Sunday, August 28, 2016

Fifteenth after Pentecost

Proper 17C-1:  Luke 14: 1, 7-14
Baptism of Harrison Graham Moquin

Again, a great day, and with Harrison’s baptism this morning--entry #10 in the register so far in 2016!--we conclude this series that has given our summer a distinctively “wet” character.  Lots of splashing in the font!  I think it has meant a lot to all of us, as we have every week or two had the opportunity to stand with parents and godparents and to witness their vows and to reaffirm our own.  Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your savior?  Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?  Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?  

The baptismal vows this morning followed our reading from Luke 14, and perhaps we can find that juxtaposition helpful. Jesus and his disciples have come from the Galilee to the outskirts of Jerusalem.  It’s not time yet for the dramatic entrance on Palm Sunday.  Jesus is continuing the ministry he had begun in Nazareth and Capernaum, but now in a much more high-profile setting, where his teaching and his actions begin to draw crowds and so come to the attention of the authorities.  They are trying to keep things quiet, trying to avoid disturbances that might bother the Romans.

Their strategy seems to be to discredit Jesus by showing him up as a not-ready-for-prime-time country preacher.  But it turns out to be a little trickier than they thought it would be.  This morning we continue the story that began in last Sunday’s reading.  Jesus has been invited to a Sabbath dinner at the home of one of the most prominent religious leaders of Jerusalem to meet some of his colleagues.  These were the tenured academics in the Temple Divinity School--and the host was something like the Chairman of the Theology Department.  A big wheel.  The invitation to Jesus of Nazareth—we might say, “Jesus of Stump Hollow, West Virginia”: --perhaps it had the outward form of hospitality, but there was clearly another agenda at work.  They wanted to expose this so-called “messiah” as someone who couldn’t play in this league.  But almost before they could sit down their plans are scrambled.   As we heard last week, they are interrupted by noise outside on the street--people from the neighborhood gathering out front because they had heard that the famous healer and miracle worker Jesus was inside.  One man has been brought forward who is suffering from what our translation calls “dropsy”--which my dictionary suggests might have been what we would call congestive heart failure.  In any event, a serious medical condition.  Jesus gets up, leaves the distinguished host and dinner guests, and goes out on the front porch to greet the crowd. He offers his blessing, and then specifically blesses and with a word and a touch heals the sick man when he is brought forward. 

The distinguished theologians have followed Jesus outside and now are at a loss.  They were hoping to discredit him, but now he’s the center of attention and the crowd is cheering.  What to do now?  The only response they can think of on the fly, and it turns out not to be a very good one,  is to accuse him of violating the provisions of the Torah related to work on the Sabbath. But Jesus turns it back to them quickly, and you may remember this from last week, when he says, “give me a break!”  That’s a paraphrase . . . .   “Which of you, having a child who had fallen into a well, wouldn’t pull him out—even on a Sabbath?”   

 I try to picture this scene— the neighbors all standing around now, in wonder and joy, cheering, gasping in awe and amazement, at the healing of their friend, and these out of touch, elitist ivory tower types not celebrating with them but instead trying to parse some kind of obscure legalism to call the whole affair into question.  Killjoys.  Spoilsports.  In our political vocabulary this moment would reflect what would be called “really bad optics.”  Whatever the technical point of their objection, it just LOOKS really bad. 

And Jesus doesn’t help them out as they are standing out on the porch with the neighbors all around.  He goes on instead with a little speech--the two parables that we have in our reading for today.   The first, the man who comes to the wedding reception and ostentatiously goes up to the head table—and who then is humiliated when the host has to ask him to move.  Contrasting him with the man who comes in and takes the place nearest the door, with the catering staff and the children, who is approached by the host and escorted to a higher place.  “He who exalts himself will be humbled,” Jesus says.  Looking around at the Pharisees, and then at the crowd by the front door.  “And he who humbles himself will be exalted.”   And then the second parable.   Luke says that Jesus even more explicitly directed this to his distinguished host.  He looks right at him.  When you throw your next party maybe don’t invite all your A-list,  important friends.  Those who remind you when you see them of what a swell person you are, too.  But instead try this: invite the poor, the uneducated, the weak.  Like these people,  gathered in front of your house right now, for example.  Each one of them people whom God loves.  Even though their presence at your table won’t add a bit to your own status or prestige.  A dinner party that won’t be included in the newspaper “high society” column.  Guests who might make your colleagues at the office and friends at the country club roll their eyes.  But that’s the point.  You’ve read about this in the Scriptures, haven’t you?  Scholars and teachers and religious leaders.  You’ve read the Law and the Prophets . . . .  Where does God tell us his heart is?  The first end up going last, the last come first.

And so:  the tables turned.  An event that was designed to take Jesus down a few notches in the public eye has accomplished exactly the opposite.   And this Sermon on the Front Porch still seems to have the power to rattle our cages.  Nothing new under the sun.  In a social and cultural and economic and political environment that seems to be all about us, all about my desires, my rights, my identity, my grievances—a world 24/7/365 all about “me.”   Me First:  The way we live now.   And then on the day of Harrison’s baptism--here is Jesus out on the porch talking about another way.  A way that actually this morning leads us up to the font.  The way of the Cross, we would say.  A way that is more about dying to that self, the old self, and rising to life again as something new, someone new—and how that dying and rising again that is in one sense invisible, but that at the same time is expressed so simply, so beautifully, as modesty, humility, obedience, restraint, kindness, generosity.  

So interesting that of all the wonderful athletic moments of the recent Olympics, the scene that seems to have touched the hearts of the world more than any other has been not of some Gold Medal world-record victory, but of two young women running back in the pack in a middle distance semi-final race, tripping and falling, and then one helping the other up, and both of them not dropping out in defeat, but limping forward together, supporting one another, encouraging one another, painfully, but triumphantly,  to the finish line.  They later on said they didn’t really think any of this through.  It just seemed the natural thing to do.  But of course it is the most unnatural thing, and we would recognize that there must have been a lifetime of formation and preparation.  It was actually a high spiritual moment.  What we used to call “Christian virtues.”  Standing back.  Making space.  Remembering what John the Baptist said once Jesus arrived to begin his ministry: “I must decrease, so that he may increase.”  A way of life for us that begins at the font.

To pray again, this summer morning, as we prepare to share the Meal together: Grant, O Lord, that all who are baptized into the death of Jesus Christ your Son may live in the power of his resurrection and look for him to come again in glory; who lives and reigns now and for ever.  Amen.

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Fourteenth after Pentecost

Proper 16C1 Hebrews 12: 18-29
The Rev. Daniel J. Isadore

Hebrews 12:18-29 – “What Lasts?”

So, what lasts?
-        What can we bank on?
-        What is sure and sturdy, able to endure, come what may?

A few common answers…

Especially in the near future, politics is certainly something that people lean on…
-        We hear it all the time…
o  “This election will determine not only the future of the United States, but of the world.”
-        Billions of dollars and millions of hours will be, and maybe have been already, put into this upcoming election…as if a particular outcome is the one thing we can bank on…
-        …the one thing that, against all odds, will really bring lasting change. (pause)

Another answer has to be sports, silly as that may sound…
-        People wept when the Cleveland Cavaliers won the NBA championship. (pause)
-        Fans celebrated like there was no tomorrow when the Penguins won the cup.
-        Spectators paid thousands just to be in the arenas where these championships were won.
-        Think about all the time, money, and effort that has had to go into preparing for the Summer Olympics in Rio…
o  …and the risks that accompany competing in and watching those events.
-        …as if these competitions are worthy of it, worthy of our total investment of money, time, and passion. (pause)

And then think about the way that we treat our jobs…
-        For many, 8, 10, 12 hours per day…5,6, or even 7 days per week….
-        For 20, 30, 40, or 50 years…
-        Passion, worry, effort, money…all toward securing tenure, or gaining a promotion, or getting a raise…
-        …as if these are sure things that we can trust in, that will hold up come what may.

Maybe some of us would even answer by turning toward our religious acts…
-        At the end of the day, we count on the creed we confess, or the traditions we enact, or the conduct that we adhere to…
-        We look to our public and private acts of goodness, the prayers we say, and the songs we sing…
-        …as if, finally, we place our hope in what we’ve done for God (pause).
-        …just like many of the ancient Jews who believed that their actions performed according to Torah and in the Temple made them who they were…(pause)

When it comes down to it, what will indeed last? (pause)

The writer to the Hebrews would take issue with each of the answers that I’ve mentioned…
-        …not because they are unimportant things, or evil things to spend time, money, and effort on…
-        …but because all that I’ve mentioned are dependent upon what we do. (pause)
-        Whether politics or sports, jobs or acts of religious devotion…we remain the primary actors…
-        …and it doesn’t take much time to realize that the work of human beings isn’t stable. (pause)
o  We are fickle creatures.
§  For every step we take forward, we take one (or more!) backward.
§  Every good decision we make is inevitably followed by one that isn’t so good.
§  We may experience health for a time, but all of us get sick or injured eventually.
·      We break down.
§  And, deny it though we may, all of us will taste death. (pause)

And so, what are we left with? (pause)
-        If not our actions, where can we look to find a stable place to stand?
-        Will anything ultimately remain? (pause)

“But you…you have come to Mount Zion, and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect…and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (pause)

There is a reality, says Scripture, that has been constructed to last, a reality promised and established by God Himself…
-        …a reality, we are told, to which we have come. (pause)
o  Or, perhaps more accurately, that has come to us.
-        In, through, and as the man Jesus, God has done a new thing.
o  He has laid a foundation that cannot be shaken for a city that will not crumble in which a celebration that will never end is even now taking place (pause)…
-        And we are included…
o  …not by virtue of how well we have or haven’t performed…
o  …not because of how we look or what we’ve achieved…
o  …but because the Holy Spirit has been poured out upon all flesh, and through the Word and the Sacraments, has met us, embraced us, and made us partakers of this unshakable reality. (pause)
-        Here, in the Eucharist, in Baptism, in the Scriptures read and preached, in the Absolution, we are promised a share in something good, something that will endure…
o  …we are given the new creation that God has set in motion and will one day complete, when all wrongs will be righted, all tears will be wiped away, and everything will be made new. (pause)

That’s why the writer to the Hebrews pleads with us in this morning’s epistle, “See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking!” (pause)
-        Don’t turn away from God’s gift of God’s Kingdom in our midst, giving ultimate allegiance to lesser things! (pause)

We can participate in politics, and cheer on our sports teams...we can pursue our careers and go to church…
-        …but we are to do so freely and joyfully, in order to give and grow and live life well
-        …not under the pressure of thinking that what we do is definitive of who we are or where this world is ultimately headed. (pause)
-        We have been claimed by the God who is a consuming fire, and who will surely set this world right…
o  …and so that’s not our role.  We are not meant to assume the pressure of being God. We can…we must, allow God to be God.
-        And when we do that, we can finally be human, not worrying about securing ourselves or our destiny, but rather being concerned with how we can participate with God and His unshakeable Kingdom of agape…
-        …how we can love each other, providing hints, tastes, and glimmers of that which God will surely bring about on earth as it is in heaven. (pause)

What lasts? The living Christ, His Kingdom, and the new creation to come. The forgiveness of sins, and the promise of total restoration.  The reign of love, and the fullness of shalom.  The Good News of the Kingdom of God.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Thirteenth after Pentecost

Luke 12: 49-56
Baptism of Zander William Bursick-Brown

Good morning again.  Back in 2012 we recorded 16 baptisms in the parish register of St. Andrew’s Church.  I’m into my 23rd year here as rector, and in my tenure and actually looking back through several of our previous registers up in the archive room I could find no other year that equaled or exceeded that number.  As I recall 12 was the previous high, which we actually had reached several times.  I’m not sure what we’re going to end up with as a total in 2016, but young Zander  William Bursick-Brown has been carried to the font and has made his splash there, passing through the death of his sinful nature and into his new life in Christ Jesus this morning as #8 in our 2016 registry, and on Saturday August 20 Evelyn Rose Noakes has a reservation for line #9, and on August 28 Harrison Moquin will be added as #10.  There are a couple of other families with newborns and younger children and a couple of adults who are at some point in a discernment process about baptism and various calendars and scheduling concerns, and as we know from our weekly prayer list we still have several “players to be named later” getting ready to make their entrance. 

Baptism sometimes an entry not simply for the one baptized but also for a family—as entry or very often as renewal.  It’s not unusual for the rector to receive a call from someone in the neighborhood.  “We haven’t been to church for years and years, since we were kids ourselves, but when our baby was born we found ourselves thinking about whether we would have him baptized, and whether at this new point of our lives something should change for us too.”  Always a very nice telephone call for the rector to receive, I assure you!  Unknown yet whether we’ll get to 16 or beyond this year, though it seems at least possible.   I suppose all part of God’s plan.   In the end numbers are not the point in and of themselves.   

But to say again, for a congregation our size these are quite remarkable numbers—to have in one year a number of baptisms  at or even above 10% of our average Sunday attendance. Someone said to me a few weeks ago as we noted this most recent cluster of baptisms, “hey: maybe Somebody is trying to tell us something.”  (I put a capital “S” on that “Somebody,” by the way!)  “Somebody.”  And that’s really what I’d like to highlight this morning.  “Maybe Somebody is trying to tell us something.” 

Something about what we might call the emerging field of mission and ministry context for our congregation, for one thing.   It’s an interesting observation about our current demographics.  A friend who is a member of a congregation in a more rural part of our diocese commented to me that in his church there would be at most one or two baptisms a year, and almost always of the grandchildren or even great-grandchildren of present members.  He said, “even the younger members of our congregation have Medicare cards  . . . .  And in fact, there really are not even many families around in the surrounding community who are of child-bearing age.”  One aspect of life in parts of Southwestern Pennsylvania, economic and social dislocation in old mill towns and smaller rural communities--but of course not here in the East End of Pittsburgh.  Strollers abound!  Articles in the newspaper about the rising tide of the millennials, Google at Bakery Square and hipster coffee houses on every street corner--and we see that reality every day more and more in the neighborhood and here in St. Andrew’s.   Brandon told me last week that we would need more seating in our new Children’s Chapel, which is a good kind of problem to have, for sure.  A fun problem.

But I’m also just thinking about how we as a congregation are again and again and again this summer being asked to pause in front of the massive and life changing turning point of Holy Baptism—to hear again and again from candidates and parents and godparents the promises and commitments that stand at the heart of all our lives as Christian people.  Somebody trying to tell us something.   Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?  Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?  Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?  I do.  I do.  I do.  As we greet the newly baptized: “ Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.”  Over and over and over again.  This year of 2016, this baptismal summer and August:  and Somebody trying to tell us something.   So more than just about neighborhood demographics.  A reminder of who we are, each of us individually, all of us together in Christ.  A crash course in the fundamentals of a deep Biblical theology.

The reading  from Luke 12 sits somewhat uncomfortably over what we might call the most common cultural aspects of baptism.  Much as we love them.  Families coming together from near and far, baptismal gowns handed down from one generation to the next, festive lunches, a new page of photos for the Baby Album.  The baptism Jesus is talking about here isn’t painted in such festive colors.
In these last few chapters of Luke we’ve been following Jesus and his disciples as they move around the outskirts of Jerusalem in the weeks before Holy Week and Good Friday.  The rising crecendo of crisis, conflict, opposition.  A palpable hostility.  The sense of the power of Evil gathering forces for the horrible  and bloody battle that will be brought soon to the very foot of the Cross.  

“This is the kind of baptism I’m talking about,” Jesus says. A baptism of fire!  Fire, stress, division.  Families wrenched apart.  The arid and empty and scorching and killing heat of the south wind.  The gathering storm.   A baptism that costs something.  Remembering the hymn we sometimes sing on the feast days of the martyr saints, “the peace of Christ, it is no peace, but strife sown in the sod.”  Martyrs like our own Saint Andrew, of course.  Perhaps like Father Jacques Hamel, so recently in our news—and I’m sure most have heard this story--the 85 year old French priest who just a couple of weeks ago was attacked and beheaded by terrorists as he celebrated a quiet midweek Communion with a congregation of six or seven in a small town in Normandy.  His last words were “Begone, Satan.”   “Begone, Satan.”  

A man we might say who knew his enemy, who understood not simply the conflicts of our present age but also the great spiritual battle that continues all around us.  He wasn’t so much I think talking about the particular man who was attacking him, but about the dark spirit in the room and surrounding them at that moment, the Father of Lies, the Master of Hate, the source of violence and despair, who would use every power at his disposal to turn us from the One who has saved and redeemed us, who would seek to lure us away from our place at the Cross.  An old priest who knew his enemy and our enemy, and who stood firm, as we hear again and again in those baptismal promises.   Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?  Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?  Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?  I renounce them, I renounce them, I renounce them.  Somebody trying to tell us something.

Zander William Bursick-Brown:  what a blessing today.  Number 8 of 2016!  So much we celebrate: your birth; the joy and excitement of your family.  A fresh beginning, and a really big deal.  A splash in the baptismal pool on a summer Sunday.  From death to life.   And we are invited to keep listening for the word that may be intended here for us.  From death to life.

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Twelfth after Pentecost

Proper 14C1:  Luke 12: 32-40
Baptism of Henry Edwin Nachreiner

Good morning.  Wonderful to be home after a couple of weeks with family up in Massachusetts.   And wonderful to return for this occasion--the baptism of Henry Edwin Nachreiner.   

Eric and Jennifer, just to say as a prelude: you and your family have been so much in our prayers this year.  In the gestational season of preparation for Henry’s birth, of course--and as you have met the challenges with big brother Nolan and his experience with transverse myelitis.  Certainly if there is one foundation and ministry that we share as members of Christ’s Church it is to support and encourage one another with sincere and constant prayer in the love of Jesus-- and all that love and prayer surrounds you today as we celebrate with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven the new life in Christ that is Henry’s as he passes from death to life through these baptismal waters.  With thanksgiving for God’s presence and blessing and continued healing and strength in your home and family.

The passage in Luke 12 is a kind of commentary on the affirmations and promises that we will soon repeat .  I’m going to pause on just the first three verses of this morning’s reading, verses 32, 33, and 34, and we can all of us then on our own can reflect on and take to heart the two short parables that follow, as they both encourage us to be alert for what God is doing--not to sleep through the critical hour of decision, not to find ourselves still standing on the platform as the train pulls away from the station.

So our context again, as we have been following the story.  Jesus and his disciples the Galilee, the rural villages like Cana and Capernaum and Nazareth, shortly after the dramatic moment at the top of the Mount of the Transfiguration, to journey to Jerusalem.  After the incident of rejection in the Samaritan village and after 70 of the disciples get their first real taste of evangelistic mission, they arrive at last at the outskirts of the Holy City, perhaps staying with Martha, who’s still out in the kitchen,  and devoted Mary and their brother Lazarus in the nearby town of Bethany.  Jesus is continuing his ministry of preaching and teaching, healing and casting out demons.   But on a way bigger stage now.  The crowds gather:  the high festival season,  and with pilgrims not just from Judea and Samaria and the Galilee but from Egypt and Persia and Syria and Turkey, all in these weeks before Passover--and as Jesus is now nearer the centers of religious and civil power he is encountering considerably more opposition from the authorities, who are worried about what impact he and his movement might have on the restive crowds, on the institutions and officers of synagogue and temple, and on the uneasy equilibrium with the occupying forces of the Roman government.   Their security is on high alert.  The last thing they want or need is some new messiah from the Galilee!

As the opposition of the authorities builds, Jesus’ teaching also begins to become more focused on how the disciples are to live as his body the Church after Holy Week and Good Friday and Easter and Ascension.  He knows there isn’t much time.  How they are to continue in ministry and mission themselves, and with a vision as well for those who will come after.  Jesus is laying the foundation, building his Church, looking with love on his dearest friends, and then lifting his eyes above them to look out across generations and centuries.  All the way to Pittsburgh and Highland Park, to this font, to the hand that is laid upon Henry this morning.

Earlier in Luke 12 Jesus is surrounded by a multitude, but his words are really directed to his disciples.  In verse 22, just before our selection this morning, he told them to live fearlessly.  He reminded them of God’s love and provision: “consider the lilies of the fields, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”    Don’t be anxious.  Don’t be afraid, no matter what stresses and distresses befall you in time to come.

And then this morning in verse 32 our reading begins with a great assurance, a great promise.  And certainly just right to hear on the day of Henry’s baptism:  “Fear not.”  “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  Wow.  O.K. , then.  Take a breath.  Despite all the evidence around us right now.  We may be few, we may be weak, we may be threatened by very strong forces in the wide world and culture around us that confront and undermine the gospel entrusted to us.  Up against principalities and powers, deep and dark forces of opposition, social, political, spiritual enemies.  But in the greater reality of God, all of that is passing away.  The good news is that the battle is already decided.  Fear not!  We may appear weak, even broken and defeated.  But just as the defeat that Jesus would know at the Cross would become in that same hour his great triumph, so our weakness and brokenness and loss here and now is about to be transformed into the greatest of victories.  The Father’s good pleasure:  to give us the kingdom.  To be known by him, to be grafted into his body through the awakening of faith, to be lifted with him and through him into glory.  That is his promise. 

With a promise like that, we would live now less as citizens of this world that is passing away, more as people who are already alive and taking our place in the coming world of God’s kingdom.  It’s a case of “dual citizenship,” in any event:  life in transition.  At the turning point between what we have been and what we are becoming.  So the instructions in verses 33 and 34.  To let go, to loosen our grip on what we may think is most meaningful in this world.   Sell your possessions, and give alms.  Don’t think that your bank account or your diploma or your professional title or your social status is the plan God has for you.  Lift your eyes higher.  Live now as though the kingdom that is about to come is already here.  Have treasure not bound up in an earthly purse, but one made from the fabric of the new age.  Live not for an abundance of earthly rewards, but invest all you have and all you are, your deepest hopes, in the promise of heavenly treasure, the fullness of God’s presence and grace and blessing.  Choose wisely and rightly, because where your treasure is, that’s where your heart is, your true self.

We’re talking here about questions of behavior and identity.  The process of moving, again, from what we have been to what we will be.  We’re in the midst of that process of the conversion of our lives.  We’re not there yet, but we’re on our way.  And Jesus encourages us to move ahead with confidence, not holding back, giving ourselves entirely to what lies ahead.  And of course the font this morning and Henry’s baptism is a key milestone and landmark.  A turning point.  Crossing the river into a new land.

J.T. Ryle, the famous 19th century Bishop of Liverpool, said this about this pattern or process of conversion in a great quotation I ran across a couple of weeks ago.   A word about what it begins to look like even in this world, even now, to begin to live as citizens of this new kingdom.  Signs that it is really happening.  What we begin to see that our new life is becoming, now reflected in these waters of baptism.  It struck me as especially meaningful in the context of the stressed and polarized and increasingly conflicted political and social environment—an external environment that if we’re not careful can begin to be absorbed by a kind of osmosis into our own psychological and emotional and moral and spiritual character.  And just to use Ryle’s words as a reflection of what would be in our minds this morning as we welcome Henry into the fellowship of Christ’s body.  Ryle from his long pastoral journey and experience sketches this out, about a person who is experiencing conversion in Christ and beginning to live in the kingdom.  He says, you will see that person “hating sin, loving Christ, following after holiness, taking pleasure in his Bible, persevering in prayer.  You will see him penitent, humble, believing, temperate, charitable, truthful, good-tempered, patient, upright, honorable, kind.  These, at any rate, will be his aims,” Ryle says, “—these are the things he will follow after, however short he may come of perfection.”    To highlight those words again: “hating sin, loving Christ, following after holiness, taking pleasure in his Bible, persevering in prayer . . . penitent, humble, believing, temperate, charitable, truthful, good-tempered, patient, upright, honorable, kind.”

In the midst of crisis, in a moment when evil, sin, death seems to have the upper hand, Jesus tells his disciples: Fear not.  And he points in his Word and in his flesh the way to our new homeland.   We’re headed there now.  Henry Edwin Nachreiner, a great morning, for you and for us all:  we receive you into the household of God.  Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.

Phil Wainwright: Two Summer Sermons

 My good friend and our priest associate the Rev. Dr. Philip Wainwright had the assignment to preside and preach at services for St. Andrew's on Sundays July 24 and July 31, while I was away for a bit of summer vacation.   Phil focused on the Epistle lessons appointed for those two Sundays.  As always, the one thing I regret about my summer vacation weeks is that I can't slide into a spot in a back pew at St. Andrew's to hear Phil preach.  Reading what he had to share is the next best thing.


July 24
Epistle Appointed: Colossians 2: 6-19

The last couple of Sundays we’ve been reading Paul’s epistle to the Colossians, and I want to draw your attention to today’s passage, p ? of the service leaflet, but since Bruce has been preaching on the gospel rather than the epistle, I’m going to begin with a brief overview of the whole epistle, so we can put today’s passage in context.

Paul wrote this letter to the Christians in the town of Colossae, because he had heard from their minister, Epaphras, about the challenges they were facing, and Paul wanted to help them meet those challenges. The challenges were two: first, that many of them could not believe that faith in Christ was all that was necessary for them to enjoy communion with God, and second, they couldn’t quite get straight in their minds that communion with God meant living up to certain standards, not all of which were easy or popular.

Colossians is worth reading because so many people today are in the same case; sure that communion with God means doing something we’re not doing, and afraid that it might mean not doing something we are doing. So some serious reading of Paul’s words is worth a try, and I commend it to you. It’s not long, you can read the whole thing in less than ten minutes, and if you read the whole thing, and accept it not as the word of men but as the word of God, to quote Paul in another letter, you’ll be better immunised against both these mistakes. Today I’m going to consider what Paul says about needing something more than faith in Christ; next week, God willing, I’ll look at what he says about living up to God’s standards.

That the idea was circulating in Colossae that what Christ had done was not enough, and that if one wanted to be acceptable to God, faith in Christ was not enough, and that one had to indulge in various spiritual and ritual disciplines as well, seems clear. Paul mentions specifically the worship of angels, new philosophies, special food and drink, special festivals and various other things of that sort. His first object in writing to them was to assure them that all they needed was faith in Christ and Christ alone.

Verse 8 of today’s passage, about four lines down: See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. Verse 16, at the beginning of the next paragraph, let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink or with regard to a festival. Verse 18, three lines further on, Let no one disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, taking his stand on visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, ie to Jesus. We don’t need to concern ourselves this morning with what particular philosophies were being promoted, what particular festivals or what forms of self-abasement were being touted, we only need to know that somehow some of them had got the idea that Christ alone, and Him crucified, was not enough. They needed Christ plus some spiritual act or technique.

Paul is slightly incredulous at this. They should know better than to think they need more than Christ from their own experience. Look back to vv 12–15:

when you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead, when you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, when you were dead in your sins, God made [you] alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him.

Paul had made this point about the sufficiency of Christ back in chapter 1, v 21f, using the image of estrangement and reconciliation: you, who once were estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him, provided that you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the… gospel which you heard.

You who were outsiders, Christ and Him crucified brought in. Nothing else.
Here in chapter 2 the image is dying and being made alive again, when you were dead in your sins, God made you alive together with him: human beings have real communion with God through what Christ did on the cross, provided they turn their back on their sins, ie repent of them, and continue in that faith. Nothing else is needed. In Christ, and Christ alone, God has put us right with Himself, reconciled us, made us alive again. The rest of these 3 verses tell us how He did it, and when we think about what they tell us, we will see the essential part that Christ’s death on the cross played in the process.

Verse 13, He made us alive by forgiving us all our trespasses, all our sins.

This is further explained in v 14, in what might at first seem a difficult phrase: having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands. this He set aside, nailing it to the cross. There are some translation issues here, I’m afraid; the word ‘cancelled’ is not a good translation, ‘erased’ or ‘wiped out’ would be better. The word ‘bond’ is a bit misleading, too. The Greek word here usually means an IOU, a signed statement of indebtedness, but that doesn’t fit the context well; another meaning the word can have is the likelier one here: a record of offenses for which one is to face justice, a list of the charges, the accusations against us. It is those sins which have the ‘legal demands’ of v.14: the law demands punishment for them. The legal demands are justice: punishment for the wrongdoer. And we are wrongdoers; we have offended against God’s holy laws, we have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done. But it is that list of sins which has been set aside. The phrase translated ‘set aside’ means that it has been taken from its place in the hands of our accuser, and has been ‘nailed to the cross’.

It is this phrase ‘nailing it to the cross’ that makes the meaning of IOU an unlikely one. When a person was crucified, a placard describing his offence was nailed to his cross. IOUs were never nailed to a cross, for crucifixion was not the appropriate punishment for non-payment of a debt. When Jesus was crucified, you remember that there was an argument over what to put on the placard; the High Priest and his cronies wanted it to read “This man said ‘I am the King of the Jews’”, but Pilate simply had “The King of the Jews”
written on it (John 19:21).

Historically, that was the placard over Jesus at his crucifixion. But spiritually, something else was nailed to that cross, Colossians tells us.

It was the complete list of accusations against all men and women everywhere, at any time. It was the record of our sins, and its legal demands. It was the list of offences for which you and I ought to face God’s judgement. Christ died for what you and I did. Scripture tells us this over and over: I Cor 15.3, Christ died for our sins; Galatians 1.4, Christ  gave Himself for our sins; I John 2.2 and 4.10, Christ is the sacrifice for our sins.

But the good news, the gospel, is that the price for sin has been paid for us. All our pride, our selfishness, our deceits, our lusts, our covetousness, all our disobedience to God’s commandments, has been erased, set aside. The legal demands have been set aside. They are no longer on the record. Jesus, God Himself become man, took the punishment for them, and He did it because He loves us and wants to see us keep the life He gave us. He is the author of life, and to sin is to be separated from Him, which must mean death; but in Christ, death is swallowed up in victory, as Paul put it on another occasion. When we admit them, and repudiate them, that forgiveness, and therefore that victory, is ours.

Verse 15 explains it this way: the principalities and powers, a Greek term for the spiritual forces of evil, have been disarmed. Their weapons, their only weapon, actually, has been taken away from them. Because it is our sin that is the weapon that Satan has against us. The very name Satan means ‘accuser’, and that’s what he does, he goes to God and says ‘Wainwright did so and so’ like a tell-tale child. And it’s an effective weapon as long as it’s the truth. Justice is one of God’s characteristics; he cannot allow sin to be ignored, and as long as men and women are in their sins they are dead, they are estranged, God cannot know them. Satan isn’t interested in justice, of course, he just hates us and is out to get us, and every time we sin we give him a weapon. Christ took Satan’s only weapon away on the cross. For those who have faith in Christ, for those who have confessed their need of His salvation, there is now no condemnation. There is no longer any case to answer, any price to pay, as long as we have repented of our sins and turned to Him in faith. Nothing else is needed.

The last part of this verse, making a public example of them, triumphing over them in Him, celebrate this. The public example and the triumph referred to here are a reference to something we no longer experience, but which every citizen of the Roman Empire had seen from time to time: the Triumph was the huge parade of enemy prisoners and captured weapons that followed any victory of Roman arms. The defeat of an enemy was not just talked about, it was publicly demonstrated by parading the helpless enemy troops around in chains. The victory was made visible to everyone. According to Paul, Christ has done that too. The triumph is in Him, and the victory is to be celebrated. Anyone who adds their sins to the list on the cross shares in Christ’s victory. Those who deny their need for Christ, or who deny their own sinfulness, or who think they can earn their salvation through philosophy, or human tradition, or observing festivals, or self-abasement and worship of angels, or having visions, against those people the enemy still has a weapon. Their record still stands. But for those who are in Christ Jesus there is no now no condemnation. God has done what the law could not do, sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh as a sacrifice for sin.

Christ’s death is the occasion for the greatest Triumph, the greatest Victory Parade, of all time. And it is part of the work of today’s church to keep the Parade going, to continue to make it plain to anyone who looks that evil has been conquered, that men and women can be freed from the bondage of sin, that they can be restored to communion with God, and that faith in Christ and Him crucified is all that is needed. We who know the joy of the Lord’s salvation show in our own lives what it means to be born again, to be brought from death to life in order to be presented to God holy and blameless.

See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition. Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink or with regard to a festival. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on this or that spiritual technique. Put your faith in nothing but Christ, and Him crucified, and start celebrating victory.

July 31
Epistle Appointed: Colossians 3: 1-11

Last week we took a look at Paul’s letter to the Colossians, and if you were here you’ll remember that there were two points he wanted to make in this letter: first, to reassure them that if they had a true understanding of Who Christ is and what He has done, faith in Him is all that is necessary for them to enjoy communion with God, and second, to help get straight in their minds that communion with God entails living the life for which God’s word says He created us, not all of which is easy or popular. We hear both these themes set out in the first chapter, as in v 9: We… pray for you, asking that you may be filled with… spiritual wisdom and understanding, and that you may lead a life worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him. Last week we looked mostly at what Paul says about spiritual wisdom and understanding, this week I want to look at what Paul says about leading a life worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him.

Not that these are two separate subjects; the first implies the second.  Because we believe certain things about Christ, we live a certain way. Paul says this more than once. In the first chapter, vv 21f: you, who once were estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, Christ has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death—as we talked about last week—in order to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before [God]. The purpose of reconciliation with God is a godly life. Chapter 2, v 6: As… you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so live in him. Chapter 2.20: If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? The purpose for which He bore our sins in His body on the cross was not just that we would be forgiven for our sins, but that we would put them all away, as He says in this morning’s reading, p ? of the leaflet.

But before we look at it, let’s not misunderstand God’s purpose. So many people believe that God’s commandments aren’t God’s at all, but human inventions designed to limit human behaviour according to the standards of some humans. But Paul’s words simply summarise what God’s word says throughout, and God’s word also assures us that His standards do not limit the lives of Christians, but the exact opposite— they make possible what Jesus calls life in abundance, and what Paul calls in this letter fulness of life. 2.9 in [Christ] the whole fulness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have come to fulness of life in him. Life as it was meant to be lived.

Chapters three and four are simply describing what fulness of life, what abundant life looks like, and urging Christians, Christians 2,000 years ago and Christians today, to grow up into that full, abundant life, to accept nothing less for themselves than the absolute best there is.

And today’s passage urges us to live the life that is implied in what we believe about Christ: 3.1 If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. In
2.20 he asked If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? and he doesn’t think there can be any answer to that. If you live as though you still belong to the world, the full significance of what Christ has done for you can’t have fully penetrated yet—that’s why he spends the first half of the letter reminding us Who Christ is and how His sacrifice on the cross changes our options, and only after that does he go on to encourage us to live as though we really believed not only that our sins are sins, but that they now belong to the past, to a life we no longer live. So Paul turns his earlier question into a positive principle: seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. Note the word mind—a reminder that it is essential to understand who Christ is and what He has done, which is why he spent the first half of the letter on it. Verses 3f restate some of what he said in the first half, so let’s go on to v 5: Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. The phrase what is earthly translates the same phrase as was translated in v 2 as things that are on earth, but Paul adds in you, because it reminds us why it takes a conscious decision, a mental act, on our part to put them to death—we are not yet free from temptation as we will be when we are with Him in eternity, but we now hold ourselves to the standards of heaven, not those of earth. We don’t just sit and wait for eternal life, we begin to live it now. Verse 8, put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk from your mouth.

Verses 5 and 8, although they’re not a complete list, cover a lot of ground, and there are entire sermons to be preached on every item in those lists. In the rest of chapters three and four, Paul expands a bit on those things that the Colossians need to think about most, and every one of those expansions has something to say to Christians in America in the 21st century. But we are vulnerable to some of those temptations in ways that apparently the Colossians weren’t, so let me just highlight a couple that Paul doesn’t come back to: covetousness, which is idolatry, for instance. People today are actively encouraged to be covetous by the society we live in in ways that we’re not encouraged in foul talk, for example. There’s plenty of foul talk out there, we hear it all the time now in circumstances where we would never have heard it fifty years ago, but so far no one has said to me ‘go on, use the f word’ or some other word or phrase that has no other linguistic purpose than to shock and offend. But we are actively encouraged to covet in every magazine we read, on every television show we watch, and on every web-page we visit. Look, here’s something you didn’t even know you wanted, but you should want it, everyone else wants it and half the world already has one, you must want one too, order it now, just one click will do it! Our entire economy is built on covetousness, it is so widespread that we can be deeply covetous without even noticing. That’s why it is so important to set our minds as well as our desires on the things that are above, where Christ is; if we don’t think carefully, we might never see where we are still enmeshed in a world that God never created, a world that didn’t come into being until mankind turned away from God.

I would mention anger and wrath in that category, too. We live in a society that has made a virtue of anger. It is not enough for us to see an injustice and disapprove it, or even to act against it as best we may; only anger at it is proof that we’re on the right side. ‘If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention’, says the bumper sticker. But according to God’s word, anger is not something human beings can afford to indulge in. Jesus says, every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment. In the words of the apostle James, Let every man be… slow to anger, for the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God. 

So Paul says, put them all away: anger, wrath, and so on. The Old Testament teaches this too: do not fret when men succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes. Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret—it leads only to evil. Many things in our world deserve anger, but anger is a force that will destroy any human being who embraces it. Only God’s anger is righteous.
And nothing proves the sinful nature of human anger more clearly than the fact that as our society has exalted man’s anger, so also it has denigrated God’s anger. We rebuke God for displaying wrath, but treasure it in ourselves. Put it away, says Paul, and if we hear nothing else in this epistle, let us hear that. It’s on account of these sins, v 6 says, that the wrath of God is coming, and because we know that God is a righteous God, with a righteous anger against sin, we can leave anger to Him who can be trusted with it. Let it be true of us that we once walked in it, once lived in it, even, as v 7 says, but now have put it away.

Paul goes on to put lying to each other, and exalting Greek above Jew or freeman above slave among the things we must put away, and in the parts of chapters 3 and 4 that we don’t have time to read today, shows us how Christians relate to one another as husband and wife, employer and employee, parent and child and so on, and I needn’t go through them all. But let me commend to you the image he uses in vv 9 and 10 of putting off the old nature with its practices and putting on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.

If you’ve taken seriously any of Paul’s words about putting these things aside, your most likely response is ‘if only I could!’ That is in fact the only honest human response, because we have no power in ourselves to put even the lightest of these things away. Paul explores this in his own spiritual life in some detail in the letter to the Romans, admitting that he, like us, is helpless, unable to live by God’s commandments simply because he knows he should. It’s no good trying to give up the old life, he says, instead we are to drive it out with a new one: put on then, v 12, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience,13 forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other… 14 And above all these put on love.

Put these things on. Cover the wrong things with the right things, set your mind on the things that are above, rather than on the things of earth. It is only in Christ’s power that we can set any of our sins aside, and it is in turning to Him that we find the power to live the lives God intended for us; v 15, let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts… and be thankful.

And the most effective way to set our hearts and minds on Christ is to fill them with His word, and talk about it and rejoice in it together. Verse 16, let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God. Only by meeting Christ in His word can we avoid creating Him in our own image, only by talking about His word with other Christians can we avoid confirming our imagined version of Him, and doing those things together leads inevitably to praising and thanking Him from the bottom of our hearts. It is through His word that we are filled with His Spirit, and it is only by the power of His Spirit that we can live by God’s standards rather than the world’s. We simply do not have the will to do it without the Holy Spirit, let alone the power. But the Spirit comes through hearing the word, and with that Spirit, we can begin to put all these things away. It’s a lifelong process, but we can see progress as we turn back to His word, and to our fellow-Christians, again and again.

So again I commend this letter to you; less than ten minutes to read all the way through; make it part of your spiritual diet. Let me also invite you to join in with Christians throughout the centuries who have treasured this letter, and all of God’s word, and distilled it into the Nicene Creed, p ?
of the leaflet. Let’s stand and say it together.