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....”