Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Presence of Jesus

Tuesday: 18 September, 2012 –– 24th Week in Ordinary Time
1Corinthians 12:12–14, 27–31a / Luke 7:11–17
The Presence of Jesus

We can only imagine how the presence of Jesus affected this woman who was so stricken with grief. From her deep grief to the joy of seeing her son restored to life, this mother had come face to face with the love and power of the Son of God. She would forever-after live with the effect of the presence of Jesus.

St Paul invites us to believe something profound about the power of the gospel: we can be the presence of Jesus to the people we meet each day! Think about this: in one Spirit we were all baptized into one Body.... we were all given to drink of one Spirit –– the Spirit of Jesus.

I occasionally give an “assignment” to my hearers. Some have heard it before and will likely hear it again. In the morning when you look at yourself in the mirror –– brushing your teeth or combing your hair –– look yourself in the eyes and affirm your faith in Jesus, and then say to yourself: "the Spirit of God has been given to me. . . the risen Son of God lives in me. . . Father God is enabling me to show something of himself through my life!" Then ask the Lord to make that a reality in your life throughout the day.

It does not matter what your job or spiritual gift or role in the church might be. St Paul says we each have a place in Christ’s Body. What matters is that we know that we were all given to drink of one Spirit. As you embrace the reality of that in your life, you can be to others the presence of Jesus.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Eucharist

Monday: 17 September, 2012 –– 24th Week in Ordinary Time
1 Corinthians 11: 17–26, 33 / Luke 7:1–10
The Eucharist

My wife and I came into the Church in June of 2007 after over 30 years of pastoral ministry in Evangelical churches. My journey into the Church opened up as I read the early Fathers –– things that gave explicit witness to the centrality of the Eucharist in Christian worship from the beginning. 

The inference of the New Testament is that Communion was not only a regular part of corporate Christian gatherings, but the focal point. The oldest written statement that we have concerning the Lord's Supper is here in 1 Corinthians 11.  This is  primary witness to what Jesus gave to his disciples the night before he went to the cross.

Jesus gave a meal that points to himself.  Of course, we know that Communion points to Jesus' death on our behalf.  But it’s more.  It is meant to bring us to ultimate reality.  The Eucharist is a Heavenly Meal.  The time of sharing Communion together is a time to call all of us ― collectively ― to the big and great thing that God has done and is doing through his Son.

The New Testament word comes to us, Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us.  The whole plan and purpose of God ― that goes back beyond the foundation of the world, that centered on Abraham, and expressed its redeeming power in the Exodus ― comes to its full expression in Jesus Christ.  In continuity with all that came before in the Old Testament, Jesus 
was Isaiah's Suffering Servant.  He brought Jeremiah's New Covenant into being.  We are in solidarity with all those things when we come to Communion.

And not only are we in solidarity with those things that are part of God's saving work in the past, we have our hopes fixed on God's continuing work.  Jesus projected that by saying his next meal with his disciples would not take place until the kingdom of God comes (Lu 22:18).  That became the focus of hope for the early Christian believers.  So Paul says here: Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes (11:26).

Christians are a people with a powerful past and we are a people with a glorious future.  In the meantime we're “in between” ― suspended in this old world that is passing away.  So Jesus has given us this special, tangible way to enter into what God has already done, what he's going to do, and the fact that he is with us all the way.

When we come together in the Eucharist, we come as a collective body of people who compose part of that select group called the people of God.  We come remembering that God has always had a people. Seth, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Miriam, Ruth, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Esther, Mary, Peter, John, Paul.... on and on across history until we come to today.  Communion reminds us of who we are. We are invited to believe that we are part of the great thing God has been doing throughout history and continues to do all over our world today.  That is part of what Christian Faith means.

One day we will sit at meal with Jesus in the glory of his kingdom in all its fulfillment.  We are part of the people of the promised age to come. The Eucharist is our celebration that the risen Jesus and his kingdom is a reality right now.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Two Confessions

16 September, 2012 –– 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 50:5–9a / James 2:14–18 / Mark 8:27–35
Two Confessions

Who is Jesus? Of course we in the Church already “know” the right answer –– we confess it in the Creed. That could be an advantage for us, but more often than not it is a hindrance to the awe and wonder we should have as part of our faith.  This can be particularly true if our faith is based on someone else's answer to who Jesus is. Jesus asked his disciples who the other people thought he was. Our own faith, though, does not come merely through the questions and answers of other people. After Jesus asked the disciples who others thought he was, he focused the question on the disciples themselves: But who do you say that I am?  That is the beginning of personal faith. Before we can develop a faith of our own, we must each decide who Jesus is.

Peter's answer was right. We know that. But Peter, at that point, was like some people today: he was on the right track, yet he answered better than he knew. Certainly the confession that Jesus is the Christ of God is the foundation upon which everything else is built. Peter had his facts right, but Jesus needed to develop the significance.

Have you wondered why Jesus silenced this confession of faith?  Then he warned them not to tell anyone about him. Why, after sending the disciples out as ambassadors of the kingdom, would Jesus tell them not to disclose his identity just when it appears they are beginning to catch on? It's because their expectations of the Messiah did not match the initial confession. That Jesus is the Christ was becoming obvious to them, but what it meant that Jesus is the Christ was still beyond their understanding.  Faith in Christ is based on two confessions.

The second confession comes from Jesus in this passage. Peter's first confession tells rightly who Jesus is: the Christ.  Jesus' confession tells what it meant for him that he was the Christ of God. Peter's confession said, "You are the Christ." The second confession is Jesus saying: "I must die."

It is not popular today to proclaim that Jesus died for our sins. But above everything else –– more than the physical healings and his teachings –– Jesus came into the world to save us from all that sin does to us. Sin ravages our lives. Sin is what causes our society to continue its spiral into chaos. For Jesus to do what he came to do –– to save us –– there was but one course to follow: "I must die."

To the disciples, the confessions of Messiahship and death did not go together. And for people today who think in categories of personal power and glory in this world, they still don't go together. There are many people who would make the first confession of Jesus being the Christ IF it could be done apart from accepting the second confession of death. There doesn’t seem to be much glory and power in a crucified Messiah; meekness and weakness are not high on our scale of values.

As if to even further complicate things, Jesus makes it clear that the second confession doesn't apply only to him; it applies to those who would believe on him. Jesus wants Peter and other disciples (including us today) who would confess him as the Christ of God to know that after the first confession another waits to be embraced. Yes, Jesus is the Christ of God, but to embrace that is also to embrace death.

The emphasis in our culture is on self. We have self-actualization, self-fulfillment, and the quest to find ourselves. Words like “repression” and “submission” are made to be bad words. Self-gratification is the goal, and whatever it takes to meet that goal is legitimate. If it takes a total immersion in lasciviousness (that's sexual lust), then go for it. If it takes more and more material possessions, then do whatever it takes to get them (that’s greed). If it takes walking away from marriage vows and family responsibilities, so be it. If you don't please anyone else, at least please yourself. Take the career you want. Live where you want to live. Live the way you want to live. Spend your money the way you want to spend it. Do whatever it takes to make you happy. After all, if you don't take care of "number one" who else will? That's the so-called "gospel" of our culture.

It is in the face of all of this that Jesus spells out what it means to confess him as the Christ of God. It means being like him....

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God
  something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing....
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death--
  even death on a cross! (Philp 2:5f)

Jesus fulfilled the Isaiah prophecy in today’s reading: he gave his back for beating and did not turn his face away when spat upon.

Jesus is explicit about what this means for us. The two confessions "You are the Christ" and "I must die" mean just the opposite of what the culture around us says. Jesus says, Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me (v34). There's no self-actualization here; it is just the opposite. The one who would make personal the confession of Jesus as the Christ must also be willing to make personal the confession, "I must die." When self makes demands, the person confessing Jesus chooses denial. When self screams for its own life and expression, the person who confesses Christ chooses the cross.

For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it (v35). Here's where faith meets works (see the Epistle reading for today). We show our faith that Jesus is the Christ when we choose to die to our selfishness. The unhappiest people in the world are those whose sole preoccupation is with themselves.

In my “previous life” I was an obsessive bird hunter. From September through March I was in the field with my birddog every Thursday on my day off (and as many other days as I could arrange). That was my time, and few things would cause me to change my priority. But in the late 90s, just about the time I began to ask the Lord to give me more intimacy in prayer, my daughter hit a crisis. We had taken Katie to Africa on a mission trip when she was ten years old, and we had all taken a drug to prevent malaria. It turned out that the drug could have serious side effects (particularly on young people), and Katie began to experience clinical anxiety and deep depression in her freshman year of high school. One Thursday morning she was unable to get out of bed because of fear and emotional darkness. I was already dressed for my day of hunting, but it was quickly apparent I needed to stay home with her. There was no question of what I would do, but how would I feel about it?  The Holy Spirit spoke to my heart and the issue was clear: would I stay home all sullen and feeling sorry for myself that I could not be doing what I wanted to do.... or would I embrace this opportunity to love my daughter in a tangible way?  So I prayed –– right there in the hall outside Katie’s bedroom –– and told the Lord to change my heart. That was one step in my journey to be here with you this way today. When Jesus calls us to lose our lives for his sake, he means for it to mean something in our day-to-day choices. We show our faith that Jesus is the Christ when we choose to die to our selfishness.

Christians believe and proclaim that this man Jesus who lived almost 2,000 years ago is the Christ of God. If you are confessing Christ, are you also embracing the cross –– dying to the urge to have your own way?  If you can see what God was doing through a crucified Christ, can you also see that it means the same thing for us as we follow him? We live by dying. We win by losing. We gain by giving. We save by expending. All of that is true when it is our response to the Son of God, who came to die so that he could give us his life.  We give up our lives so that we can have his life. That is how Christian Faith works.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A Passing World

Wednesday: 12 September, 2012 –– 23rd Week in Ordinary Time
1 Corinthians 7:25–31 /Luke 6:20–26
A Passing World

Today’s Gospel is Luke’s presentation of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. We hear these things and know it’s Jesus and give a mental nod.... but who really embraces these things in daily life? That is one way to understand what Paul was dealing with in this part of his Corinthian letter. It is also something pertinent to all Christians all the time –– including us today.

The real issue for Paul is not really sex, marriage and singleness. Those just happened to be some of the particular things that were the focus of the Corinthian attention.  What makes Christian thinking and understanding different from everything else?  What is the crux of our faith?  How do Jesus’ words here affect our lives in the day to day world?  How does being a Christian affect our family life, our jobs and hobbies, our buying, and everything else?

The things that seem to occupy our concerns are jobs, education, family, housing, possessions and such things. We label people that way.  "Well, he's a Ph.D. –– how can I relate to him?"  "Oh, I'm just a clerk at work." "They live in a rented row house." "He buys all his clothes at Brooks Bros." Is that really what counts? The world says those are, indeed, some of the things that count (one way or the other). The world’s message is so often before us:  A man with a graduate degree and a powerful position is more important than a delivery truck driver.  The woman in a natural fiber business suit in her office is due more respect than a woman in polyester pants with a couple of kids hanging on her in Walmart.

Do we buy into the world's value system?  Is "upward mobility" part of the gospel?  If a person with a broken past comes into the church, is he or she sentenced to forever play "catch up" with those whose lives have been spared some of the stigma? If we are honest, those are the kinds of things that often fill our minds –– how to look good to others. By the world's standards such things make all the difference in the world.... but not according to Jesus, and not according to Jesus’ Spirit speaking through St Paul.

That is not to say possessions and accomplishments and relationships in the here and now are wrong, or not important at all.  It is to say that Christians have the glorious opportunity to be free from the level of concern that consumes most people in the world. The most important thing in life is not things. Pouring our energies into worrying about the things that label us on earth just isn't worth it!  Paul tells us why.

Christians are called to be people of faith who “see” differently (that’s what faith is). We recognize a different wisdom.  Losing can be winning.  Death can mean life.  We are not people who believe the world's picture of the "good life." We embrace another picture –– a crucifix –– that shows weakness, defeat and death.  Christians are people of the cross.

In the last verse of the Epistle reading we are explicitly told why this is so: The picture showing the world of the "good life" is not true; it is a mirage, and it is passing away.  Everything that happens to us in this life must be tempered with that.  In vs 29-31 there is a list of things that happen to us on earth. We often marry.  We are happy sometimes.  We mourn sometimes.  We purchase things. But none of those things are ultimate reality.  We cannot totally possess the things we buy.  The situation that makes us happy or sad will pass. Even marriage will not follow us into eternity.  So why do we think those things can be the reason for our existence? Christians need to live in the consciousness of a greater reality.  Things that are so big to non-believers are mere passing trifles to people who see who Jesus is and what he has done.

What has Jesus done? We know he has died and has risen, but perhaps we do not fully understand how in doing so Jesus has passed judgment on the present form of the world. His resurrection promises a new existence. The coming kingdom is the ultimate reality. Once we see the truth of that, we cannot look on this world and the things it offers and the things it promotes the same way.  It is like someone who is terminally ill.  Once a person knows the end is near, the amount of time left is lived with a new perspective.  He sees, hears and values in a new way. This change of perspective isn't something that can be faked. This cuts through the things that matter and the things that do not.

Can we dare to live with that kind of faith? So much of what we fret about in this life, so much of what we think is important, so much of how we judge others in the church just isn't relevant to Christian identity. Christians belong to Jesus Christ.  Christians are travelers through a world that is passing away. Yes, we face the same issues as others.  Some marry; some remain virgins.  We sorrow, we rejoice, we buy, we use the world –– but those things do not make us who we are. The world in its present form is passing away.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Good is Always Good and Wrong is Always Wrong

Monday: 10 September, 2012 –– 23rd Week in Ordinary Time
1 Corinthians 5:1–8 / Psalm 5 / Luke 6:6–11
Good is Always Good and Wrong is Always Wrong

There is a profound tension when one compares today’s Gospel with the Epistle and Psalm. The Gospel gives a Jesus story that matches most of the stereotypes of Jesus: love, mercy, doing good, confronting and rebuking entrenched religious authority.... On the other hand, the Psalm is full of the language popularly associated with the Old Testament: God hating evildoers, destroying liars, abhorring the bloodthirsty and deceitful.... One might think this justifies the common belief that “the God of the Old Testament” is vastly different from “the Jesus of the New Testament.” Such an idea is totally at odds with Christian Faith, and any approach to Scripture which assumes this is getting off on the wrong foot. The same “tone” of today’s Psalm is found in the Epistle: Paul is abhorrent that the Corinthian congregation is tolerating open immorality. He pronounces judgment even though he is not even present and tells the Corinthians the one who did this deed should be expelled from your midst. He warns that even a little yeast [sin] leavens all the dough. If you want to know what God thinks of sin, look at Jesus on the cross.

Each of these texts deserves full exposition. An extended elaboration of how such biblical passages interface goes beyond the scope of a daily homily. Still, there are two simple and basic applications we can take from today’s readings.  First: good is always good and wrong is always wrong. But if we stop there, we are left with an unresolvable quandary. How are we to decide what is good and what is wrong? Loud and strident voices surround us with this very issue in focus.

We cannot answer this question on our own. To answer by how we each “feel” results in the mess we are in today. Likewise, to try to answer by popular opinion is merely to surrender to whatever “feelings” happen to be in the majority in any given time and place.

Catholic Christians believe God has spoken and modeled Truth through Jesus Christ, and that an accurate (and thus authoritative) account and interpretation of Jesus has been handed down and preserved by the Church. How else can we know Jesus except by the Church?!

So the second application from an attempt to integrate today’s readings is simply this: trust the Church. Listen to what the Church says is good and what the Church says is wrong. It’s the only way we can truly know Jesus. It’s the only way we can know that good is always good and wrong is always wrong.


Friday, September 7, 2012

Corinth.... Today

Friday: 7 September, 2012 –– 22nd Week in Ordinary Time
1 Corinthian 4:1–5 / Luke5:33–39
Corinth.... Today

In this fourth chapter of First Corinthians Paul is bringing his first main point in the letter to a conclusion. He has been talking about the conflict between the world's wisdom and God's wisdom. God's wisdom offers the world a crucified Messiah. People who embrace God's wisdom become people of the cross.  The world has a wisdom that promises life, but gives death; God's people follow Jesus by embracing death to gain life.  Christians believe one can win by losing.

The Corinthians did not “get it.” They wanted to skip crucifixion and go straight to the glory of resurrection. Their focus was not a crucified Messiah; they were “children of the King!” They deserved the best. Why should they allow their image to be tarnished by that radical fellow named Paul, who was more of an embarrassment than anything else?

This is the context of this fourth chapter of Corinthians. But writing with the authority of God under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul responds not only to his defense, but to the very heart of the gospel and its application. To do this, Paul gets behind the “opinionitis” that characterizes “natural” people –– people who are not conformed to the Spirit of God.

This raises the issue of judging. Today’s text ends with a warning not to judge. That seems simple enough, and consistent with what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: Do not judge... (Matt. 7:1). Yet we need to hear that in tandem with other commands and occasions which say the opposite.  In the next chapter of First Corinthians Paul will tell the church to judge a man.  A bit further in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says to judge the character of false prophets by their actions –– by their fruit you will recognize them (Matt. 7:20).

The Corinthians were doing something else. They were trying to use the gospel to better themselves, but still according to the world’s values.  For people who had not been influential or had noble birth (1:26), they wanted to use their faith as a self-promotional, self-improvement plan. As if that were not bad enough, while professing Christ, they were looking with disdain on anything that might be too radical, too fundamental, too evangelistic, too emotional or too simple in faith. That was how the Corinthians saw Paul, and their opinion of him was plain:  he was an embarrassment. The Corinthians looked at Paul and saw an unimpressive man.  Tradition says he was physically unattractive. He himself admitted earlier in the letter that his coming to the Corinthians was not marked by eloquence or superior wisdom (2:1). His message was simple and unimpressive –– a crucified Messiah.

Do you know people who are ashamed of what the Church really believes?  Do you know people who get angry when their priest tells them the truth? Do you know people who want to look impressive in the eyes of the world's values, and can’t see this is in conflict with a faithful Church?  The Corinthian problem did not stop with the first century.

Paul had an anointing of the Spirit to lead the church and he used his apostolic authority to clarify issues that are with us all the way to today. And the first way he did that was by applying the gospel to his own life.  He met the chief requirement of one who would minister in the name of and unto Jesus Christ: he was trustworthy (v2) –– faithful! He was faithful among the servants of Christ, and he was one of those entrusted with the mysteries of God (v1).

Faithfulness is a tall order for a Christian.  The standard of faithfulness is Jesus himself, and his obedience to the Father. When we have bishops and priests who follow St Paul’s legacy and show a desire to be faithful by boldly proclaiming the Truth of God and his Church, we need to be thankful.... and receptive.

Paul wrote this letter under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit not only for the Corinthians, but for us. Do you know what really matters for us? It is the things that will have made a difference for Jesus' sake 100 years from now: the way we judge....  the way we (do not) promote ourselves....  the way we merely live in this world from day to day....  These things tell whether we are still stuck in Corinth or whether we are following St Paul on the path of the cross with our Lord.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Good and The Best

Wednesday: 5 September, 2012 –– 22nd Week in Ordinary Time
1 Corinthians 3:1–9 / Luke 4: 38–44
The Good and The Best

It's early in his ministry and it seems that Jesus is already finding his groove. He healed Simon’s mother-in-law. Then many other sick people came. He cured them so that crowds were seeking him out and begging him to stay. Two significant things are happening: First, Jesus is able to extend the love of God in a tangible way. Second, he is receiving popularity and acceptance.  These seem to be the two very things that an up and coming messiah need to succeed.

What does Jesus do? He declines the offer! I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also.... for I was sent for this purpose. It has been said that “good” is often the enemy of the “best” and here we see Jesus not being deflected from his ultimate purpose.

The same construct can be applied to what Paul tells the Corinthians. The believers at Corinth probably thought they were being good Christians. They were proudly tracing their brief spiritual ancestry back to Paul or Apollos. Yet Paul needed to rebuke and correct them. In their zeal, they were acting with jealousy and rivalry –– not the Spirit of Jesus –– so much so that Paul says they are not even acting like Christians! While it was “good” that they had received baptism and counted themselves as new Christians, they were such spiritual infants that they could not perceive the “best” –– living as truly spiritual people and able to handle solid spiritual food.

It is human nature to think anything we do for God is “great” and that whatever we do is “good” enough. Paul gives a reminder that we are called to God’s purposes. The Christian life is not a one-man show. Our relationship with God is not meant to be “just me and Jesus.”

Jesus did not live for himself. His mighty words and mighty deeds always flowed out of the Father’s purpose and were given in the character and power of the Holy Spirit.

We each have a role to play in the life of the Church. But it’s not about us; instead we are invited to be part of the great thing God is doing through Jesus Christ. Let’s not try to follow him like the immature Corinthians, who thought their respective baptisms made them more than good enough. Our example is Jesus, who would not allow the good to deflect him from the best of what he was sent to do.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Beyond “Natural”

Tuesday: 4 September, 2012 –– 22nd Week in Ordinary Time
1 Corinthians 2:10b-16 / Luke 4:31–37
Beyond “Natural”

In today’s Gospel, Jesus delivers a man from demonic possession. Those looking on were all amazed. They did not understand because they were looking at Jesus through “natural” eyes. This happens still today. In our “enlightened” Western world, most scoff at the idea of “demonic possession.” It is also true that most do not seem to understand Jesus.

In this part of his letter to the Corinthians, Paul identifies and contrasts two types of wisdom: two approaches to knowing –– in fact, two lines of humanity. One tries to know truth –– to gain wisdom and knowledge –– by starting with and building on the perceptions and abilities of Man.  The other recognizes that truth, knowledge and wisdom have their origin in God, and if Man is going to have understanding, it must begin with God. We might think Paul is overstating the case that Christ and the cross is foolishness to the world, but our understanding and response to that affects so much who we are and what we do.

It affects our pride. Can we make it on our own or do we need someone else? The serpent convinced Eve she could have truth, wisdom and knowledge independently of anyone else, and all of humanity has tried to believe that ever since.

It affects our values. Do I make choices based on my own opinions? Do I start with my own pleasure, comfort and safety, or do I recognize that my Creator and his ways get first consideration?

It affects the way we try to answer those two questions of self-confidence and values. Can I make those decisions that concern me so intimately by myself, or do I need some outside source to come into my private world and tell me what I need to know?

The Christian answer to all of this is not self-affirming. It is bad news.  The foundation of all that Jesus Christ is and does is that we cannot know truth, we cannot have wisdom and knowledge by ourselves.  Both individually and collectively, Mankind is limited, twisted and helpless.  Those are three of Paul's points in these verses.

That is Paul's point in v11: For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man's spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. We are helpless to get wisdom on our own; we are dependent on the source of wisdom.

That seems so simple.  Why would everyone not turn to God for that wisdom?  The answer is in the distortion of “natural” Man: we are twisted.  There is a spiritual condition in humans that causes us to reject help. We want to be free to make up our own minds. We want to be independent.  We follow right in the footsteps of Eve, still saying "I want to be able to do it all by myself."  That is how we are twisted.  It is why we are cut off from God.  It is why people do evil things.  We do not want to admit our limitations, and we struggle to prove we are not helpless.  In doing that we prove the worst thing of all –– we are twisted.  We are pessimists when we should be optimists and we are optimists when we should be pessimists.  We hurt ourselves and others.

There is that in all people which does not want to face hard things.  It is no less true spiritually than physically.  Some people think their values and opinions and decisions are okay as long as they are getting by. One view on moral and spiritual issues is thought to be just as good as another.  In fact, the one wisdom that is most often rejected is the way of Jesus.  A "natural" mind will always choose power and position over something that appears weak, despicable and threatening.

That is because a “natural” person is not a complete person.  The only way we can understand who we are as people made in the image of God is for God's Spirit to live in us.  Without God's Spirit in us, we are without understanding; there is no truth and no hope.

That is part of the meaning of v14–– The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.  There are only two types of people in this world:  natural and spiritual.  People who are "natural" do natural things.  They understand their world and its events in natural ways.  All it takes to be natural is to be born into the world.

But to be spiritual, the Holy Spirit has to come inside a person.  And the only way that can happen is through Jesus Christ.  That in itself does not end every problem, but it provides the only foundation on which anything lasting can stand.

Everyone who has God's Spirit can sing with Charles Wesley:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay
fast bound in sin and nature's night;
Thine eye diffused a quick'ning ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light.
My chains fell off, my heart was free;
I rose, went forth and followed thee.
Amazing love! How can it be,
that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

God's Spirit changes us. Knowing Jesus moves us beyond the world's idea of what is "natural". 

Monday, September 3, 2012

Feast Day of St Gregory the Great

A sermon of St Gregory the Great

For the love of Christ I do not spare myself in preaching him

‘Son of man, I have appointed you as watchman to the house of Israel.’ Note that Ezekiel, whom the Lord sent to preach his word, is described as a watchman. Now a watchman always takes up his position on the heights so that he can see from a distance whatever approaches. Likewise whoever is appointed w

atchman to a people should live a life on the heights so that he can help them by taking a wide survey.

These words are hard to utter, for when I speak it is myself that I am reproaching. I do not preach as I should nor does my life follow the principles I preach so inadequately.

I do not deny that I am guilty, for I see my torpor and my negligence. Perhaps my very recognition of failure will win me pardon from a sympathetic judge. When I lived in a monastic community I was able to keep my tongue from idle topics and to devote my mind almost continually to the discipline of prayer. Since taking on my shoulders the burden of pastoral care, I have been unable to keep steadily recollected because my mind is distracted by many responsibilities.

I am forced to consider questions affecting churches and monasteries and often I must judge the lives and actions of individuals; at one moment I am forced to take part in certain civil affairs, next I must worry over the incursions of barbarians and fear the wolves who menace the flock entrusted to my care; now I must accept political responsibility in order to give support to those who preserve the rule of law; now I must bear patiently the villainies of brigands, and then I must confront them, yet in all charity.

My mind is sundered and torn to pieces by the many and serious things I have to think about. When I try to concentrate and gather all my intellectual resources for preaching, how can I do justice to the sacred ministry of the word? I am often compelled by the nature of my position to associate with men of the world and sometimes I relax the discipline of my speech. If I preserved the rigorously inflexible mode of utterance that my conscience dictates, I know that the weaker sort of men would recoil from me and that I could never attract them to the goal I desire for them. So I must frequently listen patiently to their aimless chatter. Because I am weak myself I am drawn gradually into idle talk and I find myself saying the kind of thing that I didn’t even care to listen to before. I enjoy lying back where I once was loath to stumble.

Who am I — what kind of watchman am I? I do not stand on the pinnacle of achievement, I languish rather in the depths of my weakness. And yet the creator and redeemer of mankind can give me, unworthy though I be, the grace to see life whole and power to speak effectively of it. It is for love of him that I do not spare myself in preaching him.


Monday: 3 September, 2012 –– 22nd Week in Ordinary Time
1 Corinthians 2:1-5 / Luke 4:16–30

Jesus fulfills Isaiah’s proclamation: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me.... He has sent me to proclaim.... In the epistle, St Paul draws our attention to the weakness and power of preaching. What is this thing called preaching that I do and you listen to?  Paul has three thoughts in this section of his letter that go together: The message of the cross is foolish in terms of worldly wisdom. And not only the message of the cross, but Christians –– people of the cross –– are foolish (at least to an unbelieving world).  Now, to complete the triad, the way it all happens –– preaching –– is also foolishness.  Preaching is a weakness that illustrates the kind of foolishness God has chosen to honor, and yet preaching is also a way of revealing God's power.

Preaching has a definite message.  Paul says it centers on Jesus Christ and him crucified (v2).  In the words of the preceding verses, preaching is declaring the truth of righteousness, holiness and redemption in Jesus (1:30). If this is not true –– if God has not given us salvation from sin in Jesus Christ –– then preaching is ridiculous and the church can shut its doors and put up a "CLOSED" sign.  But if it is true that God has given us salvation from sin in Jesus Christ, then there is something to proclaim with the loudest voice and the greatest authority. So if a preacher stoops to peddle pop psychology or merely plays with cute little stories and worn out cliches, then there will be no confidence in the gospel, for the gospel will not be heard.  True preaching is telling the message of the cross.

Preaching is not limited to its content, though. With apostolic preaching, the method should match the message.  While there are “mechanics” one can use in preaching to make it look and sound better (I think of today’s mega-churches and their sound and light show), look at Paul's response to that: I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom (v1), and again,  My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words (v4). In other words, he did not try to distinguish himself or try to impress or use sensationalism. I’ve often wondered, facetiously, how St Paul could have such effect in his time without a PA system or a computer!  Paul had a message which ran counter to the world's way of thinking:  it was the cross.  Paul’s manner and method matched his message.  He did not try to "knock 'em over" with his brilliance or with his presence.  Paul believed the message so much that he was willing to practice it in his own life and ministry.

There is one standard of apostolic preaching, and Paul tells us what it is: a demonstration of the Spirit's power.  When all is said and done, a good sermon is one in which the Holy Spirit has worked.  It can be a sermon which brings us face to face with God in worship.  It can encourage us in obedience or drive us to repentance.  It can give us fresh resolve to love Jesus with all our hearts.  The one thing true preaching cannot do is merely give our brains an academic stretch or titillate our emotions and then leave us just like we were. It is because God has chosen to use the foolishness of preaching to draw people to his Son. What God wants is for us to be is like Jesus.  So we preach Jesus.  Anything else is playing a game.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Which Jesus?

2 September, 2012 –– 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Deuteronomy 4:1–2, 6–8 / James 1:17–18 / Mark 7:1–8, 14–15, 21–23
Which Jesus?

I begin this homily with something I said two weeks ago: We live in a spiritually rebellious world that seeks to blind us so that we do not recognize who God really is. We live in a spiritually rebellious world that seeks to seduce us so that we do not perceive the connections between belief and behavior.  We live in a spiritually rebellious world that seeks to deceive us so that we deny the connection between breaking God’s Commandments and experiencing both personal and societal dysfunction and pain.

It is so important that we respond to God on the basis of what he has revealed to us. Left to ourselves, we get things wrong. When we allow popular opinion to mold our understanding of God, we create a god in our own image that says our favorite sins are “natural” and then blesses them.

There was a prayer retreat in our parish a week ago. It was noted that one of the justifications used by people who reject organized religion is “I can pray without going to church.” That is certainly true, but.... one cannot pray well without the Church.  If our understanding of God is not formed by the Truth of God’s Revelation –– which Christians believe has been entrusted to the Church through the Scriptures –– then prayer quickly degenerates to an expression of our own opinions directed to a “god” of our own imagination.

The fullest revelation of God is Jesus Christ.  Speaking of Jesus, St Paul told the Colossians: He is the image of the invisible God (1:15), for in him the whole fulness of deity dwells bodily (2:9). Our calling is to be faithful to Jesus Christ –– the Jesus made known by the Scriptures and the Church.  In the Old Testament reading God speaks through Moses to say we are not to subtract from or add to his revelation.

Think about it: There is a broad spectrum of people who use the name of “Jesus” to justify their opinions. Many people have created a “Jesus” of their own liking, and that’s the “Jesus” they believe. We should not be surprised that it is human nature to embrace a selective Jesus, a Jesus based on what is comfortable, convenient and pandering to our own desires. Some people have a Jesus who doesn’t mind sitting on the shelf until you’re ready to pull him out at Christmas, Easter, weddings, funerals, or national tragedies.  Other people believe Jesus is someone who does not believe in sin, holiness, or redemption, and is accepting of all religions because he himself is just one of many paths to enlightenment. There is a popular teaching that Jesus came to help people reach their full potential in this life and living the “best life now” so that you can feel good about yourself.  And perhaps more than anything else, there is broad assumption that anyone who follows Jesus will tolerate almost anyone and anything, and never make a moral judgment.

It seems even the least religious people know that Jesus said Judge not, that you be not judged (Matt 7:1). This is used against faithful Christians who desire to give witness to God’s truth. It is not my intent to focus on this verse; I use this as an illustration because it seems to be the one statement by Jesus that almost everyone knows. Esentially Jesus is saying that before we pass judgment on others, we need to accept realistic judgment on ourselves.

On another occasion Jesus said, Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment (Jn 7:24). Is it not significant that this verse is not so well known! Our culture bristles at the idea of absolute right and wrong. Yet “judging” is impossible not to do because all people have an innate sense of right and wrong. In the epistle James cautions us not to be deceived, and commends what is “good”.  To judge is to discern or distinguish, to compare facts or ideas and form an opinion, to distinguish truth from falsehood. We cannot have order in the world, our societies or even our families without discerning what we perceive to be the good from the bad –– and that is judging.  The greater truth that Jesus is always teaching and modeling is that we need to be committed to right judgment

Today’s Gospel reading shows us a Jesus practicing that very thing.  Notice how he addresses his hearers: you hypocrites....  And further, he quotes Isaiah passing negative judgment on worship (of all things!): This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. And in vain do they worship me....  Is this not a declaration of judgment?! So much for the idea of Jesus teaching that God is happy with any expression of worship, as if God is some poor beggar who is happy to get whatever scrap of attention we might choose to give.

Remember where I started this? We live in a spiritually rebellious world.... We live in world that inverts things and often gets right and wrong backwards. So many people ignore what Jesus really teaches and then wonder why life is so often hard and messed up!

St John tells us in his first letter: The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil (1Jn 3:8). Notice again what Jesus says in today’s Gospel: ....the things that come out from within are what defile. From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile. 

Contrary to popular opinion, people are not “basically good”. We were created good, but we are broken and we all fall short of the glory and holiness of God (see Romans 3:28). There are some things that are intrinsically evil. And while some of the sins Jesus mentions seem to get more attention than others, the hard truth is that “greed” is in the very same list as “adultery”; “arrogance” is a sin just as much as “murder”.

I do not want to proclaim a Jesus who only singles out certain sins.  This is a warning not to selectively choose an image of Jesus that we think will make us look good. I certainly hope we know that fixing up our outward appearance does not fool God. There is no such thing as a “spiritual Mary Kay” (or any other cosmetic disguise). The Jesus we proclaim is the Son of God who knows that sin is so awful that he was willing to come into our world and die to save us. We need the salvation God has offered us through Jesus Christ. We need not only to be forgiven, we need to be healed in our souls so that we become holy. We all need to be forgiven and healed!

I hope that is why you are here today hearing the Gospel proclaimed. I hope that is what you are believing and expecting as you come to the Lord’s Table. It really does make a difference which Jesus we believe and trust.

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