Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Ark of Christ's Church


 I wasn’t raised in the Episcopal Church. I didn’t begin attending Episcopal services until I was an adult. Being new to the Church, I found there was all sorts of terminology that was also completely new to me. Becoming an Episcopalian sometimes felt like moving to a foreign country where you have to learn how to speak a whole new language. People would say things like “the acolyte training session will be meeting in the nave” and I would stare at them blankly.

The thing is though, once you learn the terminology, and the traditions surrounding it, you find that it is rich in meaning and symbolism. Take for instance one the terms that I just used a moment ago, “the nave.” The nave is the main body of the church where most of the congregation is seated. It extends from the entrance all the way to the chancel, which is the space surrounding the altar where the choir and clergy are usually seated. The word “nave” comes from the Latin word “navis” which means “ship.” It is the same word from which we get our English words “navy” or “naval.” In many old churches the timbers of the roof are even built to mimic the ribs of an old boat, so that staring up into the nave itself looks something like looking down into the hull of a ship.

Now you might think that is a rather odd choice. What does a church have to do with a ship or with sea travel? The choice isn’t an unprecedented one, however, as the ship has been used as a symbol for the church from very early days.  Back in the days when Christians needed to be more cautious in displaying crosses, they would often use a picture of a boat whose mast, to the initiated, is reminiscent of the cross. Also, in documents from the earliest days of the Church, the Bishop surrounded by the assembly is sometimes compared to the helmsman of a ship.

The imagery is in fact biblical in nature and is meant to draw an analogy between the Church and Noah’s Ark. In 1 Peter Chapter 3 the analogy is made between those who have been received in God’s Church by baptism and the eight persons who were kept safe in the Ark during the time of the great flood. Baptism, like the flood, is meant to be a purging away of evil and a new start, a new creation. The Church then is the Ark of God in which God’s redeemed are carried safely through the turbulent storms of this life and the wrathful judgment of God. A line from an older version of our baptismal prayer read, “wash him and sanctify him with the Holy Ghost; that he, being delivered from thy wrath, may be received into the ark of Christ’s Church.”
The Church as the Ark of Christ is an image that the Early Church Fathers drew upon heavily. They noted that just as there was but one Ark to preserve mankind and creation in the days of the Great Flood, there is today one church called upon to be God’s shelter of safety from the dangers of the world. God has called his church out from the rest of the world to be his special instruments of salvation. The Ark was like the womb through which God formed a new world, and the Church is likewise the means through which Christ is making all things new.

In this morning’s gospel reading we see this dramatically depicted. Jesus and his disciples are presented as on a boat in a stormy sea. I believe that we need to read this story in light of image of the church as the Ark of Christ. The church is the place where God protects us and carries us through the turbulent storms of the world, through hardship, sickness, temptation, persecution, heresy, and apostasy. Christ is with us in the boat. He is in control. He is the sovereign Lord and creator of all things and he loves and cares for us.

The church is not exempt from being tossed and shaken by the tumult of the world; God calls us to endure times of great strife when our hearts fail us, and to journey with him to the other side.  During those times when the waves crash against the walls of the Church and the water pours in, threatening to sink us, we must trust that Christ is with us and will not allow us to be destroyed.

During times of great turbulence and distress, we like the disciples might be tempted to question whether God cares for us at all. It may seem to us as if Christ is indifferent to our hardship, as if he sleeps while the world crashes in around us. We might cry out to him in desperate prayer, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

Although we at times may feel abandoned, Christ never ceases his loving care for us. If it is not apparent to us now, it soon shall be. He told his disciples, “In this world you have trouble, but take heart! I have overcome the world!” To our anxious hearts, he says, “Peace. Be still!” When all his disciples are terrified for their lives, Jesus is calm in the storm. He never wavers because he has perfect trust in the will of his Father.
He is our anchor. When all the world is swept up in chaos we can find perfect peace in Jesus Christ our Lord.

The waves are stilled at his command. "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?" This is the Lord of heaven and Earth! The Almighty God and creator with us in human flesh! He is the God that speaks to us in whirlwind when we feel abandoned and forsaken; when we feel that we cannot go on.

Jesus is the Alpha and Omega. He was there at the beginning of creation. He hovered above the primordial waters. He tamed the chaos. He is the one who carried the Ark along on the great waters. He is the one who split the Red Sea and led his people forth on dry ground. He crushed Rehab of the deep, the great sea monster, and scattered his enemies with a mighty arm. He is the Lord of creation and nothing is out of his control. He was there at the beginning and he will be there at the end. He is working all things for the good of those who love him.

Brothers and Sisters, let us not lose heart! Our mighty Lord is with us. "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?"

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Star Trek and the Great Commison: On the Feast of Daniel Nash

 Matthew 28:16-20

“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyagers of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

Most of you will recognize these words as the opening monologue of the popular television show Star Trek. I’m a fan of the show, maybe some of you are too. I’m a bit of a dreamer. It excites me to imagine a future exploring strange new worlds with alien life forms. I say that I’m a fan, but I couldn’t describe myself as a Trekkie. I have friends who are Trekkies and believe me there is a difference. I’ve seen the movies, but I don’t speak Klingon! 

Whether you are a fan of the show, a Trekkie, or unfamiliar with the show, I believe there is something we as Christians, have in common with the crew of the Starship enterprise. We are a people with a mission, called to step out into the unknown world, and plant the flag of the Christian faith in new territories. The crew of the Enterprise only had a five-year mission, but ours is a life-long mission. It is passed on from each generation to the next until that day when Christ shall come in glory.

Our gospel reading from Matthew 28 tells the story of “The Great Commission” in which Jesus commanded his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that he commanded.

Jesus’ disciples are to be people on the move. The Church is more than just a club or even a family, it is a movement. The Gospel shapes who we are and it brings comfort to us in our time of need, but it is also meant to overflow from our community into the surrounding community. It is meant to always be spreading. When the Church stops reaching out, when it becomes insular and narrowly focused on maintaining its own life, it ceases to be what our Lord intended it to be. It stops being something living and active, but becomes something dead and sterile. 

Like the Starship Enterprise, the Church is called to “boldly go where no man has gone before.” I love that phrase, “boldly go.” To go boldly means to be daring and adventurous. It means to go with courage and with great confidence. Where does our confidence come from? Is it confidence in our own skill or eloquence? Our own moral superiority? No, disciples are people who have put their confidence not in themselves but in Jesus their master. We trust that, just as he said, all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him. 

To believe that Jesus has full authority means, before anything else, to believe that he is alive. It means confessing the resurrection. We believe that Jesus has been raised from the dead and that he ascended to God’s right hand. 

Secondly, to believe Jesus has full authority means that we believe that everything Jesus said about himself is true. We believe that he is God’s own Son sent from heaven for our sake. We believe that he is the unique and consummate revelation of who God is, and that he is indeed the savior of the world. The Lord himself is God and we are his people and the sheep of his hand. 

Finally, to believe Jesus has full authority means believing that his teachings are true, good, and that we are bound to live our lives accordingly. Jesus is more than just a generous person, more than just a nice guy, more than just one great teacher among many. He is the wisest and most trustworthy teacher that ever lived. He is the unique embodiment of truth. Where our lives, or the world, is in conflict with what he taught, he is always right and we are always wrong. 

Trusting is Jesus’ absolute authority is essential for being his disciple. How can we commend him to others if we have not trusted in him ourselves? If you don’t think he is what the world needs the most, why not find some other mission to devote your life to? If we have become convinced, however, he invites us to join him in mission as his disciples. 

You might be thinking, “My faith isn’t all that unshakable. I want to follow Jesus, but I am still at times plagued by uncertainty.” Allow me to reassure you. Take another look at our text. It says, “They worshipped him, but some doubted.” Are you prepared to worship him? Are you prepared to bend the knee and submit your doubts to him, asking him to fortify you in your faith? That is all the trust we need. Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you." He is able to take our tiny and tentative faith and make it powerful and effective.

Being Jesus’ disciples means that we have a commitment to bring the Gospel to those who have not yet heard it. It means we have an adventurous and pioneering spirit, and that we are willing to set out in faith to new territories. There was a time when Cooperstown was a remote wilderness, and the northeast United States was the wild frontier. Our father Daniel Nash, in obedience to Christ’s command, ventured in faith to bring the Gospel to this place. We are all beneficiaries of his boldness. 

Another great missionary, David Livingston, said, “If you have men who will only come if they know there is a good road, I don’t want them, I want men who will come if there is no road.” Daniel Nash came where there was no road. He was a trailblazer boldly going where no man went before with the Gospel. 

Today, on his feast day, we are challenged with his example. Will we play it safe, only speaking of our faith with those who like us already believe it, or will we go where there is no road laid, and bring the Gospel to those who have not yet accepted it, who may even be resistant to hearing it? This is an intimidating prospect, but if we want to pass the faith unto a new generation, we need more than a maintenance mentality, we need to have Father Nash’s pioneering spirit. 

Finally, I believe this Gospel has a word for us as we head into a great time of transition and uncertainty in our life together. Where will we find the boldness and confidence to move forward? We must look to our Lord Jesus Christ. All authority has been given to him. He is ultimately the one in whose hands the future rests. We can do no better than to constantly remind ourselves and others of that great and glorious truth.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Scandal of the Eucharist


There is little doubt that September 11th 2001 will serve as a defining moment for my generation of Americans. I was in college at the time, a time in my life where my adult identity was just beginning to come into focus. I reflect upon those days often, as I’m sure many of you do as well. One thing I will always recall is the way the nation seemed to pull together in the days immediately following. There was a greater sense of solidarity between people, a collective mourning that made us all a bit more sober. There was indeed goodwill among neighbors at that time, but sadly, my memory is also marred by its opposite. I’ll never forget walking by the store front Gudwara—the place of worship for our local Sikh community—and seeing that it was vandalized, pelted with eggs, and the words, “Go home terrorist” sprawled on the front. The Sikhs are not a Muslim sect and certainly have nothing in common with the extremists who attacked us, but the vandals didn’t know that or for that matter care. All they knew was that these people were different. They were strangers and they bore some ethnic similarities with the terrorists who hijacked those planes.

We fear what we don’t understand. Those who are different from the mainstream culture will always be vulnerable to fear, hostility, and on occasion even violence. In the Old Testament, when God brought his people into the Promised Land, he charged them that they should not forget that they too were once strangers and sojourners in a foreign land and so they should treat the foreigners in their midst with compassion. As Christians we too would do well to remember this exhortation. We have not always enjoyed the place of respect and cultural prominence we do today, and if the latest Pew research findings are to be believed, that influence is waning. In its earliest days, Christians were a despised minority in the Roman Empire and persecuted for their beliefs.

The Roman historian Tacitus described the persecution of Christians: “In their very deaths they were made the subjects of sport: for they were covered with the hides of wild beasts, and torn to death by dogs, or nailed to crosses, or set fire to, and when the day waned, burned to serve for the evening lights.”

What escalated into violence began with misunderstanding, fear, and suspicion. Christians were accused of atheism because they refused to pay tribute to the pagan deities. The mingling of social classes and the intimacy of fellowship among Christians was considered indecent. “They love each other almost before they know each other” one critic said. They were accused of sexual immorality because they greeted one another with a kiss and suspected of incest because even husbands and wives referred to one another as brother and sister. Some historians suggest that, like the Sikhs in my home town, the Early Christians may have suffered from guilt by association with heretical sects that used similar language but practiced licentiousness.

Among the most feared and misunderstood practices of the Early Church, was the sacred meal that we celebrate today, the Holy Eucharist. The Christians were accused of indulging in dark, abhorrent, rituals involving sorcery. In fact, the phrase Hoc est corpus meum ("This is my body") from the Latin words of institution is where the term "hocus pocus" derives from.

 Most shockingly it was believed that these rituals involved human sacrifice and cannibalism. It easy to see where those rumors came from. In the Eucharist, we believe that we receive the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus’ words are indeed shocking to the uninitiated, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53 ESV). Even the disciples said amongst themselves, “This is a hard saying! Who can listen to it?”

Last week we spoke about the mystery of the Holy Trinity. Our receiving of the true body and blood of our Lord in Holy Communion and the participation in his death and resurrection that accompanies it is another holy mystery that transcends our ability to comprehend in its fullness. Just as our attempts to define precisely how God is three and yet one tends to lead us astray, so I believe do attempts to define precisely what happens in Holy Communion. The Eucharist is best understood in practice. It is like a burning hot coal. While in the fire it glows with light, but if you remove it to examine it, it turns dead and cold.

We must not shrink back from the mystery and say that it is merely symbolic, but neither can we comprehend its fullness, we can only receive the gifts of God believing that they are indeed what Christ said they were: his body and blood. Jesus is the true bread that comes down from heaven. He speaks of his flesh as like the manna that was given to the people of Israel by God in the wilderness to sustain them. Our reading from 1 Corinthians compares his blood to the rock the gushed out water in the wilderness.

Jesus gives us himself in the Holy Eucharist to strengthen us in our spiritual journey until we reach the Promised Land. Through this meal we receive life. Our communal participation in this feast is also meant to bind us together as one family in the body of Christ. We who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread and one cup.

The mystery surrounding this rite and the shocking claims made about it have done much to fuel scandal, but too often it is we ourselves who have brought scandal on this holy feast. Our Lord intended that the Eucharistic celebration be an instrument of joy and unity for his people, but too often it has been our greatest source of division. Perhaps no other single issue has brought more strife and contention among Christians than disagreements about the meaning of Holy Communion and how it should be celebrated. It seems to me that this can only be a demonic inversion of the true purpose of the Eucharist. There are many things that divide us; we have different theological opinions, different political convictions, we come from different economic classes and cultural backgrounds, but Christ calls us to set aside those differences and be united as one people. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

We are united in this sacrifice of bread and wine. We present to God these humble gifts but it is we who receive from him a blessing that surpasses all that we can ask or imagine, the grace of Holy Communion. We are the constant recipients of God’s love and generosity. Every breath that we take is a gift from him. All that we have and indeed our very existence comes from him. This is how we say thank you to God for all that he has given us.

The key to unlocking God’s blessing is gratitude. We have not received all that God has for us if we let his blessing die with us, rather it multiplies like the loaves and fishes when we offer it up in thanksgiving. Our Lord Jesus Christ said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
It was the Christian commitment to this principle that began to turn the Church from a despised minority to an ever growing and influential people in the Roman Empire. When a horrible plague broke out, many at first blamed the Christians for what was happening. But the love and compassion that believers showed in caring not only for each other but all the sick and suffering—often at great personal cost and danger for themselves—astonished their neighbors and led to many conversions.
It was C.S. Lewis who said “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses” and Saint John Chrysostom who said, “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the Church door, you will not find him in the Chalice.”

At the end of the Eucharistic celebration the congregation is blessed and sent out to do the work that God has given them to do. Having been fed with the spiritual food of the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood, we are sent out in strength to love our neighbor and serve the Lord.