"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, 2021
The Feast of St. James the Apostle, 2021
Texts: Act 11:27-12:3; Matt. 20:20-28
The Very Rev. Jerry D. Kistler
St. Stephen’s Anglican Church
Stories Worth Believing
In our Gospel lesson this morning we heard that James wanted to be first. In our Pro-epistle lesson from Acts, we heard that James was the first—the first to be baptized with the baptism Jesus was baptized with, and to drink from the cup Jesus drank of; the first to take his throne in heaven, for he was the first of the apostles to be martyred. And in very real sense that does make James the greatest, although it was not the kind of greatness he was looking for. But greatness in the kingdom of God is judged by one’s participation in the death, resurrection, and glorification of the Lord Jesus Christ. And just as Jesus was glorified by what He suffered, so too did James find his greatness in being the first of the apostles to die for the sake of the gospel.
Christianity is a paradoxical faith, isn’t it? Life comes through death; glory comes through suffering. So even when the apostles were imprisoned by the high priest and beaten and commanded not to preach in the name of Jesus, they rejoiced that they were counted worthy of suffering shame for His name. It’s a perspective change we American Christians really need to come to before the Lord allows us to suffer for His name, lest we lose our faith because it seems like He’s not doing His job for us in making our lives easy and prosperous and worry-free. We had better come to share the apostles’ belief that suffering for the name of Christ is something to rejoice in, because suffering is coming. I’ve been saying it for years, and maybe that’s made you a little slow to hear it. But we need to be ready for it. Our faith needs to be ready for it. And so hearing these stories of the apostles and how they overcame persecution and suffering through their faith and their joy in their feeling of being counted worthy to participate in the sufferings of Christ are the kind of stories we need to hear and meditate upon.
So of the twelve apostles, I’d say James is probably the third most familiar to us, right after Peter and his brother John. We know that James and John were fishermen, the sons of Zebedee, whom Jesus nicknamed, “the sons of thunder” because of their tempestuous dispositions. But we’re also more familiar with James than most of the rest because, along with Peter and John, James was a member of the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples. And, yes, there was, even for Jesus, an inner circle, His closest compatriots, those He trusted and relied upon more than any of the others. That’s probably why they were always debating among themselves who was the greatest. Boys will be boys!
But you’ll remember that it was James, along with Peter and John, who were the only ones permitted by Christ to be present when He raised Jairus daughter back from the dead. It was only Peter, James and John who were chosen to be witnesses of Jesus’ glory on the Mount of Transfiguration, which we’ll celebrate two weeks from now. Again, it was James and Peter and John whom Jesus urged to pray with Him privately in the Garden of Gethsemane before His arrest.
But these were three men whom Jesus also chose to play very different roles in His Church. It’s very clear that He chose Peter to be the leader of the apostle and to be glorified by taking the gospel all the way to the imperial city itself, the city of Rome, and there to be counted worthy of dying for the sake of the gospel in the same manner as His Lord died, although, according to the tradition he said he was unworthy to die in the exact same manner as his Lord. And so he chose to be crucified upside down. John, the beloved disciple, was chosen by Christ to be the last of the apostles, the last to die, and the only one not to die a martyr’s death, but to die at ripe old age. James, however, was chosen by the Lord to be the first, the first to be martyred.
There is a story about James—about what happened to James before his martyrdom, and after his martyrdom that we’re probably not quite as familiar with, and it will help to explain the symbolism of his shield.
According to Spanish tradition, St. James travelled to a region in northern Spain called Galicia in order to convert the pagans there to Christianity. In 44 A.D, upon returning to Jerusalem, James was beheaded under the orders of King Herod Agrippa I, becoming the first of the apostles to be martyred. But the tradition further claims that after his martyrdom, the body of St. James was sent by ship from Jerusalem back to Spain. And in the most popular version of the legend, the ship was lost and destroyed in a severe storm. But after a long period of time the body of the saint miraculously washed ashore in Galicia, completely free of corruption and covered in scallop shells. Hence the scallop shells on his shield over the blue background representing the sea. And there James’ body was buried in what became the great cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. The shrine to the saint’s remains then became, in the Middle Ages, one of the greatest destination points for Christian pilgrimage in all of Christendom, and it is still to this day. Pilgrims would return to their countries of origin wearing a scallop shell from the region on their clothing or hat as a testimony that they had reached Santiago and its famous shrine.
Now why would we today, in our celebration of the feast of the Saint, still use a symbol from a story that is so obviously a legend—and a late legend at that, coming down to us only from about the 7th century—and having nothing to do with the actually history of St. James? Well, I’ll tell you: it’s because these are the kind of stories that are worth believing, at least what they represent.
I love the scene in the movie the Two Towers, the second in Tolkein’s trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, where Frodo has almost reached the point of utter despair of ever reaching his goal of entering Mordor and destroying the ring of power in the fires of Mt. Doom. And Frodo says to Sam, “I can’t do this, Sam.”
And the ever-hopeful Sam responds, “I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why.”
The stories of the saints are stories worth believing—not in the sense that we believe they actually happened; but it’s the truth contained in the stories, the truth that in Christ death cannot ultimately conquer us; that there is hope beyond the grave; that Christ will preserve us inviolate und undefiled; that this shadow is only a passing thing, and even the darkness must pass, and that somehow, in some mysterious, unexplainable way, we are already participating in that new day and have passed from death to life.
These are the stories that are worth believing—even the stories we know are legendary, but which reflect the faith and hope of the saints all through the ages of the things Christ has accomplished for us in the non-legendary, historical facts of His own death, resurrection, and ascension.
We know James didn’t float up to the coast of Spain covered in scallop shells. But we know James’ body rests in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection at the last day, and that, as it is written in the Revelation of St. John, and as we say in Burial Office in the Prayer Book, “the earth and the sea shall give up their dead; and the corruptible bodies of those who sleep in [Jesus] shall be changed, and make like unto his own glorious body; according to the mighty working whereby he is able to subdue all things unto himself.”
This is no legendary hope, but it is the hope we have which is reflected in the legendary stories of the saints, even this fabulous story of St. James, the floating saint! It’s why we need to learn the stories of the saints, so they can encourage us as we go through our dark times, and so we can keep pressing towards to the goal of the upward calling of Christ—to participate in His own glory through a life lived in faith and faithfulness to Him through all the things we have to suffering. These are the stories worth believing. +
Seventh Sunday after Trinity, 2021
Text: St. Mark 8:1-9
The Very Rev. Jerry Kistler
St. Stephen’s Anglican Church
“In those days, the multitude being very great and having nothing to eat, Jesus called His disciples to Him and said to them, ‘I have compassion on the multitude, because they have now continued with Me three days and have nothing to eat.’”
I don’t know whether you’ve ever noticed it before or not, but we read about Jesus’ feeding of the multitude in the wilderness a lot over the course of the Church year. Actually, it’s three times in the year we have as our Gospel lesson one of the accounts of Jesus’ miraculous multiplication of the bread and fish for the sake of the crowd who’d followed Him out into the desert, and had been with Him several days, hearing Him teach and being healed by Him, but, who in their earnestness to follow Him, had forgotten to bring food.
Now we get the lessons that we read every Sunday from as far back as the 5th or 6th Centuries. So for hundreds and hundreds of years the Church has thought that Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the multitudes in the wilderness was important enough for us to read about it three times a year.
So the obvious question is, why has the Church thought this miracle was so important that it ought to be read three times a year in the context of the Communion service? Well, maybe that’s a clue. Maybe it has something to do with the Eucharist, yes? But maybe it also has something to do with the fact that Jesus Himself thought this miracle was so important that He didn’t do it just the one time, but He actually did it twice. I think some of us forget that fact. I think some of us forget that Jesus didn’t just feed the 5000 in the wilderness with the five loaves and the two fish; but He also, just a short time later, fed the 4000 in the wilderness with the seven loaves and the few small fish. Both Matthew and Mark record both miracles.
So the next obvious question is, why would Jesus think this miracle was so important that he’d want to do it twice? Well, perhaps is has something to do with that requirement in the Law that on the basis of two or three witnesses a thing was established as true. But I think even more importantly, the details of the two feedings themselves tell the story of why Jesus chose to do this miracle twice. Jesus Himself seems to point to this when He later asks His disciples,
“When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of fragments did you take up?”
They said to Him, “Twelve.”
“Also, when I broke the seven for the four thousand, how many large baskets full of fragments did you take up?”
And they said, “Seven.”
So He said to them, “How is it you do not understand?”
Are we like them? Do we still not understand? The numbers themselves seem to point to something, don’t they?
In the first miracle, the feeding of the 5000, the five loaves ended up filling twelve baskets. Five and twelve; is there anything significant about those numbers? Well, we should ask first of all, who were these 5000 people who followed Jesus out into the wilderness? Well, these were people who were from in and around the towns where Jesus had begun His ministry, the towns and cities of Galilee—places like Capernaum, and Nain, and Bethsaida. John says they followed Him specifically because they had seen the miracles that He performed on those who were diseased. Matthew says that some people followed Him from as far away as Jerusalem and Judea and beyond the Jordan River. In other words, these people were primarily Jewish people. And the numbers five and twelve—the five books of Moses and the twelve tribes of Israel—should have stood out to the disciples as indicators that Jesus’ ministry—His ministry of miraculously providing bread and meat for hungry people in the wilderness—was first to the Jews: “To the Jew first, and then to the Greek,” as Paul would later put it. It was to the Jew first because, as we read in the Book of Romans, to the Jews belonged the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises. Didn’t Jesus Himself say that He was not sent but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel?
But even still, even though that was Jesus’ primary mission, all throughout the Gospels, as Jesus is bringing in the new wine of the Kingdom of God, it’s constantly breaking out of the old wine skins. The gospel goes to the Jews, but far more often it’s the Gentiles who receive it with faith. You remember the story of the Centurion with the sick servant and how Jesus marveled at his faith and said that He had not seen such great faith, not even in Israel. And then you remember the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman, whose daughter was grievously vexed by a demon, and how she came and fell down at Jesus’ feet and begged Him to cast out the demon. And you remember how Jesus’ responded to her plea. He said, “Let the children be filled first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Mk. 8:27) –“dogs” being the typical Jewish slur for the Gentiles. But she persisted and said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs under the table eat from the children’s crumbs.” You know what she’s saying: “even the Gentiles glean from the blessings of Israel.” And so, seeing her faith, Jesus gave her what she asked.
Now this is the story that almost immediately precedes the account of the feeding of the 4000. For who are these 4000 that follow Jesus out into the wilderness this time? Well He had just come back south from the region of the Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon by way of the region of the Decapolis—the region of the ten independent Greek city-states—and it’s from there that the crowds follow Jesus out into the desert. In other words, this is a crowd of Gentiles. And this time Jesus breaks and multiplies seven loaves which become seven large baskets full of fragments, for the number seven, particularly in the Book of Genesis, is associated with the Gentiles. I won’t bore you with the technical details. But you see, even though Jesus’ primary mission is the lost sheep of the house of Israel, now the children’s bread—the blessing promised to the Jews—is going even to the Gentiles, just as it was promised to Abraham: “In your seed all the nations of the earth will be blessed (Gen. 22:18).
But what is the blessing? What is represented by the bread? Is it just bread? Is Jesus just concerned to provide earthly food to fill the people’s grumbling tummies?
Well, again, in the first miracle, the feeding of the 5000, Jesus uses the occasion to teach the people a deep spiritual truth. And remember, these are Jews He’s talking to. So in John chapter 6 Jesus follows up the miraculous feeding with His long discourse about Himself being the Bread that came down from heaven—the true Manna, if you will. Remember what He says there. He says, “Most assuredly, I say to you, Moses did not give you the bread from heaven, but My Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (Jn. 6:32, 33). And then He gives His well-known saying: “I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst” (v. 35).
You see, Jesus Himself is what the bread in the miracle, broken and distributed to the people, represents, because Jesus goes on to say, “the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world” (v. 51). The breaking of the bread in the wilderness represents His body being broken on the cross to take away the curse of death and to give eternal life to those who believe in Him and partake of His sacrifice. That’s why He immediately goes on to say those somewhat difficult words,
“…unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him” (vv. 53-56).
Do you see, this is where these readings have their connection with the Eucharist, because it is here, by this bread and wine, that Jesus does give us to partake of His very Body and Blood; that Jesus does give us to partake of His sacrifice, His sacrifice that does take away the curse of death by giving us the forgiveness of our sins, and that does give us eternal life by fact that we partake of Him who is no longer dead, but is living, and is now our Righteousness before the Father, and our Access to His presence, and our Peace that reconciles us to God, and our Hope for the resurrection of our own bodies.. All of this we partake of today, as we partake of Him, the Bread of Life. We partake of His sacrifice, which the miraculous multiplying of the bread for the 5000 pointed forward to.
But in our passage today, from Mark chapter 8—the feeding of the 4000—there’s a slight difference in the reason Jesus does this miracle. This time it’s not because He wants to make a spiritual point about His impending sacrifice, but simply because He has compassion for the physical needs of the people. These people, unlike the 5000, had not come out into the wilderness to get anything from Him. They’d proved their right sense of spiritual values by leaving everything behind and, for three days, eagerly listening to the Lord’s preaching. Can you imagine yourself doing the same? For three days they’d been fasting in the wilderness, not complaining like the Israelites of old, but simply listening, relishing, feeding upon, being sustained by the Lord’s teaching. And these were Gentiles! They were doing exactly what Jesus had taught when He said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.” But that’s not all He said, was it? For He said, when you seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, all these [other] things shall be added unto you” (Mt. 6:33), is that not right? And Jesus shows by this miraculous feeding that this is the true heart of God—that He does desire to provide us all these things, including our physical needs, if we seek first His kingdom. That’s the spiritual message of the feeding of the 4000.
But is there a connection to the Eucharist with this feeding as well? Is Christ really caring for our physical needs in the Eucharist? I mean, all we get is a little piece of unleavened bread and a little sip of wine. How could that be of any real benefit to our physical bodies? Well, once again, Jesus is giving us to partake of the Bread that gives eternal life, the Bread that, whoever partakes of it, will never hunger again, and the wine, that whoever drinks of it, will never thirst again. For, once again, Jesus is giving us to partake of Himself; that to us, who are coming here seeking first His Kingdom and His righteousness, coming here to partake of His sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sins, and for our justification before the Father, all these other things are being added to us as well. We are also partaking of the compassionate Lord who still desires to give us our daily bread, who still desires to give us healing, who still desires to raise us up from the dead, who still desire to wipe away every tear from our eyes, and that we should no longer experience death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor pain. And He in fact is giving us those things even now as we partake of the Eucharist—He is giving us the ultimate healing and sustaining of our physical bodies, the resurrection of our bodies—by giving us to partake of His own resurrected life, and to have Him dwell in us and we in Him.
You know, I think we’ll look back from the new heavens and the new earth at our lives now, and we’ll see that even now we were already partaking in some mystical, unexplainable way, of the life that we will have then. Because the link is Jesus Christ, and He truly gives us to partake of His bread, His flesh, His blood, His very Life, now, which will sustain us, body and soul, to eternal life.
That I believe is the message of the two feedings in the wilderness: that Jesus will sustain us, both body and soul, both Jew and Gentile—whoever believes in Him and partakes of Him—He will sustain us to everlasting life. +
Independence Day/Trinity 5, 2021
Text: St. Matthew 5:43-48
The Very Rev. Jerry D. Kistler
St. Stephen’s Anglican Church
“Love Your Enemies”
On this Independence Day, how appropriate was it to hear the words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount: “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you”? What timely words.
They’re some of the most familiar words of Jesus. Unfortunately for many of us, because we’ve so divided “religious life” from “civic and political life,” we’ve tended to think about and apply those words to the people we perceive as enemies, as those who hate us, who spitefully use and persecute us as Christians, and we know we’re supposed to love them and pray for them. Very much less have we applied Jesus’s words to those we perceive as enemies, as those who hate us as Republicans or Democrats, Conservatives or Liberals. And therefore, love towards those people runs a little thin.
Love has nothing to do with politics, we might think. I’ve read some of your Facebook posts. But if we don’t learn to love in the political realm as much as in the religious realm, I do believe we in America face a very daunting future.
I don’t think it comes as any surprise that many political scientists today find that our nation is more polarized than any time since the Civil War. The situation was very succinctly summarized on the back cover of a book I read this week:
Divisive politicians. Hateful pundits. Angry campus activists. Twitter trolls. Today in America there is an “outrage industrial complex” that prospers by setting American against American, creating a “culture of contempt”—the habit of seeing people who disagree with us not as merely incorrect, but as worthless and defective (Back cover of Love Your Enemies by Arthur Brooks).
Unsurprisingly, the book’s title is Love Your Enemies by Arthur Brooks. I didn’t stray very far in searching for a book on the topic of our lesson today. But I did find that this book speaks very powerfully to our need for an adjustment in how we all think and relate towards those in our country whom we disagree with, and who disagree with us. And so I’m going to do something this morning that I don’t do very often. I’m simply going to read to you most of the introduction of this book as the text of my sermon, because I don’t think I could do better. Then you can decide whether you want to order the book on Amazon and read the rest of it yourself. And just for clarity, the book was written in 2019, even before the chaos of 2020.
The introduction is entitled, “Are you sick of fighting yet?” And the author, who became a Catholic at the age of sixteen—again his name is Arthur Brooks, a self-described nerd who has a PhD in “policy analysis”—begins with a story about the reaction he received from a speech he once gave.
[T]wo and a half years before the 2016 election[,] I was speaking to a large group of conservative activists in New Hampshire…
I was the only nonpolitician on the schedule, and arriving a little early, I listened to a few of the other speakers before I went on. One after another told the audience that they were right and the opposing political side was wrong. By the time I went onstage, the crowd was pretty fired up. My speech was about how people naturally perceive conservatives and liberals in America today. I made the point that liberals are widely considered to be compassionate and empathetic, and that conservatives should work to earn this reputation as well. After the speech, a woman in the audience came up to me, and she was clearly none too happy with my comments. I thought she was going to criticize my assertion that conservatives are not thought to be as compassionate as liberals. Instead, she told me that I was being too nice to liberals. “They are not compassionate and empathetic,” she said. “They are stupid and evil.” She argued that as a public figure, I was obliged to say so plainly because “It’s the truth.”
At that moment, my thoughts went to . . . Seattle. That’s where I grew up. While my own politics tend more center-right, Seattle is arguably the most politically liberal place in the United States. My father was a college professor; my mother was an artist. Professors and artists in Seattle . . . what do you think their politics were?
So when that woman in New Hampshire said that liberals are stupid and evil, she wasn’t talking about me, but she was talking about my family. Without meaning to, she was effectively presenting me with a choice: my loved ones or my ideology. Either I admit that those with whom I disagree politically—including people I love—are stupid and evil, or I renounce my ideas and my credibility as a public figure. Love or ideology: choose.
Have you been subjected to a similar choice? Have you been told by a newspaper pundit, politician, college professor, or television host that your friends, family, and neighbors on the other side are knaves and fools, implying that if you have any integrity, you must stand up to them or leave them behind? That people with a different perspective hate our country and must be completely destroyed? That if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention? That kindness to your ideological foes is tantamount to weakness?
Whether your politics are on the left, right, or center, most likely you have, and it might just be affecting your life. For example, a January 2017 Reuters/Ipsos poll found that one in six Americans had stopped talking to a family member or close friend because of the 2016 election. A far bigger share of the population has sorted social life along ideological lines over the past few years, by avoiding the places where people disagree with them, curating their news and social media to weed out opposing viewpoints, and seeking out the spaces—from college campuses to workplaces—where they find the most ideological compatriots.
We are being driven apart, which is the last thing we need in what is a fragile moment for our country. America isn’t in the midst of an economic collapse as we were in 2008, but we’ve faced major challenges in the past decade—economically, socially, and geopolitically. Ten years after the Great Recession, millions feel traumatized by political shifts, cultural change, and the uncertainties of a modern, globalized world…
We need national healing every bit as much as economic growth. But what are we getting instead from many of our leaders in media, politics, entertainment, and academia? Across the political spectrum, people in positions of power and influence are setting us against one another. They tell us our neighbors who disagree with us politically are ruining our country. That ideological differences aren’t a matter of differing opinions but reflect moral turpitude. That our side must utterly vanquish the other, even if it leaves our neighbors without a voice. In the very moment in which America most needs to come together as a nation—in the early decades of what, for the good of the world, should be a new American century—we are being torn apart, thoughtlessly and needlessly. We are living in a culture of contempt.
We need to fight back. But how?
On September 16, 2017, Hawk Newsome and a group of protesters from Black Lives Matter of Greater New York arrived on the National Mall in Washington, DC, to confront a group of Trump supporters gathered for what they called the “Mother of All Rallies.” A community activist from the South Bronx, Hawk had recently been on the front lines in Charlottesville, Virginia, protesting a rally by white nationalists that had made headlines all over the country. He was still nursing a wound from that confrontation, where he had been hit in the face with a rock.
When Hawk and his team arrived on the Mall, he braced for another confrontation, and maybe more injuries. He figured the pro-Trump marchers were not much different from the white supremacists he had faced in Charlottesville. Hawk was filled with disdain for them. The marchers appeared to reciprocate his feelings, yelling, “USA! USA! You don’t like it, get out!” and, “Ignore them! They don’t exist!” The two sides traded insults, and the situation became more combustible by the second. Onlookers immediately pulled out their iPhones and became ersatz videographers, ready to capture the clash and post on social media. It was clear that yet another one of those ugly confrontations we have all come to dread was about to unfold.
But then, just as the insults seemed ready to give way to blows, something wholly unexpected happened. Tommy Hodges, the organizer of the pro-Trump rally, invited Hawk Newsome onto his stage. “We’re going to give you two minutes of our platform to put your message out,” Tommy told Hawk. “Whether they disagree or agree with your message is irrelevant. It’s the fact that you have the right to have the message.”
Hawk was ready to fight, not give a speech, but he accepted nonetheless. As he took the microphone in his hand, he thought back to a moment in Charlottesville when he was about to pick up a rock and throw it. “This little old white lady, I don’t know where she came from, but she said, ‘Your mouth is your most powerful weapon. You don’t need anything but that.’” Now Hawk had a chance to use it. A committed Christian, he said a prayer, and as he did, he heard a voice in his heart telling him, Let them know who you are. He took a deep breath and addressed the hostile crowd with passion and total sincerity.
“My name is Hawk Newsome. I am the president of Black Lives Matter New York. I am an American.”
He had the crowd’s attention, and he continued. “And the beauty of America is that when you see something broken in your country, you can mobilize to fix it,” he said. To his utter surprise, the crowd burst into applause. Emboldened, he said, “So you ask why there’s a Black Lives Matter? Because you can watch a black man die and be choked to death on television and nothing happened. We need to address that.”
“That was a criminal,” someone yelled, as boos started emanating from the crowd.
Hawk pressed on. “We’re not anti-cop.”
“Yes you are!” someone yelled.
“We’re anti–bad cop,” Hawk countered. “We say if a cop is bad he needs to get fired like a bad plumber, like a bad lawyer, like a bad . . . politician.”
At this, the crowd began cheering again. These days, there’s nothing political ralliers hate more than bad politicians.
“I said that I am an American. Secondly, I am a Christian,” Hawk said, once again connecting with his audience. “We don’t want handouts. We don’t want anything that’s yours. We want our God-given right to freedom, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The crowd erupted in cheers.
Then someone shouted, “All lives matter!”
“You’re right, my brother, you’re right. You are so right,” Hawk said. “All lives matter, right? But when a black life is lost, we get no justice. That is why we say black lives matter.”
His two minutes up, he concluded his remarks by saying, “Listen, I want to leave you with this, and I’m gone. If we really want to make America great, we do it together!”
The crowd roared. They started chanting “USA! USA!” A lady standing in the front row reached up and handed Hawk an American flag. He held it up and waved it. More cheers. As he stepped off the stage, to his shock and amazement, many of the Trump supporters came up and embraced him. Earlier, when he first arrived on the Mall, he had cut his hand with a knife while opening a box of signs. He had wrapped it in a bandanna, but now it was bleeding through. The leader of a four-thousand-man militia saw that Hawk was hurt and took him aside to treat his wound. “He’s treating my finger,” Hawk says, “and the militia guy goes, ‘You know, I thought I understood before, but I get it now. You’re all right, brother.’ We slapped hands.” They have kept in touch since the rally. “We’re still friends on Facebook,” Hawk says.
Then a man named Kenny Johnson, one of the leaders of a group called Bikers for Trump, approached Hawk. “He’s like a Sons of Anarchy type,” Hawk recalls. “He said, ‘Your speech was amazing. I’d be honored if you met my son.’ So we walked over to see his son, who was playing with his toys under a tree. A little blond-haired kid named Jacob.” Johnson asked Hawk to pick the boy up so they could take a picture together. “That touched me,” Hawk says.
After meeting Hawk, Johnson told Vice News, “I feel what he said came from his heart when he got on the stage. I probably agree with 90 percent of what he said. I listened to him with much love, respect, and honor, and I got that back, so as far as I’m concerned he’s my brother now.”
Brotherhood was evidently breaking out all over the National Mall that day. “It was euphoric,” Hawk says. “It kind of restored my faith in some of those people. Because when I spoke truths, they agreed. I feel like we made progress . . . without either side yielding.” He had arrived expecting conflict. Instead, he says, “I went from being their enemy to someone they want to take pictures with their children.”
Hawk told me the experience changed him. After returning to New York, he says, “I wrestled with myself for a few months.” Finally, he made a decision. “I decided I’d rather go with love. I’m not out to blast people anymore. I’m not out to argue, to fight. I’m there to make people understand, to make people come together. I’m here for progress.”
He got a lot of blowback from some in his own activist community, who did not like his sharing a stage with the pro-Trump demonstrators. Some people called him a “KKK-loving Trump supporter.” One activist declared Hawk had “committed treason.” He is undeterred by the criticism. “This divide that’s keeping us from speaking to one another, from understanding one another, we can overcome it,” he says, but “we don’t get there by screaming at each other all the time. We get there by building bridges. So my language has changed. Because what happened on that stage was great. . . . It’s a new day . . . there’s a new way to do this.”
Tommy Hodges agrees. After the rally, he gave an interview in which he explained why he had invited Hawk onto the stage. “We have so much political violence that’s happening right now,” he said. “I mean, every day you turn on the news, you turn on social media, all you see is people being attacked for their political views. It’s absurd. . . . Political violence happens in Russia. It happens in Iran. It happens in North Korea. It’s not supposed to happen here.
“It’s time to bring everybody together, and get everybody to celebrate America together. . . . So if you are an American, no matter what your color, creed, demographic, political beliefs are, if you’re an American, and you love this country, [you are welcome to] come out and celebrate with us,” Hodges said. “We need to set a new standard. . . . It’s time that people shake hands and agree to disagree. And if people can’t do that, this country is going to fall apart.”
While national media mostly ignored what happened on the Mall that day, it became an underground viral sensation. Fifty-seven million people watched Hawk’s speech on the Internet. Seemingly everyone who saw it, regardless of politics, sent the video on to friends and family with the same message: This is incredible! You have to see this!...
At the beginning of this introduction, I defined our national problem as a culture of contempt. What exactly is contempt?
Social scientists define contempt as anger mixed with disgust. These two emotions form a toxic combination, like ammonia mixed with bleach. In the words of the nineteenth-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, contempt is “the unsullied conviction of the worthlessness of another.” Deriving from the Latin word contemptus, meaning “scorn,” contempt represents not merely an outburst following a moment of deep frustration with another but rather an enduring attitude of complete disdain.
This description of contempt will sound familiar to many because contempt has become the leitmotif of modern political discourse. We saw this at the outset of the rally in Washington, DC. We see it on cable television and social media, and increasingly, we see it in person. But if our responses to the interaction between Tommy and Hawk tell us anything, it is that contempt isn’t what we actually want. More important, our responses tell us that the choice between either political ideology or our friends and family, so often peddled by leaders today, is a false choice. A moment like this reveals that Americans have been manipulated and bullied into thinking that we have to choose between strong beliefs and close relationships. Deep down, we all know that the polarization we are experiencing in our politics today is toxic. We hate the fighting, the insults, the violence and disrespect.
Tommy and Hawk inadvertently showed the hunger of Americans for another way…
You might be getting the impression that this is yet another one of those books calling for more civility in our political discourse and tolerance of differing points of view. It isn’t. Those standards are pitifully low. Don’t believe it? Tell people, “My spouse and I are civil to each other,” and they’ll tell you to get counseling. Or say, “My coworkers tolerate me,” and they’ll ask how your job search is going.
I want something more radical and subversive than civility and tolerance, something that speaks to my heart’s desire—the first word in this book’s title: love. And not just love for friends and those who agree with me, but rather, love for those who disagree with me as well.
Maybe “love” sounds goofy to you, as if I were some kind of hippie (of which I have been credibly accused), or were suggesting an impossible philosophical ideal. The problem here is not the concept of love per se but its impoverished definition in our popular discourse. People today generally define love as an emotion—an intense feeling. That’s hardly the solid basis for a program of national renewal. When I talk about love in this book, I am describing not something fuzzy and sentimental but clear and bracing. In his Summa Theologica, Saint Thomas Aquinas said, “To love is to will the good of the other.”…
So love isn’t soft or silly. But love for whom? Love for your friends—that’s easy. Love for strangers? Doable. But to love your enemies? Maybe this seems impossible to you. You might say, “There are some who are simply beyond the pale. There are millions of awful people in this country who advocate ideas that we cannot tolerate. They deserve our contempt, not our love!” I have heard this sentiment from serious journalists, respected academics, and mainstream politicians. I have thought it myself.
That attitude is both wrong and dangerously radical. Anyone who can’t tell the difference between an ordinary Bernie Sanders supporter and a Stalinist revolutionary, or between Donald Trump’s average voter and a Nazi, is either willfully ignorant or needs to get out of the house more. Today, our public discourse is shockingly hyperbolic in ascribing historically murderous ideologies to the tens of millions of ordinary Americans with whom we strongly disagree. Just because you disagree with something doesn’t mean it’s hate speech or the person saying it is a deviant.
Furthermore, this contempt is based on a mistaken assumption—that there is no room for common ground, so there is no reason not to polarize with insults. Think about Hawk and Tommy. If you are a strong conservative and you saw Hawk with his fist in the air at the beginning of the rally, might he not look to you like the worst kind of radical revolutionary, undeserving of any consideration? If you are a strong progressive, how would Tommy look to you, alongside his fellow demonstrators in groups like Bikers for Trump? Like someone beyond all reason? And yet, through a bit of serendipitous decency, look what happened…
…there is [also] a practical, albeit self-interested, reason to avoid contempt, even for those with whom you disagree most strongly. It’s horrible for you. You will see in this book that contempt makes you unhappy, unhealthy, and unattractive even to those who agree with you. Hating others is associated with depression. Contempt will wreck your relationships and harm your health. It is a dangerous vice, like smoking or drinking too much.
My point is simple: love and warm-heartedness might not change every heart and mind, but they are always worth trying, and they will always make you better off. They should be your (and my) default position.
Easier said than done, of course. It isn’t the “factory setting” for many people, especially when nearly the whole culture is pushing in the opposite direction. That’s why I have written this book…
“OK,” you say, “but I’m not a politician or CEO.” Tommy and Hawk aren’t either. They are pretty ordinary Americans. It’s regular citizens acting as leaders who matter most in the battle against the culture of contempt. You see, whether or not we want to admit it, political contempt and division are what economists call a demand-driven phenomenon. Famous people purvey it, but ordinary citizens are the ones creating a market for it. Think of it like methamphetamine: People who cook it and sell it are doing a terrible thing, and they should stop—but why they do it is no surprise: there’s a lot of money in it…
All this means we can’t wait for our leaders to change; we need to lead the rebellion ourselves. While we can’t single-handedly change the country, we can change ourselves. By declaring our independence from the bitterness washing over our nation, each of us can strike a small blow for greater national harmony, and become happier in the process.
The story of Hawk and Tommy is a metaphor for America—I hope. The events of that day started with contempt but ended with warm-heartedness. Two groups that could hardly be more different overcame their mutual disdain and, without coming to political agreement, still found common cause in their shared humanity and desire for lives of liberty and happiness…
Overcoming a culture of contempt will require more than a rousing chorus of “Kumbaya” and a basket of platitudes. Building real harmony in the face of difference and disagreement is hard work. Americans will have to be willing, as Hawk and Tommy were, to share a stage—sometimes literally—with those on the opposite end of the political spectrum. Nevertheless, equipped with a new outlook on our culture, a better approach to leadership, the right tools of communication, and a healthy dose of courage, we can bridge the political divides that have proliferated across the country in recent years. Will we win every heart? Of course not. Nothing could get 100 percent of the population. But I believe the majority of Americans love the country and have love for one another. We just have to build a movement and culture around these truths.
(Brooks, Arthur C.. Love Your Enemies (pp. 2-18). Broadside e-books).
“You have heard that is was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.” +
The Feast of St. Peter the Apostle, 2021
Text: Mt. 16:13-19
The Very Rev. Jerry Kistler
St. Stephen’s Anglican Church
“Binding and Loosing”
So heaven is the place where you get to do everything you didn’t get to do on earth. So a guy dies and goes to heaven, and St. Peter meets him at the gates and takes him on a tour of all the various rooms you find in heaven. In one room there are a bunch of Baptists, and they’re drinkin’ and dancin’ and smokin’ and playing cards. In another room there’s a Roman Catholic priest and nun, and they’re getting married. In another room, there are a group of Presbyterians, and they’re smiling. And then in the last room there is one lone Episcopalian sitting on a chair, twiddling his thumbs. He’d did it all on earth!
I always like a good Episcopalian joke. But that one sort of raises a question. Where did we get this idea that it’s St. Peter who lets you into heaven, or bars your way from heaven, as the case may be? Well, of course, it comes from right here in our Gospel lesson from Matthew chapter 16, where Jesus says to Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Mt. 16:19). It’s why Peter’s symbol on his shield is the two keys, often along with an upside-down cross which tradition tells us he was martyred upon.
But this passage has, of course, been a very controversial passage throughout the years, but it’s one that I think is crucial for us to rightly understand, because it bears a great deal of theological and practical importance for each one of us.
The first thing we should have noticed from the passage is that Jesus says to Peter that he would be given the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and that whatever he bound on earth would be bound in heaven, and whatever he loosed on earth would be loosed in heaven. It’s not something Peter excises in heaven; it’s a power, or an authority, or an office that he exercised on earth. In theology we call it “the Office of the Keys,” for obvious reasons.
Now the Catholics have sort of run with this passage and have built their whole doctrine of the power of the papacy on it. Because they argue, “You see, it’s only Peter who was given the Office of the Keys, and as the first bishop of Rome, he conveyed it to those who succeeded him in that capacity—in other words, to the line of popes who have come down to us to this very day. Francis I is the current successor to St. Peter and uniquely, or supremely, bears the Office of the Keys.
But not only that; with the development of the doctrine of purgatory in the Middle Ages, the popes were seen as having authority, through the power of the keys, to grant “dispensations” or “indulgences” to allow people a little less time in purgatory—to give you a couple hundred years off for good behavior—if , for instance, you did some great deed for the kingdom of God, like fighting to take back the holy city of Jerusalem from the Muslims. Thus was born the crusades. Or like contributing to the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and you could do this for yourself or for your dead loved ones. And thus was born the sale of indulgences, and this grew to the point that a guy named Tetzel was running all over Europe selling Papal indulgences while singing his little ditty: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.”
This is what sparked the Protestant Reformation. This is what motivated Martin Luther, on All Hallows Eve, to post his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the castle-church at Wittenburg, and caused the eruption of a movement in Western Christianity that brought us, among other things, The Church of England and Anglicanism as an independent, reformed catholic church. It was the sale of indulgences that was sort of the flash point of the Protestant Reformation.
Now that might cause you to think that, since Luther and the others were so dead-opposed to the sale of indulgences, they rejected the whole concept of the Office of the Keys. Some did; they were called the radical reformers. But the sort of mainline reformers, particularly Luther and Cranmer, upheld the biblical doctrine of the Office of the Keys.
Luther, in his Small Catechism, asks the question, “What is the Office of the Keys? Answer:
“The Office of the Keys is that special authority which Christ has given to His church on earth to forgive the sins of repentant sinners, but to withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant as long as they do not repent.”
Luther’s answer is based on more than just this one passage in Matthew 16. It brings together several sayings of Christ to His disciples, starting with the very familiar passage in Matthew 18, dealing with the topic of church discipline. This is where Jesus says, if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone, and if he hears you and repents, good; you’ve gained your brother. But if doesn’t hear you, bring with you one or two others, and if refuses to hear them, then bring it to the church. If he refuses to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. And Jesus then says, “For assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Mt. 18:18).
Now Jesus says those words to the Church. It’s to the Church, His Body, that He the Lord of the Church has given the authority to bind and loose. But the question is: how does the Church exercise that authority? The Church exercises that authority through those Christ has specially ordained to represent the Church in the administration of the Office of the Keys—the bishops and priests of His Church.
You see, that’s what’s going in John chapter 20. In that chapter, we’re witnesses to an ordination service. You remember that Jesus, after His resurrection, miraculously appears to His disciples where they had gathered behind closed doors for fear of the Jews, and He ordains the apostles to be the first to bear the Office of the Keys when he breathes upon them, and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” The apostle were, of course, the first bishops of the Church, and Christ ordains them as those who would exercise, in a representative way, the authority He’d given to His whole Church to bind and to loose, to forgive and retain. The apostles passed down that office and authority to those they ordained to be the next generation of bishops and priests in the Church, when they laid their hands on them, and the Spirit was given for that work of ministry.
So Luther, again in his small catechism asks the question, “What do you believe according to these words?”—these words of Jesus to His ministers that “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; [and] if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Answer: “I believe that when the called ministers of Christ deal with us by His divine command, in particular when they exclude openly unrepentant sinners from the Christian congregation and absolve those who repent of their sins and want to do better, this is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself.”
That last line—“as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself”—is really the crux of the matter, isn’t it? It’s where the rubber really hits the road in terms of the importance and impact this teaching should have for each of us. Because, of course, the objection to this teaching is, “How can any mere man have the authority to forgive or retain sins?” I mean, wasn’t that the objection the Pharisees brought against Jesus when he said to the paralytic that his sins were forgiven. “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Isn’t that exactly the objection brought against this doctrine of the Office of the Keys? But what Jesus proved by his healing of the paralytic was that He, the Son of Man, had authority on earth to forgive sins. He was God incarnate, and He did have authority on earth to forgive sins. But the point is: Jesus still has authority on earth to forgive sins. That authority didn’t go away when He ascended into heaven. It was His choice to exercise that authority through those He has ordained to minister in His Name and in His stead.
You see, if you’re thinking, “Hey, why in the world do I need a priest? Why do I need to go through a mere man to get Christ’s forgiveness? Or why do I need to be in submission to a man’s discipline?” I’d say your thinking is all up-side-down and backwards. It’s not a man who forgives you. It’s not a man who disciplines you. It’s Christ Himself who either forgives or retains you in your sins through the one He has ordained to speak for Him. You don’t have to go through a priest to get to Christ; Christ comes to you by means of those He’s chosen to represent Him. It’s not a man who exercises the authority of Christ to bind and loose; it’s Christ Himself who exercises His own authority to bind and loose through a man. That’s sort of the sacramental aspect of the ordained ministry. And that’s why we can’t just shrug it off and say it doesn’t matter. Jesus said to His apostles, and by extension to all he would ordain to speak for Him, “He who receives you receives Me; and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me.” This is an authority Christ has given to His Church, not an authority that the Church has sort of usurped to itself.
But where do we see it? Where do we see this authority to bind and loose in practice? Well, we see it every time a person is brought to the baptismal font, where the priest declares the person to be loosed and washed clean from his sins. It’s not the priest who washes away sins; it’s Christ Himself who washes them away through the ministry of the one He has ordained to administer the Sacrament. We see it and hear it every time, after you’ve confessed your sins in the General Confession, the priest absolves you of your sins. Again it’s Christ who is absolving you through the ministry of the one who makes the sign of the cross over you. We see it and experience it also in the context of Private Confession, where after you have unburdened yourself of the particular sin that has been troubling you, the priest says to you in words taken from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, “Our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath left power to his Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him, of his great mercy forgive thee thine offences: And by his authority committed to me, I absolve thee from all thy sins, In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”
But we can also see this authority to bind and loose exercised when a minister has to discipline a member of the church, who either denies the Faith or lives in a state of unrepentant sin, by banning them from the Lord’s table, or in extreme cases, like Jesus talks about, by bringing a presentment against the person at an ecclesiastical trial for the person’s formal excommunication.
The classic example from the New Testament is St. Paul’s instruction to the Corinthian church with regard to the man who had his father’s wife, when they were assembled together, and he with them in spirit, “with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ” to sever relations with the impenitent sinner, and “to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (I Cor. 5:4-5). Very tough words! But the crucial thing I think we need to see here is this “binding” or “retaining” of the man in his sin is done in the hope that he would be brought to a better mind and be restored to the congregation by the administration of the Church’s power to “loose” and ”forgive.”
So most of the time there is great comfort that you, who are in good standing with the Church, can receive from this doctrine of the “Office of the Keys.” When you hear me or the bishop say to you that, based on your confession of sin, your sins are forgiven you, know and be assured that it is Christ who is speaking to you and forgiving you. That is the practical application of this teaching.
But by the same token, when I come to you and say to you, “You know, you need to be going in a different direction. You need to repent and amend your ways,” know that it is also Christ who is speaking those words to you, and be submissive. And then you too will be faithful to your calling as it relates to Christ’s institution of the Office of the Keys. +
Third Sunday after Trinity, 2021
Text: Jeremiah 31:1-14
The Very Rev. Jerry D. Kistler
St. Stephen’s Anglican Church
There’s Something About Mary
We heard in our Old Testament lesson from Jeremiah chapter 31 the proclamation of God’s tender love towards the “virgin of Israel,” and that God would save the remnant of His people. “Therefore they shall come and sing in the height of Zion, steaming to the goodness of the Lord…Then shall the virgin rejoice in the dance…”
And then we sang the Magnificat—the song of the virgin Mary. So might there be a connection between the “virgin of Israel” in Jeremiah, and in so many other of the prophets of the Old Testament, and the Virgin Mary whom we read about in the Gospels?
There is something about Mary, isn’t there? That’s not just a movie title, but it’s an instinct the Church has had for two-thousand years. The problem with us Protestants is, We get really nervous when our pastors start preaching sermons on Mary. We say, “Ugh ow! Are we gonna start saying prayers to Mary? Are we gonna take down the crosses on the ‘cross wall and put up a shrine to Mary instead? Are we going to start saying the Hail Mary?” Be at peace! We’re not going to do any of those things.
But you see, the problem is, So often we can only see the two opposite extremes of a problem or of a theological issue. We Protestants look at how the Roman Catholics deal with Mary—how they have exalted her to the level of a co-redeemer with Christ, how they sometimes seem to pray more to Mary than to Christ, and we react and go so far to the other side that we barely even speak about Mary, except perhaps during Christmastide. So often we react so far to an error that we end up losing the very thing we’re trying to protect—which I hope is Biblical truth.
So, for example, when Catholics started saying that the bread and the wine of Communion turned into the very body and blood of Christ –in other words, that they changed their substance, so that there was no longer any bread or wine; there was just body and blood—so many Protestants reacted to that so far that they turned Communion into a mere mental exercise of remembrance, and what they lost was Communion as just that: Co-mmunion—“union with,” a real union, a real participation in the body and blood of Christ, which is the biblical teaching of what Communion is.
So it is with Mary. Because Protestants have reacted so far from what I do consider to be errors of the Roman Catholic Church with regard to Mary, many of us have really ceased to see Mary in her true Biblical light, if I may put it that way.
Who is Mary? Well, she’s the mother of our Lord. But that means she is the fulfillment, or the greatest personification of, “the Woman” of the Old Testament—“the Women” who is to bring forth the Savior, and who then is to be saved by Him.
We meet the Woman for the first time in Genesis chapter 3. And this is where that we hear the first promise of the gospel. The Lord God said to the serpent, “…And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed. He [the Seed of the Woman] will crush your head, and you will bruise His heel” (v. 15). The Woman will one day bring forth a Seed, an Offspring, who will deliver her from the hostility of the devil by crushing his head while suffering the bruising of his own heel. Which, of course, was fulfilled when Jesus suffered death upon the cross at Golgotha, “the place of the skull,” but was raised again the third day. And by His death and resurrection He has defeated forever the devil, that serpent of old, who is called Satan, “the accuser of the brethren,” by removing all the accusations that could be brought against us.
So Eve is a manifestation of the Woman, the Woman who is to give birth to her own salvation, but she also points forward to a greater fulfillment of the Woman.
Often times we see in the Scriptures that the Woman is barren. She can’t bring for the promised salvation by her own natural strength. She’s empty of any natural strength to give birth to her salvation. So it must conceived in her and brought forth by God’s grace alone. And so we hear the proclamation of the Scriptures, “Sing, O barren, you who have not borne! Break forth into singing, you who have not labored with child! For more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married woman” (Is. 54:1).
So the Woman is Sarah, who gives birth to the promise seed, Isaac, when she was 90 years old, to a man who was, as the Scripture says, as good as dead (Heb. 11:12). For the promise was that Abraham’s seed would be named through Isaac, and in his Seed all the families of earth would be blessed—that blessed Seed, Jesus Christ. But Sarah brought forth the line of the Savior by grace through faith, and not by any power of her own.
The Woman is Rebekah, who also is barren, but by God’s grace gives birth to Jacob, who is renamed by the Lord as Israel, the father of the twelves tribes of Israel.
The Woman is Rachel, who once again is barren, but by the miraculous grace of God gives birth to Joseph. It’s Joseph who has a dream that the Sun and the moon and the eleven stars would one day bow down to him. And Jacob, his father, immediately understands the significance of the dream as meaning that he and his mother and his eleven brothers would one day bow down to him. In other words, that Israel’s son would one day be Israel’s lord. Joseph then becomes one of the greatest types or foreshadows of Christ in the Old Testament, becoming both Israel’s Savior and Lord in the land of Egypt.
The Woman is Hannah, whose rival Peninnah is naturally fruitful, but who herself is unable to bare a child. But, once again, by the grace of God she gives birth to Samuel, the prophet who would anoint king David, the greatest type of Christ in the Old Testament.
The Woman is Esther, who is raised up as the queen of Persia, as her cousin Mordecai says, “for such a time as this,” and brings forth the salvation of her people by trusting the secret and gracious providence of God to give her favor with the king.
The Woman is the Virgin of Israel whom we read about in our passage from Jeremiah. She is the faithful people of God who will be brought back from their exile in Babylon, “among them,” as the text say, “the blind and the lame, the woman with child and the one who labors with child, together” (v. 8).
So who is the Woman? The Woman is the faithful remnant of God’s people who, by the grace of God, will bring forth salvation, will bring for the Savior-Seed, and then be saved by Him. The Woman is the faithful remnant of Israel.
And so, you see, Mary is the greatest manifestation or the greatest personification of the Woman. She, in a very real sense, stands for and represents that faithful remnant, the Old Testament Church, who gives birth to the Messiah, and then is saved by Him and made the foundation of the New Testament Church. She herself is not that foundation, but she represents and personifies that faithful generation of Jewish believers who receive their Messiah and become the Church of Jesus Christ into which Gentile believers are added.
So, pop quiz: who is being represented in Revelation chapter 12?
“Now a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a garland of twelve stars. [Sound familiar? It’s the exact imagery from Joseph’s dream describing Israel] Then being with child, she cried out in labor and in pain to give birth.
And another sign appeared in heaven: behold a great, fiery red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. His tail drew a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was ready to give birth to devour her Child as soon as [He] was born. She bore a male Child who was to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. And her Child was caught up to God and His throne. Then the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, that they should feed her there one thousand two hundred and sixty days.
And war broke out in heaven: Michael and his angels fought with the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, but they did not prevail, nor was a place found for them in heaven any longer. So the great dragon was cast out, that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was cast to the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.
Then I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, ‘Now salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren, who accused them before our God day and night, has been cast down. And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives to the death. Therefore, rejoice, O heavens, and you who dwell in them! Woe to the inhabitants of the earth and the sea! For the devil has come down to you, having great wrath, because he knows that he has a short time.
Now when the dragon saw that he had been cast to the earth, he persecuted the woman who gave birth to the male Child. But the woman was given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness to her place, where she is nourished for a time and times and half a time, from the presence of the serpent… And the dragon was enraged with the woman, and he went to make war with the rest of her offspring, who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.”
So who is the woman? Is she Eve whose Seed crushes the head of the Serpent? Is she the faithful remnant of Israel who brings forth the Messiah? Is she Mary who literally gives birth to the Christ? Is she the Church who gives birth to us, her other offspring? What’s the usual answer to those kinds of questions? Yes. Yes, she is all of those things. She is Israel. She is the Church. She is Mary.
There is something about Mary. I resist calling Mary our Mother, but you can see why some have. In Galatians 4 St. Paul says the Church is “the Mother of us all.” And Mary was certainly the greatest personification of the Church, the Holy Woman of Scripture. And that’s why I think, though we should certainly never worship Mary or even pray to her, we should give her the honor that the Bible itself gives her. As the Angel Gabriel said, she was the highly favored one and blessed among women. “All generations shall call me blessed,” she sang as she was filled with the Spirit. And so we, in our generation, should still call her the Blessed Virgin Mary. +
Second Sunday after Trinity, 2021
Text: St. Luke 14:12-24
The Very Rev. Jerry Kistler
St. Stephen’s Anglican Church
“Who Should We Invite to Dinner?”
John Blanchard stood up from the bench, straightened his Army uniform, and studied the crowd of people making their way through Grand Central Station. He looked for the girl whose heart he knew, but whose face he didn’t, the girl with the rose.
His interest in her had begun thirteen months before in a Florida library. Taking a book off the shelf he found himself intrigued, not with the words of the book, but with the notes penciled in the margin. The soft handwriting reflected a thoughtful soul and insightful mind. In the front of the book, he discovered the previous owner’s name, Miss Hollis Maynell.
With time and effort he located her address. She lived in New York City. He wrote her a letter introducing himself and inviting her to correspond. The next day he was shipped overseas for service in World War II. During the next year and one month the two grew to know each other through the mail. Each letter was a seed falling on a fertile heart. A romance was budding.
Blanchard requested a photograph, but she refused. She felt that if he really cared, it wouldn’t matter what she looked like.
When the day finally came for him to return from Europe, they scheduled their first meeting-7:00 p.m. at the Grand Central Station in New York. “You’ll recognize me,” she wrote, “by the red rose I’ll be wearing on my lapel.”
Blanchard himself tells the story. “A young woman was coming toward me, her figure long and slim. Her blonde hair lay back in curls from her delicate ears; her eyes were blue as flowers. Her lips and chin had a gentle firmness, and in her pale green suit she was like springtime come alive. I started toward her, entirely forgetting to notice that she was not wearing a rose. As I moved, a small, provocative smile curved her lips. “Going my way, sailor?” she murmured.
“Almost uncontrollably I made one step closer to her, and then I saw Hollis Maynell.
She was standing almost directly behind the girl. A woman well past 40, she had graying hair tucked under a worn hat. She was more than plump, her thick-ankled feet thrust into low-heeled shoes. The girl in the green suit was walking quickly away. I felt as though I was split in two, so keen was my desire to follow her, and yet so deep was my longing for the woman whose spirit had truly companioned me and upheld my own.
“And there she stood. Her pale, plump face was gentle and sensible, her gray eyes had a warm and kindly twinkle. I did not hesitate. My finger gripped the small worn blue leather copy of the book that was to identify me to her. This would not be love, but it would be something precious, something perhaps even better than love, a friendship for which I had been and must ever be grateful.
“I squared my shoulders and saluted and held out the book to the woman, even though while I spoke I felt choked by the bitterness of my disappointment. “I’m Lieutenant John Blanchard, and you must be Miss Maynell. I am so glad you could meet me; may I take you to dinner?”
The woman’s face broadened into a tolerant smile. “I don’t know what this is all about, son, “she answered, “but the young lady in the green suit who just went by, she begged me to wear this rose on my coat. And she said if you were to ask me out to dinner, I should go and tell you that she is waiting for you in a big restaurant across the street. She said it was some kind of a test!”
The Greek Poet was right,” Tell me who you love and I will tell you who you are!”
So who do you love? Well, who would you invite to dinner?
In the Gospel lesson for the 2nd Sunday after Trinity we’ve heard that very familiar parable of Jesus, the Parable of the Great Supper, from St. Luke’s Gospel. You know the story.
A certain man gave a great supper and invited man. But when the time came for the invited guests to come to the banquet hall and take their seats, they all began with one consent to make excuses why they couldn’t come. And you remember the excuses. They were all pretty lame. The first man said he’d just bought a piece of ground, and he needed to go and see it. Well, who buys a piece of real estate without seeing it first? The second guy said he’d just bought a team of oxen and he needed to go and test them. Put it in the modern vernacular: would you buy a tractor without knowing if it works first? The third guy says he’d just married a wife, and therefore he could not come. Well, that one might be understandable. But how long can the honeymoon go? After a while I think at least the wife might rather go to the party. But these are their excuses, and all of them show how low the supper is on their relative scale of values.
So the master of the house, hearing these lame excuses and becoming justifiably angry, told his servant to go out into the streets and lanes of the city and to bring in the poor, the maimed, the truly lame, and the blind, to the supper. And the servant said, “It’s done as you’ve asked, but there’s still room.” And so the master said, “Go then into the highways and hedges—out to the sticks, in other words—and compel them to come in. For I want my house to be full. But I tell you the truth: none of those people I first invited will partake of my supper.”
Well, that’s the parable, and you know it well. But what you probably don’t know quite as well are the words of Jesus that immediately precede the parable, and give color and light to the parable, and help us understand what Jesus is really saying.
Remember that Jesus Himself had been invited to a supper. It was in the house of one of the leaders of the Pharisees, and everyone who was anyone was there. Only the best people had been invited, and Jesus noticed how they were all jockeying for position to get the best seats, judging between themselves where each of them ranked in the scale of honor, and some of them squabbling as to just exactly where they fit in that scale. And so after giving a little bit of a rebuke to the guests for this behavior, Jesus then turned to the host and offered these few words of “gentle” counsel, but they’re words I think we need to hear this morning, as well. He said,
“When you give a dinner or a supper, do not ask your friends, your brothers, your relatives, nor rich neighbors, lest they also invite you back, and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you; for you shall be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Lk. 14:12-14).
So now, I want to ask you: do you think these words of Jesus were just His polite advice to the host on developing better social graces? Jesus didn’t come to give polite advice on developing better social graces. He came teaching and preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God. His basic message was, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” He said that from the time of John the Baptist until now [His time] the kingdom of heaven was breaking through and forcefully advancing, and that forceful or determined were taking hold of it (Mt. 11:12). Everything Jesus said had some application to the kingdom of God. He didn’t come to fine-tune the Pharisees legalistic system; He came to blow it up completely, and to tell them that they were missing the boat with regard to the long-awaited kingdom—the very thing they said they were longing for, but about which everything in their lives told a different story.
So when Jesus tells a parable, He’s explaining some aspect of the Kingdom: “The kingdom of God is like so and so.” In this case, He’s saying that the kingdom of God is like a man who gave a great supper, or a great banquet, and invited many. But so often what Jesus is really doing in the parables is explaining Himself—how He as the Messiah fits into the kingdom; how He is the One who is bringing in the kingdom. And I think that is true of these words that immediately precede this parable as well.
Because, again, what does He say? He says, “When you give a dinner or a supper, don’t ask you friends, your brothers, your relatives, or your rich neighbors, lest they also invite you back, and you be repaid.” Well, isn’t that exactly what He did? When He came at last to open up the great feast, the Messianic banquet so long awaited, when He came preaching and teaching the gospel of the kingdom, who did He go to? Who did He invite to supper? Was it His friends, brothers, relatives, and rich neighbors? No, because every one of them rejected Him. Think about it. When Jesus preached the gospel in His home town of Nazareth, how did His friends and neighbors respond? They were offended at Him. They said, “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t His mother named Mary? And don’t we know His sisters and brothers?” In other words, this is no one special. This is just the kid we all grew up with. Who does He think He is?” And when He got up one Sabbath day and said He was the One who was fulfilling the ancient prophecies, they were so offended that they actually tried to throw Him off a cliff. No, it wasn’t His friends and neighbors.
What about His brothers? The Scriptures tell us that not even they believed in Him. The only one of His relatives that followed Him was His mother, and what we can tell from her interchange with Him as a twelve-year-old boy in the temple, and later at the wedding at Cana, was that she didn’t have Him very well figured out either. So later on when someone came to Him and said, “Your mother and your brothers are outside wanting to talk to you, He responded, “Who is My mother and who are my brothers?” And He stretched out His hand and pointed towards His disciples, and said, “Here are My mother and My brothers. For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother.”
It wasn’t His brothers, or His other relatives, or rich neighbors that He invited. Who was it? It was the poor, the maimed, the lame, and the blind. He went to people like the poor widow with the dead son, the cripple at the pool of Bethesda, the Samaritan leper, old blind Bartimaeus, the woman caught in adultery, the thief on the cross. He out went seeking the one lost sheep out of the one-hundred. His heart longed for His prodigal children. He went to prostitutes and tax-collectors, the least and the lowest, the outcasts of society, and He opened up His feast to them, and they came and had table-fellowship with Him.
Do you remember the complaint the Pharisees had against Jesus? It was that He welcomed sinners and ate with them. I think the whole gospel is summed up in that complaint. Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them. Isn’t that what He does here today? You see, He didn’t welcome just anybody. He didn’t welcome the righteous, or those who thought they were righteous—the self-righteous, the works righteous—because they didn’t have any need of Him. Nor did He welcome those who were tolerant of unrighteousness. He welcomed sinners, people who knew they were sinners, people who were grieved with the fact they were sinners, people who were tied and bound with the chains of their sins and came to Him to be loosed, people who knew they were not respectable members of the religious establishment, people who didn’t have anything, spiritually speaking, to pay Him back with; people who had to receive His grace as just that: grace, not reward for their good behavior or right standing. These were the kinds of people who flocked to Jesus, because these were the kinds of people Jesus welcomed. And He ate with them. He invited them to His table in His kingdom, and they became partakers—partakers of Him and of what He came to do for them. Do you see?
The question is: are those the people that we’re seeking to invite to supper? Are those the people we want to come and fill our house and sit down with us here at God’s table in His kingdom? For this is the Feast of God. This is the Lamb’s High Feast. This is the Messianic Banquet. It is our participation even now in the feast of heaven. So who do we want to invite to dinner?
I know how we all think, secretly, deep down inside, and sometimes even out-loud: “Boy, if we could just get those people to come to church. If we could just get that guy with all the money, or that woman with all the connections. I mean, they really have something to offer. They could really help us do great things. They could really help out the budget.”
But Jesus says to us, in effect, today: “Why are you seeking those people? Number one, if you get them, you might only be receiving an earthly reward. They might not be the people that truly provide the means of receiving a heavenly reward. They might not be the people that truly build the church, truly build the kingdom, which is only by ministering the grace and mercy and forgiveness of Christ to sinful, broken people. And secondly,” Jesus tells us in His parable, “they’re probably not the ones who will even respond to your invitation. Why? I mean have you ever wondered why the people in the parable gave such lame excuses for not coming to the feast? I think Jesus’ saying here helps us understand why. I think it’s because the rich are always getting invitations, and so they’re also very practiced at turning down invitations. And they turn down invitations because they know that they get invitations because people want something from them. They want their valuable time and influence and money. And so they get really good at turning down invitations. Even when the invitation of the gospel comes to them, so often their first instinct is to turn it down, because they’ve been trained to resist the sense of feeling obligated to give something in return. They don’t want to feel obligated. They don’t want to have to give something up to get what we’re offering in the gospel. And, yes, it does ask you to give something up. It asks you to give up your whole life.
But the poor—and I’m talking about the spiritually poor here, as well as the fiscally poor—they don’t have a life to lose. That’s why it’s so easy to give it up. They don’t have anything to offer in return as payment for God’s grace, that’s why they can receive it as grace. So Jesus says, “Why don’t you go after them? They’re the ones who might actually respond favorably to your invitation.”
You know, last week in our Gospel we heard about the rich man and Lazarus. The question for us today is: are we missing the Lazaruses that God has laid at our doorsteps? Are we stepping right over them because we have our eyes are so focused on the rich guy and everything he has to offer, and are we putting all our efforts into getting him to come to supper?
Do we want our house to be full, even if that means we go out and scrounge around for the “least desirable” people in Montrose, or will we be content to have only the “right” people to partially fill our house? Jesus said,
“When you give a dinner or a supper, do not ask your friends, your brothers, your relatives, nor rich neighbors, lest they also invite you back, and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you; for you shall be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” +
First Sunday after Trinity, 2021
Text: Jeremiah 23:23-32
The Very Rev. Jerry D. Kistler
St. Stephen’s Anglican Church
Beware of False Prophets
In our Old Testament lesson from Jeremiah, the Lord God Almighty is decrying what could only be called a state of spiritual adultery His once holy people were living in due to being led away by the lying words and false prophesies of those who presumed to speak in His name. As we heard in the reading, “‘Behold, I am against the prophets,’ says the Lord, ‘who use their tongues and say, “He says.” Behold, I am against those who prophesy false dreams,’ says the Lord, ‘and tell them, and cause My people to err by their lies and by their recklessness. Yet I did not send them or command them; therefore they shall not profit this people at all,’ says the Lord.”
Earlier in the chapter we hear the Lord’s warning to His people:
“Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you.
They make you worthless;
They speak a vision of their own heart,
Not from the mouth of the Lord.
They continually say to those who despise Me,
‘The Lord has said, “You shall have peace”’;
And to everyone who walks according to the dictates of his own heart, they say,
‘No evil shall come upon you.’”
So how does a people get to the point, after it had received the revelation of God by signs and wonders; after the Lord miraculously delivering them from Egypt and sustaining them in the wilderness; after manifesting Himself in the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night, by speaking to them with His own voice from the holy mountain and giving them the Ten Commandments; after reflecting His glory on the face of Moses and filling the tabernacle with His glory…how does such a people turn away and erect altars to Baal, the god of the Canaanites, and altars to the stars, and an image of Asherah, the fertility goddess, inside the temple of Jerusalem, and worship them, and pray to them? How do they cease to trust the Lord, the Lord who gave them the land of promise, and instead begin to put their trust in alliances with foreign nations and their gods to be their protection? How does such a people get to the point that they actually offer their sons and daughters through fire to Molech, the god of the Ammonites? Well, you might say, over a very long time. And you’d be partially right. But in another sense, it could happen almost overnight by people coming in and claiming to have received a word from the Lord, or to have received dreams or visions from the Lord in which He said all of the old ways were wrong, and He is now revealing Himself in a new way, and giving a new path, and a new way.
You see, there’s first got to be a cultural shift amongst the people, then things are ripe for the false prophets to come in and lead the people essentially in the direction they want to go. This was the way it was almost immediately after the people came out of Egypt. Remember, they began to get hungry, they began to thirst, they began to complain and to idealize their past lives in the Egypt so that in their hearts they wanted to turn back. There was this cultural change, so that when Moses went up the mountain and they didn’t know when he was coming back, they turned to Aaron and said, “Make us gods that will go before us.” It’s only then that Aaron could mold a golden calf and prophesy falsely to the people and say, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”
So it’s easy to blame the false prophets, but there has to be a cultural change, a drift away from the Lord amongst the people themselves, a turning away from the clear revelation of God in His word to the thinking and practices of the cultures around them, that then give the false prophets opportunity to come in and lead them into “new ways.”
This is exactly what happened in the so-called “Second Great Awakening” in our country at the beginning of the nineteenth century—the early 1800s. What had happened just a few decades before? The American Revolution. This was not just a political revolution; this was a revolution that effected every aspect of American culture, very much including religion. This is essentially the premise of Nathan Hatch’s classic book, The Democratization of American Christianity. I highly recommend it for your study. Basically, the American Revolution changed everything, including how the average American thought about the very foundations of his faith, and who and what would lead him into new ways of what it meant to be a Christian.
“A diverse array of evangelical fire-brands went about the task of movement-building in the generation after the Revolution. Intent on bringing evangelical conversion to the mass of ordinary Americans, they could rarely divorce that message from contagious new democratic vocabularies and impulses that swept through American popular cultures… There was widespread disdain for the supposed lessons of history and tradition, and a call for reform using the rhetoric of the Revolution” (p. 7)
So Lorenzo Dow is an interesting example of one such “fire-brand,” and he really illustrates what was going on at this time. He played a significant role in the growth of American Methodism, although he remained independent of the movement his whole life—which is really a key trait of the kind of charismatic, prophetic leaders of the Second Great Awakening. Most of them were completely independent and under no authority whatsoever, except their claim of being directly inspired by the Holy Spirit. So Dow “openly claimed to be guided by dreams and visions and implied that he possessed visionary powers to know the secrets of the heart and to foretell the fate of individuals” (Hatch, p. 36). Dow had a deep-seated aversion to traditional authority, and, like so many others, extended the political revolution against England into a religious revolution against the Church. Thus, in one sermon he proclaimed, “…if men are ‘BORN EQUAL,’ and endowed with unalienable RIGHTS by their CREATOR, in the blessings of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—then there can be no just reason, as a cause, why he may or should not think, and judge, and act for himself in matters of religion, opinion, and private judgment” (in Hatch, p. 37). Note, the prooftext of his proclamation is not Holy Scripture, but the Declaration of Independence. And note also how easily and seamlessly he moves from the political revolution to the ecclesiastical revolution.
The point is, with the rejection of political traditions and authorities as being part of the basic social milieu of the time, it was not a long step to the rejection of other traditions and authorities, including the religious. So to sort of sum up the feeling of the day, Hatch says, “If opinions about politics and society were no longer the monopoly of the few, why could not people begin to think for themselves in matters of religion?” (p. 24). That might sound good and right, but it is exactly what opened the door to the false prophets to come in and totally remake Christianity in America into a new religion, another religion.
In his brilliant book, The American Religion, Harold Bloom argues that “the American Religion, which is prevalent among us, masks itself as Protestant Christianity yet has ceased to be Christian.” One must understand that Bloom himself is a self-styled Gnostic Jew who is in favor of what he calls the American Religion. Nevertheless, he makes a very convincing case that this American Religion, which he sees as being given birth in the spiritual ecstasies of the Cane Ridge revivals of 1801, is a kind of rebirth of ancient Gnosticism. And just like ancient Gnosticism, the American Religion has retained the figure of Jesus, but He’s a different Jesus than the one reveal in the Scriptures. Bloom writes,
“…the American Jesus was born at Cane Ridge, and is still with us… He is a Jesus who was barely crucified, and whose forty days of Resurrection upon earth never have ended, Or if he ascended, he has come back and keeps coming back in the outpouring of Spirit. He cannot be known in or through a church, but only one on one…”
You see, this is the key ingredient: church tradition cannot be trusted, but only the individual conscience to whom Jesus continues to come and to reveal Himself. So, for instance in the case of Lucy Mack Smith, the mother of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, she’s quoted by her son as saying, “I said in my heart that there was not then upon earth the religion which I sought. I therefore determined to examine my Bible, and taking Jesus and the disciples as my guide, to endeavor to obtain from God that which man could neither give nor take away… The Bible I intended should be my guide to life and salvation.”
Now again, to our ears there’s something in this that sounds right and good. In so many ways we have been formed by this thinking. It is very American. But this absolute individualism—the exaltation of the individual conscience above all religious tradition, combined with the acceptance and celebration of the ordinary lay person being given revelations from God in dreams and visions, which was rife in the early nineteenth century, is exactly what gave us the “prophet” Joseph Smith—the false prophet Joseph Smith—who founded perhaps the ultimate expression of the American Religion.
In his account of his first “vision,” which is now considered more important to Mormonism than the Book of Mormon itself, Smith says,
“I retired to a secret place in a grove and began to call upon the Lord. While fervently engaged in supplication my mind was taken away from the objects with which I was surrounded, and I was enwrapped in a heavenly vision and saw two glorious personages who exactly resembled each other in features, and likeness, surrounded with a brilliant light which eclipsed the sun at noonday. They told me that all religious denominations were believing in incorrect doctrines, and that none of them was acknowledged of God as his church and kingdom. And I was expressly commanded to ‘go not after them,’ at the same time receiving a promise that the fulness of the gospel should at some future time be made know unto me.”
And this then becomes the foundation, you see, for his later “visions” and the new testament— “another testament”—and another gospel he received from the angel Moroni.
But what does the Apostle Paul say in Galatians 1:8? “If we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be [anathema].”
But it’s not just Mormons who followed a false prophet into “the American Religion,” which is a different religion from historic Christianity. Bloom writes,
“…all adherents of the American Religion, whatever their denomination,…when they speak, sing, pray about walking with Jesus, they mean neither the man on the road to eventual crucifixion nor the ascended God, but rather the Jesus who walked and lived with his Disciples again for forty days and forty nights. Those days, for the Mormons, included Christ’s sojourn in America, soon after the Resurrection, in the greatest single imaginative breakthrough of the Book of Mormon. The largest heresy among all those that constitute the American Religion is this…: the American walks alone with Jesus in a perpetually expanded interval founded upon the forty days’ sojourn of the risen Son of Man” (p. 40)
I remember, growing up Baptist, one of our most recurring hymns was “In the Garden.”
“I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses
And the voice I hear, falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses.
And he walks with me
And he talks with me
And he tells me I am his own
And the joy we share as we tarry there
None other has ever known.
We open ourselves up to the false prophets when we basically say, Jesus cannot be known in or through the Church, but only one on one, and it’s the charismatically endowed, spiritually-filled, man of dreams and visions, paradoxically, who can lead us there.
No, it’s Scripture, understood by tradition that comes down from the Apostles themselves, contained in creeds and in the ancient consensus of interpretation of the early church fathers by which we can test the so-called prophets. John says, in an echo of our Old Testament lesson: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 Jn. 4:1). But, you see, the individual conscience cannot be the ultimate test.
So the bottom line is, We have to be very careful to recognize cultural movements and how they can open us up to “new movements of the Spirit,” and “great preachers,” who can nevertheless lead us away from Lord’s true revelation and His true gospel. Yes, beware of false prophets; but even more, beware of the conditions in our culture in your own heart that would allow false prophets to take advantage of you and take you captive. +
Pentecost Sunday, 2021
Texts: Joel 1:21-32; Acts 2:1-11
The Very Rev. Jerry D. Kistler
St. Stephen’s Anglican Church
“Do You Have the Spirit?”
I have said many times before that Christ has ascended into heaven to receive from the Father the gift of the Holy Spirit, which He has now poured down upon His Church, in order that through her He might to continue His mission in the world, but with even greater power and greater results. It’s an undeniable fact. It’s a part of our confession of faith. But I need to ask you a question this morning, because I’m not sure we all know the answer. Do you have the Holy Spirit? Have you, as an individual, received the gift of the Holy Spirit so that Christ may continue His mission through you? And if you have, how do you know?
In about the Sixth Century B.C., the prophet Joel prophesied about our times when he said,
“And it shall come to pass afterward [or “in the last days, says God”]
That I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh;
Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
Your old men shall dream dreams,
Your young men shall see visions.
And also on My menservants and on My maidservants,
I will pour out My Spirit in those days” (Joel 2: 28-29).
Now what the prophet was saying was this: that whereas in the Old Covenant only a few, select people had received the gift of the Holy Spirit to prophesy and to proclaim the Word of Lord, when the New Covenant came all of God’s people would be partakers of the Spirit, and the gift of prophecy would be common to men and women, young and old, in the Church. Moses himself, the greatest prophet of the Old Testament age, yearned for this reality when, after the Lord took of the Spirit that was upon Him and placed it upon the seventy elders of Israel, and they all prophesied (although, the text says, they never did so again)…Moses said, “Oh, that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them!”
Well, here we are in the New Covenant Age, the age that was in a very real sense fully inaugurated on the day that we celebrate today—the Day of Pentecost. For on the Day of Pentecost the Lord did pour out His Spirit upon all His people—upon all those who believed in Him—with the sound of a rushing wind and with tongues of fire. And they all began to prophesy and speak with other tongues and to proclaim the wonderful works of God, just as Jesus had promised: “You shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
And Peter explains to the people who are confused about what’s going on... he says, “This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel.” The words of the prophet are fulfilled. The New Covenant Age has been inaugurated, and the evidence of this is that all God’s people have been made prophets just as Joel prophesied, and just as Moses wished those many years ago. Here it is. The Church has been founded, and all of God’s people in common have received the Spirit, and as result are prophesying and speaking in tongues, as you now see and hear.
That’s what Peter proclaims, isn’t it? So then the obvious questions is: if the Spirit of God has been poured out in common upon all of God’s people, don’t you prophesy? Don’t you receive revelations from God in dreams and visions, and can’t you proclaim the wonderful works of God in other tongues? And if you can’t, well then maybe you’re just not one of God’s true people. Maybe you don’t have the Holy Spirit. Have you ever considered that?
Well, hold on just a second. The apostle Paul, who was himself a prophet (Act 13:1), wrote to the Christians at Corinth and said,
“Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually. And God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, varieties of tongues.”
And then he asks a series of rhetorical questions. “Are all apostles?” What’s the implied answer? No. “Are all prophets?” Again, the implied answer? No! “Are all teachers? Are all workers of miracles? Do all have gifts of healings? Do all speak with tongues?” To all these questions the implied answer is No.
You see, the Spirit of God doesn’t give everyone the same gifts, not even the gifts of prophecy and speaking in tongues. But how does that jive with what the prophet Joel said? Well, Joel did say that the Spirit of God would be poured out on all, and he said that would be manifested by the gift of prophesy being common in the Church. But he didn’t say that each and every person would prophesy. And, by the way, he doesn’t say anything about tongues.
You see, the Holy Spirit set apart and equipped some people to be apostles and prophets for the laying of the foundation of the Church. But once the foundation is laid, you don’t keep laying it. It’s time for another group of people with all sorts of differing gifts and talents to build upon that foundation. That’s where you and I come into the picture. We’re not called to be apostles and prophets to continue to lay the foundation of the Church; we’re called to use our Holy Spirit-given gifts to build up the Church on that foundation.
But that assumes that you’ve actually received the gifting of the Holy Spirit, doesn’t it? If you can’t manifest these miraculous external signs like prophesy and speaking in tongues, how do you know you have the Spirit? Have you in fact been baptized with the Holy Spirit, and is there some sign, some tangible evidence, that you can hold onto to assure yourself that, yes, in fact, you have received that gift?
Well, there is a wonderful, and extremely important pattern that we see in the Book of Acts, that ought to give us a great deal of assurance in this matter. Whenever God does something new, which He’s never done before, like pouring out His Spirit upon all of His people—which Jesus Himself calls the baptism of the Holy Spirit—He does so immediately, that is, without any sort of human agency, and with all sorts of accompanying signs and wonders, to show, to demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this is actually of Him and not of Man. This is His new work in redemptive history, and not any sort of human movement.
So on the Day of Pentecost, when He initially pours out His Spirit onto those one-hundred-and-twenty believers gathered together in single place, He does so with the sound of a mighty, rushing wind, and with tongues of fire, and without any human agency whatsoever, to show that this is His work. But after that initial out-pouring of the Spirit, things are very different. God does not repeat that initial Pentecost event; He works in a different way, and that is through human-agency—through the ministry of His Church. So, for instance, when the Gospel goes to Samaria, and people there become believers in Christ and are baptized, it’s only when the apostles Peter and John go up and lay their hands on them that they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
This is the pattern we see over and over in the Book of Acts, so that even when the Apostle Paul is converted—Saul at that point—there’s no new immediate out-pouring of the Holy Spirit even upon him. But it’s only when the prophet Ananias lays his hands upon Him that Paul receives the gift of the Spirit, and then immediately begins his ministry.
Now when Cornelius the Gentile is converted, there is an immediate out-pouring of the Spirit upon him and his house-hold, but that again is because this was a brand-new work of God. No Gentile to this point had ever been made a full and equal member of God’s people. And you remember that there was some question as to whether this was even possible. But this ended the argument, so to speak. God proved that the inclusion of the Gentile was His decision, His plan, not anybody else’s. Nobody could argue that the Apostle Peter was just venturing out on his own by including the Gentiles into the Church, because God worked immediately. But after this, once again God chooses to work through the agency of His Church. So when Paul went and baptized the Gentile believers in Ephesus, afterward he laid his hands upon them, and the Holy Spirit came upon them.
So my question for you is: how did you receive, or how should you expect to receive, the gift of the Holy Spirit? Through the laying on of hands! That is what Confirmation is about. Confirmation is not just about confirming, or taking on for yourself, the vows your parents and godparents made for you in your baptism, which is what Sean and Katie and Brittany and Justin and Haley did for Sebastian this morning. It is that, but it’s much more than that. It is about receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit for the work of ministry. Through the laying on of the hands of the bishop, who is in succession from the apostles, you have or will receive a gift—a supernatural endowment of the Holy Spirit to enable you to be one of those builders upon the foundation; to enable you contribute to the sum total of the work of the Church; to contribute some valuable ministry that God has specially equipped just you to do.
You do have the Holy Spirit. You do have a special, supernatural gifting. And the sign that you can hold onto to know this is true is your Confirmation—the laying on of hands.
But we ought to hear the words of St. Paul to his beloved disciple Timothy at this point. In 2 Tim 1:6 Paul says, “I remind you to stir up the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands.” “Stir it up,” say St. Paul. The word in the Greek is very picturesque. It means to stoke the embers of a dying fire so it comes to life again. “Stir up your gift, so it doesn’t fizzle out,” is essentially what Paul is saying. “Fan it into flame,” is how the ESV translates it.
So how do you stir up the gift that is in you through the laying on of hands? How do you fan it into flame? Well, there’s really only one way. You’ve got to use it. You’ve got to put it to work. You’ve got to exercise it, or just like your calves and triceps, it will atrophy and become useless.
We don’t all need to be prophets. We don’t all need to be apostles, or evangelists, or pastors or teachers. But we do all need to be ministers of the gifts and graces that are in us through the laying on of hands. May we do it to the glory of Christ and to the building up of His Church. +
Ascension Day, 2021
The Very Rev. Jerry D. Kistler
St. Stephen’s Anglican Church
“Ascension: The Completion of Good Friday”
Not many Christians today know what to do with the Ascension. For many, it just represents the time that Jesus went away, and that hardly seems like something to celebrate.
For others, who because of their theology that Jesus has not yet begun to reign over heaven and earth but is waiting for His Father to allow Him to return so He can begin to reign, they miss what the Ascension teaches us about Christ’s enthronement at the right hand of the Father and how great a thing that is to celebrate.
Still others miss what the Ascension teaches about how Christ is more present in the world now than He ever could have been if He had not ascended, and that is by His Spirit whom He sent into the Church that we might be His body, that we might be His Presence, His continued incarnation in the world. 2.2 or 2.3 billion Christians all over the globe, and the few of us gathered here this evening, is how He now fills the world with Himself. “[God] put all things under His feet,” writes St. Paul in Ephesians, “and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (1:22, 23). We are the fullness of Him who fills all in all. And this too is something the Ascension teaches us to celebrate.
So, I suppose if we took a survey of modern American Christians and asked them which of the holy days of the Christian year was the greatest of all, most would either be confused by the question, or would choose, without much reflection, between the two best known holy days: Christmas and Easter. But I want to challenge that choice tonight. I want to suggest to you that tonight, the feast of the Ascension of our Lord, is the greatest of all Christian holy days. And I say that not in anyway to diminish the significance of either Christmas or Easter. I say that because it is the Ascension that establishes the eternal significance of both Christmas and Easter, and of all great saving events of Christ’s life.
But tonight I’d like to focus in on just one truth that defines and shows the importance of the Ascension, and that is the Ascension as the completion of Good Friday. We could also speak about the Ascension as the culmination of Easter and the goal of Pentecost. But tonight I’d like us to consider just this one facet of the Ascension: that the Ascension as the completion of Good Friday.
And what I mean by that is that the Ascension of Christ into heaven is, in a very significant sense, the completion of His sacrificial work, the completion of the offering of Himself to the Father on our behalf. Maybe you’ve never thought of it in those terms? Most haven’t. But let me explain what I mean.
In Luke chapter 24 verse 51, which we read this evening, Luke writes that while Jesus blessed His disciples He was parted from them, and was carried up into heaven. The word translated as “carried up” is a very important Greek word. It’s the word anaphero. Why is that word so important? you ask. It is so important because in the Greek translation of the Old Testament—the Septuagint (which was the Bible of the early Church)—the word anaphero, ninety percent of the time it is used, directly refers to the offering of the burnt sacrifices. As a matter of fact, it is most often translated as “to offer up.” In the Septuagint it is actually a technical term that means “to lift up” or “to cause the burnt sacrifice to ascend” to God. And you can picture in your minds the sweet-smelling smoke billowing upwards towards the heavens.
I’ll give you just one very significant illustration of this. It comes from the eighth chapter of the book of Genesis, where we find Noah finally exiting the ark after the waters of the flood had abated. The very first thing Noah does is to build an altar. And the Scripture says that Noah took of every clean animal and of every clean bird and offered (anaphero-d) burnt offerings on the altar. Then, as the smoke ascended, it says that the Lord smelled the soothing aroma; the sacrifice pleased Him, and, consequently, God made a new covenant with the earth: He said, “Never again will I curse the ground for man’s sake, although the thoughts of man’s heart are evil from his youth.” By the soothing smell of the sacrifice, God’s wrath was turned away. He was propitiated as the result of offering up, the ascension in the form of the smoke, of the burnt sacrifices into His presence.
Now you can see from this example that there are two facets of a burnt sacrifice. There is the slaying of the victim, and then there is the presentation of the victim to God through the ascending smoke. And in that dual action—the slaying and then the presentation—God is propitiated; His wrath is turned away.
You see, on Good Friday Christ was slain to become the one perfect sacrifice for our sins. But it was on Ascension that He was lifted up (anaphero-d) into heaven to present Himself to His Father as that slain victim. St. John says that, in his visions of heaven, he turned and saw, standing on the throne of heaven, the lamb as it had been slain—Christ our Passover Lamb who stands eternally before the Father, pleading our cause, and as the one who covers our sins with His blood. Christ fulfills the dual action of the offering of a burnt sacrifice: He is slain upon the altar of the cross, and then He is carried up—anaphero— to present Himself, to present His one sacrifice, to the Father on our behalf. And, you see, it’s on that basis—on the basis of that two-fold act of offering himself—that we now say that Christ is the propitiation of our sins. That’s what John writes, and that what we hear every time we celebrate the Holy Communion. He is the propitiation of our sins. He perpetually and eternally turns away wrath of God, because, you see, He has become the ascended sacrifice.
St. Paul says that Christ loved us and gave himself for us “to be an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet smelling aroma.” Christ has become our whole burnt offering, and He has caused His sacrifice to rise up to God by ascending into heaven to stand before God as the Lamb who having been slain.
This is also a theme in the book of Hebrews. The author writes in chapter 8, “Now this is the main point of the things we are saying: We have such a High Priest, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a Minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle which the Lord erected, and not man. For every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices. Therefore, it is necessary that this One [Christ] also have something to offer” (Heb. 8:1-3). You see, He continues to offer the sacrifice of Himself. Not that He continues to die. But even in the wounds that He still bears, He eternally presents His sacrifice to the Father, on the basis of which the wrath of God is eternally turned away from us.
This is the meaning of Ascension, or at least one part of the meaning of Ascension. And this is why I say that the feast of the Ascension is the greatest of all Christian holy days. Without it, Good Friday isn’t good. Without it, Easter hasn’t been consummated, and Pentecost is yet an unfulfilled promise. So tonight really is the night. This is the great day of our salvation.
May the Lord bless us as we, in this very short season, meditate upon the eternal significance our Lord’s Ascension for the life and the hope of the world. +
Fifth Sunday after Easter/Rogation Sunday, 2021
Text: Ez. 34:25-31
The Very Rev. Jerry D. Kistler
St. Stephen’s Anglican Church
“The True Prosperity Gospel”
“I will make them and the places all around My hill a blessing; and I will cause showers to come down in their season; there shall be showers of blessing.”
So does God desire your prosperity? Does God want you to be healthy and wealthy, happy and whole? Are the blessings God desires to pour down upon you that you might look better, feel more confident about yourself, and reach your maximum potential?
The passage that I just read from—from Ezekiel 34, which we heard more fully as our Old Testament Lesson this morning—is a favorite of preachers of the so-called “Prosperity Gospel.” A generation ago we called it the “health and wealth” gospel, or “name it and claim it,” or even “blab it and grab it.” Basically, if you have faith enough, and if you’re obedient enough, God promises to bless you with miraculous and immediate health and wealth.
But by and large, gone are the days of televangelists in white suits with big silvery hair on gaudy rococo TV sets, thanks be to God! But a new form of prosperity preaching has taken its place. As one writer I read this week describes it: in contrast to the kind of hard prosperity preaching of the 1980s, it’s a softer, subtler version.
“Whereas hard prosperity preaching invites followers to name it and claim it,” he says, “soft prosperity preachers inspire the upwardly mobile to reach for their dreams. In the former, good health and a strong portfolio prove God’s tangible salvation; in the latter preachers proclaim a religion of therapeutic solutions” (David Schrock, “A Softer Prosperity Gospel: More Common than You Think,” 9marks.org).
In an ecclesiastical climate where once a person is “saved” that’s it, there’s really nothing more to the Christian life than waiting to go to heaven, or waiting for the “Rapture,” this softer, subtler form of prosperity preaching says there’s really nothing more for you to do than focus on getting God’s blessing on your life now—getting God’s blessing on your marriage and your family; getting God’s blessing on your business and on your golf game. By assuming salvation, the new prosperity gospel tries to fill the vacuum of purpose in the Christian life by leading us to focus on things like getting out of debt by applying good “Christian” financial planning techniques, getting into shape through “Christian” diet and exercise programs, and achieving your best self through “Christian” self-improvement therapies. And so, for example, Joel Osteen’s book is entitled, Your Best Life Now; Seven Steps to Living at Your Full Potential.
As Michael Horton has written, “It’s basically what the sixteenth century German monk turned church reformer Martin Luther called the ‘theology of glory’: How can I climb the ladder and attain the glory here and now that God has actually promised for us after a life of suffering?”
You see, the purveyors of prosperity love to proclaim—and claim—the very tangible promises of the Old Testament, the very tangible promise we find, for example, in 28th chapter of book of Deuteronomy.
“Now it shall come to pass, if you diligently obey the voice of the Lord your God, to observe carefully all His commandments which I command you today, that…all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you…Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the country. Blessed shall be the fruit of your body, the produce of your ground and the increase of your herds, the increase your cattle and the offspring of your flocks. Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out” (vv. 1-6).
Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? And the prosperity preachers appeal to such passages and say, “You see, if you just obey God, if you just keep His rules, if you just follow His principles for leading a successful life, you can have your best life now. You can have God’s blessing on every aspect of your life: you can prosper in your business; you can prosper in your church; your wife can prosper in producing a bunch of kids (if that’s really what you think prospering is!); you can have a happy, healthy family; you can get God’s blessing on your 401k and on your golf-game.
There’s just one problem: only one Man has ever obeyed God enough to merit all these blessings—and you are not He! Only Jesus Christ has every kept God’s commandments to the degree that God requires, that is perfectly, so as to receive all of the promises of God. Nobody before Him was ever able to do it; the Israelites failed miserably and never received the blessings of the covenant, but received the cursings instead. And you think you’re going to be able to keep God’s rules so well that He thinks you deserve His blessings?
Only Jesus, by His perfect obedience, was able to earn for us the blessings of God. And not only that, but by His cross He took away the curse from us that we actual deserve. As the author of the paper that I read this week—David Schrock is his name—said, “…prosperity preachers speak often about what you can do to experience God’s favor, but they rush past the cross, missing the fact that every spiritual gift has been secured for the believer by Jesus, who gives us his Spirit as the preeminent blessing.”
So I return to my original question: Does God desire your prosperity? Does God want you to be healthy and wealthy, happy and whole? Absolutely! God wants to give you blessings in Christ that you can’t even imagine. God wants to give you such blessings that are beyond what you can even desire at this point. Your desires are too weak in your mortal state to even want what He wants to give you. “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him,” says St. Paul (1 Cor. 2:9).
But there’s a definite sequence of events that’s reflected in our reading as to how we get there, and when we get there. When God promises to make a covenant of peace with us—that’s the New Covenant of which Christ is the mediator—He promises to deal first with our enemies. “…they shall know that I am the Lord, when I have broken the bands of their yoke and delivered them from the hand of those who enslaved them.” (Ez. 34:27b).
In the covenant of peace that God has established with us through His Son, what were our four great enemies that Christ defeated? You remember: sin, death, hell, and the devil. And you see it’s by His defeat of those enemies that Christ has earned for us all of the “showers of blessing” that come down upon us in their season. Health and wholeness—no more death, no more sorrow, or crying, or pain; not just the healing of this body, but the resurrection of our bodies. Wealth. There will be treasures in heaven, Jesus says, that do not fail, where thieves cannot break in and steal, and where moth and rust cannot destroy. Even prosperity in business. Jesus will say to those who served Him faithfully, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.” And then there will be the food. The kingdom of heaven is described as an eternal banquet, where no dieting is ever required. But the greatest blessing of all will be God Himself—His permanent and unveiled presence with us for all eternity.
All of these blessings come to us through Christ’s defeat of our enemies. But they do come to us “in their season.”
Do you remember the story of the paralytic man whom his friends lowered down through the roof because they were desperate to bring him to Jesus? What did they want for their friend? They wanted a healing. They wanted him to be able to walk again. They wanted his restoration now. But Jesus didn’t quite oblige them. Jesus didn’t just deal with the symptoms; He went right to the heart of the problem: He forgave the man his sins. He delayed the man’s healing in order cure him of his real problem. And, you see, just as it was for the paralytic, so it is for us. There’s a delay between Christ’s defeat of our enemies and our receiving of the fullness of the blessings God has actually promised to us in the Gospel. That delay is what we call the theology of the cross. That delay is what we call walking with Jesus now in his humility and suffering so that we might one day walk with Him in glory.
You see, the theology of the cross precedes the theology of glory. We will be glorified together with Him, says Paul, “if indeed we suffer with Him (Rom. 8:17). “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me,” say our Lord (Mk. 8:34). “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life” (Mt. 19:29). We live now in that delay time.
But in that delay, which we call the theology of the cross, Christ has showered us with one amazing blessing that gives us hope that we will one day receive in full Technicolor reality all of the promises of God. That blessing from heaven which has been poured down upon us now is the Holy Spirit. And it’s amazing what the Scriptures say about how the Holy Spirit functions in relation to the promises of God. Paul says in 2 Corinthians, “For all the promises of God in [Christ] are Yes, and Him Amen…who also has sealed us and given us the Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (2 Cor. 1:20, 22). The Holy Spirit is the guarantee. The word means a deposit or a down payment that is part of the total and is a warrantee or a surety that it will be paid in full. So again Paul says in Ephesians, having believed in Christ “you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory” (Eph. 1:14).
The possession has been purchased. All of the blessings of God have been bought for us by Christ’s obedient life and death. And now in this delay time, as we bear His cross, we live in hope by the Spirit of God who lives within us that all of those showers of blessing that have been promised to us in the gospel will be poured out upon us in full in their right season, in the season that God has appointed for them to be poured out.
You see, in the end the so-called Prosperity Gospel isn’t enough of a prosperity gospel. In merely promising you your best life now, it doesn’t promise you enough. The true gospel promises so much more. It promises you Christ. And in Him it promises you the cross—it promises you suffering in this life. But in Him also it promises you glory beyond your imagination in its time.
All the promise of God in Christ are Yes and Amen…in their time.+
Fourth Sunday after Easter, 2021
Text: Job 19:21-27a
The Very Rev. Jerry D. Kistler
St. Stephen’s Anglican Church
Resurrection: The Christian’s Great Hope
For I know that my Redeemer lives, and He shall stand at last on the earth; and after my skin is destroyed, this I know, that in my flesh I shall see God.
What is your greatest hope as a Christian? What are you looking to as the ultimate fulfillment of your salvation?
It’s Eastertide, and in this bright, jubilant season we rejoice in the glory or our Lord’s bodily resurrection from the tomb. The tomb is still empty, and we rejoice. But we don’t rejoice in the Lord’s resurrection as merely a past event—something that truly happened, but is now disconnected from us by 2000 years. No, the Scriptures teach us that if Christ was raised bodily from the tomb, so will we, who believe in Him be raised bodily from our tombs at the last great day. This was a central element in the apostolic preaching of the gospel. It is an article of our creed. And it is this very doctrine—the belief in the resurrection of the body—that is to be the Christian’s great hope. It’s what we ought to be looking ahead to and longing for, along with the new heavens and the new earth—the total redemption of creation—as the zenith of our salvation: that which Christ purposed all along to accomplish by His death, resurrection, and ascension.
But many Christians today don’t believe this any longer. If they don’t outright reject it, they’ve never been taught it, or they’ve been taught a kind of gnostic version of it.
I’ll never forget when I said in Bible study one evening that the ultimate goal of our salvation is not that we go to heaven, the eyebrows of a woman sitting there in the pews shot up in shocked disbelief at what I’d just said. She was visiting with us from a less than orthodox church here in town, and she had only ever been taught, or had only picked up from the popular Christian viewpoint out there, that when we die, that’s where we go: to heaven. Nothing more beyond that. That we live out our eternal lives as spirits in the spiritual kingdom of heaven with God and the angels and all the other spirits who have gone before us. No concept of a resurrection. It’s the popular viewpoint of just about every movie ever made about life after death. It will be a completely spiritual, that is, non-physical, existence.
Now many other Christians, if they do have a concept of the resurrection at the last day—meaning the resurrection of believers in Christ—think of it as a spiritual resurrection. In other words, that the bodies we will be raised with will be non-physical bodies. I remember again a conversation I had with someone in my own family who said that Jesus’ resurrection was unique in that it was a resurrection of His physical body. Our resurrection will be spiritual. In other words, our bodies, when they get buried in the earth, will stay there, and somehow, when Christ returns, God will give us new, non-physical, spiritual bodies, whatever those could possibly be.
This idea has become so popular in fact that when Anglican bishop and theologian N. T. Wright published a book back in 2008 called Surprised by Hope, in which he set forth the historic Christian hope of the resurrection of our bodies, ABC news—which should never be your go-to for orthodox Christian teaching—ran an interesting report on it. And they said that Wright’s idea that “God will literally remake our physical bodies” was a “radical departure from traditional belief.” What an extraordinary statement! As author Robin Philips wrote in response, “Though the Apostles’ Creed professes belief in ‘the resurrection of the body’, and though the Nicene Creed contains the statement, ‘We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come’, this doctrine is now assumed to be not just a departure from traditional Christian belief, but a radical departure from it” (“Raised as Spiritual Body,” Christian World Journal, May 7, 2012).
Just as another example of this idea, biochemical researcher Brian Innes observed in his book Death and the Afterlife, “current orthodox Christianity no longer holds to the belief in physical resurrection, preferring the concept of the eternal existence of the soul, although some creeds still cling to the old ideas.”
I would say that “current orthodox Christianity” is another way of saying “old, heretical Christianity,” because this preference for “the eternal existence of the soul” verses the resurrection of the body seeps into Christianity from Plato and pagan Greek philosophy, not from the Holy Scriptures or the belief of the Church for 2000 years.
Remember, the Platonic view of the universe was essentially dualistic, in which the spiritual is good and the physical is evil. Salvation for the Greeks, and especially for the later Gnostics was about escaping the body, escaping our connection with this evil physical world, and becoming pure, disembodied spirits. We’re still dealing with this stuff.
But this is the complete opposite of Hebrew, Biblical Christianity. We forget sometimes that Christianity is a Hebrew religion, not a Greek religion. Or, over two-thousand years, so much of the Church has remade Christianity into a Greek religion. I like to say we’ve “Greek-ified” Christianity.
No. Who made the body? God. And God doesn’t make evil stuff. He didn’t make us spirits trapped in evil bodies. He made a union of spirit and body. He made us embodied spirits. And at the end of the day, He said that it was “very good.” He didn’t say it was the best He could do at the time; eventually He’d get rid of those nasty bodies. No, He declared that His creation of us a unity of the spiritual and the physical was very good.
And redemption is not the undoing of creation. Redemption is the perfection of creation. God’s purpose all along was to save us—to save our whole persons, spirit and body—from the ruinous effects of sin. You see, it’s because of sin that we die and our spirits are separated from our bodies. Sin is the cause of that separation, not God. Death is the wages of sin, Paul says. And death is the unnatural—the anti-creational—separation of the body and the spirit, such that our bodies are reclaimed by the ground from which they were made—“earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
What happens to our spirits? Well, the Apostle Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians that for those of us who have been joined to Christ “to be absent from the body” is “to be present with the Lord.” That means that our spirits do go to heaven when we die. But Paul describes this not as our final state, but as a kind of intermediate state. As a matter of fact, he describes it as the time that our spirits will be naked—unclothed from our bodies.
Now, some of you here today might think it sounds like a great thing to be frolicking around naked for all eternity, but most of us think that sounds like a pretty strange idea—including the Apostle Paul. He says—and his language is very picturesque; you have to understand what he’s saying—he says, “For we know that if our earthly house, this tent is destroyed”—what is he talking about? He’s talking about the death of our bodies— “we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” He’s talking about our resurrection bodies. “For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven, if indeed, having been clothed, we shall not be found naked.” Notice, he’s saying that our desire in not that our spirits would be unclothed—naked—but to clothed with a new body that is given to us from God. “For we who are in this tent [this body] groan, being burdened, not because we want to be unclothed, but further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up by life.”
You see, the hope of the Christian isn’t that when we die we just go to heaven, and that’s it. That would be to live in a state of spiritual nakedness forever. It’s that this mortal body would instantly transformed into an immortal body, like Christ’s own resurrected body. Essentially what Paul is saying is that we all wish we’d never have to die at all, and that we could move right from this mortal life, with our mortal bodies, into the immortal life, with our resurrected bodies. Isn’t that what we’d all like, for ourselves and for our loved ones? Unfortunately, except for those lucky ones who are alive at the coming of the Lord, we will not get to experience that instant translation from mortality to immortality, but we will die, and our spirits will go to be with the Lord, and our bodies will be committed to the ground. But here’s what we say in the Prayer Book. Our bodies will be committed to the ground,
“…earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; at whose coming in glorious majesty to judge the world, the earth and the sea shall give up their dead; and the corruptible bodies of those who sleep in him shall be changed, and made like unto his own glorious body, according to the mighty working whereby he is able to subdue all things unto himself.”
The Prayer Book is not making this stuff up; it’s just quoting from the Scriptures—two passages: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and Philippians 3:20-21. The first says, “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord.” The second says, “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.”
We’re not looking for the immortality of the soul; we’re looking for the resurrection of the body, and its reunion with the soul—the further clothing of the soul—for all eternity.
Jesus Christ is spoken of in the Scriptures as “the firstfruits” of the resurrection. That’s what we’re celebrating here in Eastertide—that Jesus was raised physically from the grave. “He is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.” We are not celebrating merely that Christ’s spirit went to heaven. So here’s the question: do you suppose there’s only going to be one Person in heaven who has body—Jesus Christ—and the rest of us will just be disembodied phantoms? No! Firstfruits implies later fruits, —the resurrection of all those who are Christ’s at His coming. That’s what Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 15:
“But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection from the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming” (vv. 20-23).
The problem comes when Paul speaks of the kind of body our resurrected bodies will be. In 1 Corinthians 15:44 he speaks of two sorts of bodies: the one we have now, and the one we’ll have in the future. The one he calls a “natural body”—Greek psuchikos—and the other he calls a “spiritual body”—Greek pneumatikos. Now I think N.T. Wright is really helpful here, although not simple. So rouse yourself from drowsiness, and put on your thinking caps. Actually, it’s really not that hard. He says, “Unfortunately, many translations get [Paul] radically wrong at this point, leading to the widespread supposition that for Paul the new body would be a spiritual body in the sense of a nonmaterial body, a body that in Jesus’s case wouldn’t have left an empty tomb behind it....”
He says the really important point is to recognize that
“Greek adjectives ending in –ikos, describe not the material out of which things are made but the power or energy that animates them. It is the different between asking, on the one hand, ‘Is this a wooden ship or an iron ship?’ (the material from which it is made) and asking, on the other, ‘Is this a steamship or a sailing ship?’ (the energy that powers it). Paul is talking about the present body, which is animated by the normal human psyché (the life force we all possess here and now, which gets us through the present life but is ultimately powerless against illness, injury, decay, and death), and the future body, which is animated by God’s pneuma [His Spirit], God’s breath of new life, the energizing power of God’s new creation.”
Do you get the point? When Paul says we will have a “spiritual body” he is not talking about what it will be made of—spiritual, non-physical stuff—but about the power which gives it life—the Holy Spirit of God.
We’re looking for the resurrection of our bodies as our greatest hope, as that, which along with the new heavens and the new earth, will bring our redemption to its ultimate consummation. Don’t hope for less, folks. Don’t long for something less than God would give you. He intends to redeem your whole person, not just a part of you. And He has given you His Spirit as the guarantee that He will in fact do it. This is our Easter hope.
For I know that my Redeemer lives, and He shall stand at last on the earth; and after my skin is destroyed, this I know, that in my flesh I shall see God. +