Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Day of Judgement

The speaker at our diocesan priest retreat this year, Fleming Rutledge, told a story of a venerable old New England clergyman who had a significantly modernist sensibility. He was asked to officiate at the wedding of his grand daughter and her fiancĂ©. As he was going over the service with them—which was to be celebrated from the 1928 prayer book—he came to the part in the service in which the priest addresses the couple with the words,

“I require and charge you both, as ye will answer at the dreadful day of judgment when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed, that if either of you know any impediment, why ye may not be lawfully joined together in Matrimony, ye do now confess it.”

He paused and remarked, “Maybe we ought to just leave that part out…”

His granddaughter objected, “Oh but Grand-pa-pa, I love the dreadful Day of Judgment!”

Our gospel lesson this morning, for Christ the King Sunday, is the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. It is all about the Day of Judgment when the Son of Man comes in his glory, with all the angels with him, and when he sits on the throne of his glory while all the nations of the world are gathered before him.

I think that many of us these days are a lot like that old clergyman. When it comes to the Day of Judgment, we prefer to just leave it out. It seems harsh and punitive and we prefer instead to focus on the kindness and love of God. I would like to suggest, however, that the Day of Judgment is an essential element to understanding God’s love and mercy. It may be dreadful, but it is good news for those who love justice and righteousness. There is good reason why we should—like the young bride in the story—love the dreadful Day of Judgment. Allow me to suggest three.

First, on the Day of Judgment Christ will return to reign as the true King of Kings and all tyrants and abusers of power will be dethroned and judged. Our Old Testament reading comes from the 34th chapter of Ezekiel in which the prophet pronounces judgment on the wicked shepherds of Israel, the corrupt rulers who have abused his flock and failed to lead them with justice. Ezekiel promises that God himself will seek out and save his people from the wicked shepherds and that he will set up a true king from the house of David who will be a good shepherd to his people.
Christ is the fulfillment of that promise. He will gather his people who have been scattered throughout the world; he will bind up their wounds, and restore them to health. He will lead them into peaceful, quiet, pastures of plenty.

We should love the Day of Judgment because on that day God will at last become king on earth as he is in heaven.

Second, we should love the Day of Judgment because on that day God will cast out evil once and for all. As it is, evil exists side by side with the good. The presence of evil is blight on God’s good creation.

On the last day Christ is depicted as a shepherd who separates the sheep from the goats. This is true not only in our Gospel lesson but in the reading from Ezekiel as well which says, “I will judge between sheep and sheep.”

In those days it wasn’t always easy to distinguish the sheep from the goats. Today, after generations of breeding, sheep are easily recognized by their thick fluffy wool but In Biblical times the two would have been nearly identical in appearance. This is still the case in certain parts of Asia and Africa. So what is the difference between them?

Sheep hear and obey the voice of their shepherd, but goats go their own way. They refuse to be led and often disrupt the peace of the flock. They will often push and ram the sheep with their horns.

The comparison is clear. The sheep are those who submit to God’s rule, who hear and obey his voice. The goats are those who refuse the will of God and go their own way. At the last Judgment, God will separate those who are evil from those who are good. The evil will no more trouble the good.

Elsewhere a similar image is used of a harvester who winnows the grain separating the wheat from the chaff. The chaff is swept up and thrown into the fire.

There is a sense, however, in which there is a bit of goat in all of us. Each of us are a mixture of both wheat and chaff. At the last judgment, that which is evil in us will be named and judged. The prospect is indeed dreadful but it is ultimately for our good. We will finally be purged of the sinful propensities that plague us in this life.

Saint Paul puts it this way, “each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done… If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.”

If we love what is good, we will look with joy for the day when what is evil is separated and destroyed.

Finally, we should love the Day of Judgment because we have confidence in the mercy and goodness of the judge.

Question 52 of the Heidelberg Catechism asks: ‘What comfort is it to you that Christ “shall come to judge the living and the dead”?

The reply is a beautiful summary of our Christian hope:

That in all my sorrows and persecutions, I, with uplifted head, look for the very One, who will come from heaven as the Judge, the same, who before offered Himself for me to the judgment of God, and removed all curse from me.

Who would you rather have your judge on the last day? Your peers? The media? Would you stand under that judgement? Could you even stand under the judgement of your own standards? None of these are as merciful a judge as our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Day of Judgment is not terrifying for the Christian because we believe that the one to whom we must give an account is the merciful and gracious savior of the world, the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the very one who loved us while we were yet sinners and who bore the penalty for our sins in his own flesh on the cross.

By faith we know that we are justified before God on account of the merits of Christ. What fear can we have of judgment seeing as there is no condemnation in Christ?

On the last day everyone will be judged according to the deeds done in this life. That should be sobering to us. The basis of our acquittal or rejection however ultimately rests on how we respond to Christ. Have we welcomed him or turned him away?

Jesus Christ died to purchase salvation for every person. The grace of God has appeared to everyone. He comes to every human heart with the opportunity to receive him with joy, to serve him or to reject him.
Notice that God’s judgment is not a theology exam. It is not ultimately about what we know or accept on an intellectual level, but about our openness to divine grace.

In the parable there are some among the righteous who seem unaware that the one they have served is Christ. They say, “When did we see you hungry and feed you or thirsty and give you drink?” What they have done for the least of God’s messengers they have done for him. They did not fail to regard him when he came to them unaware.

There is a day that God has appointed in which Christ will judge the world in righteousness, but the judgment begins now. If we open our hearts to receive his grace, confessing our unworthiness, we can be assured of his verdict of mercy. By faith we can stand justified before God today.

Brothers and sisters, “I love the dreadful Day of Judgment!

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

What is a Saint?

Revelation 7:9-17
Psalm 34:1-10, 221
John 3:1-3
Matthew 5:1-12

Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints but what exactly is a saint anyway?

The word we derive the name “saint” from means, “set apart, sacred, and holy.” The saints are the “holy ones” or those who are set apart or elect from the entire world. In the broadest sense, a saint is anyone who has been set apart and called by God through baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In that sense “saint” is just another name for a Christian. We are all holy and set apart by God, we are all justified and accounted righteous by faith, and we all are sanctified by the Holy Spirit dwelling inside of us. This is why Paul in his Epistles can address those he is writing to simply as “saints.”

Were they all perfect examples of holiness and piety? No way! Paul and the other Apostles often have to severely admonish them. It is the imputed righteousness of Christ that makes them holy. They are still working out their salvation with fear and trembling, and yet, by faith, they are already justified before God. They are already proclaimed to be what they are in the process of becoming. As our reading from 1 John says,

“Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.”

However, these days, the more common use of the name “saint” refers to an individual who has attained an exceptional level of sanctification, whose life is an example of holiness that we can follow with confidence and who now dwells in the presence of God. These are those the scriptures refer to as, “the saints in light.” We “saints” on earth aspire to their example. We are being strengthened and equipped that we might share in their glorious inheritance. 

These are the ones we read about in our reading from Revelation, standing before the throne of God, robed in white with palm branches in their hands, symbols of victory. They are those who have come out of the great ordeal and have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb. They are the Martyrs who have given their lives for their testimony.

John’s Revelation was given to the church in a time of intense persecution and conflict. This vision was meant to inspire and encourage the saints on earth who were suffering. John is describing for them those who have persevered through the struggle who are now exalted in God’s presence.

Likewise, the author of Hebrews encourages us to endure hardship and to, “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”  He tells us that we are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses.”

The pursuit of holiness, through which God calls us to be saints, is like a great race or athletic contest. The saints in light, the white robed army of martyrs, are those who have crossed the finish line and are cheering us on from the other side. Their eyes are upon us, they pray and intercede for us as our allies in the struggle for truth and justice.

Someone recently asked me, “If the saints can see us, do they see our pain and hurt? And if so, does that bring pain and suffering to them?”

That is a great question! My first thought is that the saints do indeed grieve over suffering and wrong on Earth. For Instance Rev 6 depicts the martyrs as crying out to God for justice,

They called out in a loud voice, "How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?"

The clear implication from John’s vision is that the saints do indeed see and grieve over our struggles here on earth. In particular they grieve over the delay of justice for the oppressed. Could they be truly good if they didn’t?

It sometimes is suggested that the Saints in heaven are too busy glorifying God and enjoying his presence to be concerned with us or our affairs on earth.  I don’t think this is correct. The heaven they enjoy is not escapism and endless fun. That is Disneyland! We shouldn’t picture the Saints as lounging about in some epicurean paradise far removed from the miseries of the world.

Does our love of God make us more or less concerned about the evils of the world? If in this world holiness means a growing passion to see the righteousness of God established here on earth, how could it be any different for the Saints in light?

Do not the scriptures tell us that God also grieves over the wickedness of the world? That his wrath is kindled against sin? That he mourns with those who mourn? Why should we expect any less of the saints?

And yet they never despair because they are in the presence of God. He is their comfort and endless consolation. He wipes away every tear from their eyes. The saints have an unconquerable hope and joy in God’s final victory. However, they are restless for its fulfillment. Their joy will not be complete until all of us are gathered in, all evil made right, and the New Heavens and the New Earth established.
In Revelation Chapter 19, John describes the fall of Babylon, the overthrow of evil in the world. Where are the Saints? Are they off playing harps on a cloud someplace? No! They are watching and rejoicing because their hopes are being realized. John says,

I heard what sounded like the roar of a great multitude in heaven shouting:“Hallelujah!Salvation and glory and power belong to our God,   for true and just are his judgments.He has condemned the great prostitute    who corrupted the earth by her adulteries.He has avenged on her the blood of his servants.”

What should we conclude from this? True holiness does not take us out from the world, but it turns our hearts to its good and its redemption. The salvation of the world is the passion of the saints because it is the passion of God and his Son Jesus Christ. It should be our passion too.

What is a Saint? A Saint is someone who is called out by God, made holy, and empowered to be an advocate for love and justice in the world, to intercede and pray for the coming of God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in Heaven. 

Saturday, November 4, 2017

The Assurance of Immortality: A Sermon for All Souls Day

On March 31, 1848 in Hydesville New York,  two sisters, Kate and Margaret Fox, reported that they had made contact with the spirit of someone long departed. This spirit was said to be able to communicate with the sisters through rapping noises or knocking sounds that were audible to anyone present. The two sisters soon became a sensation, being taken in by a Quaker couple named Amy and IsaacPosts who took the sisters on tour to cities like Rochester, Schenectady, Troy, Albany, and of course New York City.

In 1888 the Fox sisters admitted that their communication with the dead was all a hoax. They later, however, recanted their recantation! Despite this blow to their credibility, the cat was already out of the bag and all over the United States and Europe the curious were attending séances and consulting spirit mediums.

Historians often mark this as the beginning of the modern religious movement called, “Spiritualism” which is characterized by the belief that the spirits of the dead have both the ability and the desire to communicate with the living.

The source of the popularity of such beliefs seems to be an anxiousness about death and an eagerness to confirm, through practical experience, that their really is a life after death. Even in recent times books like, “Heaven is for Real” about a young boy’s near death experience and journey to Heaven, sell millions of copies. We want some assurance that our departed loved ones are in a better place. We want assurance that this world is not all that there is. We want to believe the soul survives death.

It is no accident that Spiritualism began to flourish during a time when confidence in the existence of God and a spiritual dimension to life was being challenged by advances in the natural sciences. Confidence in the established church was also declining and so people began to search desperately for some kind of comfort from other sources.

Christianity has always strongly discouraged the use of mediums or occult techniques to contact the dead, but we have at least this is common with spiritualism: we believe that there is more to life than meets the eye and that there is a life beyond death. A strong attraction for Christianity has always been the hope of eternal life and victory over death through Jesus Christ.

When we commit our loved ones to the grave we do so, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, “In the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life.”

We also have this is common with the spiritualist; we believe that human beings, by the grace of God, have been endowed with an immoral soul. This is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because of the possibility of fellowship with God in eternity, but it also means that our choices have eternal consequences.  C.S. Lewis, as always, puts it very eloquently:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.
All day long, we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealing with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.”

For those of us who are grieving the loss of loved ones, the immortality of the soul has further implications. It means that the core of the person we loved, the part of them that makes them who they are, has survived their death.

As our reading from the Book of Wisdom says,

 “The souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them.  They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead; and their passing away was thought an affliction and their going forth from us, utter destruction.  But they are in peace.”

But what of the spiritualist notion that spirits continue to evolve and advance beyond death? Does this belief have anything in common with the Christian faith? Many believe that at death the tree lies where it fell as it were. This life is the time God has given for us to know and love him and to advance in his grace.

But how many of us die in a perfect state of sanctification? Surely there is much more we should expect from the grace of God. What also should we make of the church’s long practice of prayers for the departed?

We offer our prayers, and present before God the atoning death of his son Jesus Christ in the holy sacrifice of the mass, that he might receive them more and more into the presence of his light and his love. We ask that everything that is impure or unholy in them might be purged by his fire and washed in the blood of the cross.

We trust that the good work that God began in them in this life might be brought to completion on the Day of Jesus Christ.

There are cultural constraints, physical weaknesses, and psychological temperaments that impede our progress in this life, but at the dividing of soul from body these will be no more. Yet I have little doubt that there will be a moral and spiritual learning process that most of us will undergo when the veil and entanglements of this world are lifted. It stands to reason that we may need to learn to walk in that world just as we needed to learn to walk in this one. Our prayers are meant to assist those we love in that growth.

Even after our death we continue to press forward to the upward call of God in Jesus Christ. It is not merely the immortality of the soul that is the bedrock of Christian hope, but the resurrection of the dead. We long to be further clothed in glory.

Those who are looking for a firm and practical confirmation of the reality of God and the hope of life beyond death should cling to this practical assurance, Christ is risen! His tomb is empty and the stone is rolled away!

The amazing truth of the resurrection as a historical event provides much more solid assurance than any spirit rappings. The testimony of the apostles, saints, and martyrs is more trustworthy than any sisters from New York or any spirit medium. The hope and assurance the spiritualist longs for is found only in Jesus Christ.

Saint Paul declares, 

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.”

We can be confident that although we are separated by death, we remain spiritually connected in the undivided body of Christ. The saints on earth and the saints in heaven are one body and one fellowship. We will stand with them in the resurrection of the body on the last day.

I leave you with the beautiful words of the catholic theologian Karl Rahner,

The great and sad mistake of many to imagine that those whom death has taken, leave us.  They do not leave us.  They remain!  Where are they?  In the darkness?  Oh, no!  It is we who are in darkness.  We do not see them, but they see us.  Their eyes, radiant with glory, are fixed upon our eyes...Oh, infinite consolation!  Though invisible to us, our dead are not absent...They are living near us, transfigured...into light, into power, into love.

May the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercies of God, rest in peace.