"Love! Do you know the meaning of the word?" 'How should I not?' said the Lady, 'I am in love...in Love Himself.'
~C.S. Lewis
The Great Divorce

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Christian Freedom

I thought that being between arguably the two most widely celebrated federal holidays-Memorial Day and Independance Day-it would do us well to consider the concept of freedom.

Two songs will help show us the way Christians ought to view freedom. The first is a verse from Bates' famous hymn America the Beautiful:

America, America, God mend thine every flaw.
Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.

And Michael Card's Joy in the Journey:

There is a joy in the journey, there's a light we can love on the way.
There is a wonder and wildness to life, and freedom for those who obey.

The concept of freedom is closely tied to the law. Bates notes that our liberty as Americans is found in confirmation of the law. That is, it exists only insofar as the law restrains the powers of the government and restrains the wrath that some men wish to inflict on others.

Yet while this freedom is wonderful for various purposes it falls far short of the freedom humans need to live in communion with God. While we may divide ourselves into countries and nations in this world, the truth is that there are ultimately only two kingdoms; that of God and that of Satan. All of us by nature belong to the latter realm and can only immigrate, as it were, to the fairer country by the bridge provided in Jesus Christ's sacrifice.

But once that is accomplished, what next? What are we supposed to do with the freedom Christ has granted us from Our Father below? Keep it. Of course, only by God's grace can it be done, but it must be done. We keep our freedom by following the commandments. Just as the Bill of Rights makes us free as Americans, as Christians it is in obedience to the Lord that we find liberty.

The freedom we enjoy as Americans is not license to do whatever we wish. Our liberty in Christ is the same. It is not the freedom to sin liberally. It is not even to test the waters and see how far we can go without violating the Divine will. It is the freedom to love God and our Neighbor as we love ourselves. It is the freedom to live unselfishly. It is the freedom to live the life God intended for mankind...the very life he possesses and into which he draws us. In short, it is the freedom to act Justly. This is the path of joy precisely because it is the road that leads to communion with God...whose presense is joy.

As Christians, we have the freedom to keep the law and in keeping it, the freedom Christ has granted and is granting, is preserved. Ben Franklin told someone after the signing of the Constitution-"you have a republic, if you can keep it." He meant you have freedom because we have devised laws that, if you follow, will preserve that liberty. As the rule of law erodes and disobedience to the laws which remain collapses, freedom ceases to exist.
You have been given the gift of a freed soul and will to serve the Mighty God. It is a paradox for sure to serve in order to be free. But as Anglican Christians it is the prayer we are to pray every morning-"O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom."
If you desire to know true freedom, love, serve, and obey God. And the chains of sin which bind our souls will melt in the sanctifying fire of the Holy Spirit.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

A Challenging Homily

I read this homily this afternoon and was rather touched. I have re-posted it with the permission of its writer, Deacon Greg Kandra.

Back in the 1970s, when there was a lot of liturgical innovation going on, Dorothy Day invited a young priest to celebrate mass at the Catholic Worker. He decided to do something that he thought was relevant and hip. He asked Dorothy if she had a coffee cup he could borrow. She found one in the kitchen and brought it to him. And, he took that cup and used it as the chalice to celebrate mass. When it was over, Dorothy picked up the cup, found a small gardening tool, and went to the backyard. She knelt down, dug a hole, kissed the coffee cup, and buried it in the earth. With that simple gesture, Dorothy Day showed that she understood something that so many of us today don’t: she knew that Christ was truly present in something as ordinary as a ceramic cup. And that it could never be just a coffee cup again. She understood the power and reality of His presence in the blessed sacrament. Which is really the sum and substance of what we celebrate on this feast, Corpus Christi. The reason for what we will do today – celebrating with the monstrance, the music, the procession – isn’t to glorify an inanimate object, a bit of bread contained in glass. It is to remind the world that in that bread we have been given Christ. Not an idea. Not a symbol. Not an abstract bit of arcane theology. No. It is wider and deeper and more mysterious than that. Look at that host -- and you look at Christ. Centuries ago, one of the Fathers of the Church described how the first Christians received communion. They did it the way we do it today, offering their outstretched hands, one over another. And he offered this instruction: "Make of your hands a throne,” he wrote. Make yourselves ready to receive a king. Do we understand that today? I’m not so sure. Too often, I think, we see the minister of holy communion as just a liturgical Pez dispenser – passing out a sliver of bread, again and again and again, and we don’t truly, truly, realize what is happening. I’ll tell you what is happening. We are receiving an incalculable gift. We are taking into our hands, and placing on our tongues, something astounding. We are being given God. Look at the host, and you look at Christ. Too often, we take it for granted. It’s just one more part of the mass. Something else to do. No. It isn’t. When I was in formation, I remember a talk given on the Eucharist by then-Father Caggiano. He spoke of St. Francis of Assisi, one of the holiest saints of the church. During his entire life, Francis received the eucharist only three times. It was that sacred to him – and he felt himself that undeserving. He understood, deeply, the words we pray before we receive communion. “Lord I am not worthy...” None of us is. And yet, he gives us himself anyway. The God who became man for us...again and again becomes bread for us. Look at the host, and you look at Christ. Everything we are, everything we believe, everything we celebrate around this altar comes down to that incredible truth. What began two thousand years ago in an upper room continues here, and now, and at altars around the world. The very source of our salvation is transformed into something you can hold in the palm of your hand.A lot of you know Sister Camille D’Arienzo, who has been here many times to speak. She tells the story of a priest who was pouring some unconsecrated communion wafers from a bag, to get ready for mass. Some fell on the floor. He bent down and picked up the stray hosts, just ordinary wafers, unconsecrated, to throw them out. And he held one between his thumb and forefinger and showed it to her. “Just think,” he said, “what this could have become.” Just think what we become when we receive the body of Christ. We become nothing less than living tabernacles. God dwells within us. As the hymn tells us, we become what we receive. And what we receive becomes us. That is the great mystery, and great grace, the great gift of this most blessed sacrament. My question on this feast: what will we do with that knowledge? Once we have been transformed, by bread that has been transformed, how can we leave this holy place without seeking to transform the world? How can we just go out and head to brunch, or dinner, or out to do yardwork or the weekly grocery shopping? We carry something greater than ourselves. And that makes us instruments of God’s great work in the world – literally. In some small way, we have been changed. You’ll notice that when the priest or deacon celebrates Benediction, he uses what is called a “humeral veil.” He wraps this long cloth around his hands and then takes hold of the monstrance to offer a blessing. There is a reason for that. It is to signify that the blessing comes not from the hands of the priest or deacon. It comes from Christ himself. The one holding the monstrance is merely the instrument. When we receive communion, that is true for each of us. We become instruments of Christ, bearers of Christ. Dorothy Day knew that an ordinary cup that had contained the blood of Christ could never be just a cup again. Well, what’s true for a ceramic cup is true for each of us. Once we have received him, we can never be the same again. What will we do with that knowledge? How will we use what has changed us…to change the world?

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Love, not Faith, is a Christian's Ultimate Goal

Tackling this subject in a blog post is nearly impossible because of all the implications which are involved. The Faith and Works controversies regarding the doctrine of justification are well known. Those who dispute in this controversy agree both faith and good works are required of the Christian. But the disputants argue over what role the good works play.

Considering the countless pages and gallons of ink spent on this subject, you would think that faith is the greatest of all the virtues; a doctrine around which ramparts should be built. But St. Paul is perfectly clear that it is possible to possess faith without possessing hope or love. (I Cor. 13:2) And in that same passage, the Apostle reminds us that love is the greatest of the three theological virtues.

Why then do Christians not speak more about the call to love, than the call to faith? Perhaps it is because being asked to believe in an all-powerful and all-loving God is a quite pleasing thought. It is enthralling to have thoughts and dreams about an infinite font of Goodness roaming the universe waiting to dispense mercy on every human being who seeks it. That mercy, that forgiveness is obtained through Faith. Obviously, for those who wish a proper standing with God, Faith is a desirable, necessary virtue, and gracious gift. Nothing which should ever be undermined.

Yet, all this being true, Faith is subjugated to Love. Why is love greater and why are so few people treating it as more important? The answer may well lie in the words of Jesus Christ on the night in which he was betrayed. "Love one another as I have loved you." (Jn. 13:34) We are required to love as Christ loved. This means the total giving up of the Self for the Other. Insofar as we keep any part of ourselves that could be given to others, we have not loved as Christ loved and we really have failed at even loving ourselves. In one of those tricky paradoxes of Christianity we discover that what we have not given away was never really ours in the first place. When we act in Self-interest that in any way offends another, we fill ourselves with emptiness. We CANNOT truly be the Humans God created us to be until we give of ourselves completely.

But selfishness remains a hindrance to this. There are parts of ourselves we want to keep for ourselves. Putting your finances, feelings, and efforts on the line for someone else can be painful; both the giving up of them, and the knowledge that they may well be misused or under-appreciated. Nevertheless, our desire should be to return to the state of Adam and Eve, who were likened unto gods in the Garden. We have the model of how to do it in Jesus. He showed us what humanity was supposed to look like. Indeed, he is the only true Human to have ever lived. That is precisely because he gave all of himself for others.

It is a lot easier to believe in that work (Faith) than to actually carry it out in our own world
(Love). God wants us to be conformed to the image of his Son. If we desire it, we must have Faith...we can never even begin to love without it. But as has been pointed out by better writers than myself; faith is like a seed, Hope is what leads that seed to spring up, and Love is the blossoming flower. When you think about it, it only makes sense that Faith is but a means toward learning how to Love as God loves, and that loving, that is, being Selfless to find your Self, is the ultimate goal of Christianity. For it was the Savior himself who taught us that the greatest commandment is "to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment and the second is like unto it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself." (MT. 22:37-39)

We must die in Baptism to live. We must appear as fools to be truly wise. We must selflessly give what we possess, that is we must love, to become our Selves, that is Human. We will then have become worthy objects of divine Love, not because we were in any way lovable, but because God loved us first and taught us how to love as he loves.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The sermon that I preached for Pentecost at Faith Anglican Church this past Sunday.

I know many of you have read C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia, or have seen one of the many film adaptations. One of my favorite quotes comes from the first book in the series The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when Aslan explains how he intends to break the White Witch's curse of eternal winter. He says, "When a willing victim offered himself in a traitor's stead, then the table would crack, and death itself would start working backwards." Those of you who are unfamiliar with the story will not recognize the significance of the reference to a table cracking, but I love the quote primarily for the last part, "Death itself would start working backwards." When the curse was defeated it did not immediately disappear. The winter snow finally began to melt. It was still there, but the land began to thaw. Hopefully, these themes sound familiar for they are biblical themes. In our own world, in reality, when Jesus died and was raised from the dead the curse of sin was definitively broken and started working backwards.
From Adam onward, the curse was allowed to take root. “Darkness crept into the forests of the world”, shadows grew, and the night of sin advanced. The Lord sent his prophets to preach repentance, he chastised and punished on various occasions, and yet the curse advanced until there was but a small light remaining, a small remnant out of whom was called a Virgin who gave birth to the one who would turn the darkness back on itself. You see while it is absolutely true that Jesus came by his death and resurrection to “make all things new”, what he was really doing was making all things old. He did not come to earth to invent a new world, but by his grace to return it to what it was originally intended to be. Remember the Bible begins and ends in paradise-that is, in a garden. Christ has undone and is still undoing what humanity got wrong.
What’s the point? Today is Pentecost, the day we remember the Holy Spirit descending as a mighty rushing wind on the Apostles and the cloven tongues of fire that appeared over the Apostles as they preached. But Pentecost, much like Passover is one of those holy days we as Christians have borrowed from ancient Judaism. Pentecost, now celebrated on the fiftieth day after Easter, was originally the fiftieth day after the first Passover when the Angel of Death descended on Egypt slaying the first-born of every household which did not have the blood of the Passover Lamb on their lintel. It was fifty days after that event that Moses from the heights of Mt. Sinai delivered unto the people the Moral Law, the Ten Commandments. It was because of the feasts of Passover and Pentecost that there were Jews gathered from all parts of the world as our Epistle lesson from Acts 2 indicates. The cities listed in Acts 2:9-11 if you looked at a map would show you that what Luke is saying that people from the Northern, Southern, Eastern, and Western corners of the known world were gathered in the Holy City. This is significant because it gives us our first insight into the work of the Holy Spirit. You remember well from your Sunday school days, or even from earlier this year in the sermon series through Genesis, the account of the Tower of Babel. In the generations following the great flood in the days of Noah, men took it upon themselves to build a tower which could reach unto heaven. They were not fools, they had been told the story of the flood. And even though they had to know that God would not have destroyed the earth had it not been for the wickedness of men, these men wanted an insurance policy. They wanted a tower high enough that they would be protected from rising flood waters. This displeased the Lord as you will recall, and he decided to confound that is confuse, the language of the builders of the tower. And not only were they unable then to communicate, but as the Scriptures convey to us in Genesis 11, God scattered them abroad over the face of the earth. I hope then that you begin to see why we started with the idea that the curse while completely defeated, was not ended with the work of Christ. Instead it is in the process of being reversed, of working backwards. Pentecost is one of the great manifestations of this dramatic reversal. At Babel the people’s languages were confused and they were scattered. At Pentecost, believers from all over the world were brought together and by the power of the Holy Ghost, who appeared over the Apostles clothed in tongues of fire, each person was able to understand the Apostles’ preaching in their own language. Because of this miracle, three thousand souls were added to the Church that day.
For this reason, we give thanks to God that through the work of his Son, the curse is working backwards. Because of Christ and his Spirit, we have gone from Confusion and Being Scattered to Understanding and Unity. And to this day, people from all over the world are being gathered, unified in the one Church of our Lord Jesus Christ as the Holy Spirit gives men and women ears to hear.
But in this thought is also a challenge to us. Our Lord founded but one Church. Yet so often and at times for the most trivial reasons, the Church has divided, split into various sects, and fought against the Holy Spirit who promotes unity. We sang earlier that great line “in mutual love our hearts unite.” The question I have for you is rather simple: did you mean it? Are you ready to work actively for unity in the Church? Our Lord on the night in which he was betrayed prayed to his Father “Let them be one…that the world may believe.”
There are all sorts of reasons to which we can point for why the Church is not doing so well in our part of the world. But before we point the finger at the false gods of money, power, and lust, I think we need to understand the divisions in the Church, more often than not the result of sinful pride, has hampered our witness to the world. The Church to which the 3,000 souls were added was undivided. The Holy Spirit had brought people in from all corners of the earth. If we want to see that type of a revival in our own time, we must work with each other united in love by the Holy Spirit to preach to this world the “wonderful works of God,” as the Apostles did on that first Pentecost.
To lead Christ’s Church into unity, peace, truth and to extend the kingdom of God beyond the geographic bounds of Israel, that is why the Holy Spirit was sent. But the appearance of the Spirit in this passage from Acts 2 also gives us some hints on how he is going to make us Christians who love with the same kind of love and passion that the Apostles possessed. The first image, in verse two, is that he appears as a “rushing mighty wind.” We do not necessarily live in a region of the world where wind on a regular basis causes extreme damage. But the pictures and images from New Orleans circa 2005 are still pretty fresh in all of our memories. Wind is a mighty force and a metaphor and device which God employs often. You remember how he spoke to Job? Out of the whirlwind. In the lesser known prophecy of Nahum, we read that the “Lord has his way in the whirlwind and the storm.” God reveals a part of himself to us in the power of the wind. In fact, he reveals his greatest strength to us in the wind. Do you remember the story of Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones? God commanded Ezekiel prophesy to the four winds and say come “O Breath and breathe upon these slain bones.” Breath and Spirit are the same word in Hebrew and Greek. What he was saying was “come Spirit and breathe life into the dead.” What happened on Pentecost as demonstrated by the sound of a rushing wind was the sheer power of the Holy Spirit to bring life to the lifeless. As we sang in our opening hymn “O holy Spirit by whose breath, life rises vibrant out of death.” As we confess every week in the Creed “I believe in the Holy Ghost the Lord and giver of life.” The Spirit has come that we might know the life and love of Christ within ourselves. He is “the Giver and the Gift,” that breaks the chains of death and implants in our souls the very life of God.
How does he do this? The answer to this question is to some degree mysterious, but it is partially explainable if we examine his appearance in fire. As is testified in any number of places in the Scripture, the old sinful man has to be crucified in order for us to live the life God intended for us. The symbol of fire can show us how this was done. The Holy Spirit as fire burns away all that is not holy and all that is not true. Malachi wrote that the coming Messiah would be like a Refiner’s fire, so would the Messiah’s Spirit.
I’m sure many of you have probably heard the story at some point of the women’s Bible study group who were trying to figure out exactly what it meant that the Messiah would be a refiner’s fire and that he would sit as a refiner of silver. One woman offered to visit a silversmith to see if she could discover any clues. She noticed that the smith held a piece of silver over the fire, and he explained to her that this was to burn away all of the impurities. The next thing that the woman noticed was that the smith paid very careful attention to his silver and never left it for a second. She asked why? He told her, I cannot leave it here too long. If it is in the fire a few seconds too long it will ruin the silver. She asked the next logical question: sir, how do you know when it is finished? He answered her, “When I can see my reflection in the silver.”
The Holy Spirit through application of the blood of Christ, through convicting us to lead holy lives burns away all of the impurities in our hearts leaving only the silver. He will continue this process, what we typically sanctification-that is making us holy-until we are like “little Christs.” The symbol of fire can also call to mind the offering of the sacrifices. Remember that sacrifices were burnt on the altar. The Flame of the Holy Spirit in each of us is calling us to be a “living sacrifice, holy and acceptable unto God.” We are called to crucify, to sacrifice in ourselves all the sin that is there by our nature. We are to be altars on which we must kill our wicked elves, our desires, our base affections, so that the new man can take root and we might have life. The fire of the Spirit represents to us both purging and purifying power of the Spirit, but also our responsibility to shun sin and wickedness. That is how the Holy Spirit brings the life signified to us by the mighty rushing wind; he destroys sin and death so that only life remains.
That is our lesson for this Pentecost. The Holy Spirit has come into the world to reverse the curse which was defeated by the work of Jesus Christ. He comes to baptize us with fire, he comes mightily, ready to bring life to a dying world. Allow him to do it. The process of being brought to perfection, literally of learning how to abandon death, will be painful at times, that is a guarantee. But the finished project, the animated bones, the pure silver, will be the image and replica of our Lord and Savior. And as the people of God press on toward the holiness and perfection into which the Holy Spirit leads us, our love for one another and those outside the faith must necessarily increase as our sinfulness decreases. Understand this, for us to be reunited as one witness for the world to see, we must forsake sin. Unity cannot be achieved without all of us growing in our love for the Lord and for one another. And we must seek it: our purpose is by the power of the Holy Spirit to lead holy lives and through our words and actions draw unbelievers into the one Church that took shape on the first Pentecost. The coming of the Holy Spirit was a unifying act and it was because of this unity in the Spirit that the first century Christians were enabled to turn the world upside down for Christ. If you want to see that happen again, allow the Holy Spirit to consume your impurities and ignite your love with his fire. Because it is only in the rejection of sin that we can grow in the love that produces the unity necessary for the type of evangelism that was done on the first Pentecost. Then and only then, when we are making a conscious effort to allow the Holy Spirit to cleanse us from our sins, will our lives both as individuals and corporately as a Church, lead people to see Christ and in turn, to believe. Amen.