“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

“Matters of the Heart” (August 17, 2014: The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 15A)–The Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Lafayette, Louisiana)

“…Great is your faith!”—Matthew 15.28[i]

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

 In reference to today’s Gospel lesson, a classmate of mine from seminary had this to say in a Facebook status update: “I have a theory that people are so uncomfortable with this upcoming Sunday’s Gospel because…it makes us look at our own brokenness.” Another way of putting it would be this: today’s Gospel lesson brings us to the reality of our own sin and how it distorts our relationship with God and with others. Why we are uncomfortable in recognizing our brokenness and with the reality that we, ourselves, do sin has to do with the fact that it makes us realize that we are not perfect and that we can be and are oftentimes wrong. But in order for sin to not have dominative power over us involves the conscious decision to acknowledge our need for redemption, for the need of something in our lives that is infallible, that can free us from sin’s power and control. Rather it being an infallible something, it is actually an infallible someone. That infallible someone is Jesus, the promised Messiah, the Son of the living God.

Jesus is the only Person that can redeem us, because, by being God in human form, only He can make us God’s adopted children, thereby heirs of God’s kingdom. To acknowledge our need for redemption by Jesus begs this question: What does it mean to live a life of faith? The question pertaining to the living of a life of faith is the question that composes the background for today’s appointed Gospel. In the parenthetical half of today’s Gospel, Jesus, having just engaged in a discussion with some Pharisees over the “tradition of the elders” and its relationship to the Law in the nine verses preceding, speaks to a gathered crowd about things that defile a person. Jesus specifically says, “…It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”[ii] As Jesus goes on to explain in verse 17, the things that we put in our mouths—the things that we eat—are all subject to a basic, natural bodily function. This bodily function is essential for the living of a healthy life, thus does not pose any perilous risk to our spiritual life. Jesus was making this point in reference to the discussion He just had with the Pharisees, who were concerned about ceremonial defilement, the belief that there were a great number of “unclean” things that one might encounter in the ordinary course of life that might easily be touched with the hands, which then made the hands become unclean, which, in turn, made the food that they ate unclean, thereby defiling them.[iii] This belief emanated from what was referred to as the “oral law,” laws that were passed down from generation to generation by Jewish legalists to serve as an oral compendium to the written Law. By his response in the first half of verse 11, bringing to light the fact that anything anyone eats is subject to the same process of digestion, Jesus makes the point that the Pharisees’ tradition, which they intended to help God’s people keep the Law, lead to the potential risk of them breaking the Law. With the disciples conveying to Jesus the Pharisee’s offense as to what He had said, what we have seen Jesus do is force the Pharisees into recognizing their own brokenness and of the fact that they were wrong on the issue of defilement. But instead of acknowledging the fact that they were wrong, they became angry with Jesus and did not accept the things that He had said.

In verse 18, Jesus provides a further explanation of what He said in the second half of verse 11: “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.”  In speaking of the heart, what Jesus is referring to is the innermost aspect of the human person, those things that dictate a person’s mentality, emotions, and will. From this, in order to know those things that defile and those things that do not boils down to this: knowing those things that are of God and those things that are not. To know the things that are of God, we should fast forward to what Jesus says to the Pharisaic lawyer in Matthew 22: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the Prophets.”[iv] Saint John the Evangelist puts it more succinctly in his first epistle: “…Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters, also.”[v] To love God with our whole heart is to recognize that the love that God has for us is the same love that He has for others. This recognition, therefore, calls for us who profess love for God to love our fellow human beings, for God is love and He loves them and us together. To do this is to be free from defilement, but to have things proceed from our hearts that are not of God—evils thoughts, murders, adultery, sexual sins, thefts, false testimonies, and insultscontaminate a person in God’s sight.”[vi] What lies in the heart is the determining factor to what does and what does not lead to defilement.

Jesus’ words about the heart and of the positive or negative implications that proceed from it serve, in my opinion, as the crucial link between the parenthetical verses of today’s Gospel and those that are freestanding. In the second half of today’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples are in the district of Tyre and Sidon, where they come upon a Canaanite woman, a Gentile, who pleads with Jesus, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”[vii] But what is next described is the most puzzling feature of the story: “…He did not answer her at all.”[viii] It goes on further to say that the disciples, feeling embarrassed by the shouting Gentile, say to Jesus, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us,” with Jesus’ response being, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”[ix] For me, the dialogue between the disciples and Jesus helps me deal with the uneasiness I feel regarding Jesus’ original action toward the Canaanite woman, for it signifies to me that there was some purpose for such a response. The response that Jesus gives to the disciples suggests that in their requesting Him to send the woman away, they did not want Him to do so without her daughter being healed. In saying that He was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, Jesus was making note of the fact that for that current moment in time, His mission was to Israel. I find myself also able to deal with my uneasiness from the assurance that Jesus gives in Matthew 24: “And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all nations…”[x] Yes, Gentiles have been grafted onto God’s cultivated olive tree,[xi] but it was at that current moment in time in which Jesus’ mission was to the house of Israel.

But the Canaanite woman did not give up; she was persistent, trusting that Jesus would help her. Jesus’ response to her can be taken as being harsh, but conveys an important truth. His words are an admonition that the children’s food is for the children, not for the dogs, and being that she is their mother, she is charged with the responsibility to see that the needs of her children are meet first before those of house pets. The Canaanite woman does not disagree with Jesus, but responds, in turn, that “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table,”[xii] bringing forth the notion that although there is a “hierarchy of place” in regards to the children and the dogs, with the children taking the priority place over the dogs, the dogs still have a place. The response of the Canaanite woman shows that she was perfectly aware that she was not a part of Israel, therefore not a part of what was then the current scope of Jesus’ mission, but was trusting that there would be “crumbs” of which she could partake. For Jesus, the woman’s response is a testament of deep faith, for which He recognizes by healing her daughter.

Here is where we see the link between the Gospel’s parenthetical and freestanding verses. From what Jesus says to the Canaanite woman in verse 26, we come to know a little bit about her background, in that prior to the account of verses 21-28, she was not seeing to the proper care of her children, giving to the pets the food the her children needed to survive. It was at this point in her life in which the things that lay in her heart and what came out as a result of them defiled her before God. But the Canaanite woman’s response in verse 27 shows that, within her, there was love for her children and that with her daughter being possessed by a demon, that love moved her to a place of remorse for her previous actions, making her recognize that she needed to make a change, and drove her to the feet of Jesus, hoping that He would have mercy enough on her to help her. With this Gentile woman coming to Jesus and seeking His help, she entered into a transition from a person whose heart was defiled before God to one whose heart began the process toward inner perfection. Jesus caused the Canaanite woman to recognize her own brokenness and the fact that she was wrong in regards to her previous inadequate care for her children. But unlike the Pharisees from the parenthetical half of today’s Gospel, by way of her response to Jesus, the Canaanite woman acknowledged that she was wrong and that she was in need of Jesus’ help. The faith she displayed to Jesus was the beginning of her heart, her very self, being made well.

Just like the Canaanite woman, it is important that we, too, recognize our own brokenness, that we are not perfect, and that we are in need of Jesus’ help. In today’s Epistle lesson, Saint Paul assures us that God has not rejected His people, nor has He turned His back on His promise of redemption. In the chapter previous to today’s Epistle, Saint Paul says this: “…The same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”[xiii] What we see by way of the Canaanite woman is an assurance that when we acknowledge our brokenness, acknowledge our sin, saying to Jesus, “Lord, help me,” He will hear us and have mercy on us. The Canaanite woman helps assure us that when we try to do the things that we are called to do—to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, and our neighbor as our self[xiv]—but fail, if we are sincerely penitent and seek amendment of life in Jesus, the mercy of God will be with us. This gives me the ability to trust in Jesus, for I recognize that I am broken and a sinner, accept the fact that I am not perfect, and, trusting Jesus to be the infallible Love of God, call out to Him for redemption, for I am in need of His help. 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] Matthew 15.11

[iii] Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), 390-391.

[iv] Matthew 22.37-39

[v] I John 4.21

[vi] Matthew 15.20 (Common English Bible)

[vii] Matthew 15.22

[viii] Matthew 15.23

[ix] Matthew 15.23-24

[x] Matthew 24.14

[xi] Romans 11.24

[xii] Matthew 15.27

[xiii] Romans 10.12b-13; cf. Joel 2.32

[xiv] Luke 10.27

“Ascension Episcopal School–A Christian Institution” (August 12, 2014: Opening Eucharist of the 2014-2015 Academic Year of Ascension Episcopal School–Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Lafayette, Louisiana)

“For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.”–I Corinthians 3.11

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

In 1997, at the age of 12, I enrolled as a 7th grade student at Saint Peter’s Episcopal Day School in Talladega, Alabama. That one year that I was fortunate enough to spend learning at EDS was my very first, formal introduction to the worship of Christ in the Anglican tradition. Every weekday morning, before the beginning of class, the Rector of Saint Peter’s Church, serving as the school’s chaplain, led chapel service for the students, faculty, and administration in the parish nave. For me, these weekday morning experiences caused me to develop more of an interest in my Christian faith than what I had previously had. I found myself paying more attention to the reading of the Holy Scriptures, feeling a hunger for them, and remembering what the readings were for that particular day. I was finding myself developing a closer relationship to Jesus and praying more. My time with Jesus was becoming the best and most important time to me.

But not only did these weekday chapel experiences affect me spiritually, they also affected my learning in the classroom. The spiritual questions that I was asking myself—“Who is Jesus to me?” “What does it mean to follow Him?”—began making me see my lessons in English, science, mathematics, history, the fine arts, and activities in physical education, as well as in other extracurricular activities as, somehow, all pointing back to God—to the truth of His existence, His Gospel, and His grace. The Psalmist best expresses what I was feeling and now firmly believe: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it….” (Psalm 24.1)

The purpose of me recounting this experience from my own life is due to the fact of how I felt it to be a result of my Episcopal school’s adherence to the words that Saint Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth: “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.” As distinct from each other, respectively, as they were, by the faculty and administration of my Episcopal school working together for a common purpose—to provide an enriched, quality education within an intentionally Christian environment—I found myself part of an atmosphere in which I became increasingly aware of Jesus as the foundation for all truth. The faculty that I learned from and the administrators that led the school all saw themselves as colleagues and fellow workers, not making it about them, but about the students they were charged to teach. The reason they worked so well together was because they, themselves, believed in Jesus as the foundation for all truth and the importance of the type of education they committed themselves to provide. It was because of the work of these early faculty, administrators, and chaplains, grounded in the faith of Jesus Christ, that I began to firmly believe in Jesus as my Lord and Savior. I stand before you as a living testament to the importance that Episcopal schools still have within our larger common life.

As I was preparing this sermon, I kept being drawn to the first line of our school’s mission statement: “Ascension Episcopal School is committed to academic excellence in a Christian environment.” Being drawn to this line from our mission statement, I could not help but to reflect on our school’s history, of those things from its beginning that have guided us to this current point of existence. When Jeanette Parker , in 1959, engaged in efforts to establish what then became Ascension Day School, she did so simply out of a want for there to be a specific kind of academic environment for her children to learn within. Several other parents, along with the late Reverend David Coughlin, then Rector of Church of the Ascension, believed in Mrs. Parker’s vision and joined with her in bringing it into reality. From a founding class of 17 kindergarten students in 1959 now stands Ascension Episcopal School, a K-12th grade institution of over 800+ students, faculty, staff, and administration and one of the most, if not “the” most, academically reputable institutions in Lafayette, Louisiana. What started it all was Mrs. Parker’s Christian faith, her belief in Jesus, her belief in His Word, and a want for an institution for her and others’ children where they would receive a quality academic education encompassing the tenets of the Christian faith as expressed within the Anglican tradition. It has been God’s grace that has sustained Ascension Episcopal School for 55 years and a constant reminder of and firm commitment, on our part, to the school’s Christian identity, of which by doing so, others have seen and come to know about us, wanting for their children that same type of academic environment that Mrs. Parker wanted for hers all those years ago. The foundation upon which we came, that has sustained us to the present, and on which we must depend for our future is Jesus Christ.

Charles Colcock Jones Carpenter, the late VI Bishop of Alabama, always said to the young children he was about to confirm, “Remember who you are and what you represent.” For us, I view Bishop Carpenter’s statement to be just as applicable, for I believe it important that as teachers, staffers, and administrators, we remember who we are as a school community and what it is that we represent because of it. Our Epistle lesson began with Saint Paul asking these two questions: “What then is Apollos? What then is Paul?” In order for us to remember who we are, we must first know who we are. What then is Brandt Montgomery? What then is all of you? The first thing we must know and remember is that we are all distinct individuals, equipped by God with various gifts and talents. Saint Paul attests to this: “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers…” (Ephesians 4.11) Within our vocation as teachers, God has called some of us to be language teachers, others as science teachers, others as history teachers, and so on and so on. The disciplines we represent are all different, yet equally important, for each of them brings to light particular aspects of our common life together.

But as Saint Paul also says, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.” (I Corinthians 12.4) Although we, ourselves, and the disciplines we teach may be different, all of our respective disciplines and us reflect back and build upon the same thing—God as the foundation upon which all truth comes. In reading the Bible, all of us can see our respective disciplines reflected throughout it pages. Science by the proclamation of God as the source for all creation, the One who has set all that there is in motion. History by a comparison of events from the past with those from the Biblical narrative, proving God’s very existence and as a relational Being, involved in all facets of time, past, present, and yet to come. Language arts by the lyricism of the Psalms, the Songs of Solomon, and various other Biblical poems, reflecting language as a gift of God to us, giving us the ability to communicate our emotions both to and about Him, and serving as a connecting source amongst the various peoples of the earth. And the reflections continue on. From these reflections, we come to see that whatever the differences regarding what we teach or what we do are, or whatever differences there may be between us, God uses us as conduits of His truth, thereby making us servants through whom others may come to believe in Him. This makes us all God’s servants, working together. This brings us together as God’s field, God’s building (I Corinthians 3.9).

But not only is it important that we know and remember who we are, it is also important that we know who it is that we represent. Again, as our mission statement declares, “Ascension Episcopal School is committed to academic excellence in a Christian environment.” The Person who it is that we represent and the very foundation upon which all that we are as a school is built is Jesus Christ. This Jesus, who is the Ascension Episcopal School foundation, is the God of all time who, out of His great love for us, became human and dwelled among us; who, for us, suffered on a cross and died, paying the price for our sins that we could not pay, freeing us from the shackles of sin and death, and reconciled us to God the Father; whose resurrection from the grave opened for us the way of everlasting life; and through whom our humanity sits on the right hand of God the Father in Heaven. Saint Paul says, “…We are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us…” (II Corinthians 5.20)

In order for Ascension Episcopal School to remain true to its mission of providing a quality education within a Christian environment, we must acknowledge Jesus Christ as being the foundation upon which our school is built. As a Christian school, we align ourselves with Jesus, the Son of God, revealed in Holy Scripture and confessed in both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. We look to the Holy Scriptures, both the Old and New Testaments, as being the Word of God, through which God still speaks to us, His people. We commit ourselves to gathering together for corporate worship, so we can give praise to God, hear what His Spirit is saying to us through Scripture, pray for ourselves and for others, and experience God’s grace through the Sacraments. As a Christian institution, all that Ascension Episcopal School endeavors to teach and do should reflect back on Jesus, God’s love in human form, the only One able to free us from our sin, and who, by what He has done, has made us heirs of God’s kingdom.

It is this kind of environment in which the mission of Ascension Episcopal School is focused. As one administrator said during a recent CPE session, “These kids are going to be looking to see if we walk the talk.” This begs the question, “Do you believe?” Do you believe in our mission? Do you believe in Jesus? Do you believe Jesus to still be relevant to who we are as a school community? I know that I do and I hope that all of you do, as well. If you believe in our mission and are committed to its manifestation, our students will take notice. By seriously striving to walk the talk, committing ourselves to be that community that we say we are, our students will know that we are serious about this Christian environment stuff, from which opens the possibility for the seeds of belief in Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life to be planted.

May we always remember who we are—Ascension Episcopal School…committed to academic excellence in a Christian environment. May we always remember who it is that we represent—Jesus Christ, the salvation of the world, the foundation for who we are, and the fount from whom all truth comes.

“For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.” Amen!

“The God of Abraham Praise” (June 29, 2014: The Third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 8A)–Canterbury Episcopal Chapel, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, Alabama)

“…God himself will provide the lamb…”—Genesis 22.8[1]

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

This past Monday evening, while celebrating the 30th birthday of our friend and brother Zach Price with both he and our other friend and brother Ashton Sims, I made mention about the stress I was having regarding today’s appointed lessons and how my sermon was going to be drafted. As we were talking, Zach reminded me of something—that when the lectionary[2] presents us with a lesson that is either troubling or makes us uncomfortable, it should not be shied away from, but rather confronted and dealt with. Zach’s words were what I needed to hear, for they gave me the encouragement I needed to battle my stress and discern the focus toward which I felt the Holy Spirit’s pulling for today’s sermon. It is my prayer that in the words I speak to you today, the Good News will be made manifest.

The first lesson we heard from Genesis 22 was of the near sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham’s youngest son, born to him by his wife Sarah. Many biblical commentaries classify this story as being the most admired, yet also the most troubling of all the stories in the Book of Genesis. It is admired from the sense of Abraham’s deep level of trust in God and the willingness he displays to be completely obedient of God’s commands. Yet, it is troubling in the fact that God commanded Abraham to sacrifice, to kill his son Isaac, offering him as a burnt offering on a mountain of which would be shown by God. The episode with which we are confronted is a moral paradox—in this case, a situation that hampers our intuition, our ability to understand something’s intentions immediately. To have such a paradox presented so early on in the Biblical narrative is a huge risk, especially for one reading it for the first time in which they could see this story, think that God is some sort of heartless tyrant, and close the Bible, refusing to have anything to do with the God it presents. For today’s Old Testament lesson to appear just 22 chapters after the Bible’s very beginning and with the Bible having a lot more territory to cover beyond that, the logical conclusion is that this lesson’s early appearance in Scripture is meant to help establish a claim that is made throughout its every page—the Lord is good.[3] But how can a story about God commanding a father to sacrifice his son corroborate the claim of God’s goodness? It is this moral paradox with which we find ourselves faced.

Under what circumstance have we been brought to such a paradox? As you may recall, this past Sunday’s Old Testament lesson was the story of the sending away of Hagar and Ishmael, found in Genesis 21. In Genesis 16, believing “that the LORD has prevented me from bearing children…Sarai[4], Abram’s[5] wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and gave her to her husband…as a wife.”[6]From this arrangement was born Ishmael, Abram’s oldest son, and with him, jealousy and contempt between his enslaved mother and her mistress. Then, in Genesis 18, the Lord promised Abraham that He “will return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son,” at which, upon hearing this, Sarah laughed.[7] But, indeed, “Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age…Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him.”[8] All of these events set up the context for last Sunday’s Old Testament lesson, instigated by Sarah’s jealousy over seeing Isaac, Abraham’s younger son, who she bore, play with Ishmael, the older son, born to Abraham by Hagar. In order that Ishmael would be prevented from inheriting from Abraham alongside Isaac, Sarah demands that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away—a demand that greatly distressed Abraham. God comforts Abraham in his distress, promising him that because Ishmael is his son, God will make a nation out of him.[9] So bending to Sarah’s request, Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael away, after which God also promises Hagar that a great nation will be made out of Ishmael and commands her to “…lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand…”[10] According to tradition, the lineage of Muhammad, the founder of Islam, can be traced back to Ishmael.[11]

All of that brings us to today’s Old Testament lesson. One particular commentary I studied while preparing today’s sermon had this to say: “Unless there’s something missing from our text, Abraham doesn’t seem to skip a beat between God suggesting that he sacrifice his son and hitting the road.”[12] I, myself, believe that something is missing from the text—a description of Abraham’s emotional state. When demanded by Sarah that he send his first-born son away, Scripture says that “the matter was very distressing to Abraham…”[13] By Scripture attesting to Abraham’s distress at sending his oldest son away, I can’t help but to think that God’s command for Abraham to sacrifice his youngest and only remaining son was just as distressing, perhaps a great deal more so. “Really God? You actually can’t be serious! I’ve already lost one son, and now you’re asking me to SACRIFICE another? Why God? WHY?” Yes, Abraham obeyed and hit the road toward Moriah, but I believe he did so with his heart heavy and aching with grief.

When they came to the place and the time for the sacrifice was nigh, I can only imagine the emotional frenzy that Abraham must have been in. Binding up Isaac and placing him on the altar must have been pure emotional torture, torture that you wouldn’t wish on anybody, not even your own worst enemy. Agonized and highly distressed, Abraham takes the knife and raises it up, preparing himself to do what God has commanded. Then, as the act is about to be done, God shouts out, “Abraham…Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” How sweet, how precious the relief must have felt. Because of Abraham’s willingness to be obedient to God, God makes this promise: “I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore…and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.”[14]

19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard struggled immensely with the Abraham and Isaac story. The crucial question he sought to answer was whether or not humanity should bend to the demands of faith when it appears to contradict ideals that are intrinsically good. One of Kierkegaard’s conclusions to this question was that faith requires passion, which can only be experienced, not learned.[15] For Abraham, this meant being willing to trust that God’s command to sacrifice his son was being made in relation to a divine purpose pointing to God’s goodness. The author of the Book of Hebrews speaks of Abraham’s faith in this way: “By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, ‘It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.’ He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead—and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.”[16] God conveyed His goodness in that when He saw just how far Abraham was wiling to go to obey Him, He spared Abraham from killing his son, provided a ram as a substitutionary offering, and blessed him. A much welcomed end to a highly emotional story.

For us, though, is that enough? How can we bring ourselves to trust in a God that would ask us to sacrifice someone? I believe that we come to our answer during the course of the story, itself. In verses 7-8, when Isaac inquires about the whereabouts for the lamb for the offering, Abraham responds, “God will provide the lamb.”[17] Abraham’s answer, in relation to the moment, may come across as evasive, but underneath it lays a convergence of time. The immediate truth is that God did provide a lamb to be sacrificed in place of Isaac. But there was also a long-term prophetic truth to Abraham’s answer, further expounded on by the author of Hebrews—the idea that God is able to raise someone from the dead. Did God provide such a Lamb, raising this Person from the dead? Yes—Jesus! How can we bring ourselves to trust the God of Abraham? The answer is Jesus!

In the Gospel of John, Jesus said that “Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.”[18] The angel, in announcing the birth of our Lord to Saint Joseph, said, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit…He will save his people from their sins.”[19] Saint Peter proclaims, “Christ suffered for our sins once for all time…He suffered physical death, but he was raised to life in the Spirit.”[20] Abraham was right; God did provide a Lamb—Jesus Christ, God’s only begotten Son. Here are some further parallels that help make the case:

Abraham and Isaac Jesus
“Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and…offer him…as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I will show you.” (Genesis 22.2) “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3.16)
“Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together.”

(Genesis 22.6)

“…Jesus…carrying the cross by himself…went out to what is called Golgotha.” (John 19.17)
“[Isaac] said, ‘The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?’” (Genesis 22.7) “…[John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’” (John 1.29)

Permit me, if you will, to close by speaking about how I, as a fervent believer, have come to a place of peace regarding today’s Old Testament reading. Because of Jesus—God in human form, who was, Himself, the full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice that paid the price for our sins that we could not pay, forever freeing us from the law of sin and death—I am able to stomach this story and trust the God of Abraham. Because of Jesus’ dying on a cross and rising to life again from the grave, I have confidence to believe that all is truly and forever well, that because Jesus lives, I live, and that, because of God’s grace, there is nothing I have to fear. Because of Jesus, who He is and what He has done, my takeaway from today’s first lesson is that I should strive to be as faithful and obedient to God like Abraham was, that God can really be trusted, and that the will of God will always be for good, for God Himself is good. Because of Jesus, I can, with strong conviction, praise the God of Abraham. Amen.

[1] 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.

[2] The Episcopal Church (USA) utilizes the Revised Common Lectionary, publicly released in 1994, the result of the collaborative efforts of both the North American Consultation on Common Texts and the International English Language Liturgical Consultation.

[3] Psalm 136.1

[4] God changed Sarai’s name in Genesis 17.15-16: “…Sarah shall be her name…I will bless her, and she shall give rise to many nations; kings of people shall come from her.”

[5] God changed Abram’s name in Genesis 17.5: “No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations.”

[6] Genesis 16.2-3

[7] Genesis 18.9-15

[8] Genesis 21.1-3

[9] Genesis 21.13

[10] Genesis 21.18

[11] Esposito, John L. The Oxford Dictionary of Islam (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 144.

[12] Lonsbury, Leah. “How Far Would You Go?” (http://www.sermonsuite.com/#previews. Accessed on June 26, 2014)

[13] Genesis 21.11

[14] Genesis 22.17-18

[15] In his 1843 philosophical work Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard seeks to understand the anxiety that must have afflicted Abraham when God commanded him to sacrifice his youngest and only remaining son.

[16] Hebrews 11.17-19

[17] Genesis 22.8 (Contemporary English Version)

[18] John 8.56

[19] Matthew 1.20-21

[20] I Peter 3.18 (New Living Translation)

“God: Three in One and One in Three” (June 15, 2014–The First Sunday after Pentecost: Trinity Sunday; Canterbury Episcopal Chapel, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, Alabama)

“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”—II Corinthians 13.14[1]

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

Of all the Church’s Principal Feasts, Major Feasts, Holy Days, and Days of Special Devotion, Trinity Sunday is my least favorite. It’s not so much that I don’t like Trinity Sunday, itself, but, rather, feel that every time I’m the one assigned the task of preaching about this doctrine so mysterious, highly confusing, and utterly complex, I make the people I’m preaching to even more confused about the Trinity than they were before. So by the end of this sermon, if I cause any of you further confusion, I offer you my advance apologies. At the heart of my frustration with this day is the knowledge that, for the analytical human mind, I’m making a very tough sale. “God: Three in One and One in Three.” I know; it’s confounding!

Roman Catholic theologian Robert Barron puts forth the idea that the language of Trinitarian theology is purposely meant to confound us and the more I think about that idea, the more I find the possibility of such thought being true. Perhaps that is God’s modus operandi. Perhaps it is God’s purpose that we be intentionally confused, blocked, and shielded from fully understanding the Trinity. From the prophet Isaiah, we hear this declaration about God: “…My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways…”[2] Why is that? Why doesn’t God want us to know every complete detail about Him? The answer, I feel, has to do with relationship.

By intentionally blocking us from coming to the full knowledge of His Trinitarian nature, God preserves His relationship with us through our want to know everything. We humans are an inquisitive type of being. We are naturally attracted towards things that spark our interest. As Christians, God is the source of our attraction, for He is the very foundation from which all that we believe in comes. So by shielding our minds from the fullness of His nature, God keeps drawing us more and more to Himself. The more we are drawn to Him, the more we come to know of God’s goodness. The more knowledgeable we become of God’s goodness, the greater our attraction to Him gets. The more we come to know about God, the even more there is that remains to be known.

So by God intentionally shrouding our minds from the full knowledge of His nature, causing us to draw more and more into Him, God, in turn, is also able to preserve His relationship with us out of the simple, yet amazing fact that He actually wants to be in relationship with us. What we learn from our first lesson from Genesis 1 and 2 is that God is relational. Everything that was created on Earth and in Heaven sprang forth from God’s speaking it into existence: “Let there be…,” of which God saw that everything He created “was good.” But of humankind, we hear that “…God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them…and indeed, it was very good.”[3]What we learn about God is that He wants to be relationship with us because He created us. In addition to our Genesis reading, the entire Biblical narrative is the story of God’s persistent pursuit of us. God simply cannot leave us alone. He just cannot do it.

You would think that after the constant going back and forth—of God using prophets to call His people back, the people coming back (for a time), then going away again—God would have eventually come to His senses, said, “To heck with them,” and left us to our own devices. But the love of God is strong—stronger than all the various kinds of love combined. The love of God is an intense love, so much so that it points to God’s very Being as unique and unlike any other. The most extraordinary way in which God showed and proved His love for us was by coming into our own time, making Himself human, and dwelling among us. Jesus is God’s ultimate proof of His pursuit to be in continuous relationship with us. Is Jesus truly God? Yes! Is Jesus really human? Yes! Scripture attests to these facts: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel (which means, GOD with us).”[4] Was Jesus there from the very beginning? Yes! Scripture also attests to this fact: “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.”[5]

So there it is—Jesus is God Himself, in the flesh! In the words of Saint Paul, Jesus “is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible…all things were created through him and for him.”[6] Apart from the fact that He composes part of the Trinity, the dual nature of Jesus—in that, in His one Self, He is both human and divine—is bewildering, but is a duality that was necessary and essential for the salvation of all humanity. Jesus encompasses all time that is past, is part of that which is the present, and, by His actions, has set the course of the time that is to come. By taking on our humanity, Christ caused us to become adopted as children of God, thus making us heirs of God’s kingdom.[7] Through His divinity, Christ made the offering for our sins that we could not make, redeemed us from the law of sin and death, and has forever reconciled us to God the Father.[8] The resurrection of Jesus from the grave brought forth life out of the depths of death for all who have faith and believe: “O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting? Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”[9] Of course, the crucial factor of Jesus being able to do what He did was that as God, He was totally without sin. Jesus is God’s all encompassing, fully unconditional love personified, in human form, from whom we receive the gift of grace—the free and unmerited favor of God, through which we receive forgiveness of sin, amendment of life, and relationship with Him. “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away…everything has become new!”[10]

Jesus was God’s love that walked and talked with us on Earth. As Roman Catholic theologian Gerhard Lohfink notes:

“At the center of the Church’s faith stands Jesus Christ…In Jesus Christ, the Son, God has said everything. In Him God has fully and finally spoken the innermost divine essence. But God has also done everything in Jesus. In Him God has given God’s own self to the world in the ultimate act of love. In the risen and exalted Christ…the world has already reached its perfection.”[11]

When you have something good (or, in this case, extremely good) with you, why would you want it to end? But, as Geoffrey Chaucer (of Canterbury Tales fame) once said, “All good things must come to an end.” So Jesus, after spending a season of time among us on Earth, both before His death and after His resurrection, had to leave us, returning to His Father, our Father, in Heaven. Jesus, Himself, said, “…It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.”[12] The ascension of Jesus into Heaven was pivotal for the human race, for when Jesus ascended into Heaven, He took our humanity with Him, thereby causing our humanity to dwell at the right hand of God the Father in the Person of Jesus, forever holding together the relationship between God the Father and the human family.

But just as Jesus promised, the Holy Spirit, the Counselor, came, opening up the way to salvation to the people of every land with every different style of language. In addition that our humanity would be taken up into Heaven, Jesus’ ascension occurred so that the Holy Spirit could come, helping us to live into Jesus and as His people in the world. Just as God the Father and God the Son, Jesus Christ, have been in existence from the very beginning, so has the Holy Spirit, revealed throughout the Old Testament as the Giver of life and the One who spoke through the prophets and the New Testament as the One who helps us grow in Christ’s likeness. The Holy Spirit is present among us, the Body of Christ, the Church, and lives within each of us and all others who sincerely confess the truth that is above all truth: Jesus is Lord!

“The Father is God. The Son is God. The Holy Spirit is God. God is the Father. God is the Son. God is the Holy Spirit. The Father is not the Son. The Son is not the Father. The Father is not the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not the Father. The Son is not the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not the Son.”[13] As confounding, complex, and mysterious the Trinity is, I have faith that it works. Despite the fact that I can’t figure it out, I have faith in the Trinity’s perfection because I trust God. From the Trinity, I feel God’s grace, which sought me out, ransomed and sustains me. Because of the Trinity, I find myself continuously drawing closer to God and I can’t get enough of His goodness. In the words of Saint Patrick: “I bind unto myself today the strong Name of the Trinity, by invocation of the same, the Three in One, and One in Three.”[14]

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God: O come, let us adore Him. Amen!

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

[2] Isaiah 55.8

[3] Genesis 1.27, 31 (NRSV)

[4] Matthew 1.23; cf. Isaiah 7.14

[5] John 1.1-3

[6] Colossians 1.15-16

[7] Romans 8.14, 17

[8] Galatians 4.5

[9] I Corinthians 15.55, 57

[10] II Corinthians 5.17

[11] Lohfink, Gerhard. No Irrelevant Jesus: On Jesus and the Church Today (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2014), 144.

[12] John 16.7

[13] The twelve propositions from the “Shield of the Trinity,” a traditional Christian visual symbol expressing aspects of the doctrine of the Trinity in the first part of the Athanasian Creed, found on pp. 864-865 of The Book of Common Prayer (1979).

[14] Saint Patrick’s Breastplate, translation by Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895).

“Something Has Changed, Yet Remains the Same” (June 8, 2014: The Day of Pentecost–Whitsunday; Canterbury Episcopal Chapel, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, Alabama)

“…We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”—Acts 2.11[1]

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

I did not grow up with the 1928 Prayer Book, but was radically exposed to it during my senior year at General Seminary while serving as the Seminarian at Saint Thomas Church (Fifth Avenue), which utilized it in the recitation of the Daily Office and for the chanting of the Coverdale Psalter[2] at Sunday morning Masses. For those of you familiar with the liturgical customs of Saint Thomas Church (or who have had to bear through my endless ravings about the place), you will know that it holds a highly unique position within the greater life and witness of the Episcopal Church, having as its mission, “To worship, love, and serve our Lord Jesus Christ through the Anglican tradition and our unique choral heritage.” As you can probably imagine, the traditional language of the 1928 Prayer Book, combined with the liturgical customary of Saint Thomas Church, steeped in the great traditions of Anglo-Catholicism, and the glorious, heavenly sounds of its Choir of Men and Boys all emotionally clutched onto me and provided many Wesleyan Aldersgate-type moments. For me, all of these moments were Holy Spirit moments. They each brought me into the presence of the Holy in ways that were both profound and transformative.

But even though I came to have a deep appreciation and love for the language of the 1928 Prayer Book, my exposure to it also made me have a renewed appreciation for the 1979 Prayer Book and what it did for the liturgical life of our Church. It made me realize that even though traditional Elizabethan English lies deep within the history of the Anglican Christian tradition, language changes and the 1979 Prayer Book was the result of conscious efforts by the Church to communicate the faith of Christ in the language of the current times. Also, the rubrics of the 1979 Prayer Book gave way to greater participation of the laity in the liturgy and for a greater variety of expressions of worship in Christian community. The 1979 Prayer Book was the result of the Church being intentional in listening for what the Holy Spirit was saying to it in its time. In an ironic use of words, the 1979 Prayer Book was “meet and right so to do.”

19th century French critic Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr once said that “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” What we hear today from Acts 2, in a more positive context from that of Karr’s original meaning, is of an event that ushers in a change, but one that manages to keep that which its changing the same. Today is the Day of Pentecost, in which our Lord fulfilled His promise to His disciples given immediately before His ascension into Heaven: “…For John baptized with water, but before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”[3] Pentecost is also the fulfillment of another promise from our Lord in Matthew 28.20b: “…I am with you always, to the close of the age.” With Jesus making good on His promises to us, we see the descent of the Holy Spirit, the gift of Christ for His people, upon a variety of people from a variety of lands, speaking in a variety of tongues. By intentionally listing the various peoples upon which the Holy Spirit fell on that Pentecost day, Saint Luke the Evangelist, the author of Acts, foreshadows an important change that will take place throughout the course of his book—a change from the view that “…unless you are circumcised…you cannot be saved,”[4]to that of “…whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”[5]The most important point that comes from our Acts lesson—the point that has always remained the same—is that God shows no distinction between anybody: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”[6]So today, in a more positive way, we see something that changes, yet also remains the same. We see that the grace of Jesus Christ, realized through our belief in Him through the power of the Holy Spirit, is something offered not just to one specific group of people in one specific way, but offered to all people in a variety of ways. On this day, the Holy Spirit has come, filled the hearts of the faithful, and has renewed the face of the entire earth.

From the Letter to the Hebrews, we hear that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”[7] Although Jesus, Himself, and the message He brings us—“I came that you may have life and have it abundantly”[8]—has never changed, time has and as time has changed, so has the use of language. That is what we see in the Day of Pentecost—the telling of the same message, but in a radically different way. Through Pentecost, Christ begins the conversion of hearts and minds to the reality that His salvation is being brought to the people of every land with every different style of language. Not only has His resurrection forever opened the gates of Heaven to all who believe, but the descent of His Holy Spirit has expanded the reach of the Gospel message, so that every person on Earth who hears it may come to the same confession of faith like that of Saint Peter: “…You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”[9]

What I am specifically being reminded of this Pentecost is that while I may have a strong preference for Anglo-Catholic worship, not everybody does and while I may feel the Holy Spirit’s presence through it, it may make others feel that God is far away from them. As Episcopalians, that is why I think that the 1979 Prayer Book is such a valuable instrument for us. Its rubrics allow for flexibility for various sorts of liturgical expressions—Low Church, Broad Church, and High Church/Anglo-Catholic. This flexibility allows for a community to treasure the particular traditions that make them who they are, so that they may continue to hear what the Spirit is saying to them as God’s people. For me, over time, this has come with the realization for the need to embrace styles of worship that are different from that which I prefer. By doing so, I have seen and felt the Holy Spirit do some marvelous things.

The Good News is still the Good News: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”[10] The Good News will NEVER change. Because of His offering Himself as a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice on a cross, Jesus paid a price for our sins that in no way could we have paid and freed us from the dominion of sin and death. Because of His resurrection, the way to eternal life has been opened to us. Because of Jesus, the human form of God, “…we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace which he lavished upon us.”[11]From Eucharistic Prayer B, we have been brought “out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life,” all because of Jesus.[12]

Article XXIV of the Articles of Religion states: “It is a thing plainly repugnant to the Word of God…to have public Prayer in the Church, or to minister the Sacraments, in a tongue not understanded of the people.” By God’s grace, the Holy Spirit has come and revealed that all the peoples of the earth are His people. Because all people are His people, God has expanded the way in which His Word can be heard, understood, and received by everyone who hears it throughout every place on Earth and throughout all time. For some people, in our own time, Anglo-Catholicism is how that happens; for others, it may be through Low Church Evangelicalism; for others, charismatic Pentecostalism; for others, contemporary Christian worship. But though there may be differing styles of worship and languages spoken through which the message of salvation is preached and received, the message, itself, is and forever will be the same: “…The free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[13]

The Spirit of the Lord has filled the world; O come, let us adore Him. Amen!

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

[2] Myles Coverdale, who served as the Bishop of Exeter from 1551-1553, was a Biblical scholar and translator credited with the production of the first complete English translation of the Bible, first published in 1535. Amongst Anglicans worldwide, Coverdale’s translation of the Psalter is the most familiar and treasured and was included in every prayer book of the American Episcopal Church until the ratification of the 1979 edition.

[3] Acts 1.5

[4] Acts 15.1b

[5] Acts 2.21; cf. Joel 2.32

[6] Galatians 3.28

[7] Hebrews 13.8

[8] John 10.10

[9] John 16.16

[10] John 3.16

[11] Ephesians 1.7-8

[12] Eucharistic Prayer B from The Holy Eucharist: Rite Two, 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), 368.

[13] Romans 6.23b

“Firmly I Believe and Truly” (April 19, 2014: The Great Vigil & First Eucharist of Easter–Canterbury Episcopal Chapel, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, Alabama; April 20, 2014: The Sunday of the Resurrection: Easter Day–Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Tuskegee, Alabama)

“He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said….”—Matthew 28.6[1] (The Great Vigil & First Eucharist of Easter)

“…I have seen the Lord….”—John 20.18 (The Sunday of the Resurrection: Easter Day)

Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

When I woke up on October 14, 2013, I did so expecting it to be just a regular kind of day. Being that it was a Monday, I was on Sabbath, which usually entailed such activities like watching a black-and-white movie on Netflix or Turner Classic Movies, reading a biography, busting out the old trumpet to practice some favorite jazz standards, or just getting out and about in the town. But my expectation was radically removed when, shortly before 8:30am, I received a phone call from my mother. “Brandt…Brandt, I’m calling to let you know that your grandmother has passed.” After taking a little bit of time to soak in the news that I had just heard, I packed a suitcase, got in my car, and made the 109-mile trip back home to Talladega, Alabama, where the duty fell upon me to arrange, officiate, and preach at my grandmother’s funeral and bury her. “This is what your grandmother would have wanted,” my Uncle Darryl said in asking me to be my grandmother’s funeral officiant and preacher.

February 11, 2014 would have been my grandmother’s 82nd birthday. Emotionally, on that day and the two days following, I was not in a good place. It was the most raw that I had felt in quite a long time and the farthest away that I felt God was from me. While sleeping during the early evening of February 13, I had a dream that I was sitting in the downstairs living room of my townhouse reading, when, all of a sudden, at the top of the stairs leading down into the living room, appeared my grandmother! I couldn’t believe my eyes. She looked the way I remembered from the time of my first conscious memory of her face. She was wearing one of her trademark pantsuits that I oftentimes saw her wear when I was growing up. She walked down the stairs, her limbs moving with fullness of vigor, her movement having a spring-like quality. She walked right up to me and said, in a pristine and clear tone, “How are you, baby?” The dementia was gone! She cognitively knew exactly who I was. For the first time in a long time, I didn’t have to reintroduce myself to her. Amazed and filled with joy, I replied, “I’m OK, Granny. How are you?” “I’m doing just fine,” she said, saying it with the biggest smile that I ever saw her have. Of all the things that occurred in this dream, it was her smiling that communicated the most powerful message, for from her smile, I could visibly see the truth of our Lord’s words to His friend, Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”[2] From my grandmother’s smile, I received a renewed assurance that everything that our Lord said is true and that she was, indeed, living, raised to new life by the glory of Jesus Christ. After she smiled at me, the dream ended and I woke up. I kept saying, “Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Jesus!” No longer was I feeling raw; no longer did I feel God far away from me. From just one short dream, all was made well.

Usually, I find it hard to recount details of the dreams I have, but not this one. It was so vivid, so clear, so striking that it seemed to be more than just a dream, but a glimpse into that of which was part of a greater truth. What I felt my grandmother doing was showing me a form of visible proof that the claim that Jesus having risen from the grave on the third day was absolutely true and that she, who possessed a great love for Him while alive on Earth, was now, in the words of Saint Paul, “raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.”[3]Because of my grandmother’s witness to me in a dream, I stand before you, with a conviction stronger than it has ever been, proclaiming my belief that the news we have just been given—that Jesus Christ has risen—is true! The message of the angel: “He is not here; for he has been raised…”; Mary Magdalene’s announcement to the disciples: “…I have seen the Lord…”; our creedal profession: “On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures”[4]—I believe it! I believe all of it! Jesus Christ has risen and we, who have died with Christ in His death, now live with Him in the power of His resurrection![5] Thanks be to God: alleluia, alleluia! 

Several months ago, I was talking with one of my younger fraternity brothers, a firmly committed atheist, about Christianity’s claims about Jesus, during which he said: “I remember sitting in Sunday school as a kid, hearing all of these stories about Jesus walking on water, healing people, being raised from the dead and stuff and thinking to myself, ‘I don’t believe any of this. It’s just not natural.’” The prophet Isaiah declares, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.”[6]For me, knowing that I am imperfect and prone to the proclivities of sin, the Person of Jesus gives me the ability to trust Him as Someone that is perfect and able to save me from that which seeks to do me harm. His “unnaturalness” gives me the ability to trust that in the midst of all my brokenness, Jesus is the only perfect Source that can bring healing to that which is broken within me; who is able to be my Refuge in the midst of trouble. Because I believe in Jesus, I believe in His resurrection. I believe that all of us have been saved from the sting of death, that Christ protects us from sin’s quest for dominion over us, and, because of what Jesus has done, that we are truly free.

I know that most of what I have said has come from my own personal experience, but let me assure you that the Good News of Jesus’ resurrection isn’t just for me, but is for all of us. Saint Paul states: “This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”[7]The message of the angel—“He is not here; for he has been raised…”—is for all of us! Mary Magdalene’s announcement to the disciples—“…I have seen the Lord…”—is for all of us! Jesus was crucified, dead, buried, and rose for all of us! We have all been changed by the power of Jesus’ resurrection. “Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”[8]  

Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen, indeed! Alleluia! 

[1] 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.

[2] John 11.25-26

[3] Colossians 2.12

[4] From the text of the Nicene Creed as approved by the First Council of Constantinople in A.D. 381.

[5] Romans 6.8

[6] Isaiah 55.8

[7] I Timothy 1.15 (Translation found in the Holy Eucharist—Rite I of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer of The Episcopal Church)

[8] I Corinthians 15.54b-55, 57

“Foot Washing–I Now Understand It” (April 17, 2014: Maundy Thursday–Canterbury Episcopal Chapel, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, Alabama)

“…Do you know what I have done to you?”—John 13.12[1] 

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

Throughout my now 12 years as an Episcopalian, I have been in parishes that either did or did not do foot washing as part of their Maundy Thursday liturgy. Foot washing was never really my thing and whenever I was in a parish that did do it, I took its voluntary option to heart by completely avoiding it. The reason why I never elected to have my feet washed had to do with the simple and honest fact that I found the action too graphic and repulsive. The very thought of somebody touching and rubbing my feet and, worse, me having to do the same to somebody else’s feet just freaked me out too much and I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. Foot washing may have been up other people’s alleys, but it surely wasn’t up mine.

A couple of month’s ago, while I was flying back to Alabama from a trip to New York City, the Vestry was at Camp McDowell having its annual pre-Icicle Retreat meeting, during which it was decided that after years of it having not been done, foot washing was, once again, going to be a part of the Maundy Thursday liturgy. When I finally got to the retreat and was made aware of this decision, I immediately thought to myself, “Oh crap!” And being that the Rector, my boss, was in support of it happening, there was no way that I could get out of it. Suddenly, I found myself forced to rethink my stance regarding foot washing. I had to find some way to get over the repulsion I had toward the act.

I found myself getting over my repulsion just a few days ago while reading today’s Gospel, preparing for this sermon. What particularly jumped out at me was the question that Jesus asked His disciples after He had finished washing their feet: “…Do you know what I have done to you?” At that moment, my mind was driven to consider the circumstances of the situation forthcoming. Jesus is about to be betrayed and He is going to die. All of the disciples, whose feet Jesus had just washed, are going to turn their backs on Him: Judas will betray Him to the authorities; Peter will deny Him three times before cockcrow; all the other disciples will scatter away and hide in fear. But despite all that was about to happen, Jesus still stooped down, lowering Himself to the place of a humble servant, and showed honor to His disciples by washing their feet. When considering all of this, I imagined Jesus’ communication to His disciples through His action: “Despite the fact that you will betray Me, that you will turn your backs on Me, that you will leave Me at my most fearful hour, I still love you.” I felt Jesus saying to me, “Brandt, in spite of all your failings, shortcomings, and flaws, I still love you.” Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.[2] What Jesus did to His disciples (as well as open my eyes to) was show them His unconditional love.

Thinking about that humbled me. It made me think about my own sin, my own failings, and how I have oftentimes fallen short of God’s glory and that if the disciples, who were just as sinful and broken as I am, could still be recipients of Christ’s unconditional love by having their feet washed, who am I to think of such an act as being too graphic and repulsive? It made me realize that by not letting my feet be washed, I was missing out on an opportunity to share in the life of Jesus at that very moment. No longer do I have a repulsion of foot washing on Maundy Thursday. I’ve gotten over my apprehension and I repent of it. So when we recommence, momentarily, the practice of Maundy Thursday foot washing, instead of trying to wiggle my way out of it, I will be taking part, seeking to live into Jesus’ command: “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”[3]

Having my attitude humbled by today’s Gospel has reminded me that I am in need of help and that Jesus is the only One that can help me. As hard as I try to do all that our Lord commands us to, I always find myself falling short. There are times in which I find it extremely hard to love someone that has offended and hurt me. There are times in which I have a hard time honoring my neighbors that offend and hurt others. There have been times in which I have offended and hurt others and have beaten myself up for it. Today’s Gospel, I believe, not only shows us a glimpse of Jesus’ unconditional love, but also a glimpse of His grace, which gives me hope. It gives me the hope to trust that whenever I fail and fall short and ask for forgiveness for my hardness of heart, I will not be turned away. Not only Jesus’ actions, but the Person of Jesus, Himself, moves me to trust the words of Saint John: “If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”[4]

Today we have been given Good News: the love of Jesus Christ is truly unconditional. Let us live into that love and our continued striving to spread the love of Jesus to others, aided by God’s help. Amen!

[1] Unless otherwise stated, 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.

[2] John 13.1b

[3] John 13.15

[4] I John 2.1b-2

“Baptism–Is It Really Necessary?” (January 12, 2014: The First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord; Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Birmingham, Alabama)

“…Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”—Matthew 3.15[1]

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

For quite some time, there has been a debate within Anglican and other Protestant Christian Churches concerning the topic of “Communion without Baptism”—a practice that allows individuals who are not baptized Christians to receive the Sacrament of the Eucharist.[2]  Those who support this practice do so from a place of good intentions, believing it to be an extension of Christ’s hospitality at the table and that it is not our place to state who may and may not partake of the principle Sacrament of the Church.  Those of the opposing view believe, as Anglican liturgist Ruth Meyers puts it, that “together, Baptism and Eucharist encode and enact different aspects of Christian faith and life—God’s gift of grace, conversion, and transformation, the building up of community, a call to radical discipleship.”[3]  From this debate, the Church finds itself in the position of reevaluating the nature of Baptism and the connection it has to the benefits one receives in the partaking of the Eucharist.

I mention the Communion without Baptism debate simply as an example that helps point to the overall conversation regarding Baptism and of a certain perception that some associate with it in light of today’s modern theological diversity.  The Church defines a sacrament as the “outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as [a] sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.”[4]  With that viewpoint, the Church views Baptism as “the sacrament by which God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God,” with the outward and visible sign being “water, in which the person is baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” and the inward and spiritual grace being “union with Christ in his death and resurrection, birth into God’s family the Church, forgiveness of sins, and new life in the Holy Spirit.”[5]  But the certain perception held by some regarding Baptism that the Communion without Baptism debate alerts us of is the sense that it has become a legalistic barrier to the offering of hospitality.  It is this perception that brings us to an important question: “Is Baptism really necessary?”  With today being the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, we are being given an opportunity to reflect on this question, thinking about why Baptism is done and why, I believe, it is still necessary.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus comes to John the Baptist to be baptized.  The account of Jesus’ baptism that we hear today from Matthew has two significant differences from the one found in the Gospel of Mark.  The first significance difference is the notation of a dialog that occurs between Jesus and John the Baptist.  John feels that Jesus’ submission to his baptism is not right: “…I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”  Jesus tells John that what is happening needs to happen and gives him the reason why: “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”  It was crucial that Jesus submit Himself to John’s baptism, for by doing so, He showed to others the importance of Baptism being a sign of identification with God’s kingdom.  It manifested Jesus as being God’s chosen One and marked the official beginning of His public ministry.

The second significant difference is of the wording of the voice from Heaven.  In Mark, the wording is, “…Thou art my beloved Son, with thee I am well pleased.”[6]  With Mark’s wording being addressed to Jesus only, it infers that His baptism was a uniquely personal experience, God’s call to officially begin the work in which He was sent to fulfill.  To the reader, Mark’s wording is adequate enough in explaining to him/her who Jesus is.  Matthew’s wording—“…This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”—goes to great lengths to make sure that the reader knows that Jesus’ baptism was a manifestation of who He really was—the fulfillment of Isaiah 42, of whom it is said, “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations.”[7]

So, again, we come back to the question regarding Baptism: Is it really necessary?  There are two points that I submit to you in coming to an answer.  The first has to do with the fact that our Lord, Himself, was baptized.  When John baptized Jesus, Jesus instantly became identified with God’s kingdom.  In the process, Jesus also identified Himself with us, becoming one with us in God’s plan of salvation that He, in due time, would accomplish.  By His taking on of our humanity, Jesus’ baptism pointed to His mission to be “the expiation for our sins,[8] serving as a proper beginning to His public ministry.  Just as Jesus identified Himself with God the Father and was radically committed to us for the purpose of our salvation, we, who profess to believe in Christ, are called to commit ourselves to Him in a radical way, to walk with Him who is the Light of the world and the Light of life.[9]  The most radical commitment that one can make to Christ comes through the Sacrament of Holy Baptism.  It is through Baptism in which one is “sealed by the Holy Spirit…and marked as Christ’s own forever.”[10]  This means that you are linked to God and that God is linked to you, forever and ever and ever.  And just as Jesus’ baptism was the manifestation of a new stage in His earthly life, Holy Baptism, for us, marks the beginning of a new life in Christ, for Paul says, “…If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold the new has come.”[11]  To be baptized is to be identified with Jesus, through whom the Spirit bears witness to our spirit that we are children of God and fellow heirs with Christ.[12]

The second point is that not only was our Lord, Himself, baptized, but that Baptism is a command from Him.  In Matthew 28, Jesus commands us to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you…”[13]  Jesus’ command to baptize and teach is our call to proclaim the heart and soul of the Christian faith—that the resurrection of Jesus Christ makes all who believe in Him, in faith, one with Him.  “There is one body and one Spirit,” Paul says, “just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all…”[14]  Therefore, Baptism should not be viewed as a legalistic measure, but, rather, an invitation to the experience of hospitality from and relationship with Jesus in a most profound, deeply-rooted way.  In the words of another Anglican liturgist, the late Leonel L. Mitchell, Jesus’ invitation of relationship with Him through Baptism brings us into

“…the hope of the resurrection.  The promise of our burial with Christ is in the water of our baptism.  Christian initiation is not really an act, it is a process—the process of conversion by which we are brought out of error, darkness and death into light and life with Christ, passing over with him from the kingdom of Satan to the kingdom of God.”[15] 

So in answering the question of whether or not Baptism is still necessary, I confess to you my view as being in the affirmative.  But this does not mean, in any way, form, or fashion, that God loves the unbaptized less than He does the baptized, for such sentiment is simply untrue.  As we heard today from the Apostle Peter: “…God shows no partiality…in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”[16]  I encourage those who are unbaptized that find solace in the Person of Jesus Christ to seriously consider the notion of Baptism being Christ’s invitation into a more deeply-rooted, grace-filled, indissoluble relationship with Him.  Jesus has given us a solemn promise: “…I am with you always, to the close of the age.”[17]  What this means is that Jesus is radically committed to you and gives you His word that never will you ever be left or forsaken by Him.  He came to Earth to be with you; He was baptized by John to be in solidarity with you; He died on a cross as a ransom for your sins; and He rose from the grave on the third day to achieve for you the gift of everlasting life.  I encourage you to, at least, think about making that leap of faith in being baptized, being fully identified with Christ in the assurances of the Good News and radically marked as His own forever.

The Lord hath manifested forth His glory: O 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] Among many within the Church, this practice is also known as “Open Communion,” which, by its actual definition, is the wrong terminology.  Open Communion is the practice of allowing baptized Christians who are not members of a specific Christian Church to partake in the Sacrament of the Eucharist.  In the 2012 Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church, it is stated in Canon I.17.1(a) that “all persons who have received the Sacrament of Holy Baptism with water in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, whether in this Church or in another Christian Church, and whose Baptisms have been duly recorded in this Church, are members thereof” and in Canon I.17.7 that “no unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this Church.”  Therefore, as it specifically pertains to The Episcopal Church (and for the purposes of this particular sermon), “Communion without Baptism” is the more appropriate terminology, describing the practice of allowing individuals who are not baptized Christians of any Christian Church to partake in the Sacrament of the Eucharist.  In regards to my own personal view, I am in support of the requirement to be baptized before reception of the Eucharist, being that through Baptism, one has made an official, public profession of belief in the Christian faith and that the Eucharist serves as a source for the weekly renewal of that original public profession.

[3] Meyers, Ruth A.  “Who May Be Invited to the Table?”  The Anglican Theological Review (Volume 94, Issue 2), 242.

[4] “An Outline of the Faith Commonly Called the Catechism,” 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), 857.

[5] Ibid., 858.

[6] Mark 1.11

[7] Isaiah 42.1

[8] I John 2.2

[9] John 8.12

[10] The Book of Common Prayer (1979), 308.

[11] II Corinthians 5.17

[12] Romans 8.16-17

[13] Matthew 28.19-20

[14] Ephesians 4.4-6

[15] Mitchell, Leonel L.  The Way We Pray: An Introduction to the Book of Common Prayer (Cincinnati, Ohio: Forward Movement Publications, 1984), 21.

[16] Acts 10.34-35

[17] Matthew 28.20

December 29, 2013: The First Sunday after Christmas Day (Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Birmingham, Alabama)

“…When the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”—Galatians 4.4-5[1]

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

During the past year and a half, I have been privileged to serve as the alumni advisor of the Lambda Chi Alpha chapter at the University of Montevallo.  As the chapter’s chief judicial officer, at several instances, I have had to advise its Executive Committee regarding the discipline of brothers unable to fulfill their responsibilities of membership as outlined in the Fraternity’s Constitution and Statutory Code.  Recently, I had a conversation with one of these disciplined brothers, part of which dealt with the reasons for the very existence of the Fraternity’s laws.  To my young brother, I said, “Laws are a system of regulation put in place geared toward the goal of maintaining the common good.  Therefore, Lambda Chi’s laws are in place in order that the very foundation and principles upon which the Fraternity was founded can be maintained.  They are in place to help guide us in being the best brothers that Lambda Chi calls us to be.”  My young brother said, “Brandt, I hear you.  But there are times in which the laws are too strict and don’t take into account a brother’s particular set of circumstances.  Therefore, if we say that we are a Brotherhood, we should be willing to sometimes overlook the laws so that the Brotherhood can be maintained, don’t you think?”

Unfortunately, due to the duties of my office, I was unable to subscribe to my young brother’s thought.  But I completely understood where he was coming from.  What he was saying was that the laws of Lambda Chi Alpha, though good in its intentions, failed in allowing for greater discretion in considering the circumstances that cause a brother to break the rules.  My young brother felt that, at times, the strictures were too impractical, which, in turn, did more to weaken the Brotherhood than strengthen it.  What he was calling for was less of a focus on the strictures of fraternal law and more of a focus on compassion for brothers at times of transgression.  What my young brother wanted was less law and more grace.

In today’s Epistle from Galatians, Paul states “that the law was our custodian until Christ came…”[2]  The word translated as “custodian” in the Revised Standard Version and “disciplinarian” in the New Revised Standard Version is the Greek word paidagogus.  In Paul’s time, the paidagogus was a household slave who led the young boy to school and supervised his conduct.  Though not himself a teacher, but rather more of a moral guide, the paidagogus was charged with protecting the youth from immoral influences.  It would be while under the paidagogus’s temporary care that the young boy’s freedom would be constrained and limited.[3]

So within the course of salvation history, Paul states that the Law was humanity’s paidagogus, put in place by God through Moses to be its guide for moral living.  In verse 19, he states that the Law “was added because of transgressions, till the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made…”[4] Although the Law was given as a measure in which we might better love God and our neighbor, for, as Paul says, “…Love is the fulfilling of the law,”[5] humanity’s transgressions and the brokenness of the human condition made fulfillment of the Law impossible to achieve.  The Law gave to humanity the ability to recognize its sin, but did not have the power to redeem it from sin.  But just as the paidagogus’s role within the young boy’s life was temporary, so does Paul describe the role of the Law within the life of the human creation.  The Law ruled over humanity for only a specified period of time—from that of Moses until the coming of Jesus Christ, the promised offspring.  With Christ came faith to the earth.  Now that faith has come, humanity’s limitations under its paidagogus, the Law, are no more, for the time of salvation is now.

From the Bidding Prayer of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, we are admonished that it should “be…our care and delight to prepare ourselves to hear again the message of the angels; in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem and see this thing which has come to pass, and the Babe lying in a manger.”[6]  In this season of Christmastide, Paul’s words from Galatians are, again, a reminder to us that Jesus, the Incarnate Word of God, has restored the dignity of the human creation and sets us free from the shackles of sin and death.  Today, we are reminded that the days of our confinement under the Law and of judgment are over.  No longer is our relationship with God distorted.  No longer does sin have dominion over us.  No longer do we have anything to fear.  The time of our salvation is now.  The time is now here in which Jesus, God’s only begotten Son, born of woman, born under the Law, redeems us from the constraints of the Law, restoring us, once again, to harmony with God the Father in Heaven.  “From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace; as the Law was given through Moses, so grace and truth came into being through Jesus Christ.”[7]

How fortunate we are that in Christ’s Incarnation we see God’s promise of action in, revelation to, and redemption of the world come to fruition.  In order for humanity to be saved and our minds fixed back upon Him, God becoming human was a necessary occurrence.  By becoming human, Jesus is, for us, the visible face of an invisible God.  He allows us the opportunity to know God in a way that was previously impossible.  The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.[8]  And by the offering of Himself as a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice on the cross at Calvary, the Incarnated Christ makes Himself known to us as the Liberator who frees us from the bondage of sin.  The Incarnation has freed us from the bondage of the Law and bestowed to us the gift of grace, freeing us to live unto God in the faith of Jesus Christ.

The Incarnation of Christ is, without a doubt, one of the three most significant events throughout all of human history (the other two being the Crucifixion and the Resurrection).  Through the Incarnation, God has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.[9]  No longer are we confined under the Law.  Now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian.[10]  Through the newborn Jesus we will be granted forgiveness of our sins and be ransomed, healed, and restored people forever.

Alleluia!  Unto us a child is born: O come, let us adore Him.  Alleluia!

[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] Galatians 3.24

[3] Matera, Frank J.  Galatians (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2007), 136, 139.

[4] Galatians 3.19

[5] Romans 13.10

[6] From the Bidding Prayer of A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, held at the Chapel of King’s College at Cambridge University on December 24, 2013.

[7] John 1.18 (Common English Bible)

[8] John 1.14

[9] Colossians 1.13-14

[10] Galatians 3.25 (Common English Bible)