"We Preach Christ Crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God." - 1 Cor. 1:23, 24
Trinity Season, 2022
Sixth Sunday after Trinity, 2022
Texts: 2 Samuel 19:16-23; St. Matthew 5:38-48
The Very Rev. Jerry Kistler
St. Stephen’s Anglican Church
“Love Over Rights"
Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori. “It is sweet and proper to die for the fatherland.”
That sentiment was first penned by the Latin poet Horace in the first century B.C. But it was taken up again by the English poet Wilfred Owen who, after seeing first-hand the carnage of WWI, after personally loading the trucks with the bodies of the victims of mustard gas, called it “the old lie”—that it was sweet and proper to die for one’s country.
It would be understandable for someone seeing things like that to conclude that for young men to give up their lives for their countries was all just a huge waste. Ironically, Owen, a pacifist and just twenty-five himself, died in the war fighting for his country.
So what should come first: personal freedom, rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, or loyalty to a country that guarantees those rights? Many hundreds of thousands of men and women have sacrificed their right to life because they felt they had a higher duty to the constitution of the United States than they did to their own lives. We live free, we retain our rights under the constitution, because they sacrificed theirs.
Now we’re told in the Scripture that we Christians belong to a heavenly country. “Our citizenship is in heaven,” says St. Paul. We’ve come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. In Paul’s thinking, the Church is a colony of heaven on earth. Its laws are the laws of heaven. Its constitution is a heavenly constitution – the new covenant, which has a new commandment: that we love one another a Christ has loved us.
We’re a heavenly colony with a heavenly constitution, but the fact is we live on earth. We’re pilgrims and strangers in a foreign land, to use St. Peter’s imagery.
So the question is then, how do we deal with the natives? What principle is to govern our relationships to those around us? Should it be a strict application of law, a rigid sort of legalism for the preservation of our rights? Should the Church claim for herself the most privileged status in American society: that of an aggrieved and oppressed sub-culture? Should we Christians look to the Constitution of the United States as the ultimate expression of what belongs to us as human beings? Will we win glory for our heavenly country if we always press for our earthly rights?
In the days of Jesus, there was a group of people who believed that all relationships boiled down to a matter of rights and privileges (or a lack of rights and privileges) under the law. They were called the Scribes and Pharisees. They knew who had what rights, who had what obligations, and who wasn’t included in every possible situation one could imagine. And the principle that most succinctly expressed their inalienable rights under their constitution was what we call the lex talionis principle: the law of absolute equity. Life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot. Whatever it is, you have a right to this for that.
Now I think a lot of people might think that that sound like a pretty good thing—the principle of proportional justice. And it may well be, for the good ordering of a nation. Would that we in America had a little more proportional justice! In so many cases today it seems that the criminal has more rights than the victim. Someone commits a gruesome murder and maybe 15 or18 or 25 years later he’s finally executed. And in the meantime, we get to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to feed him, and give him magazines to read, and to give him a relatively comfortable life, while the family of the victim suffers for the extreme injustice of it all. We need a little more proportional justice.
But what the Scribes and Pharisees failed to understand, and what we in our extremely litigious society can often fail to understand, is that that’s simply not what life is all about. Life is not just a matter of our rights under the law. And to reduce life to that level, to make life only about claiming your just due, is to yank up your stakes from heaven and hammer them firmly into this passing world. Because the politics of this world is rights over love, but the politics of heaven is love over rights.
Look at the example of King David from our Old Testament lesson this morning. David was faced with a choice of what to do with an enemy who had grievously offended against his honour as the king, the Lord’s anointed. The enemy’s name was Shimei, and he was of the family of the former king, King Saul.
Now what happened was that David’s son Absalom rebelled and set himself up as king, and David was forced to flee from Jerusalem to save his own life, and the lives of his friends and servants. And as David was marching out of the city, this man Shimei followed him, all the while cursing David: “Come out! Come out! You bloodthirsty man, you rogue!” And he threw rocks and dirt at David and his men as they were trying to escape. Imagine what you would want to do to Shimei!
But then, as we read this morning, when Absalom was killed in battle and David was restored as king, who was the first person to come to David seeking pardon? Shimei the son of Gera. He fell on his face and pleaded with David not to remember his sin, but to forgive him.
Forgive him? If it were left to David’s general, Abishai, Shimei would have been executed right there on the spot, because he’d committed treason. He’d cursed the Lord’s anointed. And David had every right under heaven to have Shimei executed. But what did he do? David chose mercy over rights.
He said, “Shall any man be put to death today in Israel? For do I not know that today I am king over Israel.” In other words, “What difference does it make that this man cursed me? I’m king of Israel. The kingdom is mine, and no amount of taunting or cursing or stone throwing is going to take that away from me. I know my rights, but I choose mercy.” And so Shemei was spared.
Now if David’s example of love over rights isn’t strong enough, let me ask you this: What would have happened if our Lord Jesus Christ had not put love over rights? What if Christ, the Son of God, with all the authority in heaven and on earth pressed his rights over love? There certainly would not have been a crucifixion. And so consequently, there would have been no salvation for you and me. If Christ pressed his rights over love, we’d all be in Hell right now! But thanks be to Christ, He chose love over His rights—His rights as the second person of the triune God, His rights to eternal glory and honour. He gave up His rights to give us His glory. He said through Isaiah, “I gave my back to the smitters, and my cheeks to them that plucked out the beard: I did not hide My face from the shame of spitting.” In other words, He fulfilled what He commanded in the Sermon on the Mount. You remember what He said in the Sermon on the Mount: “Ye have heard that it has been said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you that you resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Because He did that for us, He now asks that we do that for one another.
You know, the great paradox of Christ’s sacrifice was that in giving up all, He didn’t lose a thing. Rather, He gained an eternal kingdom not only for Himself, but for us as well. And that’s why you and I can also now put love over rights. Because, as sons and daughters of the King, all is ours in Christ, and no amount of cursing or taunting, no amount of stone-throwing, or even burning of fire, can take that away from us. The meek shall inherit the earth.
And so, again, the wonderful paradox is that if we sacrifice our rights for the sake of love, we really lose nothing. We may in fact gain the eternal salvation of another person’s soul. And wouldn’t that be worth the sacrifice?
So let us be good citizens of our heavenly country. Let us stake our claim in our eternal city, not this passing world. Let us engage in the politics of the kingdom of God and choose love over rights. +
Series: What Is the Classical Anglican Way of Making Disciples for Christ?
Quinquagesima Sunday, 2022
Series: Making Disciples for Christ
In the Classical Anglican Way, part 1
The Very Rev. Jerry D. Kistler
St. Stephen’s Anglican Church
What Is a Disciple of Christ?
So as I reminded us last Sunday, we have a plaque on the table below the Cross Wall here at St. Stephen’s that states the mission that we have adopted for our parish: “St. Stephen’s Anglican Church: Making Disciples for Christ in the Classical Anglican Way.” And as promise, today I’m going to begin a Lenten series of sermons on just what that means: what it means to make disciples for Christ in the Classical Anglican Way. We won’t do a very good job of fulfilling that mission if we don’t know what the Classical Anglican Way of making disciples of Christ is. So that will be my task during Lent: to outline for you, in a fairly uncomplicated way, what that Classical Anglican Way of making disciples is. And I hope you’ll fully apply your hearts and minds to what I’ll have to say.
But before we can even think about how we as a parish can make disciples for Christ in any way, we have to ask the question, Are you and I disciples of Christ? We cannot help in the process of making disciples if we are not disciples ourselves. Whes Jesus gave His Great Commission to “Go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them...and teaching them all things I have commanded,” who was He talking to? He was talking to His disciples. It was those who walked with Him for three years, who stumbled and fell, and who were often confused and dejected, but who finally came to be true followers of Him. You see, it takes disciples to make disciples. As Bp. Riches once said, “No man can give to another what he himself does not have.”
So are you and I disciples? Well, what is a disciple? What does it look like to be a disciple of Christ? Well, that’s what I’d like to outline for you this morning, in ten points, which after the first one will be very short and summary, so don’t get worried that I’m going to go on for an hour. But I’ve also given you the outline so that you can take notes and do a little bit of active listening this morning, because this is an extremely important topic.
1. A disciple is a follower of Jesus, not just a fan of Jesus. Several years ago, we did a Lenten book study of this book, by Kyle Idleman, called Not a Fan. And in the book, Idleman defines what a fan is. He says, if you look up the word in the dictionary, you’ll find that a fan is usually defined as “an enthusiastic admirer.”
“It’s the guy,” he says, “who goes to the football game with no shirt and a painted chest. He sits in the stands and cheers for his team. He’s got a signed jersey hanging on his wall at home and multiple bumper stickers on the back of his car. But he’s never [actually] in the game. He never breaks a sweat or takes the hard hit in the open field. He knows all about the players and can rattle off their latest stats, but he doesn’t know the players. He yells and cheers, but nothing is really required of him. There is no sacrifice he has to make...” (Not a Fan, p. 24).
So a fan of Jesus really likes Jesus. He really likes Jesus’ sayings. “Aren’t the sayings of Jesus beautiful. Aren’t they so inspirational?” He might even have some of them hanging from a wall in his house. But then he doesn’t do anything with them. He doesn’t keep the sayings of Christ. He doesn’t do them.
But Jesus said, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word... He who does not love Me does not keep My words” (John 14:23, 24). You see, loving someone is a lot different than simply being an enthusiastic admirer of that person. It requires something of you. It requires you to adjust your behavior in relation to that person. It requires you to adjust your whole life in relation to that person—how you think, how you act, what priories you have. One chief difference in being a follower rather merely a fan is that it does require sacrifice. So Jesus says, “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple” (Lk. 9:27). You’ve got to get out of the bleachers. You’ve got to get out of the cheap seats, so to speak, and get out onto the field and labor, and sweat, and take those hits, and follow the commands and the directions your Captain is giving to you.
Jesus isn’t looking for fans, folks. He doesn’t need any fans. He’s looking for followers. If you want to be a disciple of Christ you must be a follower, not just a fan.
2. A disciple knows Jesus. A disciple doesn’t just know about Jesus. He’s not like the guy in the stands who knows all about the players, or who knows about the captain of the team; he actually knows the Captain personally. Now that knowledge of Christ must certainly always be based in the Word of God and the Sacraments, but it’s also must be what we might call a “mystical” knowledge—an intimacy of fellowship. You know, when the Bible says that Adam “knew” his wife, it doesn’t mean that he was just able to distinguish Eve from Mable. It was an intimate knowing; being in intimate fellowship. To know Jesus Christ in intimate fellowship should be the longing of every disciple’s heart, as Paul said that he counted all things loss in comparison to the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus his Lord... “that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings...” (Phil. 3:7-11).
But, again, because this knowledge of Christ is based in His Word, although it’s also a mystical knowing...
3. A disciple knows the Bible. Why? Because when you love someone, and you want that intimate fellowship with that person, you cling to his every word. Think back to the time you first met your spouse or fell in love for the first time. You cherished every word he or she spoke. You read, and re-read, and read again their letters to you, until you had them practically memorized. You listened for every little subtle nuance. You searched for hidden meaning. If you were really sentimental, you put his or her letters under your pillow at night because you wanted, in that symbolic, sentimental way, to keep your loved-one close to you—to be near to them by keeping their words near to you.
You cannot know Jesus unless you know His Word. So a true disciple knows the Bible. But again, because that knowledge of Jesus—that intimacy of fellowship—is also grounded in the Sacraments...
4. A disciple is, of course baptized, but is also constant in receiving the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood. Jesus said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you” (Jn. 6:53). The fan says, “Yes, I believe that. That’s so true.” But he doesn’t then make the sacrifice every Sunday of coming here and actually receiving the Sacrament. Everything else comes first. If there’s nothing better to do, well then he might come, as long as he didn’t stay up too late the night before, so he has to catch up on some sleep. The disciple says, “No, I must come, and I must partake, because My Lord has said that, apart from partaking, I have no life. And anyway, I desire to be renewed in my fellowship with the One I love. There’s nothing that could hold me back from that.”
5. A disciple worships. Again, this goes back to the question of whom you truly love. You know, in the marriage ceremony in the Prayer Book, when the man and the woman give the rings to one another, they say, “With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship...” It’s the idea of being completely committed to the other, and offering, yes even sacrificing, everything he or she is to the other. So we’re called in Scripture, by the mercies of God, to present our bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is our only reasonable response of worship (Rom. 12:1). That means first of all, sacrificing our bodies by dragging them sometimes here to worship. But it means, as we say in the liturgy, that in response to the grace of God we’ve received in Jesus Christ, we here offer ourselves, our souls and our bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto Him. A disciple worships.
6. A disciple prays. You remember that one day one of Jesus’ disciples came to Him and said, “Lord, teach us to pray.” And the Lord said, “When you pray, say...” (Lk 11:1ff). And then He gave them what we call “The Lord’s Prayer,” but we could just as easily call it “The Disciple’s Prayer.” It’s the prayer Jesus gave to His disciple to be both practice and pattern. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus said, “When you pray, say: Our Father...” In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said, “Pray like this: Our Father...” (Mt. 6:9ff). In other words, the disciple of Christ both prays the actual prayer Christ gave His disciples to pray, and models his own personal prayers on that prayer. The point is, the true disciple doesn’t just pray the liturgical prayers of the church gathered together in corporate worship, but also has a rich life of private prayer based on those liturgical prayer—based ultimately on the Lord’s Prayer. A disciple prays.
7. A disciple has fellowship with the Body of Christ. The Apostle Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians that by One Spirit we were all baptized into one body, the Church, and not that each of us were baptized into a separate and private union with Jesus Christ. So to not have fellowship with the Body is not an option. How can you have a fellowship with the Head if you don’t have a fellowship with His Body? And the Body is not just a collection of body parts. To be a body, the parts have to be in intimate fellowship with themselves. So it is with Christ. And, of course, Jesus commanded us not just to be with each other, but also that we love each other, and that the world would know we are His disciples by our love for one another (Jn. 13:35). Love is the bond unity of the Body.
8. A disciple ministers his or her gift for the sake of the Body. In the same passage from 1 Corinthians, St. Paul says that there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit... But the manifestation [or the gifting] of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all.” (11:4, 7). Our gifts have not been given to us for our own personal enjoyment, but to build up—that’s what that word “profit” literally means—to build up the whole. So going back to the football analogy, every one of us who have had hands lain on us, not only do we have natural gifts and talents, but we’ve also been empowered to go out and do something with those gifts and talents for the advancement of the team. We may rather sit on the bench on the sidelines, but again the true disciple gets out onto the field and follows the Captain, and helps his teammates do the same.
9. A disciple becomes more and more Christ-like. Jesus said, “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for a disciple that he be like his teacher, and a servant like his master” (Mt. 10:25). As the disciple grows to know Jesus, as the disciple grows to know the Bible, as the disciple partakes of the Sacraments, as the disciple worships, as the disciple prays, and participates in the church and ministers his gifts, he become more and more like Jesus. He sees the image of his true self in Jesus, and he, by the Spirit of God, is conformed to that image—which is really the whole goal of our salvation, the whole goal of being a disciple: to be like Jesus.
10. A disciple desires to make other disciples. Not only does he desire to make other disciples out of a sense of obedience to the Lord’s Great Commission to “Go, and make disciples of all the nations...”, but the true disciple desires to give to others what he has been given: new life in Christ, the forgiveness of sins, the hope of glory. His life has been turned outward by Christ from self to others, and the first thing he wants to share is the message of the gospel that has so transformed him. He can’t do otherwise. As Bp. Sutton says, “We have a compulsion to testify and spread the gospel.” “You are the light of the world,” Jesus said to His disciples. “A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basked, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house” (Mt. 5:14, 15).
Well, these are ten things that give us a picture of what a true disciple is. It’s certainly not an exhaustive list. But if we want a part in carrying out the mission of making disciple for Christ in the Classical Anglican Way, then we ourselves must be disciples. It cannot be otherwise.
But we do have a way, we have inherited a great way as Classical Anglicans for growing as disciples. It’s just for us now to make sure we know that way, and that we then fully participate in that way. So that’s what I’m going to be outlining for you during the season of Lent.
But let’s start, folk, by getting our ashes in church on Wednesday evening. +
Second Sunday in Lent, 2022
Series: Making Disciples of Christ
in the Classical Anglican Way, part 2
The Very Rev. Jerry Kistler
St. Stephen’s Anglican Church
“A Spiritual Heritage: Living by a Rule of Life”
I’ve written a little tract that I’ve place next to our mission statement on the table under the Cross Wall here at St. Stephen’s. It’s title is “What Is the Classical Anglican Way of Making Disciples for Christ.” And in trying to answer that question, I’ve got five bullet-points, if you will, with short statements followings. Hopefully you read it, but if not, the tract was reproduced in our last newsletter. You could read it there. Or you could pick up one of the tracts next to the mission statement under the Cross Wall.
But the first bullet point is this. The classical Anglican way of making disciples for Christ is:
A Spiritual Heritage – The classical Anglican way is not something we created, nor is it the latest spiritual fashion. It’s a way of living out the Christian life that grew out of the practice of the Ancient Church, was renewed by the 16th and 17th Century reformers and divines of the Church of England, and has been passed down to us in the classic Book of Common Prayer. It’s not the only way of being a Christian, but it is a tried and true way, a way that has survived the test of time and has proved itself in the lives of millions of people as a great way of making true disciples of Jesus Christ.
So I’d just like to unpack that for you this morning as we continue to ponder the question of how we ourselves can be formed and shaped as disciples of Christ by the classical Anglican way, so that we can then fulfill our mission as a parish of making disciples for Christ in that classical Anglican way. As I said last week, it takes disciples to make disciples. There’s no other way.
But the first really great thing about the classical Anglican way of making disciples is that we didn’t make it up. It’s not just something that came out of our brains yesterday, but it is something we have received; it’s something that has been passed down to us over centuries. It is a spiritual heritage, a spiritual inheritance. And I hope you can appreciate why that’s a really good thing. It’s not something that’s constantly changing. It’s not something that from one year to the next, or from one month to the next, you don’t have any idea what this thing is going to be or what it’s going to become. And this is in such a contrast to so much of what we see out there. There a so many spiritual ways, there a so many ways of trying to help people become disciples, there were made up yesterday, and they’re here today, gone tomorrow. Not all of them are bad. They just exist in the realm of what I might call “spiritual fads.” They don’t have any lasting power. And so a person ends up like a pinball bouncing from one spiritual fad to the next, one way of trying to grow to be a disciple to the next. I mean, if you thought about it hard enough, you could probably list a whole series of ways that have come and gone in the past thirty years or so. There was The Prayer of Jabez. Then there was The Purpose Driven Life. Then there was The Shack. Then there was this prophetic person, who was really important for a time. Then he faded out and somebody else took his place. Then there was this spiritual movement that morphed and became something else, or just faded away, only to give way to another spiritual movement.
Now I’m not saying that none of these things have had any value—certainly some more than others. But what I’m saying is that, if you don’t have a foundation in something much more solid and lasting and unchanging, these things can cause you to become a bit of spiritual schizophrenic. And I think we’d all say that being schizophrenic is not a healthy way of doing anything, certainly not in trying to grow as a disciple of Christ.
So adopting the Anglican way of being and making disciples of Christ is first of all receiving a way—a spiritual tradition—that has been tested over time and has proven itself over centuries in the lives of millions, spread out over the whole globe, as a very powerful of growing to be a true disciple of Jesus Christ. As I say, it’s not the only way. There are other ways, other spiritual traditions, that we can benefit from. But this is a way that you can adopt as that kind of foundation, that kind of solid base, upon which you can build your spiritual house, so to speak. Jesus talked about that, didn’t He? He talked about not trying to build on shifting unstable sand, but to build on the solid rock. And that’s Him ultimately, but we have received a way—a way has been passed down to us from the time of the Early Church—of doing that very thing: of building our lives on Jesus Christ.
So what is it? Well, that’s what I’m going to be fleshing out for you over the new weeks. But really the first thing I want to say to you is that the Anglican way of making and being disciples of Christ goes way back before the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century—Thomas Cranmer and the Church of England and the first Prayer Books, and all of that. It actually goes all the way back to about the 6th century, a thousand years prior to the Protestant Reformation. The Anglican way, that gets passed down to us through the Prayer Book and other things, is really rooted in St. Benedict and in the Benedictine way. As one Anglican spiritual writer has put it, “I shall maintain that the Book of Common Prayer, as a system...is almost as Benedictine as the [the Rule of St. Benedict] itself” (Martin Thornton, English Spirituality, p. 47).
Now some of you might be familiar with St. Benedict; some of you might be a little less familiar. Brian C. Taylor, in his wonderful little book called Spirituality for Everyday Living: An Adaption of the Rule of St. Benedict—which I’d really our parish to do a book study of at some point... Taylor gives this helpful overview:
St. Benedict lived and developed his Rule for monasteries around fifteen hundred years ago. Abbot to twelve monasteries, he intended this writing to be only for those over whom he exercised authority. The eventual widespread use of The Rule of St. Benedict in hundreds of monasteries throughout Europe in the High Middle Ages was completely unforeseen by its author. Speaking to his monks of the sixth century and therefore to a completely different world from ours in many ways, Benedict at times seems strange, even arcane. And yet, through the filter of history and culture comes an eternal message. As humanity developed through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and right up to our own postnuclear age [he was writing back in 1989], the message of St. Benedict has remained, yet has constantly evolved in its expression. Benedictine communities have consistently lived out this sixth century message in ways appropriate to each generation: through manual labor, keeping the lamp of education lit during the Dark Ages, illuminating manuscripts and writing books, composing chant and folk music, advising monarchs and praying in cloistered isolation, running cathedrals, speaking out on social issues, leading workshops, and, above all, providing witness to the life of prayer lived in human community (pp. 8, 9).
“Providing witness to the life of prayer lived in human community.” That’s going to be really important when we talk about the way of prayer in a couple of weeks. But just hold on to that for right now.
In another passage, Taylor writes,
The Rule seems itself almost written for living “in the world,” even though its original intent was for Benedict’s monastery. Some scholars feel that Benedict was simply describing the essentials of a Christian life, normative for all but expressed through the particularities of the monastery. The Rule, as Cardinal Basil Hume states, “makes it possible for ordinary folk to live lives of quite extraordinary value.” There are no heroics here, no spectacular feats of spiritual accomplishment—just a steady and committed focus on God through the vehicles of prayer, labor, relationships, and study. Through the development of attitudes about such ordinary things as money, possessions, time, authority, and food, the monk (and the man and woman “in the world”) is radically transformed by grace (p. 12).
So cutting through all the history and the accolades about how great a way this is, what’s the sort of overarching approach to living the life of a disciple that the Benedictine/Anglican way gives us? It's the idea of living your life by a rule—what we call “a rule of life.” Don’t hear me say, living your life by a bunch of rules. We’re not talking about become legalists here. But living your life by a rule. The Latin word for “rule” is regula. It’s really about being regular in your pursuit of discipleship. And that goes back to not being a pinball. Again, it’s not about trying to achieve heroic feats of spiritual accomplishment, to which you sigh a great sigh of relief. No. I like to say that the way of St. Benedict, the Anglican way, is really the way of being radically regular in your Christian life.
So what’s a regula? What’s a Rule of Life? In my reading I’ve come across a few definitions or descriptions of what a Rule is, that I like. Here’s one from a woman named Ruth Barton in a book called Sacred Rhythms: “A Rule of Life is a simple pattern of attitudes, behaviors, and practices that are a regular routine and are intended to produce a certain quality of life and character.” It’s about having a guide for being regular in our spiritual practices.
Here’s another definition I found on the website of the C.S. Lewis Institute: “A rule of life is an intentional pattern of spiritual disciplines that provides structure and direction for growth in holiness.” It’s an intentional, regular pattern of prayer, and study, and of the various other disciplines that you build into a routine for growth in holiness.
So, first, a Rule of Life is a way of being regular in your spiritual life. But a Rule of Life is also like a ruler: it’s a way of measuring your progress in discipleship by comparing your actual practice to what your Rule expects of you. And that’s why I think it’s essential to actually write out your rule. It needs to be there staring you in the face to help you keep accountable to it.
But what do you put into your Rule? Now this is the essential question, because for a Rule to have any power to help us grow as disciples, it has to be accomplishable; it has to be attainable. So the article from the C. S. Lewis institute goes on to say, “In order to be life-giving, a Rule must be realistic! It is not an ideal toward which you are striving to soar. Instead, your initial Rule should be a minimum standard for your life that you do not want to drop below” (emphasis added).
So many times, when I’ve talked to people about keeping a Rule, or to people who tell me they want to establish a Rule for themselves, they say things like, “These are all the things that I want to do. These are all things I intend to do. I want to pray three times a day for an hour each time. I want to read ten chapters of the Bible every night. I want to do three Bible studies a week. I want do all these things.” But, you see, that’s not a Rule. A Rule is not a wish list. It’s not list of your best intentions. It’s not about setting lofty goals for yourself. That’s right back at trying to charge up the mountain. A Rule is list, or a schedule of spiritual practices, that you will do without fail. That’s what a Rule is. And, you see, that’s how a Rule becomes the Way of Perfection. It’s about mastering your minimum standard of spiritual discipline before you try to charge ahead to the next level. It’s about becoming perfect at the step that you are, before you try take that next step forward.
Let me try to illustrate the point. You know, New Year’s resolutions are sort of like establishing a Rule of Life for yourself. But how many people make New Year’s resolutions that are completely unrealistic? Danielle shared a story she read in a magazine right at the end of last year. It was the story of a woman who felt, like I think all women feel at the end of the holidays, that she was overweight and out of shape. So her New Year’s resolution was that she was going to get up at five or six o’clock every morning and run three miles a day, every day. Now what do you think happened? She failed miserably! She almost never actual ran three miles, and some days she didn’t even get up and get out the door. So what did she do? Did she give up? No, she brought her resolution down to an attainable level. She said, “I may not be able to run three miles a day, but what I can do is get up every morning and put on my running shoes and head out the door, and however far I get after that will be a bonus.” You see, that’s keeping a Rule. That’s mastering the first steps so you can build onto them a regular workout routine.
I think we understand this when it comes to physical exercise. Why haven’t we figured it out with regard to spiritual exercise? St. Paul say, “Bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come” (1 Tim. 4:8). So maybe we need to learn from this woman how to grow in godliness.
What are your spiritual running shoes that you’re going to put on every day without fail so you can head out the door towards spiritual maturity? If you’ve never established a Rule of Life for yourself, and you don’t really know where to start, try this on for size. The Didache, one of the earliest writings of the Church outside of the New Testament canon, maybe written as early as 70 A.D., calls for Christians to pray the Lord’s Prayer three times a day. Now that’s a Rule of Life, isn’t it? And more importantly that’s something that’s attainable. That’s something you can do. That’s something you can master and build upon. Why not start there?
As I said, we’re going to talk some more about the rule of prayer in a couple few weeks. But for right now, do some more study on what a rule of life is, and how to establish one for your life. Or come and talk to me about it, and together we can try to
But don’t say, “Well this is very interesting, Fr. Jerry; what a great sermon,” But then do nothing about it. This is an essential part of what it means to be and to make disciples of Christ in the classical Anglican way: the Benedictine way of
Again, we can’t help in the mission of making disciples of Christ in the classical Anglican way, if we ourselves are not being made disciples of Christ in that way.
This is our spiritual heritage. This is part of what has been passed down to us a tried and true way of growing our discipleship. Let’s not neglect it. +
Fifth Sunday after Easter – Rogation Sunday, 2022
Series: Making Disciples for Christ
In the Classical Anglican Way, part 3
The Very Rev. Jerry Kistler
St. Stephen’s Anglican Church
A Way of Worship the Forms the Soul
So I began a sermon series back on Quinquagesima Sunday, which was way back in February, and the series was to try to answer the question: what is the classical Anglican way of making disciples for Christ? And I almost feel like I need to restart that series just so you can remember and get back into your mind the things I had to bring to you. But I won’t do that to you. But just let me recap for you what we went over.
You see, we have a mission statement here at St. Stephen’s. You know what it is. You see it on the table below the cross wall every time you enter the church. Our mission here at St. Stephen’s is to make disciples for Christ in the classical Anglican way.
A mission statement tells you what our purpose is. It gives you our raison d’etre, as the French would say—our reason for being. But as I said in my first sermon in the series, if our mission is to make disciples for Christ in the classical Anglican way, it is imperative that we ourselves are being made and are growing as disciples of Christ by that classical Anglican way. As I said, it takes disciples to make disciples. And Jesus didn’t give us an option as to whether we should make disciples. It was His imperative to the Church, His Great Commission: “Go,” He said, “and make disciples of all the nations…” But once again, He said that to those who were already His disciples. As former Presiding Bishop Leonard Riches once said in a sermon that I was greatly privileged to hear: “No man can give to another what he himself does not have.”
It’s imperative that each of us is striving to be disciples if we are going to contribute to the church’s mission of making disciples for Christ in the classical Anglican way.
So in the second sermon, I started to outline for you what that classical Anglican way is, as I also have it printed out for you as a tract next to the mission statement under the cross wall. The first point I made is that the classical Anglican way is a Spiritual Heritage; it’s not something we made up yesterday. It’s not the latest spiritual fad. It’s something that is tried and true and has passed the test of time in the lives of millions of Christians. It’s something that has been handed down to us from our Anglican forebears from the time of the great Protestant Reformation and the through the formative period of the 17th century. But it’s also something that was handed down to them from even earlier times—from the times of the great Church Fathers of the first few centuries of the Church.
So first, as I shared in that sermon, one of the most important aspects of this ancient way is the practice of living your life by a rule—a Rule of Life. This is no new revelation. You’ve heard me preach and teach on this subject before. And hopefully that means you’ve adopted the practice for yourself. Hopefully I’m not just preaching to the angels. But, again, a Rule of Life is a way of being regular in your spiritual life. A Rule of Life is a simple pattern of practices that are a regular routine that you follow without fail. It could be a simple as praying the Lord’s Prayer three times a day. And once you’ve mastered that, you go on to adding other disciplines and practices to form a more mature rule so that you yourself are growing in spiritual maturity. This is the ancient way. This is a hugely important part of our spiritual heritage called the Classical Anglican Way. And if that’s part of how we want to make disciples for Christ, it’s got to be a part of how we ourselves are being made and are growing as disciples for Christ.
So how’s your rule? Do you have a rule of life? Do you even know where to begin? Well, come and talk to me; I might be able to help. I’ve heard that’s part of my job. But put a little effort and planning into your spiritual life so you can become regular...
Okay, so the next aspect of the classical Anglican way of making disciples of Christ—my second point in the tract—is that it is “A Way of Worship that Forms the Soul.”
Now we can all get into this because most of us are here because we’ve come to love the liturgy. We love the beauty and rhythm of the words. We love the ceremonial aspects of the liturgy which connect us to those words: standing, sitting, kneeling—the liturgical calisthenics, as I like to call them. Some of us feel connected by making the sign of the cross, or bowing, or genuflecting. These things have become part of who we are. But I think it’s always a good thing to be reminded of why we do the things we do.
Why do we have a liturgy in the first place? Well, let me just quote what I wrote in my tract. It starts off with a Latin phrase (You always have to have a good Latin phrase to impress your friends and confound your enemies). It goes like this:
Lex orandi, lex credendi. It’s an old phrase the Church has passed down over the centuries. Very literally it means, “The rule of prayer is the rule of faith.” But as someone has recently written, “Maybe a better way to think of it is, ‘The way you pray and worship becomes the way you believe’…The way you worship and pray shapes the way you believe, which in turn shapes the way you live.”
The “someone” I’m quoting there is a man by the name of Glenn Packiam. He has a background somewhat like me. He was a church musician who grew up in American Evangelicalism. But then, like he me, he slowly began to discover liturgy, and now he’s an Anglican priest.
But years ago, somebody emailed him this Latin saying, Lex orandi, lex credendi. He was slightly irritated when he was told to Google it to find out what it meant. But when he did so, he says he was plunged into a whole new world about how to think about worship—this world that had been moving towards him in study of liturgy. And later he wrote this wonderful little book about his personal journey from so-called free-form worship to liturgical worship. It’s called Discover the Mystery of Faith: How Worship Shapes Believing. He writes,
“...lex orandi, lex credendi... ‘The way you pray and worship becomes the way you believe.’
“This sounds simple enough,” he says, “but stop for a moment and think about it. If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent most of your life thinking of prayer and worship as an expression of the faith that is in our hearts. There is certainly something true about that. Our prayers and our worship do, indeed, reflect the faith in our hearts. It is an overflow of it. But in another sense—perhaps a larger sense—prayer and worship form our faith. Worship doesn’t just reflect our faith; it is what shapes our faith” (p. 16).
And you see, that’s why we Anglicans think the liturgy is so important and can have a transformative effect in our lives. If prayer and worship aren’t merely the expression of the faith in our hearts but actually form that faith, then what we pray is critically important. It is why we think we have an amazingly powerful tool for discipleship in this liturgy we sometimes take for granted—this liturgy which is rooted in the ancient Apostolic liturgies of the first few centuries of the Church; this liturgy which was renewed in the sixteenth century by the likes of Thomas Cranmer who purged out the errors of the Middle Ages and so faithfully brought back the Gospel of God’s free grace in Jesus Christ to the center of the liturgy; this liturgy that has proved itself in the lives of men and women of almost every nationality over five centuries.
You see, how the liturgy itself becomes a way of making and growing people as disciples of Christ is that the words of the liturgy help shape the attitude of our hearts and form our souls for worship. Rather than merely expressing the faith that is already in our hearts, it calls us higher; it moves us out of our natural depth, out of the comfortable shallows, into the deeps of the collective expression of worship of the saints that have gone before us.
A brief illustration of what I’m driving at will suffice. A famous rabbi was approached by a woman after the temple service one Sabbath Day, who complained that the words of the liturgy didn’t often express the way she was feeling at the time. His response was that the words of the liturgy weren’t there to express how she felt; they were there to teach her how she ought to feel.
In the Prayer Book we pray concerning our sins that “the remembrance of them is grievous unto us; the burden of them is intolerable.” The problem is, our sins aren’t always grievous to us. The burden of them isn’t always intolerable. But they should be! That’s why we say those words, so that as those words move off the page and into our hearts by continual usage, they actually form the way we feel about our sins and move us to truly repent. The words of the liturgy work the other way, if you will. They don’t merely express the inner attitude of the heart; they help create it.
So I conclude my statement in the tract on making disciple for Christ in the classical Anglican way with these words: “The Anglican way of worship, with its confession, absolution, praise, instruction, petition, communion, giving, fellowship and benediction, forms our souls not just by telling us about Jesus, but by giving us Jesus. We are transformed by the liturgy as the liturgy forms Christ in us.”
Now that last line—that we are transformed by the liturgy as the liturgy forms Christ is us—might sound to some like we’re claiming a little too much for something that isn’t divinely inspired like the Scriptures. But if you actually know the liturgy, if the liturgy is no longer on the page for you but is in your heart, you know that it is not just some kind of random, man-made string of words thrown together. The words are powerful precisely because they are so Scriptural.
I mean, what people tend to notice about Anglican worship, when they visit from non-liturgical churches, is how much of the Bible is actually read in the service. And it’s not just that in the Communion liturgy we normally have four readings from the Scriptures—one from the Old Testament, one from the Psalms, one from the Epistles, and one from the Gospels—but that the Bible is quoted or alluded to throughout the liturgy. The centrality of the Bible to the whole of the service is what impressed me so much as I was coming to it from the Baptist tradition. Not only do we hear the Word of God, but then we respond to the Word with the Word, with Psalms and Canticles from Scripture and with prayers that are steeped in the Scriptures, so that the whole liturgy becomes a kind of Scriptural conversation.
But as we remember that the Bible is not simply a record of what God has done in the past, but, as it says in Hebrews 4:12, that “the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart,” and as it says in 1 Peter 1 that we were even “born again by the word of God which lives and abides forever” (v. 23), we can understand how such a Scriptural conversation in the liturgy is powerful to transform us into the image of Him of whom the Scriptures are all about. The Word of God is about Christ, but Christ is also present in His Word. He is the Word who was with God and who was God, and He is the One whom the Holy Spirit forms in us as we hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the Holy Scriptures.
So, yes, it is a big claim, but the liturgy is able to transform us as it forms Christ in us. And this is why, as we seek to be and to make disciples for Christ, it is so important for us to be in the liturgy. Yes, to be in the liturgy by physically being here, as we are called to be here every Sunday by the canons of our church, “unless reasonably prevented.” But being in the liturgy in the other sense of really being here; of having your hearts and minds prepared to hear the Word; of remembering that the Lord is in His holy temple, and to let all the rest of the world, all our other duties and responsibilities, all our plans and things we got to get done, keep silence before Him for just a little more than an hour. To be in the liturgy in the sense of not just mouthing the words, but allowing the words to enter our hearts and to shape them. All of this is how the Classical Anglican Way is Way of Worship the Forms the Soul, and how we can be, and how we can make, disciples for Christ. +
Sunday after Ascension, 2022
Series: Making Disciples for Christ
In the Classical Anglican Way, part 4
The Very Rev. Jerry Kistler
St. Stephen’s Anglican Church
A System of Spirituality
As we continue in our series on what it means to make disciples for Christ in the classical Anglican way, I’d like to talk you today about the Anglican way as being a system of spirituality.
Now I know the word “spirituality” is thrown around today by a lot of folks to mean just about anything, except organized religion. You hear people say things like, “I’m not religious, but I’m very spiritual.” But Christians have been using the word spirituality for hundreds of years, and I think it’s a good word; I don’t think we have to stop using the word just because others use it in a different way. (I always say Christians should cede words to the culture. We should take back words like “Madonna” and “gay.”) So Christians have used the word spirituality to mean our walk with the Spirit—the Spirit of God, not the spirit of this world, or the spirit of the universe, or whatever other spirit you might come up with. St. Paul exhorts us in Galatians 5:16 to “walk in the Spirit.” And in Romans 8 he says that “as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God” (v. 14).
You see, the Christian sense of spirituality comes with a capital S. We’re talking about our walk in, our keeping in step with, our being led by, our life in, the Holy Spirit. And life in the Spirit in this sense means, not just some vague sense of being in touch with our own spirits, but to be in a growing, maturing union with Jesus Christ. Listen to how seamlessly St. Paul connects the ideas of being in the Spirit with being in Christ in Romans 8:9-11: “...you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His. And if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness.”
Christian spirituality is life in the Spirit. Christian spirituality is growing in conformity to Jesus Christ by the Spirit of Christ who dwells in us.
But here’s a key, key principle that we learn from the Scriptures: the Holy Spirit uses means. What do I mean by that? Well, what I mean is that, contrary to common perception and a lot of bad teaching out there, generally the Holy Spirit doesn’t fall down out of heaven and into our hearts and minds immediately—that is, through no tangible, creative means; He generally uses what we call the means of grace.
The means of grace—they’re something we give thanks for in Morning and Evening Prayer, don’t we? But what are they? Well, they’re lots of things. They’re the Word and the Sacraments. They’re prayer and the fellowship with other believers. They’re the public liturgy of the Church and the pastoral absolution. They’re private devotion and the various spiritual disciplines, such as fasting, meditation, service, and study. These are the means by which the Spirit of God works to give us union with Christ and to strengthen us in that union. And very importantly, the Holy Spirit also works by the means our faithful use of the means of grace. The means of grace don’t just happen to us; we have to use them. This then is the sense in which Paul tells us to walk in the Spirit. We need to walk in, we need to be faithful in, we need to use the things the Holy Spirit of God uses to unite us to Christ and to make us more like Him.
But we human beings need organization. That’s just the way God wired us. We need structure. We could think of the means of grace—the various practices of private devotion, the spiritual disciplines, etc.—as sort of a grab bag: take a little of this, and a little of that. But that doesn’t really work because usually we fall out of balance in one way or another. A little too much study, perhaps, versus service. Or too great an emphasis on private devotion versus the public worship of the church.
So part of our spiritual heritage as Anglicans is that we have inherited from the Ancient Church a system of spirituality. We haven’t received just a smorgasbord of options in terms of the spiritual practices of the Church; we’ve received those practices organized into a system.
Now just as we might have struggled a bit with the word “spirituality,” this word “system” might also give us some problems. It doesn’t sound very spiritual. Actually, it sounds like it might be a little stifling to the Spirit. But what we mean by the word “system” is an integrated whole, where all the parts serve one greater purpose. So here’s what I wrote in my tract.
A fence is a system. It has large vertical posts at the ends, smaller posts in between, and horizontal members that connect the posts together. Without any of the three main parts there is no fence. The Anglican system of the spiritual life is like a fence. The big posts are the weekly celebrations of the Eucharist. The smaller posts in the middle are the Daily Office, the corporate services of Morning and Evening Prayer. And the horizontal slats connecting the whole thing together are the various traditional practices of private devotion. Eucharist—Office—Private Devotion. This ancient “three-fold rule of prayer” is the foundation of the Anglican spiritual life. We think it’s a very strong foundation for making strong Christians.
You see, the great strength of the ancient threefold rule of prayer is the balance it provides for our spiritual lives. It doesn’t let you get too focused on private, individualistic devotion to the neglect of the corporate worship of the Body of Christ. But nor does it let you become entirely focused on the public liturgy of the Church to the neglect of personal fellowship with the Lord and service to your neighbor. And it never lets you lose your anchor in the Holy Eucharist—that, apart from which, Jesus said you have no spiritual life in you, the chief means of grace after baptism for living the Christian life.
But the threefold rule of prayer presents us with some real challenges, doesn’t it?—chief among which is the idea that you need to come to church twice a day for Morning and Evening Prayer. That seems a little unattainable in our modern age, doesn’t it?
You have to understand that when Thomas Cranmer put together the services of Morning and Evening Prayer he was radically reducing the number of services of the Daily Office that he’d inherited from the medieval church. Basically he took the eight daily services of the medieval monastery and combined them into two, because he said, Nobody living in the world can go to church eight times a day, but certainly they can go twice! But we’re not living even in his times, where you were out in the fields, or in the blacksmith shop, or at home cooking all day, and you heard the church bells, and you left what you were doing and you walked to church to say the office for twenty minutes or a half-an-hour. What a nice break! But we don’t live in that kind of an agrarian culture where your life was lived in a very small, confined area, and where you had very few preoccupations besides work. I mean we’ve got NASCAR and the NFL! And, since the invention of the automobile, most of us live what would have been an inconceivably far distance from the center of town, where the church was, to people of ages past. So if we’re going keep the three-fold rule of prayer as part of our Anglican heritage, as part of the classical Anglican way of making disciples for Christ, how do we keep the Daily Office part of it?
Well, here’s what I’ve been trying to challenge all of us to do for the past fifteen years. Of course you can’t come to church twice a day to say Morning and Evening Prayer, but try to come once a week. I mean, you talk about a radical reduction! Cranmer went from eight to two; now I’m going from twice a day to once a week. Has our society changed so much that we can’t even do that, or is the real problem that we, particularly as Americans, have become so highly individualized that we don’t even value things like corporate prayer? But let put things into perspective, shall we? Author Robert Benson has written,
“Sometimes it occurs to me that I am a member of the first generation of followers of Yahweh in six thousand years for whom the offering of daily fixed-hour worship and praise and prayer—a tradition practiced and treasured and passed down to us from the Hebrews to the apostles to the early Christians to the fathers and mothers of our faith who sustained this Church we now call home—is no longer deemed a necessity or an obligation or a duty or even an opportunity.”
Now we don’t have that many Morning and Evening Prayer service per week here at St. Stephen’s—right now, Morning Prayer twice a week and Evening Prayer...well, we had Evening Prayer on Wednesday evenings until I decided to get cancer, but we’re going to get back to that, hopefully soon. But if there are times when you can commit to coming once a week for either Morning or Evening Prayer, you just need to let me know, and we’ll do it.
Okay, but what about the private devotion part of the three-fold rule of prayer? Well, just as we shouldn’t trade in public prayer for private devotion, neither should we trade in private devotion for public prayer. It needs to be a both/and. But though the Anglican Way assumes you will do your private devotion, it doesn’t prescribe any particular methods. However, there are some disciplines and exercises—again, inherited from the Ancient Church—that Anglicans have traditionally continued to practice. A good sourcebook for a study of these is this book by Richard Foster called Celebration of Discipline. We went through it as a book-study here at St. Stephen’s years ago, but it goes through about thirteen of the traditional Christian spiritual disciplines, and we still have a few copies on the back table.
But I’d just like to mention one of the spiritual disciplines that didn’t make it into this book, but which I think is very important, and that is what we might call “habitual recollection.” What is it? It’s simple ways, actually, that we can constantly remind ourselves of the presence of God in our lives and of His grace to us in Jesus Christ, which then form an attitude of thanksgiving and praise and prayer. Grace before meals is an act of recollection. Mealtimes give us an opportunity to think about God and his gracious provisions to us. That’s one example. The Ancient Church Father Tertullian talks about how it was the practice of early Christians to make the sign of the cross in all their activities. “In all our travels and movements, in all our coming in and going out, in putting on our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupies us, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross” (De corona, 30). This is just another way of practicing the presence of God, as Brother Lawrence put it, and reminding ourselves that all of life is a gift of grace won for us through the cross of Christ. Another example is the use of such short epithets as “God bless you,” “God willing,” and “Thanks be to God!” These, too, can be a way of re-focusing of our attention on God at specific moments. And there are a hundred other ways you can practice habitual recollection.
The various traditional practices of private devotion are another important part of our classical Anglican way of growing as disciples of Christ.
So just remember the fence. Anglican spirituality—the Anglican way of walking in the Spirit and growing as a disciple of Christ—is a system like a fence is a system. It has three parts that hold together as an integrated whole: Eucharist—Daily Office—Private Devotion. This ancient three-fold rule of prayer is the foundation for life in the Spirit. It’s a strong way of making strong Christians. +
Sexagesima Sunday, 2022
Text: St. Luke 8:4-15
The Very Rev. Jerry D. Kistler
St. Stephen’s Anglican Church
“Persevering in the Word”
“But the ones that fell on the good ground are those who, having heard the word with a noble and good heart, keep it and bear fruit with patience.”
The Greek word translated “patience” there is the word hupomonē, which would better be translated “endurance” or “perseverance.” The good ground in the parable are those who, “having heard the word with a noble and good heart, keep it and bear fruit with endurance, or with perseverance.” That little nuance of difference in translation helps us see how this parable fits into the bigger, overarching New Testament theme of the perseverance of the saints. And I don’t mean “the perseverance of the saints” in the Calvinist sense, but just in the sense that the Scriptures teach that we must persevere in our faith, we must persevere in a faith that produces good fruit in our lives, if we are truly, in the end, to partake of the salvation to which we have been called by the gospel.
It’s a doctrine that, I know, sometimes causes a good deal of consternation in our hearts, especially as we see a friend or a family member, who once professed the faith, end up denying the faith and begin to live the life of an unbeliever. I don’t know if there is a more difficult struggle for the Christian than that. Persecution for our own faith is certainly difficult, but seeing a loved one leave the faith I think for many of us is even more difficult.
Many of us have gone through the painful experience of trying to encourage a straying brother or sister, or son or daughter, not to give up their faith—to hold on to their hope in the gospel—only to see them fall off the deep end into apostasy. As I’ve shared before, my friend’s name was Andy.
I met Andy when I was a freshman in college. We didn’t have that much in common. He was an English-major and a very liberal Democrat, and I was undecided about my major, but very much a Reagan Republican. I was also a Christian, but Andy was at this point still an unbeliever. Unbeliever is putting it mildly. He was hostile towards anything that had to do with Christianity. He used to tell me how stupid we Christians were to believe the “myths” of the Bible, as he called them. So it would seem that we were the least likely to become the close friends that we became, except for the fact that we had the one thing in common that at 19 and 20 can bridge any gap: rock-n-roll! I was a guitarist and Andy played the bass. So Andy and I started to jam together, and out of that situation we developed one of the closest friendships I’ve ever had.
This was also right at the time in my life when I was most heavily involved in the Christian music scene. So we debated back and forth constantly about Christianity. But finally I was able to convince Andy to come to a evangelistic concert, and when the minister afterwards gave the “altar call,” I was shocked when Andy stood up and walked down the aisle. He repeated the sinner’s prayer after the minister, and he accepted Christ as his Savior and Lord.
From that point on Andy really began to grow as a Christian and in his relationship to the Lord. Both of us started to follow the ministry of Walter Martin, the “Bible Answer Man.,” and Andy actually started working for the ministry and began a master’s degree program in Christian apologetics. We attended a small Baptist church together, and Andy and I team-taught the college-and-group Bible study, all while we were playing together in a Christian rock band. We prayed together. We encouraged each other in the faith. We even rebuked each other now and then when we weren’t walking in the right way. It seemed that if anyone was ever a true Christian, it was And—a true convert.
But then he started slipping away. He quit the band and left the ministry. He transferred out of the apologetics program and dropped out of Bible study, and his attendance at church became less and less frequent, until he stopped going altogether. And I can remember the sense of frustration and hopelessness I was going through at the time, because there wasn’t anything I could say our do to convince him to hold on to the faith and turn back to his original hope in the gospel. He wouldn’t hear me. Finally, he wrote me a letter and asked me not to try to talk to him anymore about his commitment to Christ because he had come to the point where he had no faith whatsoever, and that he was happy and wanted to get on with his life as an unbeliever.
The question is: what has happened to Andy’s soul? Is he is saved or unsaved? From all outward appearances, it seemed certain that God had begun a good work in him. So how could Andy fall away?
Or has he indeed fallen away? Some might answer that since he was once saved, he’s still now and always will be saved. But does that accord with Jesus’ parable today “of the Sower,” or, maybe better, “of the Four Soils”?
What do the four soils represent? They represent four types of people, or four types of hearts, don’t they? But you see, in three out of the four cases the seed of the Word, the seed of the gospel, is implanted in the heart, and there is at least a kind of new birth that occurs. The seed sprouts up and creates a seedling. But in only one of these cases does the new birth issue forth into a new life, one that continues to bring forth fruit with endurance.
In this I think there is both comfort and warning for us to take in regards to our own salvation, but also real motivation for us to keep on praying, to keep on asking, to keep on seeking, to keep on knocking, with regard to our loved ones who are no longer producing the fruit of faith in their lives.
Because, first of all, the Scriptures assure us that God will indeed preserve His people all the way to final salvation. Jesus said, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out… This is the will of My Father Who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose none, but should raise him up at the last day. And this is the will of Him Who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him should have everlasting life…” (Jn. 6:37, 39-40). “My sheep hear My voice and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand” (Jn. 10:27-29). And St. Paul wrote, “Whom [God] predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified” (Rom. 8:30). God’s elect people will finally be glorified. Nothing shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:38-39). “...who will also confirm you to the end, that you may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:8). “He who calls you is faithful, who also will do it” (1 Thess. 5:24). “[For I am] confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion unto the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6).
Now on these assurances, you can see how some have come up with a doctrine of eternal security—once saved always saved. Once you’ve said “the sinner’s prayer,” once you’ve signed on the dotted line, or even once you’ve baptized or confirmed, you’ve got your fire-insurance. God’s stuck with you, no matter whether you continue to have faith in Christ or not. You could become an atheist and live as a total pagan, and you’d still be saved because you once believed.
But in addition to giving us these assurances, the Bible constantly warns us not to fall away, but to persevere in the faith to the end. “Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall…” (1 Cor. 10:12). “Christ [is faithful] as a Son over His own house, whose house we are if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing hope firm to the end…” (Heb. 3:6). God has reconciled you to Himself “if indeed you continue in faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel…” (Col. 1:23). “Therefore do not cast away your confidence which has great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise…” (Heb. 10:35, 36). “And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope until the end; that you do not become sluggish, but imitate those who through faith and perseverance inherit the promises” (Heb. 6:11, 12). “For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end” (Heb. 3:14).
Now if we took these passages apart from the assurances that God will preserve His people all the way to the end, we might be tempted to the sin of terror of doubt, and to begin to navel-gaze: I am really saved? “Do I really have faith? Do I really, really believe? What if my faith isn’t strong enough?” But you see, as soon as you’ve done that you’ve taken your eyes off of Christ, and have begun to put you trust and hope and confidence in the strength of your own faith and not in Him. I’ve seen people lose their faith because they stopped trusting in Christ and began to put their faith in their faith. Ironic, isn’t it? When you put you faith in your faith, it’s almost a sure way to lose your faith.
So we have to keep these two streams of Scripture united. We have to hold them together in tension. We mustn’t hold to the assurances to the point of presumption—that we’re saved just because we say we are, just because we once believed. But neither should we be terrified by the warnings not to fall away.
God is faithful: He will save to the utmost His elect people. But how do you know you’re one of His elect people? If you have true faith—because the Scripture is clear that true faith is God’s gift to His people. If you have His gift you know you’re His child. And part of God’s gift of true faith is that that faith will persevere to the end. The faith He gives is a faith that lasts. Be assured, that, if you have true faith, God will preserve you to the very end and give you His salvation.
But how do you know you have true faith? If you persevere in it. And see, here’s where the warnings of Scripture come in. Take heed. Be diligent. Stand fast. Persevere in the faith of the gospel, because it is not true faith if you only once had it. True faith is a persevering faith. In one sense, the truth of our faith can only be judged from the perspective of our last day.
The bottom line is this: God will preserve you to final salvation, but he will preserve you through your perseverance. And you will persevere because He is preserving you.
You see, it’s the age-old paradox between the sovereignty of God and human responsibility. Joseph was sent into Egypt by his brothers’ free act, and yet when he met them years later, he said, “God sent me before you to preserve life. So it was not you who sent me, but God… You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.”
God will preserve you, but you must persevere.
We’re edging closer to the beginning of Lent when must ask ourselves once again, “What is in my heart, what is in my life, that is hindering the growth of the new life I’ve receive in the gospel? What are the weeds and tares that are threatening the choke out the life of faith in my heart?” And you must uproot them by all means. “Is my faith just an emotional response to a positive message? But when difficulties come, when persecutions arise on account of professing the name of Christ, will I still stand in the faith, or will those things prove that my faith was only the momentary twitterpation of my heart?” And you must secure your rootings in Christ by all means available to you.
And on behalf of those who seem to have been uprooted, who seem to have had the new life choked out of them by the cares and riches and pleasures of the world, you must continue to pray. You must continue to have hope. For Jesus didn’t teach just this one parable of the Sower; He also taught other parables, like the Prodigal Son, and the Eleventh Hour Workers in the Vineyard, the Lost Sheep, and the Lost Coin.
Persevere in the Word. Produce the fruits of faith. And then you’ll have the confidence that God is indeed preserving you . +
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, 2022
Text: Habakkuk 2:14
The Very Rev. Jerry Kistler
St. Stephen’s Anglican Church
A Hopeful Future
For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.
Of course, the hymn is based on our Old Testament reading from Habakkuk this morning. And it is a hymn that presents us with an incredibly optimistic view of the future: a future in which the gospel of Jesus Christ is destined to convert the entire globe; a future in which the knowledge of God will fill the earth as the waters cover the sea. You sang it, but do you really believe it?
How do you view the future?—with hope that the gospel will ultimately triumph to bring the nations to Christ, or with doubt that the future promises nothing but gloom and doom? Sadly, I'd have to agree with the remarks of one pastor I read a while back, who said that “faith in the power of Christ’s gospel to accomplish the conversion of the world is rare today.” Instead, “the majority of Christians view the future with pessimism and despair. For many, the best thing about the future is that Christians will be raptured out of it.”
This is, of course, the view of the future that is the basis of Tim LaHaye’s immensely popular Left Behind series, (and let me just emphasize the fact that this is series of fictional novels.) This view of the future, called Dispensational Pre-millennialism, holds that the moral conditions of the world, and of the Church, are destined to grow increasingly worse, to the point that Christ will have to miraculously intervene to take Christians out of the world in order to prevent the world from triumphing over the Church and extinguishing faith from the face of earth. The fact that this series is so popular is symptomatic, I believe, of the greater part of the evangelical Church’s loss of faith in the Biblical certainty that the world will eventually be converted to Christ through the power of the gospel.
But can we honestly believe that the gospel is destined to take the future for Christ? When you turn on your TV or open your newspaper, and all you see is report after report about more terrorist attacks, trade wars, Russian meddling, Chinese hacking, nuclear proliferation among rogue states, our own nation, and even parts of the Church, in a free-fall into the depths of moral depravity the likes of which we’ve never seen before, isn’t it blind optimism to believe that “nearer and nearer draws the time, the time that shall surely be, when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea”?
It’s easy to lose faith for the future if all you ever do is focus on the ills of the present. But the Scriptures call us to do the really hard thing: to look beyond the ills and evils of the present, to look with the eyes of faith beyond what is apparent to what is real. And what is real is that all authority in heaven and earth has been given to Jesus Christ. By His ascension to the right hand of the Majesty on High He has begun His reign over the nations of the earth. And it is this fact that guarantees that the mission He gave to His Church —the mission to make disciples of all nations— cannot fail. If you are to overcome pessimism, if you are to make your stand confidently for Christ, if you are to resist compromise and cowardice in the face of the evils of the present, you must passionately believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ will triumph to convert this entire world, and bring it into willing submission to the King of kings and Lord of lords.
What Scriptural evidence is there, then, for this belief in the certainty of the world’s eventual conversion? To start, we’ve got to go all the way back to Abraham and the promises God made to him. One of the three great promises God made to Abraham was the promise of blessing. “I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you” (Gen. 12:2). “Blessing, I will bless
you” (Gen. 22:17). The New Testament tells us what that blessing was. It was the promise of justification, the promise of being declared right with God through faith in Christ. In other words, it was the promise of salvation. So Paul says in Galatians, that God wanted to announce beforehand that He would justify the Gentiles by faith, He preached the Gospel to Abraham, saying, “In you all the nations of the earth shall be blessed” (Gal. 3:8). “In your Seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 22:18). And who is this Seed of Abraham by whom the nations shall be blessed? The Seed is Christ. Paul tells us that in no uncertain terms (Gal. 3:16). So you see, even way back here with Abraham, the promise of the Gospel is the certainty that all the nations, even all the families, of the earth shall receive the blessing of justification through faith in Christ.
Secondly, Old Testament prophecy promises that this conversion of the nations will take place progressively under the reign of Messiah. So moving forward to the Psalms, in Psalm 22: 27, 28, David prophesies that “All the ends of the world shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall worship before You [that is, before the Messiah, Christ]. For the Kingdom is the Lord’s, and He rules over the nations.” You see, the Kingdom and reign of the Messiah does not wait to come in one cataclysmic moment in order then to turn the families of the world to willing obedience to Him. It is because the kingdom and reign of Christ has already begun and is advancing that the families of the world will turn to the Lord.
To Daniel it was revealed that Christ’s kingdom would be established in the time of the Roman Empire (Dan. 2:44, 45; 7:7ff), and that under His reign, all the nations will come and serve him. “I was watching in the night visions, and behold, One like the Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven! He came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought Him near before Him. Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and His kingdom the one that shall not be destroyed” (Dan. 7: 13, 14). When did Christ go up to the Ancient of Days? When He ascended to the right hand of the Majesty on high, and received from the Father the promised dominion and kingdom as the reward for His faithful fulfilling of the work of redemption.
So then, third, as we get into the New Testament, what is revealed to us is that this promised reign of Christ, which will ultimately bring about the conversion of the nations, has in fact already been inaugurated and is advancing to its destined goal. We learn of Jesus’ own perspective on the progressive nature of the kingdom through many of His kingdom parables. In both the Parable of the Mustard Seed and the Parable of the Leaven, Jesus reveals that His kingdom will fill the earth pervasively over time. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and put in his garden; and it grew and became a large tree, and the birds of the air nested in its branches.” “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened.” Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the world will be converted as the seed and leaven of the gospel continues to permeate society through the message and lives of faithful men and woman.
Jesus expressly taught that His death would so rob Satan of his power over the world that He (Jesus) would then be totally empowered to gather all the peoples of the world to Himself. “Now is the judgment of this world,” He said. “‘Now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.’ This He said, signifying by what death He would die,” John says (John 12:31-33). The death of Christ would tear down the stronghold of Satan and deliver the captives. He said that He had the power to loose people from their bondage to evil because His kingdom had come with the binding of Satan. “But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or how shall one enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? And then he will plunder his house” (Mt. 12:28, 29). So regarding the goal of history — the salvation of all the nations — Satan is effectively bound. He cannot prevent Christ from plundering his house.
Therefore, we hear again in the Great Commission that Christ gave to His Church, why there is utter certainty that the mission of the Church cannot fail. For Jesus said, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations” (Mt. 28:18, 19). Because Christ has fulfilled the Father’s will—has conquered and bound Satan, and is now enthroned at the right hand of God—the nations will be converted to Him. Ephesians 1 says that the Father has already in principle put all things under His feet, and has given Him to be head over all things to the Church. And I Corinthians 15 states that He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet (v. 25).
So the New Testament is clear. Christ’s present enthronement and reign will result in the conversion of the world. He gave His Great Commission to the Church not as an idealistic dream, but as a command with a certain outcome. Christ’s power and dominion are the guarantee of the success of the gospel. And so it was the apostolic expectation that the faithful preaching of the gospel would in fact accomplish the promise of the gospel: that all nations of the earth will be blessed in Abraham’s Seed. “Through Him,” Paul says, “we have received grace and apostleship for obedience to the faith among all nations for His name’s sake” (Romans 1:5).
The Biblical evidence for the certainty of the conversion of the world through the gospel is clear and compelling. So why don’t we see the gospel triumphing in our own nation? The reason is simple: we have lost faith in the power of the gospel to do what it promises. To quote the pastor I referred to earlier,
“To our shame, we have lost our faith in the transforming power of the gospel. Few Christians sincerely believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the most powerful force on this planet. We are willing to give the gospel a certain relevance and power in a few scattered individuals, but what we see it do in a few, we do not believe it can do in the majority. In so thinking, we self-consciously believe that the forces of evil are too powerful to be dislodged, unbelief too stubborn to be overcome, and unbelieving human authorities too numerous and well organized to be resisted on a broad scale successfully. This loss of faith in the power of the gospel is outright rebellion against Christ, treason against our Prince, and faithlessness to our solemn charge. If Christ has given us a command and instructed us to have a certain expectation, not to obey and believe is sin, betrayal, and cowardice. The fruit of our unbelief is the pagan culture of these United States. Christ has not done a mighty work here in recent time because of unbelief. We have a culture of our own creation, the creation of an unbelieving, ashamed, and compromised Church that would rather be tolerated and prosperous than to confront wickedness in high places, call heresy heresy, and unashamedly stand for Christ’s interests regardless of how the newspapers, general public, or even its members respond” (Chris Strevel, “The Certainty of the World’s Conversion,” Covenant Presbyterian Church, Buford, Georgia).
A second reason why the gospel is not triumphing in our nation is that we have treated the Great Commission as merely a great suggestion, but one that really isn’t binding on every church and every individual Christian. Some may be tempted to ask, “If the Church’s mission to convert the nations cannot fail, if the gospel really is destined to accomplish its goal, then why do I necessarily need to go out and try to bring people to Christ? I don’t really have to do anything to advance Christ’s kingdom, because whether I do or don’t, it is certain that the world will be converted.” This is the error of hyper-Calvinism. It’s the error of rejecting the truth that God works through means — through the means of faithful men and women—to accomplish His purposes. And maybe the best way we can root out this false thinking from our heads is to remember what Mordecai said to Esther, when she was confronted with the choice of doing something to save her people—at great risk to herself—or simply remaining silent. Remember what Mordecai said? He said, “If you remain completely silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the people from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish.” If you refuse to do what is necessary to save the people, God will raise up another person to bring deliverance. Deliverance is certain. But you and your household will be judged. “Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Es. 4:14).
Christ said He had bound the strong man and was plundering his house. There’s the certainty of the success of His kingdom. But then He immediately followed up by saying, “He who does not gather with Me scatters” (Mt. 12:30). There is no neutrality. You’re either with Him or against Him. And if you’re with Him, you will obey, with the certainty that His kingdom will ultimately triumph.
The future is bright, folks. Christ is reigning, and the dominion and power He has been given over the nations guarantees the success of the gospel. But we’re called to do the work. Let us not shrink from it. +
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, 2022
Text: Matthew 8:1-13
The Very Rev. Jerry Kistler
St. Stephen’s Anglican Church
“Have the Faith of an Outsider”
We continue today with the theme of the Epiphany season, the theme of the revelation, or the shining forth, of Christ to the world. We’ve seen this theme reflected in some of the important early events in the life and ministry of Jesus: the visit of the Gentile Magi from the east; Jesus’ appearance in the temple at the age of twelve; His baptism by John; and in His first miracle at the wedding in Cana, changing water into wine.
Up to this point, Jesus has been, for the most part, revealed to us the Savior—the One promised from all ages who would come to free us from the bondage of sin and death. But today our Gospel Lesson invites us to receive the revelation of Him as Lord—the one who has authority over all things, even sickness and death.
But we have to take a couple of steps back first. We read in our lesson from the eight chapter of Matthew that Jesus performed two miracles of healing: the healing—or the cleansing—of the leper, and the healing of the centurion’s servant. But before these events took place, Jesus had just preached His famous Sermon on the Mount. And Matthew records the amazement of the people because His preaching was so unlike anything they’d ever heard before. What amazed them was the authority with which Jesus taught them. Unlike the scribes, who were always quoting the “experts”, Jesus spoke as one having His own authority. He said things like, “You have heard that it was said by them of old time, You shall not murder, and whosoever murders will be in danger of the judgment. But I say to you whoever is angry with his brother without a cause will be in danger of the judgment” (Mt. 5:21-22). “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person” (5:38-39). Nobody had every spoken like this before, except for God Himself.
Then even more amazing and controversial was the fact that He taught the people that their entrance into the kingdom of heaven depended entirely on their relationship to Him—and this could be no mere lip service, either. He says, “Many will say to me in that day, “Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare unto them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness” (7:21-23). The implication is: “Only if I am truly your Lord in how you live your life, not just by what you say with your lips, will you enter the kingdom of heaven.”
What a radical claim this was!
So the people were justifiably amazed at Jesus’ teaching, for He taught them as one possessing authority in Himself to make such audacious claims. There were only two ways to respond to Jesus then as there are only two ways now: accept His authority as Lord, trust and obey Him, or else deny His authority and live in open rebellion against Him. This is the crucial dividing between the only two important divisions of men: believers in Christ and unbelievers in Christ. Jesus is either a liar, or He is the Lord. And if you don’t follow Him and obey Him as Lord, then you are proclaiming Him, by your actions, to be a liar.
But the Scripture says that after Jesus had finished His sermon and was coming down from the mountain, a huge crowd followed Him. Then suddenly, someone was pushing his way through the crowd to where Jesus stood. Actually, he probably didn’t have to do a whole lot of pushing. The crowd probably began to part like the Red Sea with shrieks and curses because the man, trying approach Jesus, was a leper. Anyone who came in contact with him would immediately be made ceremonially unclean and would have to offer a sacrifice to be made clean again. For this reason, the Law of God required lepers to live “outside the camp” in complete isolation from the rest of Jewish society. They were outcasts. And because of a false interpretation of God’s law, people believed they were suffering their just deserts for some sin they or even their parents had committed. On that basis people could justify their lack of compassion towards these “untouchables.”
That’s why it was such a shock for the people to see this leper stumbling through the crowd searching for Jesus. But when this leper finally did find Jesus, Matthew tells us that his immediate reaction was to fall down and worship. And the first word out of his mouth was “Lord.”
You see, this leper, this outcast, this cursed man, recognized Jesus. I don’t mean he’d known Jesus previously, or even that he had met Him before. But when, somehow or other, this man was able to hear second or third hand the authoritative teaching of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit through that Word worked the miracle of faith into this man’s heart, and he was able to recognize Jesus as the one he’d been waiting for for perhaps his whole life. For the prophets had foretold of One would come in the power and authority of the Spirit of God to release the people from their afflictions. And here was Jesus, speaking and acting with an authority he knew could only be the authority of the Lord himself. And so he came to Jesus, and he fell down before Him and said, “Lord.” “Lord, if you are willing, you are able to make me clean.” What a wonderful confession of faith.
We ought to learn from this outcast’s act of faith the way we sinners should approach our Lord in prayer.
First, by the sovereign grace of the Holy Spirit, he’s given faith to recognize the Lordship of Christ through Word of Christ. “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” We have to apply ourselves in the Scriptures in order to begin and to grow in faith. But we can’t take the credit for our faith. It is the gift of God, that none should be able to boast.
Second, he worships the Lord. The approach to Christ must first be in the conviction of faith, but that faith will show itself in the attitude of worship. For “whoever who calls on the name of the Lord who shall be saved.” Read the Old Testament: that means he who worships the Lord in fear and reverence will be saved. Why? Because faith is not merely the mental assent to a doctrine; faith is the attitude of the renewed heart that acknowledges that God is God, and that we exist for Him, and that everything we have and that everything we are is His gift to us to be offered back to Him. The end of faith is worship.
Third, in that attitude of worshipful faith, the man acknowledges the sovereign will of Christ: “If you are willing, you are able to make me clean.” The true prayer of faith will always come down to that simple phrase: “Thy will be done.” It was the prayer our Lord Himself prayed in the garden when He literally suffered the anxieties of the damned, when He suffered in heart and mind beyond anything we have ever suffered, or will ever suffer in our own lives. But after pleading with His Father that, if was possible, the cup prepared for Him to drink might pass from Him, He prays, “Nevertheless, not my will, but thy will be done.”
Then, finally, having acknowledged by worshipful faith the sovereign will and authority of Christ, the leper trusts His power to save. “If you are willing, you are able.” When we come to Christ in prayer it must be in the faith that He is able [literally, that He has the power, the dunamis] to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think. Why does He have that power, because He has the authority. “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth,” He said (Mt. 28:19). Because nothing is outside of His authority, nothing is outside of His power.
You see, we Americans like to think in terms of power and ability—what a person is able to do—not so much by what authority He does it. But for the Jews it was just the opposite. For the Jew in Jesus’ day, you could do all the wonders in the world, and the question wasn’t, “How do you do these things?”; the question was, “By what authority do you do these things.” “What right do you have to do them?” This is what the priests demanded of Jesus. But you see, Jesus was no mere wonder-worker. The Jews had seen plenty of those. Jesus performed miracles not simply because He could, but because He had the authority of God Himself to make all things new. And so, Christ revealed Himself to the Jews as the Lord having authority to bring all things into subjection to Himself through His miracles of healing, and His miracles of power over nature, and His miracles raising people from the dead. It was about authority, not power.
The leper, as well as the centurion, recognized the authority of Christ, and on that basis trusted His power to save. The centurion said, “Just say the word, Lord, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come!’
You see what the centurion is getting at? He is saying, “I understand the nature of authority. I say a word and things get done. But you, Jesus, have an authority much greater than mine. You are sovereign over all things. You have dominion over sickness and even death itself. Therefore, just say the word and my servant will be healed. You don't even have to be visibly present. Your Word is powerful to make things happen. “Just speak and it will be done.” And Jesus did speak, “As you have believed, so let it be done for you.” And the centurion’s servant was healed that same hour.
You see, when Jesus speaks, He speaks with the same kind of authority that God spoke when He created the world. “‘Let there be light”; and there was light” (Gen. 1:3). And faith clings to authority of Christ’s Word, even when His presence is not visible to ordinary sight. He makes Himself present to us by His Word. When you hear the declaration of Christ that he pardons all those who truly turn to him with hearty repentance and true faith, you may have confidence in the authority of that Word and know that the Lord’s forgiveness has truly been applied to you. When Jesus says through His Words of Institution, “This is My Body; this is My Blood,” you may believe with certainty that He has authority to make bread and wine the means by which you truly partake of His Body and Blood.
Jesus marvels at the faith of the centurion. For remember, this Roman officer was a Gentile, one who did not have all the blessings and privileges of being a Jew. And yet Jesus says, “I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel!” Those who were the insiders, with the good genealogy and family tree and all the advantages, were put to shame by this outsider who had nothing to put his trust in but the authority of Jesus’ Word. And Jesus uses the example of this Gentiles’ faith to make a solemn proclamation. He said, “Many will come from east and west (namely, believing Gentiles), and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom (namely, unbelieving Jews) will be cast out into outer darkness.” Apart from faith in Christ there is only weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Let us, who have heard this word of the Gospel today, ever be like these two outsiders—like the leper and the centurion, people who have nothing to cling to but Christ and His Word. For this is the nature of true faith. Let us grow in our faith in the authority of Christ’s Word, that we may grow in our faith in His power to save us. +
This sermon borrows from a sermon by The Rev. Aaron Koch, Pastor of Mt. Zion Lutheran Church in Greenfield, Wisconsin.
Third Sunday after Epiphany, 2022
Text: St. John 2:1-11
The Very Rev. Jerry Kistler
St. Stephen’s Anglican Church
“No Wine Before Its Time”
“On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Now both Jesus and His disciples were invited to the wedding. And when they ran out of wine, the mother of Jesus said to Him, ‘They have no wine.’”
We don’t usually picture Jesus at a party, do we? But that is exactly where we find Him today, taking part in a celebration – a wedding feast in Cana of Galilee. And I love what this account tells us about Christ’s view of marriage and of having a good time with friends over a fine wine. It shows that He fully approves of both, and blesses them by His presence and His first miracle. But as it is so often in the Gospel of John, there’s a deeper meaning to the interchange here between Jesus and the people at the wedding than might first meet the eye.
Now it helps to know a bit more about weddings in Jesus’ day. They were community events. The whole town was invited, and the party usually lasted a full week, during which time the bride and groom were formally married. But after the ceremony the happy couple didn’t immediately run off on their honeymoon, like today. They stayed and celebrated with their family and friends. And the expectation was that there would be enough wine to last the entire week. You see, wine was synonymous with joy. It was given by God to make glad the heart. And so a wedding party that ran short of wine ran short on joy. It would be considered a social disaster, something akin to the caterers calling at the last minute to say they’re not going to show up.
But this is just what happens at this wedding in Cana. The horror of horrors occurs. They run out of wine. It was almost as bad as if the wine ran out at an Anglican wedding! Could you imagine it? But when Jesus’ mother becomes aware of the situation, for some reason, which is still not clear to us, she want to make a point of it to her son. “They have no wine,” she says. What was her expectation? We don’t really know. But the most important thing is what Jesus says in response to his mother. It’s a bit unexpected, to say the least. Some have even said He was being downright rude. “Woman, what do I have to do with you?” Or literally, “Woman, what is to me and to you? My hour has not yet come.” If I ever called my mother “Woman,” I probably would have gotten smacked.
It has always been difficult for people to understand why Jesus reacted this way to His mother’s simple statement that the people had no wine. But you see, there is something deeper going on here. Just as in the case of the multitude in the wilderness who had no food except for a few loaves and a couple of small fish, Jesus interprets the wedding guests’ lack—their lack of wine—as a sign of a much greater emptiness—a spiritual emptiness which only He could fill. Mary said, “They have no wine.” Jesus answered, “It’s not my time. It’s not my time to give them the true wine – the wine that fills the soul.
Throughout the Scriptures wine is seen as a gift and blessing the comes from God. The Psalmist celebrates wine as one of the wonderful blessings God pours down upon the earth for man’s enjoyment.” He “causes the grass to grow for the cattle, and the herb for the service of man…and wine that makes glad the heart of man” (Psalm 104). But now, as the abundance of wine in the Scriptures symbolizes the blessing of God, so the lack of wine is often interpreted as a sign of God’s displeasure. This is one of the main themes of the book of Joel, a book we’ll have to admit that not many of us are all that familiar with.
The prophet Joel proclaims to the people of Israel that the judgment of God had come upon them, and that the sign of His judgment was that their new wine had been cut off. All their vines had dried up, and the branches that had previously produced such wonderful vintage had withered and dried. Why? Why was the prophet so concerned about their lack of wine? Because their lack of wine was a sign that they themselves had dried up spiritually. They themselves were no longer producing good fruit.
You see, the image given in the Scriptures is that Israel was God’s choicest vine, His beloved vineyard. He had cultivated it with His own hands. He’d hedged it in on every side against the enemy. But when He looked for it to produce fruit, when he came to gather in the harvest, He found that His people had become an empty vine. It was the right time, but they had no wine. They hadn’t produced the fruits of holiness and goodness and justice or any other God-pleasing fruit. So God’ prophet announced that their wine would be cut off. They’d have no wine because, in a spiritual sense, they had produced no wine to make glad the heart of God.
Now the most devastating consequence of this judgment was that the people would no longer be able to offer their drink offerings of wine to the Lord. Joel says the drink offering had been cut off from the house of the Lord. You see, the drink offering represented the giving of oneself and the best of what one had as a pleasing, sweet-smelling savor to the Lord. So when the drink offering was cut off, it meant that God’s people were no longer pleasing to Him. They had become only a bitter and unpalatable vintage. It’s sort of like when you open a bottle of wine that you’ve been saving for a special occasion. You’ve stored it away with the utmost care. You’ve been looking forward with great anticipation to that first delightful sip. But when you open the bottle and go to pour it into your glass, you make the unpleasant discovery that the wine is corked. It smells like rotten eggs. It’s undrinkable.
You see, the people of God were corked. The offering of themselves, instead of being a sweet-smelling savor, became a stench in the nostrils of God. And so their drink offering was cut off. The condition of their hearts was represented by their lack of wine. They had no wine.
Mary said of the wedding guests, “They have no wine.” Jesus answered, “It’s not my time.” You see, Jesus was interpreting the crisis on a deeper, spiritual level. The people of God had no wine—nothing in themselves that was pleasing to God, nothing in themselves to offer as an acceptable sacrifice. They were empty of anything God could take delight in. They had no wine.
We have no wine. That is, in and of ourselves—apart from Christ—we have nothing that can make glad the heart of God. Apart from Christ we’re a bunch of bitter, sour grapes. We’re corked. The natural wine of our souls is a bitter, unpalatable vintage. We say it every Sunday: “We’re not worthy to offer thee any sacrifice.”
But what happened next at the wedding in Cana? Jesus changed water into wine, into a wine that was more satisfying and more delightful to the taste than the very best wine the host could offer—than the very best wine we could offer. And what is it that we’re to see in this? What is the great epiphany of Jesus’ first miracle? It’s simply that it is Jesus who has the wine. It’s Jesus who has the wine God delights in. It’s Jesus who has the wine that can fill our souls. Because the wine Jesus has to give—the wine that was perfect in its time—is the wine of His own life poured out for us.
For the guests at the wedding in Cana Jesus said, “My hour has not yet come.” But for us His hour has come. His hour came when He poured himself out on the cross, a drink offering and a sacrifice for a sweet-smelling savor to the Lord. And this is His hour—the hour of banquet and of song—when He gives us to drink of His wine again—the new wine of His life-blood to be our spiritual drink, to fill up our lack of spiritual wine, to change us from bitter, sour grapes, into God’s beloved vineyard. Remember what He said the night before He poured Himself out at the cross: “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5). He gives us His Sacrament today that we may drink of Him, and abide in Him, and produce good fruit.
Apart from him we can do nothing. Apart from him we are bitter, sour grapes. We’re corked. But in Him, beloved, “in Him,” says St. Paul, we are the sweet savor of Christ unto God (2 Cor. 2:15).
The Eucharistic offering we make here today, the offering of ourselves, our souls and our bodies, is a well-pleasing sacrifice to God, not because we are worthy to offer it, not because the wine of our own souls is naturally pleasant, but because when His hour had come—the hour when He was crushed in the winepress of God’s wrath against sin—Christ poured out His life to God, and into us.
So it can no longer be said of us, “They have no wine.” We have been given, and we come here today to drink, the new wine of Christ’s life poured out for us, so that we may indeed be the sweet savor of Christ unto God. Glory be to Christ. +
First Sunday after Epiphany, 2022
Text: St. Luke 2:41-52
The Very Rev. Jerry D. Kistler
St. Stephen’s Anglican Church
“The Full Measure of Devotion”
First words— sometimes they are some of the most important words ever spoken. “We the People, in order to form a more perfect union…”—the first words of the American Constitution.” “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”—the first words spoken from the moon. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”—the first words of God’s revelation to mankind. And what we heard in our Gospel reading this morning were the first recorded words of our Saviour Jesus Christ. And although they were only spoken by a twelve-year-old boy on an occasion that seems to be just about a domestic dispute between the boy and His parents, they are still some of the most important words Jesus ever spoke. That’s no doubt the reason why St. Luke records them.
Jesus said, “Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?”
Now it’s a fascinating question, but one that doesn’t immediately present itself to our understanding of why exactly Jesus would have asked this of his parents, until we begin to ask the question of why would Jesus have stayed behind in the temple when His parents had left to go back home. I mean, isn’t that really the question, when, up to this point in the Gospel, it’s only been indicated to us that the boy Jesus had been a model of obedience to His parent?
Why did He stay behind?
Well, why had He and His parents gone up to Jerusalem in the first place? Well, remember how the text starts: “His parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. And when He was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem according to the custom of the feast.”
You see, Passover was one of the three great Jewish festivals that the Law of God required at least all Jewish men to go to Jerusalem to celebrate it. You’ll remember that later in the Gospels, in the last week of Jesus’ earthly life, He and his disciples are again in Jerusalem to keep the Passover. And on the eve of the feast, He sends a couple of His disciples into the city to require of a certain man the use of an upper room, and there to make the proper preparations that they may partake of it.
But it wasn’t just the one day of the Feast of Passover all Jewish men had to go up to Jerusalem to celebrate. The Law of God required that the seven days following the feast—the so-called “Days of Unleavened Bread”—also had to be kept by the people. Seven days, or in total, a full octave of days.
However, at this time, in the Pharisaical Judaism of Jesus’ day, the rabbis were saying that it was okay if you stayed only three days in Jerusalem to keep the Feast—the Passover proper and two of Days of Unleavened Bread that followed. You know, it’s sort of like in the movie “Amadeus,” when the Emperor says to Mozart, “There’s too many notes. Just cut a few, and it will be perfect.” Well, this was like it was for the Pharisees: “Eight days are just too many. Cut it down to three, and it will perfect.”
You see, the Pharisees were always trying to find the bottom-line. “What’s the minimum standard that we can get away with and still feel like we’re keeping the commandments of God? What’s the cut off point? What do I really have to do to remain good with God but not have religion become too much of a burden? What’s the bottom line?
You remember the lawyer who came to Jesus and asked, “Which is the great commandment in law?” (Mt. 22:36) “Which one is the greatest commandment? Which one do I have to keep over all the rest? Which ones can I let fall by the wayside so I can uphold the most important one?” He was searching for the bottom line, the minimum standard, wasn’t he?
Well, then there was Peter, who came to Jesus and asked, “How many times should I forgive my brother, up to seven times?” And Peter thought he was really being magnanimous and going way above and beyond the call of duty, because, again, the rabbis were saying that you should forgive only three times. But again, Peter was looking for the cut-off point, wasn’t he? What’s the minimum standard of forgiveness? But what does Jesus say, “I don’t say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven” (Mt. 18:22). Forgiveness should be about trying to find a cut-off point; forgiveness should be about desiring to forgive your brother because you love your brother.
You see, it’s part of our sinful, fallen nature—the old Adam in us—to want to always try to determine what is the least we possibly can do and still be in good with God. But the problem with trying to find the minimum standard or the bottom line is that the bottom line just keeps getting lower and lower, because it’s all about how you feel in relation to God. If you think three days is pretty good and God’s got to be pleased that you’ve done at least that much, and there’s some expert who says, “Three days is really enough,” well, then that’s what you’ll do. But pretty soon you’ll be saying, “Well, if three days is enough, two ought to be okay also. I think God will be good with two.”
And this is even where Mary and Joseph are—those two otherwise righteous people. They even have bought into the Pharisaical minimalism. The text says, “When they had finished the days,” they returned home. That’s not the days the Law of God prescribed, but the days the rabbis said you could get away with.
But the twelve-year-old Jesus doesn’t go home with them. Why? Because as the true Child of God, He desired to do everything His Father asked Him to do. This is the meaning of His question to His parents: “Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business.” “Of course, I stayed in Jerusalem. Of course, I’m still here keeping the Days of Unleavened Bread. Because this is what My Father commanded in His Word. Why didn’t you stay as well?
You see, the true child of God doesn’t try to find the bottom line—the minimum standard, the cut-off point, in his relationship to God. Because what is the greatest commandment of the Law? It is, as Jesus says, to love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. Well, if you love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, are you really going to be searching for how little you can do—what’s the least you can get away with—and still please Him? Are you really going to be asking the question, “How many Sundays per month do I really need to come to church to receive the Eucharist and still be good with God, when it’s God who is saying to you, “I desire to meet you here, and to give you My grace and the forgiveness of your sins, and strength to keep on keepin’ on in faith, by My Word and Sacrament”? Are you really going to be asking the question, “Do I actually have to come and celebrate the Feast of Epiphany or the Feast of Ascension or keep the Fasts of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday?”, when it is your heavenly Father, through the means of His Church, who has established these things to be more opportunities for you to grow and be strengthened in your walk with Him? Are you really going to be asking the question, “How much time do I really need to dedicate to reading and studying God’s Word and joining with His people in prayer? Are these the kinds of questions the true child of God will be asking?
You see, don’t be looking for the bottom line. Don’t be trying to find the minimum standard.
As a child of God, who loves your heavenly Father, give Him your whole heart. Give Him everything He asks. Find out what He asks. Be about searching His Word to know His will because it pleases you to do what pleases Him. Remember what St. Augustine said, “Love God, and do as you please.” Well, if you truly love God, what will please you? It will please you to do the full eight, not just the three, because it’s what He asks for. It will please you be here in the Lord’s house, as often as you possibly can, because this is where He wants to meet you in His Word and Sacrament. It will please you do all the things He has appointed for you to grow in your knowledge and love of Him.
By the example of our Savior Jesus Christ today, be about your Father’s business. Love your heavenly Father, and then you won’t be looking for the bottom line. +
Text: Ephesians 3:1-12
The Very Rev. Jerry Kistler
St. Stephen’s Anglican Church
“The Mystery Revealed”
“For this reason, I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for you Gentiles—if indeed you have heard of the [stewardship] of the grace of God which was given to me for you, how that by revelation He made known to me the mystery… which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets: that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel…”
So do you like a good mystery? Some of you might know that I’m a big fan of “The Brother Cadfael Mystery Chronicles,” a series of mystery novels by Ellis Peters. Brother Cadfael is a Benedictine monk who is the 12th century equivalent to Quincy M.D., sort of a medieval forensic pathologist, because everywhere he goes, he’s constantly running into a dead body—a murder and a mystery that needs to be solved.
Some of you might rather enjoy the “Lord Peter Wimsley Mysteries” by Dorothy Sayers, or Agatha Christie’s famous novels—Murder on the Orient Express, and the like—or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series. Or some of you just might like watching Law and Order, CSI.
But in every great mystery story there’s that great “epiphany moment,” when the lights come on, so to speak, and the truth is finally revealed. And if it’s a particularly good mystery, you realize that the truth has been right there staring you in the face the whole time. And you hit yourself upside the head because it’s now all perfectly obvious. The clues as to “who done it” where always there; you were just too dense to figure it out.
Well, it’s not a murder-mystery that’s revealed in our readings today, but it is a great mystery nonetheless. It’s a mystery that St. Paul says was not made known in previous ages—in Old Testament times—although there were clues pointing to it as far back as the book of Genesis, and all through the Old Testament. But Paul says that finally the great epiphany moment came. The lights came on and the mystery was revealed to the apostles and prophets of the New Testament. And the mystery revealed is that mankind is no longer to be divided into Jew and Gentile, circumcised and uncircumcised, Israelites and non-Israelites, but that all peoples of all nations –Jews and Greeks, Asians and Africans, North Americans and South Americans, blacks and whites, Hispanics and Germanics, 3rd World and 1st World, Arabs and Westerners—are to be made fellow heirs and partakers of the promises of God in Christ, and are to make up one new, universal body—“one new man,” he says in chapter 2—through the gospel.
Look at chapter 2:12-22.
“One new man” out of the two—Jew and Gentile. “Reconciled in one body through the cross.” “Fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”
This is the great mystery that finally reached its epiphany moment when it was revealed to the apostles and prophets: not merely that the Gentiles should be given salvation by faith in Christ; not merely that they should be saved alongside of Israel, but that, in fact, they should be made fellow members of Israel, members of the one holy nation, members of God’s special people, to whom the promise of salvation had been given. As St. Peter writes, You “who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy.”
Now in most mystery stories, no matter how much we put ourselves “into” them, we never get to be actual participants in the mysteries; we can only observe of how things unfold. Not so with the mystery of the gospel. And this is what’s got me so fascinated with this passage from Ephesians chapter 3. Paul tells us, particularly in verses nine and ten, that we have a very important role to play in the revealing of the great gospel mystery, but it’s one that I don’t think crosses our minds very often, if ever. But it’s really incredible. Look at what Paul says, staring in verse nine.
Paul says that he was given his ministry, his stewardship of the mystery, “to make all see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ; to the intent that now the manifold wisdom of God might be made known by the church to the principalities and powers in heavenly places…” In other words, this great mystery revealed—that the Jews and the Gentiles should be one new man, fellow heirs, and of the same body, the one universal body of Christ—that the one catholic Church is now to be the witness of the eternal wisdom of God in Christ to the principalities and powers, to the spiritual forces arrayed against God’s kingdom from time immemorial. It is to be a sign of their ultimate defeat. The catholic nature of the Church, the universality of the Church as being the one people of God that reconciles all the tribes and tongue of the world, is to be the sign on earth of the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
We ought to remember the controversy Paul had with the false teachers of Colossae, and how he argues in his letter to the church there that Jesus is Lord of all things, including the spirit world. He makes the case that Christ is the Lord of all creation, and then he makes the case that He is the Lord of the Church, and right in the middle of those two thoughts he has this statement: that in Him, that is, in Christ, all things hold together, and that in Him all things are reconciled, whether things on earth or things in heaven. It’s really a remarkable passage.
But you see, for Paul, there was no greater division of mankind, no greater sign of the unreconciled state of the world, and indeed of the whole universe, than the division of Jew and Gentile. So the establishment of peace between Jews and Gentiles in the Church, the creation of one new man, one new body out of the two, is the greatest sign to all the powers of the universe that Jesus Christ is in fact Lord, and that in Him all things do in fact hold together and are reconciled. And thus the manifold wisdom of God is manifested in the catholicity of the Church at this most fundamental level—the reconciliation of Jew and Gentile.
Now what do we do with that knowledge? How do we proclaim it to the principalities and power in the heavenly places? Well, first of all, we need to believe it, and we need to confess it.
But then we’ve got to work for that unity, and I mean even down to this most fundamental level of bringing together Jews and Gentiles in the one body of Christ. And how do we do that? Well, for one, we can support the work of organizations like Jews for Jesus, whose stated mission is “to make the Messiahship of Jesus an unavoidable issue to our Jewish people worldwide.” That’s a good mission, and Bp. Sutton has told us how there is a growing dialogue with Messianic Jews and orthodox Anglican churches, and that’s another thing we can prayer for and support in various ways. It would be wonderful if some of you here in our church would want to get involved in trying to build those bridges and work towards the mission of reaching the Jews for Christ.
And there is real hope for a fruitful harvest in this respect. You know, Paul tells us in Romans 11 that it was for unbelief the most of the Jewish branches were cut out of the vine—that’s image Paul uses of the one people God going back to Patriarchs. And it was because of their unbelief that we Gentiles were grafted in, that salvation has gone to rest of the world. But he says that we wild branches were grafted in to provoke the “natural branches” to jealousy, so that eventually they would return and be grafted back in. And he looks to this re-engrafting of the Jews as the greatest hope for mankind, for he says that if their being cast away brought about the reconciling of the world, the Gentiles, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead. This will be the greatest epiphany of all of the Lordship of Christ and of truth that He is the Savior of the world, and perhaps the sign of His coming again. We can pray for it, and we can work for it in our various ways.
May God bless His Church. May God unite His Church. May God use us to build His Church, and to bring in the lost people of the world and make them one in the one body of Christ. +
Advent Season, 2021
Fourth Sunday in Advent, 2021
Text: St. John 1:19-28
The Very Rev. Jerry Kistler
St. Stephen’s Anglican Church
“Humility and Confidence to Be Effective in the Kingdom”
There’s an ancient prophecy that says,
When Adam’s flesh and Adam’s bone
Sits at Cair Paravel in throne,
The evil time will be over and done.
So says Mr. Beaver to the four Pevensie children: Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. And Mrs. Beaver goes on to explain that “It has long been foretold that two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve will defeat the White Witch and restore peace to Narnia.”
“And you think we’re the ones?” Peter gasps. “I think you’ve made a mistake. We’re not heroes!” “We’re from Finchley,” adds Susan.
Later Aslan asks Peter if he doubts the prophecy. “No. That’s just it.” Peter confesses. He’s come to the point that he believes. But he still doesn’t know how he will be able to fulfill it.
Of course, Peter goes on to lead the armies of Narnia in a great pitched battle against the forces of the White Witch and defeats her and is enthroned as the High King in the castle of Cair Paravel.
What C. S. Lewis was trying to teach his young readers in the simple symbolism of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was really the same message that his good friend J.R.R. Tolkien was trying to convey through his very complex epic, The Lord of the Rings, in which the ring of power comes to Frodo and, with it, the responsibility to carry it into Mordor and to destroy it in the fires of Mt. Doom, thus to free Middle Earth from the power of the dark lord Sauron. At one point in the story Frodo is confronted by Galadriel, the beautiful elf queen, who tells him ominously that “This task was appointed to you, and if you do not find a way, no one will.” “I know what I must do,” replies Frodo, “it’s just that… I’m afraid to do it.” To which Galadriel responds with the encouraging word: “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.”
The message from both of these Christian authors is simple: If we have the humility to know who we’re not, and the confidence to trust who we are by God’s grace and calling upon our lives, even the least of us can do much—often more than the so-called great people—to advance the kingdom of Christ.
It’s a powerful message that is supremely illustrated for us in the real-life, flesh and blood character of John the Baptist. And “character” is probably the best word to describe him.
Last week we heard Jesus say of John: “Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist” (Mt. 11:11). But today, when the opportunity came for John to claim greatness, what we heard from John himself was that there was Another coming after him, even the straps of whose sandals he was unworthy to untie. He rejected the temptation to get caught up in questions about who he was and how important he was to the Lord’s plan of redemption, and instead pointed beyond himself to the One who truly mattered. And in so doing he became truly great—as the Lord counts greatness—for the sake of the kingdom of God. That’s a message that’s important for all us to hear and to embrace as those who are called to be Christ’s witnesses, as those who are called to continue to point to Christ and to lead people to Him as the Lamb who was slain to take away the sin of the world—to take away their sins. We need to know who we’re not, and we need to trust who we are by His grace and calling, in order to be effective as His witnesses.
So we have to understand what a temptation John was truly faced with—to claim greatness, and therefore to be made totally ineffective in his mission—when the delegation of priests and Levites were sent to him to ask, “Who are you?”
You see, at this point, the Jews were almost ready to believe that John was the Christ, the Messiah. Less than a century before, the Romans under Pompey had conquered the land of Israel, and the native Hasmonean dynasty of priest-kings, to which all the Jewish hopes were pinned, had been wiped out. All of this had brought about a revival of the ancient hope of a Messiah from the line of David, a revival of interest and expectation of the fulfillment of the ancient prophecies. And suddenly here was this strange preacher and baptizer displaying all the authentic marks of the prophets of old. All of this made a deep impression on John’s fellow Israelites. So Luke tells us that as the people were in expectation, they all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ (Lk. 3:15). So they came to him and asked him point blank: “Are you the Christ.”
Now we have to try to image the way John could have answered the delegation. I don’t think he would ever have lied and said, “Yes, I am the Christ.” But he could have said, “Well, no, I’m not exactly the Christ. I’m not quite that high up in the hierarchy of salvation. I’m certainly not the number-one-guy. But, you know, I’m not one to boast, but God has called me to be His immediate predecessor, to get everything ready for His arrival. It’s an important job, if I may say so myself.” He could have answered that way. And it would all have been true. But what would have been the effect? The effect would have been to take their eyes away from the One to come, and to put them squarely on himself.
In the same way, you and I have seen, time and time again in the Church, wonderfully gifted men and women, who are held up by their followers as the best thing in the Kingdom of God since sliced Communion bread, and who are proclaimed—and sometimes claim for themselves—to have a special anointing from God. And time and time again what we see these people do with their special anointing is to build kingdoms to themselves, to make disciples for themselves, to construct massive arenas around themselves. They don’t even have pulpits to hide themselves behind anymore. And if they do, they’re made of see-through Plexiglas so they don’t block your vision of “the star.” And so, although they have huge buildings and huge crowds and huge programs, they make themselves completely ineffective in the one mission that counts: and that is pointing sinners to Jesus Christ.
Of course, not everyone who has a huge building and a huge crowd has this attitude. There are many who are great servants of Christ because, in humility, they point away from themselves and point to Him. But we all know that this is a terrible tendency and a great temptation in the Church today. And it doesn’t just affect people with big buildings and big followings; it can reach out and touch any one of us and make us ineffective for the Kingdom of Christ, if we start focusing on our gifts and how great they are, rather than what we can do with them to exalt Christ and bring people to Him.
Well, to the Jews’ next questions, John displayed this same humility in confessing who he knew himself not to be. “Are you the Prophet?” they asked. If you’re not the Christ, are you the one Moses prophesied about when he said, “The Lord God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your midst, from your brethren. Him you shall hear” (Deut. 18:15). But again, John answered, no. He was not the prophet, even though Jesus said he was the greatest of all the prophets.
So again, John could have answered, “Well, no, I’m not exactly the Prophet. But God has made me the greatest of all the others.” But he didn’t say that. Again, he answered with a simple “No.” You see, John knew that in order to be the greatest of the prophets he had to direct others away from himself to that One who was truly the Prophet like unto Moses. And this was the testimony of John: that Jesus was even a greater prophet than Moses. For Moses ascended the holy mountain and the Lord spoke to him face to face, as a man speaks to his friend (Ex. 33:11), but Jesus, says John, Jesus is actually “He who comes from above,” the Lord Himself. He says in John 3, “He who comes from heaven is above all. And what He has seen and heard, that He testifies… He who has received His testimony has certified that God is true. For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God does not give the Spirit [to Him] by measure” (Jn. 3:31-34). In other words, John says Jesus exactly fulfills the role of the Prophet like unto Moses. And as Moses was the mediator of the Old Covenant by the blood sprinkled on the bodies of the people at the foot of Mt. Sinai, so Jesus would be the mediator of the New Covenant by His own blood shed to cleanse the hearts of all who believe in Him. Jesus was the Prophet of all prophets, for He was the Lord come in the flesh.
“So if you’re not the Christ, and you’re not the Prophet, are you Elijah?” asked the Jews? You see, God had promised in the very last prophecy of the Old Testament in the book of Malachi, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord”— in other words, before the great day of judgment, when God would judge the nations and bring in the new age of salvation, the new age of the Messiah. As Elijah had been taken up alive into heaven in the chariot of fire, there was some expectation among the Jews that he would come again bodily from heaven as the harbinger of the new age, or even that his soul would be re-incarnated in the body of another. So you can understand their question. John wore the clothes of Elijah, and he ministered in just about the same place where Elijah was taken up into heaven. “Is this Elijah?”
But once again John answers with a simple “No,” even though once again Jesus Himself said that, if we could hear it, this was Elijah to come (Mt. 11:14). Not that he was a re-incarnation of Elijah, but as the angel Gabriel announced to Zechariah, John’s father, “He would go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’ and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Lk. 1:17). As one commentator puts it, “Elijah had served as a moral catalyst to the nation. No other prophet so dramatically changed the attitude of his contemporaries, nor so influenced the destiny of the nation.” And this would be the role of John the Baptist.
So once again John could have answered, “Well, no I’m not exactly Elijah…not the way you’re thinking of him. But I have come to minister in the spirit and power of Elijah.” But he didn’t. Once again, he denied himself in order to be effective in the role God had given him to play.
“So who are you, John?” “I am a voice,” John answered. “I am simply a voice. ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord”’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” (Jn. 1:23). He He doesn’t even claim his own voice. He’s not a new and original voice. He was just the same old voice that had been calling out over all the centuries: “Be ready for the coming of the Holy One.” A voice is temporary thing. A voice is fleeting thing. But this is the role that John is confident to proclaim about himself: that he was nothing more than a voice, for he trusted that this was the calling that God had placed upon his life. For a voice, even though temporary and fleeting, can be a very powerful thing, if that voice directs people to the real thing, to the One who has the words of eternal life. And, you see, because John did that, and didn’t bring attention to himself, Jesus said he was the greatest voice that had ever spoken to that time.
But remember what we heard Jesus say last week? He said, “He who is least in the kingdom of heaven is even greater than John” (Mt. 11:11). And you know He was talking about you and me.
John said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” But we can tell people how Jesus has taken away their sins—by His death on the holy cross. John could only direct people to look forward to that saving event; we can share it with people as an accomplished fact.
John said, “I baptize you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” But we can actually bring people to that baptism of the Holy Spirit—baptism into Jesus Christ.
So will we be that greater voice than John’s?
Let us, like John, know who we’re not, but trust who we are by the grace and calling of God on our lives. And in that humility, and in that confidence, let us proclaim the One who stands among us, whom many still do not know. And let us bring them to the Lamb of God who takes away theirs sins, and to His baptism, to give them a new spirit and a new heart to follow Him. +
Third Sunday in Advent, 2021
Text: St. Matthew 11:2-10
The Very Rev. Jerry D. Kistler
St. Stephen’s Anglican Church
“Greater than John the Baptist”
Jesus said, “Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
So how great are you? Do you think you’re a pretty great person?
I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube videos recently in which is debated about basketball players, who is the greatest of all time?—or for short, who is the GOAT? Now I was a Lakers fan growing up, in the era of Magic Johnson and the Showtime Lakers. So I can hardly bear to hear myself say it, but I think I’ve come to believe that it was the Lakers’ arch-nemesis, Larry Bird, of the Boston Celtics, who was the greatest of all time. So now I’m published on YouTube saying it, and it can never be taken back. But I used hate Larry Bird because he used to tear up the Lakers. But now, after about 40 years of separation—it’s taken me that long—I have to say that I think he was the better player than Magic Johnson, and probably the best ever—yes, even better as a total basketball player than Michael Jordan. But this is what’s debated amongst die-hard basketball fans on YouTube, and I’ve found myself caught up in the debate.
But there are always those who say, why do we need to decide who the greatest is? Why should we determine greatness by comparing people to others? I read an article this week in which the writer argued just this point.
What is greatness? What does it take to be great? Who determines greatness? There is always a conversation about who is great, the best, the G.O.A.T. People spend years honing and developing their craft, some for success, infamy, to etch their names boldly in the history books, or just to be considered great. But who defines greatness?...Why is greatness only defined by comparing two great individuals and determining which one is less great? “Lebron is the GOAT but is he better than Jordan[?]” …Can’t people just be great without being forced into competition with other great individuals?
So he goes on to say,
Greatness is not defined by society. It is not defined by how much money you have, the car you drive, or how much better you are than someone else. [And here it is; here’s how we’ve come to think in our society today] You define greatness for you. The way in which you are great cannot be compared to someone else. All the empty praises in the world could not convince you that you are great unless you feel it and know it on the inside (medium.com/betr/what-is-greatness).
In other words, you are the only standard to compare yourself to—the sort of ultimate subjective relativism. Your greatness can’t be decided be comparing yourself to others.
But interestingly, Jesus Christ, the Divine Son of God, doesn’t follow that way of thinking, does He? He essentially says that John the Baptist was the greatest of all the prophets, but that even the person who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.
Those are all comparative words, aren’t they?—greatest, least, greater. Jesus didn’t shrink away from judging greatness by comparing one person to another. The only question is, What’s the standard? What’s the standard of comparison? Well, greatness, as God defines greatness, is always in terms of one’s proximity to Him. One is great if one is close to Him who, of course, is the Supreme Being. Makes sense, doesn’t it?
John the Baptist was the greatest of all the Old Testament prophets because of his proximity to Jesus. While all the other prophets were looking ahead to Jesus and prophesying of His coming, John could point to Him and say, “There He is. Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” John the Baptist was the greatest of all the prophets in the respect that he himself was the fulfillment of the various prophesies that there would be one who would go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways—Isaiah’s prophecy of “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; Make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Is. 40:3), and the Lord’s word in Malachi, “Behold, I send My messenger, and he will prepare the way before Me” (Mal. 3:1). John was the prophetic harbinger, the one ordained to be the herald of the presence of Christ, and the one who would prepare the people to receive Him by his baptism of repentance. And so in that way he was greater than Isaiah and Malachi, and even than Moses, the one who is held up as the model of the Old Testament prophet.
But the reality was, John was still a part of that Old Testament age. He was the greatest of all the Old Testament prophets, but what that means is, He was still under the Old Covenant; he was still a member of the old kingdom of Israel. He announced the presence of the new kingdom of God—that the kingdom of God was at hand in the Person of Jesus—but in a very real sense he did not get to enter into it. You remember, he was beheaded before Jesus established His New Covenant through His death and resurrection. John was not a participant in the New Covenant as we are now through our participation in the baptism Christ instituted—Christian baptism which brings us into the kingdom of God; Christian baptism which unites us to Christ’s death and resurrection, as Paul teaches in Romans 6; Christian baptism which, gives us the forgiveness of all the sins that the Old Covenant convicted us of.
Christ’s baptism is greater than John’s baptism in the respect that it actually gives us everything that was promised in the Old Testament. God promised through the prophet Ezekiel, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all our filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them.” But you see, none of that was possible until Christ came to open up to us a New Covenant.
So those who are actually participants in the New Covenant in Christ’s blood, those who have actually taken hold of Christ’s death and resurrection through baptism and Holy Communion and the word of the Gospel, those who, in short, are actually members of the Kingdom of God, —Jesus says they’re even greater than John the Baptist, even the least of them.
But who are these “least” that He’s talking about? Well, they’re those who might be considered barely in the kingdom. They’re the infants who’ve just been baptized. They’re the 90 or 100 year-olds who were converted just in the nick of time on their deathbeds and had no chance to grow into Christian maturity. Or they’re those who comes to church every Sunday, but still find themselves to be very weak in faith, and struggle with doubt. Or those who cling to Jesus as their dear Savior apart from whom there is no hope of salvation, but who nevertheless can’t seem to overcome their besetting sins.
Even these, Jesus says, are greater than the greatest of all the Old Testament prophets. And they’re great because of their proximity to Jesus; because even in their status as the least and the lowest, the weak and the immature, they still have Jesus dwelling in their hearts by faith—He in them, and they in Him.
So have you ever considered yourself to be greater than John the Baptist? Jesus says you are! But with greater grace comes greater responsibility, doesn’t it?
Jesus said to His disciples in Matthew 13, and I think by extension He says to all us have heard Him and “seen” Him in the Gospel, “…blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear; for assuredly, I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it” (vv. 16-17). But He said in Luke 12, “…everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of hm they will ask the more” (v. 38).
Our collect for today connects the ministry of John the Baptist of preparing a people for the coming of Christ with the ministry of the priests and bishops of the Church of preparing you for Christ’s second coming, that we together might be found an acceptable people in His sight. But all of us have been called to be ministers. All of us who have received the laying on of hands have been ordained to preach the Gospel and to call others into the kingdom of God to receive what we’ve received. That is the responsibility that comes with the greatness of the gift we have been given.
Each of us here in church today is greater than John the Baptist. But that means we have no less a ministry than John the Baptist’s of heralding the coming of Christ and calling on people to repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand. That is our calling from God as those who are greater than the greatest of all the prophets. +
Second Sunday in Advent, 2021
Pastoral Exhortation for the
Annual Congregational Meeting
The Very Rev. Jerry Kistler
St. Stephen’s Anglican Church
“Classical Anglican Character in Worship, Works, and Witness”
I want to talk to you a little about character this morning, because I think it is very important as we continue to move forward together as a congregation. A person’s character, that is the way a person thinks, feels, and behaves, is determined by his sense of identity and purpose. A person with a strong sense of identity and purpose will have a strong character. (I didn’t say good or bad; I just said strong. The goodness or badness of a person’s character will be determined by the goodness or badness of the person’s identity and purpose.) But a person with a weak sense of identity and purpose will also have a weak character.
Jason Bourne, in the Bourne Identity, loses his sense of identity and purpose. He was a government programmed assassin. (If you haven’t seen it, it’s just another one of those Manchurian Candidate type movies). But he had a very clear sense of identity and purpose. He had no other sense of himself or of the meaning of his life, except as an assassin. And so his character was to act out as a perfectly disciplined, perfectly fearless and remorseless killer. But then in an accident he loses his identity. He suffers amnesia, and loses any sense of himself and of his purpose. And so his purpose becomes finding out who he really is. And as he finds out that, deep down inside, he isn’t the assassin that others have made him to be, his character changes to become a person who seeks justice from those who so abused him and others, and even to begin to largely love and care for and protect others who come into his life. You see, identity and purpose determine character.
We are St. Stephen’s Anglican Church, and our mission is to make disciples for Christ in the classical Anglican way. That’s our identity and our purpose. It’s a strong identity and a strong purpose. But what is our character? What is our character if we really buy into our identity as Anglicans and our purpose of making disciples for Christ in the classical Anglican way?
I’m going to give you three W’s this morning to help you remember what I believe our character will be if we truly buy into our identity and purpose. If we truly take on an Anglican identity, and truly accept our purpose to make disciples for Christ in the classical Anglican way, then I believe the things that will most mark our character are these three things: Worship, Works, and Witness.
You see, to take on an Anglican identity means we first take on a set of beliefs and values. As a classically Anglican church we hold to orthodox beliefs and values. We believe the Bible as the very Word of God. We believe the Faith as it was once delivered to the saints as expressed in the Church’s historic creeds. We believe the gospel—that purely out of grace and mercy God has made us right with Him by sending His Son to die the death we deserved for our sins, and by offering us His righteousness as a covering for our lack of righteous, so that now God sees us as perfectly righteous in His sight. We believe that God gives us His grace sacramentally, that is by the means of His Word and His Sacraments. We believe that when we gather together in the Name of Christ to worship, we are truly carried up by the Holy Spirit into the very holy of holies of heaven itself, to meet God on His throne, and to join in with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven to sing His praises and to find grace to help in time of need. We believe that Man was made in the very image of God and has innate dignity and value and an innate, God-given right to life.
These constitute the very core of our orthodox Anglican beliefs and values. But for our orthodoxy to truly be orthodoxy it can’t remain as something just inside our brains. For orthodoxy truly to be orthodoxy it must carry over into orthopraxy. Right belief must translate into right practice. Identity and purpose must be proven by character.
St. James, in his epistle, clearly states that faith without works is dead. Essentially, an inner faith that has no expression in our lives is meaningless. He says the demons themselves are very orthodox in their faith; they believe in the one, true God. They believe in the Holy Trinity. They could probably recite the Athanasian Creed from heart and believe every word of it. But what good does it do them? They don’t love God. They don’t serve the God they believe in. Their faith is nothing more than an intellectual assent to something that is true. James’ point is that that’s not a true, saving faith. Faith must be acted out in our lives if it isn’t to be a dead faith. Orthodoxy must translate into orthopraxy if it isn’t to be a dead orthodoxy.
The first thing a true faith will be expressed by is an insatiable desire to worship the God who saved you. You know, if you truly believe that you were plucked up out of the horrible pit, to quote the Psalms—and I don’t mean you were down there like some innocent victim, but you were actively digging your way to hell; your heart was in active rebellion against God; in other words, you believe what the Scriptures teach about the depravity of your soul as born in sin, and what you deserved as a result—but that God, who is rich in love and mercy, even when you were dead in trespasses and sins, made you alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved through faith, and not be any earning or deserving on your part); if you really believe that, how could you not desire from the deepest part of your soul to worship the God who loved you so much that He didn’t spare His own Son to save you?
You see, if you don’t want to worship, you can’t say you really believe in the gospel. If you don’t want to worship God here in His Church, where God has called you to worship—“not forsaking the assembling of yourselves together as is the manner of some”—if you only want to come to worship when there’s nothing better or more important to do, it’s because you’re not a worshipper in your heart. Your faith in the gospel is an intellectual assent—you believe it’s true—but it hasn’t become the very joy of your heart that cannot not be expressed in heartfelt worship. Your orthodoxy hasn’t translated into orthopraxy. Your identity and purpose haven’t been proven by your character.
The heart—the character—of the true believer is expressed in the words of the Psalm,
“As the deer pants for the water brooks,
So pants my soul for You, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When shall I come and appear before God?”
Do you hear the longing in those words? “When shall I appear before the Lord? When do I get come back and worship God in His holy place?” Were there things in the Psalmist’s life that might necessarily have called him away and prevented him from returning? Of course. But it’s always in the heart of the true believer to want to return and present himself or herself before the Lord in joyful worship. And so, in living out our classical Anglican identity and purpose let us prove our character by our insatiable desire to worship the God who saved us.
A second thing that a true faith will be expressed by is a joyful willingness to do the works of love to those in need. A verse from one of our hymns in the hymnal goes like this:
Called by worship to Your service,
Forth in Your dear name we go,
To the child, the youth, the aged,
Love in living deeds to show;
Hope and health, good will and comfort,
Counsel, aid, and peace we give,
That Your servants, Lord, in freedom
May Your mercy know and live.
What I think those words express so well is that it ought to be the natural out-flowing of our worship here in the church, where we experience again and are renewed in the love of God, to go out from our worship and bring the love of God to others in living deeds.
Now I believe the key is, You need stop trying to do a bunch of good works. And I really do. Stop trying to do a bunch of good works. Instead, strive to love your neighbor from your heart, then you’ll actually begin to keep God’s commandments and your works will be good. But at the same time we must know that love is not just a mental thing, and it’s certainly not just an emotion. Love, in the Bible at least, is a very concrete thing.
St. John writes, “By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us.” You see, God’s love was shown in concrete action. We know God loves us because He sent His Son to die for us. And that then becomes our motivation for loving others. For John says, “And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren”—that’s our response to the love of God in the gospel. “But,” He goes on to say, “whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?” (1 Jn. 3:16, 17) You see, God’s concrete form of love in sending His Son to die for us must be mirrored in us through our concrete actions.
Once again, you can’t say you believe in the gospel, the gospel of God’s great love to us, if in receiving that love your not willing to give that love to your neighbor in need, to the hungry or the thirsty, to the stranger or the naked or the sick or imprisoned, as Jesus Himself taught us. Otherwise, once again, your orthodoxy hasn’t translated into orthopraxy, your faith hasn’t been proven by your works.
So again, in living out our classical Anglican identity and purpose, let us have the character of those who joyfully do the works of love to those who need to experience the love of God concretely in their lives, here in our own church family and in our community. And let us do so as those who thankfully have received the love of God ourselves.
A third thing I believe a true faith will be expressed by is an excitement to witness to the saving message of the gospel to those who are still dead in trespasses and sins. St. Francis famously said, “Preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary use words.” And of course the point he was trying to make is that our works of love themselves are a kind of preaching of the gospel. What’s the old saying? “No one will care what you believe unless they believe that you care.”
So Francis says, “Preach the gospel all the time by your works,” but sometimes you actually have to use words.
I think that’s where some of us become a little trepidatious, a little nervous and fearful. I think some of us would just prefer to stick to the works rather than to have to share the words. But the Bible doesn’t really give us that option. It’s written in the book of Romans,
“ ‘Whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’” But “How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard. And how shall they hear without a preacher?”
Well, there you go. It’s the preacher’s job! Well, hold on a minute. Paul was not writing just to the priests of the church in Rome, but to the whole congregation. The gospel comes in the form of a message, and it’s a message that people must hear, Paul says, in order to be saved. It’s a message that each of us has the capability of sharing, and it’s a message—think of it!— that carries with it the power of eternal life. Paul says, “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes.” And we have all been the beneficiaries of that message. As such it is our calling from the Lord Christ to be the bearers of that message. “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations…” (Mt. 28:19). “And you shall be My witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
I’ve always said that one of the best ways to lose your faith is to keep it to yourself, and one of the best ways to increase and strengthen your faith is to give it away. That’s counter-intuitive, I know, but it just goes back to what I’ve been saying: orthodoxy that doesn’t translate into orthopraxy is a dead orthodoxy. Right belief without right practice is useless. A faith in the gospel that doesn’t minister that gospel in works and words is an empty faith.
So I’m calling us this morning, not to change our identity and purpose as orthodox Anglicans, making disciples for Christ in the classical Anglican way—it is a strong identity and a strong purpose—but to increasingly live out that identity and purpose in a true, classical Anglican character, proving it in our worship, our works, and our witness. For that is how I believe God will bless us and increase us, as we move forward together as His Church. +
1st Sunday in Advent, 2021
The Very Rev. Jerry Kistler
St. Stephen’s Anglican Church
Keeping the Church Calendar
So again, today, this First Sunday in Advent, is the beginning of the liturgical year. So as I always like to say, Happy New Year!
But I want to start this new year off with a bit of a riddle. Are you ready? What is it? It’s the one thing we never have enough of but can’t stand when we have too much. Some think they have lots of it; for others it’s running out. Some people try to make it, others do it. It drags on for some, while it flies for others. There are people who save it, and others who kill it. What is it? It’s Time.
“Time is of the essence,” we like to say. Or as Benjamin Franklin once said, “Time is the stuff life is made up off.” But sometimes we look at time the same way the historian Arnold Toynbee once famously remarked about history: that it’s “just one damned thing after another.”
But that time itself can be sanctified and transformed to be a kind of means of grace is the reason we Anglicans, along with all branches of the historic Christian Church, observe the Church Calendar. As 21st century Christians, who, I think, often feel tossed about by constant change and are blown in all kinds of directions by time, we have received a spiritual heritage from the earliest ages of the Church in the sacred seasons and festivals of the Christian year that helps us get ahold of time and make it work for us.
You see, the principle behind the Church year is that even time itself ought to be redeemed and brought under the Lordship of Christ, so that our time is not just one damned thing after another, but can be used in the process of making our lives more and more Christ-centered, and therefore more and more Christ-like. As St. Paul writes in Ephesians: “See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:15, 16).
Now I think we get that part about the days being evil, especially in this day and age. But I’m not sure we always know what it means to redeem the time. It literally means to buy it back. But to buy it back from what? Well, from the same things all parts of our lives need to be bought back or redeemed from: from self-centeredness and worldliness; from our tendency to forget God or to relegate Him to a very small portion of our lives; from our use of God’s good gifts, even our time, as if they’re just things to be consumed, rather than things that are to be the material our fellowship with Him. That’s what all parts of our lives need to be bought back from, including our time—bought back and returned to the Lord.
And so to help Christians redeem and submit their time to Christ, the Church has organized the year around the major events of the life of Christ, again seeking to help keep life Christ-centered.
The Church year could be described as a way of transforming the passage of time so that the foremost events in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ become the foremost events in our own lives.
Our Lord’s Nativity, Circumcision, Epiphany, Transfiguration, Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension, become the matrix for sort of shaping all our frantic moments and dizzying cycles of busyness into a Christ-like form. It’s an attempt to allow the rhythms of Christ’s life—the ups and downs, the joys and sorrows, the triumphs and tragedies of His life—rather than the go-go-go, me-me-me, shop-till-you drop sort of life of this world, to set the agenda for how we live and serve God in our time.
This is why the Church year is a series of feasts and fasts. It’s not all about tinsel and lights, and turkey and ham, and wine and champagne. It’s about observing times of quiet anticipation before feasts of celebration. It’s about going through the darkness so we can see the light more clearly when it comes. So we keep the season of Advent. It’s about keeping seasons of penitential self-reflection so we can enter more fully with joy into the seasons of Christ’s triumph over sin and death. It’s about walking alongside of Christ through His sufferings and sorrows so we can be raised with Him in His exaltation and glory. So we keep the season of Lent.
This basic Christ-shaped structure of the Church year is also punctuated at various points by other holy days, days which honor those who have been God’s “choice vessels of his grace and the lights of the world in their several generations,” the saints closest to our Lord in his earthly ministry: saints such as the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Apostles, the Evangelists, and the Martyrs. And in this way we have constantly set before us that great cloud of witnesses that spur us on by their example to “run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1).
But observing the Church year, keeping the feast and fasts of our sacred calendar, takes commitment. And it’s not easy, because so much of our time is already organized by our other various calendars—by our social and cultural calendars, by our work and school schedules, and by the million other special dates and times that so often demand our time. We have to understand that all of these things have a tremendous power to form us and make us who we are. And we can feel it sometimes—can’t we?—that they are forming us in ways that are less than Christ-like. So unless we make a concerted effort, all of these dates and times and schedules and calendars often crowd out the sacred seasons and days, and we lose the opportunity the Church calendar gives us to be reformed and remade in the image of Christ.
So observing the Church year takes commitment. But so do any of the spiritual disciplines. So does daily prayer and meditation in the Scriptures. So does keeping the weekly liturgy, with all its repetitiveness. But you see, just as the weekly repetition of the liturgy is a way of forming us and shaping us by its very repetitiveness—by being confronted again with our sins, by hearing again Christ’s comfortable words of forgiveness, by being brought back to fellowship with Him around His holy table—so the Church year reinforces on a seasonal basis what the liturgy does on a weekly basis. As time has a three-fold pattern—daily, weekly, and seasonal—so the Church helps us to redeem our time by giving us a sanctified version of the same patter: daily, weekly, seasonal.
In the beginning of the Prayer Book, page Roman numeral 59 (lix), there’s a table called the Table of Feasts and Fasts which are “to be observed in this church throughout the year,” not as law we have to keep, but as one more means to continually bring out lives back to center in Christ, away from self, away from this fallen world. Does the Church expect us to keep it? Yes. That’s what the ACNA Canon on the duties of the laity tells us. Duty number 8: “To observe the feasts and fasts of the Church set forth in the Anglican formularies.” But the Church expects us to do this like parents expect their children to do their duties at home, and at school, and their community—so that they become the people they’re supposed to be.
We don’t keep the Church Year because it’s the Law of God. We don’t keep it because we necessarily have a Scriptural injunction to keep it—although it’s based on the principle of God’s institution of a sacred calendar for Israel. But we keep the Church calendar because we have chosen the Anglican Way of being Christians. And the Anglican Way has always seen the usefulness of setting apart days and seasons, feasts and fasts, for the sanctification of our time, that even time itself can be used to transform our lives as we walk alongside of Christ in His life.
The Psalmist writes in Psalm 31: “My times are in you hands.” Are they? Do you submit your times to the Lord? Do you submit all of your time to the Lord, or just a small portion? The Church calls us to keep the feasts and fasts of the Church year so that our time takes on a Christ-like shape. And that becomes one more tool in our spiritual tool bag for living a Christ-like life. And we can use as many as we can get, can’t we?
The days are evil. So let us redeem our time. +