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: Gospel

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.

“One who is more powerful than I is coming…”

Rembrandt_-_Preaching_of_Saint_John_the_Baptist_-_Gemäldegalerie_Berlin

(“The Preaching of Saint John the Baptist”, Rembrandt, 1634/45)

A Sermon Preached on the Third Sunday of Advent, December 13, 2015

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

Texts: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Luke 3:7-18

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

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

Well what do you think of John the Baptist’s “good news”? That’s what St Luke the Evangelist calls the strange, disturbing passage we’ve heard this morning.

At the end of John’s tirade, Luke tells us, “So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.”

I’ll ask again: what do you think of John’s “good news”?

His words are harsh words—words of judgment, words of condemnation, words of wrath. He calls his listeners snakes, counts them no better than scattered stones, compares them to unfruitful trees, and commands them to change their lives, utterly and completely, no matter who they are or what they do for a living.

Most startling of all, John warns that his whole ministry—his ranting and his raving and his baptizing out in the wilderness—is merely preparation for someone else who is coming: and from John’s description offered here, that someone else seems, if possible, even more unsettling and terrifying than John himself.

And all of this is called “good news” by Luke the Gospel-writer.

How can that be? How can this difficult, troubling Gospel passage actually contain a joyful, life-giving Gospel message—an announcement that is truly Good News?

If we would find the Good News in our passage this morning we must begin where John begins: with the possibility of repentance. The key to understanding this passage lies hidden within the very concept that causes us to squirm. For if John’s call to repentance is what makes us fear him and want to turn away from him, John’s call to repentance is also an announcement of great Good News.

The possibility of repentance is always Good News, if only we can hear it. For wrapped up in the summons to repent is both an acknowledgement that things have gone wrong and an opportunity to set them right again. The exhortation to repent is always a word of both justice and mercy—both the stern warning that the path we are pursuing will lead to destruction, and the loving invitation to turn around, to turn back, to turn again and escape the fate we have made for ourselves with our words and deeds.

The call to repentance is hard news, because it confronts us with the justice of a God who cannot abide evil. But the call to repentance is also Good News, because it comforts us with the love of a God “who desireth not the death of [sinners], but rather that [we] may turn from [our] wickedness and live.”

Repentance was John’s mission and message. He proclaimed to the people who came out to him and the wilderness—and by all accounts a great many did come out to him in the wilderness—the possibility of change: of living in a new and better way.

When the crowds—crowds including hated tax-collectors and cruel soldiers—came to him in fear and trembling, knowing that they had made messes of their lives and yet desperate to set things to rights, John could actually give them something to do.

“Live lives of humble generosity!” John said. “Don’t take advantage of your power and position!” John said. “Dwell content with what you have been given!” John said.

In John’s call to repentance, we hear a message of hope; an announcement that things can be different; a promise that people need not live forever in the weary wickedness of their old, warped ways. In John’s call to repentance we hear the beginning of Good News.

But it is only just the beginning of Good News.

For if John brings the assurance that change is possible, he also forces us to ask, plainly and honestly, whether change has occurred. What happens when we set the possibility of transformation alongside the record of our human reality—either our individual realities or the reality of our world? What happens when we widen our focus from looking merely at the invitation to live better, fuller, more faithful lives, and turn to see how and when and whether that invitation has been accepted?

If repentance is possible, then why haven’t we done it?

For you and I know that we are called to share of our goods and resources with which God has blessed us. Why then do we guard so fiercely our material wealth and the security it brings us?

You and I know that we are called to sacrifice our own advantages—our own power and privilege—for the sake of lifting up the lowly and the least. Why then do we cling so tightly to our positions and pretensions?

You and I know that we are called to live lives of contentment and satisfaction. Why then do we grasp so greedily and strive so relentlessly and work unendingly and worry unceasingly after the things we do not have but for which we lust and crave?

Over all these things, John the Baptist has spoken a word of judgment this morning. Have you heeded his warning? I confess that I often ignore it.

John has set before us the mercy and patience of a God who waits for us to return to him. Have you seized that opportunity? I fail to each day.

John has called us to repentance. Have you borne fruits worthy of that call? Beloved, in the light of this morning’s passage I look with shame on the bare branches of my heart and find myself tempted to despair.

For if the possibility of repentance is all that John the Baptist has to proclaim, then indeed our initial suspicions were right: there is no Good News here at all.

But John himself does not end his message with merely a call to repent. The possibility of repentance is not all that John has to proclaim.

For while John’s mission and ministry was all about repentance, repentance was never an end in itself.

Yes, he proclaimed the Good News of God’s justice and mercy. But he did so in preparation for a new and more startling expression of that justice—for a new and better working out of that mercy.

“I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Someone is coming, says John, who can do more than symbolically wash away the sins that cling to us so closely. Someone is coming, says John, who has the power to wash us and purge us and cleanse us within. Someone is coming, says John, who can remake us and renew us by the outpouring of his Holy Spirit.

“His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Terrifying as this sounds, beloved, this is the best news we hear this morning!

John does not leave his hearers—John does not leave us!—scrambling and struggling for a repentance that we can never fully achieve. But John announced then and John announces now that God himself is coming to complete the work that we cannot even begin without God’s help.

God is coming to effect the transformation we know we need but cannot possibly accomplish on our own.

God is coming, and he will sift us as wheat is sifted: breaking away that which is useless and worthless from each individual grain, and preserving for his use that which he has given for his good purposes.

For the full extent of John’s Good News this morning—the full extent of the Good News for all time, dear people—is that the God who cannot abide our sin has come himself to bear the penalty of our sin. The God who calls us to repent is working in us to bring about the fruits of repentance. The God who made each of us for a purpose is coming to fulfill that purpose in each of us and all of us.

“Our hope and expectation,

O Jesus, now appear!

Arise, thou Sun so longed for,

above this darkened sphere!

With hearts and hands uplifted,

we plead, O Lord, to see

the day of earth’s redemption,

and ever be with thee!”1

AMEN.

1-Verse 3 of “Rejoice! rejoice, believers”, Hymn 68, The Hymnal 1982

“Die, heretic!”

The comedian Emo Philips wrote the following joke, long popular in seminaries and church-y circles:

Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!” He said, “Nobody loves me.” I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”

He said, “Yes.” I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?” He said, “A Christian.” I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me, too! What franchise?” He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too!”

Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.” I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.

It’s a good joke, especially if one is familiar with some of the more obscure schisms and disputes within American Protestantism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. With minor adjustments, it could work for almost any of the great doctrinal debates and splits within the two-thousand year history of Christian theology.

Standing at a distance and observing those fights from our more ecumenically-minded age, many of the heated controversies of the past can seem pretty petty and ridiculous. That word “heretic,” with its attendant excommunications and punishments, is almost enough to cause a modern student of doctrine to throw up her hands, shout “To hell with them all!”, and turn from the minutiae of theological disputation to the more practical questions of faith and life. One catchy slogan for the World Council of Churches in the mid-twentieth century summarized that spirit quite well: “Doctrine divides—service unites.”

And yet I’ve been thinking recently about the category “heretic,” and what place, if any, it has in the Church today.

Last spring, I read with interest an email chain among the members of an ecumenical men’s Bible study here in Greenwich. The members of the group, all committed members of different congregations in town, had spent one of their sessions talking about the question of Christian universalism—i.e., is salvation limited only to professing Christians, or will God in his mercy save all humankind?

Based on the summary email sent by the leader of the group, I got the sense that it was a rich, honest conversation. Obviously, the men were not attempting to resolve the whole issue that evening, but had come together to discuss what Scripture and the tradition have to say on this challenging, emotional topic.

And they took some heat for it. Apparently some members of local congregations (as well as some members of the Bible study group itself) rejected the topic out-of-hand as “heretical.” After describing the resistance and hostility that the mere discussion of universalism had engendered, the leader of the group wrote this:

I am wary of any religious leader or teacher who is comfortable using the word “heresy.”  Such teachers mistakenly assume that they have God and the Scriptures fully understood.  This shuts down openness, inquiry, questions and conversation.  Worst of all, human judgments of heresy have led to great evil, including the crucifixion of God by Caiphas and the Pharisees, the burning and drowning of “witches” in Salem, the horrors of the Inquisition, the church’s murderous persecution of Martin Luther, and so on.  To which of the 34,000 Christian denominations does the teacher of “correct orthodox theology” belong?  God does not want us to put ourselves or Him in any theological box and pretend that we have everything figured out.  Rather, God wants us to pursue Him with open hearts and minds, and continually ask the Holy Spirit for more guidance, understanding and inspiration.

That paragraph gave me pause. As a (very junior) “religious leader and teacher,” I chose to respond to it. This is the (lightly redacted) email that I wrote, expressing why I think the concept and category of heresy—and the Church’s willingness to name it as such—remains critically important today:

Dear N.,

Thank you for sharing this reflection on the universalism conversation: it sounds like it was a powerful discussion of an important topic. I was really impressed that you all chose to tackle it and was sorry that I could not be a part of it. It sounds to me like this will be a fruitful starting-point for study and prayer for a lot of guys in the weeks and months to come.

I had just one reflection regarding your summary that I wanted to share with you. You mentioned that you are “wary of any religious leader who is comfortable using the word ‘heresy.’” I should say right off the bat that I am not myself a religious leader much inclined to use the word heresy. In the long and spotted history of the Church, the condemning cry of “Heretic!” has often been a weapon used to beat down folks with alternative viewpoints and legitimate questions. Such an approach is absolutely inconsistent with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

At the same time, however, I do believe that the Church (by which I mean the whole body of faithful people—not just one denomination, and absolutely not just the clergy) has an important role in testing and determining the boundaries of the faith. In other words, I think the whole work of wrestling, arguing, conversing, challenging, studying, praying and digging that you so eloquently commend in your email is a process with a purpose. We’re not called to do all that stuff because it’s interesting and we like to do it (though both of these may be true). We’re called to do it all because God has revealed himself to us, and wants us to live ever more fully into his transforming self-revelation. Under the graceful guidance of the Holy Ghost, we continually seek a truer, more faithful, more complete understanding of God—because God came and sought us.

And in its oldest sense, the word “heretic” refers to someone (or a group of folks) trying to bypass that whole process. The Greek roots of “heresy” are all about “taking” or “choosing.” In the New Testament, the word is almost always used in the context of “a sect,” like the Pharisees or Sadducees, or the squabbling factions of the church in Corinth. The characteristic mark of that kind of sect is hubristic certainty. An haireseis is a group of the (self-)”chosen.” They “take” for themselves—and their views—all authority: they claim access to special truth. The NT and early Christian sense of the word often includes a strong sense of intellectual or social division: only the elite; only the enlightened; only my class of people; only those who are worthy will be able to grasp these truths. This is, of course, the complete opposite of the Christian Gospel, which focuses not on the utter unworthiness of those called, but on the endless worthiness of the One who calls.

This understanding of the word heresy is probably best demonstrated in the great Christological controversies of the early centuries of Christianity. As the Church struggled to comprehend and explain just who Jesus is and what he accomplished, various teachers and groups spoke with extreme certainty. Some announced that he wasn’t really a human being, but only God appearing to be a human. Others declared that he was a really great human being, but that he wasn’t actually God. Many of the people who voiced these positions did so out of honorable motives. They wanted to defend God’s unity, or to separate divine perfection from the suffering of this earthly life. But in speaking with such certainty on things hidden from human understanding, they limited Jesus and were forced to contradict a great part of the Scriptural and experiential witness of the Church. So, instead of yielding to the limiting certainty of the early heresies, the slowly developing orthodox tradition embraced the ambiguity: Jesus is fully human and fully divine. That’s a statement calling us to wrestle with God’s self-revelation without promising us a resolution. It is an invitation into mystery, rather than a declaration of graspable certainty.

And all of our conversations must be so. We are not men stumbling around a dark room, searching for a match to light. We are men who have been brought, suddenly and not by our own choosing, out of darkness and into the light. Now we are called, slowly and steadily, to draw our own hands away from our dazzled eyes, and begin to see clearly.

This whole unsolicited email is a very long-winded way of saying I think you all are doing a great job by tackling this issue with humility, sincerity, and a firm reliance on the Holy Spirit’s guidance. But that doesn’t mean we can give up the battle against heresy, if I may use such martial language. Indeed, the holy process that you all have undertaken will likely bring heresy to the surface, both in those who say “Why discuss it? Of course everyone is saved!” (and thereby limit God’s power and sovereignty) and in those who say “Why discuss it? Obviously those folks are damned!” (and thereby claim for themselves knowledge that belongs to God alone). Orthodoxy, when it is itself, always struggles to keep the doors open; heresy always tries to pull them closed. I think the Church today continues to have a responsibility to oppose (lovingly, peacefully, but plainly and firmly) any way of thinking that tries to limit God, and box him in. We have to be willing to name heresy for what it is, and to fight it.

With prayers of thanksgiving for the ministry you exercise,

Faithfully,

Dane