Thursday, April 20, 2017

Easter Sunday

Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him.

We usually associate the incarnation—the teaching that the eternal Son of God through whom all things were created took to himself the created nature of man—with Christmas or Annunciation, but I would argue that this doctrine is no where more put to the test than in on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter. What I mean is that the ancient philosophers realized that God, the source of all goodness, does not change and is not subject to suffering. Furthermore, the Old Testament affirmed that God is not a man that he should lie. In the man Jesus, we see God joining himself to our broken nature and undergoing suffering and pain in this flesh. The unchanging and eternal Son of God takes our human nature and experiences change and decay. This is a real scandal in the ancient world for Christians to say that God became man. How can the immutable become mutable? For this reason, Paul says that the message of Christ is foolishness to Greeks and a stumbling block to Jews. The message of Christ speaks of an Immutable God being touched by the mutability of this world.

It makes me think about why did God make a world that changes? One thing dies, and another is born. There is the cycle of seasons and weather. With age, our bodies are increasingly out of sync with our will; we cannot do the things we would. All material things inevitably break and eventually are thrown away or disposed of. In the past 15 years, I've lived in five different states, and I've noticed a saying that repeats itself from state to state, if you don't like the weather, in whatever state you happen to live, just wait awhile. Every state seems to think it has the wildest swings in weather, but the truth is that this is the way the world is from the weather to our possessions to our bodies and the bodies of our loved ones. I would also add that a good deal of the pain, sadness, and frustration we feel in this life results from the changes that are happening around or within us, and again we come back to this question: why would God put us in this world of change when he knows it will only give us pain and grief? Now some who have a low-view of God's love and concern for the world and humanity would see in these changes a wheel of fortune, blind chance doling out pain and change and grief indiscriminately. The philosophers would say that it is just a facet of created reality that it changes, and there is some comfort but not a great deal of it to know that change should not surprise us because it is, if you will, built into the system. 

As Christians we can say something more. As Christians we recognize that God is a loving creator and father. That he does not, in the words of Scripture, willingly afflict the sons of men and works all things for good for those who love him. The truth is there is not always an easy explanation for why God allows these changes to happen—why he allows this person to die prematurely, or life to be a seemingly unbroken sequence of struggles to manage finances, jobs, or relationships. What we know by faith is that none of it is outside of his loving providence. And here is something else for you to consider this morning, perhaps God allows these changes to give us a desire for him who is unchangeable? In this sense, you could think of us as children and life as a kind of education. The material thing needs to break or be lost because we have to learn not to trust in the material things of this world but in God who cannot break or be lost. The death of a loved one may be God's way of increasing our appetite for heaven where is no death or dying. Perhaps we grow feeble in mind or body in order to loosen our grasp on the things of this world, and to learn to cling to what is truly lasting? As a pastor I witness people going through change and see first-hand the pain and sorrow that go along with it, but I also see the grace that out of change can bring a renewed sense of purpose and a hope for heaven.

And now we come to the heart of the matter: Christ's resurrection is a tangible sign that God will raise up all that is good and preserve it forever from change and decay. St. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him (Romans 6:9). We will continue to live in this world of change and decay as the sons and daughters of adam, but we are also pilgrims, sons and daughters of the Father and brethren to the risen Christ, making our way joyfully to that greater life where there is no change or decay. We are people of hope, and the resurrection is the gift God gave us in Christ to serve as the foundation of that hope. Whatever pain or sorrow or frustration you are enduring right now—and we all have our portion to bear—Christ's resurrection is an answer to it, not as an na├»ve optimism or an easy way out of our trials, but a promise of new life through death and change. Let us cling to this hope on this joyful Easter day, as an anchor to our souls, being confident of the one in whom trust that he will preserve all that is truly good and noble and beautiful from the decay, uncertainty and mortality of this world. St. John writes in his Revelation, I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

3rd Sunday after the Epiphany, the Beatitudes

The pronouncements that form the Gospel this morning are usually called the beatitudes from the Latin word beatus, blessed. It is a portion of Scripture that I never tire of hearing. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Beatitudes are a fixed portion of the Divine Liturgy, and are said every Sunday. This morning I want to think about what these words of Scripture mean. To many these words of Scripture are familiar, but also enigmatic. They seem to turn the world upside down from our usual way of thinking.

The first thing that needs to be said about the beatitudes is that Jesus is not commending a delusional view of the world. He is not simply saying what is bad is good, what is cold is hot. Contrary to popular misconception, Christians are not be Don Quixote figures who refuse to accept the plain facts under the force of a driving religious impulse. The problem with a lot of schools and educational programs that are called Christian is that they so want to impart the faith that they malign, suppress, or obscure anything that would challenge that faith. I think that this is a spirit that is foreign to true Christianity, which is not afraid to say, as St. Augustine said, all truth is God's truth. Our Lord is not advocating a disposition that would deny worldly realities.

Rather, in the beatitudes our Lord pronounces a blessing on human weakness and brokenness. He says that in mourning and meekness and poverty are found blessing. Why is this the case? We don't willingly seek to be poor in spirit, or to mourn, or be hungry? What our Lord tells us is that these are the attitudes and dispositions that make us open to the kingdom of God. In our human pride and desire to be self-sufficient, when we are full and happy and feel rich in spirit, we don't think that we need God or spiritual things. This is part of the fallenness of the world, that the material world becomes a distraction from the spiritual realm. When we are satisfied with the good things of this world, we don’t think we need the one from that goodness comes who is goodness itself and our highest good. The truth that the poor, hungry and morning are open to receiving the kingdom of God is illustrated again and again in the Gospels. Witness the people to whom our Lord ministers: he doesn't come to reach out to the powerful, the accomplished or the learned. He comes to restore the deaf, the oppressed, and the outcast. God in Christ was working in the shadows of their lives to bring about new life and redemption.

But we have to say something more about these beatitudes. Yes, they are about people whom our Lord meets, and they are even about ourselves if we can embrace our inner poverty and hunger for righteousness. But in a very real and tangible sense our Lord spoke these beatitudes, these declarations of blessing, over his own life. He was poor in spirit. He emptied himself, taking upon himself the form of a servant, being found in human likeness. He was hungry, as he wrestled with the devil in the 40 days wilderness temptation, and later tasted the emptiness of sin crying from the cross, I thirst, and, my God, my God, why have you forsaken me? He was mournful and he was meek; the prophets say of the messiah, is there any sorrow like his sorrow? And Isaiah writes of the suffering servant, He was despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief. In short, the blessing of the beatitudes is most clearly seen in our Lord's passion and crucifixion. He is blessed in his sorrow, poverty and hunger, because on the cross, we see the kingdom of God breaking in, as he crucifies sin in the flesh and then rises triumphant over that sin and death in his resurrection. We do not need any more evidence that God works in tragedy and defeat, than to see how God brings redemption through our Lord's innocent suffering. The path to resurrection is through death. We should not, then, be afraid to face that which is painful, difficult or overwhelming. Though we might not always feel it, the proclamation and witness of Jesus Christ is that God is working in those shadows too, and that somehow these shadows are blessed. We are made ready for the kingdom though poverty, mourning, and meekness.

Our great high priest has gone before us in this poverty of spirit, and mourning, and meekness.  He gave himself into the hands of sinful men and conquered the guilt, sin, and anxiety that continually assault our earthly existence. The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth, said this about our high priest who has known our weakness and need.

It is not merely that He was once "touched with the feeling of our infirmities"; He is so still. It is not merely that He was once tempted as we are ; He is with us and before us, "tempted as we are" (Heb. 4:15). And when it says that "in the days of his flesh ... he offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death" (Heb. 5:7), this is more than recollection, for it speaks of His presence here to-day among us in all our confusion, aberration and abandonment, before all our locked prison doors, at all our sick-beds and gravesides. . . in all our genuine or less genuine triumphs. He is still the Friend of publicans and sinners. (CD IV.3 395)