Friday, July 15, 2011

Fr Wells' Bulletin Inserts


Concerning the Epistle:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concerning the Gospel:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Fr Wells' Bulletin Inserts


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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