What Made Jesus Angry?

Sermon,  November 5, 2017 – 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (Proper 26)
Matthew 23:1-12

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

Our Gospel passage comes from the 24th chapter of Matthew.  The previous chapter in Matthew saw Jesus match wits with the Pharisees and religious leaders through parables and questions and answers.  The conflict is rather more open in this chapter.

Jesus’s opening statement sounds very conciliatory.  He says “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.  So you must be careful to do everything they tell you.”  But this is as nice as Jesus gets.  After this, Jesus opens on the Pharisees in an extraordinarily blunt and direct series of attacks.  In the passage we heard today, Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for hypocritically placing needless burdens on the people and for craving honor and praise from culture.

Immediately following our selection, Jesus launches a series of seven complaints against the Pharisees in which he expands on his criticisms with specific examples.  Near the end of the chapter, Jesus really lets loose on the Pharisees, not holding anything back.  He declares “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?”

There aren’t too many times in the Gospels when we see Jesus really get angry and this is one of them.  Why is that?  What makes Jesus so upset?  Asking this question is an important key to unlocking the wider meaning of this passage for us.

Let’s parse out what Jesus says again.  Jesus begins by telling the people “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.  So you must be careful to do everything they tell you.”  Jesus is instructing the people to respect the teaching office of the teachers of the law, as well as reminding the people that listening to and obeying Scripture is important.  Although it is easy to pass over this statement of Jesus as a side point in the passage, I think it is important to take note.  Often when we become angry with the corruption, false teaching, or hypocrisy of our leaders, we become so vengeful that we just want to tear it all down.  This can often be very destructive, and make a bad situation worse.  And so before launching his attack on the Pharisees, Jesus is reminding the people that he is criticizing the false teaching and hypocrisy, but not the underlying Jewish religion nor the Scriptures.

After this reminder, Jesus criticizes three specific things about the Pharisees – their hypocrisy, how they have turned God’s love and redemption from being a gift into a burden, and how they crave societal honor and cultural approval instead of God.  Let’s turn back to the words of Jesus.

He continues “But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.”  Jesus is calling them out for hypocrisy.  The Pharisees preached one thing, but didn’t actually practice it themselves.  Nobody likes a hypocrite, and one of the surest ways to undermine somebody’s credibility is to catch them employing a double standard.  Think of how devastating it is to the church when its leaders are found doing things that they routinely preach against.  It completely undermines the message.

Why is that?  It is because we believe that if a person truly believes in what they are preaching, then they will do what they say.  If you really believe that exercise makes you healthy, you will do it.  If you really believe that education is important, you will go to school.  But if you tell me to cycle 10 miles to work for the good of the environment while you drive half a mile to your work in your big SUV, I’m going to think that you don’t take the environment very seriously at all.  The hypocrisy of the Pharisees angered Jesus because it undermined God’s message to his people.  The Pharisees had the job of communicating God’s message through the Scriptures to the people.  Just as a Christian’s hypocrisy today would lead people to reject the Christian message, so did the Pharisees’ hypocrisy in Jesus’s day undercut God’s message to the Jews.  Remember that Jesus was concerned that the people respect the teaching role of the Pharisees and Jesus knew that the greatest threat to such respect was the hypocrisy of the Pharisees themselves.

Jesus follows up his critique of the Pharisees’ hypocrisy by saying “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”  Jesus is angry that the Pharisees present God’s redeeming love for his people as a “heavy, cumbersome load”.  In the Old Testament we see repeatedly how God saves his people and usually despite the fact that his people have failed to live up to their end of the covenant.  When God made his covenant with Abraham, it was God alone who walked through the midst of the slain animals, signifying that only he pledged his life to fulfill the covenant.  The Pharisees told the people that only by obeying God’s commandments perfectly could they be saved, as if salvation were up to us instead of God.

This is important for us today, because Christians continue to make the very same mistake that the Pharisees made.  And that mistake undermines the Gospel.  If the message of salvation is that we have a lot of commands to keep and things to do for God, then the focus is on what we do, not on what God did for us.  That is looking for salvation through the Law, which is impossible.  Our only salvation is through grace, through what God did for us.  The very heart of the Gospel is that Jesus Christ died for us on the cross, taking our sins upon himself, and paying with his life for our transgressions.

The word Gospel comes from a Greek word which means “good news” and usually referred to the good news of a military victory.  When we share the Gospel, we are sharing the story of God’s victory over sin, which was accomplished by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  When we say that we are Gospel people, it means that we are people who live in the light of this good news.

But we humans like to always turn things back on to ourselves.  We are naturally inclined to think that our actions are necessary to our salvation.  Few Christians will ever openly teach this, but falling into this subtle trap is so easy, and once we go down that road, the Gospel message is undermined.  We can start down this road with the very best intentions.  We might think that people will tune out our words unless we are living obedient lives.  The danger in this is that it leads to replacing the gospel of grace with the burden of the law.  Christianity can very quickly turn into something that makes many demands of us, something that is a heavy, cumbersome load.  We are not really good Christians unless we do this thing or that thing.  That’s not the Gospel.

The Gospel is that we are saved because Jesus died for our sins.  There is no burden, no load for us to bear.  God has already taken care of it.  And only then, in our joy and gratitude, and after turning our lives over to God, will we do the things Jesus calls us to do.  Those things are not burdens we must bear, but things we do after we have been transformed through Scripture and the Spirit.

Jesus continues.  “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.”  Phylacteries were little boxes with Scripture verses that devout Jews wore on their foreheads to indicate their piety.  The Pharisees wanted to make sure everybody knew how pious they were, and they craved social and cultural honor for themselves.  The Greek word that is translated “to see” in the phrase “for people to see” is the same word that the modern English word theater comes from.  The Pharisees were like actors in a play, putting on a show of being pious and holy.

This is a danger for Christians today as well.  People naturally crave approval from others.  With the rise of social media such as Twitter and Facebook has come the phenomenon of virtue signaling.  The Oxford dictionary defines virtue signaling as “the action or practice of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s good character or the moral correctness of one’s position.”  This has become very important in the lives of younger people.  Unless you publicly support the correct opinions on Facebook or Twitter, you become an outcast.

One person wrote “If the Pharisees lived today, they would doubtlessly be the most avid purveyors of social media. Just imagine the Facebook posts (“Here I am seated at the head of Caiaphas’ table”), the selfies (“Praying at the Temple in my new robes!”), the Instagrams (“The dinner at Herod’s place—amazing!”).”  We are all at risk of doing this in our lives but also within the church.  This is true for all Christians, of whatever stripe, political opinion or theological persuasion.  Here I am, with the right opinion or doing the right thing.  Thank goodness I am not like those others.

It’s always dangerous for Christians or the Church to seek approval from society or culture instead of from God.  When we do this, we succumb to the world’s agenda instead of God’s.  Instead of looking to win approval from our surrounding culture, or even from our church sub-culture, we need to look to God’s will as revealed through Scripture and ask ourselves what God is calling us to do.

A few years ago, during an Ash Wednesday sermon, the preacher talked about whether or not we should wipe off our ash crosses from our foreheads after church.  His advice was that if retaining the ash on our foreheads would lead us to feel that others would look at us approvingly and think we were holy and pious, then we should probably wipe the ash off.  But if we feared that the ash would lead others to mock us or look down at us for being Christians, then we should leave it on.  I’ve come to see this as being good advice.  We always need to question our motives and ask ourselves whether we are doing something for cultural or societal approval, or because this is what God is calling us to do.

As we come to the end of our passage, Jesus says ““But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers.  And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.  Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah.  The greatest among you will be your servant.  For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Jesus is not telling us that we can’t call our dad “father.”  Nor does this passage prevent us from calling a priest “father so-and-so” or the teachers in our congregation “teacher’, nor should I go see my university dean and insist that I not be referred to as “instructor” anymore.  That’s not the point.  What is the point is that these were all particular terms of high honor and social standing in the ancient Jewish world and the Pharisees reveled in these honorific titles that puffed them up.  We are to avoid this.

Jesus is calling us to exercise humility.  The greatest among us will be our servant.  Those who exalt themselves will be humbled.  The Gospel is not about elevating ourselves.  Instead, the heart of the Gospel is about how God humbled himself for us.  In Philippians, Paul wrote about Jesus “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!”  Jesus humbled himself for us to the point of dying for us on the cross.

As faithful followers of Jesus, we are called to lives of humble service.  The Gospel is not about us; it’s not about our deeds, it’s not about our obedience, it’s not about how good or important we look to others.  The Gospel is all about Jesus Christ and his death on the cross for us.  Jesus was upset with the Pharisees because they were trying to turn the focus away from what God had done for his people and instead on to what great people they were.  This isn’t just a Pharisee problem.  It’s something that we all are prone to do.  It angered Jesus then, and it angers Jesus now, because it leads people away from the only thing that can save them.  The focus should not be on the Pharisees or us or our deeds.  They will not save anybody.  The only thing that can save people is Jesus Christ.  So let’s turn the focus where it needs to be – on him.

Let us pray.

God, the giver of life, whose Holy Spirit wells up within your Church: equip us to keep the focus on the gospel of Christ and make us eager to do your will that we may share with the whole world the good news of what you have done for us.  Let us remember your words “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”  Let us share the comfort and joy that these words give us.  We ask this in Christ’s name, Amen.

Render Unto God the Things That Are God’s

Sermon,  October 22, 2017 – 20th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (Proper 24)
Matthew 22:15-22

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

In today’s Gospel we read one of the best known maxims in the Bible relating to a Christian’s relationship with government.  In the words of the King James Version “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”  We hear these words repeated often, but do we really know what they mean?

Why did Matthew include this story in his gospel?  What is the message for us today?

In order for us to understand this passage, we need to do some homework.  We need to look at the wider context of chapter 22 and we need to understand the religious, cultural and political implications of the Roman tax and system of money.  If we take this passage out of context and assume that it was written from the perspective of 21st century American culture, we might misunderstand the message.

Let’s begin by looking at Matthew chapter 22.  The chapter begins with the parable we heard last week.  This was the parable about a king who hosted his son’s marriage.  He invited many guests, but his invitations were rudely and sometimes violently rejected.  The Jewish religious leaders correctly interpreted this parable as being aimed squarely at them.  The parable’s message was that God had called the Israelites to be part of the Kingdom of God, inaugurated by Jesus Christ, but that the Jewish religious leaders refused, leading to God choosing others to take their place.

The ordinary Jewish people liked the message they heard from Jesus.  The religious leaders were oppressive hypocrites, and Jesus was pointing out this out very effectively.  And so, the religious leaders did what we might have expected – they sought to discredit and undermine Jesus.   Now Jesus was a famous teacher and so the Pharisees and Sadducees decided to ask Jesus some trick questions designed to make him look bad.

We might liken them to the now standard “gotcha” questions that are asked of political opponents during election campaigns.  In chapter 22, the Pharisees and Sadducees try three times to trip Jesus up with trick questions.  But they fail spectacularly.  What’s more, the chapter concludes with Jesus turning the tables and successfully trapping the religious leaders with a trick question of his own.

Each of the three trick questions to Jesus was set up to undermine him, but Jesus uses each to make an important point.  The first challenge to Jesus is the passage in today’s Gospel, whether Jesus thinks the Jews should pay the Roman imperial tax.  We’ll talk about this in a few minutes.  The second challenge seeks to trick Jesus on the issue of the resurrection.  The third challenge tries to get Jesus to list his favorite commandment.  The point of these challenges is to elicit a response from Jesus that would get him into trouble with the Roman authorities or the Jewish people.

In response, Jesus went beyond the silly games of the religious leaders to communicate important truths.  And he then used a question of his own to the religious leaders that conveyed an important truth about his identity as the Messiah.  So, to summarize, the Jewish religious leaders try to undermine the message of Jesus three times with trick questions, to which Jesus responded by communicating important truths about the Kingdom of Heaven, and which he then concluded with a question of his own that spoke to his identity as the Messiah.

This is the context for our Gospel passage today.  It is the first challenge question and was put to Jesus by the Pharisees and the Herodians.  They ask Jesus “Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”  Let’s get some historical context for this question, because it is really important to understand what’s going on.  The Pharisees and Herodians were not some first century equivalent of the Tea Party movement who were checking to see if Jesus supported tax and spend liberalism.  To properly understand the passage, we need to consider a few points.

The Jews were living under Roman occupation.  They saw Rome as their conquering enemy.  But this wasn’t all.  Back in the first century, there was no separation between church and state.  The Roman emperor was revered as being a god.  Everything connected with Roman rule was tinged with Roman state religion, including Roman coinage which featured the emperor’s image and an inscription lauding him as a deity.  When the Pharisees asked Jesus whether he supported paying the tax, they were really asking whether he was okay with cooperating with the occupying enemy and participating in the idolatrous worship of Caesar.  If Jesus comes out supporting the occupying Romans and their idolatrous state religion, the Jewish people would turn on him in an instant.

Now the Herodians were also there to trip up Jesus.  The Herodians were Jewish leaders who supported King Herod, the Roman client king over Judea, and so supported the people paying the imperial tax.  They were looking to catch Jesus encouraging the people to rebel against Rome, because this would lead to his arrest for sedition.

So what does Jesus do?  How does he extricate himself from this situation?  Although his response can strike us as somewhat simplistic and glib at first glance, it is full of remarkable depth that broadens the discussion.  Listen to the passage:

Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me?  Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”  “Caesar’s,” they replied.   Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

Jesus asked the Pharisees to show him the Roman coins that were used to pay the imperial tax.  The Romans required its subject peoples to pay the imperial tax using Roman coins, and the Roman coins featured Caesar’s image and an inscription lauding him as a god.  By asking to see the coin, Jesus was actually responding to both grounds on which the Pharisees hoped to entrap him.

First, the simple fact that the Pharisees had a Roman coin easily at hand indicates that they were using Roman coins as their money.  They had no problem at all in using the coins that were stamped with the emperor’s image and which proclaimed him a deity.  This neutralized the Pharisees’ attempt to portray Jesus as a participant in the Roman state religion, because they too would be equally implicated.

Second, Jesus asks them whose image is on the coin.  The answer is Caesar’s.  And so, Jesus says somewhat dismissively, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s.”  In responding in this way, Jesus is effectively detoxifying the imperial tax issue, because there is no problem in giving Roman money back to Rome.  He is putting it into its proper perspective.  He reframes the entire issue, and how Jesus does this contains important truths for us today.

The full sentence of what Jesus says is “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”  Jesus turns the focus away from human thoughts and concerns, and points to God’s desires for us.  The focus is not on our worries and concerns but on our part in the Kingdom of Heaven.  This lesson is very important for us today because many Americans have come to see politics as a new religion.  This is true for both the left and the right.  A few years ago, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote a book title Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics in which he examined Christianity’s trends over the past fifty years in America.  One of the things he looked at was the interplay between American politics and Christianity.  He noted how each side moved between the messianic and apocalyptic depending on whether their party was in power.  The world was either going to hell, or heaven depending on whether our preferred party’s president was in office.

This attitude towards life distracts us from God and what God wants of us.  We become focused on political strategies and we begin to worry and feel that the world will end unless we immerse ourselves yet further in politics.  I think that this isn’t just true for politics either.  It is true for all of life.  It can be our jobs, our financial future, our friends, our possessions, our families.  Whenever we become exclusively focused on something other than God, we lose perspective.  We can come to believe that life will only be good if our political party is in power, or if we get that promotion at work, or if our retirement plans are set, or if we just have the latest smartphone or TV.  It’s all a lie.

And so we have the words of Jesus.  “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”  Jesus is not telling us not to pay the imperial tax, or engage politically, or plan for retirement, or work hard in our careers.  No.  What Jesus is telling us is to not make those issues the primary issue in our lives.  The primary thing in our lives must be our service to God.

The Anglican theologian John Stott, pointed out that just as Caesar’s image was on the coin, it belonged to Caesar.  But we are created in God’s image, and so we belong to God.  Our lives should be given back to God.  The primary focus in our lives must be on what God has done for us through Jesus Christ, and how we are called to live in response.

Next week will be Ingathering Sunday where we bring our pledges to church where they will be blessed and dedicated to the service of God.  Our financial pledges to God’s work at St. Luke’s should be part of our greater stewardship of everything that God has given to us.  This doesn’t just mean our money, but our time, our talents and our hearts.  God has given us so much, and he has given us the responsibility for how we will use these gifts.

Our Gospel lesson teaches us to keep the right perspective, to give back to God what is God’s.  As we consider our stewardship responsibilities, let us keep this foremost in our hearts and minds.

Let us pray.

Lord God, we pray that you would give us your peace which passes all understanding.  May we always remember what you have done for us through your son Jesus Christ.  Give us discernment as we fulfill your call upon us to be stewards of your creation., including the many gifts you have given to us of time, talent, and treasure.   Amen.

Forgiveness

Sermon,  September 17, 2017 – 19th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
Genesis 50: 15-21; Psalm  103:1-13; Matthew 18:21-35

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

Today, we’re going to talk about one of the most important concepts in the Gospel.  It is an indispensable and necessary part of love in a world full of sin.  If you paid attention to our Gospel reading today, you will know what I am referring to.

Forgiveness.

Forgiveness is one of the hardest things we can ask for or grant.  Asking for forgiveness requires us to admit that we did something wrong to another.  Granting forgiveness requires us to set aside our own desire for vengeance or our need to sulk and feel sorry for ourselves.  Forgiveness demands that we put our relationship with God and others first.

Corrie Ten Boom was a Dutch woman who was captured with her sister Betsie by the Nazis in the Second World War.  They had been hiding Jews.  They were put in a concentration camp where they were starved and humiliated.  Corrie Ten Boom survived but her sister died in the camp.  Two years after the war had ended, Corrie was traveling around Germany preaching God’s forgiveness.  At one of her talks, a man approached her and with horror she recognized him as one of the concentration camp guards.

Corrie wrote of this experience “One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones. It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights; the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor; the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin.”

The man did not recognize her, but he confessed to her that he had been a concentration camp guard and that after the war he had become a Christian and repented of his actions.  He knew that she had been in a camp and asked if she would speak a word of forgiveness to him for the wicked things he had done.

Corrie wrote

I stood there—I whose sins had again and again to be forgiven—and could not forgive. Betsie had died in that place—could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?

It could not have been many seconds that he stood there—hand held out—but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.

For I had to do it—I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. ‘If you do not forgive men their trespasses,’ Jesus says, ‘neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.’

And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion—I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. ‘… Help!’ I prayed silently. ‘I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.’

And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.

For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then.

Very few of us will ever be put in the position that Corrie Ten Boom was.  But we all need to wrestle with forgiveness.  She was right that God takes forgiveness very seriously.  I think that God takes forgiveness so seriously because it is such a core aspect of who God is.

In Psalm 103, we read David praise the Lord, saying “Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits—who forgives all your sins.  The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.”  Even as we continually do wrong and turn our backs on God, he is compassionate and gracious toward us.  So much that he sent Jesus Christ to die for us and, through his death, achieve forgiveness for all our sins.  Love and forgiveness are key parts of the character of God.

And that brings us to our Gospel reading.  Our reading begins with Peter asking Jesus how many times we need to forgive another person who sins against us.  Peter suggests that perhaps once we have forgiven seven times, we have reached the limit of reasonableness.  But think about what Peter is suggesting here.  By asking how many times we need to forgive before we can legitimately hold a grudge or seek revenge, Peter is looking on forgiveness like a duty, not as something that is foundational to us as image bearers of God.

Jesus responds by saying “not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”  Jesus isn’t simply responding to Peter with a higher number, but is telling Peter that there is no limit to the number of times we should forgive another.  In the Jewish culture of that time, the number seven was the number of completeness, so seventy-seven was a way of saying “millions and millions.”  Jesus tells a parable to illustrate what he means.

Jesus starts his parable by saying “the kingdom of heaven is like”, by which he is telling us that this story speaks about the kingdom of God that Jesus is inaugurating in the world.  In the parable there is a king whose servant owed him a massive debt that he could not hope to pay.  The servant begged for mercy and the king forgave the debt.  This forgiven servant then went to collect a very small debt from one of his colleagues.  This colleague could not repay the debt, and begged for mercy.  Instead of extending the same forgiveness that had been extended to him, the servant demanded repayment, assaulted the man and had him thrown in prison.  When the king found out about this, he reinstated the first servant’s debt and had him thrown into prison.

In this story, the king represents God, and we represent the servant who had the massive debt to the king.  It is the nature of the king to forgive the debt of the servant, just as it is the nature of God to forgive us our sins.  But if we cannot then forgive the much smaller wrongs that our neighbor may have committed against us, we have not grasped God’s forgiveness.  In the end, forgiveness is a two way street.  We can forgive another person, but that person must accept that forgiveness in order for it to have an effect in their lives.

Remember Corrie Ten Boom’s story.  The guard needed to ask for forgiveness from Corrie, and Corrie had to grant it.  Only then was the relationship healed and God’s purposes achieved.  Think of another possibility.  What if Corrie had seen an unrepentant guard and forgiven him in her heart even though he didn’t ask.  Corrie would have forgiven the guard, but the guard would not have accepted her forgiveness, and he would not have been healed or changed by that forgiveness.  For forgiveness to be effective, it must be accompanied by repentance by the person who has sinned.  Forgiveness has no power in the hearts of the unrepentant.

God can forgive us, but if we don’t accept that forgiveness, then we are turning our back on his forgiveness, and in a sense, we then lose it.  We lose God’s forgiveness because we prevent it from having any healing power in our lives or in our hearts.  The parable tells us that if we truly accept God’s forgiveness, we must stand before God fully acknowledging our many sins and unworthiness.  And when we do this in our hearts, it is inevitable that any resentments or grudges that we hold against others will be cast away.

God offers us forgiveness of our sins with an end in mind.  We are not forgiven so that we can continue to live in sin and darkness.  No, God forgives us in order that we will follow Jesus into the Kingdom of Heaven.  If we continue to nurse grudges and resentments against others even in light of God’s forgiveness of the massive debt we owed him, then we have not followed Jesus into the Kingdom of Heaven.  If we are part of the Kingdom of Heaven, then our desire will be for the forgiveness and redemption of everyone we meet.  We must love them and desire that they too will experience God’s forgiveness.

Our Old Testament reading from Genesis shows us a wonderful example of forgiveness and the power that God can work in all things.  This story comes from the final chapter in the Joseph story in the book of Genesis.  For those not familiar with the story, Joseph lived in Canaan with his brothers and his father Jacob.  Joseph’s brothers grew jealous of him and conspired to murder him, but in the end, they decided instead to sell him into slavery and tell their father that he was killed by a wild animal.  After they sold him, Joseph’s brothers thought they had seen the end of him.

Joseph was brought to Egypt as a slave, but God had plans for him.  Through a variety of adventures and developments, Joseph rose to be one of the Egyptian Pharaoh’s top officials.  Joseph had interpreted a dream of Pharaoh which foretold seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine.  As a top official in Pharaoh’s government, Joseph prepared Egypt for the famine by storing up food during the years of plenty.  During the years of famine, his family came to Egypt looking for food, and this is where Joseph met them again.  There is much more to the story, but the long and short of it is that Joseph’s brothers feared that Joseph would still be holding a grudge against them and take vengeance on them once their father had died.  And this is where our reading today comes in.

Listen to the story once more:

When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?”  So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” When their message came to him, Joseph wept.

His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” they said.

But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.

Joseph had forgiven his brothers, and he realized that if his brothers were to be punished for what they did to him, that was up to God, not him.

As Christians, we are called to represent Jesus Christ to the world, and being people who forgive is central to this.  In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes:

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.  We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.  God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Paul is telling us here that we are called to represent Christ’s message of reconciliation to the world.  The only way that we can represent Christ in this way is to make forgiveness a central part of who we are.  Forgiveness is not just a bothersome obligation.  Rather, if we trust in Jesus, immerse ourselves in Scripture, and are full of the Holy Spirit, then forgiveness will be a central characteristic of who we are – sons and daughters of God, joining Jesus Christ ushering in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Let us pray.

Lord God, we thank you that you have forgiven us our sins, sending your son Jesus Christ to come and give himself for us, a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.  Give us the will to forgive others as we have been forgiven, so that, through our forgiveness we can show them the power of the Gospel.  We ask this in your name.  Amen.

Some Thoughts on Evangelism

Sermon,  August 13, 2017 – 14th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
Romans 10:5-15

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

When I read today’s passage from Romans, I thought that it would have been a very appropriate reading to have heard when our missionaries from China came to speak to us in early July.  Paul tells us very succinctly how important it is to spread the Gospel to others.  This includes not only missionaries to China but also each one of us here today as we interact with our neighbors, families, work colleagues, and those in our communities that we might not ever think about interacting with.

Telling others the good news of Jesus Christ is important.  If you are like me, now is about the time that you think to yourself “Evangelism?  Not for me.”  And I’ll grant you, evangelism has a received a pretty bad rap over the years.  I remember once when I was visiting a high school friend who had moved to New Jersey, we were riding the PATH train into New York City when a man came up and asked me if I was saved.  I told him I was, but he didn’t seem to want to take “yes” for an answer.  Now, I often quicken my pace and avoid eye contact if I spot someone who looks like a street corner evangelist.

But to be fair, sometimes my fears are unfounded.  One time a few months ago, I was wearing a t-shirt with a Christian message in a public place and a man came up and asked me if I was a follower of Jesus.  Nervously I told him that I was, and he then wanted to shake my hand and tell me he was too and he was glad to meet a brother in Christ.

Today’s passage tells us some important things about evangelism, but to be fair, in our reading, we are joining Paul in the middle of his argument.  In order to really understand it, we need to see the context in which Paul placed it.

First of all, let’s do a 30 second overview of God’s plan of salvation.  God chose the nation of Israel as his chosen people, and we read about this in the Old Testament.  But God chose Israel to be the vessel by which the whole world would be saved.  Israel wasn’t chosen by God to be the only people that would ever be saved.  Rather, Israel was chosen to be the nation in which Jesus was born, and so to bring salvation to the whole world.

When Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, the church had made important inroads in communities around the Roman Empire.  While the early Church did count many Jews amongst its numbers, the great majority of Jews rejected the gospel of Jesus.  This rejection greatly troubled Paul and other early Christian leaders.  They saw the message of Jesus Christ as flowing from a right understanding of God’s revelation in the Old Testament, and so they were anxious to ensure correct teaching in the churches, so that people would hear the true Gospel.

There is a slogan popular in some quarters that says “doctrine divides, but love unites.”  While the intent behind this slogan may not always be bad, it is nevertheless very dangerous.  Bad doctrine can prevent people from hearing the real gospel.  In the 1990s, an Episcopal bishop published a book titled The Cruelty of Heresy, in which he demonstrated the many harms and injuries that develop when false doctrine is allowed to take seed in the church.  Sometimes heresy might seem loving at first glance, but heresy is always revealed as a cruel deception in the end.  The New Testament includes many instructions from the apostles to guard sound doctrine and reject anything that strays from it.

In his letter to Titus, Paul writes that a church leader “must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.”  As we join Paul in mid-argument in today’s lectionary reading, we see him in the midst of refuting false doctrine while laying out the gospel.  Paul is pointing out that the reason Israel has rejected the Gospel is because they held on to false doctrine.

At the end of the chapter that comes just before today’s passage, Paul writes “What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal.  Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works.”  Paul is arguing that the correct understanding of the Gospel is that we are saved by the grace of Jesus Christ.  By his death, the righteousness of Jesus was given to us, since Jesus took our sins upon himself.  And so, if we have faith in Jesus and acknowledge him as our Savior, we can gain righteousness.  Not by our own merit, or our works, but purely by the grace of Jesus.

In contrast, the people of Israel, sought to achieve righteousness on their own by following the law.  But because we are all sinners, we cannot hope to justify ourselves before God through our own good works.  And so, those Jews who rejected the Gospel of Christ, had not attained their goal of righteousness, since only Jesus Christ can impart that to us.

Paul expounds on this theme in the first part of our passage.  In verse 5, he says that Moses taught that those who live by the law will be judged by the law.  “The person who does these things will live by them” Paul quotes Moses as saying, and Paul interprets this to mean that if you seek to justify yourself by the law, then you will be judged accordingly.

He then turns to what it means to have faith in Jesus Christ.  Paul writes the person with faith will not ask “who will ascend into heaven” or “who will descend into the deep” to fetch Jesus from these places.  If we have to go fetch Jesus, then our salvation would depend on us.  Paul is being rhetorical here, because he, his readers, including us, all know that Jesus came to us on earth to die for our sins.  We don’t need to go get Jesus because he has already come for us.

Instead, Paul says, the only thing that a person of faith needs do is actually believe that Jesus died for their sins and that God raised him from the dead.  We need not do anything else.  God has done it all for us.  All we need to do is trust in God and believe that Jesus was raised from the dead.  We need to believe because the good news of Jesus can only be applied in our lives if we allow God in.

And so, now that Paul has made the critically important clarification on what the true Gospel is, he draws a few conclusions.  First, if salvation is only by the grace of Jesus Christ, and if there is nothing about us that merits salvation, then it puts everyone in the world on the same footing.  Nobody has any greater claim to the love of God than anyone else.  Paul makes this crystal clear when he writes “As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.””

Many Jews believed that, as God’s chosen people, God owed them a place in his kingdom.  They believed that they had been given God’s law uniquely and that only they could obey God’s law and so earn for themselves salvation.  Paul makes clear that this is entirely wrong.  The coming of Jesus Christ fulfilled Israel’s role in the salvation history of the world.  Salvation is now open to everyone – Jew and Gentile alike – who believes in Jesus Christ.

And so we come to Paul’s final point in our passage.  He has just told us that we do not earn salvation by our own acts.  Salvation is not a method to be taught or a path to be followed.  Rather, the Gospel is good news to be told.  People need to hear that God loves them, and loves them so much that Jesus Christ came to die for them.  And not only this, but that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, thereby assuring us that death has been defeated.  The resurrection of Jesus looks forward to the day when all of creation is renewed and the dead are resurrected and live with God in the new heaven and new earth.  This is news, but news needs to be communicated.

And so Paul asks “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?”  Indeed, how can we wonder that Christianity is fading in America if we won’t tell others about Jesus?  Our nation is desperate for the good news of the Gospel, and if we don’t tell this good news, who will?

Paul concludes our passage by quoting from Isaiah when he writes “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”  The full passage is from Isaiah chapter 52, verse 7.  In this passage God is reassuring Israel that He will restore them after freeing them from exile and captivity.  Isaiah writes the following passage about the heralds who will bring this news of freedom to the people.  “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!””

Our job as evangelists is not to pester people repeatedly about whether or not they are born again.  Nor are we called to tell people that they must repent or burn in hell.  No, Paul tells us that we have good news:  news of freedom from captivity to sin; news of peace, good tidings and salvation; news we should want to share.

I’ll admit, evangelism still can feel a bit intimidating.  Many prefer to wallow in sin, sickness and captivity and reject the good news of Jesus.  In fact, if we kept reading past today’s passage, we would hear Paul say “But not all the Israelites accepted the good news.”  Paul acknowledges that not everyone will be receptive to the gospel.  But we are called to at least give everyone the chance to hear the good news of Jesus Christ.  I know it can be difficult but won’t you pray for courage and grace and be prepared to share the reason for your joy and confidence in Jesus whenever an opportunity arises?

“How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?  And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?”  I am telling you now – we are all called by God to be evangelists, and all of us are sent to tell others.  Let each one of us embrace our calling, even if we feel understandable fear from such a calling.  There is a saying that says “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something else is more important than fear.”  May God grant us all courage to be his heralds of his good news.  For the good news of Jesus Christ is surely more important than fear.

Let us pray.

Almighty God, who called your Church to bear witness that, in Christ, you are reconciling the world to yourself: help us to proclaim the good news of your love, that all who hear it may be drawn to you; through him who was lifted up on the cross, and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

What’s Up With the Trinity?

Sermon, June 11, 2017  – Trinity Sunday, Year A
Genesis 1:1-2:4a; 2 Corinthians 13:11-14; Matthew 28:16-20

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

This Sunday is Trinity Sunday, the one Sunday of the church year that we turn our focus to the Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  We repeat this formula quite often during our worship service.  Hearing it causes many seasoned Anglicans, Catholics and Orthodox to reflexively make the sign of the cross. And yet, for many years, I didn’t really know why the Trinity was all that important.  Sure, I accepted that there is solid grounding for it in the Bible, and that it was something that ought to be believed in as true, but I really didn’t understand why it made a difference.

I do now.  Understanding the importance of the doctrine of the Trinity is critical to a full understanding of who God is.  I am sure that you have heard it said many times that everybody really worships the same God, and that the only issue is that we each understand Him a little bit differently.  But the doctrine of the Trinity doesn’t let us say that, because it requires a radically different concept of God.  Yes, a full understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity is way beyond our paygrade, and way beyond the paygrade of the best theologians and bishops.  But the Bible does tell us enough for us to begin to grasp this very important doctrine.

Let’s take a look at the Scripture that we heard for today, beginning with the Gospel of Matthew.  Here Jesus tells us quite pointedly that the doctrine of the Trinity undergirds everything he is commissioning us to do.  Jesus tells us “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

We are to go and make disciples and initiate them into the Kingdom of God in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  This tells us that Jesus sees the Trinity as foundational to the Kingdom of God and to our mission on earth.  Our other two readings give us some clues as to why the Trinity is so foundational.  They tell us what the doctrine of the Trinity reveals to us about God.

You might wonder where in our Genesis passage the Trinity is mentioned.  It isn’t.  But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something to be learned about the Trinity.  In the middle of the Genesis passage, we read “Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness…’  So God created mankind in his own image, ‘in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.’  God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.’”  Many doctoral theses and theological studies have been written about what it means that humans were created in the image of God.  There are many aspects in which we function in God’s image.

Let me talk about one particular perspective here that relates to the Trinity.  We read in this passage that God created humanity in his image, and note in particular here that God said “let us make” – God refers to himself as “us”.  For Christians, this brings to mind an image of the Trinity.  So, with that in mind, God creates us as male and female, and Jesus himself refers back to this passage when he speaks of marriage.

Accordingly, a man and a woman united in marriage tells us something about the image of God, and, I would suggest, about the Trinity.  A marriage is ideally about a man and a woman coming together in love, forming a new unity.  Within that relationship, there is a unity of difference, and the husband and wife direct self-giving and sacrificial love to the other.  And often within this marriage comes children, whom the parents also shower their love upon.  This points us to the Trinity, where the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are each distinct, yet are God, and each directs self-giving love to the others.  Just as love is the very foundation of a marriage, so love is the very foundation of the Triune God.  And just as children become part of an earthly marriage, so are we humans loved by the Triune God.  Genesis teaches us that the Trinity means that love and relationship are the essence of who God is.

Genesis gives us a generic image of the Triune God.  This image is considerably fleshed out by Paul.  In Paul’s conclusion to his second letter to the church at Corinth, we hear a very familiar Trinitarian benediction.  Paul writes “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”  This is very commonly spoken at the end of the worship services in many denominations.  And if I gave you a dime every time I have heard an Anglican or Episcopal priest recite this, I would be very poor indeed.  This very simple benediction has a lot to say to us, especially about the Trinity.

Paul speaks to us of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of the Father and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.  Each person of the Trinity gives us one of these gifts, and these gifts tell us how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit relate to each other and with us.  To begin with, Paul speaks of the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Jesus came to earth and suffered and died on the cross for our sins.  When we realize what Jesus did for us, our only response is to realize what grace was shown to us.  We are told that we are saved through the grace of Jesus, which means that our salvation is a free gift, given to us by Jesus.

Why did Jesus do this for us?  Paul speaks of the love of God.  The love of the Father for us was demonstrated most clearly when he sent his Son Jesus Christ to the world to reconcile us to himself.  In the famous passage in his Gospel, John wrote “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  What does this love and salvation lead to?  What does the doctrine of the Trinity tell us is the goal from this?

Paul finishes up by speaking of the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.  The word that is translated to fellowship here is the Greek work koinonia, which is a favorite word for theologians to discuss.  I read one definition of this word that I thought was very helpful.  This definition reads “Literally, communion; the unity of believers through Christ based on the fellowship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”  One commentator wrote about koinonia as “that abiding fellowship of the Holy Spirit who took up residence in our hearts after Pentecost.”  The Holy Spirit came upon the Church at Pentecost, which we celebrated last week, and which is often regarded as the birth of the Church.  This commentator tells us why the Holy Spirit was so important in the founding of the Church.  He writes “The Holy Spirit alone is the glue that can hold together people who sometimes don’t have a whole lot in common outside their common commitment to the faith.”

So, thinking again of the Trinity, we see that the love of God the Father for us, led to God the Son, Jesus Christ, coming to earth to give his life for us and reconciling us to the Father, which in turn led to the Holy Spirit coming in our midst and opening the way for us to live in communion with God and our brothers and sisters in faith.  A Trinitarian believer is always confident in the love of God, is always incredibly thankful to Jesus Christ for his precious gift, and is always part of the larger community of fellow believers.

A Trinitarian believer can’t be a lone wolf with a lukewarm faith.  A Trinitarian believer is one who is completely wrapped up in the love of God, who knows in their very core that if it wasn’t for the grace of Jesus Christ, they would be nothing, and who is fully part of the greater communion of believers through Christ based on the fellowship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

We see that the doctrine of the Trinity is intertwined intimately with God’s plan for our salvation.  The Trinity is all about sacrificial and self-giving love, relationship and communion.  This is the essence of God.  And God’s plan for our salvation begins in the supreme love for us from the Father.  And it took shape for us through the incredible grace of our Lord Jesus Christ who died on the cross for our sins.  And it has become real and active for us today through the fellowship we have both with God and with our fellow believers through the Holy Spirit.

And so let us hear the benediction one more time “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”  Now I get it.  And I realize how amazing the doctrine of the Trinity is for us.

Let us pray.

Almighty and eternal God, you have revealed yourself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and live and reign in the perfect unity of love: hold us firm in this faith, that we may know you in all your ways and evermore rejoice in your eternal glory, who are three Persons yet one God, now and for ever.. Amen.