Saturday, September 03, 2011

Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
September 4, 2011

I mentioned last Sunday that this morning's Epistle was again going to come from St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians and the topic at hand begins to speak of the Christian notion of death and dying. Well, this morning's section from I Cor. 15 doesn't actually go to the full depth that the rest of this chapter does in dealing with this life and the life to come but is the platform from which Paul is going to begin to speak about that most important and relevant topic.

A number of you mentioned on several occasions that you so much prefer the Anglican Burial Office to any of the other funerals that you've attended in your lives. Certainly the reverence and solemnity of the rite itself is beautiful and comforting in its language and does indeed set the stage for a service that is hopefully done decently and in order. Another reason that I believe that these services are so beautiful is the fact that we lean so heavily on Holy Scripture in the service and depend on the language of the great hymns of the church to express in words far better than we can say at that particular time. However, I think that the true reason behind those statements is the fact that more times than not the funeral has felt more like a roast of someone's life rather than in the worship of Almighty God and the final rite of the church for the deceased. It's more about the life of the deceased than about the life of the Saviour of the world into whose loving arms we are committing the soul of someone we loved in this life, with the blessed hope of everlasting life resounding in our ears that we will see that person again.

If we look at both of our lessons appointed for today, we see two prime examples of what displaced trust does in our lives. I am only going to touch on the Epistle, but I hope you will also see that same theme shine through in our Gospel lesson of the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican.

Paul begins this 15th chapter of I Cor. by making four declaratory statements about the Gospel. First, it is the Gospel which Paul preached to them. There is a great deal of trust being exhibited that he is asking them to extend, which he is going to clarify at the end of this passage. Second, it is the Gospel that they received. It is not something that they came up with on their own, it was not something that came from the "devices and desires of their own hearts." No, it is something that they received, and it is the same faith that we receive as well. Third, the Gospel is the means whereby they are now able to stand, and is the strong rock upon which they receive sure footing. The Gospel that they've heard proclaimed and that they now believe is their very foundation. Finally, and most importantly, it is the only place where they may receive salvation and whereby they are saved.

Paul then brings these four statements back to their starting point by adding a caveat that they must continue to return to his faithful preaching and teaching for instruction, correction, and growth in the faith. He is calling upon them to remember that the only source of strength for their life in this world is a faith in the One that will bring them into the perfect joy and fellowship with Him in this life and in the life to come. They cannot depend upon themselves for this but submit their lives wholly into the care, mercy, protection, and pity of Almighty God.

That's an awfully strange way to say that, to place ourselves in a position where we might receive pity. However, remember what we prayed in our collect this morning. God's most glorious example of his unfailing power is in His showing to us his mercy and his pity. It's not in His handiwork and in the things that He created, however marvelous those things are. It's not in the outpouring of gifts from the Holy Spirit, as necessary and important as they are. No, God's most remarkable example of his power is through showing mercy and pity.

The reason this is so is because it points most directly to the cross and what God's Son did upon the cross for us.

Paul offers a reason whereby he can exert his authority to the Corinthian church, and it speaks most clearly as to why his trust is not a disordered one. He tells his hearers that he's not preaching to them his own gospel but the one that he has first received. He's not placing his authority in something that is perishable, but in something that fadeth not away. He says to the Church that first and foremost he's sharing with them the Good News that was given to him-that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again according to the scriptures. Twice he mentions the scriptures, and then he goes on to bear witness to those who share in that same revelation, those who believe that Jesus died for their sins, was buried, and rose from the dead. We make that same declaration ever time we celebrate the Eucharist, and we do so twice in the liturgy-once in the Creed and once in the Eucharistic prayer.

Finally, Paul acknowledges his shear folly in exulting in himself and says that he is of course the least of all of the Apostles, born out of due time. He was a persecutor of the Church. He sat there and held the cloaks of those who stoned Stephen to death. He did everything in his power to stamp out this rebel movement that he saw as a threat to everything that the Jewish faith stood for, and the promises of a Messiah to which they all were looking. He realized that asserting anything else other than the message of Gospel as the source of his authority to preach as a minister of Jesus Christ was shear foolishness. Paul believed that he was unworthy to even bear the title of Apostle, and yet, through God's grace, mercy, and pity, he is able to do just that because by God's grace only he is who he is. It is only through Christ and him crucified can he boast. Anything else is of no worth. But by the grace of God, we are who we are.

Are we not the same? If we are truly honest with ourselves do we not make the same claims that we are not worthy to be the vehicles through which God's work is accomplished? No, we probably don't offer the same excuse as Paul in persecuting the Church, but we offer our shortcomings as excuses nonetheless. We say that we don't know our Bible well enough to lead a Bible study, or talk to that skeptic who has questions about the Christian faith. We often call to mind those times where we've sinned against God and neighbour and shrink back in fear. We lament our state and say that we can't possibly be the one God has called to bring His kingdom into this broken and hurting world.

Yet, we prayed at the beginning of this service that the supreme vehicle through which God's power is exalted is through showing mercy and pity. I need that assurance. Wretch that I am in light of God's law and commandments, I need someone to show me mercy and pity.

For all of those people who make the claim that Jesus was just like all of the other moral teachers who have come and gone, this doesn't hold water. Jesus was not simply bringing some new morality or new way of showing how to be good as opposed to being bad. No, Jesus came to show us that we are dead, but that through Him and through Him alone we might have new life. That new life is not just reserved for the life to come, but in this life as well. If that were not the case then there would have been no reason for Jesus to have taught us to pray that God's will be done on earth as it was in heaven.

Where do we place our trust? How could we possibly have the audacity to think that we could ever trust in our own righteousness? We can't. Why on earth would even bother to pray the Prayer of Humble Access if that were so? After all, when we pray that prayer in just a few minutes, take note of the fact that the word mercy appears 3 times in those 3 sentences.

The great Apostle St. Paul knew that there was only one place in which he could glory and that was in the cross of Jesus Christ. That's why our Anglican Burial Office speaks with such power and conviction is because it attempts to direct our attention away from the casket and onto the cross. The cross is the only way that one lying in that coffin, which we will all one day do as well, can ever have hope in this life, can ever have true faith, and can ever have life everlasting. To the same Lord who gives us that assurance, and whose power is exalted most in His ability to show mercy and pity, be ascribed all might, majesty, dominion, and praise both now and evermore.
Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Trinity
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
August 28, 2011

Last Sunday, today, and next Sunday we will hear Epistle lessons from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Last week we heard from the tenth chapter and Paul’s words to the church to pay attention to two temptations that befall Christian disciples – laxity toward the law on the one hand, and on the other, a religious moralism that distorts our need for Christ in our lives and the necessity of grace to help us along our path toward sanctification. Next Sunday morning we will hear the beginning of the long fifteenth chapter which deals with the theme of death and resurrection and the latter portion of that lesson is one that I always select at the Burial of the Dead because of the manner in which we should properly orient ourselves and our thoughts regarding the Christian perspective on death and dying.

This morning’s Epistle from the twelfth chapter is a continuation of a theme of Christian stewardship that permeates our lessons, and looks at stewardship not from the perspective of our treasure, but more so from the perspective of our talents.

Paul begins this portion of his letter with a sharp transition, and he begins a new line of thought in his teaching about spiritual gifts. I must say that we don’t talk allot about spiritual gifts or the gifts and manifestations of the Holy Spirit. We don’t delve too deeply into the realm of theology known as pneumatology, which is the study of the Holy Spirit and his works. Why not? Why are we so shy about this most important branch of theology? Should we be weary of studying about it, talking about it, and somehow avoid praying more fervently regarding the things of the Spirit of God?

The answer to the final question must be a resounding NO. We should not be weary of studying about and talking about the manifestation of the Holy Spirit in our lives. After all, everyone here who has been confirmed had a bishop lay hands upon your head and ask for that very thing to happen – to pray for the Spirit to come and be among us, and permeate our total existence. The bishop prays, “Defend, O Lord, this thy Child with thy heavenly grace; that he may continue thine for ever; and daily increase in thy Holy Spirit more and more, until he come unto thy everlasting kingdom.” The bishop, through the power of his apostolic office, invoked the Holy Spirit of God upon each of us, and asked that we might increase in that Spirit each and every day of our lives.

I think that one of the main reasons that speaking of things in these terms is so frightening is that it is ultimately an acknowledgement that we are giving ourselves over to something that is mysterious, awesome, frightening in many ways, and last but probably most important, out of our control.

We want to be in control. We want to have a handle on things. As Burger King advertisements say, “We want it our way.” Unfortunately, with the things of God, we don’t get to have it our way. When our way does not accord with God’s way, we will never get it. Well, in actuality if we are so obstinate that we insist on doing it our way, God will allow us to have it our own way, but unfortunately, the consequences are met usually to our own peril. I’ve mentioned before that I’ve heard it said that the song that will be forever sung in Hell will be, “I did it my way.” C. S. Lewis of course wrote that at the end of time there will be two types of people left, those who have said to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God will say, “Thy will be done.”

Not only is Paul telling the Corinthian church that they should pray for the manifestation of the Holy Spirit, but that they should carefully regard the stewardship of those gifts for one reason alone – the glory of Almighty God.

There is a good reason that this lesson follows directly after the one that we heard last Sunday. If it was equally destructive to deviate in one way or another regarding the law, so too should we not deviate too far regarding spiritual gifts.

Our text says that the Spirit divides to every may severally as he will. What that means is that some will be given the gift of wisdom, some knowledge, some faith, some healing, some prophecy, some tongues, some the interpretation of tongues. The key words here are some and same.

Paul does not say that all will be given all of these gifts. I frankly don’t think that anyone could handle the responsibility of the stewardship of that many items. It’s hard enough simply to manage what we have.

It’s also critical to focus on the word same as well as some. All of these gifts come from the same Spirit. Just because someone has the charisma for a certain spiritual gift does not mean that he has reached some new plateau from which he can look down at others who do not possess that same gift.

There are some churches who state that if you have not been given the gift of speaking in tongues you have not been completely baptized by the Holy Spirit. Somehow your Christianity is deficient, and that you need to pray harder and seek more faith so that you might receive that gift.

To those folks I say, I’m sorry, you are doing the exact same thing the Judaizers did in saying that the only way you could be a proper Christian was to be circumcised and be a good Jew first.

This is why the entire heading of this passage falls under the broad category of stewardship. Our Lord has entrusted us to be the good stewards of the gift or gifts He has given. We are to cultivate them, pray that they might be strengthened, use them, and share them with others. We are not called to lord them over other people.

We are also called not to bemoan the fact that we don’t possess a gift that someone else does.

There are some in this parish who have the gift to offer their service to God in the preparation of the altar, others have the gift to offer their voice in the choir, others serve as a greeter or usher, others in their gift being with the children.

Our lesson stops early in the twelfth chapter of I Corinthians, but if you were to read further Paul goes on to talk about the interworking of the various gifts. What if all wanted to sing in the choir, but none wanted to serve on the altar guild? Brandt, don’t answer that question! What everyone felt called to teach Sunday School and no one wanted to attend. Actually, I don’t know what I would do if that happened!

I think you see what I mean. We cannot wish away the gifts that God has given us because they are not the same gift as others have. We can’t look down on others because we have been blessed in one area that is not visible in others.

Rather, we are called to use our gifts for the glory of God, for the building up of the Body, for the edification of the faithful, and for the growth of God’s kingdom. We must pray that God might enlarge and multiply the several gifts we have been entrusted to be the stewards of.

Yes, this is somewhat scary stuff because it requires us to be accountable for what we have been given, and use those wonderful manifestations of the Holy Spirit faithfully and wisely. Being agents of the Holy Spirit commands us to go forth in faith, allowing the Spirit to do His work, working in us that which is well pleasing in His sight. For it is the same Spirit, same Lord, same God which worketh all in all. To Him be ascribed all might, majesty, dominion, and praise both now and evermore.