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"

“I choose you!”

raisingthewidowsson

(“Jesus raising the youth of Nain” from the Evangeliar Ottos III, circa 1000 A.D.)

A Sermon Preached on the Third Sunday after Pentecost, June 5, 2016

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

Texts: Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17

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

Well the great season of decision is over!

Obviously I’m not talking about the election, which promises to continue to grind away at our faith in American democracy for months to come.

No, the season of decisions and choices that I’m talking about had mostly to do with our graduating high school seniors. After years of work, months of writing applications and compiling resumes, and weeks of waiting for acceptance letters, the time to decide finally came just a few months ago.

Would it be Wofford, Clemson, or Carolina? Sewanee or Stanford? Davidson or “Dubyuhnell”? Harvard or Yale? Of course, in those last two comparisons the correct choices are BEYOND OBVIOUS. But even sure and certain knowledge didn’t lessen the difficulty of deciding!

Now those of us who are of riper years know that the decisions of whether and where to go to college are neither the last nor the most important choices that a person will make. We know well what our young people are just learning: that life is an endless succession of choices. And all of us, young and old together, know from experience the undeniable truth that in our culture, choosing is cherished.

Look at the enormous variety of shops and restaurants in Five Points, or the Vista, or at Sandhills. Consider the bright, gleaming aisles of Whole Foods, or Publix, or Bi-Lo. All the cheerful variety and frenzied advertising of American life serves to prop-up and reinforce the same basic notion: to choose is to have power. To choose is to be in control. To choose is to be free.

This common devotion to choosing and choices was on my mind this week as I reflected on today’s Scripture lessons. I want to focus our attention on two stories. The first is from St Paul’s miniature autobiography found in the first chapter of his Letter to the Galatians. The second is an episode from Jesus’ earthly ministry recorded in the seventh chapter of St Luke’s Gospel.

Both of these stories describe the transformative power of an encounter with Jesus. Both speak of the unexpected, un-hoped for ways that God can change a life, or indeed restore a life. And both of these stories are utterly devoid of any suggestion of choice.

Did you catch that?

Look again at our Gospel passage. Look at who speaks in our lesson. So often, the healing stories of Jesus seem to happen because someone makes a choice. Someone chooses to reach out to touch him. Someone’s friends pull up the roof over Jesus’ head, and lower a sick man down in front of him. Someone in the crowd cries out: “Lord, heal my son!” “Master, save my daughter!” “Teacher, let me see again!”

But in our Gospel this morning, there are no questions. There are no requests. There is no pleading in this brief passage. There are no options here–no choices given.

Jesus, coming up to a city called Nain, looks and sees the suffering of a mother who has lost her only son. Jesus looks and sees the desperation of a widow who has lost her only hope for survival. Jesus looks and see the hopelessness of a woman for whom all choices, all options, all earthly possibilities now point only to degradation, and darkness, and death.

And looking upon her, Jesus has compassion for her. “Do not weep,” he says. He doesn’t ask, “What would have you me do for you?” He doesn’t ask, “Do you wish for me to help you?” He doesn’t even ask, as he does with Mary and Martha when he raises their brother Lazarus, “Do you believe in me?” He says simply, “Do not weep,” and he reaches out to stop the funeral procession. Life Incarnate steps suddenly into the path that leads to the grave, and the son of God commands the widow’s son: “Young man, I say to you, rise!”

No questions waiting for an answer. No options to decide between. No choices at all.

Just the power of God to bring hope to the hopeless; to bring wholeness to the broken; to bring life to the dead; to make a way where all human wisdom and every human wish could find no way at all. Just the voice of Jesus saying to the dead man, “I choose you to be a sign of my power over death.” And Luke tells us that the people there present gave glory to God for what Jesus had done.

Now on the surface, Paul’s Letter to the Galatians seems to be all about choices. The Christians of Galatia were believers living in central Turkey. They were Gentiles–folks to whom Paul preached on one of his extensive missionary journeys around the Mediterranean world. From what he writes, it seems that the Galatians received his initial announcement of the Good News with joy and great excitement.

But in Paul’s absence, the Galatian Christians ran into some difficulties. Another group of teachers and preachers cam along, and the began to tweak the terms of Paul’s original message. These new teachers placed before the Galatians a stark choice: either the Gentile believers had to undergo circumcision and accept all the dictates of the Jewish law, or they could no longer claim to be followers of Jesus, the anointed savior of the Jewish people.

The Galatian Christians were distraught and confused. Must they really choose to become Jews before they could become Christians? Must they really first decide to be disciples of Moses before they can decide to be disciples of Jesus?

Paul addresses the Galatians’ difficult choice in an unexpected way. He doesn’t attack the Law of Moses. He doesn’t tear down the Jewish traditions. Instead, he tells them his own story. He writes, “I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the Gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”

Now consider for a moment what the Apostle is saying here. Saul of Tarsus had been a zealot. Saul had been a fanatic. Saul had been a violent persecutor of the Church, and a devout follower of all the traditions of his ancestors. He knows every jot and tittle of the same Law that the Galatians are now being told to obey.

What could so thoroughly transform someone like Paul? What could make him decide to leave all that long legacy behind him? What could make him choose to begin to build up the very thing that he once tried to tear down?

Paul’s answer to that question is simple: he didn’t choose it. God chose him. God, in his providence, set Paul apart “before [he] was born, and called [him] through grace.”

The Risen Jesus, appearing before Saul on the road to Damascus, looked and saw a man made blind by his hatred. The Risen Jesus looked and saw a man puffed up by his own zeal. The Risen Jesus looked and saw a man consumed by his passions and certain in his own choice–his own decision to destroy the Church of God.

And the Risen Jesus looked and saw beneath and behind and in spite of all that, a vessel God had chosen–a tool God had set apart–for the building up of his Church. And so the Risen Jesus, looking upon Saul, claimed him, called him, chose him.

No questions waiting for Saul’s answer. No options for Saul to decide between. No choices at all.

Just the power of God to bring light into darkness; to bring holiness out of hatred; to give power where once there was only pride; to make a way when all human wisdom and every human wish sought to take another way–to choose a different, darker path. Just the voice of Jesus saying to Saul, “I choose you, to become my servant Paul–a sign of my power to change lives, and a servant of my Gospel.” And Paul tells us that when the churches of Judea heard of his transformation they gave all glory to God for what Jesus had done.

Beloved, today in Scripture we have heard a great and troubling challenge to our culture’s cherished notions of choice. Today, in spite of all the external voices calling us to consume and all the internal anxieties driving us to decide–in spite of all the false gods of commerce and culture commanding us to choose–the Word of God confronts us with a startling paradox: true freedom comes not in choosing, but in being chosen.

That’s the meaning of grace. That’s the great challenge and the great promise of our Scripture today. That’s the great challenge and the great promise of the Gospel at all times. For the Good News is that our God has not abandoned us to an endless array of choices. But he has chosen us.

In the birth of Jesus Christ, God looked upon a lost and broken creation and declared, “I choose you!” In the life and ministry of Jesus our Lord, God walked amidst hopeless, helpless, desperate humanity and announced, “I choose you!” In the death of Jesus on the Cross of Calvary, God himself was lifted high in self-giving love over a dead and dying word and proclaimed, “I choose you!” And in the shattered darkness of the empty tomb, standing over the broken gates of Hell, free forever from the bonds of Death, God himself calls a new creation into being and declares again, “I choose you!”

“I choose you!” says the Holy Spirit of God in every baptism and confirmation. “I choose you to be my own forever: washed, renewed, restored, and sealed.”

“I choose you!” says Jesus our great High Priest in every celebration of the Holy Eucharist. “I choose you to draw near with you emptiness, to draw near with your hunger, to draw near with your hands and hearts uplifted, and to receive from my fullness, to eat from my table, to be knit to me forever.”

“I choose you!” says God our Father, as we are sent back out into the world. “I choose you to be my adopted daughters and sons; my children of grace and favor; my new creation born of my own perfect will–bought with the blood of my Son, and alive by the breath of my Holy Spirit. I choose you to go into my world as restorers: to rule and serve all my creatures; to raise up the things that have been cast down; to renew the things that have grown old; to proclaim and announce that I am bringing all things to perfection by him through whom all things were made. I choose you!”

No questions. No options. No choices. Just the power of God to make men and women like you and like me into his sons and daughters. Just the voice of Jesus calling to each of us. “I choose you to be mine, forever.” And as it was long ago, so may it be today: that all who hear this word give all glory to God for what Jesus has done.

AMEN.

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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.

“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