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"

Tag: Eucharist

“Have you anything here to eat?”

A Sermon Preached on the Third Sunday of Easter, April 19, 2015

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

Texts: I John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36b-48

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

We tend to draw a sharp distinction between material things and spiritual things, don’t we? It’s the dividing line between Church stuff and world stuff, between prayer and work, between a daily quiet time—those few minutes given over wholly to spiritual reflection and study—and all the other business we have to attend to—the busy-ness involved in earning a living, keeping a home, and caring for ourselves and our families.

The distinction between physical and spiritual is surely very present in the minds of those members of the Daughters of the Holy Cross who have been studying the Biblical duo Mary and Martha this year. Perhaps you remember the story from St Luke’s Gospel of Jesus in the shared home of these two sisters. Martha bustles about, trying to get dinner on the table. She attends to the physical, material, temporal things of this life, in all of their urgency and importance. Mary, on the other hand, sits at the feet of Jesus and listens. Her focus is on the spiritual and the eternal–the deep yearning for God in the heart of human beings. The difference between them is sharp and clear…and, it would seem, irreconcilable.

The way we read the Mary and Martha story is just one expression of our tendency—our drive—to look upon things physical and things spiritual as two great opposed realities. They stand like paired mountain-peaks: distinct and unbridgeable. We recognize that both are interesting and desirable. We see that both claim our attention and our commitment. And so our lives, it would seem, are lived out in the valley below those peaks. Sometimes we find ourselves climbing the rugged, ever-growing mass of physical stuff and stability: the things that the world around us tells us we need to have to be happy. Sometimes we find ourselves drawn to the airy heights of spiritual practices and spiritual purposes: the things that preachers and gurus tell us we need to do to be holy. But whatever we do, we always find ourselves moving—always vacillating between the two peaks, always pulled between the spiritual and the physical, always without a resting place, always without a lasting home.

Perhaps you expect me now to turn to Scripture to find a way out of this dilemma. But look again to today’s readings. What hope do they bring us as we sit and listen from our dwelling place in that deep valley between materiality and spirituality? The First Epistle of St John thunders down at us from the heights of Mount Spiritual: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.” John’s soaring, beautiful words call us to glimpse the spiritual reality of our identity—the fact that we are daughters and sons of God—shining through our physical exteriors. This seems so clearly to settle the question in favor of the spiritual.

But then, from the mighty slopes of Physicality booms the story from St Luke’s Gospel this morning, where all is heavy with materiality. As the disciples cower from what they think is a spirit—a ghost—Jesus gives them abundant physical evidence that he is no specter, no spiritual reality only, but that he is also a risen physical body. “Look at my hands and my feet…touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And as if his appeal to his physical body isn’t enough, Jesus takes things one step further: he asks them for something to eat. The Risen Jesus engages in the basic physical activity necessary to fuel our basic physical bodies. As John makes the powerful case for spirituality, so Luke strikes back hard for the material and the physical. And we are left stuck fast in our valley—pulled between the two great poles of our present reality—unable to rest in our rushing back and forth.

That is, until, we turn again to consider the promise hidden in our Epistle reading this morning. To be sure, John speaks only vaguely of our yet unrealized spiritual nature. But “what we do know is this: when he is revealed we shall be like him, for we will see him as he is.” When Jesus is revealed, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.

Inclined though we may be to read John as the high-minded spokesman for all things spiritual, we must pay careful attention to what he says here. For in this moment, John pushes all of our hope, all of our yearning, all of our anxiety, all of our fretting, all of our vacillating between the spiritual and the physical onto Jesus. And what do we find in his presence? What can we see by the light of his glory and grace?

In the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, we see a God who is Spirit, and who must be worshiped in spirit and truth, taking on our human flesh in all its physical frailty and material need. In the ministry of Jesus the Messiah, we see feeble, fainting, fallen human bodies become the canvases on which are displayed the spiritual power and purposes of God. In the death of Jesus the Savior, we see a human body and a human soul bearing the fullness of human pain both physical and spiritual–and we simultaneously see the divine Son of God reconciling in his own sacrificial flesh this physical creation with the spiritual justice of its Great Creator.

And in the Resurrection of Jesus our Lord, we see at last the hand of God undoing the false dichotomy and the fake distinction between body and soul—between the material and the spiritual—between God and humankind. For to look upon the Risen Jesus is to see God’s purpose for human beings finally restored. To look upon the Risen Jesus is to see the realization of God’s intention when he first formed us in his own image: when he shaped Adam out of the dust of the earth—out of the stuff of Creation, out of the heavy, messy, physical material of this world—and breathed into human nostrils the breath of the Holy Spirit. To look upon the Risen Jesus is to see that, at last, there is no great war, no dividing line, no irreconcilable division between the spiritual and the material: for God has taken our physical nature to himself. And in the Resurrection he has not discarded it, but he has rather redeemed and sanctified it.

To look upon the Risen Jesus is to see, beloved, that there is no “Mount Spiritual” and “Mount Physical”, distinct and incompatible. There is, at last, only “the mountain of the Lord’s house”, “beautiful and lofty over all the earth, the hill of Zion, the very center of the world and the city of our great King.”

This reconciling promise is made manifest to us in the gift of sacraments in the life of Christ’s Church. For in this holy place–this physical building consecrated by the prayers of the saints and the presence of God–material things become for us the means of spiritual life. Unremarkable words spoken from this pulpit become, by God’s grace, the Word of life and salvation. Ordinary water poured into that font washes our souls from sin and ushers us into new birth. Plain bread and wine taken, and broken and eaten at that altar in remembrance of Christ’s life, and death, and resurrection become for us the Body and Blood of Our Lord—the Bread of Heaven, the Cup of Salvation. All of these gifts and more have been entrusted to the Church—a flawed and fallen human institution nevertheless filled with the indwelling Spirit of God.

And this reconciliation of physical and spiritual—this sanctification of material things for the good of both bodies and souls—does not stop at the doors of this building. It flows from here with the force of a mighty river with Good News for all people, and indeed all creation. For as the Risen Jesus commissioned his disciples in this morning’s Gospel, so too he commissions us today: “Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in Christ’s Name to all nations.” To be reconciled is to become a reconciler. To learn in the sacraments that God has overcome the false division between the physical and the spiritual is to become a teacher of that extraordinary truth. It is to become a messenger of the Good News that these bodies and this world matter in God’s sight. It is to remember that the whole of God’s good creation rejoices at this announcement.

It is to embrace the promise we have heard this morning. “When he is revealed, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” Come and see him as he is–as he reveals himself–in the gift of the sacrament upon this altar. Come and be made like him through his transforming presence in this place. Come and be filled with the risen life of Christ the Lord. And then go forth to announce to all nations–to all creation–the power of his resurrection. AMEN.

Jesus is the Answer

A Sermon Preached on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, January 18, 2015

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

Texts: I Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51

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

Questions. Our readings this morning are filled with questions. We began with Paul asking the Corinthians, “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Do you not know that you are a temple of the Holy Spirit within you? Do you not know that you are not your own?” Then in our Gospel, we heard Nathanael ask Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” just before he asks Jesus, “Where did you get to know me?” And after earnest Nathanael makes his remarkable confession of faith, finally we heard Jesus himself ask, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?”

Yes, questions abound in our Scripture today. And when it comes to facing an enormous pile of apparently unrelated questions, I must claim one distinct advantage over my esteemed clergy colleagues: I live in the same house as a four-year-old. Any of you who have spent time with a young child will know what I mean. The questions in our home are constant, and run the gamut from the serious and sacred to the surprising and absurd, often all in the same conversation, sometimes in the same breath! My wife and I frequently find ourselves fielding a question as difficult and important as “Mama, where is heaven?” and then as if attempting a reasonably plausible answer to that question weren’t hard enough, it’s often followed close behind by a question as straightforward and mundane as, “Papa, why is ketchup red?”

Four-year-olds have a special gift and calling to explore the world through their questions, and to help their grown-ups see and think a little differently. But that basic human need to question, to wonder, to seek, never really goes away. Adult men and women may not ask every single question that pops into our heads, and that’s probably for the best. And yet, we still have questions—we still yearn to know.

And so it is that our readings today confront us with some of the most important questions in the Christian faith and life. Now it may not seem that way at first. It may seem to you that our readings this morning are nothing more than St Paul ranting about an uncomfortable topic, and Jesus showing off to Nathanael with a little parlor trick. But let us attend more closely to the questions we hear this morning. Let us listen for the answers that break forth from God’s Word.

It’s Paul’s rhetorical questions in First Corinthians that grab our attention first, not because he seems to be discussing anything profound or spiritual, but because he talks about sex. Nothing like the phrase “Shun fornication!” ringing out through the church to make us sit up and listen. And yet Paul’s intention in this passage was not to shock and startle the good Christian folk of Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina one January morning in 2015. (Or at least, that was not his only intention.) Rather, Paul writes so boldly and bluntly to the Corinthians in order to address a larger question of enormous importance: What part do our bodies play in our spiritual lives?

That’s a more difficult question than it may seem at first. You see,  there were some in Corinth who reasoned that, because God had released and renewed them spiritually, it didn’t matter what they did physically. They took the freedom that Christ had won for them as an opportunity for license, arguing that “All things are lawful for me.” For the Corinthians, this apparently meant approaching meals–even the Eucharist–with a greedy, gluttonous mentality. And it also seems to have resulted in utter lawlessness in sex and sexual relations. “Who cares what I do with my body? All things are lawful for me!”

This tendency to discount or downplay the importance of our physical bodies in our spiritual lives has always been a temptation for Christians. Knowing ourselves to be free from the constraints and demands of the ritual laws of Moses—knowing ourselves free to eat without worrying about kosher laws, free to dress ourselves without worrying about clothing laws, free to pursue our business without worrying about commercial laws, and free to worship without worrying about ceremonial laws—the Church has, in some times and some places, almost forgotten that bodies matter.

The Church, and her members, have almost forgotten that we human beings are incarnate, enfleshed creatures—not simply creatures with bodies, but creatures that are bodies. Neglecting the reality of our physical bodies does not only open us up to all the temptations and tendencies that would dominate and enslave us–the pursuit of wealth, and the pursuit of sex; the tendency to overeat, and the addictive traps of drugs and alcohol. But neglecting the reality of our physical bodies also denies the miracles at the very heart of our faith: the mystery of the Word made flesh and the wonder of Christ’s bodily resurrection.

So what Paul sets out to do in this morning’s passage laden with sharp rhetorical questions is to remind the Corinthians that not only do their bodies matter: their bodies have been purchased, claimed, and consecrated. To belong to the Church—to be a member of Christ’s body—means that they are now free in new and wonderful ways: free from the sins that enslaved them, free from the hurts that haunted them, free from the fear of death itself. But it also means that they are now bound in new and wonderful ways: bound together in the mystical body of Christ, bound in obedience to their Lord, bound by the knowledge that “you are not your own. For you were bought with a price.” And in that announcement, everything changes.

Now if Paul’s questions to the Corinthians tackle the practical problems of living the life of faith in and with our physical bodies, the questions we find in our Gospel lesson appear to swing us in the opposite direction, entirely into the realm of spiritual ponderings. This morning in John’s Gospel we meet Nathanael, “truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit,” earnestly pursuing what we might call his own spiritual journey.

That’s what the first question in our reading reveals. As amusing and surprising as Nathanael’s query may seem—“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”—he does not mean it as a put-down of Jesus’ hometown. What that question shows us is that Nathanael is a serious student of the Hebrew Scriptures, and that he is eagerly seeking after the Messiah. He knows that no promise of prophecy looks for the anointed Savior of God to rise out of Nazareth. Nevertheless, Nathanael accepts Philip’s invitation to “Come and see.”

Faithfully pursuing his spiritual quest, Nathanael is not prepared for what happens next. For just as Nathanael’s first question about Nazareth is not a put-down but a sign of his earnest journey, so too is Jesus’ reply to the question, “Where did you get to know me?” not a parlor trick, but a moment of revelation. “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you,” Jesus says.

And after all of his seeking, all of his asking, all of his yearning to know, Nathanael finds himself known in an instant. When his path of wondering leads him into the presence of Jesus, Nathanael suddenly finds himself not the subject of his own sentences, but the object of another’s pronouncement—not the one doing the seeking, but the one being sought. And in that moment, everything changes.

Beloved, I said at the outset of this sermon that the questions that confront us today are some of the most important in the Christian faith and life. And so it is. For still today, we must ask ourselves about the appropriate use of Christian freedom when it comes to our bodies—in what we do, and in how we live. Still today, God claims us wholly, completely, and in every aspect of our lives. And that claim chafes against our own hungers and lusts—our own drives and desires. Still today, we can find ourselves stuck on a pendulum, swinging between the assertion that bodies don’t matter and we can each do whatever we please, and the belief that what we do with and to our bodies can change our relationship with God.

And still today St Paul calls to us, reminding us that our bodies do matter: not because they can become our pathway to God, but because this flesh has already become God’s pathway to us. For what Paul describes and what Jesus reveals today is not a God who sits distant, bidding us each pursue his own path—each follow her own questions—each seek out the truth that fits for each and each alone.

What we see, instead, in our question-colored passages this morning, is a God who steps down into our wondering. What we find among the queries and the quandaries of our Scripture this day is a God who knows us intimately, who cares for us deeply, and who claims us fully.

For the power in our passages today comes not from the force of the questions nor the eagerness of the askers. The power in our passages comes not from the strength of human seeking nor the certainty of human answers. Rather, the power of our passages this morning comes in the resounding response made by God himself.

When Paul asks his biting, incisive rhetorical questions, he asks them in response to the Corinthians’ human ponderings and expectations. But Paul answers them not according to human thought but in light of what God has done. Because Christ Jesus dwelt among us in human flesh, our human flesh now belongs to God. Because Christ Jesus bore a body like ours, the way we use our body reflects on him. Because Christ Jesus gave his body to be broken and his blood to be poured out, our lowly flesh and blood have become the dwelling place for the Holy Spirit of God.

And when Nathanael poses his earnest, practical question to Jesus, he poses it as if he is asking a remarkable human being. But Jesus answers with the knowing, loving voice of Almighty God. To Nathanael’s straightforward, “I’m sorry, have we met?” comes Christ’s cosmic reply, “Dear child, I know you better than you know yourself. I know your sitting down and your rising up. I discern your thoughts from afar. I know that you are fearfully, wonderfully made, for I made you: I knit you together in your mother’s womb, and I hold all the days of your life in the palm of my hand.”

For Jesus is the end and answer of all our questions, because in him, the God whom we seek comes seeking us. Jesus is the answer, and we may say this not with the glib certainty of the fundamentalist nor with the cold caveats of the skeptic, but because in Christ Jesus God grasps us. Jesus is the answer, not because in him we have found our own private, personal path to God, but because through him, God has been pleased to draw near to us.

Jesus is the answer because in him, God cuts through all of our questioning, all of our seeking, all of our searching. In Jesus, God pierces through all of our desires, all of our doubts, all of our hungers, and all of our hopes. In Jesus, God claims us, body and soul. God purchases us—all that we are and all that we have—with the priceless currency of his own blood. God calls us, and sends us to invite others, to “Come and see…the One about whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote,” the One who was foretold and who is come at last.

And in Jesus, the God who knows us better than we know ourselves; the God who loves us more than we either desire or deserve; the God who has given himself to be the great answer to all of our questions; the God who uses common water to wash us throughly; the God who makes ordinary bread and wine to nourish our souls: this God promises us that we shall yet see greater things than these.