"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
Advent Season, 2021
1st Sunday in Advent, 2021
The Very Rev. Jerry Kistler
St. Stephen’s Anglican Church
Keeping the Church Calendar
So again, today, this First Sunday in Advent, is the beginning of the liturgical year. So as I always like to say, Happy New Year!
But I want to start this new year off with a bit of a riddle. Are you ready? What is it? It’s the one thing we never have enough of but can’t stand when we have too much. Some think they have lots of it; for others it’s running out. Some people try to make it, others do it. It drags on for some, while it flies for others. There are people who save it, and others who kill it. What is it? It’s Time.
“Time is of the essence,” we like to say. Or as Benjamin Franklin once said, “Time is the stuff life is made up off.” But sometimes we look at time the same way the historian Arnold Toynbee once famously remarked about history: that it’s “just one damned thing after another.”
But that time itself can be sanctified and transformed to be a kind of means of grace is the reason we Anglicans, along with all branches of the historic Christian Church, observe the Church Calendar. As 21st century Christians, who, I think, often feel tossed about by constant change and are blown in all kinds of directions by time, we have received a spiritual heritage from the earliest ages of the Church in the sacred seasons and festivals of the Christian year that helps us get ahold of time and make it work for us.
You see, the principle behind the Church year is that even time itself ought to be redeemed and brought under the Lordship of Christ, so that our time is not just one damned thing after another, but can be used in the process of making our lives more and more Christ-centered, and therefore more and more Christ-like. As St. Paul writes in Ephesians: “See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:15, 16).
Now I think we get that part about the days being evil, especially in this day and age. But I’m not sure we always know what it means to redeem the time. It literally means to buy it back. But to buy it back from what? Well, from the same things all parts of our lives need to be bought back or redeemed from: from self-centeredness and worldliness; from our tendency to forget God or to relegate Him to a very small portion of our lives; from our use of God’s good gifts, even our time, as if they’re just things to be consumed, rather than things that are to be the material our fellowship with Him. That’s what all parts of our lives need to be bought back from, including our time—bought back and returned to the Lord.
And so to help Christians redeem and submit their time to Christ, the Church has organized the year around the major events of the life of Christ, again seeking to help keep life Christ-centered.
The Church year could be described as a way of transforming the passage of time so that the foremost events in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ become the foremost events in our own lives.
Our Lord’s Nativity, Circumcision, Epiphany, Transfiguration, Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension, become the matrix for sort of shaping all our frantic moments and dizzying cycles of busyness into a Christ-like form. It’s an attempt to allow the rhythms of Christ’s life—the ups and downs, the joys and sorrows, the triumphs and tragedies of His life—rather than the go-go-go, me-me-me, shop-till-you drop sort of life of this world, to set the agenda for how we live and serve God in our time.
This is why the Church year is a series of feasts and fasts. It’s not all about tinsel and lights, and turkey and ham, and wine and champagne. It’s about observing times of quiet anticipation before feasts of celebration. It’s about going through the darkness so we can see the light more clearly when it comes. So we keep the season of Advent. It’s about keeping seasons of penitential self-reflection so we can enter more fully with joy into the seasons of Christ’s triumph over sin and death. It’s about walking alongside of Christ through His sufferings and sorrows so we can be raised with Him in His exaltation and glory. So we keep the season of Lent.
This basic Christ-shaped structure of the Church year is also punctuated at various points by other holy days, days which honor those who have been God’s “choice vessels of his grace and the lights of the world in their several generations,” the saints closest to our Lord in his earthly ministry: saints such as the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Apostles, the Evangelists, and the Martyrs. And in this way we have constantly set before us that great cloud of witnesses that spur us on by their example to “run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1).
But observing the Church year, keeping the feast and fasts of our sacred calendar, takes commitment. And it’s not easy, because so much of our time is already organized by our other various calendars—by our social and cultural calendars, by our work and school schedules, and by the million other special dates and times that so often demand our time. We have to understand that all of these things have a tremendous power to form us and make us who we are. And we can feel it sometimes—can’t we?—that they are forming us in ways that are less than Christ-like. So unless we make a concerted effort, all of these dates and times and schedules and calendars often crowd out the sacred seasons and days, and we lose the opportunity the Church calendar gives us to be reformed and remade in the image of Christ.
So observing the Church year takes commitment. But so do any of the spiritual disciplines. So does daily prayer and meditation in the Scriptures. So does keeping the weekly liturgy, with all its repetitiveness. But you see, just as the weekly repetition of the liturgy is a way of forming us and shaping us by its very repetitiveness—by being confronted again with our sins, by hearing again Christ’s comfortable words of forgiveness, by being brought back to fellowship with Him around His holy table—so the Church year reinforces on a seasonal basis what the liturgy does on a weekly basis. As time has a three-fold pattern—daily, weekly, and seasonal—so the Church helps us to redeem our time by giving us a sanctified version of the same patter: daily, weekly, seasonal.
In the beginning of the Prayer Book, page Roman numeral 59 (lix), there’s a table called the Table of Feasts and Fasts which are “to be observed in this church throughout the year,” not as law we have to keep, but as one more means to continually bring out lives back to center in Christ, away from self, away from this fallen world. Does the Church expect us to keep it? Yes. That’s what the ACNA Canon on the duties of the laity tells us. Duty number 8: “To observe the feasts and fasts of the Church set forth in the Anglican formularies.” But the Church expects us to do this like parents expect their children to do their duties at home, and at school, and their community—so that they become the people they’re supposed to be.
We don’t keep the Church Year because it’s the Law of God. We don’t keep it because we necessarily have a Scriptural injunction to keep it—although it’s based on the principle of God’s institution of a sacred calendar for Israel. But we keep the Church calendar because we have chosen the Anglican Way of being Christians. And the Anglican Way has always seen the usefulness of setting apart days and seasons, feasts and fasts, for the sanctification of our time, that even time itself can be used to transform our lives as we walk alongside of Christ in His life.
The Psalmist writes in Psalm 31: “My times are in you hands.” Are they? Do you submit your times to the Lord? Do you submit all of your time to the Lord, or just a small portion? The Church calls us to keep the feasts and fasts of the Church year so that our time takes on a Christ-like shape. And that becomes one more tool in our spiritual tool bag for living a Christ-like life. And we can use as many as we can get, can’t we?
The days are evil. So let us redeem our time. +
Trinity Season, 2021
Twenty-fourth Sunday after Trinity, 2021
Text: Malachi 3:13-4:3
The Very Rev. Jerry D. Kistler
St. Stephen’s Anglican Church
Things are not going well in Israel in the time of Malachi the prophet. Malachi speaks to a people who are disillusioned, discouraged, and doubting, whose experience did not harmonize with their understanding of the glorious promises given by the earlier prophets. Had not Moses written,
“It will 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 the Lord your God will set you high above all nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon 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… Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Blessed shall you be when you come it, and blessed shall you be when you go out. The Lord will cause your enemies who rise against you to be defeated before your face… The Lord will command the blessing on you in your storehouses and in all to which you set your hand… The Lord will establish you as a holy people to Himself, just as He has sworn to you, if you keep the commandments of the Lord your God and walk in His ways” (Deut. 28:1-9)
But now instead, the people of God are suffering poverty, drought, and economic adversity, and they have become disillusioned with God, disillusioned with their faith and with the thought that obedience to the Lord would bring the promised blessings to their lives. Consequently, their motivation to worship and serve the Lord with all their heart, soul, mind and strength is at an all-time low. And so their complaint goes up,
“It is useless to serve God;
What profit is it that we have kept His ordinance,
And that we have walked as mourners
Before the Lord of hosts?”
“So now,” they say, “we call the proud blessed,
For those who do wickedness are raised up;
They even tempt God and go free.”
Why serve God if this is all we get for it? Why keep His commandments if it’s the wicked who are blessed and the righteous who suffer?
I don’t know if you’ve ever gotten to that point in your life, or whether you’re wrestling right now with such thoughts. It is, nevertheless, the struggle of ever generation of the people of God to look out at the world and to say in one’s heart, “You know, it does seem that God’s promises of blessing for faithfulness and cursing for unfaithfulness are not the operative principles. It does seem that the wicked are always coming out on top, and the righteous are always being oppressed. Doesn’t it? If there is an operative principle in the world it seems like it must be the old saying, “Good guys really do finish last.”
And if you get to the point that that really bugs you, and you make your complaint to God about it, here’s what I would say: not only are you not sinning by doing so, but there are plenty of complaints to God from righteous people that have been preserved for us as Holy Scripture, as divinely inspired examples of how to rightly complain to God. You didn’t thing that’s where I was going with that, did you?
But think of holy St. Job, and think of all the Psalms that David or some of the other Psalmist write that are basically asking God, “What the heck are you doing? How can you allow things to be this way?”
I want you to turn to Psalm 73 in the Prayer Book. It’s found on page 364. Follow along as I read.
[At the end of v. 14]. Now this is where you could go in either of two directions. At this point either your complaint turns to despondency and dejection—in other words, the loss of faith—and you say, “Therefore, it is useless to serve the Lord; there’s no profit in keeping His commandments,” or you begin to look at the world from the eternal perspective, and I would say you even begin to telescope backward from that perspective on how God’s promises of blessing and cursing are being worked out even now in this life—which is what the Psalmist does. [Continue from verse 14]
You see, though we are allowed, even encouraged, to make our complaints to God because of the injustices of life, what keeps us from getting to that place of despondency, when we say “It is useless to serve the Lord,” is the fear of the Lord. It’s that attitude of awe and holy reverence for the Lord, that though we do not understand, nor sometimes even perceive, how His good and righteous will is being fulfilled in the world and in the lives of men, yet we put our trust in Him, and we believe that He will settle all accounts one day—on the day that He judges the quick and the dead.
And for those who can make their complaint in that way—that is, in fear of the Lord—remember what is written in our passage from Malachi:
“Then those who feared the Lord spoke to one another,
And the Lord listened and heard them;
So a book of remembrance was written before Him
For those who fear the Lord
And who meditate on His name.
“They shall be Mine,” says the Lord of hosts,
“On the day that I make them My jewels.
And I will spare them
As a man spares his own son who serves him.”
The [on that great day] you shall again discern
Between the righteous and the wicked,
Between one who serves God
And one who does not serve Him” (3:16-18).
On that great day, then we will see that all our telescoping backward from the perspective of eternity on the acts of the righteous and the wicked in this life will have been correct. On this subject I think C.S. Lewis is very helpful. In my favorite of his books, The Great Divorce, the great 19th century Scottish poet, author, and minister George MacDonald speaks to the main character, who represents Lewis himself. And you remember that The Great Divorce is the very fanciful story of how this man take a bus-ride from hell to heaven one day. And hell is pictured as a gigantic town, and down there it’s always at the “grey time” of twilight. But now as they’re standing up on the lush green grass before the immense mountains of “pre-heaven” really, MacDonald says,
‘Son, ye cannot in your present state understand eternity… But ye can get some likeness of it if ye say that both good and evil, when they are full grown, become retrospective. Not only this valley but all their earthly past will have been Heaven to those who are saved. Not only the twilight in that town, but all their life on Earth too, will then be seen by the damned to have been Hell. That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, “No future bliss can make up for it,” not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. And of some sinful pleasure they say “let me have but this and I’ll take the consequences”: little dreaming how damnation will spread back and back into their past and contaminate the pleasure of the sin. Both processes begin even before death. The good man’s past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven: the bad man’s past already conforms to his badness and is filled only with dreariness. And that is why, at the end of all things, when the sun rises here and the twilight turns to blackness down there, the Blessed will say “We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven,” and the Lost, “We were always in Hell.” And both will speak truly.’ (The Great Divorce, p. 69).
Take the perspective of eternity on all the issues of life. Then make your complaints to God about all the injustices of life….but do so in the fear of the Lord. +
Twenty-third Sunday after Trinity, 2021
Text: Isaiah 64:1-12
The Very Rev. Jerry Kistler
St. Stephen’s Anglican Church
“Longing for the Good Old Days Won’t Solve the Problem”
"Grandpa, take me back to yesterday,
Where the line between right and wrong
Didn’t seem so hazy.
Did lovers really fall in love to stay
Stand beside each other come what may
was a promise really something people kept,
Not just something they would say?
Did families really bow their heads to pray
Did daddies really never go away?
Tell me ‘bout the good old days.
Everything is changing fast.
We call it progress,
But I just don't know.
And Grandpa, let’s wonder back into the past,
And paint me a picture of long ago" (The Judds, "Grandpa (Tell Me 'Bout The Good Old Days").
I’m not a big fan of the Judds, but there’s something in the lyrics of that song that sort of captures how many of us are feeling about our country right about now. Faced with the absolute craziness of the political scene today; faced with the tragic breakdown of law and order we’re seeing, where our once honored police officers are increasingly under assault; faced with institutions of our society just seeming to crumble around us, how many of us have not longed for the simpler by-gone days when things seemed to make more sense—“when the line between right and wrong didn’t seem so hazy,” and when families really did “bow their heads to pray.” Oh for the Good Old Days!
The prophet Isaiah was in a similar gloomy mood about the state of his country, and he too longed for “the good old days”—the good old days when God’s presence and power were palpably felt; when God’s presence and power were undeniable to His people and to the enemies of His people, and isn’t that what we all long for.
And so now standing in the midst of the ruin of his country, he cries out:
“Oh that you would rend the heaven!
That you would come down!
That the mountains might shake at Your presence…
To make Your name known to Your adversaries,
That the nations may tremble at Your presence!
[Just like back in the old days, God]
“When You did awesome things for which we did not look,
You came down,
The mountains shook at your presence.
For since the beginning of the world
Men have not heard nor perceived by the ear,
Nor has the eye seen any God besides You,
Who acts for the one who waits for Him.
You meet him who rejoices and does righteousness,
Who remembers You in Your ways.”
The nagging question that’s troubling the heart of Isaiah is, I think, the same one that troubles a lot of our hearts: Why won’t God do something? Why is He letting this happen? Why do our enemies triumph? Why do His enemies triumph, when He could just put a stop to the whole thing? Why doesn’t He act for those who are waiting for Him, or meet those who rejoice and do righteousness?
Ah, there’s the rub. How many of us actually do righteousness?
The answer Isaiah comes to in his meditations is not the answer any of us would like to hear: “You are indeed angry,” he says, “for we have sinned.” The answer that Isaiah comes to is: We are the problem. The problem isn’t out there with all the bad people; the problem isn’t that God is not doing His job. The problem is with us, the people of God. For we have sinned; we have rebelled against the Lord. “We are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags” Is. 64:6).
You see, when Isaiah really thought long and hard about “The good old days,” he realized that those good old days really weren’t all that good. I mean, think about it. When God did show up in the fire and in the earthquake and in the tempest; when God manifested His glory atop Mt. Sinai in the blackness and darkness, with the sound of a trumpet, and with His own booming voice, did that change anybody? No! The Israelites were down at the base of the mountain making a golden calf and calling it their god! All those times God manifested His presence in the wilderness among His people, all those times He chased off their enemies and defeated them with miraculous demonstrations of His power, the people still continued to complain against Him, to reject His leaders, to worship false gods, to commit sexual immorality, and to not trust Him to keep His promises. And as a result, twenty-three thousand of them fell in a single day, the earth opened up and swallowed hundreds more; many died from bites from fiery serpents, and others were destroyed by a destroying angel, because the mere external signs of God’s power and presence did nothing to change their hearts. These were not “the good old days.”
And we American Christians are going to have to stop thinking about the 1940s or the 1950s as the good old days, as if, if we just went back to the way things were back then, the God would be well-pleased and we wouldn’t have to be afraid of our culture coming to pieces anymore.
The fact is, it was the material prosperity of the 50s that gave us the permissiveness of the 60s, manifested in the drug culture and “free sex.” And the permissiveness of the 60s gave us the anarchy of the 70s, manifested in Watergate and Roe v. Wade. And the anarchy of the 70s gave us the overthrowing of all social constraints in the 80s, manifested by the mainstreaming of homosexuality. And the 80s gave us the 90s, and the 90’s gave us the 2000s, and here we are.
But the thing we have to come to grips with, if we hear the prophet Isaiah today, is that the corruption of our culture isn’t ultimately because of all those bad people out there. The fault lies a little closer to home.
Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth.” He said, “You, My people, are those I’ve ordained to keep the world from rotting. You are the salt. You are the preservative.” But He said, “If the salt loses its saltiness, with what will it be salted? It’s good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men (Mt. 5:13 paraphrased). As I’ve said many times before, as goes the Church so goes a culture.
We in the Church taught our culture to believe that material prosperity was the sign of God’s approval. We in the Church taught our culture to believe that the love of God is without any boundaries or restraints whatsoever, and so it should be among human beings. We in the Church taught our culture to believe that that law of God could be bent or abandoned all together, when for example the Episcopal Church capitulated to the likes of Bp. Pike for fear of being sued. We in the Church confirmed to our culture that there are no such things as gender roles, when we started ordaining women to the priesthood, the inevitable result of which was we told our culture that there are no such things as gender relationships. And so, we started blessing same-sex unions and ordaining openly homosexual clergy. And the very next thing that happened in our culture was the legalization of homosexual marriage.
We have sinned, and we need to repent.
But you say, “I haven’t personally sinned in any of these ways.” Well, neither had Isaiah. But he was a part of a people who had sinned, and so he said, “We have sinned…and we need to be saved.”
Think also of the prophet Daniel, who is described in the Bible as one the most righteousness men ever to live on the face of this planet. But as he’s sitting in exile in Persia with the rest of God’s people, and as he studying and meditating upon God’s Word, and wondering how it had come to this, and how long it would last, he comes to a startling discovery. He writes,
“In the first year of [the reign of Darius] I, Daniel, understood by the books the number of the years specified by the word of the Lord through Jeremiah the prophet, that He would accomplish seventy years in the desolations of Jerusalem.”
But here’s his response:
“Then I set my face toward the Lord God to make request by prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes. And I prayed to the Lord my God, and made confession, and said, ‘O Lord, great and awesome God, who keeps covenant and mercy with those who love Him, and with those who keep His commandments, we have sinned and committed iniquity, we have done wickedly and rebelled, even by departing from Your precepts and Your judgments…”
And though without guilt himself, he cries out for mercy:
“O Lord, according to all Your righteousness, I pray, let Your anger and your fury be turned away from Your city Jerusalem, Your holy mountain; because of our sins…O Lord hear! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, listen and act! Do not delay for Your own sake, my God, for Your city and Your people are called by Your name” (Dan. 9:2-19).
And, you see, there is where we need to find the conclusion of this lesson: that having repented for the sins our people, for the sins of the Church in America, we need to seek God’s forgiveness, and His healing and restoration, on the basis of His covenant commitments to His people. It’s the same in Isaiah: “But now, O Lord, You are our Father…Do not be furious, O Lord, nor remember iniquity forever; Indeed, please look—we all are Your people!”
We ought to pray, as our own litany teaches us to pray, “Spare us, Good Lord. Spare thy people, whom thou hast redeemed with thy precious blood, and be not angry with us forever.” Because you have redeemed us by Your own blood, because You have committed yourself to us in an unbreakable covenant, spare us, good Lord!
Do you want our country to get back on track? I don’t mean going back to the delusion of the so-called “Good Old Days.” I mean really getting back on the straight and narrow with God. Then maybe we ought to spend a little more time in sackcloth and ashes, than in red, white and blue. Maybe we ought to spend a little more time repenting for our collective sins, than promoting our individual candidates. Maybe we ought to cry out for God’s mercy and forgiveness, rather than looking to any political solution to our problems. Maybe we ought to take a lesson from the likes of Isaiah and Daniel, more than any of our civic saints. Maybe we in the Church ought to get our act together so we can do our job again—our job of being the salt and light of our culture.
O Lord we have sinned, and we need to be saved. O Lord, hear! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, listen and act.” +
All Saints Eve, 2021
Text: Daniel 7:23-27
The Very Rev. Jerry D. Kistler
St. Stephen’s Anglican Church
“And there was evening and morning, the first day.” According to the Jewish reckoning of the day, the day begins at sundown. So we’re a little early this morning in our celebration of All Saints Day; that really doesn’t start till tonight—All Hallows Eve—when all the little ghouls and goblins come out. But it’s really why the great feast days of the Church calendar begin to be celebrated on the eve of—Christmas Eve, Easter Even, All Saints Eve, and so forth. So we’re a little early, but I think that’s okay.
That the New Testament refers to all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus and confess faith in His name as saints is a pretty amazing thing. For what does the word “saint” mean? It means a holy one. It comes from the Latin word sanctus, and so, as a matter of fact, the old way of saying the word “saint” was sanct. But you can’t say sanct, just like you can’t say sword, so we now say saint. But that word sanctus is where we get our word “sanctuary”—a holy place—and “sanctification”—the process of being made holy. But there’s a sense in the Scriptures that, if we are in Christ, we have already, in a definitive sense, been sanctified, been made holy, have become saints, even if we are now called to grow into our sainthood and become holy in our lives. So, as the Psalmist writes, “With the holy thou shalt be holy” (Ps. 18:36, Coverdale). In the Holy One, we are holy, even if most of the time we don’t feel or experience that as a present reality. I think most of the time we feel pretty unholy, don’t we? But, you see, if we are in Christ, there is the wonderful sense that we have already been declared by God as saints, as member of His holy people.
St. Paul, in writing to the Corinthians, addresses them this way: “To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus”—that’s a present tense, isn’t it? “To those are sanctified in Christ Jesus, [and] called to be saints, with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.” We are saints—holy ones—through our union with Jesus Christ, and now we are called to be saints through our growing conformity to the holy character of Jesus, which is also a work of the Holy Spirit within us.
But I want to look today particularly at what kind of status we have as being made saints in Jesus Christ—what privileges we have, perhaps even what authority we have as those who have been raised up in the Holy One and made members of His holy people.
Our lesson from the book of Daniel makes this awesome declaration: “Then the kingdom and dominion, and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven, shall be given to the people, the saints of the Most High. His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey Him” (7:26-27). All the kingdoms of the earth will be given to the saints of the Most High. That’s what this passage is saying, isn’t it?
Now to those of you who might be tempted to say, “Well, of course, this must yet be a future promise. It’s obvious that it has not yet been fulfilled. We Christians have obviously not yet come to inherit all the nations. We have not yet come to have dominion over all the kingdoms of the world,” I would say, there’s a sense in which you’re right. We have not yet taken possession of the nations. But in another sense, you’re wrong. We have, even now, already inherited the nations, and have been given dominion and authority over them. That’s an incredible statement. How can I back it up?
Well, we have to look at the larger context of this passage, don’t we? Because, again, text without context is pretext, right? So what’s the context of this incredible statement that the saints will be given the kingdom and dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven?
Well, in chapter seven, Daniel is given a vision of the four successive kingdoms or empires that will have dominion over the nation of Israel from Daniel’s time to the time of the Messiah—the coming of Jesus Christ. And in his vision the Lord reveals this succession of empires under the images of four great beasts coming up from the sea. The first was like a lion with eagle’s wings. The second was like a bear, raised up on one side. The third was like a leopard which had four wings of a bird on its back. And the fourth was a dreadful, terrible beast with huge iron teach, exceedingly strong, and it went about devouring, and breaking into pieces, and trampling under foot. And the key detail about this fourth beast, which again represents an empire that will dominate Israel, is that it has ten horns on its head. And as Daniel was considering the horns, he says there was another horn, a little one, coming up among them, before whom three of the first horns were plucked out by the roots. And this little horn had eyes like a man, and a mouth speaking pompous words.
What in the world is going on here? Well, without going into all the details because we just don’t have the time, this vision of the four beasts corresponds with the vision Daniel sees in chapter two of the succession of empires that will dominate Israel. And there it is declared that the first of the four is the empire of Babylon—the Babylonian Empire, which carried off the Jews into exile, including Daniel himself. The next empire, which will conquer the first, is the Medio-Persian Empire—the empire of Cyrus the Great and the other great Persian kings. And Persian Empire would be conquered by third empire—the Greek Empire, the huge empire of Alexander the Great, which would be divided among his four most important generals after his death—the four wings upon the leopard’s back. The last of the empires, which would conquer the Greek Empire, was of course the Empire of Rome, the great and dreadful empire that would conquer and trample under foot, if you will, almost the entire known world.
But what of the ten horns on the head of this last dreadful beast? What or who were the ten horns of the Roman Empire? Well, in the Old Testament a horn is often used a symbol or a metaphor for rule, or a ruler. What Daniel is seeing in his vision of the fourth beast is the succession of ten Roman rulers.
But who are they? That’s what you want to know, right? Well, remember the vision is given in terms of the empires and rulers who will rule Israel. It’s not a complete list of all the empires and rulers of the world; only those which will dominate Jerusalem and the Jewish nation. It’s as if Jerusalem is the center of the world, and world history is told only from the perspective of how it affects the holy nation, sort of like how sometimes we look at world history from the perspective, or through the lens, of America, and only how things affect us.
So these ten rulers of the Roman Empire are the ones who will dominate the land of Israel up to a certain point. We’ll see that in just a minute. But the first of the Roman rulers to dominate Israel was the great Roman general Pompey. He wasn’t just a general; as you know, he was a member of the First Triumvirate, along with Julius Caesar and Marcus Licinius Crassus of Spartacus fame, played by the great Lawrence Olivier in the movie. These three divided rule over the Roman territories, and Pompey went out and conquered more territory in the East. In 63 B.C. he conquered the land of Judea and the city of Jerusalem, and famously walked right into the temple, right into the Holy of Holies itself, behind the veil, to show that he was now the ruler of the Jews. He was the first of the ten horns.
Now after triumvirate fell apart, and Caesar defeated Pompey in Egypt in 48 B.C., Caesar then became the new Roman ruler of Judea—the second horn. After him, of course, was his adopted nephew Octavian, who became the great Caesar Augustus, under whom the Lord Jesus Christ was born. Tiberius followed Augustus. Then you remember the rest, right? Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius. Ten rulers. Ten horns. e
But then there was an eleventh. His name was Vespasian. And he was different from the rest, as the text says, because he was not in the line of the first emperors; he created a whole new dynasty, called the Flavian dynasty, which was an inferior dynasty to the Julio-Claudian dynasty before him, and in that respect he was “little,” as the text says. But how did he become emperor? Well, remember the text says that before him three of the first horns, three of the first emperors, were plucked up by the roots. Do you remember? The year 68 A.D. was known as the year of the four emperors, for in that one year, Nero committed suicide, then successively three generals, Galba, Otho, and Vitellius, were proclaimed emperor by their troops, but were either assassinated or forced to commit suicide by the other’s troops, until finally, in 69 A.D., Vespasian’s troops were able to secure the throne for him. It was Vespasian who elevated the cult of the emperor to the point that he had himself proclaimed a god and worshiped even in his own lifetime.
But it was in this crucial year 68 A.D. that the Jews rebelled against the Roman Empire, and it was Vespasian who, three-and-a-half years later, and by the means of his son Titus, breached the walls of Jerusalem, killing or enslaving as many as a million besieged Jews within, and completely leveling the holy temple, so that not one stone was left upon another, thus bringing an end to the sacrifices and the sacred festivals of the Jews.
And thus, you see, were fulfilled the words of Daniel that he, the eleventh horn, “shall speak pompous words against the Most High, shall persecute the saints of the Most High, and shall intend to changes times and law. Then the saints shall be given into his hand for a time and times and half a time” (7:25).
“But,” the word of the Lord goes on to say, “the court shall be seated, and they shall take away his dominion, to consume and destroy it forever. Then the kingdom and the dominion, and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people, the saints of the Most High” (vv. 26-27a).
How can this be? How, after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, could it be said that the kingdoms of the world are given to the people, the saints of the Most High? Well, we have to go back to verses 13 and 14 of Daniel chapter 7 to understand. Daniel says,
“I was watching in the night visions. And behold, One like the Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven! He came to the Ancient of Days, and thy brought Him near before Him. Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and His kingdom the one which shall not be destroyed.”
It was in the time of this last empire to rule over Israel, the Roman Empire, that the Son of Man, the Lord Jesus Christ, was crucified, died, and was buried, rose again the third day, and ascended to sit down at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. And it is He, as the Scriptures says, who has been appointed heir of all things (Heb. 1:2). It is He to whom the God the Father spoke in Psalm 2, “You are My Son, today I have begotten You. Ask of Me, and I will give you the nations for your inheritance, and the ends of the earth for Your possession.” “All authority in heaven and earth have been given to Me,” Jesus said as He was ascending to His Father. And “He must reign,” says St. Paul, “till He has put all enemies under His feet” (1 Cor. 15:25).
But here’s the amazing thing that is said of us His saints: Paul says in the book of Ephesians that through our union with Christ by faith, God has already, in a mystical sense, “raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6), and we too have been made heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17).
So with the end of the Old Covenant age—with the fall of Jerusalem and the old temple—and with the bringing in of the New Covenant age, no longer would the inheritance of the saints be just that one little nation on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean. “All things are yours,” the Apostle Paul says, “whether…the world, or life or death, or things present or things to come—all are yours. And you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (1 Cor. 3:21, 22).
Amazingly, in the book of Revelation, Jesus Himself applies the words of Psalm 2, that Messianic Psalm that speaks of His own rule over the nations: “Ask of Me, and I will give you the nations for your inheritance,… You shall break them with a rod of iron; You shall dash them to pieces like a potter’s vessel”—Jesus applies those word to His Church. That means you rule! You rule with Christ, or maybe a better way of saying it is, Christ rules through His Church.
Now does that mean we take up swords and guns and go out and conquer by force like the crusaders? Absolutely not. We are the Church militant, but the weapons of our warfare are spiritual not carnal. We are the community of the Spirit. In the Spirit we ascend to the throne of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Our prayers and worship are accepted through sacrifice of Christ, and the Lord comes to the aid of His people. As the Spirit enlivened body, we witness to the truth of the Gospel by which we plunder the strong man’s house. By our Spirit empowered witness, we reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment. Worship and witness: these are the weapons of our warfare. The testimony of the book of Revelation is that the Church, by its prayerful worship and its witness—its marturion—overcame even the mighty empire of Rome.
This is the testimony of Scripture as to the present reign of the saints in Christ. Yes, we’re looking for a consummation, when as Paul says, Christ delivers His completed kingdom to the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. The last enemy to be defeated will be death itself, with the resurrection of our bodies. But until then, remember: You rule. Go out and take dominion through your prayerful worship and your faithful witness. +
Oxford Martyrs Day, 2021
The Very Rev. Jerry D. Kistler
St. Stephen’s Anglican Church
“Radically Committed to Ordinary Christianity”
We heard the words of Solomon this morning from the book of Ecclesiastes, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going.”
On October 16, 1555, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley were led out from the Bocardo Prison in Oxford, where they’d been held for the past two years. After the devout Roman Catholic Mary had come to the throne, following the death of her Protestant brother Edward VI, reforming bishops Latimer and Ridley, along with Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, had been tried for heresy at the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin. And, having been found guilty, the sentence of death was now to be carried out. Coming to the stake, the two were chained together, the wood was piled around them, and, as the fires were lit, Latimer was famously heard to say, “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.”
Cranmer had been forced to watch the burning of his friends. Later, in a moment of great weakness due to the long stress of his imprisonment, he signed a number of recantations of his Protestant teachings. But this was not the last word of Thomas Cranmer.
On March 21, 1556, before he was to be burned, Cranmer was marched to the pulpit of St. Mary’s church to make public his recantations. But when he came to that portion of his prepared remarks, he suddenly deviated from his written text and recanted of his recantations:
“And now, he said, “I come to the great thing that troubleth my conscience more than any other thing that ever I said or did in my life: and that is, the setting abroad of writings contrary to the truth. Which here now I renounce and refuse, as things written with my hand contrary to the truth which I thought in my heart, and writ for fear of death, and to save my life, if it might be: and that is, all such bills, which I have written or signed with mine own hand, since my degradation; wherein I have written many things untrue. And forasmuch as my hand offended in writing contrary to my heart, therefore my hand shall first be punished. For if I may come to the fire, it shall be first burned. And as for the Pope, I refuse him, as Christ's enemy and antichrist, with all his false doctrine.”
He was whisked away and chained to the stake at the same place where Latimer and Ridley were burned. As the fire rose, he held his right hand down into the flames, and, as long as he could, he repeated the words, “My unworthy right hand! My unworthy right hand!”
“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going.”
Thomas Cranmer took that sentiment seriously, and so must we.
But here we are, more than four-hundred and fifty years later, in very different times and in very different circumstances than theirs, no longer fighting the battles of the 16th century. Can what these men put their hands to—can the work they did way back then—still move us with might, or is their knowledge and wisdom dead in the grave with them? Here in the 21st century, when such radical faith as theirs almost always has a negative connotation, is there a message our Anglican martyrs can still preach to us, and what would that be?
Well, I would say they most definitely have a message they can still preach to us, and it’s simply this: that faced with our modern battles, faced with increasing pressure from secular progressivism, on the one hand, and Islamic fundamentalism, on the other, to compromise our faith in order to avoid persecution, we must stand fast. And I think they’d tell us that we must stand fast by becoming radically ordinary in our faith. That’s what I believe their lives represent to us.
These were men were radically committed to the ordinary Christian faith—what C.S. Lewis would call “Mere Christianity.” And it was that radical commitment to ordinary Christianity which both provoked the world’s opposition and gave them power to stand firm under that opposition. It is the type of Christianity that we in America are going to have to return to if we’re going to have their courage to remain faithful under growing opposition here in our own times and in our own country.
So what did our Anglican reformers give us that still calls us to this kind of radically ordinary Christianity? Well, in reality, they gave us absolutely nothing new, nothing that the ancient Christians of the first five centuries of the Church did not believe or practice in the time of the Church’s greatest persecution. Archbishop John Jewell, who was the archbishop of Canterbury under Elizabeth I, made the main point of his defense of the Anglican faith that it was not some radically new thing:
“We have returned to the Apostles and the old Catholic Fathers. We have planted no new religion, but only preserved the old that was undoubtedly founded and used by the Apostles of Christ and other holy Fathers of the Primitive Church” (Apologia Ecclesia Anglicanae).
No new religion, just the religion and faith that all Christians everywhere had always believed and practiced. You see, the point is, you don’t have to some radical form of Christianity to be radically committed. You don’t have to have all kinds of new and modern and “relevant” ways of doing Christianity that were made up yesterday, and are simply modeled after pop-American psychological and entertainment forms, which, because they last about a nanosecond in the broad scheme of the life of the Church, demonstrate that they have absolutely no power whatsoever to transform people into the kind of courageous Christians who went to the lions singing and praising God, or to the flames trusting that they’d light a candle for the generations that followed.
The English Reformers call us to be radically committed, but radically committed to nothing radically new.
So what did they give us that sort of embodies this kind of radical ordinariness, or what we might call simple, catholic Christianity? Well, there were three main things: a reformed liturgy, founded upon the Bible, in the Book of Common Prayer; a reformed, biblical faith in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion; and a foundation for biblical preaching in the Book of Homilies. Those three things are the great legacy of our Anglican Reformers to us who are their spiritual descendants.
First, a reformed liturgy, founded upon the Bible. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the English Reformation was to give the liturgy back to the people, and not just by translating it into English, but even more so in returning it to its proper place as the common prayer of the congregation. You see, in the Middle Ages, the liturgy—that which most embodies our faith in a living way—became almost the sole “property,” if you will, of the monks, of sort of the professionally religious people in the monasteries. Cranmer’s great genius was to take the daily office of the monastery and make it accessible to the lay people, as it had been in the Early Church. He did this, as you might know, by taking the eight offices of prayer of the monks and condensing them into two: what were originally called Matins and Evensong, but which we now know as Morning and Evening Prayer—our Daily Office. And with this reform of the Daily Office, he included a massive increase in the amount of Scripture to be read, so that the whole book of the Psalms would be read once a month, and the Old Testament once a year, and the New Testament three times a year, so that the foundation of the life of the people would be prayer and the reading of God’s holy Word—that in addition to the weekly Eucharist which was again brought back to the people. So a radical commitment to ordinary Christianity, as Cranmer saw it, was a commitment to praying the Daily Office, along with celebrating the weekly Eucharist.
Second, a reformed and biblical faith. The purpose of the Articles of Religion, which Cranmer wrote with the help of Ridley, was to lay out for the church the simple small-c catholic faith, avoiding on the one hand the novel doctrines of late medieval Catholicism, and on the other the excessive reforms of the Anabaptists. It was Cranmer’s basic principle not to try to define anything that God hasn’t defined, which again makes the Anglican faith as contained in the Articles mere Christianity. And so a radical commitment to ordinary Christianity is a commitment to maintaining the biblical faith of the Articles of Religion.
Third, a foundation for biblical preaching in the Book of Homilies. This is probably the part of the legacy of the English Reformers that is least known to us today, but is still incredibly important. You see, in the 16th century few of the parish priests had ever preached a sermon, because that task was left to visiting friars and traveling preachers—that in addition to the fact that many of them were incapable of preaching a sermon due to their lack of education and biblical knowledge. So Cranmer, with the help of Latimer, went back to the ancient catholic practice of providing homilies to be read in the churches by those who were unable or unauthorized to preach, so that again the biblical faith of the Reformation could be brought to the people. So they wrote twelve sermons which comprise what’s known as the First Book of Homilies. A second was written by others after their deaths.
Cranmer also had the idea of creating centers for the training of candidates for ordination, training them to study the Scriptures and to write their own sermons—what we now call seminaries, our own being named after Cranmer himself, fittingly. So again a radical commitment to ordinary Christianity meant in the minds of the English Reformers a commitment to delivering and to hearing biblical preaching.
You see, you don’t have to have a radical faith to be radically committed. All you need to be is committed to the ordinary Christian faith and the ordinary way of living out that faith—to the small-c catholic faith; to mere Christianity. That will be enough to provoke the world’s opposition on the one hand—Jesus said if they did it to Me they’ll to it to you; it’s enough for the servant to be like his Master. But it will also be the only thing that will give you the strength to remain faithful to the Master under that opposition. It’s the kind of Christianity that can stand up to radical Islamists when they say to our Christian brothers and sisters in the Middle East that they dare not go to church and worship Yeshua, but they do anyway. It’s the only kind of Christianity that will be able to stand up to the increasing antagonism of secular-progressivism here in America—radically ordinary Christianity.
That is what our English Reformers have given us. That is the legacy of our Anglican martyrs, Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley, and Hugh Latimer. May God give us the grace to continue to carry the candle they lit more than four-hundred and fifty years ago by being radically committed to the ordinary Christian faith they preserved for us. +
Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity, 2021
Text: Matt. 9:1-8
The Very Rev. Jerry D. Kistler
St. Stephen’s Anglican Church
“Who On Earth Can Forgive Sins?”
Some things are easy to promise, hard to deliver. There’s a bronze plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty with a very famous inscription that reads, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” Here, inscripturated as the nation’s welcome mat to the unfortunates of all other nations of the world, is the promise of America: “Come to me, and I will open the golden doors of freedom and prosperity, opportunity for all, comfort from oppression, self-determination, the Good Life, The American Dream!” Easy to promise; hard to deliver, as the thousands going through the turnstiles of Ellis Island would discover.
America still promises the world to its faithful masses. And we the people expect her to keep her promises. Daniel Boorstin, the former Librarian of Congress, sums up the American expectation this way: he says,
“When we pick up our newspaper at breakfast, we expect - we even demand - that it bring us momentous events since the night before. We turn on the car radio as we drive to work and expect “news” to have occurred since the morning newspaper went to press. Returning in the evening, we expect our house not only to shelter us, to keep us warm in winter and cool in summer, but to relax us, to dignify us, to encompass us with soft music and interesting hobbies, to be a playground, a theater, and a bar. We expect our two-week vacation to be romantic, exotic, cheap and effortless. We expect a far-away atmosphere if we go to a near-by place; and we expect everything to be relaxing, sanitary, and Americanized if we go to a far-away place. We expect new heroes every season, a literary masterpiece every month, a dramatic spectacular every week, a rare sensation every night…
“We expect anything and everything…. We expect compact cars which are spacious; luxurious cars which are economical. We expect to be rich and charitable, powerful and merciful, active and reflective, kind and competitive. We expect to be inspired by mediocre appeals for “excellence,” to be made literate by illiterate appeals for literacy. We expect to eat and stay thin,… to go to the “church of our choice” and yet feel its guiding power over us, to revere God and to be God.
“Never have people been more the masters of their environment. Yet never has a people felt more deceived and disappointed.”
You see, we expect America to deliver on its easy promises, and we’re disillusioned when it can’t. If you look around, if you’re perceptive to the signs of the times, you’ll notice that disappointment and despair reign in America. And disappointment and despair reign because America has all but ceased to bring the tired, huddled masses to the One who makes the hard promises and delivers easily.
“Then, behold, they brought to Him a paralytic lying on a bed. And Jesus, seeing their faith, said to the paralytic, “Son, take heart; your sins are forgiven you.”
Imagine the situation. Jesus is back home from a healing tour in and around the region of Galilee. On this tour a leper had said to him, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” And Jesus answered, “I am willing; be cleansed.” A Roman Centurion asked Jesus to heal his sick servant, but was unwilling to have Jesus trouble himself so much as to come to his house. Instead he said, “Just speak the word, and I know it will be done.” And Jesus marveled at the greatness of this Gentile’s faith in his authority over disease, and healed his son. On this tour, Jesus and his disciples were crossing the Sea of Galilee and were and suddenly caught in a violent storm. Jesus actually had to be awakened by his frantic disciples. But when he was awakened he stood and rebuked the wind and the sea, and they instantly became calm. This time it’s the disciples who marveled: “Who can this be, that even the winds and the sea obey Him!” Jesus has authority over disease, and even the over forces of nature.
Now the crowds of people having seen these and many other miracles follow Jesus back to his home town in Capernaum. And when He enters a house, the crowds so throng the place that there is no longer even a way to go in or out. And you know the story. The only way the four men could bring their helpless friend to Jesus was through the roof. Imagine that. Here’s everybody sitting around Jesus, and suddenly a guy on a bed comes down from the ceiling right in front of the Lord. Its a dramatic scene. The tension is thick in the air. The people are wondering what Jesus will do. But what Jesus says is even more dramatic, and causes an even greater stir.
“Son, take heart. Your sins are forgiven you.”
Nobody could deny that Jesus had authority and power over the physical. They could all see it. Not even the scribes and Pharisees could deny it. But what no one would have expected is that Jesus would make such a promise and claimed such an authority over the very thoughts and intents of the human heart: “Your sins are forgiven you!”
You know, that’s an easy thing to say, but hard to deliver on. It’s a very easy thing for a man to claim he can make you right with God. There’s no way to falsify it. There’s no way to come up with a test to prove he really doesn’t have that power. That’s why so many cults have sprung up around men who claim their own authority to get people in good with God. Just do what the cult leader tells you to do, put your faith in him, give him all your cars and you money and your children, and you’re certain to be accepted by God. Easy to promise, hard to prove he can’t come through on his promise.
And this is what the scribes thought. “Here’s one of those false prophets—a cult leader—deceiving the people into following him by making the easy promise of the forgiveness of their sins” And so they begin to accuse him in their hearts: “This man blasphemes! What man on earth has the authority to forgive sins?”
Jesus had an advantage over them. He could see their thoughts! And Jesus says, “Fine. You want to accuse me of making easy promises and not delivering? Which is easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or ‘Get up and walk’?
Now I have no idea whether it is easier on a metaphysical level for the Son of God to forgive sins or to heal someone of paralysis. But it’s certainly easier to say, ‘your sins are forgiven’, than ‘get up and walk.’ It would be really easy to say, “Because I’m a Christian and have had my sins forgiven God has given me the power to walk on water, but I don’t want to walk on water because it would put God to the test.” That would be very easy to say. And I remember actually thinking that way back in my charismatic days. But now if I actually stepped out onto the water and stood there for a while, there would be no more question that I was a Christian and have had my sins forgiven. If I can deliver on the hard claim, how much more can I deliver on the easier claim. And this is the kind of argument Jesus uses.
He says, “That you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,”—then he said to the paralytic, “Arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.” And immediately the man arouse, and went to his house healed, and forgiven.
You see, Christ delivers on the hard promises. But you know it was in fact harder for Him to say, “Your sins are forgiven you,” because by that promise He pledged himself to deliver. He pledged himself to go to the cross—the only place on earth where He could make good His promise. And He shows us today that, because of His cross, He does have authority on earth to forgive sins—your sins, and my sins.
Christ still has authority on earth to forgive sins. He has given authority and commandment to His ministers to declare and pronounce to you His people, being penitent, the absolution and remission of your sins. It is in the name and authority of Christ Himself that either the bishop or I can say to you, “Take heart, your sins are forgiven you.” This is the wonderful comfort and consolation of the gospel that Christ has entrusted to His Church. When Jesus instituted the ordained ministry, He said to those first to be ordained, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (Jn. 20:23). This is what we call the institution of the Office of the Keys—the keys of the Kingdom. But not only the ordained clergy, but each one of you, as priests in the house of God, can minister the encouragement of Christ’s forgiveness to one another.
We ought to be ministering the comfortable words of the gospel to one another. But each of us also ought to avail ourselves of the comfort and the strength we may receive by confessing our sins to one another, by confessing our sins to those who hold the office of the keys of the kingdom, and hearing the declaration of pardon by the authority of Christ. This is what Christ has ordained for his people.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks of the strength and comfort we receive through the confession of our sins. He says
“Sin demands to have a man by himself. It withdraws him from the community. The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him, and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation. Sin wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light. In the darkness of the unexpressed it poisons the whole being of a person. This can happen even in the midst of a pious community. In confession the light of the gospel breaks into the darkness and seclusion of the heart. The sin must be brought into the light. The unexpressed must be openly spoken and acknowledged. All that is secret and hidden is made manifest. It is a hard struggle until sin is openly admitted, but God breaks gates of brass and bars of iron.
“Since the confession of sin is made in the presence of a Christian brother, the last stronghold of self-justification is abandoned. The sinner surrenders; he give up all his evil. He gives his heart to God, and he finds the forgiveness of all his sin in the fellowship of Jesus Christ and his brother. The expressed, acknowledged sin has lost all its power. It has been revealed and judged as sin. It can no longer tear the fellowship asunder. Now the fellowship bears the sin of the brother. He is no longer alone with his evil for he has cast off his sin in confession and handed it over to God. It has been taken away from him. Now he stands in the fellowship…the sin confessed has helped him define true fellowship with the brethren in Jesus Christ.”
Having availed myself of the opportunity to confess my sins to my brothers and fathers, and to hear the declaration of Christ’s forgiveness, I can say from personal experience that what Bonhoeffer says here is true. There is great strength and comfort to be found in confessing our sins to one another.
Now does this mean I want to construct confessional booths in the church? Does this mean you’re required to come so many times per year and confess your sins and receive penances? Absolutely not. Confessing our sins and hearing the words of absolution should always be a matter of liberty and the expression of the pastoral ministry of the gospel, never a mandatory ritual. But it’s there for us. The comfort and strength we may receive is there to all believers. So when speaking about who should come to Confession, one Anglican minister along time ago put it this way: He said, “All may, some should, none must.” And I would just add to that: don’t deny yourself the power and comfort of the gospel in its direct and personal ministration. Jesus came to the paralytic and spoke directly to him, and said, “Son, take heart, your sins are forgiven.” We all need to hear these words spoken to us in the name and authority of Christ.
So may Christ give us the faith and courage to continually come to Him. And may Christ give us the grace to bring each other to Him, that we may hear those comfortable words: “Take heart; your sins are forgiven.” +
Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity, 2021
Text: Ecclesiastes 3:16-4:3
The Very Rev. Jerry Kistler
St. Stephen’s Anglican Church
“Life Is Unfair, Then You Die… Right?”
“Life’s unfair, then you die.” That might be an apt way of summarizing this section of Ecclesiastes.
In just a few weeks we’ll be observing Oxford Martyrs Day, on which we Anglicans will remember that most of the leading Reformers of the English Church, from which come all of the various Anglican churches in the world, were martyred for the gospel they worked so hard to preserve for us, and which they enshrined in the Book of Common Prayer—men with names that, unfortunately, have all but been forgotten, even by us: names like Hooper, Rodgers, Taylor, Bradford, Ridley, Latimer, and Cranmer. Every one of them gave his ultimate witness to the Good News of God’s free grace in Jesus Christ – that gospel that we may now so freely believe and can therefore so easily take for granted—every one of them gave his ultimate witness by being burnt alive at one of Bloody Mary’s stakes.
We’re reminded just about every day from the news we hear coming out Central Asia and other places throughout the world of the cost of discipleship, the cost of picking up our crosses and following Christ—that martyrdom is still very much with us, as it has been for two-thousand years.
Now if we were to look at the martyrdom of the English Reformers, and the martyrdom of our brothers and sisters throughout the world today, from a purely human perspective—from that ‘under the sun’ perspective that Solomon looks at all of the experiences of life—then we’d have to come to his same cynical conclusion. Life was unfair, and then they died. Because, particularly in the case the English Reformers, in the place where there should have been justice—in the highest court of the land—there was wickedness, and in the place where there should have been righteousness—in the Church—there was iniquity.
It seems that in this world the righteous always suffer, and the wicked always prosper. What’s the saying? “Nice guys finish last.” The world seems to be set up such that if you really want to get ahead you’ve got to be absolutely ruthless; you’ve got to cheat, and steal, and push, and grab every opportunity you can out of the hands of others. I love the line from “The Hunt for Red October,” where the crusty old Senator says, “I’m a politician. That means when I’m not kissin’ babies, I’m stealin’ their lollipops.” That’s often the perception we have of our governing officials, which is not totally without foundation.
Injustice seems to triumph in the world. How many times have you experienced it in your own life? You’ve experienced it at work when your boss fired a bunch of people, maybe you included, just to raise himself, and his cronies with him, up the corporate ladder more rapidly. That’s what happened to me, and that was in a so-called Christian ministry. I can feel Solomon’s pain when he says, “In the place of righteousness, iniquity was there.” I’d never experienced such injustice before or since from the man who, in my opinion, stole the title, “The Bible Answer Man.”
You see injustice in our courts, “the place of judgment,” when some judge wants to legislate his own social agenda from the bench and gives a slap on the wrist to a hardened criminal because his parents weren’t nice to him growing up, or whatever. Or, it seems that the rich get the best justice money can buy.
So we can identify with the psalmist’s complaint that “the wicked in his pride persecutes the poor; He blesses the greedy and renounces the Lord…His ways are always prospering.”
Now we ought to have a problem with that. We ought to have a problem with the injustices of the world. And I don’t mean simply to point out the obvious. The problem is God’s word says things should be different. God’s word reveals what we might call the “Retribution Principle.” Simply stated, it’s the Scriptural principle that the righteous will prosper, and the wicked will suffer. Conforming to God’s will brings rewards, and violating God’s will brings punishment. There is blessing for obedience, and cursing for disobedience. That’s what the word of God says. And yet our experience seems to contradict God’s revelation at this point. That’s the problem.
Again, looking at if from a completely human perspective, Solomon sees that the ultimate injustice is death itself, because death comes to everyone equally. Death makes no distinction between the righteous and the wicked, or even between humans and animals. So why be righteous? Why live by the rules? Why not act beastly? Since our fate is the same as the beasts, why not live by the ethics of evolution: the survival of the fittest. Why not live by your animalistic urges? Why be righteous, if in the end the sinner’s reward –death—is going to come to you as well?
You see, the retribution principle doesn’t seem to be in effect in this life, and then death comes to you anyway. So the adage rings true, doesn’t it? It does seem that “Life is unfair, and then you die.”
But death isn’t the end of the story, is it? The one little ray of hope we get from Solomon’s message, the one brief glimpse at the “above the sun” perspective Solomon allows himself to take, comes when, after pondering the injustices of the world he says, “I said in my heart, ‘God shall judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time [appointed] there for every purpose and for every work.”
The book of Hebrews says, “It is appointed for men once to die, then the judgment.” And St. Peter writes in his second epistle,
“For if God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but sent them down to [Hades], putting them into gloomy dungeons to be held for judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others; if he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the filthy lives of lawless men … -- if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials and to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment, while continuing their punishment” (2 Pet. 4-9).
The retribution principle may not seem to be in effect in this world, but the reality is that God is holding the unrighteous for the day of judgment. The cosmic law, as Walter Martin, the real Bible Answer Man, used to put it is: “Nobody ain’t gonna get away with nothin’.”
The retribution principle is in effect in this world, but we can only see it from that above the sun perspective. We can only see it with the eyes of faith.
Faith believes that Jesus Christ suffered the ultimate injustice on the cross for our sins, but then was vindicated in His righteousness by His resurrection. Death could not hold Him. And in His resurrection, we see the guarantee of our own vindication. Paul says, He was delivered up for our offenses, and was raised again for our justification.
Faith believes that Christ ascended far above the sun, into heaven itself, and has sat down at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. So that now, in the place of ultimate justice, Jesus Christ the righteous is found there, and from thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
The day of judgment and retribution awaits us all. “For,” Paul says, “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body… whether good or bad.” That day will be a day of eternal condemnation for the wicked, but a day of eternal vindication for the righteous.
But who are the righteous? Who are those who can withstand the fire of God’s judgment? You are the righteous. You are the just. You are the good, if you persevere in Christ by faith. Jesus said, “Abide in me, for apart from me you can do nothing.” Christ is your righteousness before the Father, and you will stand tall in the judgment if you stand firm in Christ. “Therefore,” again as St. Paul says, “Take heed, lest ye fall.” “For it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
Bishop Latimer is said to have begun a sermon in the presence of King Henry VIII with these words: “Latimer, Latimer, thou art going to speak before the high and mighty King Henry VIII, who is able, it he thinks fit, to take thy life away. Be careful what thou sayest. But Latimer, Latimer, remember also thou art about to speak before the King of kings, and Lord of lords. Take heed that thou dost not displease Him.”
In the 37th Psalm king David writes,
“Do not fret because of evildoers,
Nor be envious of the workers of iniquity.
For they shall soon be cut down like grass,
And wither as the green herb…
Commit your way to the Lord,
Trust also in Him,
And He shall bring it to pass.
He shall bring forth your righteousness as the light,
And your justice as the noonday.
Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for Him;
Do not fret because of him who prospers in his way,
Because of the man who brings wicked schemes to pass.
Cease from anger, and forsake wrath;
Do not fret—it only causes harm.
For evildoers shall be destroyed;
But those who wait on the Lord,
They shall inherit the earth.” +
The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity, 2021
Text: Genesis 15:1-21
The Very Rev. Jerry D. Kistler
St. Stephen’s Anglican Church
Does God Swear?
“I swear to God.” What does a person mean when utters those words? Is he necessarily blaspheming? Sometimes he is—when he’s mad and spits out those words in disgust, for instance. But it depends on the context. Most of the time what a person means by that saying—“I swear to God”—is, “I’m telling the truth. I’m really telling the truth, and you can trust what I’m saying, or you can trust that I’m going to keep my word.” Actually what he’s really saying, even if he doesn’t know it, is, “May God deal with me if I’m lying, or may God deal with me, ever so severely, if I don’t keep my word. I’m calling a curse upon myself if don’t keep my word, or if I’m lying. God will prove me out to be a liar or someone doesn’t keep his promise. And that’s why you can trust me.” It’s actually reflective of a very old form of oath-taking, or the swearing of a vow.
Now unfortunately, those words, “I swear to God,” fall off people’s lips today in such a way that they make you trust them less when they utter them. For so many it’s an empty oath. They are taking the Lord’s name in vain because they have no intension of telling the truth, because they don’t believe God will hold them to their word. Unfortunately for them, God will hold them to their oath whether they believe it or not. When people stand up in court and swear on God’s word, the Bible, that they’ll tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, but then perjure themselves—I fear for those people. God exists whether they believe in Him or not. And He will deal with them if they swear by His name or by His word, and then do not keep their oath. If you’re lying, please don’t swear to God that you’re telling the truth. God will hold you to your word, in this life or in the next.
But here’s a really interesting question: Does God swear? Has God ever said, in a sense, “I swear to God,” and put Himself under His own curse if He should not keep His word? Well, I think you know that that’s exactly what’s going on in our Old Testament Lesson from Genesis chapter 15.
It is for many a very enigmatic passage because we generally aren’t familiar with the ceremonial way people used to take oaths back four-thousand years ago in the ancient near-east. There’s probably not a lot we’re familiar with about what people did four-thousand years ago in the ancient near east. But anybody from that time would have understood instantly what was going on between God and Abraham when God told Abraham to cut a bunch of animals in half, and to spread them out in such a way that they became a kind of pathway of death, and then when God himself, under the image of a torch and a smoking fire pot, passed between the parts. They would have understood that this was the oath-taking ceremony that sealed or ratified a covenant. As a matter of fact, if was such an important part of the ratification of a covenant, that people back then used to say, not that a covenant was made, but that a covenant was cut. You cut a covenant with someone, when you went through this oath-swearing ceremony by passing between the dead animal parts. What you were essentially saying was, “May God do to me what has been done to these dead animals—may I be ripped in two and scattered to be food for the birds—if I should not keep my word, if I should not keep my commitments to the covenant.” That’s pretty serious, isn’t it? Maybe if we made people do that in court, they might think twice before they perjured themselves.
But, do you see, this is what God does when He makes a covenant with Abraham and all his descendants. God passes between the parts. God swears an oath. And because there in no one high to swear by, He swears by Himself. “I will bring the curse of death upon Myself, if I should not keep my promises.” That’s what He saying.
That ought to amaze us, and it ought to speak to us about God’s amazing grace: that though God could never lie, even still He binds Himself under oath to never change His word, to never nullify His promise to all of Abraham’s seed as long as history continues, to the very end of the age.
This is exactly what the author to the Hebrews tells us in the sixth chapter of his epistle.
“For when God made a promise to Abraham, because He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself, saying, ‘Surely blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply you.’ And so, after [Abraham] patiently endured, he obtained the promise. For men indeed swear by the greater, and an oath for confirmation is for them an end of all dispute. Thus God, determining to show more abundantly to the heirs of promise the [unchangeableness] of His [purpose] confirmed it with an oath, that by two immutable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we might have strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us” (Heb. 6:13-18)
Notice that the author applies God’s promise to Abraham, sealed as it was by God’s oath, to us as Abraham’s heirs. It was so we might have strong consolation.
Now I know of myself, through my genealogical studies, that I do have aphysical link to Abraham. I am a blood descendant of the patriarch. I don’t know about you. I think I’m here with a bunch of Gentile! But is this the way—by finding genealogical proof that we have Jewish blood in us—that we assure ourselves that God’s promises to Abraham apply to us? Thankfully, no. For as we read in our Epistle Lesson from Galatians this morning, “Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, ‘And to seeds,’ as of many, but as of one, ‘And to your Seed,’ who is Christ.”
In other words, Christ is the true Seed, the true Descendant of Abraham, and therefore the true Heir of all the promises—the one to whom God’s oath ultimately applies. This is what St. Paul say in Galatian 3:19. He’s asking the question of why the Law of Moses was added, seemingly as a condition for receiving the promises to Abraham. But Paul says, “[The Law] was added because of transgression, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made.” I just want you to focus on the second part of that statement: “till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made.” What he’s saying, again, is that Christ was the true heir of the promises of God. And, yes, He perfectly fulfilled the conditions for receiving those promises, because He perfectly kept the Law.
So what does that have to do with us? How do the oath-sealed promises of God apply to us? How are we the seed of Abraham and heirs of the promises? Well, have you been baptized? Well, Paul says in verse 27 of chapter 3, “For as many of you who were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (vv. 27-29).
You see, God’s oath-sealed promises apply to you because you are, by baptism, in Jesus Christ the true Heir. And the promises are, if you’ll recall from you’re reading of Genesis, threefold: Land, Seed, and Blessing. Right? Do you remember?
So with regard to the Land promise, Paul say in Romans that God promised to Abraham that he would be the heir of, what that little strip of desert on the eastern end of the Mediterranean? No. He says that God promised that he and his seed would be heirs of the world. The Greek word is kosmos. In other words, the land of Canaan was just a type of the ultimate promise that Abraham and his seed would inherit the entire world, even the entire universe. That’s a big promise! But this is the promise Hebrews tells us that Jesus has now received—He has been appointed “heir of all things,” it is written in chapter 1, verse 2. Well, if you are in Christ, and you’re made a fellow heir with Him, what does that mean for you? It means you too are the heir of all things. “All things are yours,” Paul says in 1 Corinthians, “And you are Christ’s, and Christ’s is God’s” The universe belongs to you as a fellow heir with Christ. “The meek shall inherit the earth,” those who are meek in Christ, who receive all things by His righteousness, and not their own.
The Seed promise is yours as well, if you think of yourself first and foremostly as a member of Christ’s body, the Church. For remember that God promised to make of Abraham a great nation, and that he would multiply his seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand of the seashore, and that in him, all the nations, indeed all the families of the earth, would be blessed. Well, that promise is being carried out now in Christ’s body. Think about it. We’ve go from about 120 souls at the end of Christ’s earthly ministry now to about 2.2 or 2.4 billion people who confess the name of Christ. I don’t know if I can work out the percentage of increase there, but it’s big! And the oath-sealed promise of God applies to you in the sense that He is keeping His word to add thousands upon thousands of new brothers and sisters in Christ to your family from all the nations every year. But it’s not complete. And we need to pray and work to that end. That’s our great commission.
The blessing itself, promised to go to all the nations of the earth in Abraham’s seed, is, as we’re again told by Paul in Galatians, the blessing of justification by faith in Jesus Christ. Galatians 3:8, “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the Gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, ‘In you all the nations shall be blessed.’”
What is it again that we are justified in Jesus Christ? It’s that it’s just-as-if-I’d never sinned, and just-as-if-I’d fulfilled all righteousness. It is that because we are in Christ the righteous, God looks upon us and sees us, not as the sinners that we are, but as though we had kept His law perfectly ourselves. He looks at us as covered by the righteousness of His Son. That’s our justification.
Land, Seed, and Blessing—these are the promises of God, which God swore a self-maledictory oath—a curse upon Himself—to seal, “that by two immutable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we might have strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us.”
Does God swear? The truth is that, not only has He sworn, but He has also fulfilled His oath to us by entering in this world in the flesh, and having His flesh torn, and by going down in the horror of curse and death, that He might redeem us from the curse of sin and death and make us children of God and heirs with Him of all the promises. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ.+
Twelfth Sunday after Trinity, 2021
Text: Genesis 41:1a, 8, 14-40
The Very Rev. Jerry Kistler
St. Stephen’s Anglican Church
“Out of the Pits, into the Palace”
Our Old Testament lesson from Genesis today began with these words: “Then it came to pass, at the end of two full years, that Pharaoh had a dream.” Two full years. Two full years since what? In the chapters that precede this one, we read about how Joseph’s brothers envied and hated him because he was their father’s favorite, and because of Joseph’s dreams that God would one day make him their ruler - which he seemed to enjoy sharing with them a little too much. As a result his brothers grabbed the opportunity to sell him into slavery in Egypt and to deceive their father into believing a wild animal had killed him, while making a bit of pocket change for themselves in the deal.
So life’s pretty bad for Joseph. But then it gets worse. He rises quickly in his Egyptian master’s house, becoming overseer over the whole estate, only then, by a twist of fate – or better, by a twisted woman – to take a nosedive down to lowest level of Egyptian society. He gets locked up in one of Pharaoh’s dungeons to be left there till he dies. Then who knows how many years he’s in there before another couple of guys are sent down there – Pharaoh’s chief butler and chief baker – both of whom have dreams that Joseph is able to interpret for them. But then when what he says about both of them comes true, the guy who gets to live and be restored to Pharoah’s service forgets about him, and forgets his promise to try to help him get out of prison.
That’s where Joseph’s been for two full years– down in the dungeons of Egypt, separated from the love of his father, haunted by the hatred of his brothers, forgotten by his friends.
So where’s God in all of this? When life goes into the pits, isn’t that the question we ask? “Where is God in all of this?” Every time there’s a disaster the question people always ask is, “Where was God?” “Where was God on September 11th, 2001? Where was God when the Tsunami hit south Asia? Where was God when Katrina and Rita ravaged the Gulf Coast? Philip Yancey wrote a book entitled Where is God When It Hurts? It’s a question people want an answer to. That’s why Yancey’s book has sold over a million copies.
The answer to the question of where God was when Joseph’s life literally went into the pits is succinctly summarized for us by St. Stephen in Acts 7:9, 10. “And the patriarchs, becoming envious, sold Joseph into Egypt. But God was with him and delivered him out of all his troubles, and gave him favor and wisdom in the presence of Pharaoh, king of Egypt.” God was with Joseph down in the dungeon. God was with Joseph when his life went into the pits, molding and shaping and transforming him by that experience to be the person He wanted him to be. To be the person who would have the faith, and the humility, and the strength of character, when God finally did exalt him, to use his power and authority not for his own self-aggrandizement, not to gloat or to take vengeance on his brothers, but to accomplish what had been God’s plan all along: to save the lives of the very ones who had sold him into bondage; to save the covenant line from extinction, and to ensure that the promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would not go unfulfilled.
You see, it took all those years of suffering and hardship to make Joseph fit the role God had shown to him in his dreams. But God was there with him, down in that dungeon, working out his purpose for Joseph’s life.
The apostle James writes, “Count it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, that you may be perfect [or mature], lacking in nothing.”
Where is God when it hurts? The mature answer of faith is: He’s there in the pain. He’s there in the hardship, like a master stone carver, chiseling away our hard edges, and molding our character.
The life of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn somewhat parallels the life of Joseph. Solzhenitsyn served in the Russian army during World War II where he rose to the rank of captain and was twice decorated for bravery. But then his whole world came crashing down when, on Feb. 8, 1945, he was arrested for having written a critical remark about Stalin in a letter to a friend – referring to him as “The Boss,” or in other words, “The Mob-Boss.” Sentenced without a trial, he spent the next eight years going from one frozen labor camp to another. His book One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, for which he received the Nobel Prize for Literature, is semi-autobiographical, reflecting his own inhuman experiences in the gulags. But Solzhenitsyn says it is was there in the gulags, through that terrible inhumane experience, that he came to the life of faith, so that when he was finally released from prison in 1953, his character had been so honed by his experience that his writings began to exert a profound moral and spiritual influence on soul of the Russian people, an influence that I believe at least contributed to the fall of communism. God was with Solzhenitsyn in the gulag.
But one of the things I find so fascinating about Solzhenitsyn is his view of the West, his view of our culture as having no soul because we have not had to suffer. In his famous commencement address he gave to the graduating class of Harvard University in 1978, he spoke these profound words:
“Today, well-being in the life of Western society has begun to reveal its pernicious mask…Should I be asked whether I would propose the West, such as it is today, as a model to my country, I would frankly have to answer negatively. No, I could not recommend your society as an ideal for the transformation of ours. Through deep suffering, people in our country have now achieved a spiritual development of such intensity that the Western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive…. A fact which cannot be disputed is the weakening of human personality in the West, while in the East it has become firmer and stronger. Six decades for our people and three decades for the people of Easter Europe; during that time we have been through a spiritual training far in advance of Western experience. The complex and deadly crush of life has produced stronger, deeper and more interesting personalities than those generated by standardized Western well-being. Therefore, if our society were to be transformed into yours, it would mean an improvement in certain aspects, but also a change for the worse on some particularly significant points. Of course, a society cannot remain in an abyss of lawlessness as is the case in our country. But it is also demeaning for it to stay on such a soulless and smooth plane of legalism as is the case in yours. After the suffering of decades of violence and oppression, the human soul longs for things higher, warmer and purer than those offered by today’s mass living habits, introduced as by a calling card by the revolting invasion of commercial advertising, by TV stupor and by intolerable music.”
Profound and challenging words, indeed! But if Solzhenitsyn was right, we can understand why the Bible says over and over that suffering is a spiritual training ground. We can understand why James says, “Count it all joy, when you encounter various trials.” God is with us in our trials. God is with us when our lives go down into the pits. As a matter of fact, if you can hear it, God is the one who brings our lives into pits. He is a sovereign God. All things happen according to His purposes for our lives. As the Psalmist wrote, “You have laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness, in the depths… You have afflicted me with all your waves. You have put away my acquaintances far from me; You have made me an abomination to them” (Ps. 88:6-8). Remember what Joseph said to his brothers we he finally revealed himself to them. “It was no you who sent me here, but God.” God sent him down to Egypt as a slave. God made Him Potifer’s prisoner. God sent his life down to the pits. But God sent Him into the pits in order to raise him up to the palace.
That’s what God’s purpose was for Joseph’s life. And that’s what God’s purpose is for our lives. God let’s our lives go into the pits that we might be humbled, that we might stop relying on ourselves, on our own wisdom and power, and to learn to rely on Him alone, so that He might exalt us to the highest position one can achieve in this world: to the place of a person of faith – a person who has faith in God and in His Son, so that we might be exalted with Him to the heavenly palaces. Remember that Jesus’ life went into the very pit of death, on account of which God has highly exalted Him and given Him the second seat in Heaven. And the promise is if we trust him, even when our lives go down in the darkness, we will be raised up to sit with in heaven. St. Paul says we will be glorified together with Him, if indeed we suffer with Him (Rom. 8:17).
And so again, as the Psalmist writes, “I waited patiently for the Lord; And He inclined to me, and heard my cry. He also brought me up out of the horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my steps. He has put a new son in my mouth – Praise to our God” (Ps. 40:1-2a).
You know, there’s a great old hymn in our hymnal that concludes with these words:
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face. +
Eleventh Sunday after Trinity, 2021
Text: 1 Corinthians 15:1-11
The Very Rev. Jerry D. Kistler
St. Stephen’s Anglican Church
If we kept reading past our lesson today from 1 Corinthians 15, we’d hear the Apostle Paul say, “Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Chris is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty… You are still in your sins. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most pitiable.”
Inconsistency. If anything could be said about us human beings, it’s that we are inconsistent. You might say we are consistently inconsistent.
Most of the time our inconsistencies are harmless and we can even find humor in them. Sort of like the time…
Danielle: Crispy Cream donuts.
What would Yogi Berra have been without inconsistency? “I never said most of the things I said,” he said. Winston Churchill himself could be positively Berra-esque at times. “I always avoid prophesying beforehand because it is much better to prophesy after the event has already taken place.” I don’t know if that’s an inconsistency, but I like it anyway.
But sometimes our inconsistencies can be deadly. The church at Corinth was making a formal confession that Christ was risen from the dead. This was part of the Faith once delivered to the saints. Paul delivered to them first of all that which he also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day, according to the Scriptures. This was part of the creed of the Early Church, the same creed we confess today, and the same creed the Corinthian Christians no doubt confessed in some formal way, most likely at their baptism, very much the same way we or our sponsors confess the creed in our baptism. The priest asks the question, “Do you believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth? And in Jesus Christ his only begotten Son our Lord? And that he was conceived by the Holy Ghost; born of the Virgin Mary; that he suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; that he went down into hell [or Hades], and also did rise again the third day…” And the answer is, “All this I steadfastly believe.”
But at the same time that they were making this formal confession, there were some in the church—apparently a significant enough of a number for the apostle to address the issue—who were saying that “there is no resurrection of the dead.”
You see, this is the problem of Formalism, and it’s been with the Church for two-thousand years. Formalism is the beliefs and values we simply confess with our mouths. But real beliefs—those are the ones that actually direct our lives and our hopes. The Corinthians confessed with their mouths that Jesus had risen from the dead. But for many of them their real beliefs completely contradicted and stole away from them the true Christian hope that we have in our confession that Christ is risen from the dead. If the dead do not rise, Paul says, well then Christ Himself did not rise. And if Christ did not rise, then your faith is futile; you’re still in your sins.
Formalism has consequences, in other words. If you have private doctrines that are inconsistent with the Faith once delivered to the saints, you may lose the very thing you’re confessing with your lips that you gaining from the gospel: that is, the fullness of the hope Jesus Christ came to give us by His death, resurrection, and ascension.
So like I said, formalism is not a problem that only plagued the Corinthian church in the first century; it is certainly a problem—and maybe even more of a problem—in the Church here in the twenty-first century.
A TV host was having a debate with one of his guests and he said, “Don’t you believe in God?” The guest responded, “Yes, but what does that have to do with the way I live my life?” You see, in that instance, the guest’s belief in God is not a real belief, no matter how vehemently he might have confessed it. Because, again, it’s our real beliefs that direct our lives.
But we don’t have just anecdotal evidence of this kind of thing. I often quote the Barna Research Group because so often they prove, by scientific research, that there is a real difference between people’s formal beliefs and their real beliefs. In one study, 74% of those polled strongly affirmed that there is only one true God, who is holy and perfect, and who created and rules the world. But only 47% of them strongly agreed that their faith in that same God was relevant to the way they lived their lives.
In a 2007 study Barna found, “Surprisingly, the most significant Bible Story of all—the story of Jesus Christ rising from the dead, after being crucified and buried—was also the most widely embraced. Three out of four adults (75%) said they interpreted the narrative literally, while only one out of five (19%) said they did not take that story literally.” A majority also believed that Moses parted the Red Sea, David killed Goliath with a stone from a sling shot, and Peter actually walked on the water with Jesus.
But Barna also noted a significant disconnect between faith and practice. “While the level of literal acceptance of these Bible Stories is nothing short of astonishing given our cultural context, the widespread embrace of these accounts raises questions about the unmistakable gap between belief and behavior. On the one hand we have tens of millions of people who view these narratives as reflections of the reality, the authority and the involvement of God in our lives. On the other hand, a majority of these same people harbor a stubborn indifference toward God and His desire to have intimacy with them… It seems that millions of Americans believe the Bible content is true, but are not willing to translate those stories into action. Sadly, for many people, the Bible has become a respected but impersonal history lesson that stays removed from their life” (Oct. 21, 2007).
Not surprisingly, then, what I might call the “street beliefs” of many Christians are not consistent with their formal confession of the Creed or of their stated belief that the Bible is true and accurate in all that it teaches.
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard it, even among Anglicans who should know better; even among people who confess in the Apostle Creed, “I believe…in the resurrection of the body,” and in the Nicene Creed, “I believe…in the resurrection of the dead,” that nevertheless the ultimate goal of our salvation is that our spirits go to heaven when we die; that salvation is about going to heaven. What happened to the resurrection of our bodies? Did that confession just go out of our mouths and not make it back into our ears and into our minds and hearts?
The idea that salvation is just about our spirits going to heaven is pure Gnosticism. It isn’t Christianity at all. It is a denial of the clear teaching of Scripture and is just another subtle way of denying the resurrection of Christ. St. Paul clearly teaches that Jesus’ rising from the dead was the “firstfruits of the resurrection.” Well, how was Christ raised? He was raised bodily—the tomb was empty—and He ascended bodily. So is Christ going to be the only person in heaven with a body? If so, then He’s not just firstfruits; He’s the only fruit of the resurrection.
The belief that salvation is only about your spirit going to heaven makes Christ’s resurrection completely unimportant for your salvation. But if you make Christ’s resurrection unimportant, then there’s something wrong with your faith. There’s nothing wrong with the Faith once delivered to the saints; there’s something wrong with your private beliefs, and they need to change.
There’s another thing I hear all the time from people in the Church, again even from Anglicans who should know better. It’s a belief that completely contradicts and nullifies the gospel, and that is that “All good people go to heaven.”
Well, how does that work when we confess with Jesus Christ that “No one is good but One, that is God” (Mt. 19:17). If no one is good but God, how do all good people go to heaven? What good people? The Scripture clearly teaches that
“There is none righteous, no, not one.
There is none who understands;
There is none who seeks after God.
They have all turned aside;
They have together become unprofitable;
There is none who does good, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10-12).
And therefore, there is none who goes to heaven—and receive the resurrection of their bodies—by being good, because there is no one good. That means that salvation is, just as we confess with our mouths, entirely by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ. Ephesians chapter 2:
“And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others…. by grace you have been saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Eph. 2:1-3, 8-9).
Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (Jn. 14:6). But this is the Good News that people who aren’t good—that’s you and me and everybody in this world, including our friends and family members whom we so desperately desire to be saved—we and they can be saved through faith in Jesus Christ. It’s the good news that He has done all things necessary to bring us to the Father. But a living faith in Him is necessary. “God so loved the world that He gave is only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (Jn. 3:16). “I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus said. “He who believes in Me, though he may die, yet he shall live” (Jn. 11:25).
This is the Good News. But when you make it that all “good people”—who don’t really exist, but nevertheless—go to heaven, irrespective of faith in Jesus Christ, then the Good News is no longer good; it’s irrelevant. Why would you have to go out and fulfill the Great Commission to make disciples to Jesus Christ if everybody is going get there irrespective of faith in Christ? Again, you should be able to work out that when you make the Good News irrelevant, maybe there’s nothing wrong with the Good News; maybe there’s something wrong with your private beliefs that contradict it.
We must avoid formalism at all costs. We must avoid merely confessing with our mouths the Faith once delivered to the saints, the Good News of the gospel, while we have other beliefs that direct our lives contrary to it.
Don’t confess with your mouth that you believe Jesus when He said, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you,” but then not come to Church to receive the Eucharist.
Don’t say you believe there’s no salvation apart from a living faith in Jesus Christ, but then suggest to your unbelieving neighbors and family members that they’ll be okay, as long as they’re good people.
Don’t confess that you believe in the resurrection of the body, but then act like it doesn’t matter what you do in your body; it only matters what you do in your spirit.
Consistency. I know it’s a hard for us. But consistency between our formal beliefs—what we confess in the creeds and what we confess about the Scriptures—and our real beliefs—what directs our lives and our hopes—that’s what we need to strive for. Consistency. +
Text: St. Luke 9:28-36
The Rev. Jerry Kistler
St. Stephen’s Anglican Church
As He prayed, the appearance of His face was altered, and His robe became white and glistening.
The details of the story of the Transfiguration have always been fascinating to me. For instance, what’s the significance of Moses and Elijah being there with Jesus on the mountain? Well, let me ask you this: who were the only two people recorded in the Old Testament ever to see the glory of God on another mountain—on Mt. Sinai? Moses and Elijah. Isn’t that interesting. It was Moses and Elijah who beheld the glory of the Lord on Mt. Sinai, and now they’re here with Jesus on the Mountain of Transfiguration as His glory is revealed. Why? Because their presence testifies to the fact that the One they’re speaking with in glory now is the same One they spoke with in glory way back then on Mt. Sinai. Jesus is the I AM who revealed Himself to Moses in the burning bush, and whose glory he saw for a moment from the cleft in the rock; and Jesus is the God who passed by Elijah as he went out on the mountain and stood before the Lord. That’s the significance of Moses and Elijah’s presence on the mountain.
But what is it that Moses and Elijah were speaking to Jesus about on the mountain? Well, the New King James Version says that they were speaking to Him about His “decease.” But actually the Greek text literally says they were speaking to Him about His “exodus”—the exodus He was about to accomplish. In other words, Jesus was about to fulfill the real exodus, the one the old exodus from Egypt merely pointed forward to. For just as the old exodus delivered Israel from bondage, so Jesus’ exodus—His death as the true Passover Lamb, and His resurrection that brings us through the sea of death into new life—His exodus would deliver us from a far worse bondage—a bondage to sin and death. That’s what Moses and Elijah were discussing with Jesus. Wouldn’t you love to be privy to that conversation?
Well so then Peter was completely overwhelmed by the experience, like any of us would be. And like most of us who’ve had a sudden, unexpected and palpable break-through of the presence of God in our lives, he wanted to hold on to that moment and prolong the experience, rather than let it go and literally have to go back down the mountain to get on with his life and mission. So as Moses and Elijah were in the process of leaving, Peter suddenly jumps up and makes the suggestion that they build three booths—one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah—and that way, you see, he could contain and retain the experience. But the text says he didn’t really know that he was talking about. You see, God just doesn’t work that way. We can’t box up our special experiences with Him to be our sort of daily bread. He might give us a so-called “mountain-top experience,” but then, just like Moses and Elijah, he sends us back down the mountain, because that’s where He wants us to be most of the time, living out the life of faith by the aid of His usually means of grace—the Word and the Sacraments—not by extraordinary experiences. I wish we Christians would learn this principle!
But now as fascinated as I might be by the details of the Transfiguration, there’s really a more important message conveyed to us in this story by the voice of God Himself. For as the experience comes to its dramatic conclusion, and as the disciples are just about to have to walk back down the mountain to live out that life of faith and carry on their mission, suddenly a cloud from heaven overshadows them, and a holy fear falls upon the disciples as they enter into the cloud. It’s the same cloud the led the children of Israel through the wilderness and rested upon the top of Mt. Sinai. It’s the same cloud that Moses entered, and from which he received the Word of the Lord, the Old Covenant. It’s the cloud of the divine presence. And now on the Mountain of Transfiguration, God the Father speaks from the cloud and says, “This is My beloved Son. Hear Him!”
“Hear Him!” God says. “If you’re going to be able to live that life of faith, if you’re going to be able to fulfill your mission, you must hear My Son. He is My Word to the world. He’s everything I’ve ever wanted to say to you. His Word is My Word. And therefore, if you would hear Me, if you would know My will for your life, if you would be faithful to My calling upon your life, you must hear Him.
Now that word “hear” doesn’t really convey the force of what God is saying to us, because we hear a lot of things, but most of the time it’s just a bunch of noise that we filter out so we can listen to things that are really important. That describes the scene in my house while I’m trying to listen to the news, while the kids are bouncing off the walls. “Listen” is a better word. But I think maybe the best word is that quaint old English word that we don’t really use much anymore, but maybe we should. It’s the word “hearken.” ‘Hearken to Him.” It means more than hear; it means more than listen; it means to hear and to heed. It means to keep the sayings of Jesus. It means to hear and to obey and to put our faith in His Word. That’s the force of what God the Father is saying to us from the mountain. It means when we’ve heard Christ’s Word, however it comes to us, we stop and take it seriously, and then do something about it. It means that we hear and heed Christ’s Word whether we like it or not, whether we hear what we want to hear, or something that might be a bit challenging or even unpleasant to hear.
I mean, we’re all ready to hear and receive Jesus’ comforting words: “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, I will give you rest” (Mt. 11:28). But what about His not so comforting words, such as: “you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved”(Mt. 10:22), or “He who does not take up His cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me” (Mt. 10:38)? What do we do with those words?
We all love Jesus’ words in John 3:16: “For God so love the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” But what about John 3:18: “He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” Do you believe those words as much as you believe the others? Are those words authoritative in the way you think about your unbelieving next-door-neighbors, or co-workers, or family members? Have you truly hearkened to those words so that they move you to action, or have they just vibrated your eardrums a little, and not gotten any farther than that towards your heart and your hands and your feet?
Do you give the same authority to Jesus’ commandment to “Go, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…and teaching them all things that I have commanded,” as you do His command to “take eat, this is My body given for you”?
Do you love to hear Jesus’ words to the paralytic, “Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you”, and do you like to apply those words to yourself? I hope you do. But do you, with equal delight, apply to yourself the words of Jesus to Peter, when Peter asked how often he should forgive his brother: ‘Up to seven times?”, he asked. And Jesus answered, “[No], but I say to you, up to seventy times seven” (Mt. 18:21-22)?
You see, this is the challenge of really hearing Jesus’ words. We can’t pick and choose which ones we like, or the ones we find easy and undemanding, and leave off the difficult sayings and commandments. Not if we are true disciples and true children of our heavenly Father, for He said, “This is My beloved Son. Hear Him!”
You know, the whole issue in the Anglican world today, and in fact in the universal Church of Jesus Christ in this modern era, is the issue of the authority of the Word of God. It’s not homosexuality, or women’s ordination, or a host of others issues that are plaguing the Church. Those are just symptoms of the real issue. The issue is whether we’re going allow the Bible, the Word of God, to speak to us with an authority that compels our faith and obedience; whether we’re going to allow it to be the highest authority for everything we believe and do, or whether we’ll elevate other, more modern authorities to its level, or even above it. It’s about whether we’re going to pick and choose which words of Jesus we like, which ones fit with our contemporary prejudices, or whether we’ll accept all of His words as the words of the Lord of our lives. It’s about whether we’re going to choose to listen to Jesus, but say, “Well, you can’t take that Paul guy,” even though it was Jesus who gave St. Paul his words. “I delivered to you first of all that which I also received,” was his constant refrain. And the revelation that Paul received was confirmed by the other apostles, to whom Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would lead them into all truth. So we can’t take Jesus over St. Paul, for Paul’s word is Christ’s Word, and Christ’s Word is God’s Word.
Or the issue is whether we’re going to hear and heed that voice in our head, which most of the time is just the projections of our own thoughts and feelings and desires, which we then call God—“God is telling me to do so and so”—even when so-and-so clearly contradicts the commandments and teachings of Holy Scripture. “Well, I know the Bible says I shouldn’t leave my wife and marry my lover, but I really believe God is telling me she’s my true soul-mate and that I was always meant to be with her.” I have had people tell me things like.
But, you see, when we do that, when we listen to the voice in our head over the Bible, and when we take Jesus over Paul, and when we even pick and choose what we like about Jesus, then we are no different from the crazies who’ve decided it’s okay to have Gaya Masses—the worship of Mother Earth—or the worship of Sophia or Jumanji, or all kinds of other pagan and perverted sexual practices in the Church! We’re no different because our foundation is the same. It’s called self-will. It’s called the authority of the self and what we think is right and good in our times, verses the authority of the Word of God and what God says is right and good for all time. That is the issue!
So where will we come down on this issue? God the Father said, “This is My beloved Son. Hear Him!” Are we really willing to do that? And if we are, where will that take us as individuals and as a church? What behaviors will we have to change? What concepts and beliefs, which we now hold dear, will we have to modify or jettison altogether to be faithful to Christ’s Word? Are you ready to go there? Will you hearken to the Word of Christ, or will you just let if vibrate your eardrums a little? These are questions any faithful Christian must ask himself or herself as he or she interacts with the Word of God. Will we heed this Word? May Christ bless us as we seek to hear and to heed His Word. +
Ninth Sunday after Trinity, 2021
Text: Prov. 8:1-21
The Very Rev. Jerry Kistler
St. Stephen’s Anglican Church
“Know the Truth”
“Listen, for I will speak of excellent things, and from the opening of my lips will come right things; For my mouth will speak truth…All the words of my mouth are with righteousness… They are plain to him who understands… Receive my instruction, and not silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold; for wisdom is better than rubies, and all the things one my desire cannot be compared with her.”
Wisdom is a person. At least here in the book of Proverbs, wisdom is being personified as the most important person we can hear, and seek to understand, and to receive instruction from, and whose words are more precious and to be sought after than any amount of earthly riches. And while, in the book of Proverbs, the abstract concept of wisdom is merely being personified for effect, so to speak, wisdom is, in a very real sense, fulfilled and fully embodied in a Person. All the personal qualities, and all the value attributed to wisdom here in Proverbs, can be directly attributed to Him. For wisdom is fully embodied and fulfilled in the Person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
St. Paul writes that the crucified and risen Christ is to the Jews a stumbling block, and to the Greeks foolishness, but to us who are called He is the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24). For “of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God—and righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (v. 30).
Jesus Christ is the true wisdom from God. Everything we’d like to ask God about Himself, everything we’d like to ask God about ourselves, and about life in general, is answered in Jesus Christ. I like how the Reformation Study Bible puts it: “God’s wisdom and power are not abstract forces but personal qualities that [are manifested] fully in the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
And so, again, everything that is spoken of the personification of wisdom here in the book of Proverbs can be directly applied to the Person of Jesus Christ as we hear him preach and teach, and as we see Him die and rise again, in the Gospels. And what is the first thing we hear Him say here in this section of Proverbs? He says, “Listen to Me, for My mouth will speak truth.”
You want to know the truth? Listen to Jesus. The problem in our society today, and even in the Church of today, is that we’re not really interested in truth anymore. We have become far more interested in finding practical solutions to real-life problems than we are to try to understand the big-picture principles for knowing our place in the universe, and what determines things like right and wrong, and the way to relate to our Creator. In other words, we have become almost entirely pragmatic in our approach to truth.
Now I’ve used a fancy word—pragmatic, or pragmatism—but what does it mean? Well, pragmatism was a philosophical tradition that began in the U.S. back in the 1870s but has made a come-back in the recent years. And it’s basically the idea that truth is best viewed in terms of its practical successes rather than in terms of it giving us a true picture of reality. In other words, if it works it’s true. And therefore, you see, there can be different “truths” for different people— that it’s “true” if it works for you, and this is “true” if it works for me. And so, of course, this kind of pragmatic approach to truth has given rise to the kind of relativism we see in our culture, and even in the Church today. Even when it comes to statements of theological truth, as one of the leaders of the Pragmatic school, William James, put it: they have “value for concrete life,” because the idea of God possesses a majesty which can “yield religious comfort to a most respectable class of minds.” In other words, if it comforts you, if it makes you happy and gives you peace, then it’s true—it’s true for you, but it may not necessarily be true for me.
Several years back now—it must have been back when I was still in college, which is more than several years back now—this fact that Americans have become almost entirely pragmatic in their approach to truth really struck home with me when I was watching T.V. and saw one of those public service announcements promoting education. And the tag-line that sort of summed up the message of the PSA was this: “The more you learn the more you earn.” In other words, the value of education is not in the fact that it makes you a more well-rounded person, or a wiser person, or, God forbid, a more righteous person, but simply in the fact that it gives you the power to make more money. Now I know that that’s just trying to speak the language of the kid who is about to graduate from high school and is debating whether or not to go to college. But even still, this really has become the approach to education in our country. “The more you learn the more you earn.” I think it’s why education has become so specialized and technical, rather than being the kind of broad, liberal education that used to be valued by our society.
But it has also become our approach to religion, and this is borne out by a recent survey by the Barna Research Group with regard to Christians’ view of truth. In this 2002 survey, less than one out of three “born again” Christians adopted the notion of absolute truth—especially in the area of moral absolutes. Asked whether there are any moral absolutes that are unchanging or whether moral truth is relative to the circumstances, 64% of adults and 83% of teens said that moral truth is always relative to the person and their circumstances. So I guess murder or adultery or stealing are okay for some people in some circumstances!
But again, when it comes to theological truth, Barna writes, “Growing numbers of people are less interested in spiritual principles and are more desirous of learning pragmatic solutions for life.”
“Practical to a fault,” he says, “Americans consider survival in the present to be much more significant than eternal security and spiritual possibilities.” When asked what matters most, teenagers prioritize education, career development, friendships, and travel. Faith is significant to them, but it takes a back seat to life accomplishments and is not necessarily perceived to affect their ability to achieve their dreams.” But adults don’t do much better. “Among adults the areas of growing importance are lifestyle comfort, success, and personal achievements. Those dimensions have risen at the expense of investment in both faith and family.”
“Truth? Who cares about truth. What works?” That’s essentially what Americans are saying these days, whether in the Church or out of the Church. But what did Jesus say? When he stood before Pontius Pilate on trial for His life, when He could only say just a few words about Himself and about His mission—only the key words—what did He say? He said, “For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth.” (John 18:37). The very purpose for which Jesus entered in our world was to bear witness to the truth: the truth about God—to testify by word and deed to the justice of God, and at the same time to demonstrate the love of God and how those two things—the justice and love God—are perfectly satisfied together in Him on His holy cross. And he came also to testify to the truth about man: the truth of man’s condition— that he is a sinner in need of God’s grace, and that He alone could give him that grace. That is the truth Jesus came to bear witness of.
And He says that “everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” Only those who are concerned with ultimate justice and not merely with the dim reflections of it in the exercise of human justice, and only those who believe that there can be such a thing as true love, true, self-giving, self-sacrificing love, and how ultimate justice and perfect love can be satisfied together—only they can hear Jesus’ voice and understand and accept His testimony to the truth.
But Pilate wasn’t one of those people. “What is truth?” he cynically retorted. You see, Pilate was a good pragmatist. He was satisfied with the imperfect, pragmatic judgments of earthly rulers. He didn’t care about ultimate justice. He only cared about keeping his job. He was under threat from Caesar that if he let things get out of control in Judea, he was out, he was done. So preventing a riot—that was truth for Pilate. That’s what worked for him. And so if killing Jesus was the practical solution to that real-life problem, then so be it. He could wash his hands of the whole question of ultimate justice. It didn’t matter who Jesus was. He didn’t care to know. And so for holding on to his pragmatism, for being a person who had no concern for either for justice or mercy, he became one of the greatest villains of all history.
The question is: do we share Pilate’s pragmatic approach to life, or are we concerned with the truth, the truth that is in Jesus alone? Wisdom says, “My mouth will speak truth…All my words are with righteousness…They are plain to him who understands.”
What was the constant refrain Jesus pronounced after many of his teachings and sayings? “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” And so often it’s only those who are concerned to know the truth—ultimate truth, the truth about God, the truth about ourselves, the truth about how justice and mercy can kiss each other and come together in Jesus Christ—it’s only they who can hear Jesus’ words.
Jesus, the true Wisdom, says in the book of Proverbs, “Receive my instruction, and not silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold; For wisdom is better than rubies, and all the things one may desire cannot be compared with her.”
“What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world, but loses his own soul?” What will it profit a man if he’s able to find all the practical solutions to every problem in life, but hasn’t found the one practical solution to the greatest problem of life, that is, the end of life? So Jesus says, “Receive my instruction.” Search for it. Mine for it, more than you would for silver or gold or any other precious thing, because in My words are truth and life.”
And so to conclude, St. Paul says that he wants our hearts to be “encouraged, being knit together in love, and attaining to all the riches of the full assurance of understanding, to the knowledge of the mystery of God, both of the Father and of Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:2, 3).
If it’s in Christ that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden, what is it that would stop us from mining His words to find that wisdom and knowledge and truth? What’s getting in our way of doing that? That’s the question each one of us needs to answer. +
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. +