“The Front Lines” (May 16, 2015; The Ordination of Peter Nathaniel Johnston to the Sacred Order of Deacons–The Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Lafayette, Louisiana)

“For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.”—II Corinthians 4.5[1]

To the Right Reverend Jacob Owensby, Reverend Father in God, Bishop of the Church in Western Louisiana; the Reverend Joseph Daly, Rector of the Episcopal Church of the Ascension, and the Reverend Dr. Duane Peterson, Associate Rector; all my brother and sister clergy; the Ordinand and his family; all the Christian faithful gathered, greetings in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

On an October evening in 2011, my New York mentor, Father Andrew Mead, then Rector of Saint Thomas Church (Fifth Avenue), invited myself and a member of the parish staff to the Saint Thomas Rectory on Park Avenue for a chili dinner (being that his wife, Nancy, was out of town and he wanted to have some company to hang out with). While my fellow invitee drove his car through the maddening Manhattan traffic, Father Mead and I walked the several blocks that lay between Saint Thomas Church and the Rectory, giving us an opportunity to talk, mentor to mentee. As we began walking, Father Mead asked me a Commission on Ministry-type question: “Brandt, what is it that you feel called to do as a Priest?” I had a mapped-out vocational plan: “After finishing my required two-year curacy in Alabama, I’m going to go back to graduate school, get a Ph.D. in American religious history, then, hopefully, teach at a seminary or in a college/university theology or religious studies department.” “What about the parish?” Father Mead inquired. “It’s not that I have anything against parish ministry,” I said defensively, “but I just feel this strong call to live out my vocation as a Scholar-Priest.” “But many great Scholar-Priests also serve in parishes, Brandt,” replied Father Mead. “Parish ministry is important. It keeps you grounded and in touch with reality, with what’s going on with the people in the pews. It’s important that you be on the front lines with your fellow Priests. Never forget the front lines!”

This was the first of several “Meadiums” that I would learn from my now elder colleague and, needless to say, it was an important one. In a nutshell, what Father Mead was telling me was that “it’s not about you!” Although I failed to then realize it, looking back on that walk now almost four years ago, I admit and acknowledge that, subconsciously, I was trying to make it about me. The lecture room and the halls of academia were great loves of mine and it was there that I wanted to make my mark. I wanted to make scholarly contributions to the studies of African-American, American religious, and Anglo-Catholic history. I wanted to be a theologian and scholar on the same level as the Chadwick Brothers[2] and John Hope Franklin[3] and one of the leading Priest-Scholars of my time. But even though Father Mead did not dismiss the contributions of ordained academics to the Church’s life and witness, what he was making me realize was that many of them, like the Chadwick Brothers, Charles Gore[4], Austin Farrer[5], and Michael Ramsey[6], in addition to their academic vocations, were also deeply involved in parish and pastoral ministry. They did not hide behind the comforts and safety of a lecture stand; they were on the front lines preaching about Jesus and Him crucified, died, buried, and risen. For them, it was all about Jesus; everything they wrote, taught, and published all came from a deep love for Jesus, lived out by active ministry amongst and for God’s people and without that, all that they did would not have been as impactful as it was. The crucial lesson that I learned from Father Mead that October night was that if I enter into ordination with it being about me and not about Jesus, just to be well known and not willing to engage in the real work of ministry, then I will be setting myself up for failure. “…Do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”[7] It was a lesson that I needed to learn and thanks be to God that I did.

This past Tuesday, the Pew Research Center released a report that stated that although Christianity still dominates American religious identity by 70%, a large number of people have been exiting the doors of Christian denominations and doing away with Christianity altogether. It was also reported that while 86% of Americans say they grew up as Christians, nearly one out of five of them said that they weren’t anymore.[8] One of the reasons I believe this is is due to an “it’s about me” perception that is oftentimes conveyed within certain expressions of the larger Church. It is a perception that has led to many thinking of the Church as being too political, intolerant of those wrestling with deep spiritual issues and doubt, more wrapped up around the personality and prestige of the senior pastor, and just a once-a-week “stage show.” What these non-active and former Christians want is an authentic proclamation of the Gospel, to hear about Jesus and know that He is someone who truly cares and when met with this off-putting perception, it causes them to think, “Well, if this is what being a Christian is about, then I don’t want to have anything to do with it.” The Church—the universal Body of Christ—is called to confess the faith of Christ crucified, died, buried, and risen, bearing witness to Him in all the places it is. “And whatever you do,” Paul says, “in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”[9]

At the time of the writing of his second letter to the Corinthian Church, Paul was finding himself having to deal with the “it’s about me” perception. Some in Corinth were charging Paul with being haughty, puffed up on his own ego, and only concerned about his own personal gain. Having these charges made against him poised a potential hindrance to the spread of the Gospel and, in typical Pauline fashion, Paul wastes no time in setting the record straight. First off, it should be remembered that Paul was always honest and forthcoming about the life he lived prior to his conversion: “I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women, as the high priest and the whole council of elders bear me witness.”[10] From the get go, Paul owned his past, that he was, at one time, “a persecutor of the [C]hurch, as to righteousness under the law blameless.”[11] But what Paul also made clear was that he had been humbled, that because of Jesus he “…renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways…refuse[d] to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word…”[12] Paul answered the Corinthian charges by making it absolutely clear that what he was preaching was not himself, but the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul did not and could not preach himself, for it is only Jesus, God Incarnate, who can redeem and renew. He was a preacher who looked to Christ for help and was on the front lines for Him since his conversion. For Paul, it was all about Jesus and knowing that the Gospel he was preaching was Jesus’ Gospel and not his. Like Jesus, all that Paul did in ministry to God’s people was done “…not to be served but to serve…”[13]

Just as it was important for the Apostles and other Christian expositors during the New Testament times, it is equally important, in this day and age, that those within the Church called to ordained ministry remember that it is Jesus whom they are charged to preach and not themselves. “And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ…”[14]   The ordained vocation was not instituted for the purpose of allowing one to show themselves off, making it all about them, but, rather, for the revealing of the glory of Jesus Christ, being on the front lines for Him and proclaiming His Gospel. Everything that the Church’s clergy—Deacons, Priests, and Bishops—do should be done with the aim “…to make Christ and his redemptive love known, by…word and example, to those whom [they] live, and work, and worship.”[15] For the ministry of the ordained to be successful, they must be all in, totally committed to Jesus. When they are all in for Jesus, the people will take notice. When the people take notice, their hearts will become more open to the Gospel, allowing the Holy Spirit to lead them to Jesus, the very Splendor of Truth. But, again, the only way that any of this can happen is for the ordained leadership of the Church to remember this crucial point: “It’s not about me. It’s about Jesus!”

This morning, as a faithful gathering of Christians, we have gathered together to offer to God our thanks and prayers for Peter, who will momentarily make the transition from being a layman to a duly ordained clergyman of Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. After having been nourished by the riches of Christ’s grace and strengthened to glorify Christ in his own life as a member of the flock, Peter is, today, being called forth by God and with the affirmation of the people from the flock to offer ministry to and be a leader of the flock. As Peter becomes ontologically changed by the invocation of the Holy Ghost, it is important that he remember that it is not about him but about Jesus so that the gifts that he brings to the ordained vocation can be effectively used to equip God’s people for the work of ministry and for the reception of the Gospel by those who seek and want to be found by God. From this day forward, together with our Bishop and all the clergy, Peter will be on the front lines for Jesus, preaching not himself, but Jesus Christ as Lord, being a servant to the people for the sake and greater glory of Jesus.

Peter, my friend, you have oftentimes heard me refer to you as “the little brother that I never had.” So out of the deep respect that I have for you and in these last remaining moments of your lay life, I would like to offer four pieces of big brotherly advice:

  1. Always remember your Diaconal vows. Today, you are being ordained as a Deacon, the order of ministry particularly charged to be of service to the poor, the sick, the friendless, and the needy. Although your primary vocation will soon be as a Priest, I encourage you to never forget nor disregard your Diaconal vows, for you will find some overlap between the duties assigned to each respective order. As a Deacon, you will today promise “to serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely.”[16] At the time of your ordination as a Priest, you will promise “to love and serve the people among whom you work, caring alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor.”[17] As a Deacon, you will be particularly charged to serve the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely, but as a Priest, you will be called to serve the people among whom you work, which will include the particulars mentioned in the Bishop’s Diaconal charge. Furthermore, at their consecrations, Bishops promise “…to be in all things a faithful pastor and wholesome example for the entire flock of Christ,”[18] which encompasses all of the particulars served by the Diaconate and all of the people among whom you work of the Priesthood. So I encourage you to always remember and value your Diaconal vows, appreciating the fact that the Diaconate is the one order in which all the Church’s clergy share, aspects of which can be found in the other two. Although your primary vocation will soon be as a Priest and you may, possibly, even become a Bishop one day, always remember that at the core of your sacramental ministry, you are and will forever remain a Deacon.
  1. As my preaching professor at General Seminary told me, I say to you, “Keep your Jesus count high!” As a lover of the Church’s great hymns, you may be familiar with this mid-19th century hymn by Frederick Whitfield: “There is a Name I love to hear, I love to sing it’s worth; it sounds like music in my ear, the sweetest Name on Earth. O how I love Jesus, O how I love Jesus, O how I love Jesus, because He first loved me.”[19] Jesus—Yeshua, “God Saves”—truly the sweetest Name ever to hear. This is who those non-active and former Christians are searching for, who the active Christian community seeks to proclaim, and who is calling you to service in the ordained vocation. Therefore, never be ashamed to speak the Name of Jesus. Preach boldly about Jesus, proclaiming to your people His Good News. To paraphrase Paul, “Be a fool for Christ!”[20] Your preaching will be the most striking and public of all your clerical functions[21] and will play a crucial role in how one perceives Jesus, whether it is actually worth it to pick up their cross and follow Him. Therefore, always remain faithful to the Message. Proclaim the Gospel with boldness and joy. In the pulpit here at the Church of the Ascension, at daily chapel, Eucharist, and in your classroom out at Ascension Episcopal School—Sugar Mill Pond Campus, at all the places you go and in all the things you do, keep your Jesus count high! Preach Jesus!
  1. Love your people. To quote Lifeway Christian Resources President and CEO Thom Rainer, “If we know that our pastor loves us, everything else falls into place. If he doesn’t, nothing else matters.”[22] Remember what John says, “…Whoever loves God must love others also.”[23] Love your people and Jesus will do the rest.
  1. And, most importantly, always remember that it is not about you! Not only will you be entering a new vocation within the Church, but with that will come a new style—“the Reverend.” Coming from the Latin reverendus, meaning “honored” or “esteemed,” it is an honorific that conveys the respect and esteem that the Christian faithful have for you and upon which the community “orders” you to function among them as an ordained leader. From this day forward, may every time you see “the Reverend” before your name and are addressed with a title of the ordained vocation remind you of the trust that the people of God have in you and of the sacred responsibility that will be placed upon you this day. May it remind you that you are on the front lines for Jesus and that as God’s people look to you as a leader among them, may you, in turn, give to them that which you have received, that Christ Jesus died for our sins, that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day.[24] “…Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness…eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”[25] Don’t ever make it about you. Do it all for Jesus!

As you begin this new adventure, may you abide in peace, loving and serving the Lord!

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

[1] All Scripture quotations contained herein are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Old Testament Section, Copyright 1952; New Testament Section, First Edition, Copyright 1946; Second Edition © 1971 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

[2] William Owen (May 20, 1916) and Henry (June 23, 1920-June 17, 2008), both highly distinguished Church of England Priests and ecclesiastical historical scholars.

[3] (January 2, 1915-March 25, 2009); author of From Slavery to Freedom (first published in 1947 and regularly updated), the authoritative scholarly text on African-American history.

[4] (January 22, 1853-January 17, 1932); early 20th century Church of England Bishop and leading theologian on the Doctrine of the Incarnation.

[5] (October 1, 1904-December 29, 1968); Church of England Priest and theologian credited with bringing to Christian theology the notion of “double agency,” the idea that one’s actions are their own, but are also the work of God, though perfectly hidden.

[6] (November 14, 1904-April 23, 1988); Church of England Bishop who served as the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury from 1961-1974 and was a leading Anglo-Catholic theologian.

[7] Proverbs 3.5b-6

[8] Grossman, Cathy Lynn. “Christians Drop, ‘Nones’ Soar In New Religion Portrait,” USA Today (http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/05/12/christians-drop-nones-soar-in-new-religion-portrait/27159533/), accessed May 13, 2015.

[9] Colossians 3.17

[10] Acts 22.4-5

[11] Philippians 3.6

[12] II Corinthians 4.2

[13] Mark 10.45

[14] Ephesians 4.11-13

[15] “Ordination of a Deacon,” The Book of Common Prayer (1979), p. 543.

[16] Ibid.

[17] “The Ordination of a Priest,” The Book of Common Prayer (1979), p. 531.

[18] “The Ordination of a Bishop,” The Book of Common Prayer (1979), p. 517.

[19] “O How I Love Jesus,” 19th century American melody, written by Frederick Whitfield (1855).

[20] I Corinthians 4.10

[21] Long, Thomas G. The Witness of Preaching (Second Edition) (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), p. 11.

[22] Rainer, Thom S. “Ten Things Church Members Desire In a Pastor” (http://thomrainer.com/2013/01/14/ten-things-church-members-desire-in-a-pastor/), accessed May 15, 2015.

[23] I John 4.21 (Good News Translation)

[24] I Corinthians 15.3-4

[25] Ephesians 4.1-3

“Sibling Rivalry” (February 25, 2015; Ascension Episcopal School–Sugar Mill Pond Campus, Youngsville, Louisiana)

For the Spring 2015 semester, during daily chapels at the Sugar Mill Pond Campus of Ascension Episcopal School in Youngsville, Louisiana, there will be a special sermon series on the Gospel According to Saint Mark.  Below is the fourth of the several sermons I have been assigned to preach as part of the series.

“…If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”—Mark 9.35[1]

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.

When I was either six or seven, I remember traveling with my father, stepmother, and some of my half/stepsiblings on a family vacation to my father’s hometown of Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. It was while driving through (I think) West Virginia in the family’s red Chevrolet Astro van in which my youngest stepsister, two years older than me, and I starting arguing about something. Although I do not remember what it was that we were arguing about, what I do remember is that I got so upset with my stepsister that I called her a not-so-pleasant term. Immediately upon hearing this, my father shouted out, “BRANDT! What did you just say?” I was silent, fearing that corporal punishment was about to come. “HUH?” my father said, with me still silent as a stone and remaining so for the remainder of that day’s journey.

When we later arrived at my Aunt Norma and Uncle Harold’s house in Beaver Falls, I remember my father and I, for a brief moment, looking at each other. During this moment, I remember thinking, “This is it. I’m about to get it,” bracing myself for what was about to come. But my father, while looking at me, probably picked up, from the mixed expression of guilt and terror on my face, that I realized my error and got the assurance that I would never call my stepsister (or anybody else, for that matter) the term that I did ever again. As the moment ended, my father left and went to another part of the house. It was a gift of grace that I was thankful to receive.

Today’s Gospel begins with Jesus asking the Apostles a question: “What were you discussing on the way?” Jesus asked this question because while He and the Apostles were making their way toward Capernaum, the Apostles were talking with each other about who amongst them was the greatest. Through their silence, the Apostles convey their embarrassment about the situation. Despite their silence, Jesus knows exactly what it was the Apostles were discussing and uses the situation as a teachable moment. He offers two specific lessons: “If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” and “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”

The major issue at the forefront is the question of precedence and rank and Jesus addresses it in two ways. First, He challenges the day’s perception of what it meant to be great by stating that the one who serves is the one who is first. What we hear Jesus say in verse 35 is a reaffirmation of something that He previously said in chapter 8: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”[2] To the Philippians, Saint Paul says, “…Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped…emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”[3] Jesus, the human form of God, willingly took on the role of a servant and through His suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension, served all. Because of His offering Himself in service to all, humanity’s redemption and reconciliation with God the Father was achieved. Therefore, because of what Christ has done, those who profess themselves to be Jesus’ followers are called to be servants of all in accordance with His example. This is how it is to be for the Apostles. Through His teaching, Jesus instructs the Apostles that if they each want to be the first and greatest, then they are to love and serve their neighbor, putting away their selfish ambition and need for recognition. Love of and service to neighbor is the mark of true greatness.

Jesus illustrates his first point by taking a small child and putting him in the midst of the Apostles. The child represents the call that Jesus makes to the Apostles and to all who follow Him to give of themselves to those that are the least among them, who have the low statuses of society. The followers of Jesus are not to be pretentious or self-involved. Whoever loves and serves others, Jesus says, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me. All who love and serve their neighbor in obedience to Christ’s will experience the richness of fellowship with both God the Father and God the Son, Jesus Christ.

In our own day, we have seen and continue to see the negative effects caused by others’ need for glory and laudable recognition. Everyday, either on the internet, local and inter/national news channels, or in local and inter/national newspapers, there seems to always be, at least, one story highlighting a circumstance brought about by the personal ego and need for high status, privilege, and power of someone or a group of people, determined to get ahead at whatever costs necessary. Although these actions temporarily benefit him/her/those doing them, they end up hurting significantly more people throughout the process. This is what we hear from today’s epistle from Saint James: For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.”[4] This is what the constant fixation on precedence and rank leads to—a total disregard for the feelings, concerns, and needs of others. It leads to ill will, anger, and the potentiality of causing harm, either emotionally, physically, or both.

This is why Jesus is insistent about true greatness being achieved through sincere love and service to others. In his first epistle, Saint John the Apostles says, “…He who loves God should also love his brother also.”[5] Jesus Himself says in Saint Matthew’s Gospel, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”[6] As Christians, our actions carry a significant weight within the world. When we love and serve our neighbor, we love and serve God. “God is love, Saint John declares, “and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” [7]

Once again, what we have just heard through sacred Scripture reflects well the first line of our school’s mission statement: “Ascension Episcopal School is committed to academic excellence in a Christian environment.” All of us here, in this place, have the opportunity to do and live into those things that Christ commands and to be the people that He calls us to be. We have an opportunity to be examples of Christian love and service, doing our part to transform the world through the power of the Gospel. All of us have an opportunity and the chance to make a difference. Will you heed Jesus’ call? Will you love and serve others because of Jesus’ love for you? May the Lord, who gives us the opportunity and will to do these things, give us the grace and power to perform them. Amen.

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations contained herein are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Catholic Edition, Copyright © 1965, 1966 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

[2] Mark 8.34-35

[3] Philippians 2.4-8

[4] James 3.16

[5] I John 4.21

[6] Matthew 25.40

[7] I John 4.16

“The Collar” (January 21, 2015; Ascension Episcopal School–Sugar Mill Pond Campus, Youngsville, Louisiana)

For the Spring 2015 semester, during daily chapels at the Sugar Mill Pond Campus of Ascension Episcopal School in Youngsville, Louisiana, there will be a special sermon series on the Gospel According to Saint Mark.  Below is the second of the several sermons I have been assigned to preach as part of the series.

“Then Jesus went up on a hill and called some men to come to him.”—Mark 3.13[1]

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.

As the last semester was approaching its end, one of your classmates in one of the Credo courses made a remark about me wearing my collar almost every day, saying, “It’s intimidating.” The reason why I wear my collar is threefold: 1) it is a visible symbol of the sacred office I hold within the Church; 2) for the wider world, it is a visible representation of my Christian witness, through which I show that “I am not ashamed of the Good News, because it is the power God uses to save everyone who believes”;[2] and 3) for me, personally, this collar constantly reminds me that it is not about me, but about Jesus and that it is His Gospel that I have been called to preach. At my ordination as a Deacon, I made a public promise “to serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely.”[3] In my vocation as a Priest, I am called “to love and serve the people among whom [I] work, caring alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor.”[4] That is why I wear this collar. It reminds me of all that I have promised God and the People of His Church to do.

In today’s installment of our series on Saint Mark’s Gospel, we hear about Jesus’ calling of the Twelve Apostles and His description of who His true family is: “Those who do the things God wants.” But like we have done with several other series installments, in order for us to see the complete context of today’s installment, we must first go back and see what it is that comes before it. In the preceding pericope, Mark reports that “a large crowd from Galilee followed [Jesus]. Also many people from Judea, from Jerusalem, from Idumea, from the lands across the Jordan River, and from the area of Tyre and Sidon.”[5] From this description, we get a picture of the large crowd following Jesus encompassing a wide variety of people from Israel and its surrounding areas. Surely within this crowd were young people, old people, strong people, weak people, rich people, and poor people. For us, this large crowd on the mountain is an archetype of the Church, “the community of the New Testament, the People of God, the pillar and ground of truth.”[6] The crowd represents the mission that Christ came to fulfill—to free us from the power of sin, thereby restoring us to unity with God and each other.[7]

The description of the large crowd in verses 7 and 8 provides the contextual understanding for Jesus’ response to the people’s statement that “your mother and brothers are waiting for you outside.” Jesus says, “My true brother and sister and mother are those who do the things God wants.” All of us here, in this place, are children of God. When we surrender ourselves to God’s will, being completely obedient to Him, we become part of Jesus’ family. To do God’s will, which makes us part of Jesus’ family, binds all of us, His people, together into a fellowship that permits us to know Jesus and He us in a more deep, relational way.

We are all called to obey the will of God. We are the Church, the united community of Jesus in the world. What we are all called to do is to “go and make followers of all people in the world. Baptize them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Teach them to obey everything I have told you.”[8] But how is the Church equipped to carry out its mission? Our answer comes through Jesus’ calling of the Twelve Apostles. “He wanted these [Twelve] to be with him, and he wanted to send them to other places to preach.” Through the Twelve Apostles, we see the call that Jesus places upon some to engage in the work of equipping the larger Christian community for its missionary work. The Apostles were chosen to accompany Christ, to participate in His mission, and to receive a share in His authority as they, in turn, were sent out to preach and heal in His Name.[9] We see the continuance of the Apostles’ ministry today in the form of the ordained ministry, with Bishops as the direct inheritors of the Apostles’ ministry, called to build up the Church and guard its faith, unity, and discipline; Priests called to assist the Bishops in overseeing the Church’s work, pastoring the people, proclaiming the Gospel, administering the Sacraments, and blessing and declaring pardon to God’s people; and Deacons called to assist the Bishops and Priests in proclaiming God’s Word and administering the Sacraments to those on the fringes of society—the poor, the sick, the friendless, and the needy. All of us are called to follow Jesus; Bishops, Priests, and Deacons are called by Jesus to be the Church’s visible examples of engaging in active Christian discipleship and to equip the Church in doing so.

So we learn two things through today’s Mark installment. First, the Church is the family of Jesus on Earth, composed of every single person who calls upon and is baptized in His Name and does God’s will. Second, from within His family, Jesus calls some to a special ministry for the benefit of the greater number, so that all can be equipped in the work of restoring all people to unity with God and each other in Him.[10] This collar is a symbol of the promise I made to serve you, the young people, teachers, and administrators that I have been called to work amongst. As I seek to continue encouraging you to be the best that God knows each of you can be, I ask that you keep me, your chaplain and servant, in your prayers.

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Century Version®, Copyright ©1987, 1988 by Word Publishing.

[2] Romans 1.16

[3] “The Ordination of a Deacon,” The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David According to the Use of The Episcopal Church (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 543.

[4] “The Ordination of a Priest,” The Book of Common Prayer (1979), 531.

[5] Mark 3.7-8

[6] “An Outline of the Faith Commonly Called the Catechism,” The Book of Common Prayer (1979), 854.

[7] Ibid., 849, 855.

[8] Matthew 28.19-20

[9] Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York, New York: Doubleday, 1995), ¶551.

[10] “An Outline of the Faith Commonly Called the Catechism,” The Book of Common Prayer (1979), 855.

“Faith in Jesus, The Word of God” (January 26, 2015; Ascension Episcopal School–Sugar Mill Pond Campus, Youngsville, Louisiana)

For the Spring 2015 semester, during daily chapels at the Sugar Mill Pond Campus of Ascension Episcopal School in Youngsville, Louisiana, there is a special sermon series on the Gospel According to Saint Mark.  Below is the third of the several sermons I have been assigned to preach as part of the series.

“Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?”—Mark 4.40[1]

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This past Friday, for his senior chapel talk, Parker Guillot spoke on Mark 4.30-34, the Parable of the Mustard Seed. Jesus compared the Kingdom of God to that of the mustard seed’s growth, that “when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”[2] God’s Word, spoken through and manifested in the Person of Jesus, is the mustard seed, itself. When God’s Word is received and planted within the hearts of those who believe, it becomes, like the mustard seed, “the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches…” When this happens, the Kingdom of God becomes more real and felt both by and among God’s people on Earth. As Jesus Himself taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”[3]

From last week’s series installment describing faith in God’s Word being “like a grain of mustard seed,”[4] we see an immediate illustration by way of today’s Mark series installment, the story of Jesus calming a storm on the sea. In the story, Jesus and His disciples are in a boat on the sea. “The waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already filling.” The disciples are terrified. Jesus was in the boat’s stern sleeping. Fearing for their lives, they wake Jesus up, frantically shouting, “Do you not care that if we perish?” Jesus wakes up and immediately calms the storm: “Peace! Be still!” He then says to the disciples, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” The disciples are bewildered and amazed at what they have just seen, wondering who this Person is in front of them, being that Nature itself obeys His word.

Two things are being conveyed to us. First, the fact that the storm immediately subdues at Jesus’ command conveys that He is more than just a regular human being. In addition to His humanity, this story puts forth the truth of Jesus’ divinity. To both the disciples and us, Jesus is shown to be God in human flesh. He is the personal, living God who intervenes in the experience of men with a revelation of his power and His will.[5] As God, Jesus has dominion over the forces of nature, proven through His words “Peace! Be still!” to the wind and sea. Jesus’ words reflect back to what we hear in both Genesis and the Gospel According to Saint John: “And God said, ‘Let there be…’ And it was so”[6] and “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.”[7] Being that Jesus created the wind and the sea, it makes sense that He has the power to control them. This story connects with the mustard seed parable in that it shows the power of Jesus’ words and how they can subdue any sort of storm that may rage.

Second, Jesus’ questioning of the disciples connects with what He said in the preceding pericope about the mustard seed growing up, in that it shows that even though Jesus, God’s Word, was there with them, the disciples still lacked in faith, unable to realize that all would be well. With the Parable of the Mustard Seed, the disciples were clued in to the revelation that the Kingdom of God had come near in the Person of Jesus, but, because of their terror of the wind and sea, they were blind to this realization. This is why Jesus chastises them: “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” The disciples had no need to fear, for Jesus, God Himself, was with them. The fact of their misunderstanding is evident by way of their aweing question: “Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?” For us, this conveys the truth that is the Word of God. When the Word of God is planted in us, it grows and becomes strong and firm. As God’s Word continually grows within us, so does our faith, which gives us the courage to trust that whatever life throws at us, there is no power on Earth that will be able to defeat us.

When I was in seminary in New York City, completing my second year and going into my third year, I experienced the most trying period of my life in regards to my faith. I was a person of particular theological convictions, whereas the majority of my classmates held to theological convictions that were very much different from my own. This caused me to feel like I was an outsider, wonder why I wanted to be a Priest, and even caused me to not want to attend daily chapel for a time. It was during my third and final year, doing my field education work at Saint Thomas Church (Fifth Avenue), one of The Episcopal Church’s great Anglo-Catholic parishes, in which my crisis of faith began to subside. Sitting in a pew, Sunday after Sunday, near the high altar behind the parish’s famous Choir of Men and Boys, hearing the sermons preached from the great pulpit, full of surety and conviction in the truth of God’s Word, brought me back to my faith and THE FAITH. Saint Thomas Church (Fifth Avenue) became more than a field education site to me; it became an extension of my family. The parishioners’ witnessing to the Christian faith drew me out of my deep desert space and I will forever be grateful for the role they played in bringing me back to my faith and commitment to Jesus Christ.

From today’s series installment, the Good News that we are given is that the Word of God is true and has the power to subdue the storms that rage in our lives. Although it may seem that the storms of life are crashing in on us and that there is no hope to be found, there is hope and His name is Jesus. That is how community can be important. Through prayer, support, and love, our community can help us get through those tough times, assuring us that there is still hope and that all shall be well. Here is how we, Ascension Episcopal School, manifest our faith in the Word and Kingdom of God: “Ascension Episcopal School is committed to academic excellence in a Christian environment.” May we be people of faith, firmly rooted in the Word—Jesus Christ.

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations contained herein are from the Revised Standard Version Bible, Catholic Edition, Copyright © 1965, 1966 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

[2] Mark 4.32

[3] Matthew 6.10

[4] Mark 4.31

[5] Lane, William L. The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), 176.

[6] Genesis 1.1-2.3

[7] John 1.2-3

“Time Is of the Essence” (January 7, 2014; Ascension Episcopal School–Sugar Mill Pond Campus, Youngsville, Louisiana)

For the Spring 2015 semester, during daily chapels at the Sugar Mill Pond Campus of Ascension Episcopal School in Youngsville, Louisiana, there will be a special sermon series on the Gospel According to Saint Mark.  Below is the first of the several sermons i have been assigned to preach as part of the series.

“And a voice came from heaven, ‘Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.’”–Mark 1.11[1]

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Yesterday, Mr. [Peter] Johnston introduced a new sermon series that we are undertaking on the Gospel of Saint Mark, which is commonly accepted as being the first written of the four canonical New Testament Gospels. He began with an exposition on the pivotal first verse: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”[2] I regret that I was not able to be present for Mr. Johnston’s sermon, but have no doubts that it was very well done and an insightful start to what, I feel, will be a wonderful series. Today, we will pick up where Mr. Johnston left off with a consideration of Mark 1.2-11

With the addition of verse 1, verses 2-11 of Mark 1 composes what is this Gospel’s Prologue, from which is presented the preaching of John the Baptist and his baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan. The Revised Standard Version begins verse 2 with the words “as it is written,” whereas the Good News Translation begins this same verse with different words: “It began.” With the combination of the Revised Standard Version’s translation of verse 1 as “the beginning of the Gospel…” with the Good News Translation’s beginning of verse 2 with the words “it began,” Mark sets up the Good News as being the start of a brand new age. The coming of Jesus was the beginning of this new age. Mark’s Gospel is very thorough, yet gets straight to the point, with its emphasis being more on what is happening than on what is being said (although what is being said is also important). For Mark, to use a term from American and British contract law, “time is of the essence.”

Mark proclaims the coming of this new age with the appearance of John the Baptist: “Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way: the voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” In the Gospel According to Saint Luke, an angel of the Lord says this about John in foretelling his birth to his father Zechariah: “…He will be filled with the Holy Spirit…He will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before them in the spirit and power of Elijah…to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”[3] So here we have Mark presenting John the Baptist as both a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy and performing an important function for the people of Israel. He is Jesus’ forerunner, proclaiming that He, who will come after him, “is mightier than I” and “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” John’s water baptism is the visible sign of his calling of the people to repentance and preparation to receive Jesus and the Gospel that He will soon proclaim. The appearance of John the Baptist was a happening of the highest magnitude, for it signified that a new age in salvation history was very, very close at hand.

Jesus then appears in verse 9, having come “from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” The placement of verses 8 and 9 together is a transitional description of the differences between the kinds of baptism that one offers from the other. The appearance of Jesus occurs immediately after being told “he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” in verse 8, with Him, likewise, submitting to John’s baptism “with water” in verse 9. As Jesus comes up from the water, Heaven opens up, the Holy Spirit descends upon Him like a dove, and, from Heaven, God says, “Thou art my beloved Son: with thee I am well pleased.”

What we see here are two things. First, we see the formal transition from the period of preparation to the age of salvation. With Jesus now having appeared and submitted Himself to John’s baptism, the way of the Lord has been prepared, His paths have been straightened, and the age of salvation has now come. By submitting to John’s baptism, Jesus takes on the form of a lowly penitent, passively receiving the sign of repentance on behalf of all God’s people. Jesus comes to John as the One willing to assume the brunt of the judgment from which a new Israel will emerge.[4] Second, in verses 9-11, we are given a picture of baptism as being “the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” The outward and visible sign is water, symbolizing one’s choice to renounce evil, repent of his/her sins, and turn to Jesus as his/her Lord and Savior. The inward and spiritual grace is union with God, being “sealed by the Holy Spirit…and marked as Christ’s own forever.”[5] Through our own baptism, God’s word to Jesus becomes His word to us: “You are my own dear son [/daughter], and I am pleased with you.”[6]

From today’s appointed text, Mark 1.2-11, we are put in the context of a particular time—the beginning of a new age in salvation history. John the Baptist prepares us for it. By His appearance, Jesus officially begins it. “The time is now,” Mark is saying. “The age of salvation has now come!” This is “the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations contained herein are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Old Testament Section, Copyright 1952; New Testament Section, First Edition, Copyright 1946; Second Edition © 1971 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

[2] Mark 1.1

[3] Luke 1.13-17

[4] Lane, William L. The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), p. 54.

[5] From the liturgy for Holy Baptism, The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David According to the Use of The Episcopal Church (New York, New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 1979), p. 308.

[6] Mark 1.11 as translated in the Contemporary English Version®, Copyright © 1995 by the American Bible Society.

 

“Dr. Lattimore’s Epiphany” (January 4, 2015: The Second Sunday after Christmas Day–Year B; The Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Lafayette, Louisiana)

“Where is he who is born King of the Jews?”–Matthew 2.2[1]

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.

On one of the bookshelves in my school office are translations of the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the New Testament Epistles, and the Revelation to John done by the late Richmond Lattimore, given to me by Father [Andrew C.] Mead, my New York mentor, upon his retirement as Rector of Saint Thomas (Fifth Avenue). From 1935-1971, Dr. Lattimore was a faculty member in the Greek, Latin, and Classical Studies Department at Bryn Mawr College, situated four miles west of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and was regarded as one the most prominent Greek scholars of his time. It is said that his translations of both the Iliad and the Odyssey are the best that have ever been done. There is a story about Dr. Lattimore that I once heard Father Mead tell that has since stuck with me. It is a moving story that, I feel, both testifies to the power of sacred Scripture and gives us an insight into today’s appointed Gospel.

The story takes place in the early 1980s when Father Mead was the Rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Rosemont, a Philadelphia suburb located alongside the historic Pennsylvania Main Line. Father Mead recalled seeing Dr. Lattimore at church with his wife, Alice, on Sunday mornings, but that when it came time to receive Communion, he never accompanied her to the Altar rail. It seems that in regards to the long made claims of the Christian faith, Dr. Lattimore had significant doubts. But it was also around this time in which Dr. Lattimore’s translations of the New Testament had become complete and were either in the process of being published or had not long been published. It was evident that this particular project had a profound impact upon the distinguished scholar.

Getting to the specific event itself, Dr. Lattimore was in his mid 80s and recovering from an illness at a Philadelphia hospital. Father Mead came to visit him and although he knew that Dr. Lattimore did not receive Communion at church, he asked if he could bring Communion there to him at the hospital. Dr. Lattimore said, “I would love to receive Communion, but I can’t.” As it turns out, not only did Dr. Lattimore once have significant doubts regarding Christianity’s claims, but he also had never baptized. After getting a positive response to becoming baptized, Father Mead talked with Dr. Lattimore about when and where he would like for the service to take place, with a public baptism during the Great Vigil of Easter being the ultimate decision.

But there was still a lingering question that Father Mead could not constrain himself from asking. “Dr. Lattimore, I thought you had reservations about the Christian faith and the Church.” “I did,” said the elderly scholar. “But you don’t any longer?” asked Father Mead. “No, not any longer,” said Dr. Lattimore. Father Mead then had to know, “Please then may I ask you, when did they go away?” After a short passage of time, with an endearing smile, Dr. Lattimore said, “Somewhere in Saint Luke.”[2]

From Dr. Lattimore’s experience, we can see why Scripture is referred to as the “Good News.” I can only imagine Dr. Lattimore sitting in a pew at Rosemont’s Church of the Good Shepherd Sunday after Sunday observing the liturgy, listening to the sermon, and watching everyone else partake of our Lord’s Body and Blood, while, at the same time, dealing with the doubt that existed within him. Although he was hearing the Good News being proclaimed every Sunday, his reservations must have finally gotten to him, which led him, as a Greek scholar, to translate the New Testament, seeing, for himself, if there was any truth to what he was being told. For Dr. Lattimore, it was at a certain point while translating Saint Luke’s Gospel that the claims of Christianity became fully true for him. The feeling must have been the same as John Wesley’s experience at Aldersgate: “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation: And an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”[3] By translating the New Testament, Dr. Lattimore experienced God’s love for him in a most moving and powerful way, in a way that convinced him that the claims made by the Gospel were, indeed, true. By responding positively to Father Mead’s offer of becoming baptized, Dr. Lattimore conveyed his desire to formally join with others in living out these words of the Apostle Paul: “Therefore…be steadfast, and preserve the traditions you were taught by us whether by word of mouth or by letter.”[4]

In today’s Gospel, Wise Men from the East have come to Jerusalem in search for the Child Jesus, “he who is born King of the Jews.” Contrary to tradition, we do not know if there were exactly three Wise Men, for the text does not say this. The traditional numbering of the Wise Men as three comes from the gifts that were presented to the newborn King: gold, representative of His Kingship, frankincense, signifying Jesus’ divinity, and myrrh, which foreshadows the preparation of His body for burial after His death at Calvary. Furthermore, in the actual Greek, they are described as magoi, from which comes the Latin word magi, hence why we hear today’s Gospel sometimes called “the Coming of the Magi.” In some Biblical translations, magoi is rendered in English as “astrologers,” describing them as wise men excellently skilled in the study of celestial objects. This particular translation inserts within the story a more personal dimension for these Eastern travelers, providing further context for God’s use of a star to guide them to His human manifestation. “Star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright; westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light!”[5]

My point in mentioning these details is to bring forth a couple of other points. First, just like Dr. Lattimore, these Wise Men were on a journey, searching for the Truth. To the anxious and insecure Herod, we hear referenced these words from the prophet Micah: “You also, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means the least among the leaders of Judah; for out of you will come a leader who will be a shepherd of my people, Israel.”[6] The fact that this very prophecy was recalled in regards to reports that Herod received regarding the Wise Men’s search leads to the conclusion that the Wise Men, too, knew Micah’s prophecy. They knew what had been foretold about Jesus. But not only did they know the prophecies, they believed them. It was their belief in what had been foretold that sustained them in their waiting for the sign to appear. Then the sign came—“his star in the East.” How glorious the sighting of it must have been. All that they had studied and believed was actually coming true. But the sight of the star was not enough for them. They had to see if it was all really true. So they got on the move and followed the star to the infant Jesus, not to study, not for just simple confirmation, but to worship.

Second, through today’s Gospel, we see God’s willingness to manifest Himself through the means of what we are.   The Wise Men were skilled astronomers, hence God’s use of a star to herald to them the news that the long awaited Messiah had come and guide them to the place where Jesus lay. Dr. Lattimore was a Greek scholar and it was through his translating of the New Testament in which God was able to reach out and forever change him, making him a new creature in Christ Jesus, driving away his old life of doubt and making firm his new life of faith.[7] “There are varieties of gifts; but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, and the same Lord, and there are varieties of activities, and the same God, who activates them all among all.”[8] Using words from one particular commentary I consulted for this sermon, “God is determined to be found, and will use any and all measures, even tomfoolery…to reach out to people who are open.”[9]

Thirdly, and most importantly, from the Wise Men meeting and worshipping the infant Jesus comes the Good News for all of us. The reason why this meeting is Good News can be found in the very first verse of today’s Gospel: “Behold, wise men from the east…”[10] These Eastern travelers that have come to Bethlehem to worship he who is born King of the Jews are Gentiles! At least 28 times throughout the Old Testament is found variations of a promise made by God to the Hebrew people: “I will take you for my people, and I will be your God.”[11] But from the prophet Isaiah, we hear this: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” From Jesus Himself, we hear this: “And [when] I am lifted aloft from the earth, will draw all to myself.”[12] And in regards to the ministry of Saint Paul, Jesus says to Ananias, “Go on, because this man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the [Gentiles] and the Kings and sons of Israel…”[13] So from this scene, we get God’s Good News that His salvation, made manifest in Jesus, will be offered to all people. The death that Jesus will die at Calvary, His resurrection from death three days afterwards, and His ascension, with fullness of body and divinity, into Heaven will be done for all people, Jew and Gentile. Hence why this scene is representative of all of our respective Christian journeys. It is the Epiphany, the manifestation of God as human in the Person of Jesus, an event orchestrated by God to include all of us. Although each of us has come or is coming to Christ by our own respective ways, the common trait that unites us all is that God, by His grace, has offered to every single one of us the opportunity to come.

Will Thompson offers us these words:

Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling

Calling for you and for me;

See, on the portals He’s waiting and watching,

Watching for you and for me.

Come home, come home,

You who are weary come home;

Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,

Calling, O sinner, come home.[14]

Through the witness of the Wise Men, Jesus is calling. Through the witness of all the saints who have gone before, Jesus is calling. The Gospel is true. God’s salvation is being offered to all of us. “The love of God was revealed among us…that God sent his only-begotten son into the world so that we might live through him.”[15] Do you believe Him? Will you heed His call? Will you come to Jesus?

The Lord has shown forth His glory: Come let us adore Him. Amen.

[1] New Testament Scripture quotations are from The Four Gospels and the Revelation (London, England: Hutchinson of London, 1980) and Acts and Letters of the Apostles (New York, New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1982), both translated from the Greek by Richmond Lattimore. Old Testament Scripture quotations are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Old Testament Section, Copyright 1952 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

[2] From “Traversing Afar,” a sermon preached by Father Andrew C. Mead as the XII Priest and Rector of Saint Thomas Church in the City and County of New York on January 16, 2005, published in Catechesis: A Collection of Sermons for the Christian Year (New York, New York: Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, 2014), pp. 94-97.

[3] The Works of John Wesley: Third Edition–Complete and Unabridged (Volumes 1-2: Journals from October 14, 1735 to November 29, 1745) (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House Company, 1998), pg. 103.

[4] II Corinthians 2.15

[5] From the hymn “We Three Kings,” words and music by John Henry Hopkins (1820-1891).

[6] Cf. Micah 5.2

[7] II Corinthians 5.17

[8] I Corinthians 12.4-6

[9] From James C. Howell’s “Theological Perspective” commentary on Matthew 2.1-12, found in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Year B, Volume I) (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), pg. 214.

[10] Revised Standard Version

[11] Exodus 6.7

[12] John 12.32

[13] Acts 9.15

[14] “Softly and Tenderly,” words and music by Will L. Thompson (1847-1909).

[15] I John 4.9

“Father Mead and John the Baptist–Pointers to Jesus” (December 7, 2014: The Second Sunday of Advent–Year B; The Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Lafayette, Louisiana)

“And [John] preached, saying, ‘After me comes he who is mightier than I…’”—Mark 1.7[1]

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen!

This past Sunday, the First Sunday of Advent, was the second anniversary of my ordination to the Sacred Priesthood. It was a day filled with great gratitude—to God for His call, to the Church for affirming God’s call and granting me the privilege to serve His people in this office, and for all the specific people who were the giants upon whose shoulders I stood throughout the process. One of those specific people who made a huge impression and had a significant impact upon my vocational formation was Andrew Mead, the now Rector Emeritus of Saint Thomas Church (Fifth Avenue) in New York City.[2] Father Mead was a parish priest who was committed to Biblical preaching within a Catholic liturgical framework, coupled with an evangelical concern for the hearer, doctrinal orthodoxy in his teaching, the liturgical heritage of Catholic Anglicanism, within the rubrics of The Book of Common Prayer, and possessed a deep love “for the care of souls.”[3] It was as a senior at The General Theological Seminary in which Father Mead invited me to serve as the seminarian at Saint Thomas Church, an experience that I will forever be grateful for having had. I remember Father Mead saying these words to me after the first weekday Mass that I served with him: “Brandt, I am glad that you are here with us this year. Throughout this year, I’m going to be saying a lot of things to you. Some of them will be good things; some of them will be things that will probably hurt your feelings. But know that everything that I say to you I do so because I want you to do well.”

Father Mead kept true to those words. During the course of 10 months, Father Mead observed me with a care like that of a father for his son. He applauded and encouraged me for the good things that I did, as well as firmly, yet lovingly pointed out things that I could have been done better and offered suggestions on how improvements could be achieved, all done so with the goal of forming me to be the best Priest he believed I could be. In turn, in my observances of Father Mead, I found him to be a man who really “walked the talk,” in which I saw all that he taught me about what it means to be a Priest being reflected in his own practice. Although Father Mead did disagree with some of the Episcopal Church’s more recent actions, never once did I hear him say a disparaging word against the Church or its leaders, with him once saying to me, “Brandt, you don’t get anywhere by being an angry Pharisee. It doesn’t accomplish anything.” Using words of former Saint Thomas parishioner and former Newsweek editor Jon Meachem, hearing Father Mead’s sermons live from the pulpit, I found them to be “brief…clear and to the point,” focused on nothing else but “the great truths of the faith, struggling mightily to keep the theological and ecclesiastical battles of the day at bay,” and aimed at “focusing our attention not on ourselves but on the crisis at Calvary.”[4] And at the beginning of my time at Saint Thomas, as one who was bound and determined to live out his sacramental life within the lecture hall, it was Father Mead who, while walking to the Saint Thomas rectory for a chili dinner, reinforced to me the importance of parish ministry, cautioning me not to forget about the “front lines,” to which by the end of my time at Saint Thomas, my appreciation for the work of parish ministry was renewed. I remember saying to Father Mead during a parish function, “Father, I hope that I will be as great a Priest as you are.” In response, Father Mead said, “On the contrary, I hope that you will be better!” I credit much of who I am as a Priest to the humble and Godly influence of Andrew Mead and am thankful for the place that he had in my formation.

I mention Father Mead as an example of how much of where we are and come to be, both individually and collectively, is due to others who preceded us and prepared the way. All of us are Christians because of the Gospel witness of someone that came before us. The person who first witnessed to you about the Good News first heard it from someone before them, with them having first heard it from someone before them, going further and further back in time. All of these people, through whom the Good News was passed down through the centuries to all of us in this time, were forerunners to us for Jesus. They were the ones in our lives from whom we first heard the call, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” [5] Their witness came from a deep belief in the Gospel, a deep belief in Jesus, being touched by Him in the most affective way. These forerunners in our lives were our first pointers to Jesus and through their witness, the path for Him to come into our hearts was prepared and made straight.

In today’s Gospel from Mark 1, we meet John the Baptist, THE forerunner of forerunners, THE forerunner of Christ Himself. It is said of him in the Prologue of Saint John’s Gospel: “He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.” [6] Today’s Gospel puts forth John as the fulfillment of what had been foretold by the prophets: “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God,’” [7] and “Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple…” [8] In Luke 1, when the Virgin Mary, after being told that she would be the bearer of our Lord into the world, goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, herself pregnant with John, it is said that when she first greeted Elizabeth, the forthcoming John leaped for joy in her womb.[9] Even Jesus Himself gave recognition to John’s role as His forerunner, saying of him: “He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light.” [10]

So how appropriate it is that on today, the Second Sunday of Advent, after getting a glimpse of the last things to come on the First Sunday of Advent, we come to the beginning of the Christian story, seeing the prophecies of old being fulfilled. Whereas in last Sunday’s Gospel, where we hear Jesus saying that the Son of man will “gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven,” [11] today, we hear of “all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem” being called by John to “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Today’s Gospel presents John as the voice and messenger in the wilderness making way for the Lord’s coming as prophesied by Isaiah and Malachi. The evidence is adding up. Mark is making it abundantly clear: the time of salvation is now! Whereas it will be through the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary in which the child Jesus will make His way to us into this world, it is through the preaching of John the Baptist in which the adult Jesus will first come to us in our belief. John the Baptist is the sign—Jesus, our long awaited Messiah, is coming!

In the ministry of John the Baptist can be seen the Advent themes of waiting and preparation. John’s calling for repentance and baptism highlights what preparing oneself for the Lord’s coming literally means. In calling the people to repentance and baptism, John is conveying the point that preparation for the Lord’s coming requires from us a change—to turn away from those things that are not in line with the ways of God, giving up, in essence, the prevailing of our will in favor of God’s will. What John is asking of us can be a pretty tall order, because, by bending to God’s will, we admit that we don’t have what it takes to make it on our own. John’s preaching forces us to be real with ourselves: “Do I really got this?” “Am I strong enough to handle things on my own and save myself?” If we are truly honest with ourselves, we accept that the answer is “no.” Therefore, John is a preacher whose words we need to heed, for in calling us to repentance, he is putting us in the right focus for our future, pointing us in the direction of the One who will come and be able to save us from the wages of sin and death.

With John’s preaching ministry as successful as it was, how tempting it could have been for him to take all of the credit for himself. John could have been swept away by the attention given to him by those who thought that he was the Christ, or the prophet Elijah, or another of the great prophets come back to Israel. But John doesn’t yield to such temptation. He is quite clear in the fact that “after me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” In his ministry of preaching and baptizing, John draws the attention away from himself to the One who truly is coming and will bring to pass God’s plan for humanity’s redemption. John knows that he is not the One and accepts it. He is pointing to Jesus, who is the One. John gives the credit where the credit is due, and he rightfully gives it to Jesus.

In today’s Gospel, we see John the Baptist as a leader who recognizes that he is first and foremost a servant of God. He was humble, looking with those who heeded his call for the coming of Jesus, the One who will ransom, heal, restore, and forgive them and us. Through John, we will first meet the adult Jesus, who “will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High,” who “will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.”[12] On this day, from John the Baptist we are hearing of a new beginning, of God coming into our time in a most radical way. Alleluia! Jesus is coming!

To us who wait for Jesus’ coming in this current time, John the Baptist asks these questions: “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?” Hopefully, our answer is, “I will, with God’s help.”[13] If so, then may our focus not be on ourselves but on the coming Jesus, pointing others to Him as our life, our stay, and our end. Amen.

[1] All Scripture quotations contained herein are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Old Testament Section, Copyright 1952; New Testament Section, First Edition, Copyright 1946; Second Edition © 1971 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

[2] Andrew C. Mead served as the XII Priest and Rector of Saint Thomas Church in the City and County of New York from 1996-2014.

[3] Wright, J. Robert. Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue (New York, New York: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company and Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, 2001), 231-232.

[4] Mead, Andrew C. Catechesis: A Collection of Sermons for the Christian Year (New York, New York: Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, 2014), viii-ix.

[5] Matthew 3.2

[6] John 1.7-8

[7] Isaiah 40.3

[8] Malachi 3.1

[9] Luke 1.44

[10] John 5.35

[11] Matthew 13.27

[12] Luke 1.32-33

[13] From the Baptismal Covenant in the liturgy for Holy Baptism, The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David According to the Use of The Episcopal Church (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 304-305.

“Last Things First” (November 30, 2014: The First Sunday of Advent–Year B; The Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Lafayette, Louisiana)

“And then they will see the Son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory.”—Mark 13.26[1]

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen!

“The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,”[2] so begins the Gospel of Mark, the Gospel principally appointed for reading in lectionary year B, which officially begins today, the First Sunday of Advent. This introductory verse from Mark, I feel, is very relational to Advent Sunday in general, regardless of the particularly lettered year. Every year on Advent Sunday, not only do we begin a new cycle of lectionary readings, but we, once again, begin the journey through the Christian liturgical year, divided into a series of seasons, each with its own theological emphasis, altogether telling the greatest story that has ever been told—the story of humanity’s redemption brought to pass by Jesus Christ, the Son of God. So every year on Advent Sunday, we come to the beginning of the most wondrous story—“the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”   “Come and hear, all you who fear God,” says the Psalmist, “and I will tell what he has done for me.”[3]

But every year on Advent Sunday, when the Christian story begins again, the lectionary focuses the hearers’ attention on last things. For many, it may seem a bit odd to hear a story begin from its back pages, but by choosing to start from this point, the organizers of our lectionary[4], I feel, felt it to be the most appropriate place to begin, considering the story that it tells and what all is at stake by its telling. In today’s Gospel from Mark 13, Jesus says, “…They will see the Son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven…Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away before all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Listen to what Jesus is saying: “They will see the Son of Man coming…,” “He will send out the angels, and gather his elect…,” “This generation will not pass away before all these things take place,” “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not…” The “wills” and “will not’s” are signifiers of the paradox with which the Gospel presents us: being in the state of “already, but not yet.” The Christian year appropriately begins with an address from Jesus to us who live in this “already, but not yet” time. Already have the means for humanity’s restored relationship with God been made possible, but not yet are we in the absolute completeness of that restored relationship.

With the lectionary putting before us Jesus’ words concerning those last things to come, we are being presented with a very bold claim—that the story that we are about to hear, everything about it is true! We are being presented the claim that Jesus, the central character of the Christian story, is the Messiah whom we await this Advent season and through whom all things, first and last, will be made complete. By the lectionary intentionally starting us off from the back of the story before heading to the front, we today hear the proclamation that “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again” and how that is and will be so. Right up front, we are being shown that the Christian story is one of victory, that all is well at its end. We see the truth of John the Divine’s proclamation: “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, every one who pierced him…When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand upon me, saying, ‘Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.’”[5]

Although it has already been inferred, I feel it important to note that Jesus’ words to us in today’s Gospel isn’t just simple talk about last things to come, but is about The End. When The End will come is in the realm of the unknown, save only to God Himself. Because we will never know exactly when The End will come, Jesus says that we should not spend all of our time worrying about it: “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.”[6] But the one thing we do know is that there will be an End. The possibility of all of us not being around when The End happens is highly likely; our end will (most likely) come in death. Because of Jesus, death is an end that can be met with joy: “…If we die, we die to the Lord…For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.”[7] In being confronted with The End as the beginning, Jesus is being proclaimed as the One from whom the Christian story has its beginning and through whom its end will be made complete. In the beginning, we see Jesus. At The End, we will see Jesus.

That very point—the presence of Jesus at both the beginning and The End—describes well the full circle that is the Christian story. This previous Sunday, the Feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday of the Christian liturgical year, we heard Jesus say, “When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left.”[8] This previous Sunday’s Gospel from Matthew 25 presented us with a picture of the Final Judgment, by which it will be ALL nations, ALL people of the earth that will be judged, of which Jesus will serve as the Judge and by which He will sit on the throne as King. Literally every single person ever born will be there: those, at the time, still alive and those who have died; those that were famous and those that were not; those that we know either very well or a little bit or not at all; everyone from eras past, in this current era, and in eras to come up to that point will all stand before Jesus the King. Everybody will be divided: those who endeavored to feed, provide drink, offer welcome and do all other sorts of kind deeds to the least among them, which Jesus says would be like doing such things unto Him, will be on His right side as sheep, representational of His approval; those who do not endeavor do such things will be on His left side as goats, representational of His disapproval.[9] In the words of the rock band R.E.M., it will be “the end of the world as we know it.” In its place will be a whole new world, brought to pass by Jesus Himself and in which His people, the sheep, will be its inheritors. Last Sunday, we saw at the end a beginning—the beginning of a whole new world, of which Jesus reigns forever as King. Today, we see at the beginning a foretaste of The End—the completeness of humanity’s restored relationship with God already begun through Jesus. This is the story of the Gospel in full circle.

The lectionary does a good thing by having us read about the last things first, for it conveys the essentiality of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as the Beginning and End of all things. The crucial key to Christ’s essentiality as the Beginning and End of all things is the Incarnation. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth…”[10] At the very heart of today’s Gospel, of the last things to come, of the Christian story’s beginning, middle, and end, is the love of Jesus for all of humanity. The Incarnation of Jesus is the greatest explication for His love and of all that has been, is, and will be. Through the Incarnation, Christ came down to Earth out of love to redeem us; He died, triumphantly rose, and will come again! When the time for The End comes and Heaven and Earth pass away, the love of Jesus, the Word of God, will not pass away. Today’s Gospel is indeed good news, for it assures us that Jesus, the Protagonist of the story that we will soon hear, is our Beginning and End, in whom there will come “a new heaven and a new earth…the holy city, new Jerusalem…He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people…He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall their be mourning nor crying nor pain any more…”[11]

But, again, we should not be so consumed about when The End will come, for “that day or hour no one knows…but only the Father.” Although we have already been given a glimpse into The End, it is important that we go back to the front and continue with the story from there, for continuing on from the front will give us the focus we need to live in the here and now, to value the time we have been given to be in relationship with Jesus in the present. To be so concerned with the future is to miss Jesus in the present and to miss Jesus in the present is to risk not being prepared for the future and for The End. That is why Jesus’ word to us today is this—“Beware, keep alert.” We are able to best do that by going back to the front of the story and reading on. By going back to the front of the story, we keep ourselves awake and alert by learning and living by those things taught by the Christ who has come, died and was raised from death, and will come again, preparing ourselves for life in the new Heaven and Earth that He will bring. By going back to the front of the story, not only will we prepare ourselves for the coming End, but will come to feel the presence of the living Christ in the here and now, experiencing a foretaste of the glorious realm that is to come.

Our King and Savior now draws near: Come, let us adore Him. Amen.

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations contained herein are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Old Testament Section, Copyright 1952; New Testament Section, First Edition, Copyright 1946; Second Edition © 1971 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

[2] Mark 1.1

[3] Psalm 66.16

[4] The Episcopal Church utilizes the Revised Common Lectionary (otherwise known as the “RCL”) for its Bible readings at Sunday celebrations of the Holy Eucharist.

[5] Revelation 1.7, 17-18

[6] Matthew 6.34

[7] Romans 14.8-9

[8] Matthew 25.31-33

[9] Matthew 25.34-46

[10] John 1.1, 14

[11] Revelation 21.1-4

“The Lambda Chi Slapdown of 2007” (November 5, 2014: Votive Eucharist for All Baptized Christians–Ascension Episcopal High School, Youngsville, Louisiana)

“…Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”—Mark 10.43-44[i]

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen!

A few weeks back, while preaching in chapel, some of you may remember a story I told about the time I was preparing to graduate from college and that I had applied to become an educational leadership consultant with my fraternity, Lambda Chi Alpha. It was a job that I really wanted and having served two one-year terms as one of 12-members of the International Student Advisory Committee, attended two summer Leadership Seminars and a General Assembly, and graduated from the fraternity’s Impact Leadership program, I felt that I had the job wrapped up in the bag. So to receive the phone call that I did two weeks after my interview—that Lambda Chi Alpha would not employ me as an ELC—made me confused, hurt, sad, and extremely angry. The negative emotions I felt were so visibly strong that my local chapter brothers and fellow Student Government Association officers became very concerned for me. It was a time in my life in which I felt I had been utterly betrayed, not only by Lambda Chi Alpha, but also by God, because I prayed to Him to allow me this opportunity and He let me down.

You may also remember from the story the part of me going into the nave of the local Episcopal parish and just letting God have it. Years later, reflecting back on the incident, I came to two realizations as to why I was angry with God as I was. First, because of my service to the fraternity on the international level, I felt a huge sense of entitlement. After two years of going to international meetings and busting my tail off for an organization that meant so much to me, I felt that an opportunity to serve as an ELC was something that I deserved. Second, had Lambda Chi Alpha hired me to serve as an ELC, I would have been the first African-American initiate hired for the position. I had already made history two years before as the first African-American initiate to serve on the Student Advisory Committee in its (then) 35-year existence. In addition to feeling entitled, I was driven by the want, need, and desire to be known, respected, and recognized, all as a result of vanity. As I look back on this event, I really do believe that my being denied employment with Lambda Chi Alpha was used by God as a way of telling me that no matter what I think, it’s not about me. God had a different plan for my life and it involved me realizing that if I truly wanted respect and recognition, the focus would have to turn from me to that of serving others.

Although I have been an intentional Christian for the past 16 years, it has only been during the past seven in which I have felt that I have truly gotten what being an intentional Christian really means. It has been a journey that can be described by way of these familiar words of Saint Paul: “When I was a child, my speech, feelings, and thinking were all those of a child; now that I am an adult, I have no more use for childish ways.”[ii] From the Lambda Chi Slapdown of 2007, I began to realize that if I was going to be “all in” with Christianity, there were some things that I would have to let go of. I had to let go of the entitlement, the egotism, the vanity, the need for glorification and praise. To let all of that stuff go, I had to die to self. In dying to self, I was committing myself to Jesus, full-throttle to His way. What was His way? “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow me.”[iii] In the days and weeks that followed, I came more and more into the realization that no longer was it about me. From that point forward, it was all about Jesus.

By making the request for Jesus to “grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory,” the Zebedee boys, James and John, show that even among our Lord’s disciples were present issues of egotism and vanity. When James and John approach Jesus with their request, they and all of the other disciples are on the road toward Jerusalem, where, Jesus says, He “will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death…They will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”[iv] James and John’s request arises out of the misunderstanding they have regarding Jesus’ purpose for going to Jerusalem and of the circumstances that await Him there. Although they recognize that there is a forthcoming glorification for Jesus and that it will lead to something bigger than themselves, what they feel it leading to is completely different from what it actually is leading to. In James and John’s minds, Jesus’ going to Jerusalem and his forthcoming glorification are synonymous with aspects of an earthly royal rule and they both want in on it.

For me, I could overlook the Zebedees’ misunderstanding if it was not for the fact that not once, not twice, but three times earlier, Jesus was very clear about what his glorification would entail. The first time, from Mark 8.31: “…He began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” The second time, from Mark 9.31: “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” And the third time, from Mark 10.33-34: “…The Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.” And what is even more astounding is that the third time Jesus speaks about His death and resurrection occurs just three verses before the beginning of today’s Gospel. So not only is James and John’s request made by way of a misunderstanding, it is just outright ignorant.

Jesus addresses His disciples’ desire for prominence by shedding light on the power that they are seeking. The power they seek—power of prominence, place, and rank—is overzealous, tyrannical, and gained at the expense of others. Those who have such power oftentimes acquire it by intimidation and maintain it by engaging in tactics that belittles those over whom they are in authority and protect their own self-interests. And it will be those authorities in Jerusalem who possess such power that will mock, spit on, flog, and condemn Jesus to death, and kill Him. Violence and death are awaiting Jesus at the hands of worldly power.

This overzealous, tyrannical, and aggrandizing power, Jesus says, will not be so with His disciples. Jesus tells the Twelve that the true mark of prominence is lived out as a servant. “…Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” Jesus, “who…was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”[v] The late South African New Testament scholar Jacobus J. Muller writes:

“The whole time of [Jesus’] sojourn on earth was a time of self-humiliation. He was being humiliated and abased, instead of commanding and ruling in power and majesty and occupying a place of honor and authority and preeminence among men. From the manger to the cross He trod a path of humiliation, which culminated in the misery and suffering and reproach of a shameful death on a tree. Obedience unto God and surrender and submission to the will of God was maintained by Him unto the end, and the profoundest degree of humiliation was reached in that His death was not to be a natural or an honorable one, but was the painful and accursed death of the cross.”[vi]

“…Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” Why do I serve others? Because Jesus served others. He served others by giving His life as a ransom for many.[vii] Jesus served me by helping me in a way that I cannot help myself. This is what that early April evening in 2007 in the nave of Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Montevallo, Alabama reminded me of. What I wanted was recognition, praise, notoriety, and a reward for efforts well done. But as Jesus said to his disciples, on that night, He said to me, “…It is not so [with] you.” The experience of that evening seven years ago humbled me. It made me realize that it was not about me. It brought me to the point of realizing that if I loved Jesus like I said I did, then I needed to start doing what He commanded me to do. What did He command of me? What does He command of us? “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with your soul, and with all your mind…[and] you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” [viii]

Let us be faithful to the appellation that we carry—“Christian,” a person that bends to the will of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate God, Perfect Love in human form. May we love and serve others because of Him who first loved us. Amen.

[i] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

[ii] I Corinthians 13.11 (Good News Translation)

[iii] Luke 9.23 (Common English Bible)

[iv] Mark 10.33-34

[v] Philippians 2.7-8

[vi] Muller, Jacobus J. The Epistles of Paul to the Philippians and to Philemon (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980), 86.

[vii] Matthew 20.28

[viii] Matthew 22.37, 39 (cf. Mark 12.30-31; Luke 10.27)

“Haters Gonna Hate” (October 28, 2014: The Feast of Saint Simon and Saint Jude–The Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Lafayette, Louisiana)

(The following sermon was preached at the Welcome Back Eucharist for Cursillo #147 of the Acadiana Convocation in the Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana, held on the Feast of Saint Simon and Saint Jude at 6:30pm at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Lafayette, Louisiana.)

If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also.”–John 15.20[i]

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen!

This past Thursday, October 23, the Church celebrated the Feast of Saint James the Just, who is specifically mentioned in Mark 6.3 as the “brother” of our Lord Jesus.[ii] According to tradition, James was the first Bishop of Jerusalem, hailed as the “Bishop of Bishops,” and regarded higher than Peter and Paul due to his ministry being in the principle city of the Holy Land. His most important contribution to the Christian faith came from his presiding of the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, during which debate the main question centered on whether or not Gentiles, who were increasingly receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, were to be required to undergo circumcision and become Jews before becoming full members of the developing Christian community. Scripture states that after a time of debate, James offered the proposal “that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled.”[iii] The “Apostolic Decree” of James was a recognition that God’s offering of salvation to the Gentiles was long within His plan and, therefore, was a crucial factor in turning the hearts of the early Christian leaders to this long foreseen reality.

In the Gospel appointed for Saint James Day, Matthew 13.54-58, Jesus is in his hometown of Nazareth teaching in the synagogue. Instead of receiving His teaching with openness and gratitude, the Nazarene villagers are “repulsed by him,”[iv] asking themselves a series of rhetorical questions stressing, in their minds, the fact that Jesus was nothing more than a regular villager just like them. To put it another way, the people of Nazareth felt that Jesus was being a little “uppity,” wondering who the heck He thought He was coming into their synagogue, teaching them with a sense of authority. For the Nazarene villagers, Jesus did not fit into their categories; He did not embody those things that they felt He should have embodied. Based on His reception, Jesus makes a statement that has manifested itself throughout all span of time: “Prophets are honored everywhere except in their own hometowns and in their own households.”[v] The fact that Jesus is different is something that the Nazarene villagers cannot handle nor accept, which causes Him to be subjected to the same treatment that was oftentimes afflicted upon the Old Testament prophets.

Today, the Church celebrates the Feast of Saint Simon and Saint Jude, mentioned in the Synoptic Gospels and the Book of Acts as being among the Twelve Apostles. Apart from their listing as being two of the Twelve, not much more is known about them. In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, Simon is called “the Canaanaean” and in the Gospel of Luke as “the Zealot,” denoting that he may have, at one time, had an association with the Zealots, a political movement of 1st century Second Temple Judaism that encouraged rebellion against the Roman Empire, seeking to expel it from the Holy Land. Judas, clarified as “Judas, not Iscariot” in John 14.22, is reported to have spent 10 years preaching the Gospel in Mesopotamia, as well as laboring together with Simon in Persia and being martyred with him on the same day.[vi] In the West, Simon and Jude are commemorated on the same day, whereas in the East, Simon is remembered on May 10 and Jude on June 19.

Whereas the Gospel that was heard on Saint James Day showcased the repulsion that Jesus was met with from his fellow Nazarene villagers, the Gospel appointed for today for Saints Simon and Jude gives us a variation on that theme, extending the repulsion from Jesus to His followers. Speaking to the Apostles, Jesus is reiterating a point that He oftentimes made—that “servants are not greater than their master.”[vii] Jesus is reminding the Apostles that the treatment He is given will be the same treatment given to them. He is simply being real with them in the fact that persecution will happen—“If they persecuted me, they will persecute you.” But in conveying the truth of the reality they face, Jesus gives this piece of the Good News: “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.”[viii] To be hated, despised, and persecuted for believing in Jesus is, our Lord says, grounds to be exceedingly glad, for the persecution becomes proof for those being persecuted that they are living in right relationship with Jesus and, just like all the prophets who were also persecuted, that God’s richest blessings are awaiting them.[ix] Paul witnesses to the truth of our Lord’s assurance: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”[x]

Although Simon and Jude are held in high esteem as two of the Twelve Apostles, the fact of their obscurity among the Twelve is an important distinction worth noting. Their obscurity is an important reminder that the reception of grace is not dependent upon particular human merit, achievement, or personality. Simon and Jude both remind us that grace is the gift of God offered freely to all, either well known, little known, or unknown. Paul tells Titus: “…The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all…”[xi] A hymn by Charles Wesley, an 18th century Church of England clergyman, who, with his brother John, was a founder of the Methodist movement, says: “Come, sinners, to the Gospel feast, every soul be Jesus’ guest. Ye need not be left behind, for God hath bid all humankind.”[xii]

In verse 19 of today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you.” Saint John exhorts us “not to love the world or the things in the world…For all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world…But those who do the will of God live forever.”[xiii] All of this makes clear the fact that those who follow Christ are called to be different and will be treated differently, oftentimes very negatively. Paul tells Timothy, “Indeed, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”[xiv] But, again, remember the Good News that Jesus tells us: “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man…for surely your reward is great in heaven…”

But can we truly believe that? With all of this talk about persecution, what is it about Jesus that can convince us that He is worth our while? What has Jesus done for us to make us trust that what He says is true? Why should we follow Jesus? The answer I have comes from a story.

During the course of my final year at my previous parish in Tuscaloosa, a couple of my campus ministry students and I took a trip to see the Roman Catholic Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament, located 104 miles northeast in Hanceville, Alabama in Cullman County. While walking up one of the outside porticos, we came upon a tall crucifix affixed to the wall at its end. Although I had seen many other crucifixes before, the one that we saw then was unlike any other. Whereas a majority of crucifixes show Christ hanging on the cross with a look of agony that is restrained and somewhat dignified, this particular crucifix exhibited Christ in an agony that was not at all restrained, totally devoid of dignity, and in which the emotion made the worst kick in the gut that I had ever felt. Our Lord’s body was completely covered in scars, so much so that it looked like there was hardly any skin left on His body. Every part of His body, from head to toe, was covered with dripping blood. There were gapping wounds and pulsing veins. Looking at this crucifix, I said to my companions, “In all the times that I’ve thought about the crucifixion, I never imagined Jesus looking like this.” “How do we know that it wasn’t worse than this?” one companion responded.

So, why should we trust Jesus and follow Him? The answer is the cross. The fact that Jesus suffered social persecution from the people of his hometown is one thing. But the fact that the persecution He felt on the cross cut so deep, so deep that there is no possible way to comprehend the weight of its pain, and that He endured that persecution for all of us provides, for me, the most compelling argument. Simon and Jude, two of the most obscure of all the Twelve Apostles, exemplify what Paul proclaims about the cross of Christ—on the cross, Christ died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.[xv] Simon and Jude believed in Jesus and, because of their belief, gained new life in Christ, were raised with him in His resurrection, and used by the Holy Spirit to do some marvelous, wonderful things. Some of the Twelve went on to gain great notoriety for their ministries; others, including Simon and Jude, not so much. But from them both, we know these two things to be true: 1) Regardless of who you are and how well known, little known, or unknown you are, the grace of Christ is offered freely to all, without reservation or prerequisite, and 2) as Paul says, “…The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”[xvi] Therefore, because of Jesus and what He has done, may we all have the courage to meet with joy the hatred and persecution that comes our way for following Him. Amen.

[i] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

[ii] In addition to Mark 6.3, John 7.3, Acts 1.14, and I Corinthians 9.5 all make mention of Jesus having brothers. Since the time of the early Church, there has been considerable debate regarding what exactly is meant by the use of this term. Helvidius, in a 4th century treatise against the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary, stated that the New Testament’s mention of Jesus’ “sisters and brothers” was enough evidence to prove that Mary and Joseph engaged in normal martial relations after Jesus’ conception and birth. Saint Jerome, responding to Helvidius with a treatise of his own, The Perpetual Virginity of Blessed Mary, stated that Jesus’ “sisters and brothers” were either step-siblings, children of Joseph’s from a previous marriage, or cousins, children of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth and her husband Zacharias and the siblings of Saint John the Baptist. The view of Jesus’ “sisters and brothers” being children from a previous marriage of Joseph is one maintained by the Eastern Church.

[iii] Acts 15.19-20

[iv] Matthew 13.57 (Common English Bible)

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Passion of Simon and Jude

[vii] John 15.20 (cf. Matthew 10.24; Luke 6.40; Luke 22.27)

[viii] Luke 6.22-23 (cf. Matthew 5.10)

[ix] Geldenhuys, Norval. The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979), 210.

[x] Romans 8.35, 37

[xi] Titus 2.11

[xii] Wesley, Charles. “Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast,” The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville, Tennessee: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), 616.

[xiii] I John 2.15-17

[xiv] II Timothy 3.12

[xv] II Corinthians 5.15

[xvi] I Corinthians 1.18