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F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Sermons -- Audio Version
4th Sunday after Easter - 5/2/10
2 Sam. 12:15-23; Ps 40; James 1:17-21; John 16:5-15
We are nearing the Day of Pentecost, or Whitsunday, which arrives 50 days after the Resurrection, and ten days after Jesus' Ascension back to the Father. It comes on May 23rd this year, three Sundays away. For that reason, and this being the first day of my official ministry among you, it seems good to look into the nature of the Body of Christ, the Church, in a Sacramental universe.
Much like the family formed in a marriage, so also there is the family of God formed in this Body of Christ.
Pentecost is called the birthday of the Church because that is when the frightened band of disciples became a courageous band of apostles, sent out to convert the world for Christ, the resurrected and ascended Lord of the cosmos. They had still been hiding even though they knew that Jesus has been resurrected because something else was needed which would bind them together in the most powerful fellowship the world has ever known, Church, the Body of Christ.
We will look at what was needed on Ascension Day, because Jesus tells His disciples what will happen to them, what they will receive. (Read Acts, chapter 1, if you want to peek ahead...)
That Body of Christ has in probably every age been that powerful witness of Jesus Christ in at least some place on earth. But Western Christendom has badly failed its mission for over 200 years, with a steadily decreasing public testimony, resulting in a steadily increasing secularism, and now neo-paganism. Given Jesus words about how we must confess Him in public for Him to confess us before the Father in heaven, that is a frightening situation for us Christians.
We must recover our public testimony. That is a central part of the mission of the Church. It is not enough for us to come together to be Christians here inside the church walls.
No other religion has a concept such as the "Body of Christ" by which God intends to reveal Himself to the rest of the world..., and to work among the worldly with grace and power, sifting the sheep from the goats, sorting out who will indeed obey His commandment. God tells the people of Israel that He put them out on the back side of the desert in order to find out whether they would obey Him. He uses that same strategy over and over, leading us into hard situations to find out whether we will continue obeying Him when the going gets rough.
We become the effective Body of Christ by going through that sifting process, and then as we mature, we can become those who help do the sifting. We can become spiritual leaders, helping others on into the Kingdom of God, helping others mature and grow in Christ.
That is what God calls His Church to do, to help people grow and mature in their relationship with God so that they can really and effectively love God with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength, and their neighbors just like they love themselves.
It takes time and endurance because we are born into a world already committed largely to denying the life to which God is calling us. We tend to learn some very bad and damaging lessons, falsehoods about God, ourselves, and life in general. Giving up those wrong impressions and misguided commitments can be painful.
But the Body of Christ is designed to be the place where that can happen the most efficiently and expeditiously. Every good and perfect gift coming from above... comes to those who are ready to receive those gifts. We must be prepared to receive them.
The notion of "the Body of Christ" is unique to the Bible because no other religion has a sacramental worldview. The definition of a sacrament is "an outward and visible sign of something inward and spiritual". Our bodies are sacraments of our souls. You cannot see a soul, but your body gives your soul a public identity which others can perceive, and which is attached uniquely to your soul so that we can all know who is who. No two of us can exist at the same exact place and time. Our bodies would bump into each other, and one would displace the other. Either/or, not both/and. So we each occupy a unique place in time and space.
God can speak to us from within, so to say, rather than in bodily form, but He can also become incarnate, in the flesh, so that we can speak with Him as with one another.
But the whole cosmos is a sacrament. The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims His handiwork. Anything God creates in some way reveals who God is.
That is true of any of us also. What we create reveals something about each of us. If you study a person's creations long enough, you can get to know that person quite well. Our creations are all the things we decide to do, our behavior and attitudes. We have freewill, and with that freewill we create new activities, new events, new objects -- none of which were there before. We are made in the Image of God as creators, though, obviously on a somewhat smaller scale. In that creating, we reveal ourselves. Our bodies are the sacraments of our souls.
We tend to think of sacramental theology as on the catholic side of Christianity, but it is not a matter of reformed or catholic, or of high church and low church. It is a matter of being Biblical. We are made in the Image of God, our very flesh is in the Image of God, male and female. That makes our outward bodies a sacrament -- God breathes His Spirit into us, and we become living beings. You might say that is what happens to each one of us at our conception. And in that flesh, we reveal the nature of God Himself. We can do it helpfully, pointing others on to God, or, misusing our freewill, we can do it poorly, misguiding those around us.
All this means that we humans can be the Body of Christ, we can be a community of human beings who reveal the nature and will of God. We can do that individually, but it is far more effective when we do it together as a united body. That unity is very important.
Jesus prayed in John 17 for the unity of His disciples -- so that the world would know that He, Jesus, came from the Father. So..., how would our unity tell the secular and pagan people that Jesus had come from the Father?
It would tell them that because the kind of unity into which God can form us is not possible on the human level. There is no parallel in all of pagan literature to the Church, the Body of Christ. There is no parallel in all of pagan or secular history which speaks of a community based on self-giving love -- at any cost to itself. There is no non-Biblical human community which even claims to be a sacrament of the life of God on earth. Such an idea does not occur in pagan thinking. It would be an unthinkable contradiction. That kind of love would be rejected as totally impractical and self-destructive. And, in the secular/pagan world, they would be right.
That is because they have no clear notion of a Creator ex-nihilo, and still less of a Creator ex-nihilo who plans for His creation to be based on love -- at any cost to Himself. The secular/pagan reality cannot sustain God's kind of love. So, if they actually saw that kind of love being persistently shown among a group of people, they, or many of them, would conclude that God was among them.
And that, of course, is exactly what happens. The world sees something new and unexpected among Christians who mean business. "See how those Christians love one another..." it was said of the early Church.
We must change our ways so that people say it of us today. Only God can do that among us. So our first priority is to learn how we can become more and more deeply obedient to God. He will produce the results. We will become more and more a community of Christians who manifest the powerful love of God, among ourselves, and in our relationships with the world around us.
Only God can do that, but that does not mean that we sit and wait. Only God can do that, but He will do it only through those who obey Him. As Jesus warned the disciples, if we branches are not grafted into Him, the Vine, we branches will wither and be thrown on the fire. But if we branches are grafted into Him, then we will produce fruit which will change the world. We must choose to be grafted into Jesus, we must work at being grafted into Jesus.
You may have heard me speak of how my parish back in the 1970's came alive because a small group of us began to learn how to be open and honest with each other about our spiritual walk. We called it "living in the light", referring to chapter one of St. John's First Epistle. I had seen it happen in two other parishes, and thought, if they can do it, so can we. It led to the renewal and growth of a very fractured and pain-filled parish.
St. Luke's is not a fractured and pain-filled parish. But surely God wants us to deepen our faith, to learn how to have a effective public witness, to present the Good News in a truthful, graceful, and compelling way to those with whom we come in contact. They are our public, our mission field. Surely God wants us to become a hospital for the broken, a refuge for the lonely and afraid, a place where one can learn intellectual, moral, and spiritual maturity. Would it not be an honor to God if people would say of us, "Wow! Those folks always seem faithful, loving, and hopeful"?
Who else but God could produce in us those three qualities which Paul says "endure" -- faith, love, and hope? Only as we live in the light can we receive those good and perfect gifts from the Father of lights. Only as we are truth-seekers and truth-speakers can we hear the Spirit of truth guide us into all truth.
I hope that we will be able to work together in the direction of, not just Wednesday night "living in the light" sessions, but a whole parish which learns to live in the light with God and with one another. Living in the light is the Christian way of life, not just a set of skills you develop. It is the Way of the Cross put to work.
And then, the second thing to which I believe God is calling us -- an ability to explain and interpret the Good News to others. But that is for another time.
All of this is just basic stuff, what C. S. Lewis called "mere Christianity". There is no fancy theology, just the Bible and the Creeds put to work. The kind of stuff, which, if you are alive, you can do it, at your own pace, as the Lord leads you.
Is not that the work and ministry of the Body of Christ?
We are not able to have a service of institution at this, my first official Sunday as your new priest-in-charge, because our bishop, Royal Grote, is not able to be with us. But there is something we can do to celebrate in prayer, nevertheless. There are two prayers at the end of the service of institution which we can pray.
Turn to page 579 in the Book of Common Prayer, just after the Benediction, to the prayer, of which is said: "Then shall the Instituted Minister kneel at the Holy Table, to present his Supplication for himself, in this form." My knees do not permit me to kneel, so I will simply bow.
I will pray the prayer, but this is your ministry as well as mine. We are one Body, we celebrate the Holy Communion together. You are celebrating, are you not? We minister to each other as a Body, as well as individuals. So, in your spirit, quietly pray along with me and for me. And then on the next page is a closing prayer which is for all of us as a congregation, the Body of Christ, which we can all pray aloud together, as we will all be ministering together.
Then, after the two prayers, will follow the normal offertory sentences.
On page 579...
O Lord my God! I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof; yet thou hast honored thy servant with appointing him to stand in thy House, and to serve at thy Table. To thee and to thy service I devote myself, body and soul, with all my power and faculties. Fill my memory with the words of thy Law; enlighten mine understanding with the illumination of the Holy Ghost; and may all the wishes and desires of my will center in what thou hast commanded. And, to make me instrumental in promoting the salvation of the people now committed to my charge, grant that I may faithfully administer thy holy Sacraments, and by my life and doctrine set forth thy true and lively Word. Be ever with me in the performance of all the duties of my ministry; in prayer, to quicken my devotion; in praises, to heighten my love and gratitude; and in preaching to give a readiness of thought and expression suitable to the clearness and excellence of thy holy Word. Grant this for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Savior. Amen.
The Lord be with you.
And with thy Spirit.
Let us pray together.
O almighty God, who hast built thy Church upon the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone; Grant that, by the operation of the Holy Ghost, all Christians may be so joined together in unity of spirit, and in the bond of peace, that they may be an holy temple acceptable unto thee. And especially to this congregation present, give the abundance of thy grace; that with one heart they may desire the prosperity of thy Holy Apostolic Church, and with one mouth may profess the faith once delivered to the saints. Defend them from the sins of heresy and schism; let not the foot of pride come nigh to hurt them, nor the hand of the ungodly to cast them down. And grant that the course of this world may be so peaceably ordered by thy governance, that thy Church may joyfully serve thee in all godly quietness; that so they may walk in the ways of truth and peace, and at last be numbered with thy saints in glory everlasting; through the merits of the same thy blessed Son Jesus Christ, the gracious Bishop and Shepherd of our souls, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the same Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.
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