Sunday, November 25, 2012

Not From This World

God is not a king who rules by the threat of power, but a lover who empowers us by the gift of love.

Proper 29b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over... but as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

Last week we reflected on the fact that no human being — Jesus Christ excepted — is quite like God. We are all, of course, like God in a few respects, having been made in God’s image. As the Catechism reminds us, right in the second question and answer, on page 845 of the Book of Common Prayer, this means that we, like God, are free: “free to make choices: to love, to create, to reason.”

Surely there is no doubt about God having these three attributes. “Reason” is God’s middle name, so to speak, for as theologians remind us, the Son of God is the Word of God — and that is the most meaningful and reasonable Word ever spoken: the Word through whom all things were made. In this we recognize God as the Creator of all that is and could possibly be. And as John the evangelist reminds us again and again, Love is at the very heart of who God is.

We human beings share in these capacities to love, create, and reason — but you can see at once that human likeness to God is limited in each one of these capacities. As I said in the sermon last week, “No man works like him.”

And as with God, so with God’s kingdom. The kingdom of God is similar in some respects to earthly kingdoms, but ultimately so different from all of them that even thinking in such terms could be less than profitable, if we get hold of the wrong end of the stick. Of course, that did not stop people from thinking about the kingdom of God in very earthly terms throughout most of human history. The form that Messiah takes in the Jewish tradition is precisely that of a king. Messiah in Hebrew, and Christ in Greek, both mean “anointed one” — and this refers to the fact that the way a person is made a king in the Jewish tradition — and in most others — is by being anointed. You may remember, for example, how God chose David out of all the sons of Jesse and sent Samuel the prophet to anoint him as king with holy oil, after Saul (whom Samuel had also anointed king at God’s instruction) turned out not to be a faithful ruler after God’s own heart, and willing to submit to God’s instruction and commandment.

Our reading this morning from the book of Daniel shows that this idea of God, and God’s kingdom, was still very much in vogue in the centuries before the coming of Christ, and even up through and into the time of his ministry. Daniel portrays what amounts to a coronation scene in which the one “like a human being” — or “like a son of man” as the older translation has it — comes before the Ancient One, the one Ancient in Days, to be invested with all authority over all the nations of the earth. And you will recall that the disciples asked Jesus if the time was coming when he would establish his kingdom in Jerusalem. The disciples saw the kingdom of God in very literal terms — an anointed King sitting on a physical throne in a particular earthly kingdom.

So strong is this image of God as a kind of super-king — a King of kings and Lord of Lords — that it persisted well into the life of the early church, as attested in that reading from the Revelation to John. That vision portrays God’s heavenly court as being much like an earthly court; the only difference being that Jesus is the ruler over all the kings of the earth.

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And so he is — I do not want to deny by any means that the Son of God is King of kings and Lord of lords. But I want to remind us that this is an image, a metaphor. It doesn’t particularly well speak to us in our days, anyway, when there are very few kings sitting on earthly thrones anywhere. God is not simply the boss of bosses, the capo de tutti capi as they would say in the Godfather. God is much more than that, but also different from that. There is a danger in seeing God as simply the biggest, the best, the boss, the most powerful ruler, or even as just “the supreme being.” And the reason for this is that it doesn’t well jibe with what the Catechism tells us about God — that the primary attributes of God reflected here on earth are freedom, reason, and love — not compulsion and power.

And this is in part what Jesus was getting at when he told Pilate that his kingdom “is not from the world.” His kingdom is not a kingdom of one power dominating all other powers. No, his kingdom is a kingdom based on truth — and here we must understand truth not just as a collection of all things that are true, a collection of facts, but rather as something about the ultimate reality of all that is — something about the being of God rather than merely the power of God. It is not so much that God is in control of things, a power working over other powers, but that God is the source of all life and light and power that any thing has.

This is what is meant when John the Divine reports, a few chapters on from today’s passage, that the heavenly creatures sing out: “Splendor and honor and kingly power are yours by right, O Lord our God, for you created everything that is, and by your will they were created and have their being.” The kingly power of God is not that of an invading general conquering someone else’s territory; it is the gracious authority of the one who holds all things by right, not by compulsion.

For God is not only the creator of all that is, but the sustainer of it: were God to withdraw his loving care from the universe for an instant, were God to turn his gaze away or blink his all-seeing eye, all that is would simply cease to be — for God is the ground of all being, the source and sustainer of all that is, all things being created and sustained by the left and the right hands of reason and love.

This can help us understand on the one hand the nature of God’s creative reason — for he is the Word of Truth, the truth of everything that is. God is not simply reasonable in the sense of being intelligible or logical — God is the very basis of what makes Reason what it is — why cause follows effect and one and one make two. God is not just the Great Because; God is the Great Why.

But above all, and on the other hand, and again as John reminds us again and again, God is love — not just the love of affection and friendship and fellowship, not even just as the most loving being — but as the sustaining cause and end and purpose of all love. God is not a king who rules by the threat of power, but a lover who empowers us by the gift of love.

Perhaps no one understood this better than Dame Julian of Norwich, a great saint of the English Middle Ages. In her Revelations of Divine Love she wrote of God speaking to her; and the form of God that she saw was the wounded Christ on the Cross. And that Christ on the Cross spoke to her, in these words:

I am he, the might and goodness of fatherhood; I am he, the wisdom and the lovingness of motherhood; I am he, the light and the grace which is all blessèd love; I am he, the Trinity; I am he, the Unity; I am he, the great supreme goodness of every kind of thing; I am he who makes you to love; I am he who fills you with desire; and I am he, the endless fulfilling of all true desires.

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Is God a king, even King of kings? Yes, so God is. But that kingdom is not from this world — it is to this world. For the love of God is not based on God needing anything, but having everything, so that all is a gift, a gift of freedom, reason and love, given to us by the one who took our nature upon, that we might grow into his nature; one who died for us, that we might live in him. So let us give glory to God, our true King and our Lord, to whom all might, majesty, power and dominion — and all freedom, peace and love — be now and evermore ascribed, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

No Man Works Like Him

There is no one quite like God when it comes to working salvation 2014 a sermon for Proper 28b

Proper 28b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
When Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God... for by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.

You can tell from our Scripture readings this morning that Advent is almost upon us, as the passages chosen take on some of that aura of anticipation for the Great Day of Christ’s triumphal return, the judgment of the world, and the end of all things. But there is another theme in these passages, a theme not of expectation but of identity. For all three readings today urge us, each in its own way, not to be deceived by substitutes, cheap or elegant, but to hold out for the real thing. All our Scriptures today urge us to make a clear distinction between Jesus and all other ministers, who go from good to bad. The message is that Jesus is the Savior, the Son fo Man and Son of God, and no one else and no one other. As the hymn says, No man works like him.

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We start with one who isn’t a man at all: with the Archangel Michael, described in the vision of the prophet Daniel as the great prince, deliverer of God’s people. And while Michael the Archangel is clearly a deliverer and rescuer of God’s people, one who brings much good, he is also not the Christ; he is not the son of God. And this is revealed most clearly in his name, Michael. For in Hebrew, Michael, Mi k’ El, means “Who is like God?” — the implied answer being, of course, no one! Only God is God, and however great and powerful an angel or archangel may be, even Michael the leader of the hosts of heaven, the greatest of all angels and archangels, he is still a creature, a minister and servant of God, but not God himself. Michael is not God. No man — or angel — works like him.

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The Epistle to the Hebrews from which we been reading over the last few weeks has also been attempting, and continues, to make a distinction between the earthly ministers of God and the heavenly Son of God — who, while he has a ministry, and shared our human life and walked among us as one of us, is in his own full reality as the Son of God as much above the angels as the angels are ranked above rank and file human beings.

The author of this epistle has been referring to the earthly priests who serve in the earthly temple, the ordinary priests as well as their leader the high priest. And the message the author persists in delivering is that these priests have a ministry that is temporary and insufficient — good at most for the time being, but needing to be repeated day by day, and year by year, because the multitudes of their sacrifices cannot atone one for all for sin. For if the priests and their sacrifices could do away with sin once and for all they would not have to be repeated day by day and year by year. Even the great sacrifice of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when the high priest would enter into the holy of holies with the blood of the sacrifice and pronounce, that one time, on that one day, in that one place of the holiest part of the temple, speak the unspeakable name of God in the inner and most holy part of the temple — even that the most holy of all earthly sacrifices could not suffice to do away with sin once and for all — the most it could do is atone for sin year by year, one year at a time.

But Jesus, through the gift of himself on the cross, is superior to any merely human priest, even the high priest, for he offers the sacrifice of himself and he brings his own blood through the veil of the heavenly temple into the real holy of holies — the one of which the earthly temple is a mere imitation — a model or a replica, but not the real thing. No man, not even the high priest, works like him.

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Which is why, when the disciples show their admiration for the great stone structures of the temple and its surrounding buildings, Jesus declares to them that those stones will tumble to the ground — not one stone will be left standing on another. He is reminding them that this that the earthly temple which they behold there, however beautiful and glorious, is already the third or fourth such house of worship to stand on that spot — the tent and the tabernacle of Moses were replaced by the temple that Solomon built; the Assyrians destroyed that temple, and years later Ezra and Nehemiah repaired it, and then Herod the Great reconstructed it and built most of the grand buildings which the disciples are admiring at that point — the temple that took forty years to build. This temple, this temple of stone, however glorious, and its surrounding precincts, however majestic, are no more an eternal habitation than any other human construction. All of the predecessors to Herod’s Great temple have been replaced, and this one will be too. And all of them — every last one — are built as imitations of the true heavenly temple, which is above.

In this Jesus warns the disciples not to be fooled by imitations, architectural or, as he goes on to say, human. Recall how he said, “Destroy this temple and I will raise it up in three days” — and that in this saying he was referring to the temple of his body, which is the eternal and everlasting temple that sits at the right hand of the Father in the heavenly places. It is not the temple of stone and mortar that is the incarnation of God; it is Jesus Christ.

And just as he applies the prophecy of the raising of the temple to himself, so too he apples the lesson about imitations to himself personally: he assures them that some will come who will try to lead them astray, coming even in his name and even declaring, “I am he!” These false Messiahs will lead many astray, but Jesus warns the disciples to be on their watch. He assures them that say what they might, perform what wonders they will, no man works like him.

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And that is the God’s honest truth. No one works like Jesus. Even the best of us is like Michael, marked as it were with a label that says, “Who is like God — not this one!” Even the noblest and most costly sacrifice is pale and wanting beside the sacrifice of Christ upon the cross — the innocent giving himself on behalf of the guilty, a human being doing in that act what no other human being could do, because only he is Son of God as well as son of man.

But don’t be discouraged in this. each of us still has our ministry to carry out, even as we know that we are not like God and cannot work like him. There is good news in all of these lessons: we don’t have to do what Jesus has done — because he has done it. We get to ride on his coattails, having the confidence to enter the sanctuary by his blood, by the new and living way he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, because we are members of his body — so that we can approach the throne of grace with a true heart in full assurance of faith. He who has promised is faithful, for he has accomplished what no one else could do. For us, beloved, for us, who as members of his Body have salvation. Thanks be to God, that no man works like him.+

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Death Before Life

Our song shall be sung to eternity, in the Spirit -- a sermon for the observance of All Saints Day.

All Saints’ Sunday • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG Some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb and said, “Take away the stone.”

Today is the Sunday after All Saints Day, on which it is our tradition here at Saint James to remember not only the great saints of Christian history but also our own personal saints — our friends and family members who have died and rest in Christ. We remember them with images: the icons at the altar representing the saints in glory who meant so much to the universal church, and the photographs on the bulletin board here, representing our loved ones who have meant so much to us, and to this particular church.

These images are a help to our memory — and whenever a dyed-in-the-wool fundamentalist Protestant challenges me with, “Why do you have pictures of saints in your church?” I am always happy to reply with the question, “Don’t you have pictures of your loved ones in your house or at your work? Well this is the House of God, and the place where the work of God begins, and so we keep pictures of the members of God’s household and workforce to remind us of the fact that they belong to him as much as they belong to us! They remind us of the core of the Christian faith: that death is not the end.”

No, my friends; death is not the end. In a very real sense death is the beginning. That may sound a bit odd, as we are usually accustomed to thinking about life leading up to death. Many people, in fact, think that death is the end — atheists who have no belief in God at all, or those who believe that there is no more to us than simply the physical stuff that makes us up, and who see death just as the ultimate breakdown of the human machine, like a car whose engine has stopped working, with four flat tires, goof for nothing but the junkyard.

As I’ve noted before, the stuff that makes us up — what our bodies are made from — is constantly changing, even though we experience continuity in who we are. Every breath I take, I draw in oxygen from the atmosphere, and I exhale carbon, each little carbon atom neatly ushered off by two oxygen atoms. When I eat, I take in nitrogen and carbon and phosphorus and who knows what other chemicals that used to be part of some other plant or animal, and they become part of me. And as cells in my body die and are replaced, I am in constant flux and change. The “me” of today is literally physically not the “me” of yesterday, nor will it be the “me” of tomorrow. Most of the cells that have made up my body down through the years died a long time ago — and even some of the ones I carry around now, like the ones that make up my hair — or what is left of it — and the outer surface of my skin, are dead now and just waiting to fall out or rub off. This is the nature of biological life. Each of us is in constant transition.

This conveyor belt of life is the biological life that ends at death. Ultimately all of the cells that make up “you” and “me” will die, and “you” and “I” will be clinically dead before that, since it takes the these cells and systems working together to keep us alive with what the doctors call life. Some of our cells will keep on trying to work — for minutes or even hours — after our hearts have stopped and our brains have stopped functioning.

Yet we know that this is not all there is to life — just as there is a “you” or a “me” that somehow continues to exist in spite of the changes in our bodies. I spoke last month of that long-running play about young lovers, “The Fantasticks.” That play ran for 42 years, and you can well imagine that the actors who played the young lovers

on opening night eventually had to be replaced with even younger actors, as did the older actors too. And yet the play continued to be the play — it continued to exist as such in spite of the change in the actors who made up the cast. Our bodies are much like this: new cells coming into existence to replace the old dying ones every minute of every day.

Now, you might well observe, that just as the play always has to have actors — so too don’t we have to continue to have a body if we are to continue to exist? And the Christian answer to this dilemma has always been Yes. Some religions and philosophies think of the soul as a disembodied ghostly sort of thing that floats around and only temporarily “inhabits” a body. But that isn’t the Christian faith: our creed makes no reference to the immortality of the soul, but rather speaks of the resurrection of the body. Some in the early church insisted that the body that would rise would literally be the body you happened to die with — like Lazarus. The problem with that being that much of what goes into making up one person at any given moment also becomes part of someone else’s body through the very air we breathe. Some in the early church, like Saint Augustine, recognized this problem, and surmised that God would make up the difference by creating new bodily substance — but of course that goes against the whole idea of it being the same body.

Rather than getting tangled up in such speculation, even on the authority of someone like Saint Augustine, it is better to follow the Scripture — isn’t it always? — and follow Saint Paul’s understanding of this, as he wrote to the Corinthians: what dies — when we die — is a physical body, but what rises — when we rise — is a spiritual body. And spiritual here does not mean something less real or less substantial than the physical — but more so. It is the Spirit that gives life.

What is spiritual is strong enough to last for ever — this is why death is the real beginning, the beginning of eternal life, the life that lasts, the life of the Spirit we share with God himself, for as Jesus told the Samaritan Woman, God is Spirit, and as Saint Paul assures us, when we are raised we shall be like him. This is why death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things — the merely physical things of which the cosmos and everything in it is made— will have passed away. Scientists tell us that all matter will one day dissolve, and the physical universe will fade into nothingness as even protons and electrons give up the ghost; and the physical will cease to be. But the Spirit, and what is spiritual, will endure. God in Christ will make all things new — including the gift of new spiritual bodies that will give new life to our being and loving and doing in and with the power of God, who is Spirit.

I mentioned that musical play, The Fantasticks, but this continuing existence in spite of the change in physical make-up is equally true of any play or piece of music. Bach’s Partitas for Violin have been played on countless violins; Beethoven’s symphonies have been played and will be played by countless different orchestras — and each of us is a precious creation of God, more precious than the most important composition by any great composer. You might say, that the cosmos, the physical world, is the mechanism by which God makes souls. The physical body is the first draft, the working score, so to speak; the spiritual body is the eternal performance.

We will at our death take a rest from being performed, but will at our rising in the Spirit find our song sung out to eternity, in the holy city, the new Jerusalem. Death is only the intermission, and the new life that comes at resurrection will begin the true and lasting concert of real life, as we join with all the saints who have gone before, in song around the throne. This is the life that will never end, where the goodness and uniqueness of each one of us, perfected by God and refined by means of this earthly life, like gold as though by fire, will run like sparks through stubble, as we join to sing to Christ the Lamb of God who is the light of the City: as the old Appalachian hymn sings so well, “And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on; and when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on. And when from death I’m free I’ll sing and joyful be, and through eternity I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on, and through eternity I’ll sing on.”+