we interact with our spouse, our children, our parents, our co-workers, our fellow parishioners. Those five words will begin to foster within us humility that will allow us to begin defeating the sin of pride that is perhaps one of our fiercest enemies.

Even though I think that learning to say, “I apologize, please forgive me,” is a better alternative than, “but I might be wrong,” there are four words that the church needs to learn more than either of those or we will continue to fight a losing battle and those four words are “JESUS CHRIST IS LORD!” Those are the only four words that will ultimately save the church. Until we can proclaim with the utmost conviction and without hesitation or wavering that first Creed we are truly lost with no hope.

Those first martyrs of the early church took a great risk when they no longer said the words Kaesar kurios and began to say Iesou Christou kurios. They could no longer say that Caesar was Lord but that Jesus Christ was Lord, and they did so to their peril. Still, those who proclaimed that Jesus was Lord departed this life praying that God might forgive their tormenters and persecutors. History records that many even in the throes of death were singing hymns and praising God as their very life was being exacted of them. Others like St. Stephen as they were taking their final breath on earth saw the heavens opened and the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the power of Almighty God awaiting their arrival to welcome them home.

These don’t sound like the stories of those who would have couched their words with a concluding epithet, “but I might be wrong.” No, these were the stories of those within the church, bold enough to proclaim with the utmost conviction and unwavering belief in the saving power of the Gospel. May we too have the same power and boldness to proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord, and as often as necessary those five words of humility, “I apologize, please forgive me.” If we can hold on to those two phrases we will go a long way in not just saving, but helping grow God’s kingdom here on earth – His precious Body, the church.
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Easter (Rogation Sunday)
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
May 29, 2011

There are two words when one speaks of theology that are really two sides of the same coin, and they cannot be separated, the one from the other. The two words I’m speaking of are orthodoxy and orthopraxy. When I say orthodoxy here, I’m of course not referring to the Orthodox Churches of the East. I’m speaking of the root word orthodoxy here which means right belief. Of course, those churches that propagate and declare the historic, Christian, orthodox faith whether they be Eastern, Western, Roman, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, what have you, are the group of Christian believers who share the common faith and belief. This must be the starting point. Right belief is foundational. When one is orthodox he believes in the dogmatic declarations of the faith as indisputable and not open for debate. These questions have been settled and must be believed in order for a person to call himself a Christian. A Christian must profess that God is a Trinity in Unity – one God in three Persons. He must believe that the 2nd Person of the Trinity, the Word of God, Jesus of Nazareth, is both completely human and completely divine – deriving his humanity from the womb of the Virgin Mary his most holy Mother, and deriving his divinity from God Himself, through the Holy Ghost. We declare that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate, that he died a physical death and rose from the dead with a resurrected body; that He ascended unto the right hand of Almighty God, where he ever makes intercession for us to His Father. We believe that His death was the full, perfect, and sufficient atoning sacrifice and the complete oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the entire world. We also faithfully assert that Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and that no one comes to the Father but through Him. While not a completely exhaustive list, these are the points of agreement shared amongst all believers who would call themselves orthodox and subscribing to orthodoxy. Those who do not would be called heretics, or those who teach and uphold a contrary faith.

Until the middle of the last century it was fairly easy to come up with a pretty good list of what would be considered orthodox and what was not, and no matter what church you attended the orthodox faith would have been preached, the differences being matters of church governance and polity, or matters of style in worship. These would have been considered differences amongst believers, and our salvation didn’t depend upon which camp we happened to fall in regarding these notions.

The other side of the theological coin has to do what the notion of orthopraxy, which basically means right actions. We don’t hear that word nearly as often as we should but in essence orthopraxy is orthodoxy put into motion. It’s what we do with our right beliefs once we’ve embraced them and take them to ourselves and own them. It speaks to the fundamental principle of how is the Christian life lived out. If orthodoxy is believing the Creed, orthopraxy is living the Creed. Orthodoxy is believing that through the empty tomb we have received newness of life and that we are a new creature in Christ, orthopraxy is living as that new creature.

St. James speaks this morning on this final Sunday in Eastertide about being a doer of the Word and not a hearer only. My former church in Montgomery, AL adopted James 1:22 as their tagline verse on their signage and letterhead. If the church sent out anything one saw that verse front and center.

So what does being a doer of the Word look like? More importantly, are we doers of the Word?

This morning you’ll notice on the hymn boards and in the bulletin that today is Rogation Sunday. The Rogation Days are the three days which precede Ascension Day, and they are a time when we are to be intentional about asking God for his protection and blessings. Traditionally it was a time for farmers to have the priest bless their crops after the spring planting with the hope of a fruitful harvest, and some churches performed solemn processions around the property asking that God might be with them in the coming year.

How appropriate that we would hear the words of Jesus in John’s Gospel today that, “Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you.” We are specifically commanded by Jesus to ask for God’s blessings.

Let me make something very clear here. I’m not talking about asking God for that new BMW or Mercedes and specifying what color. This is not some prosperity gospel sermon that simply says be sure you ask God for whatever you want and be sure to do so in Jesus’ name because it says right here in John 16 that whatever we ask the Father in Jesus’ name He’ll give it to us. That is not what Jesus is saying here. This is when we need to check to make sure our orthodoxy and our orthopraxy are in sync.

For how does St. James conclude his first chapter? He says, “If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man's religion is vain. Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” That doesn’t sound like asking to have my physical needs met on my terms just because I asked for it in Jesus’ name, now does it? That sounds allot like a life of intense self-examination in light of God’s law, and a life of service and self-sacrifice, loving one’s neighbour as one’s self.

Orthopraxy, right action, is the living out of the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. Speaking of another instance of two sides of the same coin.

I know many who say that we simply need to live out the Great Commandment and let the rest take care of itself. I say no to that assertion. To me that’s simply being content with one’s orthodoxy and leaving the orthopraxy to handle itself. I believe that we absolutely must do both. Certainly right action is loving God with all of our heart, all of our soul, all of our mind, and all of our strength, and loving others as we would ourselves. Right action is also doing what our Lord commanded his disciples when he departed from them on that first Ascension Day when he told them to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

We simply cannot have the one without the other.

The only way that this is truly lived out is through a lifetime of rogation, a lifetime of asking, an existence shaped by prayer. If you hadn’t picked up on it before now the central theme behind this day on the Church Kalendar is to foster a life of prayer.

What are we to ask for; what are we to pray for? How are we to pray?

We are to ask and pray for those things that are in accord with God’s Will. It’s taking the words of the Lord’s Prayer to heart and truly mean it when we pray, “thy will be done.” Those are perhaps the four hardest words to pray because it brings us front and center to the reality that we are not God. Wasn’t that the temptation of the serpent to Eve? Didn’t he say that she wouldn’t die but that she’d have her eyes opened and she’d be like God?

Orthodoxy and orthopraxy, rightly understood, are two interconnected words that show us with crystal clarity that we are nothing save but the grace of God. One of the churches here in Moultrie had a marquee out front that said God without Man is still God; Man without God is nothing. Truer words have never been spoken.

Jesus wants us to ask the Father in His name for blessings beyond our comprehension. He wants to shower us with his grace and mercy. However, the life of prayer that we are to cultivate is radically different than what we might think. As the late Rev. Dr. Robert Crouse once said the life of prayer, “is the habit of relating, the habit of referring all our thoughts and words and deeds, and all our circumstances to God through Jesus Christ. It is not just particular petitions; it is thanksgiving, it is adoration, it is penitence and intercession. Prayer is not some magic charm employed to change the will of God. Prayer is looking into the mirror of the charity of God, and remembering, and being changed by what we see.”

We are called to look to that “perfect law of liberty, and continue therein.” We are to daily strive not be forgetful hearers, but doers of the work. And if we pray for the guidance and the strength to do this we shall indeed receive those abundant blessings that our Lord wishes for us to possess and intended for us to inherit from time immemorial.
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Easter
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
May 22, 2011

If anyone here were sick or experiencing some sort of nagging health concern, hopefully he would see the services of a physician to begin a course of treatment toward healing and restoration of health. We would most likely research the symptoms that affect our health and well-being to see what steps we might be able to apply to restore wholeness of mind or body or spirit.

Are we doing the same things regarding the spiritual well-being of our soul?

The reason I posed the statement at the very beginning was because of the fact that every one of us here today and in fact everyone alive today is sick and in need of spiritual healing. The question remains, how many recognize this fact? How many are doing anything about it?

Our collect appointed for today opens with that stark acknowledgement. We are afflicted with both an unruly will and disordered affections. As has been pointed out before, two phrases were eliminated from the General Confession in the offices of Morning and Evening Prayer in the 1979 prayer book, and it was not an accidental omission. In our 1928 Book of Common Prayer, we don’t shy away from admitting that in our sinful state we are indeed “miserable offenders,” and “there is no health in us.”

Our collect this morning repeats that same reality. Isn’t it interesting that we are not hearing this during Lent when we would naturally expect a theme such as this one to come to the forefront? No, we are hearing this on the Fourth Sunday after Easter. The important point to keep in mind here is that this theme is applicable all the time and is not just limited to the penitential season of Lent.

One of the most beautiful components of our Liturgy and our prayers is the structure of the language.

What do I mean by this?

I’ve had the wonderful privilege of hearing The Rev. Dr. Paul Zahl speak on multiple occasions about St. Paul’s treatment of law and grace. He asserts that the proper preaching and teaching of the Gospel is to preach the law first in its proper sense which convicts us of our sinfulness and in his words should “reduce us to jelly.” Once you’ve preached the law then the proper place to proceed next is to preach the unmerited grace of God and stop right there. This allows the Holy Spirit to do His work in our heart and our will, and begin to effect the change toward holiness and amendment of life. Dr. Zahl says that a 2nd dose of the law piled on at the end does nothing but inflame the sinful passions that lie beneath the surface. It actually becomes counterproductive because it operates under the false assumption that just because we’re saved, or baptized, or a Christian that we can actually change ourselves. The truth of the matters is that we can’t – God is the only one who can change us.

The reason I mentioned Dr. Zahl and his position on the law and grace is because of the structure of our collects and prayers and our liturgy as a whole. If you take a look at the collect for today as a prime example I hope you will begin to see what he and I are talking about.

That opening petition should reduce us to jelly; it should cause us to stop and seriously look at our lives and humbly admit that I’m caught, I’m busted, that really is about me. That opening sentence truly exposes the human condition for what it is – disordered and out of sync. It does say that we are miserable offenders and that there is no health in us.

The beauty of the prayer is that it doesn’t leave us there to wallow in our misery and bemoan our wretched condition. It moves from that cruel truth and progresses quickly to the comfortable grace that comes through faith in Jesus Christ and his work upon the cross.

The shift from law to grace takes place right up front where we ask God to grant to us the change of heart to begin to love what he commands and to desire those things that he promises. The only avenue by which this will ever work is through love. The great theological virtue of charity makes this possible; there is no other means available. When that most excellent bond of charity becomes rooted within us can we begin to live as new creatures as our Lord wills for us all. It is something that must be central in our prayer life. We must ask for that increase of faith, hope, and charity as we prayed on Quinquagesima Sunday.

The shift then continues further when our collect leaves us with joy and hope. Our world is changing and shifting more rapidly than we’d like it to. If you are anything like me, I’m sure you with that every once in a while things would slow down so that we can at least catch our breath and be sure of our footing. I’ll bet I’m not alone here.

We want some degree of certainty among the sundry and manifold changes of this world. We want a fixed point that isn’t going to leave us wanting and unsure of both our present location or our destiny. Our collect speaks of both that firm foundation and on top of that it is the place where all joy is actually to be found.

Joy is that thing that St. Augustine most clearly articulated throughout his works when he speaks of joy as being that which we seek for its own sake. Joy is in fact the end; it is not a means to some other higher end. True joy is the reunification of Man to God. That has become a reality through the cross of Jesus Christ. All the things that this world puts forward as a potential source of joy will always leave us lacking because it is an unstable trust in something that is perishable, that one day will simply pass away.

Think of the commercials that you see on television or on the Internet or in magazines. They are trying to offer what they believe to be joy in some form or fashion, but in the end they can never deliver on their promises. The latest car, the bigger house, the sleek new boat, the newest technological fad (of course you know I’m being honest in self-conviction on that last one). Think about it though, and you know I’m right. All of these things and more once they’ve been obtained leave us looking for the next best thing. I have always been intrigued by the mission statement of Zaxby’s restaurants where they say they, “Consistently create encore experiences that enrich lives one person at a time!!” Can a fast food restaurant serving chicken fingers and buffalo wings deliver a promise such as that? I’m not one for churches having mission statements, but isn’t the Gospel of Jesus Christ the only thing that can truly enrich lives and create encore experiences because through him we are coming into contact with Almighty God?

True joy can only be found in the Creator of all things and not in any part of His creation. Certainly we can experience God’s beauty and majesty through creation, but that should drive us first to our knees and then raise our hearts in praise and adoration.

It takes a changed heart to love what our Lord commands because it stands counter to who we are. We must seek that changed heart each and every day of our lives. For then we may be able to proclaim with the hymn writer William Cowper, “To see the law by Christ fulfilled, and hear his pardoning voice, changes a slave into a child, and duty into choice.”