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: Reconciliation

“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.

“I am there among them.”

A Sermon Preached on the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 7, 2014

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

Texts: Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

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

Our lectionary today puts before us two passages of Scripture that address one of the most difficult tasks of human life: dealing with other people.

St Paul, as he approaches the end of his Epistle to the Romans, spends a few chapters offering advice about how members of the Church should interact with the wider world. He urges the Christians in Rome to live in peace with their pagan neighbors, to obey the local authorities, and to respect the powers that be. “Owe no one anything except to love one another,” says Paul, “for the one who loves another has fulfilled the Law.”

Likewise Jesus, as he prepares to begin his long, final journey to Jerusalem, takes time to give his disciples instructions about what to do in case of controversy between brothers and sisters in the Church. “If another member of the Church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone,” he begins. From that intimate, personal starting point, Jesus gives increasingly public and community-based directions for doggedly pursuing a path of reconciliation.

What could be more purely practical than the passages we have heard this morning? Here we have, from the great Apostle to the Gentiles and from our Lord himself, two texts tailor-made for leading us through the thorny thicket of personal relationships. Paul’s words read like a checklist—Jesus’ words like an instruction manual. They seem to take one of the greatest challenges of life and break it down into something manageable, straightforward—even easy.

Until, that is, we turn to read the record of our own lives in the light of these passages. I don’t know about you, brothers and sisters, but these verse make me quake. “Owe no one anything but to love,” says Paul. Why then is my love so fickle and my heart so faithless? “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone,” says Jesus. Why then are my efforts at reconciliation so half-hearted and my drive to forgive so anemic?

When I lay them upon my own life, these apparently practical verses suddenly begin to read less like instructions and more like indictments. The command seems so simple. The injunction is so straightforward. And yet history—either the two-thousand years of Church history, or the two hundred years of Trinity’s history, or even the passing years of our own personal histories—show how seldom these words are heeded.

And yet what if the meaning of these passages were to be found in something other than their practical purpose? What if, in order to read Paul’s advice and Jesus’ instructions aright, it is necessary first to set aside our self-centered fretting and our gloomy guilt? What if the words of Scripture that we’ve heard this morning are not simply speaking to us but are, in the first place, speaking about God?

Our first clue comes in the middle of the passage from Romans. After exhorting the Roman Christians to love, Paul suddenly tells them “Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.” Paul’s instructions about love—about the fulfilling of God’s law—are rooted not in mere morality, but in eschatology: not in the blind striving to be good people, but in the watchful expectation of Christ’s imminent return.

This is a critical distinction. Paul founds his instructions not in who the Romans are or in what they can do, but in who God is and what he has done already—and is doing still. Paul is not placing before the Romans an impossible goal or urging them to struggle after an unreachable dream. Rather, he is inviting the Romans to become what they already are in Christ.

“The night is far gone, the day is near.” The Roman Christians cannot, by their loving behavior, speed along the coming of Christ any more than you or I can rush the sunrise by sheer force of will. But what Paul wants for them is that they should live consistent with a reality that God has already wrought, and that he is bringing to light according to his own gracious time. God desires it for them—God commands it of them—because God is accomplishing it in them.

“Owe no one anything, but to love one another,” says Paul, because the God of love is at work in and throughthe Roman Christian community. “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh,” urges Paul, because the new life of grace has wrapped itself about his companions like a garment. Even now, in the midst of their failures and imperfections, the call comes to dwell within the life of the Lord who will come to drive out their darkness and make whole their brokenness. And not only is that Lord coming: behold, he is already present in their midst.

For this is the astonishing promise we hear at the end of this morning’s Gospel lesson: in the person of Jesus Christ, God continually dwells in the midst of his people. “Where two or three are gathered in my Name, I am there among them.” This abiding presence is both the rationale behind and the starting point for Jesus’ instructions to his Church in the midst of conflict.

For conflict must needs come. The Church is made up of fallen, broken men and women—people like you and like me, brothers and sisters. We fight. We argue. We gossip. We hurt one another, and we cherish the hurts dealt us by others. This is true of any human community, and in this regard the Church is no different from any gathering of people at any time or place.

But what Jesus reminds his followers today is that the Church is indeed unlike any other human organization in the history of the world. For while it is composed of hapless sinners and halo-less saints, it is a community called and formed by the very will of Almighty God. And what’s more, that same will dwells with and acts through the Church. “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

How startling—how offensive—the pronouncement that the works of this assembly will echo through eternity! How fearful—how outrageous—to announce that the Lord of heaven and earth dwells here with us in our midst. But that is precisely the point of the passages we have heard today. Our Scripture this morning is given not simply that we may know what God expects of us, but so that we may see again what God has done for us.

For the same One who calls his Church to seek out and pursue the wayward and the lost member is the very One who came himself to enlighten the Gentiles and to eat with tax collectors and sinners. The same One who calls his people to fulfill the Law through love is the very One who fulfilled the Law through his own person, and who revealed perfect love in the laying down of his life on Calvary. The same One who calls this world out of the darkness and destruction is the very One who has destroyed Death and conquered Sin in the bright light of his Resurrection.

So it is that these passages today are, at last, not our condemnation but our consolation. For in our worship today, the God who sought us while we were yet his enemies comes to seek us again. In our learning and fellowship today, the God who revealed himself to us when our darkened eyes could not behold his shows his glory once more in the life of his people. At this altar this morning, the God who loved us and rushed to hold us while we were yet unlovable comes to embrace us now in the fullness of our humanity in the gifts of bread and wine. Through our Scripture this morning, the God who came to dwell among us and to reveal his glory in our flesh proclaims that he is present here in this congregation and whenever two or three are gathered in his Name.

In this knowledge and confidence, beloved, let us indeed owe no one anything but to love—for God has first loved us. In this sure and certain hope, dear people, let us risk forgiveness and reconciliation—because in Christ Jesus we have been forgiven, and are being reconciled to God the Father.

Thanks be to God. AMEN.