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The Acts of St. Luke's
F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Epiphany I - 1/9/11 Ruth 2:1-20a, 4:13-17; Ps. 122; Rom. 12:1-5; Lk. 2:41-52
The Gospel lesson from Luke tells us of Jesus in the Temple after his parents had left Jerusalem to return home after the Feast of the Passover, which they attended yearly. Jesus would have become familiar with the Passover and its meaning. One wonders how He came to connect all that with Himself.
I have wondered what the Lord wanted us to learn from this somewhat strange passage, and have concluded that God wants us to understand that ideally, by the time we are 12 years of age, we should know, as Jesus did, who our real Father is. We should have graduated from our beginning situation where, by the nature of things, our mother and our father appear to us to be God. We know no other, they seem to us omnipotent and omniscient. We gradually ourselves grow and discover that they too have faults, that they too must confess their sins, and that they themselves, the two most important persons in our lives, if they have matured spiritually, kneel before someone more important. Hopefully our parents in that way point us on to God so that we no longer see them as God, but God as our Parent.
That is our spiritual journey. To become adults in the world, we must become children in God. Only our childhood in God can make us true adults in the world. Only then can we, as the Collect prays, "...both perceive and know what thing we ought to do, and also have grace and power faithfully to fulfill the same..."
The Epistle from Romans 12 has a similar theme. Paul beseeches us that we "...present our bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is our reasonable service."
On Thursday, last week, we celebrated the Epiphany, which is the Church festival to rejoice in the giving of the Gospel to us Gentiles. It has become a largely neglected festival in at least American Christendom. But Paul did not think it a small matter that God had called Gentiles to be His children. He thought it an extraordinary thing. And we Gentiles ought to think do too. We ought to gather in great numbers on Epiphany Day to thank God for the gift of the Gospel, and that we have been included in that freedom wherewith Christ has set us free.
It is a part of the great honor which God has bestowed upon us Gentiles that we too can present our bodies a living sacrifice to Him.
And the Old Testament lesson from that wonderful story of Ruth reflects the same point. We are not told what Ruth might have picked up about Hebrew religion from her marriage to one of Elimelech and Naomi's sons. Elimelech's family with their two sons, had left Bethlehem, their home, because of a famine there, and moved to Moab. The two sons married Moabite women, but all three husbands died, leaving only Naomi and her two daughters-in-law. Ruth chose to go to Israel with Naomi, leaving her own family and kindred and religion. She would have known nothing of the honor which would befall her, and that her name would go around the world because she would become the great grandmother of King David through her marriage to Boaz, and therefore she, a gentile, a lineal progenitor of Joseph and thus in the heritage of Jesus, Son of God.
In her own way, through loyalty to Naomi, her mother-in-law, this gentile woman made her body a living sacrifice to the Lord whom she most likely hardly knew. She replied to Naomi's advice that she should return to her own people: "Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following you; for where you go I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if even death parts me from you."
It was an extraordinary decision. Something about Naomi and her God told Ruth to follow Naomi.
I shift now to our own times to see how people are today honoring what Paul urges us to do, make our bodies a living sacrifice to God, and who have found that God is indeed their Parent, fathering and mothering them, and in Jesus, brothering them.
All these things of which I speak have directly to do with the issues confronting us as a parish. What has the Lord in mind for us? How can we grow intellectually, morally, and spiritually so that we can be His servants in our own time and circumstances. What would it mean for us at St. Luke's to know who our Father is, and to make our bodies a living sacrifice?
"Living sacrifice" sounds so extreme to our comfortable modern ears. Most Americans by world standards have had an extraordinarily safe and comfortable life here in America for over a century. Two oceans and a strong military have kept us safe. That safety no longer exists. We, like other Christians around the world, will be forced again to trust the Lord our God rather than what we think to be our own strong right arm. Western Christian culture is all but dissolved, so we have a long road back to spiritual maturity.
But in other places, Christianity is growing mightily. I receive two magazines telling some of the story abroad, one from The Voice of the Martyrs, and the other from Barnabas Aid. Both deal with missionaries and outreach into areas where Christians are violently persecuted, by either Communists or Muslims.
When I first saw the picture on the front of the new Voice of the Martyrs’ magazine, I felt a confusion and repulsion. It was a picture of Yubelina, a once beautiful young woman, who was smiling with an evident joy. The ugliness of the scars which covered mostly the left side of her face created a repulsive conflict. Given the magazine, I knew what must have happened. She had been severely burned when Muslims attacked her Christian village in Indonesia, setting fire to homes and other buildings. She was caught in the fire. The scars were the remains of a horrible disfigurement even after several plastic surgery operations.
The caption for the picture was, "Give them beauty for ashes..." which is probably a reflection of Is. 61:3 "...to grant to those who mourn in Zion -- to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified." Yubelina is a living testimony to the power of our loving God who reaches down to His people with blessing in the midst of terror. Yubelina is extraordinarily beautiful, but in a quite different and deeper manner. Her smile radiates through and past her scars.
A Dr. Paul who has operated on victims in Nigeria where there are frequent attacks from Muslims on Christians, describes the scene at a local church. The roof is gone, the chairs are plastic because the church had been burned by Muslim mobs a few months earlier. But, he says, "These people are back in their church... Worshiping the Lord and doing so in a very exuberant fashion." These could well be Anglicans -- who are numerous in Nigeria. Exhuberant Anglicans.
Dr. Paul relates how they worshiped in another burned out church called Dogonahawa, in a village of about 2000 people, mostly Christians. "The main path out of the village connects to another sister village about a mile and a half away. The Muslim attackers knew that this [road] would be the means of escape of the people in the village when they came in the middle of the night firing guns and terrorizing people. They were waiting there with nets to capture the women and children and any of the men they could, and then to start their evil butchery."
"A mother who had a tremendously bad scar on her neck was wondering if we could do something for her because it was really thick. ...she said she was on the escape route and she was caught. They took a cutlass and thought they had cut her head off because of the bleeding. She was unconscious, but she had her baby on her back. When she awoke after being unconscious, her baby was cut in pieces."
Evil butchery. There were 500 bodies in a mass grave after that event, one fourth of the population of the village.
Dr. Paul writes that he has been an orthopedic surgeon for 25 years and done a lot of emergency room work. "I have not seen this level of human tragedy in all my time...."
"You know, I think as I had time to recover from the initial shock, I realized how much I and how much you and we need these brothers and sisters. .... We live in a country that is very unique in the world today. We read our Bibles, and we go to Sunday School.... When you are going home from work in Nigeria and you are a Christian, it is very possible that you may not come home that night. But it is possible to come home at night even if you are caught, if you are willing to say, ‘Allah is god and Mohammed is his prophet.’"
"Think about your family at home, and imagine that you are on your way home and you are stopped by a mob of vicious people saying, ‘Repeat after me or die.’ Suddenly I realized our faith may be fairly broad theologically [we may know a lot], but it is not all that deep sometimes. These people, they don’t know a lot of answers to Bible stories, and they probably can’t give a good discussion on why Arminianism and Calvinism are right or wrong. But I can tell you that when people step up to them with a gun or a knife, and they are asked, ‘Will you repeat after me?’ And they say ‘No, Jesus is Lord,’ their theology is very deep and we need that. I need that."
"The thing that struck me about these Christians, besides the depth of their commitment, was.... Their ability to forgive. I am just amazed at their ability, supernaturally I am sure, to forgive their tormentors."
That is the kind of life which shows the power of the Holy Spirit, the baptism of the Holy Spirit promised by Jesus at His ascension, and for which I hope and urge us all to pray. Those are people who know who they are and where they are going. There is nothing that Satan can throw at them which will make their sense of identity in Christ falter, or which will make them lose their sense of direction -- they are steadily building with God and one another, and even with their enemies, the Kingdom of God.
No Christian should go looking for martyrdom, no Christian should want persecution, even if persecution is what helps clean up the Church. Only God can make those kinds of decisions. But what Christians everywhere should work toward is having that kind of boldness about sharing the Good News, even in the face of death. It is not for us to choose when we will be persecuted or when we will die. But we must be ready for either, and we must be truth-seekers and truth-speakers at any cost to ourselves. That is what it means to make our bodies a living sacrifice. We put our living bodies on the line for Christ.
We read in the book of Revelation, 12:11, that the angels in heaven "have conquered Satan by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives unto death." Three things: 1. the blood of the Lamb is their salvation, their security in Christ and their obedience to His word; 2. the word of their testimony is their willingness to stand publicly for Christ; and 3. they were willing to die to stay faithful, they loved not their lives unto death.
There is nothing that Satan and his minions can do against such people. People who speak the truth in love shine a light from which the evil-minded must either flee, or they must destroy those who shine the light. That is just as true in America and the rest of the secularized and paganized West as it was in Rome, and is today in Nigeria and a host of other places.
By 12 years old, Jesus knew who was His real Father. He was already moving beyond his human parents into a realm they did not yet understand. We too must move beyond our human parenting, beyond their faults and failures, beyond our hurts and wounds, beyond the wrong impressions and lessons we learned from them -- into the freeing and healing relationship which only God can offer -- that stability of our personhood, and stability of our moral direction. We must allow God to re-parent us, to make us His children, no longer children of anything in the world. Our parents have done their job, and we must, like Jesus, move on. Our trust and obedience is now to God, not our human parents -- who become, hopefully, brothers and sisters in Christ, fellow workers in the Lord's vineyard.
Only then can we successfully make our bodies that living sacrifice. We pray often in the Book of Common Prayer for safety and security. But we are also to be the Lord's frontline troops in the spiritual battle continually raging until the return of the King. There are and will be casualties in that war. But there will be no circumstance beyond the reach of the Lord to heal and set right.
We have had many conversations about our Anglican heritage, and how meaningful that is to us, a part of our identity. But Anglicanism in England has long since ceased to be a clear testimony to the Lordship of Jesus, just as the Episcopal Church in America has deteriorated, perhaps beyond repair. It is rather the Anglican Church in Africa, notably in Nigeria, which has come to the rescue of many Anglicans here in America, providing encouragement, advice, and even an ecclesiastical home for many who have left the Episcopal Church.
Both in numbers and in spiritual maturity, the center of Anglicanism is now in Africa, no longer in Western churches. The task of Western Anglicans is not to become big and important again, but to become faithful again. Let us at St. Luke's help lead the way.
In some African dioceses, you will not be ordained until you have already started two or three churches. That does not come from seminary training, as helpful as that might be, it comes rather from a zeal fired by the Spirit of God within us, the baptism of the Holy Spirit that Jesus promised.
Our newsletter is called the Acts of St. Luke's. We have not recorded in it lately any accomplishment for the Lord that would attract the attention of the world around us.
So, we are at a turning point. One street definition of insanity is to believe that you will get different results when you keep doing the same thing. We will not get different results if we keep doing only what we have been doing. We do many things well, but there is always more.
It will take a lot of deep repentance on many very ordinary things (anger, lust, pride, resentment....) as the Lord continues to clean us up within ourselves. As we get cleaned up spiritually, we must learn to share our faith openly and with a free spirit among our family, friends, and neighbors. When people say or imply that secularism or some form of paganism is the truth, can we say (with no guns to our heads, no swords to our chests), "No, Jesus is Lord"? That is a gift which comes naturally from the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. First children in God, then adults in the world.
We must not be afraid of what Jesus wants to give us, but rather seek it, and seek what He means by this baptism of the Holy Spirit -- rather than what we may have foolishly made of it. We will then one day fill the Acts of St. Luke's, like the Acts of the Apostles, with testimonies of victory in Christ.
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