That Blessed Dependancy

"There wee leave you in that blessed dependancy, to hang upon him who hangs upon the Crosse…" -John Donne, "Death's Duell"

Category: Sermons

Through their word…

A Sermon Preached on Seventh Sunday of Easter: The Sunday after the Ascension, May 8, 2016

By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina

Texts: Acts 16:16-34; John 17:20-26

“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.”

May I speak in the Name of Christ Jesus: crucified, risen, and ascended on high. Amen.

Why are you here today?

I’m sure there are as many answers to that question as there are people in this cathedral. Some of you are here because you are always here—you keep this place running, and it’s woven into the fabric of your life. Some of you are here because you know you want to be or feel you ought to be, even if you can’t really say why. Some of you are here because you’re hungry and you hope to be fed. Some of you are here because you’re hurting and need to be soothed. Some of you are here because your mother makes you come to church, and on this day above all days, that is a perfectly good reason.

(Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the mother who went to wake her son for church on Sunday morning. “I don’t want to go to church,” her son shouted back through the door. “Why not?” his mother asked. “I’ll give you two good reasons,” said the son, “They don’t like me, and I don’t like them.” The mother thought about it for a moment, then said, “Ok, but I’ll give you two good reasons why you WILL go to church: you’re forty-seven years old and you’re the preacher!”)

But none of these answers get to the heart of the question I’m asking, because I’m asking it not in terms of our own personal reasons, but in the context of this morning’s Scripture.

Why are you here today?

This morning’s readings make very clear something that we do not always see: we are here, all of us–you and me and everyone who has ever walked through these doors–because of the living Word of God. We are here because two-thousand years ago the first Apostles were obedient to the command of Jesus. We are here because they faithfully, fervently, tirelessly, obeyed the prayer of Jesus that we heard this morning, and they received his promise. “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.” When Jesus spoke those words, he was speaking about us. And that is why we are here today.

All of us. Whether you are committed, certain, firm in your belief, or whether your faith today hangs by the thinnest thread, in our passage this morning Jesus is praying for you. Whether you have dwelt long in the close embrace of God and rejoice in the intimate community of the Holy Trinity, or whether you are new to and uncertain about all this talk of “love before the foundation of the world”, Jesus is praying for you. Whoever you are, however you got to this place, we are all of us here for one reason: the fruitful prayer of Jesus, working through the proclamation—the announcement—that those first followers of Jesus made.

That is not as inevitable as it may seem. You will recall way back on Easter Sunday how the disciples went away from the empty tomb and hid themselves in fear and trembling. One would not have guessed that those men would go forth with a powerful proclamation. But they did not stay hidden for long.

Next week we will celebrate Pentecost. We will remember the day when the Church broke forth out of hiding, impelled out into the world by the power of the Holy Spirit. And what did the Apostles do when they had received power from on high? They proclaimed, in languages that they had not studied, in tongues that they did not know, the everlasting Word of salvation: the mighty announcement that Jesus Christ was crucified and is now Risen.

We see the power of that Word today in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Paul and Silas are being pestered by a little slave girl who is possessed by a demon. She follows along, loudly announcing their identity and intention. She is a slave not only to the human masters who exploit her for their gain, but to the seeing spirit that possesses her.

And so Paul, annoyed by the prattling demon, turns upon the little girl and commands: “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And the girl was made free of her demonic possession.

There is the power of the Apostolic Word, the proclamation rooted and founded in Jesus Christ! Of course, that Word come not only with power but with a price. It gets Paul and Silas into a great deal of trouble. They are denounced, and beaten, and locked-up.

Yet even when shackled in a prison cell, they cannot abandon the Word they have been given. At midnight, they sing songs and hymns, and shout the praises of God as they lie in the darkest depths, bound in chains and iron. And even there in the depths of the prison, God demonstrates in them his power to save through their Word. When the trembling jailer falls before them and asks, “What must I do to be saved?” they speak the Word of the Lord to him and his household, and they believe.

From those humble beginnings, from those earliest announcements, the mighty Word spread. The heirs of the Apostles made their way across seas and mountains to proclaim the Word in new lands, to new peoples. The power of the Spirit of God could not be contained. In times of persecution, the Word was whispered and spoken in secret. It still is in many parts of the world today. In times of faith and confidence, the Word was proclaimed from great pulpits to thronging congregations, eager to hear the news again .

And through servants known and unknown, by means obvious and paths untraceable, the Word has come to us, just as Jesus prayed that it would.

Yet here we must pause. The way I have told this story, we might be led to look on Trinity Cathedral in 2016 as the fullest flowering of the Apostolic Word. Being time-bound creatures, we have a tendency to favor the present moment. C.S. Lewis called it “chronological snobbery.” For us, right now is the only true reality: the past is a fading photograph of things that have been; the future is an unknown, uncertain prospect, full of doom or hope, depending on your point of view.

But we must remember that God’s perspective is not like ours. “My thoughts are not your thoughts, says the Lord, nor your ways, my ways.” “One day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.”

Jesus does not privilege the present when he prays for his followers in our Gospel today–either the present moment of his original context or our present moment today. When he speaks of “those who will believe in me through their word,” he surely speaks of us. But he also speaks to us—and speaks through us—to the generations who will come to believe because of the Word that we proclaim.

Jesus’ words in Scripture today are to us a benediction and a call to battle. They are both our blessing and our marching orders.

For today, Christians, the prayer of Jesus allows us to look backwards and realize that we stand at the head of a great, triumphant procession. With the eyes of faith, we see the Church as God sees it: rank upon rank of saints standing in an unbroken line down through the ages. We hear the Word—sometimes whispered, sometimes shouted—always calling, constituting, and commissioning the Church from that first Apostolic band right down even to our day.

And not to us, only. For Jesus’ prayer also bids us turn, Christians, from gazing upon the happy victors of the Church Triumphant—those blessed ones who rest from their labors, those giants on whose mighty shoulders we stand–and to look upon the Church Militant, still struggling and striving here on earth. And with the eyes of your soul perfected by the timeless sight of your Savior, behold the Church as she shall yet be! Behold the conquering ranks of the generations to come who will be called, constituted, and commissioned through your faithful proclamation of the triumphant Word, preached in your every word and deed!

Today, Jesus speaks of us and Jesus speaks to us. Today Jesus shows that the power of his Word is what draws us ever deeper into the everlasting love between the eternal Father and the Incarnate Son, within the bond of the Holy Spirit. And today, Jesus give us the glorious task of proclaiming that Apostolic Word anew and inviting others into his unending life of love. Today, Jesus calls us—all of us—to take up the Apostles’ mission, to hand on the Apostles’ message, to proclaim the everlasting Gospel of salvation, so that a people yet unborn may know the mighty deeds of the Lord.

So rise up, O Church, and faint not before the brutality and the beatings and the cruel indifference of this world to the Gospel of salvation! Rise up, O Church, and go forth to proclaim the Word, in the power and presence of God! Rise up, O Church, and be what your Lord shall make of you!

For that is why we are here today.

AMEN.

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“Thou hast raised our human nature…”

A Sermon Preached on the Feast of the Ascension, May 5, 2016

By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina

Texts: Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

May I speak in the Name of Christ Jesus: crucified, risen, and ascended on high to reign. Amen.

Jesus was born. Jesus was crucified. Jesus rose from the dead. Jesus ascended into heaven.

If we approach the Nicene Creed with the question, “What did Jesus do?”, that is what we will find for our answer. The Creed tells us nothing of the teaching of Jesus, nothing of the healings of Jesus, nothing of the preaching of Jesus, nothing of the praying of Jesus, nothing of the miracles of Jesus. The Creed tells us, simply, that he was born, that he died, that he rose from the grave, and that he ascended.

Of those four events–birth, death, resurrection, ascension–it is an undeniable fact that the last one receives the least attention. As wonderful as it is to worship with you all tonight, we must admit that the crowds on Christmas Eve were slightly larger.

And yet from the perspective of our forefathers in the faith–those folks who composed the Nicene Creed–this day, Ascension Day, is on par with Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. Regardless of the fact that most people–even most Christians–don’t realize it, the Church ranks this day as a principal feast–one of the chief celebrations in the liturgical year.

Why? What’s so important about the ascension of Jesus? Why does it matter? What does it mean?

Perhaps we should begin by saying clearly what the ascension is not. The ascension is not about Jesus shooting up into the sky like a bottle rocket. A surprising number of people seem to have this dismissive, slightly embarrassed understanding of the ascension. That may be due to the tradition, in artwork, of depicting just the ascended Jesus’ feet disappearing into the clouds. Our own lovely ascension window gives us a good example of that.

The trouble with this view of the ascension is that it seems to rest on an outdated understanding of the universe. It sort of pictures the cosmos like a house with a first floor, a second floor, and a basement. If earth is the first floor, then hell is the basement below us and heaven is the second floor over our heads.

But this day is not about Jesus climbing the stairs to the great master bedroom suite in the sky. This isn’t about him flying away up over our heads. Rather, when our Creeds say that “he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty,” we mean that Jesus has gone into the nearer presence of God. Jesus who came from the bosom of the Father now returns to the bosom of the Father.

Heaven, in this view, doesn’t just mean “up in the sky.” Heaven means that place where God’s power, God’s presence, and God’s purposes are experienced without corruption or interruption. “For now we see in a mirror dimly; then we shall see face to face. Now we know only in part: then we will know fully, even as we have been fully known.”

Jesus returns to the nearer presence of God. The Son who was never separated from his Father–even in that moment on the Cross when he felt forsaken by his Father–now goes to take his seat at the right hand of his Father. The ascension is the completion of the work that he came to do.

The Creed tells us that it was “for us and for our salvation” that God the Son came down from heaven, and “by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” Just as he was born for us and for our salvation, and he died for us and for our salvation, and he rose for us and for our salvation, now he ascends for us and for our salvation.

The ascension is the completion of this great work. And it may well be the most astonishing and most glorious part of this great work. For when Jesus ascends, he does not do so empty-handed. When Jesus returns to the Father, he takes something with him. When Jesus goes to sit at God’s right hand in the heavenly places, he carries back with him a prize.

That prize, beloved, is you and I. When Jesus ascends to the Father, he does so in the same incarnate body that was born, and died, and was raised from the dead. When Jesus ascends, he lifts human nature into the very life of God. When Jesus ascends, he raises our humanity, not simply to the same place of innocence and purity lost to us in the fall. When Jesus ascends, he exalts our nature to heights beyond what we could have asked or imagined. Jesus lifts us to God.

It is a hand like my hand that pushes upon the gates of heaven. They are feet like your feet that now tread the paths of angels. Lips like these lips now plead mercy for sinners. Eyes like these eyes now behold the face of God.

That is the greater glory of this day. And that glory should give us pause. That glory, frankly, should terrify us. For as soon as I consider that Jesus has lifted human nature into the life of God, I realize with trembling just how thoroughly unworthy my nature is.

I recall each time that this hand has been used to grasp and clench and claim for my own selfish ends. I remember each time that these feet have carried me away from the suffering of others. I hear in my memory every bitter word and foul curse that has been uttered by these lips. I see again every unworthy image that has darkened these eyes.

Knowing the sorry state of my own human nature–and seeing written across the front page of every newspaper, every facebook page, every family history, and every national narrative the sorry state of all human nature–I shrink from the thought that that our incarnate Lord should have lifted us to God.

But in my dismal despair, I lift my eyes again to the feet of Jesus disappearing into the clouds in our ascension window–and I see there the prints of the nails! I recall the words of Jesus spoken in our Gospel lesson tonight. I hear again the assurance “that the Messiah [was] to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.” I remember that the ascended body of Jesus still bears in his hands and feet and side and head the wounds that have made us whole. I realize once more that the Christ who has lifted our nature on high has also borne my sin and your sin in his body upon the Cross, and that he has broken the power of death forever, and that he has not left us comfortless, but has clothed his Church with power from on high!

When I glimpse again, in this holy feast, the ascension of the crucified and risen body of Jesus, I know that my great high priest–a high priest who has suffered with me and for me–now stands on my behalf in the nearer presence of our holy God.

And where he is, so we also shall be. “For this Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come in the same was as you saw him go into heaven.” In Christ’s ascension, we see the sure and certain promise of our own. AMEN.

“Follow me!”

 

Peter and Paul

(The St Peter and St Paul windows of Trinity Cathedral face each other from the ends of the north and south transepts. The low-quality photos are my own.)

A Sermon Preached on the Third Sunday of Easter, April 10, 2016

By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina

Texts: Acts 9:1-20; John 21:1-19

May I speak in the Name of Christ Jesus, crucified and risen. Amen.

Do you have what it takes to be a disciple? Do you know what it means to be a follower of the Risen Jesus?

Our passages from the Acts of the Apostles and from John’s Gospel today introduce us to two of the greatest disciples of all time: Simon, Son of John, and Saul of Tarsus. We know them better as St Peter and St Paul–the two men God chose especially for the work of establishing, tending, and spreading his Church. We know them from their profound letters, which make up the bulk of the New Testament. We know them from the stories of their powerful words and deeds. We know them from their stained glass portraits here in the Cathedral. And we know them from the long shadow they still cast over Christian life.

Surely Peter and Paul show us the measure of discipleship. Surely their witness and example show us what it takes to follow Jesus. And surely, this should leave us shaking in our pews!

Does a disciple have to have the courage and conviction of Peter: boldly preaching the Good News, performing deeds of power and healing in Jesus’ name, and faithfully tending the flock of Christ until he is crucified—upside down?!

Does a disciple have to have the eloquence and the tenacity of Paul: tirelessly spreading the Gospel everywhere he went, facing hostile crowds and skeptical hearers around the Mediterranean world, braving all the disasters and indignities of first-century travel, and finally going up to Rome itself to proclaim the lordship of Jesus in the courts of the Emperor?

If all this is what it takes to be a disciple—if the trials and triumphs of Peter and Paul provide the template for the Christian life—well then I wouldn’t blame you if you headed for the doors right now. (Please don’t do that.)

But before we let the legacy of Peter and Paul scare us off, I want to call us back to the specific stories we have heard today. I want to look at these two men, not in light of what we know they will become or of what we remember about them from Church history. But I want to look at them just as we find them today, at the beginning of their lives as disciples of the Risen Jesus, and to consider what their stories can teach us about the life of discipleship.

It is not a promising beginning. On the one hand we have Simon Peter, the most eager,  the most outspoken, and the most assertive of Jesus’ inner circle of followers throughout the course of his earthly ministry. Simon is always rushing ahead, making promises we know he can’t keep, offering explanations we know he doesn’t fully understand. Simon is a loudmouth, full of bluster and bravado and false confidence. And Simon is the one who, as Jesus approaches his passion and death, denies ever knowing his Lord just in order to save his own skin.

Our Gospel today tells us that Simon Peter remained the leader of Jesus’ followers event after the Resurrection. In the midst of their joyful confusion and happy bewilderment at meeting their Risen Lord, Simon led them back up to Galilee to return to the life they knew before they ever met Jesus. So it is that this morning we find the disciples right back where they started: fishing all night on the Sea of Galilee in their little, leaky boats, with nothing to show for their work but their empty nets.

On the other hand, we have Saul of Tarsus: the most zealous, the most feared, and the most hate-filled of the persecutors of the early Church. We meet Saul for the very first time as he looks on approvingly at the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Elsewhere in the Acts of the Apostles we’re told of Saul’s single-minded mission to destroy the Church of God. This morning, we hear that “Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord,” received official sanction for his effort to search out early followers of the Way—women and men who walked in the way of the Risen Christ—and to bring them bound to Jerusalem.

So there we have them: Simon, the rudderless, thoughtless, faithless fisherman; and Saul, the ruthless, pitiless, vicious religious fanatic.

What on earth can these stories teach us about being a follower of the Risen Christ? How in the world do these miserable men become the great disciples we’ve heard about?

When we look at Simon and Saul at the beginning of their ministries, we find that what binds together their lives and stories is one thing–and one thing only: The Call of God. What makes these two men disciples–in spite of their faults and failures, in spite of their hatreds and their hurts–is the Call of the Risen Jesus.

It’s easiest to see in Saul’s case because his transformation is so sudden and stark. Traveling along the Damascus road, doggedly pursuing his goal of total destruction for the Church, the zealous young Pharisee meets the Risen Jesus in a blinding flash of light.

Imagine his bafflement and confusion; imagine his wonder and his fear. Everything Saul knows about himself and his world, everything in which Saul takes pride and to which he has devoted his life, is overthrown in an instant. Darkness descends upon him. Three days Saul spends in blindness and in prayer, fasting from food or drink. And when, on the third day, Ananias comes to him at the Lord’s command and lays his hands upon him, and the scales fall from Saul’s eyes, we see the fruit of his encounter–we see the power of God’s Call. Saul the Pharisee is baptized, and begins to preach the name of Jesus in the synagogues of Damascus. A disciple is born.

But notice that the change in Saul has not been accomplished by Saul’s own decision or choice. The change in Saul has not been accomplished by his days spent in fasting and prayer. The change in Saul has not even been accomplished by the ministry of faithful Ananias.

Saul has been changed by the Call of the Risen Christ. Saul has been transformed because the Lord has chosen him for an instrument “to bring [his] name before Gentiles, and kings, and before the people of Israel.” The unexpected, unasked for Call of God is the root and source of Saul’s discipleship.

And that Call is the root and source of Simon Peter’s discipleship as well. Imagine Simon’s shame and dejection as he remembers denying that he ever knew his Lord. Imagine his confusion and even his fear as he hears word of the Resurrection and remembers the teaching of Jesus: that “He who denies me before others, him I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.” Imagine his anxiety and his excitement as he realizes that the man walking along the shore of Galilee is Jesus, and he throws himself into the water, swimming with all his might to meet him. Imagine his anticipation and trepidation as he watches Jesus eat his breakfast by the lakeshore, marveling that this is not a vision, or an apparition, or even a resuscitation, but that the same Jesus who was crucified is now risen to new life.

And imagine, all through this difficult, wonderful morning, how Simon Peter’s dread and joy must’ve grown in equal measure. For after breakfast, Jesus asks him the question that he feared and hoped for: “Simon, Son of John, do you love me?”

Three times that question comes. Three time it pains Simon Peter to hear it and to answer it. And yet that question works backwards into his soul, undoing the damage of his three-time denial of Christ. And once the memory of his own shame, his own failed expectations, his own self-centered following of Jesus has been conquered by the presence of the Risen Lord, the Call comes also to Simon Peter: “Follow me.” A new disciple of Jesus—a disciple of the Resurrected Jesus—is born.

But note again that this call doesn’t come to Simon through his own decision or choice. The change in Simon is not accomplished as a result of his three years of discipleship during Christ’s earthly ministry. The change in Simon is not accomplished as a result of his eager swimming to Jesus. The change in Simon is not even accomplished by his faithful answer “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” to the painful questions posed by Jesus.

Simon Peter is changed by the Call of the Risen Christ. The Call of God transforms the baffled, bumbling fisherman into the bold, courageous shepherd of God’s flock.

By that Call, Simon the fisherman now truly becomes Peter, the rock on whom Christ’s Church is built. By that Call, Saul the Pharisee becomes Paul the Apostle–the bearer of the message; the one who is sent to proclaim the name of Jesus to the whole world.

Brothers and sisters, I asked at the outset of this sermon, “Do you have what it takes to be a disciple?” See now that a disciple is not measured by his own deeds or disasters! A disciple is not measured by her own faithfulness or failures! The life of discipleship comes from the Call of the Master. To be a disciple is to hear the Call of the One who can and does accomplish what he promises: the One who raises the dead to life, and who calls into existence the things that are not.

And the startling message of our Scripture readings today is that that Call to discipleship can come to anyone, anywhere. The Call came to a fanatic overcome with hatred, consumed by his bitter intention to bind and judge the servants of God, and he became Paul. The Call came to a faithless fisherman, a man of lowly estate who slunk back to his boats in confusion and shame, and he became Peter. The Call came to every kind of unworthy, unlikely, unwelcome and unwanted person in the ancient world, transforming them by its power and giving them grace to become the disciples of Jesus, the mothers and fathers of the Church.

And the Call comes still. The Call has come  even to the poor sinners who stand and minister to this congregation in this place. The Call comes to us, your priests, right in the midst of all our faults and foibles, our intemperance and our incompetence, our silly pride and our stubborn pretension.

And, by our ministry and through the wondrous working of the Holy Spirit of God, the Call comes to you. The Call of discipleship comes to you, that you may be followers of the Risen Jesus. The Call of discipleship comes to you, that you may be empowered to proclaim the Good News of Christ in your every word and deed. The Call of discipleship comes to you, that you may speak the Name of the Lord before the nations, before rulers and authorities, and before the whole chosen people of God.

The Call of discipleship comes to you: God himself calls to you, dear people, and speaks again those simple, wonderful, costly words: “Follow me.” And it is that Call, and nothing else, that makes you a disciple.

Won’t your rise up out of your blindness and heed that Call? Won’t you swim to shore from those fishing boats—those same old worn and weary fishing boats of routine and habit and inertia and comfort—and fall at the feet of the Risen Lord?

Beloved people of God, hear today the Call of Jesus. Become true disciples of Christ, not through your work and witness, not because of your choice or decision, but by the power of his eternal Call.

Follow him, and learn the power of that Call to claim you, to change you, to use you to his purpose, and to carry you, perhaps, even to places where you do not wish to go.

AMEN.

Tetelestai!

Annunciation-Crucifixion

(Saint John the Baptists, Annunciation, Crucifixion, Saint Catherine of Alexandria,               Francesc Comes, circa 1400)

A Sermon Preached on Good Friday, March 25, 2016

By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina

Texts: Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Hebrews 10:1-25; John 18:1-19:42

May I speak in the Name of Christ Crucified. Amen.

“It is finished.”

Those are the dying words of Jesus.

“It is finished.”

Those words are the key to understanding the meaning of this day.

“It is finished.”

Those words make absolutely no sense in the context of the story we have just heard.

Of course, if all Jesus meant was, “This is done with,” or “This is over,” then we might think that “It is finished” makes perfect sense. And after everything Jesus has been through, who could blame him if what he meant by “It is finished,” was really, “I’ve had enough,” or “I can’t take any more,” or even, “I give up”? Any of those might make sense to us.

But that’s not what Jesus said.

When Christ declares, “It is finished,” he isn’t saying anything like, “This is done with,” or “I give up.” The phrase “It is finished” in the English of our Bibles translates a single word from the original Greek of John’s Gospel: Tetelestai. That word doesn’t carry with it any hint of giving up or quitting or throwing in the towel.

Rather, when Jesus says, “Tetelestai,” and bows his head and gives up his spirit, what he is really saying from the Cross is “It is accomplished. It is fulfilled. It is completed.”

Tetelestai!“​

Jesus isn’t saying, “I give up.” Jesus is saying, “I have done it.”1

“It is accomplished. It is fulfilled. I have done it.”

Those are the last words of an innocent man who refused the violent rescue-attempt proposed by his friends in the garden; refused to answer the false accusations brought against him; refused to plead his case before the governor who could release him; refused to accept the offer of crude anesthetics meant to dull his pain; and refused to come down from the Cross with divine power and might to answer the cruel jeers of the spiteful crowd.

“It is accomplished. It is fulfilled. I have done it.” Those are the dying words of a broken man whose body has been whipped and scourged; whose clothes have been stripped away and gambled off; whose friends have deserted him; whose mother stands weeping for him; whose epitaph, nailed above him while he’s still alive, is a mocking political joke: “This is the King of the Jews!”

“It is accomplished. It is fulfilled. I have done it.” This is the last utterance of a faithful man who came to earth that others might have life, and have it more abundantly; of a man who healed the sick and raised the dead; of a man who fed the multitude with a few loaves and a couple of fish; of a man who opened the eyes of the blind and who shut the mouths of the learned; of a man who called God his Father, and tax collectors and sinful women and stupid fishermen his friends; a man who, before this death of agony, asked God to glorify his name, and who heard the voice of God declare in reply, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”

Here, hanging upon the Cross of shame, this man declares with his dying breath, “It is accomplished. It is fulfilled. I have done it.”

It doesn’t make any sense. Crucifixion was meant to be an utterly meaningless death. The whole point is that it was pointless. The cross was a tool used for erasing the record of a person’s existence. It was a way, not simply to kill a man, but to wipe him from the rolls of the human race.

How can this death be a fulfillment of anything? How can this death accomplish anything? How can this death be anything but an absolute, unmitigated, irredeemable failure?

Unless, of course, dying a death like this is precisely what Jesus came to do.

“Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring and prolong his days.”

“And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”

“See, God, I have come to do your will.”

What if the crucifixion were not a hateful, horrible interruption of Christ’s life and ministry? What if the crucifixion were his very reason for being born, and the full completion of his three years’ work?

There’s something special about this Good Friday. Something happens this year that will not happen again until the year 2157. Today is March 25. We are exactly nine months from Christmas Day. Were it not Good Friday, the Church would celebrate this day as the Feast of the Annunciation: the moment of the Incarnation.

This is the day when the Angel Gabriel brought word to a lowly Jewish peasant girl that she would become the mother of the Messiah. This is the day when the Word of God took on flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary his mother. This is the day when God came among us as one of us–and this is the day that he died.

This rare coming together of Good Friday and the Annunciation happens only a few times or so every century. It happened during the lifetime of the poet and priest John Donne. Reflecting on this convergence in 1608, Donne wrote that “This Church, by letting these days join, hath shown / Death and conception in mankind is one.”2

“Death and conception in mankind is one.” From the moment we begin to exist, we are vulnerable to death. This is the sad truth of the human condition. No matter how wise we make ourselves; no matter how wealthy we become; no matter how advanced our technological achievements or vast our information networks; no matter how high we build our walls to keep the enemies out or how deep we dig our vaults to hide away our treasures, we cannot escape death.

That’s the terrible message we read in the silent spread of terrorist networks through the free democracies of the world. That’s the toxic background to the fear-mongering and scapegoating that increasingly characterize our nation’s political life. That’s the source of the brokenness we find in our corrupted institutions and our ineffective systems and our ruined relationships and our endless empty consuming.

And it’s the condition we find at work in our own lives. To be human is to be caught up into the swirling dance of Death and Sin. It is to be dominated by powers beyond our control. It is to be scourged by the whip of our own weaknesses, and to be mocked with the taunts we hurled at others. To be human is to find ourselves hanging upon the Cross of our own hatreds–pierced by the nails of our own pride–stabbed by the spear of our own selfishness. To be human is to wear the thorny crown of our own control–the bloody crown that shows our rejection of God’s will in our lives and our slavery to our own desires and appetites. “Death and conception in mankind is one.”

This day cruelly confronts us with that dark truth.

But in Christ’s declaration of “Tetelestai!”, this day also dares to declare to us another, better truth. For what this “some times and seldom” overlap announces is that the God of all creation has come to pursue us–and he would not stop with simply taking on our nature. His intention was to become fully, completely human, and because “Death and conception in mankind is one”, today we remember that he has pursued us even unto death!

Christ’s purpose was not simply to become a perfect human being aloof and separate from the sins and sorrows and sufferings of our race. But what he begins at the Annunciation when he takes on flesh like ours, he completes in the Crucifixion when he suffers a death like ours.

For the death of agony that Jesus endures on the Cross means that no human agony is now beyond his reach. The death of shame that Christ completes this day means that no shame can now separate us from him. The accursed, ugly, horrible death he died means that God himself has absorbed our curse; God himself has exchanged our ugliness; God himself has faced the horror of death and made it his own.

“Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases…he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.”

For what was ours by nature, God took upon himself by grace. What we have deserved for our deeds, Christ has assumed out of his love. What was for us only dissolution and disaster, Jesus has made an achievement and the occasion of our reunion with God. What to us could only be the penalty for disobedience, Christ has redeemed by his perfect obedience.

“Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.”

And let us, this Good Friday, fix our eyes upon the rough wood of the Cross and say, in unison with our crucified, living Lord, “It is accomplished. It is fulfilled. Christ has done it!”

AMEN.

1-I realize that “I have done it,” is not an accurate translation of tetelestai. However, I maintain that it is a theologically and homiletically appropriate rendering.

2-Upon the Annunciation and the Passion Falling upon One Day. 1608

Why do bad things happen to good people?

Man of Sorrows

(Christ as the Man of Sorrows about 1470 Unidentified artist, Alsatian,)

A Sermon Preached on the Third Sunday in Lent, February 28, 2016

By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina

Texts: Exodus 3:1-15; Luke 13:1-9

May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do men and women we respect suffer disaster? Why do people we love get cancer? Why do floodwaters sweep away homes and lives? Why do gunmen shoot down the innocent and unsuspecting? Why do tornadoes strike without warning? Why do swindlers defraud and cheat? Why are spouses unfaithful? Why are children ungrateful? Why do drunk drivers speed through red lights? Why do bullies batter young lives to the brink of suicide? Why does depression darken the souls of so many? Why does addiction shatter the lives of others? Why do bad things happen to good people?

Now, I’ll bet I can guess what many of you are thinking. Right now you’re shifting uncomfortably in your pews, asking yourselves, “Good grief, does that guy ever lighten up!? Are we going to have to sit through yet another solemn, serious sermon from that solemn, serious young man?”

Well if that’s what you’re thinking–and I’m sure at least a few of you are–let me take this moment to beg you just to stay with me. The Word of God speaks great good news to us today. But it chooses to speak that good news in and through the painful realities of human life. Our Scripture this morning does not flinch in the face of suffering. It does not shrink from sorrow. It does not try to dodge or deny or explain away disaster. Rather our lessons today carry us right to the heart of human suffering–both the suffering of those people who have been bruised and battered by fate and the suffering of those people who weep for them and with them. So gird up your loins, Trinity. For this morning, we will follow God’s Word into what must be the oldest and most difficult question ever uttered by human lips: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” And there in the dark depths of that question we will wait with eager longing for a glimmer of God’s light.

But first, we must have the courage to face the darkness. It’s there in each of our readings this morning. Suffering is the thread that ties together the passages we’ve heard from the Bible today.

It’s there in the bitter pain of the enslaved people of Israel. How many times must they have asked themselves, during the four hundred years of their bondage in Egypt, “Why? Why must we suffer here? Why are we oppressed by our taskmasters? Why are we condemned to misery as slaves in a strange land?”

The problem is there in the shocking deaths of eighteen people in the collapse of the Tower at Siloam. Their sorrow was sudden and startling. It did not build slowly, accruing over countless generations. Rather it struck in an instant. But still the question must have arisen, “Why? Why must we die this way? Why must we be crushed in a senseless, unforeseen disaster? Why are we doomed to disappear in an instant beneath a pile of bricks and rubble?”

And the problem is there in the brutal killings of the Galileans in the Temple. Pontius Pilate, as a pagan Roman, had no qualms about desecrating the sacred precincts in Jerusalem. Not only did he slaughter a company of Galileans for crimes unknown to us–he did it in the most sacrilegious way imaginable, mingling their human blood, with the blood of the animals they were offering to Almighty God. Though they knew that their demise had been decreed by a petty tyrant, and while they probably knew why Pilate had resolved to destroy them, nevertheless those murdered Galileans must have wondered, “Why? Why must we go down to death in such shame–such disgrace? Why is this happening to us? Why are damned to die a death of desecration?”

The pain in each situation is clear. But the reason behind that pain is downright perplexing. Why did those terrible things happen? Why do terrible things still happen? Why do bad things happen to good people?

The simplest answer, and the one most often deployed in ancient times, is to deny the question altogether. The argument goes like this: A good God rules the universe. That good God is just and holy, and he cannot abide injustice and unholiness. He punishes the evil and rewards the good, and he does so through human agents and through the natural world. Therefore, anyone who suffers must not really be good. They must have done something wrong, even if it was something secret. They must have done something to deserve the fate that they have been made to bear. Bad things don’t happen to good people–bad things happen to bad people.

That was a popular view in Jesus’ time. Truth be told, it remains a popular view today. We want the world to make sense. We want an explanation of evil that satisfies our desire for logic and clarity. Most of all, we want to find a way to shield ourselves from pain and suffering. If we can be certain that tragedy and sorrow come only as a result of God’s judgment against sin, then it follows that I can avoid tragedy and sorrow simply by refraining from sinning. If only I am good, good things will happen to me.

And yet the trouble, beloved, is that Jesus flatly denies this explanation. “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way that they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you.” “Do you think that the eighteen crushed by the Tower of Siloam were worse offenders than all others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you.” Do you think that because the children of Israel languished in slavery for four hundred years, God was somehow punishing them for their transgressions? Surely not!

Suffering is not the sign of God’s wrath against certain sinners. Rather, it is the result of being a vulnerable human being in a fallen world. The truth is, we are broken, breakable creatures living in a broken, breakable world. Scripture refuses to give us the clear-cut, easy answer we long for to the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

Indeed, the Bible is not interested with answering that question at all. It simply throws us back, again and again, on the fact of our frailty, the truth of our transitory nature, and the reality of our wretchedness. As our collect this morning puts it, “we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.” In the face of our repeated, wondering, “Why?”, Scripture responds only with the undeniable reality of our brokenness.

But it does not leave us there alone. Hear again the words of God as he speaks to Moses out of the burning bush: “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings…”

God knows the suffering of his people. God hears the cry of the oppressed. God sees the misery and sorrow and heartbreak of human beings. And God acts in the midst of tragedy.

“Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them.”

That is the assurance Scripture gives us. Not that the bad things of this life will make sense, or that the universe will resolve itself neatly according to our desires, or that we will be able to understand and explain the problem of evil in our lives or in the lives of others. But the Word of God reminds us again and again that the God we serve will never leave us or abandon us in our suffering. The God we worship will never separate himself from us because of our sorrow. The God who calls us each by name has also come down into the muck and mire and brokenness of our condition.

For the assurance of God’s presence does not end with our passage from Exodus. But even as we hear Jesus’ stern call to repentance we are reminded that he is, himself, God’s great answer to human suffering. God’s reply to the problem of evil was not a rational argument but an invitation to relationship. God’s response to human pain and loss was to walk among us as one who felt pain and loss. God’s solution to human sin and brokenness was to be broken upon the cross.

 

 

 

 

Beloved, each and every one of us here will be made to suffer senselessly at some time in our life. It may not be under the heavy-hand of an oppressive demagogue. For you it may simply mean enduring the petty tyrannies of a workplace tyrant. It may not mean suffering the long legacy of slavery. But for you it may mean bearing a family legacy of dysfunction or addiction–of depression or alcoholism. It may not mean the sudden ending of your life in a terrible tragedy. But for you it may mean the slow unraveling of your life, or the burden of living a life that seems to have lost all meaning and purpose. It may mean a diagnosis you didn’t deserve and didn’t expect. It may mean the end of a relationship, or the beginning of financial trouble. It may be large or small, brief or lingering, life-threatening or soul-deadening. The only certainty, in the midst of life’s changes and chances, is that life in a fallen world always includes suffering.

 

 

So when tragedy comes, cling to the Cross! When sorrow surprises you, set your eyes upon the Crucified! When bad things happen, hold onto the nail-pierced feet of Jesus! When your life falls apart, fall into his outstretched arms! For the Cross of Christ is God’s great answer to the problem of evil. The Cross of Christ is God’s defiant response to our ruination. The Cross of Christ is God’s assurance that nothing we suffer will ever separate us from him.

For “who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

AMEN.