Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Third Sunday in Advent, Part II

During these final two Sundays of Advent the liturgy features the odd and unfriendly person known as St. John Baptist, the cousin of Jesus, who was born just six months before him. Although he is narrated in the New Testament Gospel, this man was the last of the Old Testament prophets. In this “goodly fellowship of the prophets,” he was the only prophet actually to see Jesus face to face. The One Whom Isaiah and all the other Old Testament figures saw only by faith, John was permitted to see right in front of him.

The message of John is summed up in the words, “Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The expression “kingdom of heaven” means the active reign of God. The word “kingdom” sounds like a political institution or territorial entity; the phrase is better translated “kingship of God.” John's message was simply that God, who rightly claims rule in His creation, can no longer be defied or challenged, since He is about to re-assert His royal authority in the world He made.

Almost at the beginning of history, our earliest ancestors set out to overthrow God and remove Him from His throne. That was the original sin; that is still the essence of all sin. But John announced that in Jesus Christ, the “Lamb of God,” God was about to gain the upper hand and resume control of His world. That was to be His “kingdom.”

John says this kingdom “is at hand.” That expression puzzles us. Did he mean the kingdom has already arrived, was shortly to arrive, or would arrive sometime in the future?

All three of these answers are correct. Because Jesus was physically standing in the middle of the crowd listening to John, the reign of God had already commenced. His perfect obedience and sinlessness showed that the victory over evil was already underway. But very soon, in just three years, that perfect obedience would bring Jesus to His cross and to His empty tomb. That was the decisive victory which proved and made sure that the old kingdom of sin and Satan was overthrown forever.

But the final victory, when Jesus will hand over the kingdom to His Father, will not come until the end of history. This good news of God's reign is summed up in the words, “Already, but Not Yet.” We live between two points of time, the coming of the kingdom in the life of Jesus on earth, and its perfection when He shall come again. And as we look forward to that arrival, John's message to us is simply to “repent,” to change our minds and and to change our lives so that we may be ready for Him when He comes in His glory.

The Third Sunday in Advent, Part I

Of all the praiseworthy characters of the Bible, the one whose company we would enjoy least is St John Baptist. He is not the sort of person we would wish to have as a dinner guest or as a fellow traveler on a cruise. But he is the saint who features prominently in the liturgy of the last two Sundays of Advent. And if the Baptist does not appeal to us, our Lord paid him the highest of all possible compliments: “Truly I say to you, among those born of women, there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Matt 11:11).

John was great because he was the last in the long succession of Old Testament prophets “which have been since the world began.” But John was the only one to see Jesus Himself. The Son of God was seen by Abraham, Moses, Isaiah and all the rest in a visionary way. John was privileged to see Him in the flesh.

John's prophetic ministry was threefold, as it related to (1) Jesus Himself, (2) Herod Antipas, and (3) the chosen people Israel living in A.D. 27—30. As far as Jesus is concerned, it was John's privilege to baptize Him and to announce Him publicly. “Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world .... He must increase and I must decrease.”

As for Herod Antipas (son of the Herod who tried to murder the Christ Child), John's preaching was distinctly controversial and provocative. John publicly denounced this Herod for his immoral life—casting aside one wife to marry another who was the wife of his brother. For that sermon, John lost his life, and probably most Christians today would be in firm agreement with the Herod family that preachers should not meddle into such things. And if we and Herod are in agreement, we must be in disagreement with Jesus.

But John's sternest words were directed to the huge multitude which went out to hear him preaching on the banks of the Jordan. “O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?......Now is the axe laid to the root of the trees.” The expression “generation of vipers” is probably an allusion to the “seed of the serpent” in Genesis 3:15, the reprobate race perpetually at enmity with the “Seed of the Woman.” So the last great voice of Old Testament prophecy echoes the earliest expression of the Gospel, the Protevangelium.

In addition to pointing out the actual presence of the Messiah, John preached the necessity for repentance, the moral house-cleaning which is imperative as the Lord approaches. As we contemplate John in the Advent liturgy, we face the question: What would John have to say to us?

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Second Sunday in Advent, Part II

Owing to its splendid Proper Collect, this second Sunday in Advent has come to be known as “Bible Sunday,” While most Collects are more ancient, this one was an original composition by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, the compiler of the first Prayer Book of 1549. It was based on the opening text of today's Epistle: “Whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning.” Advent is a good time to form a New Year's resolution to read the Bible more diligently. So we will learn the truth, “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.”

But the original significance of this Sunday, as set forth in the appointed Gospel, is rather different. The message of Christ's final coming at the end of history is ratcheted up to a louder volume. “And then they shall see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” This takes place in a context of distress of nations, with men's hearts failing them for fear. Christ will not come into a serene or perfect world, but into the final catastrophe brought down by the tragedy of sin.

The almost final verse of today's Gospel is puzzling: “This generation shall not pass away, till all be fulfilled.” Many have concluded that either Jesus or the Gospel-writer was flatly mistaken, as the final coming in glory did not take place within that narrow time-frame. But this text makes excellent sense if we understand the principle of double fulfilment, so frequently the case with Biblical prophecy. If we open our Bibles, and read the preceding verses, not printed in our Prayer Books, we see instantly that Jesus was predicting first of all the destruction of Jerusalem, which indeed occurred in A.D. 70 at the hands of the Romans. “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near” (Lk 21:20). This Roman devastation took place, exactly as Jesus said it would, within the life span of His audience. But what becomes clear on reflection is that the catastrophe of A.D. 70 turns out to be a foreshadowing of future events on a far greater scale. As the history of Israel ended in catastrophe, all earthly history will end in tragedy. The “generation” ultimately is the whole body of those elect who are His t people through “regeneration.” This “blessed company of all faithful people” will not pass away: the Church of Jesus Christ, no matter how battered and reduced by the bruises of history, will not disappear from the scene before Jesus comes again.

As Jerusalem was surrounded by Roman armies nearly 2,000 years ago, so our Jerusalem is encircled by hostile forces, neo-pagan culture, moral chaos, and militant unbelief. So Christ's message still remains: “Look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh.” This Gospel of hope is no easy or comfortable religion, but a message of victory which defies all evidence.

The Second Sunday in Advent, part I

Among the glories of our beloved Prayer Book are those short pithy prayers which we know as the “Collect for the Day.” Every Sunday and Holy Day of the year has its own Collect, Epistle and Gospel; these are known as “the propers” of the particular day. These are very ancient. They mostly antedate the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. Many of these “propers” go right back to the early centuries of the Church.

But upon occasion Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, who compiled the first edition of our Prayer Book in 1549, wrote an original Collect. This is the case with the slightly unusual Collects we have on the first two Sundays of Advent. These two special prayers are among the most striking and moving petitions of all devotional literature.

The Collect for Advent I plays on a subtle contrast between “now in the time of this mortal life” and “the last day, when he shall come again.” This reinforces the major theme of Advent, “the night is far spent, the day is at hand.” This Collect reminds us that whether the final coming of our Saviour is ten thousand years into the future or within the next five minutes, that coming is the great event which really dominates all time between His ascension and the end of the world. We might be tempted to say it “overshadows” all earthly history. But on the contrary, it is the event which breaks apart the clouds of our sin and pours out God's dazzling light. So the present time in which we live is already the time of God's reign.

The Collect for Advent II reflects the resurgence of interest in the Bible which took place in Archbishop Cranmer's time. Although the Scriptures had always been studied and carefully preserved in the Church, both the invention of printing and new translations had made the Bible more accessible. The king whom Cranmer served, Henry VIII, is infamous for his six wives and generally wicked reign. But Henry made one lasting positive contribution to our Church when he commanded that every parish church in the realm of England have a large folio Bible installed for the use of the clergy and people. To this day that is a prominent feature of our Anglican churches, not usually seen elsewhere.

There are many spiritual tragedies in our time. But all, without exception, are rooted in the Church's neglect of the Bible, in our preaching, teaching, and devotional life. The petition that we “hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them,” should be as urgent as any prayer we pray.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The First Sunday in Advent

It is still four weeks away when people will be saying, “Happy New Year,” eating hoppin' john, and getting used to writing 2010 when they date a check. But in the kalendar of Holy Mother Church, today is New Year's Day, when we flip back to page 90 in the Collects, Epistles and Gospels and start all over in the Church's Year of Grace.

Advent means Arrival and prepares our hearts and souls for the coming of our dear Lord at His birthday on December 25. But it accomplishes this not by a sentimental reminiscence of the first Christmas but through a sharp clear focus on His arrival at the end of time to take us to our eternal home. Advent reminds us that our faith leads us into the future when “He shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead.” That was the promise which the angels made to the apostles as they watched Jesus ascend: “This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven.”

If we dismiss this glorious promise as an irrelevancy, then we need this season. Advent is like an alarm clock, to rouse a sluggish church and a sleepy Christian. Today's Epistle from Romans 8 (echoed in our processional hymn, Hymn 9) almost screams at us: “Now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed.”

When we read the entire Gospel story of Jesus' coming—God's arrival on earth—from Bethlehem to Calvary to the Empty Tomb to Bethany, we notice how sadly unprepared were the hearts of mankind. The Christian believer, on the other hand, must get busy, getting ready for Jesus to come again. “But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.”

This world does not know the future and can only contemplate it with carelessness or with fear or some insane mixture of the two. But Christians happen to know how the story will turn out; we have already read the final chapter. So we look to the future with confidence, hope, and even with joy. Jesus is coming! That is our confidence, hope and joy.

During this penitential season, keep focused on Advent. Stay close to the Lord and be frequently at His altar. Then you will be ready for Christmas.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Twenty-Third Sunday After Trinity, Part II

In today's reading from Matthew 22, we again see Our Divine Lord in contro-versy with His opponents. Running true to form, they attempted to entrap Him with a loaded question, “Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” If Jesus said “yes,” He could jeopardize His popularity with His Jewish following. If He said “no,” He would become a marked man with the Romans. It was a sneaky question, designed to make trouble. The Pharisees made sure some of the Herodians, a faction deeply sympathetic to the Romans, were on hand as witnesses.

The answer of Jesus was brilliant. “Render therefore under Caesar the thing's which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's.” Generally we take this simply as a commandment to obey our lawful government and pay its taxes. This text gets bandied around each year around April 15. It is a text widely known and quoted among people who know little about the Bible.

But there is more here than meets the eye. Whereas we pay our taxes to a government we acknowledge (perhaps grudgingly) as legitimate, the audience and followers of Jesus regarded the Roman government as conquerors, usurpers, tyrants holding no just authority. Many longed and prayed for a military strong-man who would lead a revolutionary war and drive the Romans out of their land. Many expected Jesus to become that leader. These folk paid their taxes grudgingly, but they did not consider it morally “lawful.”

So the question thrust upon Jesus by His opponents boils down to this: To what extent may a godly man obey an illegitimate or unjust government? This was reminiscent of the strange advice which Jeremiah gave his countrymen about 600 years earlier. “Submit to your Babylonian conquerors, even when they drag you off into exile, for they are God's just judgment on your sins.” A sound theology of judgment made Jeremiah into a political traitor to his people. Jesus shared virtually in the same dilemma.

For the time being, the people of God (now I am talking about us) live in two kingdoms: the reign of God in our hearts and in our personal behavior, and the political structures (which may be hellishly horrible and are never perfect) which Divine Judgment has placed over us. The first is the anticipation of eternity, the second is already passing away. We look forward to the time when “the kingdoms of this world have become the Kingdom of our God, and of His Christ, and He shall reign for ever and ever” (Rev. 11.15). But that is not yet.

The whole Biblical teaching is larger than what we have in this brief reading. The people of God may emphatically not “render unto Caesar” that which is not His. But Our Lord does teach us that “Caesar” even at His worst has legitimate demands upon us. The more urgent question here and now is whether we render unto God what truly belongs to God.

The Twenty-Third Sunday After Trinity, Part I

For the most part, our Prayer Book Epistles and Gospels are given in the “King James Version,” more accurately called the Authorized Version. We would not have it otherwise, since that version remains a great literary monument. But very occasionally the 1928 editors of the Prayer Book corrected a word, here or there. We have such an example in today's Epistle from Philippians. Where the KJV reads “Our conversation is in heaven,” the Prayer Book reads “Our citizenship is in heaven.”

Here we have a Greek word politeuma which is founds nowhere else in the New Testament. How the KJV got “conversation” out of this word is a long story which need not detain us here. But politeuma (a word related to “politics”) can be translated correctly either as “citizenship” or as “commonwealth.”

Within the Roman empire a politeuma referred to a colony of foreigners or relocated veterans. Think of a community of people with the same background, living together in a foreign country. Frequently the Roman emperors paid off their soldiers by given them grants of land in the conquered territories, which led to the creation of such communities. These “commonwealths” enjoyed special prestige and privilege in the Roman empire. Philippi itself was a politeuma.

If the Philippian Christians were tempted to take excessive pride in their political status or to find their security in an important earthly city, Paul was warning them and us that such gloating was a false hope.

Today's Gospel reminds us bluntly that Christians have a real obligation to support our earthly political systems, “Render unto Caesar...” But ultimately we belong to no earthly nation but to the Kingdom of God. When earthly political systems crumble (as the Roman empire surely did, as our own system may crumble before our very eyes), His reign remains secure.

To be a citizen is a great privilege. This was as true in St. Paul's time as in ours. A citizen has certain rights and can look to his government for protection. Paul's message in the use of this word is that we Christians enjoy amazing privileges as citizens of the Kingdom of God. We may trust in the protection of the King who has subdued us to Himself and now reigns over us and defends us. With sure confidence we may pray, in the words of St Thomas Aquinas, “And grant us life that shall not end, in our true native land with thee.”

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Twenty-Second Sunday After Trinity

Today's reading from Matthew's Gospel deals with the matter of forgiveness. It involves a long parable which illustrates the familiar petition from the Lord's Prayer, given in Matthew as “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” but in Luke as “forgive us our sins for we also forgive everyone who is indebted to us.” (The familiar liturgical form, “Forgive us our trespasses,” is only a paraphrase.)

The petition briefly and the parable at length state with perfect clarity the correlation between God's forgiveness of the debt we owe Him (a debt which can only be satisfied by the blood of God's own Son) and the offenses we have suffered from others. As God has shown mercy and forgiveness to us, Christians likewise are bound to show similar mercy and forgiveness. Christians may never seek revenge on those who have wronged us, may never practice spite, and may never hold grudges. Such behavior is truly natural for us because our nature is sinful. But the Christian is a man or woman who is controlled not by nature but by super-nature. We live not according to our old fallen state but by grace and the new nature God has given us.

But sad to say, we commonly distort this noble, beautiful, and painful vision of Christian behavior. We must take great heed to our spiritual condition whenever we say, “You should be more forgiving,” or “He should not feel that way.” The requirement of forgiveness is no rule for us to apply to others! If Bill injures John's home, family, or fortune, it is not for Steve to tell John, “You ought not hold that grudge.” When we fall into that moral trap, we are probably failing to practice forgiveness ourselves. As the Gospel has been secularized and diluted, the principle of forgiveness has become warped and judgmental. We all know many Steves who will sit in judgment on John without knowing the full story of what Bill has done.

Forgiveness also must never become the mask for moral indifference. Our Lord does not ask us (on the contrary, He forbids us!) to engage in sloppy moral judgments. We are never to stand idly by when others are being harmed or when evil itself goes on a rampage. When the Nazis were slaughtering the Jews and numerous others with them, there were many sentimental folk, who considered themselves to be excellent Christians, who urged a “forgiving” attitude toward the Nazis. Who would presume to “forgive” an abortionist?

When we see (and we are under judgment if we fail to see) the public harmed by the bad behavior of our leaders, our duty is not to forgive but to confront and to remove. The rule of forgiveness is no license for moral compromise or surrender to evil.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

All Saints Day

In the harvest-time of the year we celebrate God's great harvest, the harvest of souls, when He will make His final separation of the wheat from the tares. All Saints' Day is the reminder that we are called to be saints and to join the innumerable throng of all who are redeemed in Christ, including those who have gone before us and all who will come after us. We have a picture of this multitude in today's reading from Revelation, “clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands.”

All Saints' Day is a good time for us to rethink clearly what is revealed to us in the Bible about the after-life. There is much confused and murky thinking on this matter even among traditional Christians.

At the moment of physical death, there is a separation of soul and body. The body is said to “fall asleep in the Lord, waiting for its final resurrection. The soul continues to be conscious. If it is a Christian soul, it is permitted to have sweet fellowship with Christ and all His vast throng of redeemed people. These redeemed souls are waiting in an “intermediate state” between their previous earthly life and their eventual resurrection. This intermediate state is sometimes called Paradise or even Heaven. It is a temporary, not a final, condition.

The is no basis for supposing that souls in this intermediate state suffer any kind of penalties whatever, for sins committed while on earth in the body. The term purgatory is therefore to be avoided as misleading. Many believe that souls in the intermediate state continue to grow spiritually and our Prayer Book seems to teach it. St Paul may hint at this when he writes, “ Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you may perform it until [bring it to completion at] the day of Jesus Christ' (Phil. 1: 6). What is certain is that all the faithful departed, and our own loved ones who died in the Lord, are happy and blessed with Christ. God grant that we may join them when He calls us.

At the “Last Day,” when Christ shall come again and bring history to its close, all mankind will be raised up. Our bodies will be reconstituted and made glorious, just as His body was raised up on the first Easter. We will see, touch, and hear each other again. This will be in “the new heaven and the new earth,” the new creation already underway but not complete until Christ comes. While this is mysterious to us and most details not yet revealed, we simply must think of our own resurrection as realistically and graphically as we think of His.

In the meantime, while we wait for Christ's coming, we delight in the assurance that all the faithful departed, both the “heroes of the faith” and obscure mediocre Christians, are tightly bound in one great fellowship of the saints. That is what we celebrate today.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Twentieth Sunday After Trinity

The passage from Matthew read as the liturgical Gospel for this Sunday is really not one parable, but three parables run together. Anyone who has had lunch with Fr. Wells knows his habit of rambling from one story into another, possibly without finishing any of them. The apostle Matthew on occasion telescoped several parables together, expecting his readers to remember them from the oral tradition which circulated in the Church.

The first parable involves a feast with ungrateful guests who refuse the invitation at the last moment. The second involves a king whose ambassadors are physically abused. Both of these parables are found in Luke 14 and Luke 20, respectively. But what about the third parable, the man who appeared, but not properly attired in the prescribed marriage garment? It has no parallel in the other Gospels. In a time like ours, when people are extremely casual about clothing, it seems odd for the king to resort of such an extreme measure (“cast him into outer darkness”) over a mere social faux pas.

The best explanation is a very ancient one. In those days for royal weddings, the host himself provided the garments for the guests to wear. So the man wearing improper clothing either was a party-crasher, who had entered without a proper invitation, or else he had treated the garments provided with disdain and contempt.

Garments happen to be a powerful symbol throughout the Scriptures. When God drove Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden out into “this tough world,” He kindly provided them with garments made from animal skins, as a token of His unmerited grace. The prodigal son was welcomed by his father with a sumptuous robe. The book of Revelation speaks of those who have washed their robs in the blood of the Lamb (Rev 7:14). St Paul speaks more than once of “putting on Christ,” as if Christ Himself were a garment. Paul's imagery has been preserved in the custom of special garments sometimes worn at Baptism and Confirmation.

By our nature, we are sinful through and through. But when we “put on” Christ, our sinfulness is covered and our inward nature begins to change. Like the animal skins given to Adam and Eve or the marriage garments provided to the king's guests, or the robe given to the prodigal son, Christ miraculously becomes our marriage garment which entitles us to stand before the the Father. Left to our own devices, we are naked at God's judgment bar. But He makes us to be clothed and covered with the righteousness of Christ.

"When He shall come with trumpet sound,
oh, may I then in Him be found,
clothed in His righteousness alone,
faultless to stand before the throne."

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Saint Luke The Evangelist

Speaking humanly, the saddest line in the entire New Testament comes in the Epistle lesson appointed for St Luke's Day. Paul wrote, “Only Luke is with me.” Those are the words of an elderly man, worn out with many years of hard service to our Lord, now in prison awaiting execution at the hands of the cruel Emperor Nero.

When Paul had first arrived in Rome a few years before, he was received by the sizable Christian community there almost as a conquering hero. He went there, of course to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but confident that the Roman imperial government would vindicate him against his Jewish opponents. At first things went well. Paul either won his appeal or had his case dismissed. He proceeded on another missionary journey. But then things turned sour as Nero became demented and hateful toward the Christians. We do not have the details, but we can tell from Paul's final Epistle (II Timothy) that he was arrested, tried, and executed.

That was a bad time for the Christians in Rome. People being people, the Church was scattered in many directions. Those who had welcomed Paul at first now abandoned him. “Only Luke is with me.”

But what a companion Paul had for his last days! Luke was a physician, able to bring a degree of relief to a frail and exhausted man. But more than that Luke was the diligent historian who had meticulously researched the words and deeds of the Saviour, who had interviewed the Blessed Mother herself, who had been Paul's companion on his travels. Tradition holds that Luke was one of the seventy disciples we read of in today's Gospel. Surely he was an eye-witness to many events in our Lord's earthly life, to His Resurrection and also to His Ascension. What a source of spiritual strength and comfort to a dying man!

Luke wrote the two longest books of the New Testament, but modestly kept his name out of the record. But we can hardly keep from believing that Paul had Luke in mind when he wrote in 2 Cor. 8:18, “and we have sent with him [that is, with Titus] the brother whose praise is in the gospel throughout all the churches.” That text is not easy to interpret, but it may well refer to the Gospel Paul's faithful companion was busy compiling, or had even published! So it was understood by the author of the Collect for the Day in the English Prayer Book.

The Saints of our Prayer Book kalendar are variously described as apostles, martyrs, confessors, and evangelists. Only Luke and three others qualify for the last title. An evangelist is one who brings the Gospel, the good news of God's saving acts, to a weary, exhausted, and dying world. As we celebrate Luke on his day, we recall our own vocation. There are many who are hungry for that good news. As Luke ministered to the dying saint Paul, may we serve a lost and dying world.

The Eighteenth Sunday After Trinity

Dr John Stott (an English clergyman whom your Rector frequently quotes) wrote a book entitled “Christ the Controversialist.” For many of us, that hardly seems like a flattering title. We do not care for controversy, and a “controversialist” sounds like an argumentative person, a trouble-maker, someone to avoid. But Dr Stott made his case by focussing on the significant number of passages in the Gospel in which Our Lord engaged himself in controversy. Sometimes He even started the fight (especially in John) by making claims such as “I am the light of the world,” or “Which of you convicteth me of sin?”

We have such a passage in today's Gospel. In Matthew 22, we find Jesus in controversy with two different groups of opponents. First the Sadducees, over the Resurrection. They denied it, but Jesus affirmed it. The Pharisees thereupon asked a much friendlier question concerning the “greatest commandment.” The Pharisees were evidently satisfied with His answer.

Jesus then turned the tables and asked his own question: “What think ye of Christ? Whose son is he?” The Pharisees foolishly thought this was an easy question. “Why everyone knows,” they thought, “that the Messiah is a descendant of King David.” Jesus proceeded to quote a verse from Psalm 110. The psalm was written by David himself, but David had described the future Messiah, his own descendant, as “my Lord,” who would sit at the right hand of the LORD, that is God Himself.

Not one of His opponents was able to explain this text. They were left speechless. (No ordinary human controversialist can achieve this!) But here we see how important Psalm 110 was for the human authors of the New Testament. This Psalm was quoted no fewer than 10 times in the New Testament.

The point which Our Lord drives home in today's Gospel is exactly that which the Church in the early centuries had to make clear (through much labor and controversy). The Lord Jesus is both God and Man, in one Person. In His human nature, He was physically David's descendant. Over and over the Gospels call Him “Son of David.” But at the same time He is the Son of God. And the miracle of it all is that having both natures, He is One Person.

The question which Jesus posed in an atmosphere of controversy to the Pharisees is the question He continues to pose to each one of us: “What think ye of Christ?” Is He in fact, as well as in doctrine, our Lord and Saviour? Eternity itself hangs on how we answer that question. We too, like the Pharisees, will be speechless before Him.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Saint Michael and All Angels

In 1 Peter 1:12 we find a fascinating reference to the theme of today's feast: “which things the angels desire to look into.” The inspired apostle was expounding the glory of the gospel, revealed only in a limited degree to the prophets of the Old Testament, of “the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow.” His point: those who know Christ are privileged to an amazing degree, surpassing those who came before Christ and even surpassing the angels themselves. Peter strongly suggests that (hold your breath!) it is better to be a Christian than to be an angel!

C. S. Lewis devoted an entire novel to this theme, in his delightful work Out of the Silent Planet. I hope you will read it.

Why? Because angels are sinless. On every other saint's day, we can develop an entire sermon on the template “Every saint is a redeemed sinner, and whereas St. ---- was once a sinner, you too may be a saint.” But that sermon does not work today, as angels are sinless. They do not need a Saviour and will never experience the joy of salvation. They are bound to be curious and amazed at what God has done for our rescue and rehabilitation.

The story of Michael in combat with a huge throng of rebellious angels is the first reading today. Although the Biblical text itself seems to leave this account in unspecified time, a strong Christian tradition views this as taking place before creation. But the intriguing and unanswered question in this passage is what prompted the rebellion of the angels who followed the mysterious dragon. What started this mutiny of some (not all) angels against their Creator?

We have no clear Biblical answer. But an ancient Christian insight speculates that the angels had heard a rumor in heaven that God would shortly create another, lower, material being, that He would love this human race enough to redeem it from sin, that He would even become flesh Himself, and even die on the cross for our salvation.

Certain angels felt this was beneath God's dignity. God, they believed, should not stoop so low for a worthless and undeserving creature. So they rebelled and began a war in heaven. But, thanks be to God, they “prevailed not.”

Why is it better to be a Christian than an angel? Because Christians have been blessed with a far greater measure of God's love. Jesus Christ, God Incarnate, has loved us enough to die for us. How can the angels not be jealous?

The angels who remained holy and obedient now join with us in adoration of the Lamb who was slain, not for them, but for us. “Therefore with angels, and archangels, and with all the company of heaven....”

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Sixteenth Sunday After Trinity

Probably the best point to begin with today's Gospel is in he words “he had compassion on her.” Jesus immediately grasped the plight of this poor woman, already a widow and now childless because her only son is dead. Under the circumstances of the place and time, she was left in desperate circumstances, dependent on the kindness of her neighbors.

The verb “had compassion” is a familiar one in the Gospels. Luke uses it three times: not only here, but to tell us of the father who had compassion on his prodigal son, and of the good Samaritan who had compassion on the man who fell among thieves. Matthew uses this verb to tell us, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36). This verb “had compassion” was used by Matthew and Mark to tell us why Jesus fed the five thousand.

We must resist the temptation at this point to say, “Ah, how wonderful that Jesus was compassionate! This shows how truly human he was!” This thing which we call compassion, or mercy, or kindness (we will return to the point that it is a verb rather than a noun) in the Biblical vocabulary is no sign of humanity but of deity. In Psalm 145 we read,

The LORD is gracious and merciful; long-suffering, and of great goodness.
The LORD is loving unto every man; and his mercy is over all his works.,
So it is not the humanity of our dear Lord which is presented in this text, but rather His Deity. The general impression we receive from the Scriptures is that humankind rarely displays compassion. Only where the Gospel of Jesus has transformed lives and made some impact on society do we observe anything that can be called compassion.

Cain still lures Abel “out into the field” and smites him. We unite ourselves with Cain and ask, “Am I my brother's keeper?” as we complacently live with the abortion holocaust, There are many priests and levites who pass by the man left for dead in the ditch, but very few good Samaritans.

The crowd of observers at the city gate of Nain did not praise Jesus as a great humanitarian. Instead, they “glorified God, saying, That a great prophet is risen up among us; and, That God hath visited his people.” What they had observed was not merely a feeling, nor an emotional display, nor a sentimental speech on the part of Jesus. They had seen with their eyes a mighty act, an act which only God could bring to pass. Yes, Biblical compassion is a verb, not a noun; an act, not a feeling; a whole pattern of behavior, not merely a sentiment. As God has had compassion on us, may we learn to show it ourselves.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Saint Matthew's Day

The feast-day of St. Matthew comes with a double punch because we celebrate him as both Apostle and Evangelist. As an apostle, he was one of the “twelve valiant saints” chosen by Christ to be eye-witnesses of His earthly ministry and particularly of His resurrection and ascension. These twelve (and the number is symbolic) were the patriarchs of the New Israel. Although the “holy Twelve” have long since left this earth, the promise of Jesus written down by Matthew remains secure: “Lo, I am with you always, even until the end of the world. Amen.” These are the final words of Matthew's Gospel, words which hint that the Apostles will have their successors in the on-going ministry of the Church.

We celebrate Mathew moreover because he was what the Church's liturgy calls an “evangelist.” That term means that he, along with Mark, Luke, and John, was the human author of the book which bears his name, “The Gospel According to St. Matthew.” We must stress human author, since the ultimate Author of these books is God Himself. Just as the Twelve were instruments of Christ in proclaiming His message, so the four Evangelists were instruments of the Holy Spirit in writing down the very Word of God.

St Matthew's Day is a time to reflect on the nature of our Faith as Gospel. Religion, generally speaking, is man's quest for God. The numerous religions of the world are a long sad series of human attempts to seek out and find God, not entirely lacking some small blessings which come through God's universal grace, but consistently winding up in frustration. “For although they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks unto Him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools....” (Romans 1:21-22a). All religion, as a quest for God, winds up in failure and despair. It is a dead-end street.

But the Gospel is the true story of God's relentless and victorious quest for man. It began when God went walking in the Garden of Eden in pursuit of Adam and Eve. It continued right on until the day when Jesus came to Matthew, “sitting at the receipt of custom,” and said, “Follow me.” Matthew was not searching for God; he was only going about his daily business of a rather contemptible sort. But God in Jesus Christ was seeking Matthew. Matthew went on to write down the good news that God's quest “to seek and save that which is lost,” even publicans and sinners, is a successful and triumphant enterprise. And as Jesus found Matthew, we rejoice that He has likewise found us. And having found us, He will be with us, “even until the end of the world.”

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Holy Cross Day

It is hard to fathom why this holy day was not included in our American Prayer Book. It was retained in the Prayer Book of the Church of England, but only as a “Black Letter” day, i. e., a day noted in the calendar but not provided with a Collect, Epistle and Gospel of its own. We can be grateful for the publication of “Lesser Feasts and Fasts,” in 1963, which gives us the Collect, Epistle and Gospel we are using today.

Both for preaching and for devotion, this is an exceedingly valuable feast. We remember and proclaim our dear Lord's death upon the cross in Passiontide and supremely on Good Friday. But that is only two brief weeks just before Easter. The wonderful hymns for Passiontide deserve more use than just a handful of services. Any clergyman who has preached his way through this brief season is bound to be aware that even a million sermons on the cross of Christ would only skim the surface of such a topic.

Most families have a skeleton in the closet, a shameful episode which is never spoken of, particularly before children. Coming from an eminently respectable family, I learned only recently of a close relative, a great-uncle long dead, who was convicted of a crime and served time in the penitentiary. That was simply never discussed, and the fact was vouchsafed to me only when I reached the age of 70, by an aunt who is nearly 90. The nature of the crime itself is still a secret.

It is an almost shocking thing that the earliest Christian disciples went around constantly talking about a thing which other people—non-Christian people—would have treated as a shameful family scandal. Their Rabbi, whom they called Lord and Saviour, whom they proclaimed as Risen and Ascended, had died no ordinary death. He had been crucified! In the eyes of the world, such a death was the ultimate disgrace. Hanging or stoning was shameful enough, but crucifixion was reserved for slaves and the worst of criminals. Why was this not kept as a family secret?

In today's Epistle we have a passage (also read on Palm Sunday) where Paul appears to quote a hymn from the church's liturgy. But one phrase Paul himself inserted into the hymn. After the words “he became obedient unto death,” Paul added, “even the death of the cross.”

The message of the New Testament, the very heart of the Gospel, is that in the crucifixion of Jesus, God provided a way to defeat the devil and to provide for the forgiveness of sins. So it is that (in Paul's words), “God forbid that we should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Thirteenth Sunday After Trinity

While the readings of the Epistles and Gospels might seem to be just random selection, there is actually an underlying pattern. Beginning on the 4th Sunday after Trinity and running on to the 24th Sunday, we read as the first lesson short selections from Paul's Epistles, beginning with Romans and continuing through Colossians. The 13th,14th, and 15th Sundays after Trinity are allocated to Galatians. That is a challenging Epistle! It deals passionately with a doctrinal controversy which might seem remote to us. When we find Paul using the expression “God forbid,” we know he is excited. But what is he so worked up about?

The Galatian churches had been invaded by heretical teachers who were spreading the notion that Christians, even Gentile Christians, must keep the whole Old Testament Law in order to be fully accepted by God. Specifically, Gentile converts must practice circumcision, keep the Sabbath, eat only kosher food, and conform to a Jewish lifestyle.

While this was an attractive idea to naïve new converts, Paul saw that this doctrine actually undermines the very Gospel itself. (We use the present tense--undermines--because this heresy never seems to go away and haunts us even today in many disguises.)

In Galatians 1:8, Paul wrote, “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.” That is surely the most vehement statement which Paul ever wrote.

What makes this false teaching concerning keeping the Old Testament Law so deadly? Paul was blessed with the spiritual insight to grasp that it undermines and overthrows (note the presence tense again!) the whole Gospel of salvation “by grace through faith.” Our right-standing with God, and our eternal destiny, depend solely and exclusively on what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Our response to God's act in Christ (His cross and resurrection) can begin only with mere faith. We must never imagine ourselves to be “co-operating” with God as if we were equal partners. We may only surrender, submit and adore.

The whole notion of “co-operating” with God (keeping the Old Testament Law is just one of many forms this heresy takes) is flattering to human vanity. We could then take pride, as the Pharisees did, in what we feel we have done for God. But this would mean that Christ suffered on His cross for no good reason. Paul is absolutely right in saying this is “another gospel, which is no gospel at all.”

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Eleventh Sunday After Trinity

(We conclude today our commentary on the Prayer for the Whole State of Christ's Church.)

The final petition of this very comprehensive supplication brings everything into focus: “that with them we may be partakers of thy heavenly kingdom.” This comes as something of a surprise, reminding us of all the things we have not prayed for in this prayer. We have not prayed for success, safety, health, prosperity, or increase of members. The shallow values of our commercial secular culture often penetrate the life and thinking of Churchmen and Church leaders, but such dubious priorities are conspicuously absent from this prayer. Ultimately, the only thing that matters is His heavenly kingdom. Being with God in His glory, in the fellowship of His angels and His saints, in the reality of our resur-rected Body, set free from the world, the flesh and the devil, with sin and death at last behind us-- that, and that alone, is our goal. It is all that matters. So we will pray in an even more comprehensive prayer, “Thy kingdom come.”

And we conclude with the phrase “our only Mediator and Advocate.” This is no literary flourish but a critical truth of the Gospel. The term mediator refers to a “go-between,” who represents God to us and us to God, effecting peace and reconciliation between two parties previously estranged. He is capable of such an undertaking because He possesses both a Divine and a Human nature. He is our advocate because He has carried our human nature right into the very presence of His Father. The human body which was nailed to the cross and was raised from the tomb (that same body, with all its scars and wounds!) is now in heaven.

This is what the Epistle to the Hebrews means when it calls Him our great high priest.

In this office, He is utterly unique. There is no one else who can reconcile us to God, no one else who can intercede for us, no one else who can plead our cause. No one else could say “All authority in heaven and earth has been given unto me.” He and He alone is our Saviour and Redeemer, our only Prophet, Priest, and King.

So if we expect God to hear, receive, or answer this or any other prayer, it can only be through Him and Him alone, in whose prevailing Name and words we pray.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Tenth Sunday After Trinity

(We continue our commentary on the Prayer for the Whole State of Christ's Church.)

And we also bless thy holy Name for all thy servants depaerted this life in thy faith and fear; beseeching thee to grant them continual growth in thy love and service....

In the final paragraph of this profound and searching prayer, we pray for the departed. But here the Prayer Book goes our of its way to eliminate any ambiguity as to whom we pray for. Not just any and all deceased persons, but for those who have “departed thus life in thy faith and fear,” that is the Christian faith. This particular petition has been attacked from time to time by the anti-Catholic elements within the Anglican tradition, and one early edition of the Prayer Book (the short-lived revision of 1552) eliminated this petition altogether.

This was owing to the unreasonable Protestant prejudice against “praying for the dead.” That prejudice arose in the 16th century as part of a necessary protest against the blatant commercialization of such prayers, with certain clergymen accepting large sums of money for offering Masses for the “repose of the souls” of the departed. That practice, which we would find shocking, was grounded in a poor non-Biblical notion of the Intermediate State as a place of pain and suffering.

The original version of this petition, found in the first Prayer Book of 1549, was a much more vigorous prayer than what we find in our 1928 Prayer Book. If you want to see the original version, look at the prayer at the bottom of page 336, now in our Burial Office. But even in the present “toned-down” form, the version familiar to us is adequate. We rightly and properly pray for th dead because in Christ there are no dead. The faithful departed can experience no suffering oir pain whatever, but they are still growing in Christ and advancing in holiness. Therefore our prayers are beneficial to them.

At the Eucharist when Christ is wondrously present in His very Body and Blood, His whole Church in heaven and earth is invisibly assembled. It is not for nothing that we mention “angels and archangels, and all the company of heaven.” In the Prayer of Consecration itself, we pray that “we, and all thy whole Church, may obtain remission of our sins, and all other benefits of his passion.” Every time that bread and wine are set forth, in the sight of heaven and earth, as a Memorial unto the Lord, to “shows forth His death until He come,” we are praying for all of Christ's disciples and believers, of centuries past, of our own past, in all times and places.

(To be continued.)

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Ninth Sunday After Trinity

(We continue our commentary on the Prayer for the Whole State of Christ's Church.)

After we pray for “all thy People,” we pray in conclusion for two special classes: those who are in trouble of any sort, and for “all thy servants departed this life in thy faith and fear.” The first of these petitions requires no commentary, but two points are worth making. In this petition we are not necessarily confined to praying for those within the community of the Church. Here the prayer breaks its original limits and we remember that if all mankind is not already within the circle of God's people, they at least are there potentially. Supplication has moved naturally into intercession. There is a common grace, in which the same rain falls on the just and unjust. Trouble, sorrow, need, sickness are universal; and here we do well to think of our non-Christian, un-Churched, or unbelieving friends.

Also, prayer for those afflicted in any way is an essential ministry of the Church. Our Lord prayed, as the Great High Priest, even when He was the Victim on the Cross for those around Him. “Father, forgive them...” In the Eucharist, as His priestly body on earth, in a certain limited sense, we share in His unique mediatorial work. Therefore we continue His act of intercession and share in His present heavenly priesthood.

The suffering and afflicted are precious and dear to Christ. The Gospels are emphatic, “And He had compassion on the multitude...” Our Prayer Book enables us to amplify this brief petition in three particular places, first, the rubric on page 71 which encourages the insertion of “other authoried prayers and intercessions,” and secondly, the Litany, most commonly used in Lent, in which we pray sweepingly “to have mercy upon all men.”

The third place is the rubric on page 74, authorizing the Priest to “ask the secret intercessions of the Congregation for any who have desired the prayers of the Church.” By that term “secret” the Prayer Book simply means “silent.” The expression “prayers of the Church” reminds us that there is a special significance, even a special power, in our corporate prayer as a community. We sometimes speak of offering the Eucharistic sacrifice “with special intention.” This means that we celebrate the sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood as an act of special and specific prayer for an announced purpose. “It is meet and right so to do.”

(To be continued.)

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Eighth Sunday After Trinity

(We continue our commentary on the Prayer for the Whole State of Christ's Church.)

As we reflect on the petition, “To all thy People give thy heavenly grace,” we must not neglect to clarify exactly what is meant by the term “thy People.” There are many who would suppose, in a thoughtless manner, that this simply means people in general. But remember, we are praying for the Church, God's “peculiar people,” the body of those who are chosen and set apart by their Baptism as the people of God, separated by their new birth from the old creation. Baptism draws a clear line between the old creation and the new, between God's people and those who are not His people, between the saved and the unsaved.

The phrase “thy people” has deep roots in the Bible. As God said in Deuteronomy 7:6ff., speaking to His chosen people Israel, “You are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for His treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set His love on you and chose you, for you are the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath which He swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you....”

This ancient OT promise is applied in the NT to the “blessed company of all faithful people,” the Church. St Peter tells is (1 Peter 2:9), “But you are a chosen race, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” The Old Testament chosen people Israel has now been enlarged and transformed into the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church of the New Testament. The promise which echoes from page to page in the OT, “I will be your God, and you shall be My people, and I will dwell with you,” now belongs to the Christian com-munity, the Body of Christ. And for this chosen people, “elect from every nation, yet one in all the earth” as the hymn says, we persistently pray at every Mass, that God will continue to pour our His redeeming, justifying and sanctifying grace.

(To be continued)

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Seventh Sunday After Trinity

(We continue our comments on the Prayer for the Whole State of Christ's Church.)

And to all thy People give thy heavenly grace; and especially to this congregation here present; that with meek heart and due reverence, they may hear, and receive thy holy Word; truly serving thee in holiness and righteousness all the days of their life.

We come now to the paragraph in which we pray for “all thy people” and “this congregation here present.” Here we begin to pray most explicitly for ourselves, but notice exactly what needs we mention: grace, holiness and righteousness. We deliberately refrain from praying for health, wealth and success. The Church's liturgy never allows us to sink into a “Gimme” style of praying, in which we presume to judge for ourselves what our greatest needs really are and then demand imperiously that God quickly oblige our requests. According to the Biblical Gospel, our greatest needs are nothing but grace, holiness, and righteousness.

Grace is an attribute of God. Grace is His loving-kindness, unearned, undeserved, unexpected, unexplained. By grace, God acts on our behalf, to extricate us from the hopeless predicament of our sinfulness. However we might define our problem as humans, it is at bottom a situation of our own making, resulting from our disobedience and ingratitude toward our Creator. The Biblical name is sin, and the only cure is grace. We might prefer to think of our fundamental problem as some harmless little defect of character, which we can try to cure through some humanistic program of ethical culture.

There is a story of a man who made a list of all his character defects and then decided to work on them one at a time until they all went away! He seemed to make a little progress until he came to the sin of pride. No matter how hard he tried, we could not erase his pride! The more he thought about his ethical progress, the more proud of himself he became! If our spiritual sickness were so superficial, then we could have no need of grace and God would be out of business.

Grace is God's love, but also His power. Only a truly sovereign God could take desperate sinners and make them into saints. It is also His special intervention. Grace is God's surprise, since such a miracle does not just casually happen in the ordinary course of events.

St Paul records a quotation from the lips of our Lord, “My grace is sufficient for thee, for my strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). Here we are taught that grace is all we need. It is the power of God, put on display in the weakness of the baby Jesus and the dead man on the Cross.

(To be continued.)

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Sixth Sunday After Trinity

(We continue our comments on the Prayer for the Whole State of Christ's Church, the long prayer found on page 74 in the Prayer Book.)

The third paragraph clearly states what the total ministry of the Church is, as well as the special ministry of the clergy: to “set forth God's true and lively Word,” the Biblical Gospel, and to “rightly and duly administer” the sacraments of Jesus Christ.

That phrase “rightly and duly” means many things. Among these meanings is that the sacraments must only be administered by the Apostolic ministry created and commissioned by the Lord of the Church Himself. The sacraments cannot be “rightly and duly” administered by a ministry which is self-appointed, or by some novel ministry, such as priestesses, created by a heretical church.

These two functions, Word and Sacrament, expresses clearly what the Church does. Any activity of the Church must be measured by that yard-stick. Frequently we have seen the Church quite involved in all kinds of things which have little to do with the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ and which are anything but channels of God's grace. The current fascination with global warming (now called climate change) is just one of many examples.

But more profoundly, those two functions state precisely what the Church is in her essential being. As the Articles of Religion tell us, “The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly administered according to Christ's ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same” (BCP p. 606). So in this petition, we are praying that we, as the Church, may prove faithful in our Divinely given functions and ministry. We may state this more bluntly: it is necessary to pray simply that the Church continue to be the Church.

(To be continued.)

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Fifth Sunday After Trinity

Today we continue our series of comments on the Prayer for the Whole State of Christ's Church.)

Last week, as we commented on the petition for “all Christian rulers,” that this refers to all who are permitted by God to rule over Christian people, and that it is indeed their duty to punish wickedness and vice, if Christian people are to live in this fallen world with any degree of safety and security. Some priests take it upon themselves to amend this clause, substituting such words as “correcting” or “restraining” for “punishing.” But the realism of the Prayer Book knows that whereas persons may be corrected or restrained, wickedness and vice as such can only be punished or rewarded. And if the Scriptures are telling us the truth, it is the God-appointed duty of the civil magistrate to maintain God's true religion and virtue (Romans 13:1—7, I Peter 2:13—17).

If this paragraph seems hopelessly divorced from the sad secular realities of our time, it ought at least to remind us of how far our world has fallen from the order which God intended. Let us pray all the more fervently!

Give grace, O heavenly Father, to all Bishops and other Ministers, that they may, both by their life and doctrine, set forth thy true and lively Word; and rightly and duly admiister thy holy Sacraments.

As we come to the third and fourth paragraphs, we need to emphasize again that this prayer is the Christian community's supplication for itself and its own needs rather than a general intercession for the needs of the world. Intercession for others (which we do in the various prayers be-tween the Creed and the Sermon) is one of our most important ministries; but in particular prayer we are doing something else. So as the Church prays for the itself, we naturally pray for “all estates of men in thy holy Church” (BCP p. 156), praying earnestly for all members according to their particular Order, that is, those in the sacred ministries of Bishop, Priest and Deacon; for those who serve in the liturgical ministries of readers and acolytes; for singers, organists, ushers, sacristans, and for other special ministries too numerous to mention. The English Prayer Book of 1662 here mentions “Bishops and Curates,” but our American Prayer Book wisely and generously uses a less specific term “other ministers.” This permits us to think of and pray for the many, many forms of service which sustain the church and advance the Faith.

(To be continued)

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Fourth Sunday After Trinity

(Today we continue our series of comments on the Prayer for the Whole State of Christ's Church.)

We concluded last week's comments by observing that heresy and apostasy are genuine spiritual dangers for Christians and for the Church itself. So how is that danger to be avoided? The Inquisition and religious wars have proved ineffectual, as will law-suits and internet battles. In this great prayer we pray for two remedies. First, “to agree in the truth of thy holy Word,” and secondly, “to live in unity and godly love.” The true Church will always be recognized by its adherence and obedience to the Scriptures. But it must also be discernible through a corporate life where bitterness, acrimony and finger-pointing are treated as sins. Christians are marked—not only by the purity of their faith in Christ, but by the power of their love for all mankind.

We beseech thee also, so to direct and dispose th hearts of all Christian Rulers, that they may truly and impartially administer justice, to the punishment of wickedness and vice, and to the maintenance of thy true religion and virtue.

The second paragraph contains only one petition, for “all Christian rulers.” Since this is a Prayer for the the Church and not for the generality of mankind, this petition might seem somewhat out of place. This petition harks back to another age, in which the king or queen was the “supreme governor” of the Church of England and the Defender of the Faith. Occasionally we hear a snide remark about that phrase “Christian rulers” since it truly seems that very few in civil authority today can be seriously described as Christians. In a decadent age like our own, in which some regard it as illegal for a judge to hang the Ten Commandments on the walls of his courtroom, is it somewhat unreal to pray for “the punishment of wickedness and vice” and “the maintenance of thy true religion and virtue?” The literary vandals who attempted to revise our Prayer Book ruthlessly removed this whole petition.

But they were quite wrong. When we speak of “Christian rulers,” we are not presuming to declare that any king, prime minister or president is personally a believer in Jesus Christ. A “Christian ruler” as we must interpret the Prayer Book today, is any civil ruler, be he Buddhist or Hindu, who has the authority to rule over Christian people. The petition is offered for the safety and wellbeing of the Christian community. In a century of atheistic tyrants, when the persecution of the Church and of believers is on the rise, we do well to pray that the God of nations will miraculously direct and dispose their hearts. Wickedness and vice must indeed be punished, if Christian people are to live with any degree of safety and security in this world.

(to be continued)

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Third Sunday After Trinity

(Today we continue our series of comments on the Prayer for the Whole State of Christ's Church.)

. beseeching thee to inspire continually the Universal Church with the spirit of truth, unity, and concord: And grant that all those who do confess thy holy Name may agree in the truth of tthy holy Word, and live in unity and godly love.

In the opening of this prayer, we ask God to accept three things: our money offerings, the bread and wine about to be consecrated, and last of all the prayers we are about to offer. These three form a triangular foundation for all that follows in the liturgy. It is established at this point that our worship, the Holy Eucharist, is truly a sacrifice which we offer in union with the perfect sacrifice Our Lord offered once for all on Calvary, which even now He, our “Great High Priest,” pleads in heaven.

After asking that our sacrifice be accepted, we then pray for the Church herself. This petition speaks of a “universal” Church and then provides us with a good working definition of what the universal Church truly is: “all those who confess thy holy Name.” It is well to be reminded that the Church, which Jesus Christ Himself founded long ago, is far bigger than anything we can see or experience. We might wrongly think of the Church as our own parish, or we might even think of our own denomination or tradition as “the Church.” Some time ago a visitor casually remarked that our parish serves people who have “left the Church.” That person's concept of the Church is, sad to say, no larger than the denomination to which he or she currently belongs. We might even think of the Church as a vast, powerful worldly institution, impressive in its earthly glory. But even if such a thing can serve as an outward and visible sign of the Church, it is no more than that. The Church is defined elsewhere in the Prayer Book as “the mystical Body of thy Son, which is the blessed company of all faithful people,” meaning the whole Communion of Saints, those already in the bliss of heaven as well as those of us still trudging along in our earthly pilgrimage.

Our earthly Church, even when we think of it in international, trans-denominational terms, is but one small corner of the universal Church of the ages. The earthly or visible Church, for which we are praying here, is “a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly administered according to Christ's ordinance.” This clearly implies that any earthly manifestation of the Church, which dilutes or corrupts the Word of God, or ceases to administer the sacraments as Christ appointed, simply ceases to be part of the universal Church. Therefore we must pray with fear and trembling that we and all Christians, or all those who call themselves Christians, may truly continue in the religion of Jesus Christ. Heresy and apostasy are no idle words. They represent a clear and constant danger to our souls.

(to be continued)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Second Sunday After Trinity

(Today we begin a series of comments on a central prayer of our liturgy, the Prayer for the Whole State of Christ's Church.)

Let us pray for the whole state of Christ's Church.

ALMIGHTY and everliving God, who by thy holy Apostle hast taught us to make prayers, and supplications, and to give thanks for all men; We humbly beseech thee most mercifully to accept our [alms and] oblations, and to freceive these our prayers which we offer unto thy Divine Majesty....

After the Priest has received the money offerings of the people and has prepared the bread and wine for consecration, he invites the people to join him in a somewhat long prayer for quite a number of things. But all these petitions add up to just one thing. This is a prayer in which we pray for the Church. In fact we are the Church, we are really praying for ourselves, as we are entitled to do. This sort of prayer is called supplication (as distinguished from intercession, in which we pray for others). The invitation to this prayer, “for the whole state of Christ's Church,” does not just mean the whole Church. “Whole state” means “healthy condition.” We are praying that the Church may remain in good spiritual health.

The opening clause of the prayer refers to “thy holy Apostle,” but which Apostle is meant? Surely this is St. Paul, because the prayer here is quoting I Timothy 2:1. “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life.” Our praying does not originate in us. We pray only because of the Spirit's prompting and Biblical teaching. And we continue in a tradition of liturgical prayer which derives from the New Testament itself.

The first petition asks God “mercifully to accept” our worship. Christian prayer is characterized by a mixture of humility and boldness. We dare not assume that God will automatically accept our offerings just because we offer them. Remember the sacrifice of Cain, which God rejected? It is God's prerogative to accept or reject our prayers in His sovereign pleasure. But we pray with courage and confidence, because He has encouraged us strongly so to do. The point of this petition is that worship is an offering, a sacrifice, and in this spirit we dare to pray.

The Puritans correctly defined prayer. Prayer is not begging in order to obtain, nor is it merely submission to a mysterious Divine will. Prayer, they stated, “is the offering up of our desires unto God for things conformable to His Will.” In other words, we take our desires and make them a sacrifice to God. Here we ask God to accept three things: our “alms” (the offerings necessary to sustain the church and advance God's kingdom), our “oblations” (the bread and wine soon to be consecrated), and our “prayers.”

(to be continued)