Friday, July 15, 2011

Fr Wells' Bulletin Inserts


Concerning the Epistle:

A very thoughtful and perceptive friend recently asked me, "Have you in your life personally known an America that was morally superior to our own? He was articulating the anguish which many of us feel as we see a culture in shreds, values abandoned, a nation in ruins, a world gone berserk.

I have to answer my friend that from a Biblical perspective, the Fall of man did not take place in our lifetime nor in the lifetime of our parents and grand-parents, but at the very beginning of history, the edge of time itself. If the world seems to be a terrible place, it is not because things are getting worse but because our moral perceptions have become more acute.

St Paul addresses this issue in the passage from Romans 8 which we read today, when he elaborates on "the sufferings of this present time" which certainly will be reversed in the "glory" to come. This truly monumental chapter begins with the thrilling statement "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." The key-word of that text and perhaps for the whole chapter is the word "now," which tells us that in the earth-shattering event of Jesus Christ, there has been a decisive and permanent reversal in the world and the relationship between God and His creation.

But this reversal is not obvious to all and sometimes even Christians see it dimly. The Bible is honest about the intensity of "the sufferings of this present time." And those words, "this present time," do not refer to the current generation or even to our brief lifetime. "This present time" is the entire chunk of history between the two Comings of our Redeemer.

Paul reminds us that for the time being, until Jesus comes again, we live on this planet with the residual effects of Adam's Fall. "For the creation was subjected to futility, ... the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now." When secular talking-heads try to alarm us with daily recitals of how bad the world has become, the Christian's response should be, "Yes, we have known all this for quite a long time, but we have already read the final chapter and we know the end of the story. In fact we have the solution to your pain."

"The glory which shall be revealed in us" is Christ's coming and the resurrection of our bodies. But within the here and the now, we already enjoy "the first-fruits of the Spirit." Here we have an interesting word. Usually, "first-fruits" meant the initial part of a harvest, which had to be rendered up to God in sacrifice. But here, the word instead refers to God's gift to us. Paul seems to be thinking of a special meaning of the term, in which it referred to a birth-certificate. The presence of the Holy Ghost within the life of the Christian is his birth-certificate as a citizen of the kingdom of heaven. This is the great fact already in effect. The "present evil age" can never undo it.

Concerning the Gospel:

In the second half of the liturgical year, the series of approximately twenty-six Sundays, the persistent theme of our Epistles and Gospels is how to live the Christian life. From Advent through Trinity Sunday, we are taught what God has done for us. Nowbetween Trinity and Advent, we must learn (to borrow Francis Schaeffer's book title) “how then shall we live.” Our Saviour's mighty work for us cannot leave us unchanged.

Today's Gospel comes from a long passage in Luke called “the Sermon on the Plain,” roughly equivalent to Matthew's “Sermon on the Mount.” What should be immediately obvious to us is that Jesus spent much of His time in ethical teaching, instructing His disciples in a distinctive way of life. Christians are set apart, Jesus teaches us, not just in what we believe or how we worship, but by how we behave ourselves.

Three things are obvious in this passage. First, the Christian life is outstanding for the quality of inter-personal relationships. Everything Jesus has to say here involves how we treat, and get along with, other people.

Second, the moral principles of the Christian life are so utterly simple. Jesus does not speak of “gray areas,” or ethical dilemmas.” When He speaks of being merciful, or not judging, or being generous, we have before us some very straight-forward material. No-one can rightly say, “This is too hard for me to understand.” (Today's Epistle from Romans 8 is another matter!) We know only too well what Jesus means.

Third, in the two great passages in Matthew and Luke (Matt 5—8 and Lk 6:20—49), Jesus is not speaking (like Socrates or Emmanuel Kant) in the manner of an ethical teacher, speculating on the nature of right and wrong. He spoke and still speaks as King and Law-giver. When we hear His voice in these simple commands “Be ye therefore merciful, ...” we recognize His authority over us.

And sadly, we instantly recognize that this is a Law which we cannot yet fulfil. Can anyone of us read today's Gospel and say, “Oh yes, I have done all that, let's move on to the next topic.” It is significant that this sermon, as Luke narrates it, was preached by Jesus to “a great multitude of people ... which came to hear him, and to be healed of their diseases.” Disease in the Gospels is the symbol for sin. As the disease of our innate sinful nature is progressively healed in us, so it is that our daily lives are gradually re-fashioned and transformed. The royal law of Jesus will become the picture of the redeemed Christian.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Fr Wells' Bulletin Inserts


One neglected key-word in the Biblical vocabulary is the word “memorial.” This word appears inconspicuously in the Words of Institution, “Do this in memory of me.” A more precise trans-lation of the Greek would be, “Do this for my memorial.”

To us the word memorial refers to a purely mental exercise, a straining of the mind to think of something far away and long ago. We hold a “memorial service” for someone dead, not for someone alive. This word memorial might refer to the re-enactment of a battle, which everyone knows is not the real thing.

But as the Bible uses the word, a memorial (and here the Eucharist is the example par excellance) is not for someone absent but for Someone Present. A true memorial brings things out of the past and makes them contemporary. This is because the One who does the remem-bering is none other than God Himself! Think of all the times the Psalter calls upon God to remember His covenant and His promises, or think of how we pray in the Litany, “Remember not, Lord, our offenses, nor the offenses of our forefathers.”

In the Eucharist we are permitted to do something far greater than just sitting around and thinking about the death of our Saviour. Instead, we call upon God to remember that sacrifice, to make it present before our very eyes, to make it effective and powerful here and now. As Hymn 189 expresses it,
“Look, Father, look, on His anointed face,
And only look on us as found in Him.”
We sing of His sacrifice as truly present, because in the sacrament of the Altar, it is truly there before our eyes. Calvary does not have to be re-enacted, because Calvary is now.

Now we come again to Holy Week. This is emphatically *not* just a historical commem-oration, like Columbus Day or Independence Day, of remote events from another time, whose relevance we must strive to recall. In the Blessing of Palms today, in the Mass of the Lord's Supper on Maundy Thursday, in the Vigil around the Cross during the sacred Three Hours of Good Friday, we are permitted to re-live the mighty acts of God for our salvation—acts which we treat rather cheaply. The special services of Holy Week are a unique opportunity to encounter Christ and to grow closer to Him.

St John's Gospel emphasizes that Peter did not merely look at the empty tomb, but moreover Peter went into the tomb. Not only did he contemplate the evidence of the Resurrection, but entered himself totally into the Event itself. That is what this holy season is all about. We make and keep this Memorial of our Saviour that we may climb down into Him and find our resting-place in Him.


The liturgy for the final Sunday in Lent, when we come to something like a pre-climax just before the real climax on Easter morning, is an embarrassment of riches. We have two moments of real drama today: first, the re-enactment of Our Lord's not-quite-triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and second, the long reading of St Matthew's Passion narrative. Between these two splendid moments, the Prayer Book gives us a brief reading from Philippians as the Epistle appointed for the day.

Bible scholars are almost unanimous in their suspicion that in these verses Paul was quoting a hymn from the early church's worship. These verses read like a hymn of six stanzas, three devoted to our Saviour's humiliation and three more (beginning at “Wherefore God”) proclaiming His exaltation. This passage almost begs to be sung and is the basis for one of our finest hymns. See Hymn 356, The Hymnal 1940.

Today we must concentrate on the first part of the hymn Paul was quoting. There we meet the contrast between “the form of God” and “the form of a servant.” Those two expressions reveal the amazing chasm of distance which the Incarnate God traveled for us. How far is it from heaven to earth? No, the question really is, How far is it from God's throne to Calvary's hill? A distance more vast and exhausting than we can imagine. And this word “form” is not just outward show, but inner reality. He possessed the very nature of God but took the role of a servant in the most realistic sense of the word.

From the moment when God commanded Adam in the garden “to till it and keep it,” and to give names to every beast of the field, God had been seeking a perfectly obedient and cooperative servant, to bear His image in His creation. Beginning with Adam, such a servant had never been found-- until Christ Jesus appeared. His task had been a far greater burden than that of Adam; his garden is not Eden but Gethsemane. His perfect obedience is submission to the Cross itself.

But if Paul is quoting a hymn in this passage, the opening line is his very own. “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.” The attitude of Christ Jesus, in His self-denial, His perfect obedience, and His willingness to suffer, is to be our attitude as well. Those who are “in Christ Jesus” are called to be like Him, marked with the humility of slaves. Here is the point that Paul was striving to make as he quoted this hymn. Christ was not only our substitute but also, as today's Collect puts it, our example. And as St Peter wrote (I Peter 5:6), “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that in due time He may exalt you.”

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Passion Sunday II

Running through St John's Gospel we have an interesting series of sayings from the lips of Jesus, beginning with the simple formula “I am.” He hear Him saying, “I am the true vine, ... the good shepherd, ... the door, ... the bread of life, ... the resurrection and the life, ... the way, the truth, and the life.” These sayings are all striking not only because they create vivid word pictures for us, but moreover because they use an especially emphatic and solemn form of “I am” in the original Greek which under-lies our English Bibles. When Jesus said “I am,” He said it in a way which gets people's attention, as today's Gospel reading from John 8 clearly demonstrates.

The phrase echoes a number of passages from the Old Testament. As an example, there is Isaiah 41:4:

Who hath wrought and done it, calling the generations from the beginning?

I, the LORD, the first, and with the last, I am he.”

But the most striking example is from the account of Moses' encounter with the Lord at the Burning Bush, in Exodus 3:14. Moses asked the mysterious voice coming from the bush to reveal His name. (We might forget what a bold and presumptuous request this was on Moses' part!) God revealed His name, nevertheless, telling Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” That mysterious and awesome Name was abbreviated with the one word all devout Israelites past and present feel is too sacred to be uttered aloud, the Divine Name YHWH.

When Jesus began to make statements, “I am ....” it surely sounded as if He were claiming for Himself the very Name of God, the Name too holy to be spoken above a whisper. But in John 8:58, He left no room for doubt, when He stated firmly to His opponents, “Before Abraham as, I AM.” Not only did He claim to be older than Abraham, He claimed to be God. If the words are obscure to us, the meaning was perfectly plain to the Jews. It is no wonder that they attempted to stone Him on the spot.

When the huge band of soldiers went out to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, He told them three times, “I am He” (John 18:5). When the high priest asked Him “Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed,” again He answered “I am” (Mk 14:62). Both times, He made the bold claim to be God, the same God whom Moses met in the burning bush. This is not merely an opinion about Jesus; it is not to be explained as the Church's faith regarding Jesus; it is simply what Jesus claimed for Himself. If He did not make such a claim, why were His opponents so angry? If we love Jesus and place our trust in Him, then we simply must come to terms with the claims which He made concerning His identity.

A man who claims to be God, many have observed, is either a lunatic, a liar, or the Lord. In any case, such a man is no one to trifle with. As Christians, we have been granted to know the right answer.

Passion Sunday I

The violet vestments have been replaced by red, the color of blood, signifying that in the final two weeks of Lent we draw closer to our Lord Jesus in His suffering and death. The Sunday before Palm Sunday is known among Anglicans as Passion Sunday. It prepares us for Holy Week somewhat in the manner that the “Gesima” Sundays prepare us for Lent itself. The veils on the altar crucifix and other icons remind us of the time when Jesus “hid himself, and went out of the temple,” signifying that the glory had departed.

The word Passion means suffering; one with a “passion” for art or music will actually go experience suffering as he devotes himself totally in self-discipline and practice. In His suffering under the scourge and on the cross, our dear Lord revealed God's great passion for the souls of men.

All four of the Gospels devote a disproportionate number of chapters to the final week and even the final hours of the life of Jesus. The accounts have different perspectives and emphases.

Matthew and Mark are almost the same, emphasizing the rejection, humiliation, and suffering of Jesus. Their picture of the passion is reflected in the painful crucifix above the altar. These two Gospels give only one of the “Seven Words,” the cry of dereliction, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

The authenticity of the saying is evinced by the fact that it is quoted in Hebrew by Matthew and in Aramaic by Mark. Aramaic was Our Lord's normal spoken language, but Hebrew was the language of the Psalm He was quoting.

Luke, on the other hand, emphasizes the compassion of Jesus, which strangely elicits the compassion of others. It is Luke who tells us that “there followed him a great company of people, and of women, which also bewailed and lamented him” (Lk 23:27). Luke gives us three words from the Cross, including, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” and the word of compassion to the thief, “To day thou shalt be with me in paradise.” Luke's third word reflects the serene resignation of Jesus, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.” Luke's version is reflected in the San Damiano icon at the side altar.

John presents yet a third picture, a picture of Jesus already in majesty. Jesus at every point is in full control of the situation, causing the soldiers in the garden to fall down in awe, and clearly worsting Pontius Pilate in the trial. John relates three other words from the cross: “Woman, behold thy son, Son, behold thy mother,” “I thirst,” and “It is finished.” All three reflect Jesus in command, even to the point of demanding a drink! The royal Christ is portrayed for us in the Christus Rex over the west door.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Sexagesima, Part II

Today's first reading begins with words of heavy sarcasm, “Ye suffer fools gladly, seeing ye yourselves are wise.” A modern translation is quite helpful here, “How gladly you put up with fools, being yourselves so wise.” Paul was not paying any compliment to his Corinthian readers. When he called them wise, he meant the very opposite.

These new Christians, not rooted and well-grounded in the Faith, were in danger of being seduced by a substitute Gospel, a false Christianity. In contrast to our easy-going tolerant sort of religion, this for Paul was no small matter. A few verses before our reading begins, Paul had compared them to Eve in the Garden of Eden. “But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Cor 11:3). When the immature Christians in Corinth cheerfully put up with “fools” in the form of false teachers, they were like Eve, falling for the lies of the devil.

Our world, and along with it, the Christian community of our time, have listened to many false teachers. Like the Corinthians, we have “suffered fools gladly,” but we have only proved ourselves to be fools ourselves. We have not been wise.

The doctrinal and moral errors which trouble us are not simple mistakes which we can solve by debate, argument and controversy. They point to something deeply wrong in our fallen human nature. As Paul wrote elsewhere, “they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools....” (Rom 1:21-22).

Ash Wednesday is at hand, when we are solemnly reminded, “Remember, man, thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.” Those terrifying words are reinforced with a grim ceremony, when our foreheads are disfigured with ashes. But almost always, someone will get the giggles seeing the entire congregation looking so funny. That is not altogether wrong or inappropriate. As we recall our mortality and the shortness of our earthly life, we should know ourselves to be the victims of a dirty trick, a horrible cosmic joke, in which we have been robbed by Satan of our original righteousness, our communion with our Creator, and the gift of eternal life.

Satan himself is the ultimate fool, because he wanted to be more powerful than God. In our unregenerate life we indeed put up with him and become foolish like him. May we turn more and more to Christ, who is our wisdom, our righteousness and our peace.

Sexagesima, Part I

These Pre-Lenten Sundays have unusually distinctive Collects. And in case you are not familiar with the term Collect, this word is the name for brief prayers which sum up or “collect” the private petitions of God's people; that is why there is or should be a slight pause between “Let us pray” and the Collect itself, to allow for the people to pray silently for a moment.

On Septuagesima and Sexagesima, the proper collects strike a solemn, almost sad, tone. Today we pray to be “defended from all adversity.” Last Sunday, we acknowledged that such “adversity” sometimes comes as the “just punishment for our offences.” Grim as they are, these two prayers (BCP pages 118 and 120) might well be read together as examples of authentic Christian prayer. Those who learn to pray this way are not instructing God, giving Him good advice, sharing information, or even telling Him how they feel or what they want. They are simply asking to be defended against all adversity and mercifully delivered by God's goodness.

These two collects are among the most ancient prayers in the Prayer Book. They seem to have been composed in the Sixth Century A. D., just after the fall of the Roman empire, at the time when heathen barbarians from northern Europe were moving aggressively into Italy, leaving disaster and destruction in their wake. Whereas the Church had enjoyed a measure of safety and security in the last days of the Roman empire, now the world seemed to be collapsing. It was a perilous time, marked by pestilence, famine and earthquake. “Adversity” was not just a word.

The parallels between that period and our own are striking. Like the Roman Christians of the Sixth Century, we also perceive that our inherited world order may well be slipping away. But here is the great difference: whereas the Christian community of the early Dark Ages understood matters in solidly Biblical terms of God's just judgment on a sinful world, modern Christians seem to have a knack for making excuses and finding others to blame. We point to the liberals (both religious and political), we denounce the secular culture, we find fault with almost everyone and everything other than ourselves.

The Scriptures tells us that Divine judgment begins with the house of God. We are not here to play; the service of God is serious business. We know what God will do with the wicked, but what is in store for the shallow and superficial? Are you ready for Lent?

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Septuagesima, Part II

From ancient times a parable has been defined as “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” Jesus commonly taught by means of such stories. The parables always seem simple because they use familiar and ordinary things, such as vineyards and wages, employers and employees, hard work and idleness. But the “heavenly meaning” is usually elusive. The parables make sense only to those having minds renewed by the Holy Spirit. To non-Christians, they make no sense at all.

To unpack the parable in today's Gospel, we have here a series of symbols. The men of the market-place are lost mankind. The householder who invites them to labor in his vineyard is God, merciful and generous. The vineyard itself is God's kingdom, clearly set apart and distinct from the market-place. The repeated invitation into the vineyard, given early in the morning, again at the third hour, the sixth hour, even at the ninth and eleventh hours, reflects the persistence of God in His incessant offer of the Gospel. The pay-out of wages at the end of the day points to the last judgment. And the wage itself?

At this point we seem to run into trouble. It all seems so very unfair. Anyone familiar with common business practices in ancient times or now will immediately understand the point of the objection, “These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day.”

This parable, centering around this complaint, is all about God's sovereign grace, His unmerited love, His baffling generosity. Tragically we have attempted to domesticate and subdue that Gospel with the silly notion that “God helps those who helps themselves,” that He simply makes us an offer and awaits our cooperation. The most dangerous substitute for the Gospel is the devil's lie that God wants us to do our best and when we fail He will somehow step in and help us out.

Grace, symbolized in the wages paid to the eleventh hour workers, will forever be illogical, senseless, unfair to the unregenerate mind. That is why the hymn-writers so frequently describe grace as “amazing.”

The griping ingrates who complain against the householder feel that somehow they have been cheated or ill-treated. What escapes them is that the householder is generous to all, at no loss to them, but only at great expense to himself. That is the price paid for us on the Cross. That infinite price entitles the householder to say, “Many be called but few chosen.” May He never say to us, “Take that thine is, and go thy way,” for that is the way which leads to perdition.