Sunday, January 26, 2014


January 26, 2014 –– 3rd Week in Ordinary Time
1 Corinthians 1:10-17

There is a story about a young boy whose mother asked him what he had learned in church school that day. He decisively said, "The disciples drove a Honda." Now obviously this was not an answer the mom expected, so she pushed the issue a bit. "The disciples did not have a car, dear," she said to the blossoming theologian.  "Oh yes," replied the boy, "the teacher told us the Bible says the disciples were all in one Accord!"

Today Christianity is so fragmented we can hardly conceive of it being any other way. What does unity mean for Christian faith? One way to answer that is to see what it does not mean. Paul's prayer for the Corinthians is that there be no divisions among you, but that you may be united in the same mind and in the same purpose (v10). Does this mean everyone in the church is to be a clone? No, unity has never been intended to be “uniformity.”

And just as unity does not mean uniformity, diversity does not mean divisiveness. The Body of Christ has Spirit-given diversity. In our milieu of polarized issues today, we need to hear what the Holy Spirit is saying through St. Paul in this First-Century setting. The Corinthians were divisive, and Paul makes it clear that this is wrong. In fact, in other places Paul puts divisiveness in the same list of sins where he puts things like murder, sexual immorality, drunkenness and idolatry (e.g., Gal 5:19f)! When we hear someone stirring up dissent in the Church, do we really believe such a thing is just as odious to God as murder or adultery?

The Corinthians were falling out with each other over personalities. For some it was Paul, who planted the Corinthian church. For others it was Apollos, who came to Corinth after Paul. Paul also mentions those who rallied to Cephas (who was Peter)––maybe they were the original ultra-exclusive Catholics. Then there were those who proudly said they followed “only Jesus”––they were the early Fundamentalist Protestants. Paul says all of them are missing the point!

What is it that binds us together in the Church? There is more than one way to answer this. In the  Creed we profess one, holy, catholic and apostolic Faith. There is also, indeed, a Petrine unity in Catholic Faith. The answer to unity in today’s epistle is in v17: Our unity––our identity––is not based on the wisdom of human eloquence. Instead, St Paul says our identity is the cross of Christ. The cross of Christ is what so quickly separates human opinion from God’s Truth.

We become inoculated to the cross of Christ. The cross is a figure of speech we can hear without it evoking much of any emotion. The cross is the crucifix on our walls or on our necklaces.  The cross is part of “church-talk” that seems quite removed from our day-to-day lives.

You and I are part of the Church today only because we came by the way of the cross. The cross of Jesus Christ proclaims something human wisdom does not want to hear: every one of us is sinful and needy and lost apart from the cross. We are not self-sufficient.  We are not able to figure out the mysteries of life. We cannot find our own way. The cross of Christ is the basis for grace, mercy, and peace.

We should understand that when we get irritated by opinions that do not match our own.... when we get angry that decisions do not go our way.... when we hear another Christian express a differing view, even if we know it goes against Scripture and the teaching of the Church.... before we can hope to respond with a word of Truth, we need to let the Lord crucify our own selfish spirit––that proud part of us that always wants to be “right”––and receive his Spirit of grace and mercy and peace. When I live as if “unity” means conformity to my opinions, and if others around me assume the same thing, there will be no unity and there will be no peace.

We who are part of God's church––who, according to Paul, are called to be holy––should never forget that we all come to God and stand before him on the same ground: the cross of Christ. That is where we get our wisdom. That is where we are reminded that it is not my idea or your idea that matters. Popular opinion is not our source of wisdom or truth. Political issues are not the ultimate guide for making our commitments. We are not here to build our own kingdom based on personal convenience. We are here to be united on the one great eternal truth that each one of us needs so badly: Jesus Christ is our hope, our forgiveness, our life, our wisdom––grace, mercy, and peace. It is not what I think or what you think or what is politically correct. It is how much we are conformed to the character of the Son of God, and that comes only through the cross.

I need to be clear about one thing: This will not make “peace” with the world around us. We are in a spiritual war, and there is a spirit of antichrist which will never make peace with those who give ultimate allegiance to Jesus Christ. St Paul is writing to people in the Church. It is in the Church that we seek to make our personal agendas secondary (or even give them up), and thus model a life of grace, mercy, and peace to a world that desperately needs an alternative to the hatred and pain and death that are all too prevalent. 

Are you in the Church because of who Jesus is in your life––because you know the reality of his cross in your life? Are we willing to submit our personal desires to the purification of crucifixion? That is the identity of the Church. That is the foundation of our unity. If this is real and true in our lives, no other diversity can overshadow it. The cross of Christ in my life and yours is what will take us to the unity of grace, mercy, and peace.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Hymn: Eternal Light! Eternal Light!

I've been thinking recently of how much hymns have helped form my faith and continue to sustain me. Many of them seem to be almost unknown in today's world of "contemporary worship (sic)".  While I do indeed get a subjective thrill ("goose bumps") from a variety of musical styles, I find that lyric substance is much more important to my spiritual well-being than seeking a high from "three words + three chords + three minutes x 10".  Over the next days/weeks, I'll post the lyrics to some of the hymns that have formed me…. and sustain me.

The following was first introduced to me by the British revivalist, Leonard Ravenhill, when he held meetings at my childhood church. This hymn takes us to the heart of reverence for a holy God, and the reality that we cannot bear the Consuming Fire apart from his gracious choice to forgive and cleanse us…. (forgiveness is only part of "salvation").

Eternal Light! Eternal Light!

Eternal Light! Eternal Light!
  How pure the soul must be
When, placed within Thy searching sight,
It shrinks not, but with calm delight
  Can live and look on Thee.

The spirits that surround Thy throne
  May bear the burning bliss;
But that is surely theirs alone,
Since they have never, never known
  A fallen world like this.

Oh, how shall I, whose native sphere
  Is dark, whose mind is dim,
Before th’ Ineffable appear,
And on my natural spirit bear
  The uncreated beam?

There is a way for man to rise
  To Thee, sublime Abode;
An Offering and a Sacrifice,
A Holy Spirit’s energies,
  An Advocate with God.

These, these prepare us for the sight
  Of holiness above;
The sons of ignorance and night
May dwell in the eternal Light,
  Through the eternal Love.

Thomas Binney (1798-1874)

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Clement 1 on Faith

From a letter to the Corinthians by Saint Clement I, pope

From the first, faith has been God's means of justifying men

God’s blessing must be our objective, and the way to win it our study. Search the records of ancient times. Why was our father Abraham blessed? Was it not because his upright and straightforward conduct was inspired by faith? As for Isaac’s faith, it was so strong that, assured of the outcome, he willingly allowed himself to be offered in sacrifice. Jacob had the humility to leave his native land on account of his brother, and go and serve Laban. He was given the twelve tribes of Israel.

Honest reflection upon each of these examples will make us realise the magnitude of God’s gifts. All the priests and levites who served the altar of God were descended from Jacob. The manhood of the Lord Jesus derived from him. Through the tribe of Judah, kings, princes and rulers sprang from him. Nor are his other tribes without their honour, for God promised Abraham: “Your descendants shall be as the stars of heaven.”

It is obvious, therefore, that none of these owed their honour and exaltation to themselves, or to their own labours, or to their deeds of virtue. No; they owed everything to God’s will. So likewise with us, who by his will are called in Christ Jesus. We are not justified by our wisdom, intelligence, piety, or by any action of ours, however holy, but by faith, the one means by which God has justified men from the beginning. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

What must we do then, brothers? Give up good works? Stop practising Christian love? God forbid! We must be ready and eager for every opportunity to do good, and put our whole heart into it. Even the Creator and Lord of the universe rejoices in his works. By his supreme power he set the heavens in their place; by his infinite wisdom he gave them their order. He separated the land from the waters surrounding it and made his own will its firm foundation. By his command he brought to life the beasts that roam the earth. He created the sea and all its living creatures, and then by his power set bounds to it. Finally, with his own holy and undefiled hands, he formed man, the highest and most intelligent of his creatures, the copy of his own image. “Let us make man,” God said, “in our image and likeness. And God made man, male and female he made them.” Then, when he had finished making all his creatures, God gave them his approval and blessing: “Increase and multiply,” he charged them.

We must recognise, therefore, that all upright men have been graced by good works, and that even the Lord himself took delight in the glory his works gave him. This should inspire us with a resolute determination to do his will and make us put our whole strength into the work of living a Christian life.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Three Gifts

January 5, 2014 –– Epiphany Sunday
Isaiah 60:1–6 / Matthew 2:1–12
Three Gifts

I want you to think about three kinds of gifts today––and three givers. The Magi gave gold, frankincense, and myrrh. God gives grace, mercy, and peace. We ourselves give.... well, I’ll end with that.

Over the next several weeks we are giving prominence to the themes of grace, mercy, and peace. It is our prayer that such a focus will penetrate the entire parish in ways that open us to new things from our Lord. As a bit of orientation, I offer one way to think of these words:
Grace is being given good things we do not deserve.
Mercy is not being given the bad things we do deserve because of our sins.
Peace is the result of understanding that we have been given grace and mercy through Jesus.

We live in a world that often gets things upside down and backwards. Possessions are substituted for meaning and purpose. Sex is isolated from relationships. The pleasure of the moment is exalted beyond higher rewards that can come from delayed gratification. The world thinks we gain personal peace by getting our own way and fulfilling our own desires.

We see this with Christmas. Our culture jumps into what it calls “Christmas” (or, at least, it used to call it that before “Holidays” usurped it). While the Church is calling us during Advent to get ready for the Coming of the Son of God, we are inundated with a party-spirit of buying and decorating and increasingly silly music. And just when the Church calls us to the joy of celebration, the world around us dismantles everything, shuts off the music and turns its attention to a one-night party where a ball drops.

The world does things upside down and backwards. We need to remember this when we are tempted to let transitory or even artificial issues dominate our minds. We need to remember this when we realize that we have become distracted from living in the awareness that the Son of God truly has come into our world to save us. The temporal things of this world come and go. Some of them do affect us, even in big ways, but none of them alone are worthy of our allegiance. They certainly do not give us peace. In every situation of life we have an invitation to bow before the King of kings and Lord of lords and give him the true worship of our hearts. It is there we find the peace the angels sang about to the shepherds.

Today is Epiphany Sunday. This is the Sunday that the Church’s readings take us to the Magi. This is also the first Sunday of a new year, and there is a bizarre juxtaposition: As the world gives attention to all the things to which it gives an obscene amount of money and attention, we in the Church are directed, like the Magi, to the King of kings and Lord of lords.

The Magi were searching for God. [It might help to rethink our understanding of the Christmas manger scene. The shepherds were at the manger; the wise men probably were not. The Magi came later. Matthew says “they entered the house” where Jesus was, not the stable or cave where the manger would have been.] They are accurately described as “wise men”––they were interested in understanding wisdom and mysteries. The prophet Daniel had been promoted to the rank of Magi when he served the Persian Empire.

About the year 6 B.C. (according to our present calendar), an unusual “star” appeared. St. John Chrysostom rejected the idea that the Star of Bethlehem was a normal star or similar heavenly body because such a star could not have specified the exact place where Jesus was found, being too high in the sky to be that specific. Also, he notes that stars in the sky move from east to west, but the Magi would have travelled from north to south to arrive in Palestine from Persia. Instead, Chrysostom suggested that the star they followed was a miraculous occurrence, comparable to the fiery cloud mentioned in Exodus as leading the Israelites out of Egypt.

Early Christian tradition names three Magi as Casper, Melchior and Balthasar. Their journey took perhaps two years. There is a legend that the Christ-Star replenished their supplies of food and water so they had no need to stop on the way to Jerusalem, but I think the reality is that those men traveled for months in very inconvenient circumstances to find the One their hearts hungered for. God says, “You will find me when you seek me with all your heart.” These men gave themselves to search for God. They modeled humble belief as they knelt with their gifts. 

When we truly believe that God comes to us in Jesus––that he gives us grace, mercy, and peace ––there is a shift in the way we see things. We begin to understand that the world indeed does things upside down and backwards. Peace comes from God and not through a convenient arranging of our circumstances. The Magi came looking for God, and when they found him they gave their best gifts. We live in a world where attention is so often focused on what we can get–– “what’s in it for me?” We live in a climate of growing hatefulness that does not want even to hear of Jesus. Personal “peace” is offered in almost any way other than one that honors what God has done through Jesus Christ. Yet we are given an opportunity on this Epiphany Sunday to confess that Jesus has come into our world. We are invited to come to him―like the Magi.

One of the songs I love to hear at Christmas is In The Bleak Mid-Winter. The last verse is so appropriate as we seek to hold on to the true season of Christmas and remember the Magi with their gift of worship exemplified by their material gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

In this world that is so often upside down and backwards, we come to give our worship to the Son of God who came to save us from all that is so inverted and twisted. We are offered the gifts of grace, mercy, and peace. You can receive those gifts when you give Jesus the one thing you have. Give him your heart.

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