Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Terrible Possibility of Damnation

This morning I want to address a topic that makes many people uncomfortable—indeed I confess that it makes me uncomfortable as well—yet it is a subject that cannot be responsibly avoided. I would like to address the topic of damnation…of Hell. 

There is a lot of unhelpful talk about how the God of the Old Testament is wrathful and vindictive, but how the New Testament corrects this idea with a God of love and mercy. This of course is not true. The love and mercy of God can be found in the Old as well as the New Testaments, but neither is it true that the New Testament does not speak on the Judgement of God. I am not just talking about the book of Revelation or grumpy old Saint Paul either, but of our Lord Himself, Jesus meek and mild. It has often been pointed out that Jesus speaks on the subject of hell more than anyone else in Holy Scripture. 

Our reading this morning from the Gospel of Mark contains one of Jesus’ most stark and terrifying warnings. Jesus speaks of the awful fate of the damned who are thrown into Hell where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched. The word translated as Hell here in this passage is a very real place outside of Jerusalem called Gehenna or the Valley of Hinnom. It was a place considered cursed for its association with idolatry that served as a garbage dump for burning refuse. Many commentators have pointed out that these words are not to be interpreted literally, but even as a figurative description they are chilling! It is possible, Jesus says, to make a stinking, worm infested, garbage dump of your soul! What a horrible fate. 

As terrible as the passage in question is, however, it is prefaced with one of Jesus’ most inclusive statements. The Apostles tried to silence someone acting in Jesus’ name because he didn’t belong to their group. Jesus corrects them saying, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” When Jesus speaks of Hell, what he is not doing is promoting a kind of tribalism that consigns everyone outside of the group to damnation.
I believe there are two extremes that we should avoid.

First, many Christians have a rigid exclusivism that makes the scope of God’s love seem narrow and paltry. They seem unable to recognize the work of God outside the confines of their own tribe.

Unless you have been under a rock this week you have probably heard that Pope Francis, the spiritual leader of the Roman Catholic Church, has been visiting the United States and even addressed a joint session of Congress. For the most part he has been welcomed warmly by Americans of all faiths, but in some instances his visit has seemed to stir up many of the bitter differences that divide Roman Catholics from Protestants. What an important reminder today’s Gospel is that the work of God is bigger than our divisions. Let us welcome with joy all who come in the name of Christ or who do the work of God whether we are in communion with them or not! Jesus says, “For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose their reward.”

The second extreme we should avoid when speaking of judgement comes from those who take tolerance to such an extreme that they seem to lack moral seriousness and make it appear as if the choices we make in life have no ultimate consequence. It is all too easy to hear Jesus’ inclusive words of grace and mercy while neglecting to hear his solemn warnings. 

Love and justice or love and wrath are not opposites. They belong together. It is precisely because God is love, because he is perfect goodness, that he must utterly reject and destroy all that opposes or threatens righteousness. The one thing that love cannot love is hate.

No there are horrible consequences for those who would harm those whom God loves. Jesus says, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”

Although—obviously—I am not a Roman Catholic, I really admire Pope Francis, because I recognize in him the same balance I see in Christ. Is he hard-minded or soft-hearted? Liberal or conservative? He is difficult to classify because he avoids the extremes. It doesn’t stop the media from trying to pigeonhole him. 

A couple of years ago Francis made headlines after making the following comment, 

“You ask me if the God of the Christians forgives those who don’t believe and who don’t seek the faith. I start by saying – and this is the fundamental thing – that God’s mercy has no limits if you go to him with a sincere and contrite heart. The issue for those who do not believe in God is to obey their conscience.”

The headlines the next day said that Pope Francis proclaimed that no one needed to believe in Christ and that atheists could go to heaven if they led a good life. Is that really what he said? Wouldn’t that put him in the category of the wishy washy people who are so broad that they lack substance?

If that were the fact I would be deeply disappointed. It is a fundamental teaching of the Christian faith that no one attains salvation merely on the basis of their good works and that we all need a savior. Despite what you may have heard, Catholics and Protestants agree on this point. Here is what he actually said,
“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”

This is another way of saying what Jesus said, that anyone who does a deed of power in his name—who does the work of God and of his Kingdom—will not be able to soon after speak evil of him. If you do not yet confess the Christian faith, start by embracing the truth that you do understand, follow the witness of God in your own conscience and he will lead you on. 

C.S. Lewis once wisely wrote,
 “The world does not consist of 100 percent Christians and 100 percent non-Christians. There are people (a great many of them) who are slowly ceasing to be Christians but who still call themselves by that name: some of them are clergymen. There are other people who are slowly becoming Christians though they do not yet call themselves so.”

The redemption that Christ accomplished is for all people. Christ died for the atheist as well as the believers, but that does not necessarily mean that all will ultimately be saved. God desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth, we can hope and pray that this might be the case, but we also must take heed to the awful possibility of damnation.

Elsewhere Jesus says,
Anyone who speaks against the Son of Man can be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven, either in this world or in the world to come.” He warns everlasting destruction to all those who persistently resist the Holy Spirit, the witness of God in their conscience, all motion of goodness, who actively oppose the work of God and instead align themselves with evil. We cannot afford to be lax or indifferent to the things that God commands!
Sin is not to be trifled with. It is a cancer that must be removed at all costs. It is like gangrene, a hideous infection that if not removed will spread to our hearts and kill us. Jesus recommends drastic action, 

“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where the worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.”
If his words are shocking, it is because the situation is so urgent that he must grab your attention. His words might seem hyperbolic, but the situation is actually even worse than his words imply! Even if we literally took Jesus’ advice it would not be enough. No amount of external behavior modification is sufficient, because the infection isn’t in our hands, feet, or eyes but in our heart. We need a full heart transplant! Only Christ can give us that.

He thirsts for you. He knocks at the door of your conscience through his Holy Spirit. He comes to you in the distressing guise of the poor and most vulnerable. Will you let him in? Will you give him a drink?

Monday, September 21, 2015

A Proverbs 31 Woman Who Can Find?

Proverbs 31:10-31

Women can be pretty hard on themselves. Perfectionism can afflict all different kinds of people, but it may be especially common in women, and moms in particular. Our culture places an enormous amount of pressure on women to be ‘the whole package,’ the perfect wife, a super mom, a career woman, and a runway model, all while keeping an immaculate and creatively decorated home! Many women don’t find that the social expectation of what a successful woman is supposed to be like fits very well with who they are or their own goals for their life.

Unfortunately the Church can be the worst offender. Like the Pharisees in Jesus’ day we “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders” but do very little to help them shoulder those burdens. In Christian circles, the unattainable standard of perfect womanhood has a name—if you have been involved in many women’s ministries or frequented the women’s section of Christian bookstores you have no doubt heard this name—she is the “Proverbs Thirty-One Woman” and she comes from our Old Testament lesson for today.

This section of the book of Proverbs is actually an acrostic poem. It goes through the entire Hebrew alphabet, each line beginning with a different letter. You might call the woman described in these lines the “The A to Z woman” because she appears to have it all! She is like June Cleaver, Martha Stuart, Oprah Winfrey, Venus Williams, and Mother Teresa all rolled into one!

She gets out of bed before dawn, but she also stays up late getting work done. She is an artist weaving lovely woolen products, the lady of a large household, an entrepreneur, a laborer, a humanitarian, a mother, and a philosopher. One of my Facebook friends wrote a satirical blog post describing a day in the life of theProverbs 31 woman’s husband. It begins,

“Got out of bed. I woke up earlier but my wife told me to sleep in because she had everything covered. I have so much confidence in her I just had to roll over and go back to sleep!”

I believe we have been reading Proverbs 31 wrong. Here is what you need to know about this passage,

First, the Proverbs 31 Woman is not a real person; she is an amalgamation of all the good qualities a good wife can possess. It is an ode to the virtuous wife or, as the Hebrew is more accurately translated, “The woman of valor.” It is not a job description or a checklist for women to be measured by. There are any number of fine qualities a woman can possess, but no woman can have them all! God has given each and every one of us unique gifts. He wants us to be authentically the person that he created us to be. That is going to look differently for each of us. We should celebrate the gifts God has given others, but we shouldn’t covet them or condemn ourselves if we don’t share them. Always remember that God’s love for you—the value and worth you have in his eyes—is completely unconditional and not based on your performance!

Second, the Proverbs 31 woman is a personification of wisdom. If you heard my sermon from last week, you will remember that we discussed how wisdom is poetically depicted in Hebrew literature as a woman. In fact there are two female personifications in the book of Proverbs, one is Wisdom and the other Folly. The reader is instructed to choose wisdom and avoid folly.

The language of courtship and marriage works throughout the book as an allegory. Whether we are male or female, married or single, the message of Proverbs is to take wisdom into our home, to share our life with her, to be true to her all the days of our life, and to never allow ourselves to be lured away by the deceitful seductions of folly.

The choices we make for our lives will ultimately determine whether or not we prosper or come to ruin. The author knows that perhaps no choice is more important than who we choose to associate with. He continually warns against keeping company with the wicked, “Do not make friends with a hot-tempered person, do not associate with one easily angered or you may learn their ways and get yourself ensnared.”

 Choosing the right spouse is of particular importance. It says, “A quarrelsome wife is like the dripping of a leaky roof in a rainstorm,” (27:15)  and, “It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a contentious wife” (21:9). One could just as easily warn against the dangers of choosing a selfish, oafish, or angry husband! As difficult as being single is, it is better to be alone, than with the wrong person. A poor choice of partner can fill your life with sorrow and angst.

If we choose to share our lives with righteous and positive people, however, we will be uplifted. Proverbs says, “Walk with the wise and become wise, for a companion of fools suffers harm” (13:20) and, “One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (18:24).

To this end, the book of Proverbs culminates in a hymn extolling the virtues of finding a wife of strong character, “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.”

Here is the catch, any spouse that we choose for ourselves—indeed any friendship we make or group we associate ourselves with—is going to be a mixed bag of both wisdom and folly. We all fall short. Because we are all sinful, there will always be need for repentance and forgiveness. The question can never be only, “how can I find the right companion who will fill my life with blessing”, but it always must include the question, “how can I be a source of strength rather than of weakness to my spouse, to my friends, and to my community?” Relationships are always a two-way street. Somewhere else the Book of Proverbs tells us, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (27:17)

So is that it? Is Lady Wisdom who is far more precious than jewels forever unattainable by us in this life? It may be that all of us will be a mixture of wisdom and folly throughout our natural lives, but our Lord Jesus Christ is perfect wisdom and he gives himself for the life of the world. If we will receive him with joy, he will move into our home and into our lives and bring us blessing and strength.

None of us can be all things to all people, but he is able. Having ascended into heaven he fills all things. Every virtue, all knowledge, every good and perfect gift comes through him.

Using the analogy of marriage, Martin Luther spoke of “The Great Exchange” between Christ and the believer. Imagine if you will that a great prince takes a poor and despised peasant woman as his wife. Everything that belongs to him, his great riches, his palace, his nobility is now given to her by virtue of their union. Likewise all that is hers including her crushing debt is laid on him. Although they were insurmountable to her they are easily paid off and satisfied by him. He is the source of our strength and righteousness, and we are made wise by sharing our life with him. We should never seek in others what can be found in him alone. He is the only truly perfect companion for our souls.

Listen to how what is said of Lady Wisdom, the good wife in Proverbs 31, fittingly applies to our Lord. He is more precious than jewels, the heart who trusts him never lacks gain, he does us good and not harm all the days of our life, he feeds us, girds himself with strength, reaches out to the needy, clothes us in fine apparel, brings us honor, instructs the simple, speaks with kindness, and always works tirelessly on our behalf. He is to be richly praised! Give back to him what he has given to you and let his works testify of his goodness! 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Where is Wisdom to be Found?

Proverbs 1:20-33

Wisdom of Solomon 7:26-8:1

For wisdom is a reflection of eternal light,
a spotless mirror of the working of God,
and an image of his goodness.

Although she is but one, she can do all things,
and while remaining in herself, she renews all things;
in every generation she passes into holy souls
and makes them friends of God, and prophets;
for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom.

She is more beautiful than the sun,
and excels every constellation of the stars.

Compared with the light she is found to be superior,
for it is succeeded by the night,
but against wisdom evil does not prevail.
She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other,
and she orders all things well.

Saint Paul famously said, “Greeks seek wisdom.” But where can wisdom be found? Who really is wise?

As the story goes the oracle at Delphi proclaimed that Socrates was the wisest man on earth. Socrates himself, however, was puzzled by this and set out to prove the oracle wrong. “The only thing I know for sure is that I know nothing” he said, and so he questioned all the self-appointed wise men of the world to discover who it really was who was wise.  What he found was that all the so called teachers of wisdom, the sophists as they were called, were not really wise at all. For them, truth was relative, all a matter of rhetoric, who could best who in public debate, who could make the most eloquent argument, who could make the most biting critique.

One need only look at all the talking head pundits on television to know that there is nothing new under the sun! What made Socrates truly wise was that he saw through the pretense of worldly wisdom. Likewise the scriptures warn us of being deceived by vain and empty philosophies. Saint Paul tells us that the Gospel is foolishness to the Greeks, but for us it is the wisdom and power of God.

In our Old Testament lesson from Proverbs, Wisdom, personified as a woman, is said to be crying out in the streets and in the public square, pleading with us to abandon our foolish ways and to receive her instruction. Wisdom is still calling out to us, but her voice is just barely audible above the clamor and quarreling of the sophists and pundits.  We love image more than substance. We are easily taken in by the deceptive charm and flash of her imitators and so her beauty goes unnoticed. We have an insatiable appetite for the new and the sensational, but she is ancient, tried and true. 

She is indeed older than creation itself. In Proverbs chapter eight she tells us, “The LORD possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old.” Wisdom is spoken of as more than just an attribute of God or an abstraction, but as his companion and agent in creation. She tells us that she was there when God created the earth that she was beside him as a master workman and that she was daily his delight.
Wisdom dwelled with God from all eternity. The response to our Proverbs reading, which we sang just a moment ago, is from the apocryphal book the Wisdom of Solomon and it expands on what Proverbs teaches us about Wisdom.  It says, “She is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness.” If anyone wants to know who God is they must look to her. Through obtaining wisdom we catch a glimpse of God’s eternal glory and goodness.

The author continues by teaching us that, “She renews all things.” God mends what is broken and restores all things to their original goodness through Wisdom. It is through possessing her that people of every generation became holy and it is through her that they are made friends of God. In making her our own we obtain something of more lasting value than all the riches in the world. Not only does she precede all things but her glory will also outlast every created thing. Long after the light of the sun blinks out she will continue to shine.

Let me ask you this, who was it that was in the beginning with God? Who was it through whom all things visible and invisible were made? Who was it that the Father delighted in for all eternity? Who is it that the letter to the Colossians teaches us is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation?” Who is it that the book of Hebrews calls “the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being” and who also, “sustains all things through his powerful word?” Who was it that said, “Behold I make all things new?”  Who is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end? It is our Lord! Jesus Christ! It is him who scripture names as the power and wisdom of God.

There have been many who have been called wise, many who have loved wisdom. Socrates was truly wise and a light in his generation. The Queen of Sheba traveled from the ends of the earth to sit at the feet of King Solomon who scripture tells us was wiser than all the Kings of the earth. Yes there are many wise teachers who we can learn from.  Jesus, however, is not just one wise teacher among many others. It’s not just that he was the wisest man who ever lived. No, more than that, he was the very embodiment of wisdom itself.

In Christ, the divine wisdom from above came down to earth and tabernacled in our midst. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  What was spoken figuratively of Lady Wisdom in Proverbs is literal truth in Jesus Christ. He walked in our public square. He raised his voice in our streets and cried out, “Come unto me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest!”

His invitation has gone out to all. As John’s gospel tells us, he is the true light that enlightens all who come into the world, but just like Lady Wisdom he has been refused and ignored. He has stretched out his hands, opened wide his arms, but he has not be headed.  Jesus spoke of himself in feminine terms like lady wisdom, as a mother pleading with her children, “how often I have longed to gather you together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing!”

Only in him do we find the life that is truly worth living. “Come to me,” he calls to us, “And I will gather up the broken shards of yourself and make you whole. I will make it so you too shine as a reflection of my father’s eternal light.”

He renews all things. The spotless mirror of the Father’s glory, the perfect image of his goodness, came down from heaven to restore all of us who had distorted and sullied the image of God. It was as if a masterpiece painting had been damaged beyond repair and the original subject of portrait came and sat again so his likeness could be repainted and restored.

Should we despise the call of our savior and the promise of restoration for the wisdom of this world? Should we neglect wisdom incarnate for the mere appearance of wisdom and the applause of the crowds? Proverbs warns us of the calamity that befalls all those who reject wisdom. We must be willing to be considered fools for Christ’s sake. In our Gospel Jesus tells us that if we wish to be his followers we must take up our cross and follow him. Only then can he shape and remold us in his image. He warns, “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels."

If we reject wisdom, if we fail to live in the way God intends for us, we can expect only tragedy and ruin, but there is untold blessing for those who embrace wisdom and walk in her ways. If it is truly wisdom we seek the only place we will find her in all her fullness is in the eternal Son of God, Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015


“When Jesus understood it, he said unto them, Why trouble ye the woman? for she hath wrought a good work upon me. For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always. For in that she hath poured this ointment on my body, she did it for my burial. Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her.
— S. Matthew xxvi, 10-13.

There never was a prophecy more strange than this. When our Lord predicts the destruction of Jerusalem, when His mind leaps across long ages of time to anticipate the Day of Judgment, He deals with big events and vast movements that come of necessity, as it seems to us, within the range of vision of the Son of God. We so revere the lofty Person of Christ that when, even at the foot of the Cross, His flashing eyes command a view of all after history, the rising and fall ing of nations and kingdoms, pestilence, war, earthquake, the final trumpet, and the rushing of ten thousand times ten thousand angels, we are not too greatly amazed.

But here He seems to labor in prophetic utterance concerning a mere trifle. He would seem to desire permanence for an evanescent perfume that floated through a banquet hall nearly two thousand years ago.

For, as He sits at the feast given in His honor at Bethany, a woman enters, having an alabaster cruse of precious ointment, and reverently anoints the head and feet of Jesus. The stingy ill-nature of Judas Iscariot stirs in some of the disciples, unused to such luxuries, a feeling of protest. Why waste this precious liquid in the gratification of a mere sentiment? If one would do good, why not something useful? Why not something permanent?

Even as they grumble, S. John tells us, the house is filled with the odor of the ointment. The guests are conscious of a subtle and delicious fragrance that steals upon the senses, and adds a languorous delight to the breath of life, compelling attention and awakening memories like a strain of ethereal mu sic. But, just when it most delights the nostrils, the odor begins to vanish. It be longs only to the moment, and is the very symbol of all that is transitory, as opposed to that which is permanent.

Then it is that Jesus makes His strangest prophecy. "No," He seems to say, "This is not transitory. The perfume of this hour is, in fact, its only permanent possession. This anointing with the alabaster cruse of ointment is a deed that shall live in history." "Verily I say unto you," declares the Christ, "wheresoever this Gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her."

If the prophecy is strange, its fulfillment is even more amazing, in literal fidelity to the promise. Wheresoever the Gospel is preached, the fragrance of this woman's deed in Bethany abides. Nearly two thousand years have wrought their changes in the world, but here today once more the strange prophecy is fulfilled, and the story is told again. And wherever the Gospel is preached of the wonderful things that Jesus did for humanity, there goes the record of this one loving service that humanity performed for Jesus.

The anointing of our Blessed Lord at Bethany, when one tries to measure its significance, is found to be bound up with one of the most difficult but most fascinating problems of New Testament interpretation. Each one of the four Gospels — S. Matthew, S. Mark, S. Luke, and S. John — contains an account of an anointing of our Lord, at a feast, by a woman. Three of the accounts are so much alike that they must be held to de scribe the same incident from the points of view of three different witnesses. But one of the accounts — that of S. Luke — is quite un like the others. While the incident described resembles the other, it is dissimilar in time, in circumstance, in purpose. It is the penitential act of a woman who has been a notorious sinner. The other anointing is the devout deed of a woman prominent in the Christian community. There were, therefore, two anointings of Jesus — the first by a penitent woman at a feast in Galilee, the other, two years later, at Bethany, by a woman who stood high in Christian discipleship.

Was there any relationship between the two women thus described? Did the second, who won the praise of Christ at Bethany, know that the other had so anointed Him, two years before, in Galilee? In the answer to these questions lies the chief significance of the story. The difficulty of answering these inquiries with absolute certainty arises out of a manifest effort on the part of the writers of the Gospels to shield the family at Bethany from too much publicity. It is natural that there should be great public interest in the house hold at Bethany, of Martha and Mary and Lazarus, where Jesus of Nazareth was an in timate friend, and where Lazarus had come back from the grave. But the reporters of the Gospel seem careful not to gratify the public curiosity. There seems to be some reason why the family at Bethany — Martha and Mary and Lazarus — desire to be screened from too much notoriety. And strangely enough, this sensitiveness to the public gaze appears to be connected not with Lazarus, as one might suspect, because of his journey back from death — not with him, but with Mary. One glimpse into the home of Martha and Mary S. Luke allows, and shows Mary sitting devoutly at the feet of Christ. But her public appearance at the feast, where she anoints the Lord with pre cious ointment, S. Luke passes over in silence. S. Matthew describes the incident of the anointing at Bethany, but does not give the name of Mary. S. Mark describes the same incident, but does not give the name of Mary. They describe her as just a woman, well knowing who she is — the famous Mary of Bethany — yet they do not give her name, although they record the promise of the Lord, conferring everlasting fame upon her deed. Yet they leave her nameless.

It is only from S. John, writing many years afterward, when some of the causes of silence had been removed, that we learn the name of her who anointed Jesus at Bethany, and whose deed of love He declared to be immortal — Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. It often happens in biographical writing that names are sup pressed, or publication suspended, until time has removed the cause of silence. It seems to have been so in the Gospel story. There is more than one indication of regard for the feeling of those who appear in the sacred narrative, as where Mark and Luke evade the fact that Matthew was once a publican, while Matthew himself glories in his shame. Even S. John, who tells us most frankly of Mary of Bethany, hesitates to identify her, except by a stray hint, with any other stage of the Gospel narrative. Yet the conclusion is almost irresistible that the Mary whom he calls Magdalene, who next appears under that title for the first time in his story, within less than a week after the scene of the anoint ing, is the same as Mary of Bethany. It is incomprehensible that Mary of Bethany in the administration of perfumed ointment should have exhausted her brave devotion, and, within a week's time, should not have appeared with the other faithful women at the foot of the Cross, or at the sepulchre in the garden. But if Mary of Magdala be the name by which Mary of Bethany was known to the world — a distinguishing name not needed or loved at the home in Bethany — a consistency of action between Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene illuminates the narrative. The devotion of Mary of Bethany is vindicated under her more famous name of Mary Magdalene. Not only did she sit at the feet of Christ at home. Not only did she anoint Him at the feast of Beth any. She followed Him to the Cross; she watched Him at the tomb. She was the first to see Him risen from the grave.

It is ill work to uncover family skeletons. But fortunate is the family that has none in its closet. It is more common than one would be apt to believe that a family noted for its cultivated Christian atmosphere, and for the fine ideals of its household life, none the less is shadowed forever by the memory of dis grace in respect of some member of it, and shrinks at secret recollections that bring al ways a wince of pain. Thus the blameless suffer in silence for the sins of others. There is no excuse for mentioning such a situation except to describe the splendid triumph that sometimes arises out of it.

There is reason to believe that such a shadow rested upon that pure and perfect home in Bethany, where Jesus of Nazareth was the most intimate of friends. That would be the reason for the marked reserve of the Gospels in the references to this home — the stray hints that mercifully concealed the unnecessary truth so long as the living might be wounded by it, yet offering clues that to after ages, when the four Gospels were put together, would be certain to reveal the story, as a lesson in the inner history and redemption of a human soul.

"While there is nothing in Holy Scripture definitely to settle the question, the tradi tions of a thousand years have held that Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene and the Woman that was a Sinner are the same. Such is the testimony of Tertullian, and S. Cyprian, and S. Jerome, and S. Augustine, and S. Gregory the Great, and Clement and Cyril of Alexandria, and such has been the belief, in more modern times, of English Churchmen like Lightfoot, and Farrar, and Pusey.

According to this view, support is given to the tradition that at one time Mary of Beth any had broken away from the quiet life of her village, and had become notorious for a life of delirious and reckless pleasure. There are legends in the Talmud which speak of her beauty, the fame of her lovely hair, her wealth, her intrigues. Her hus band was a doctor of the law whose jealousy was so great, that he was wont to keep her closely imprisoned. The high-spirited Jewess revolted against this hateful restraint, joined fortunes with a gay officer of Magdala, and accompanied him to that town, where she led a' life of such brilliant and un bridled indulgence that she always kept the name of "the Magdalene." She was beautiful; she was fascinating. But she was vain; she was avaricious; she was lustful; gluttonous; jealous; tempestuous and indo lent. For out of her Christ drove the seven demons of mortal sin.

It is she that is the penitent whom S. Luke describes, but does not name. In the old calendar of the English Church she was so identified and commemorated on the Feast of S. Mary Magdalene, the twenty-second of July. It is she who originates the act of devotion which she repeats two years afterward at Bethany. It is this first anointing that gives significance to the second. S. John remembers this long afterward, when he de scribes Mary of Bethany as "that Mary which anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped His feet with her hair." S. Luke, who describes the original penitent bestowing her ointment upon the Christ, makes no mention of her name. But he seems to hint at her identity when he takes care to begin the next succeeding paragraph with the name of Mary Magdalene.

If this interpretation of the story be accepted, the anointing at Bethany, beautiful and full of meaning already, gains immensely in significance. Mary of Bethany has been for two years a changed woman. She has become generous, and humble, and chaste, and temperate, meek, kind, and diligent. She has renounced her evil associations, and all her old charm is exerted in a life so noble and pure that everyone is convinced of her sincerity. She has become what it had always been in her inmost soul to be, and what God had put her in the world to be. The miracle that had taken place within her soul dated from the time when Jesus Christ, had said to her, "Thy sins are for given. Go in peace."

Then two years pass. The Pharisees have plotted the destruction of Jesus. Within a week the Son of Man is to be lifted up upon the Cross of Calvary. She may not suspect the whole truth, but Mary of Bethany has some intuition of the approaching end. A feast is given at Bethany in honor of Jesus. A large concourse of people is there. Mary desires to pay some great farewell trib ute to the Master to whom she owes her life. It shall be a public tribute, but it shall tell the inner history of her soul, and what she owes to Him, without the speaking of a word, and none but He shall understand her meaning.

She brings with her an alabaster cruse of ointment, just like the one she had brought two years before, when she came as the penitent Magdalene. It gleams in her hand like a lustrous pearl, and the balm which it contains is priceless. She has kept it from the time of her old life, a souvenir of her discarded vanity. What she had done two years be fore as a penitent she now does again, with the gladness of one redeemed. She breaks the alabaster cruse, as she had done then, as if to say, "Do you remember?" She anoints His feet, as she had done then. Now, as then, her hair falls in rippling masses, and she wipes His feet, as she had done then, with the long tresses. Nothing is changed, except that now she does with a smile what she had done then with bitter tears, and be fore she has finished she anoints His head also, as a tribute to a King. The house is filled with the odor of the ointment. A peculiar fragrance steals upon the senses, and brings back the memory of that day in which she gained her pardon, and began her expiation.

S. Matthew says that "when Jesus under stood it, ' ' He made His declaration concerning the everlasting fame of Mary's tribute to Him. He understood it. None but He could understand that in a public tribute this woman had managed to convey to Him her private gratitude, and to repeat the secret history of the salvation of her soul.

The modern Biblical students who reject the identification of Mary of Bethany with Mary of Magdala and "the woman who was a sinner" appear to do so chiefly for two reasons external to the bare record of the narrative. They say that the beautiful and devout character described in Mary of Beth any is inconsistent with the notion that she was ever a notorious sinner. It is remark able that this objection prevails most widely among those who have ceased to emphasize the power of divine Grace — a gift coming in from the outside to change human nature and life. Yet the story of the whole New Testa ment may almost be said to be a story of changed lives. It is quite consistent with the Gospel story to regard the character of Mary of Bethany as one of the fruits of the saving grace conferred by the life of Christ.

The other objection to the identification of Mary of Bethany with the sinful woman of the earlier incident is based upon the contention that the same woman would be unlikely to perform twice exactly the same act of anointing. But the truth is that, if we admit the identification, the repetition of the anointing is the very thing that gives it its intense personal significance, and accounts for the extraordinary commendation of our Lord.

And if Mary Magdalene told the story of her changed life by anointing Christ at Bethany, with a designed reference to her former anointing of Him at the beginning of her expiation, then she has also described to us, by a striking symbolic action, the right attitude of every Christian life toward its own past failure.

 For the fact that always most squarely faces a changed inner life or experience lies exactly in the repetition of things un changed. The new spirit finds not a new task, but the repetition of an old task. This repetition, this sameness, the same alabaster cruse, the repeating of an old action, the floating upon the senses of a fragrance charged with memories — this is the greatest trial that confronts him who has determined upon a new life, a fresh resolution. And also, — more inspiring truth, — this sameness, this repetition, is the very element that contains the utmost opportunity for the expression of the new life; no other could contain so much.

An intense emotional change, or alteration of current, within one's soul seems to demand, at first, a corresponding change in all that lies outside.1 The realization comes, al most with the force of a blow, that nothing in fact is changed at all. Here is a village household, whose inmates are passing through some agonizing crisis. Within this house the atmosphere is charged with the most poignant anxiety. Life and death sway in the balances. Nerves are held tense, and souls are upon the rack of dread. At last the crisis passes. The tension is relieved. The dread uncertainty is past. Then the village clock strikes an hour, calmly, deliberately, as though it were like any other hour. Its slow strokes beat upon the consciousness the cold, dull fact that nothing is changed; all is the same. One is brought back to the old routine of life that must be taken up again. The world, which should have held its breath during the hours of our agonized suspense, has moved on relentlessly. The new is like the old.

When a great grief sweeps over the soul, its most persistent pain arises from the fact that the change which has touched one's in most life is set over against an everlasting sameness of all things else. The future seems cruel in its too exact resemblance to the past. There is a repetition of scenes that wring the heart with old memories. The same duties face us as before. The old routine confronts us, as rigid as ia treadmill. Only live to face this truth long enough, and, at last, the sameness that was so hard to bear becomes the source of comfort and inspiration. The old scenes, because they are consecrated by the past, become touched with a splendor that nothing new and untried can equal. The old tasks begin to call forth new energies because of the memories by which they are transfigured and glorified. The per fume that once was mingled with tears stirs in the senses, at last, a deep and abiding joy.

So it is with one who, becoming dissatisfied with himself, faces life with some new resolution to make it nobler and more worthy than the past. The new determination within the soul seems to require a new world to work in. In the inspiration of some high resolve one wishes to escape from the old, and feels that the new energy requires new circumstances in which to express itself. One almost believes that the old circumstances will some how be changed by the fervor of the new resolution. But the first test of the new enthusiasm is its discovery that nothing is changed at all. Here are the old duties to be taken up again, and the old temptations to be resisted. The test of real progress answers the question whether under the same circumstances one will yield again to the same temptation. The life that has real power behind its change of determination often discovers at last what it was meant to be, not in the finding of some new task, but through the in fusion of a new spirit in the old task. The finest dedication of life for the future is fragrant with an odor that belongs to the past.

Mary of Magdala is no mourner over her past failure. Innocence is good ; but virtue is better. She regrets the past. But somehow the memory even of her failure reflects the glory that now shines upon the present and the future. There is no perfume so grateful to the soul as the fragrance heavy with the odor of a past that has been redeemed.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Come Away With Me!

Song of Solomon 2:8-13

I would like to turn our attention this morning to our Old Testament lesson which comes from a portion of Holy Scripture that is unfortunately sadly neglected, The Song of Solomon also known as the Song of Songs. It really doesn’t come up too often in our lectionary cycle, but one place in which we do often hear from the Song of Songs is in the readings for weddings. The reason for that is because it is a love song, or rather a cycle of love songs, which celebrates the beauty of creation and the love between man and woman as the crowning glory of that creation.

 On the surface, the book doesn’t seem all that religious. In fact there is no overt reference to God, ritual, or theology anywhere in this book! Instead we get a series of very sensual and frankly erotic poems. There is a reason why we don’t see many Sunday school curriculum on this part of scripture. In fact it doesn’t seem like the type of thing good Church people should be reading at all!

For this reason people might be surprised to know that the Early Church Fathers wrote more commentaries on this book, than any other book in Holy Scripture! It wasn’t always as neglected as it is today! The reason for that is because they saw it as an allegory of the love of Christ for the Church.

Throughout the centuries scholars have debated on whether the Song was meant to be interpreted as religious symbolism or as a literal hymn to sexual love, but I’m not so sure the two are mutually exclusive. There is a reason that sacred poetry and romantic poetry are often so difficult to distinguish from one another.

We might divide the world into the secular and religious, the sacred and the profane, but the Bible isn’t so black and white. All creation declares the glory of God and as God’s image-bearers the love of man and woman is especially charged with religious significance. In fact, in Saint Paul’s instruction to married couples in Ephesians 5 he writes, “This mystery is profound, but I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” 

So what religious significance should we take from this reading?
The first comes from a straight forward literal readings of the text. God has filled the world with beauty. He gives us winter and rain, but he also gives us spring to renew our joy. He has populated the forest with flowers of dazzling colors and intoxicating fragrance, majestic woodland creatures, and the songs of birds. Along with all these lovely gifts he also made us delightful to one another. Romantic love has the power to elevate the human heart and dispel the clouds of gloom and sorrow. It calls us out of our isolation into the wider world.

There is yet more to be gleamed form this text when we look at it through the mystery of Christ’s love for the Church, God’s passion for us.

The young woman hears the voice of her beloved calling to her from a distance. There is a contrast between where she is and where he is. She is cloistered away in her room, but he calls to her from the wildness and freedom of the outdoors. There is a wall that separates them.

Each of us are prisoners of sin, closed in by the walls of self, banished from the garden. Our disobedience has brought about the long age of winter. Think about C.S. Lewis’ Narnia under the spell of the White Witch, where it is always winter but never Christmas! Christ has come at long last to deliver us.

She likens her beloved to a wild gazelle leaping over the hills. See how eager Christ is to be with us! How he runs to meet us! How easily he over comes every obstacle to be with us. Saint Ambrose comments on this passage,

"Let us see him leaping; he leaped out of heaven into the virgin’s womb, out of the womb into the manger, out of the manger into Jordan, out of Jordan to the cross, from the cross into the tomb, out of the grave into heaven.''

Through his death, resurrection and ascension Christ has made all things new. He calls to us, he woos us, pleads with us to come to him. His voice is the message of the Gospel that calls to us to come out into the freedom of God’s new creation and to Christ our bridegroom. 

Inside the prison of sin and self it is cold and grey, but with Christ there is new life and abounding joy.  “The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.”

He stands behind her wall under her window and calls to her. She longs to be with him but she is also afraid. At another point the man compares his beloved to a dove hid among the clefts of the rocks. She is like a frightened bird hiding in the cliff afraid to leave but shyly waiting in her seclusion. He will not break in by force, because it is not plunder that he wants but love. She must willingly open up to him.

Similarly Christ calls to us, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” (Rev. 3:20)

Many will know the famous Victorian era painting by William Holman Hunt called “The Light of the World.” In it he depicts Christ visiting a home in the middle of the night holding a lamp and knocking. The door is shut and secured, overgrown with vines. If you look closely you will notice that there isn’t even a door knob on the outside of the entrance! As the artist was fond of explaining, this was entirely intentional. The door knob is on the inside. He is waiting for us to open the door and let him in. The choice must be ours.

Have you heard the voice of your beloved calling to you? Have you felt the lure of the divine romance? What is it that keeps you from opening the door to him? What is holding you back from running down the stairway to be with him?
Perhaps you are afraid to leave the security of your cell. You have been locked up there so long that you have begun to take comfort in it. Perhaps your sorrow has been so all consuming that you aren’t sure who you would be apart from it. 

Maybe you fear the unknown. Sure, you might be a slave in Egypt but at least they have fleshpots! Can God lay a table in the wilderness?  Your situation may not be ideal, but at least it’s familiar. Change is terrifying! 

Perhaps you are afraid of scandal. Christ is not socially acceptable. He doesn’t fit in to your sophisticated social circle. He is primitive, a rustic shepherd from the wilderness. What will my family think? What if my friends don’t approve? Do I really want to make a spectacle of myself like a love-sick teenager? 

It could be that you are afraid of being hurt or disappointed. You’ve been burned before and now you have become cautious. What if he is controlling? What if I can’t trust his promises? What if by choosing him I miss out on the opportunity to find happiness somewhere else?

 C.S. Lewis wrote, 

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

Love is always a risk. To accept the invitation of Christ means to step out in faith. Will you trust his promises? Can you accept his love? He gives you his heart. Will you give him yours?