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.