All posts by The Very Reverend Edward H. Ihde

Fr. Edward Ihde serves as Priest and Rector for the congregation of Saint Nicholas Anglican Church (ACA) in Buffalo, NY where he brings into perspective thoughts and anecdotes from thirty years of ordained ministry. He is also Dean of the Western New York deanery

Pentecost

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Today is the Birthday of the Church. We who celebrate today celebrate nearly 2,000 years of history beginning at the reading from Acts today as the tongues of fire settled on the apostles, and as the story reads: ‘they began to speak in other tongues about the mighty deeds and wonders of God’.

But you might remember, there is another story about languages in the Bible set in the town of Babel in what is now modern day Iraq. Do you remember the story of Nimrod? Nimrod was a king so drunk with his own power that he ordered a tower built as high as heaven. When it was complete, Nimrod ascended the stairs to the very top of the tower. Do you remember why? It was to shoot an arrow into the eye of God. Nimrod had decided that there should be only one God to rule the earth and by symbolically killing the God in heaven, he was about to take the place of God on earth. But what happened? If you remember, God said, ‘Let us go down and confuse their language’ because the people had become very evil in the sight of God. And so all the people who Nimrod had ruled began to speak and hear different languages. And so, Nimrod’s power was diluted because he could no longer influence his followers or lead them in the way he wanted them to go. And so, as the story goes, the people dispersed from the tower of Babel and went off to find others who spoke the same language. These groups left the country and settled in families, clans and nations over the face of the whole earth. The people who were left, including Nimrod and a few of his followers named the city ‘Babylon’ because it was there where the tongues of men were confused by God.

The Day of Pentecost of so long ago changed all that. Pentecost is God’s reversal of the action he made at Babylon 4,000 years before. By giving the followers of Jesus the gift of tongues, God gave back the ability of men to speak as one voice, to the great works and creation of God. God, in effect, gave the power back to the Church what he had taken from mankind a long time ago. Jesus predicted this when he told the disciples that if he didn’t return to heaven, the Spirit would not come. But if he did return, God would give his Spirit to all who asked and great power to all who confessed Jesus as the Son of God.

As I grew up in the church, it became apparent to me in the early seventies that we were missing something. I knew we loved God and we believed in his Word, but when I read the reading this morning about tongues and the interpretation of tongues, I wondered how this was this possible, and if it was possible in the days of the early church, why wasn’t it possible in today’s church? And so I began to search out prayer meetings, which were the beginnings of the charismatic movement of the day. I am not sure many of you remember the early seventies, but there was a movement brought about by the Holy Spirit in those days that provided an avenue for Christians to seek out all nine gifts of the Holy Spirit. As you should be aware by now there are nine gifts of the Spirit: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, tongues, and the interpretation of tongues.

Most of us, no doubt, have no problem with wisdom, knowledge or faith. But, many of us might start to get uneasy at healing, miracles, and prophesy. And there have been some in the past who have gotten downright angry at the discussion of discernment of spirits, tongues and the interpretation of tongues.

But it is as true today as it was back in the seventies that fear breeds contempt and the institutional church at that time as well as now was very much in fear of the workings of the Holy Spirit in the world because the Holy Spirit is in fact, the spirit of truth. And there is nothing that those who preach falsehood fear more than ‘the truth’ because it reveals them for who they really are.

The church of the 70’s looked at the charismatic movement as some kind of occult or voodoo even though it is clearly part of our Christian heritage and blessing as the body of Christ. The Episcopal bishops at the time did their best to quell this interest in the spiritual gifts by banning charismatic meetings from churches in some of their dioceses. People who had an interest in developing these gifts had to separate themselves from their church and meet in homes and in secret. There were many hurt feelings and harmful accusations as Christians pigeonholed each other as ‘you’re one of us’ or ‘you’re one of them’. The Roman Catholics, the Lutherans, the Presbyterians and the Methodists all had the same problem with their hierarchy. But there were two places where the charismatic movement was embraced. One was the Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship and the other was the Franciscan Community.

For about five or six years I went to prayer meetings at Corpus Christi Church on Clark Street. There, I had the privilege to witness the awesome power of God in the lives of many believers in the charismatic movement. Here was a place where tongues were sought out and interpretations and discernment was revealed. At first, I wasn’t exactly sure what was going on. Many would sit quietly for what seemed like an eternity praying for the Spirit to come upon them. Then . . . as if on cue everyone began speaking in languages that I had never heard before. I thought at first, this is impossible! But my interest was piqued and I decided to continue to look for proof that this was all real. Others, many others, were in the same position as I. We were curious, we were startled, and we were skeptical, all at the same time. Until one night, a man stood up and spoke in a very clear voice a language that was totally incompressible to me and yet vaguely familiar in meter. Next to me sat an Asian women who all of a sudden started to cry. She asked the man how he had come to learn Mandarin Chinese as he was totally fluent in it and it was in a very obscure dialect. The lady had been born in the only part of China where this language was used. The man said he had never been outside of Buffalo and that the language he spoke was his prayer language. The woman then began to translate what the man had said. It was the Lord’s Prayer, complete, right down to the Amen.

 

That is when I believed that this was all very real!

 

The charismatic movement in mainline churches ended almost as quickly as it had started. Those in the movement began to believe that God the Holy Spirit had come upon the Church to begin a new work, just as he had come upon the church in the early days that we read about this morning. From this movement many new churches were founded. Churches were formed that were non-traditional and based on the outpouring of all of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. That is what is meant by the term ‘Full Gospel’.

So you might wonder. What are we doing? Why aren’t we Anglicans raising our voices in tongues and being slain in the Spirit?

You have to know that not all are led to this kind of worship. As the Bible says, there are a variety of gifts and varieties of services, but it is the same Lord who activates them all. To each is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. The proof of ‘our’ pudding as Anglicans is in our liturgy and in our tradition. It is the way we have worshipped for the last 1,500 years and it is the way the Holy Spirit came to be among us originally. The charismatics are not wrong, they are simply different.

One of the great lessons learned as the Continuing Anglican Church began to re-form during this same period in time (during the 70’s) was that, it too was a genuine movement of the Holy Spirit that impressed on the hearts of those who founded it that the Scriptures really are the inspired and authoritative Word of God. We, as a true church, cannot separate the Spirit from the Spirit-inspired Scriptures. The gift of the Holy Spirit is given to enable Christians to grow in biblical holiness and to equip them with gifts to build up the church in a hostile world. Therefore it continues to be a tragedy when other Christian leaders whose minds have been captured by the spirit of the age commend the values of the world to the Church and then claim they are led by the Spirit of God. But this is the challenge we face as a church founded outside of the mainline.

On the day of Pentecost, Peter’s preaching makes clear that the gift of the Holy Spirit is given to those who repent, but the continuing crisis of the mainline churches has come about through a failure to call to repentance those who are systematically grieving the Holy Spirit by claiming that what Scripture calls immoral and anathema is in fact ‘new truth’ revealed by the Spirit.

Orthodox Christians are convinced today that we are caught up in a transforming movement of the Holy Spirit of God in our own day. Despite our lack of power, money and resources, the movement continues to grow, as do our churches. The Holy Spirit is using us to help gather the elect of God in a unique and unprecedented way. The continued growth of the continuing Anglican churches is confirmation of this reality.

So what can we here at Saint Nicholas do? We must continue to press forward to be a Spirit-filled Church that makes visible the grace, as well as the truth, of Jesus Christ as the Lord of our Life. We must continue to welcome all who enter our doors and reach out to those who are searching for God’s truth in their lives.

“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”   Amen

Caught by Grace

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A few weeks ago on facebook there was a video of a horned mountain ram with its head stuck between two young trees. It was obviously stuck there for some time and was quite distressed.   Some hikers happened to come across this ram and took its picture in the woods. One of the hikers was brave enough to try to help the ram get free . . . and after bending one of the saplings down in order to get a good grip, the man pulled and prodded the ram’s horns trying desperately to get the ram out of his troubles while still trying to avoid getting gorged by the ram. The ram of a course did not quite understand what was happening and tried his best to avoid the man who would eventually become his savior. After struggling with the tree and with the ram for quite some time the ram was finally freed and ran off into the woods.

It occurred to me watching this dramatic video stream that many of us have been exactly in the same position as this ram . . . caught between a rock and a hard place . . . sometimes out of curiosity . . . sometimes out of our own stupidity . . . and sometimes perhaps just out of bad luck, by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It is in those awkward moments in our lives where we find that we really need a savior . . . whether it’s a friend with bail money or a father who can drive us home (because we can’t) or a concerned mom or wife who at first screams at us for being so careless and then turns around and hugs and kisses us because we are now safe . . . these are the moments of our lives that we do not soon forget. These are also the moments that most shape our lives . . . whether for the good or for the bad.

For it in these moments that we find out who it is that truly cares for us . . . who cares enough to face with us our humiliation and our shame at doing stupid things for sometimes less than honorable reasons and it is in these kinds of moments that some of us find God . . . or more accurately God finds us.

For many today the thought of a commandment that God has given us is like a red light that is there to be driven through. For many, being told not to do something becomes only an obstacle to our lives and our fun that ought not hold us back from doing the things we desire. But the commandments of God were never meant to hold anyone back. They were designed only to help us gain true happiness in the world in which we live . . . a world ruled by natural laws.

In construction, we put up barriers when we work so that people will not wander into where they should not go. The barriers are meant to keep them from harm and not to say they are unwelcome. Along every highway in the world you will see guard rails where danger exists. These guard rails will keep your car from falling down a cliff or from falling into a river or from head on collisions should something happen to you while you are driving . . . should you fall asleep or lose control. Such are the commandments that Jesus talks with us about in the gospel today that we should follow . . .

Jesus said to his disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete [and] this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

For it here in this particular gospel that Jesus adds to the Father’s Ten Commandments that were meant to keep us safe in this world and he adds yet one more that explains all the others, that we should at all times and in all places love one another as he has loved us for it on these commandments that hang all the law and the prophets. This is at the heart of Christianity and it central to our religion . . . for Jesus came into our world to save us and to redeem us all as we were struggling in our sin . . . and it was through his death that we were all set free.

And though we have . . . all of us . . . every single one of us . . . been redeemed by the blood of Christ, not all of us have been saved . . . for many of us have refused to believe that we have been set free and stubbornly remain where we are. Like a caged man sitting in a prison cell . . . many of us will not turn to see that the door has been opened and that we are set free . . . and because of sin, or guilt or any number of reasons we will not leave the prison in which we find ourselves, and sadly it is here where many of us will die.

But it is not so with you, for Jesus tells us who believe that “you are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” This is at the heart of the Gospel and it is life giving to all who believe that Jesus came into the world to save sinners.

Orthodox Christianity is under attack from every side today, more so than any other religion, simply because it is the only one that is based on the truth. The enemies of Christ could care less about Islam or any other false religion. Satan doesn’t need to destroy them because they ARE false and thereby help his cause by luring others away from a saving faith in Jesus Christ. You have to consider the fact that if Christianity were a lark, no one would waste their time trying to tear it down or murder all of its adherents. Atheists would be just that – neutral, non-God believing people, shaking their heads at the simple-mindedness of others who believe in silly gods. But instead many of them see themselves as anti-Christian crusaders (and rarely as anti-RELIGION crusaders). Why? Because Christianity is true. It is exactly as Jesus himself foretold in the Gospels: “Before all these things take place, however, you will be arrested and persecuted; you will be handed over to be tried in synagogues and be put in prison; you will be brought before kings and rulers for my sake… You will be handed over by your parents, your brothers, your relatives, and your friends; and some of you will be put to death. Everyone will hate you because of me.” (Luke 21:12, 16-17, GNB) Personally speaking, these single-minded attacks on my faith actually emphasize the fact that Christianity IS the one, true faith, and are a comfort to me in my belief and should be in yours as well.

God has over the ages been present with us through the natural world. He has made himself known to us through his creation. He comes to us daily . . . in living water . . . . as rain, as waterfalls and even in our personal daily shower. He provides living water to refresh us, food to nourish us and love to sustain us. He has done all this to make himself known and reveals himself in all religions and in all beliefs throughout the whole world and across all of time. But it was through the willing sacrifice of God’s only son, Jesus Christ that we have been given proof positive of God’s existence and his abiding love for us. It is through Jesus Christ that we have truly been set free and inheritors of God who awaits all those who truly call upon his name . . . Amen

The Good Sheperd

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Over the course of winter, my dog, Fenway, and I have to pretty much stay within the confines of our dead end street on our daily walk after I get out of work.   We do this because it is usually too icy or too muddy to go off the sidewalk for any kind of distance.  This spring, as the sun came out and as the ground dried up over the past few weeks, Fenway and I have been able to walk farther out into the fields and woods at the end of my street.  Each year it seems we end up on the same path that other folks take into the wilderness near the Buffalo River.  And each year need to get reacquainted once again to the different paths that worm their way through the fields.  One of those paths at the end of our journey splits into a Y leaving us with the choice of going either right or left.  From past experience I happen to know that the wider path leads to a different neighborhood while the narrower path leads home.  My dog, Fenway, however, never seems to remember this fact from one year to another.  Every spring he enthusiastically wants to turn right when we should be turning left . . . to go home.  I think he wants to turn right because that’s where all the good smells are and where obviously most everybody has gone.  It takes a few weeks before he gets the idea that when we come to the fork in the path, that we are to go left towards home.   So after about seven or eight tries he learns to turn left by himself without any coaching or pulling him onto the right path.

This past Wednesday our group got together, as we have been doing recently for evening prayer.  We watched a video about the end times and how it is prophesied in Revelations that in the end times there will be established a one world religion which will attempt to encompass the belief of all religions into the worship of a false messiah.  Many in the Church established by Christ will leave the true faith and be led astray by the false promise of this new faith.

And we asked ourselves how could this happen?  How could a Christian who goes to church and has heard the truth, deny Christ and take up with a false messiah who has proclaimed himself as God?  Which brings up other questions . . . just what is a Christian believer, and how do we recognize one when we see one?  How do we know that what we believe and what have been taught is true to the faith that was handed down through the disciples?  How do we know that we are on the right path whereas others may be lost, going in the wrong direction?  These are the questions the lessons tell us we need to think on today.

First off you need to be aware that not everyone who goes to church each week is a Christian . . . and in the same vein, there are some who stay home each Sunday who are Christians.  The proof of a true Christian is not whether he goes to church or not . . . but how he lives his life.  Jesus tells us that it is by their fruit that you shall know who his followers are.

All of us need to be reminded, now and again, that God loves us in spite of ourselves.  He loves the most wicked person among us because he can see the potential, the good, in all of us (even though at times we fail to see it ourselves).  He loves us like only a mother can and is willing and able to forgive and forget all the hurts and sorrows we have inflicted on each other and on the world.  But most of us do not belief this can be true.  We know how we judge others and we know the grudges we hold which is just one of the reasons some people go to church.

So, why do you go to church?  What are we supposed to get out of it?

What do we want to happen here?  I am not sure what you think, but I can tell you why I am here and what I am looking for.

I am looking for people of good will to gather together in a community of faith.  I want everyone that comes here to develop a greater sense that people can and will encounter God, if they will let him in.  I want us all to grow in a greater understanding of Christ’s mission.  I want everyone to learn something that feeds you, heals you, and equips you to go out to be faithful disciples . . . to be believing Christians in the world . . . and my greatest hope is that you want this too.

In the Gospel this morning, Jesus talks about the Good Shepherd.  “I am the Good Shepherd.  I know my own, and my own know me.”  Many times I have been reminded of the closeness and presence of the Good Shepherd through the kind words and actions of fellow believers.  This week, especially, with new life blossoming forth through the trees and flowers of Spring, I have been reminded of the words of the reassurance of Easter and of the resurrection.  I have been reminded about the blessedness of life and the joy of freedom in this land.  It is in these types of experiences that we know that God is near.  For I believe it is in this way that Jesus shares His Peace and Presence with us, but only if we are willing to give up all the other cares of life that are constantly filling our minds with worries and expectations.

Very often, we have a choice in life.  That choice depends only upon what we believe to be most important in our lives.  All of us are seeking the same thing . . . happiness.  But we all have a different idea about how to attain it.  For some, happiness is the amassing of wealth, for others it is family and friends.  For others it is good health or a good job.  For others it may be cars, boats or hardware.  For others it may be a home of one’s own.  For the great majority, it is all of these things all lumped into one, and for many, this happiness that we perceive to be true and good becomes a goal, quite out of reach to the vast majority of us.  For as much money as we amass, it never seems to satisfy our longing, and for as many things we have, or as much prestige we have attained, it never seems to be enough.

The Epistle today describes the world in which all of Christ’s followers ought to belong.  “Beloved, we are God’s Children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.  What we do know is this:  when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.  And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.”  Here is a vision of life without the things of the world that cause us worry and disunity.  Here is a vision of the Kingdom of God and the first thing we ought to seek as followers of Jesus.  Here is the thing that ought to be most important in our lives and worthy of our remembrance and practice and our time and honor.  We are God’s Children, Paradise is our destination and Heaven is our home.

Jesus the Good Shepard is the way who teaches us to follow the path of life.  The Church provides for us an environment where we can learn to perceive the right path from the wrong path so that when we are in the world on our own, we may choose the correct path without a second thought.  Much like my dog Fenway, we are all being led by the Spirit so that finally when the time comes, we will all know the way home.

Finally from St. John today we read . . . Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.  And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.  Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.

And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.  All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them.  And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us. Amen

“In God We Trust” . . . . . . . . . . All others – pay cash!

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This week we read Psalm 25: the first verse of which is:

To you O Lord, I lift up my soul;

My God, I put my trust in you;

Let me not be humiliated,

Nor let my enemies triumph over me

Does that sound remotely familiar?  ‘My God, I put my trust in you’.  Where have we heard these words before?  I kept thinking about it all week because it sounded so familiar.  And then, on my daily quest to Dunkin Donuts for my morning coffee, it hit me!  For on the quarter I was about to spend were the same words, but with a corporate meaning, the Words, ‘In God We Trust’.  And I really started to wonder “Do we?”   Do we as a people truly trust in God?  And if we do, what do we trust him for?

 

The history of our national motto goes back to the Civil War when certain evangelical pastors were convinced that if the Union was dissolved into oblivion, wouldn’t it be horrible if the final vestige of our existence, (our coins), said nothing about who we were as a people.  They worried that historians digging up the remnants of our country would think us a heathen nation because all we would have to show for ourselves would be the goddess liberty on some of our silver dollars.  That is how the words ‘In God We Trust’ came to be adopted on our money in 1861 and as our national motto in 1956.

 

But, do we trust God?  I can remember going to a store a few years ago and asking to use my credit card to purchase a hand tool.  The man at the counter looked at me, and then my card, and then pointed to a sign above the register.  The sign said:

 

“In God We Trust . . . All Others Pay Cash”

 

What do you suppose he meant by that?  Did he have some discomfort with human nature?  Perhaps here was a person who had been truly burned by his fellow man.  At any rate, I dug up the $15.46 and paid the man.  Both of us went away happy, me with my new hammer, and he with something he could believe in, something he could take to the bank, our nations currency.

 

Well you might be wondering, what is the point of all this?  The point is that for those who truly trust in God, there are no limits to one’s existence.  The worries of today come and go, but God is still with us.  The current conflicts in the middle-east and its fallout in Europe, and here, at home is worrisome for many, horrific for some, and yet our faith is continually strengthened because of our Trust in God to see us through it.  Unfortunately though, our nation today is not a nation of faith, (you can tell by all the dribble we put out as entertainment), but thank God for us that at least a few of our people are people of faith.  Because that is where the true strength of America lies.

 

We are a people descended from the sons of Noah, a remnant of a race gone very bad.  Who were so bad, as the story goes, that they were all swept away by a flood that was sent by God to destroy the entire earth, and everything in it.  And only a few survived; saved by the very water that destroyed all the others.  This is God’s work in the world.  This is God’s will in our lives, that Christians should be spared, as Paul proclaimed . . . ‘for whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s possession’.

 

God made a covenant with his creation that He would never do this again and he sealed it with his rainbow.  We read the story about this in today’s first reading.  Then God made another covenant with us that we would never die and he sealed it with his own blood. We read about this in the second reading.  My question to you is, do you trust God?  Do you trust God to keep his promise to you that you will be saved?  Do you trust in His Spirit to forgive you your sins?  Do you trust in His Son, Jesus, the Messiah, to be Lord of your life?  These are the very hard questions that all of us should be asking ourselves as we begin this Lent.  Just how serious is your faith?

 

It used to be that people gave up things that they liked for Lent.  I remember a friend in my youth who said he liked wine, women and song . . . so he would give up singing.  Many of us have the same silly notions of what we can do as penance in our lives.  But rather than subtracting something you like from your life, I would suggest to you that this may not be the time to take away the good things that you enjoy, but rather to add something you wouldn’t normally do.  One way that I have been thinking about, this week, is to write a letter to your family about all the things that they have meant to you but that you never had the time to say.  Address it to those you love and put it with your papers so that one day, when you are called home, your family will have a last word from you that is full of your abiding love.  Another thing you can do is to make an effort to do penance.

 

Some years ago, when my son Ethan was enrolled at 14 Holy Helpers School, I had a chance to speak with a catholic monsignor about the Sacrament of Penance and how I wanted Ethan to join with his class for their first penance.  After some discussion in which I shared with him the information that our church also has the ministry of penance and reconciliation, Monsignor agreed to let Ethan continue with his Roman Catholic schoolmates.

 

After Ethan started taking penance classes, it came to me that we Anglo-Catholics are really missing out on something by ignoring our own rite of reconciliation.  Many of us go through life with a lot of baggage that has built up over the years; things that we are sorry for, hurts we have caused, things that never really seem to go away, regardless of how many times we have confessed them and have been absolved.  It seems like they just stick like glue.  I hope you know that you are welcome and even encouraged to come to private confession if you need to.   Confession may sound a little too Roman Catholic for most of us, but there are things we can do to help ourselves.  One way is that you do not explicitly need a priest for confession.  What you need is trusted friend.  Although a friend cannot absolve you, he can declare a statement of forgiveness.  I have heard only two confessions in all my years as a clergy person.  Both were life changing experiences for those I heard it from.  The other thing you can do is to write a letter to God.  By putting into words the things that we are sorry for, the things become for us somehow more real and tangible.  When you are finished, seal the envelope and ask some one to pray with you while you burn it.  This may sound strange, but it is an uplifting experience of freedom to know that God has accepted you in your weakness and has forgiven your sin, never to return again.

 

Lastly, you can do penance.   Penance is not so much a punishment, but an indication that you want to turn back, and that you want to be made whole again.  We can do this in many ways, but the least painful way is in corporate worship, especially in participating in our Lenten Journey this year as we travel to various area churches each Wednesday at 7 PM and also in the service of the Way of the Cross.  I have decided that this is how I will observe lent this year and I welcome anyone who wishes to join us each Wednesday at the appropriate church at 7 PM and each Friday for Stations of the Cross here at 7:00 PM.  Amen

The Transfiguration

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One of the primary concepts of theology, one that many probably do not realize or think about much, is that . . . for us humans, God . . . exists only in the present. We may recall the past and we may plan for the future, but it is in the ‘here and now’ that we will find our connection to God and with each other.

In today’s gospel; we again heard the story of the transfiguration of Christ. We wonder . . . was this a vision of the future or did it actually happen in the present of those times when Jesus walked with his disciples. Jesus warns the disciples not to tell anyone what they saw until after the resurrection. Do you suppose that had they told that somehow the plan of salvation would have been changed . . . or perhaps ruined for them . . . or for us? We know that the future is not normally revealed by God in great detail, but at the same time we can also assume that it is laid out for those who have eyes to see it.

The transfiguration was given to the core disciples in order to build their faith for what was about to come. They were given a vision of the future showing them what had become of the past and how the future was to be shaped in God’s hand. The specific people who appeared, of Moses and Elijah, were telling. These were the only two prophets in the Old Testament that no one knows what happened to.

Elijah, as you may recall was swept up in a chariot of fire into heaven, never to be seen again. The scripture tells us that he will return as one of two final witnesses in the end days. That is one of the reasons that the people who heard Jesus from the cross calling “Ali, Ali . . .” on the cross assumed he was calling out for Elijah. And that is also, I believe why Jesus did not want anyone to know that Elijah had come in this vision.

Moses, as you may recall, was unable to enter the promised land due to a lost temper while working God’s miracle of cleaving the rock for water. Scripture informs us that he died, but that God himself only knows where his body is. The kabala (an ancient Jewish mystic book) relays a story that Moses refused to give the angel of death his soul and that God himself came from heaven to collect it. God placed the body of Moses in a special place where it would not see corruption until the day of the resurrection of the dead. Moses, we are told is the second witness who is to come at the end of time.

It is not all that clear that the disciples who witnessed this event were aware of the implications of what the transfiguration meant. But they were as startled as anyone would be if it happened to any of us.

So what does it mean for us in the present? For me it is a significant sign that all is as it should be. It is a sign from the past that links the present with the future work of God and the redemptive plan for all mankind. The fact that Jesus called three men to witness this event is also noteworthy. You may not believe one person who has seen a vision of eternity . . . two people who see a vision might also be untrustworthy as a sympathetic psychosis . . . but for three people to see the same thing and report back has to be either true . . . or . . . a conspiracy; but to what end?

The transfiguration is truly a lamp shining in the darkness as Peter describes. It was given, not for the people of that age, but for you and all others that have followed Jesus into the future holding on to the truth and life of Christ’s church throughout its generations. It was a sign that all was ready . . . all is right . . . and all will be carried out according to the plan of life and salvation.

There are two camps about the way this plan of life works.

There are some who believe that life is like a stream gently flowing to join a brook which joins other streams and other rivers and lakes until it becomes an ocean. This camp believes that everything . . . both good and evil is mysteriously being somehow brought together by God until everything that is, is cleansed and perfected as it gently flows into heaven. They believe that as mankind continues to evolve, all the things that divide us will fall away and we will become one voice, one people, all going in one direction. Our divisions will cease and all will be one with the Father of all things. This is the more liberal approach to life’s plan. It tells us that all will eventually join God in the end of time.

Then there is another camp that believes that life is more like a tree. As we continue to climb up the tree we are constantly faced with a decision as we come to a fork in the branches. Do we turn right or do we turn left. Do we embrace good or do we accept evil. This philosophy states that there is only one way and that when errors in judgment or opportunity happen, we find that we need to retrace our steps and go back (or repent) in order to stay on the Pilgrims Way, the way of life. This philosophy is uncompromising in its pursuit of perfection to be with God. It is the more conservative approach to the plan of life. It tells us that very few will join God in the end of time.

Now most of us know from experience that life is seldom a stream, but sometimes it is and we find that we can go with the flow. And it is not always a tree, but sometimes it is and we find we need to make a clear choice or take a stand. Jesus tells us that he is a vine and we are the branches. He tells us to bear the fruit of the spirit, which is love. He tells us that he will help us to bear fruit by trimming us back when he needs to. He tells us that he will give us living water to help us grow. He tells us that his love is sufficient to get us through all the things that we encounter in life. We need only to believe in the plan of salvation.

But, he also warns us that those who cannot . . . or will not . . . bear fruit will be cast aside . . . to make room for those who can. This is, for most of us, a terrifying statement, because all of us want to feel included in God’s plan. I know that each time I read this warning in the Gospels, I sometimes cringe because I know there are some who will not want to hear it. And I wonder how can this be coming from the ‘Lord of Love’?

Back, many years ago, Barbara and I decided to plant two apple trees. We planted one Golden Delicious and one Red Delicious tree. They were small saplings at the time, but they grew and grew. We never had the heart to prune them or spray them because we wanted pure apples with no chemicals. But little did we know that this isn’t how you grow apples. Before long the two trees were towering over our yard full of branches and thousands of leaves.

We did manage to get apples every year from them. We got thousands of very small horribly sour little apples that fell from the trees full of worms. Every year we cleaned up this mess and threw out two garbage pails full of apples. The fruit was inedible but the trees themselves were both magnificent, full of shade and promise. We stilled loved them. But as time went on, each year I thought about cutting them down because of the terrible mess they made, and because the fruit they produced really wasn’t any good for anything.

Conversely, in my travels throughout Niagara County, I am always impressed in the fall to see wonderful red, ripe, juicy apples in the orchards dressed by professional apple growers. These wonderful apples are hanging on some of the worst looking trees you have ever seen. They are all black and knarly and have horrible grotesque trunks. But, they have wonderful apples.

The reason is, that, to grow fruit correctly, the dresser needs to prune the trees . . . a lot. Sometimes they need to cut off whole branches to make them bear fruit. They need to do this, not out of malevolence against the tree, but out of love to make it grow and produce the finished product which is the fruit of the tree (and not the tree itself).

The point of all this is that love, though gentle as a lamb can be as ruthless as a lion when it comes to our own spiritual lives and the Church. If God can be compared to Love, then Love can be compared to Living Water that rains down and gives life equally to both the just and the unjust. But love never demands its own way, so God never prunes us unless we ask him to. Those who are pruned bear much fruit and they bear it most abundantly. Often they are not people who live in gigantic houses or drive expensive cars. Often they are the very poorest of people with the very largest of hearts. The plan of salvation is truly meant for them. But in the same way, if the vine is no longer useful and tree no longer produces good fruit, it will be cast down and removed so that others can take its place.

O God, who before the passion of your only­begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

David

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Many years ago, back in the early seventies, I got my first job, thanks to a friend of mine who put in a good word for me with the boss. My friend’s name was David and I had been his family’s paperboy for many years. Dave was one of those folks who wanted to believe in God but could never make a commitment to even try to open up about it. As I mentioned to you a few times before, I was at one time considered a religious fanatic by my piers . . . so I decided that . . . no matter what, I was going to help David through this. I was single handedly going to make him into a Christian.

Well as time went on it became apparent to me that not only was David not saved, he was also a drunk who would come into the store on Monday mornings with a huge hangover that would last until about lunchtime on Wednesday. On a number of occasions, Barbara and I would invite him to dinner at our house and occasionally I would invite him to come to church with us – to see what it was all about. To the idea of church, he always said ‘thanks but no thanks’ . . . but I wasn’t about to give up.

One day finally came when I just about begged him to come to church with us. He told me that if I went out with him, he would go to church with me. At the time, the movie, The Man of LaMancha was out and I found I had great affinity with the character Don Quixote . . . so I said to myself . . . ‘sure, why not?’ Actually, I guess I said it out loud . . . because Dave told me he’d pick me up at my house that night.

To my great surprise we went to see a Sabers hockey game against the Russians and then ended up at strip club in Cheektowaga where I had my first vodka gimlet (which I still like . . . I might add). As the young ladies walked up and down the bar, Dave asked what I thought about his life? All I could think about was how exciting it all was but in the end how very sad it all seemed. Though he yearned for companionship, his life was empty and devoid of anyone really caring whether he lived or died.

David went to church that Sunday with us . . . but only that once. I was unable to awaken him to the spirit that filled my heart and I felt like a complete failure.

The lessons and gospel point at the fundamental yearning of people – people like you and like me and like my friend David – who long for relationship with God but seldom know how to attain it. We fill out our lives with a myriad of substitutes for this relationship in our work, in our home life, in our hobbies and in every one of a number of euphoric diversions from reality, hoping that the pleasure we find in some new way will fill the void we feel in our lives.

In the time of Paul, food was a great obsession with people . . . mainly because it was scarce – and people had a great proclivity to give to their food some mystical power through offering it to their gods. This would assure them of good health or a large family or both. People would often have statues of certain favorite gods in their home and would set an altar up near it where they would offer food to be blessed. This of course, to Paul was a seemingly, ridiculous thing to do since he knew (and we know) that this was simple superstition and the household gods of the past did not really exist at all. But for the man in the street in the early life of the church, the household gods were real and they could bestow upon their followers wealth, children and good health.

And so it was that Christianity, in its earliest formation, found in these gods a kind of competition to the one true God who is the God and Father of all.

Today of course, we are no longer in competition with household gods nor do we have to worry about whether the food we eat has been offered to idols. It is a thing of the past – right? So why do we bring this subject up again and again every three years or so? What does the worship of false gods have to do with us in the 21st century?

We continue to bring it up because all of us have yet to get over the false dependence on the little gods of our lives. We may not call them Diana or Molech or Ashtoreth as in the days of the apostles. Instead, today we might call them Gucci or Jaguar or the Seahawks. The names do not matter, it is the influence these kinds of things have on our lives that matter. Paul knew this, Jesus knew this, and somehow deep down, we all know this to be true.

So are all these things bad? No, certainly not. Things that are attained by hard work can never be bad because they are part of the plan of happiness that God promises to all who believe in him. But they can become bad when the attainment of these things becomes more important than following the commandments of God. Drinking alcohol once in a while is not a bad thing . . . in fact the Bible tells us that it is God himself who ‘causes wine which makes man’s heart glad’ . . . but when wine and strong drink become the crutch on which our life depends, it is then that it becomes a bad thing . . . sometimes so bad that it destroys one’s life and the lives of all those around us. Much the same can be said about sex, drugs and gambling . . . all good things in their proper time and place, but all bad things when we become addicted to their influence in our lives.

All of us, I am sure, have people in our lives that are in need of true repentance, conversion and amendment of life. We can help them in a number of ways. We can be supportive of their efforts to beat their addictions. We can pray each day for them as they fight their invisible battle for redemption. We can list their names on the Prayer List at church each Sunday and light a candle before God’s altar in their name . . . but as I found out the hard way . . . people sometimes get the idea that they can make a person believe in God . . . I know I did at one time . . . but no longer. John Stott tells us that it is a mistake to think that the purpose of evangelism is to cajole sinners into doing what they can perfectly well do if only they put their minds to it and pull themselves together. Consider this statement from St. Paul ‘No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit’. And from St. John’s Gospel ‘No one can come to me unless the Father draws him’.

We do not hear enough of this ‘no-one can’ at church, the inability of men to believe in Christ or to come to Christ. Only the Spirit can reveal Christ to men; only the Father can draw men to Christ. And without this double work of the Father and the Spirit no-one can reach the Son. It is also true that Jesus told some of his detractors ‘you are not willing to come to me that you may have life’.

The human mind finds it impossible neatly to resolve the tension between this ‘cannot’ and this ‘will not’. But both are true, and man’s refusal to come does not cancel out his inability without grace to do so.

One day, perhaps twenty years later, David called to ask if I would officiate at his mother’s funeral because I had known her very well. Upon talking with him at the wake, it turned out that he had just joined the Michigan Baptist Church in Buffalo and he was finally getting grounded in the Lord. He was like a different person . . . because he had finally been born again!

What I have learned along the way is that we as believers must pray for those who come our way and who are in need. How will we know? We’ll know because the spirit will tell us in our hearts! And when we pray, we need to pray often and insistently to God . . . and he will answer . . . if not now, then in the far future. I found that in trying to help my friend David, God was actually helping me grow into a better Christian and a better friend to all of God’s people. Amen

God’s Mission – Our Sacrifice

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Today, in our first lesson, we hear the last half of one of my favorite Bible stories. For those who would be missionary preachers, it is the story of the prophet, Jonah. Jonah, you may recall was the man who was swallowed whole by a giant fish (or leviathan) as described in the book of Jonah. Perhaps, you too remember parts of this story . . . and have asked yourself why he was swallowed? And why did God deliver him? These are questions that we should be able to answer from the stories of our youth.

Jonah was a prophet who was sent by God to the City of Nineveh to preach doom and gloom to all in the city because of their evil ways. Jonah didn’t want to go there because he knew that as soon as he started preaching that the people were evil and that God’s wrath was about to come upon them, he would be killed. Prophetic preachers weren’t treated very well back then, especially if their message was doom and gloom.

So, Jonah decided to shirk the responsibility that God had laid upon him. So what did he do? He did what a lot of preachers do when faced with an unpleasant task . . . He ran . . . as fast he could in the opposite direction. Well, as you may know, one cannot hide long from God, and while he was on a ship in the Mediterranean Sea sailing away, God sent a horrible storm. The men on the boat didn’t know what to do, and they thought they were all going to die.

But Jonah knew the truth, and told the men to throw him overboard so that their lives would be saved. And so they did. And as soon as he hit the water the storm ceased. Jonah, who was now in the water was swallowed by a tremendous fish at God’s instruction. For three days Jonah sat in the belly of the whale contemplating his own death as the digestive fluids from the whale started to eat away at his flesh. But, guess what? He didn’t die. God, in his mercy, and in his grand design, saved Jonah and instructed the whale to beach itself, where upon it threw up everything in its stomach including Jonah. And the place where it threw Jonah up was none other than the shore of the City of Nineveh.

By this time of course Jonah was set straight in the eyes of God. He had been punished for his cowardice and was reawakened in his faith. Jonah mends from his ordeal and vows to God to become the best missionary ever and willingly sets off for Nineveh to preach the bad news that God had in store for them.

And that is where our story begins this morning . . . So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth and turned from their evil ways. Why do you suppose they did that? I believe that the people of Nineveh were startled out of their wits by Jonah . . . probably by two things. (1) the message of this prophet from God claiming judgment soon to befall them, and (2) the look of this man, Jonah, who had been half digested by a giant fish. Most likely he looked white as snow from the acid and like a dead man . . . walking. Consequently, the people heard the message and saw the error of their ways and turned back to God, all because of Jonah, his rebirth from the belly of the whale, and his missionary message of life and death. Through this one act of cowardice and consequent repentance, the entire city of Nineveh was spared.

Dr. John Stott, was probably the greatest evangelical preachers of our time. In his final book, he tells us that it is no accident that God’s mission, requires great sacrifice . . . in time, in talent and in resources . . . and all too often in the ultimate sacrifice of death, in order to accomplish God’s plan of redemption for the world. He tells us that mission in Christ is much like the mission of Christ who died so that we all might live. In such a way, John the Baptist was sacrificed so that the Jesus, the messiah of God could increase and bring to the Father all who would be saved. Also, in much the way the circuitous mission of Jonah in the belly of the whale awakened the people of Nineveh to the error of their ways and they lived, both they and their children and their children’s, children who would eventually become the ancient nation of Assyria . . . fundamental to the continuation of the house of Israel in the future time of King Nebuchadnezzar.

As many of you know, my family sponsored a Vietnamese family back in the early eighties. They still can tell us today the story of their ordeal on the high seas of the Indian Ocean as they escaped their country. They told us of people who were thrown overboard and who drowned on the way. They told of Thai pirates who came onto their boat and stole their food and jewelry and raped some of the women on board. They told of horrible storms and lack of water for days as they drifted with no gasoline on the ocean currents and how, miraculously, they landed on a beach in the Philippines after 14 days at sea. They told how they lived in a refugee camp for two years waiting for someone to sponsor their family of three adults and eight children. They tell of their learning English and how to flush a toilet and their plane ride to Honolulu, Chicago, and Buffalo in midwinter. They tell how they froze in our climate but were grateful for the freedom and opportunity in this new land. They tell of a story of faith, of courage and of hope for a better future.

Their story is one of the most powerful life and death struggles I know. And today, on their wall, is a painting of Jesus walking on the water in the midst of a raging sea next to a boat full of frightened men. It is their constant reminder of how God saw them through their ordeal and rescued them from death. They came here to Buffalo and were baptized and became believers in Christ and in his ability to save souls.

These kinds of stories illustrate to us how God may use very convoluted and mysterious ways in order to get his point across to us and to reach others. Often he uses the weakest among us to overcome the obstacles to grace in others. God most often uses simple folks as missionaries to send messages like seeds scattered throughout the earth. And through these messages, the church has grown from age to age, finally becoming the first and only truly global religion in this, the 21st century.

Today of course the City of Nineveh remains front and center in the news as Orthodox Christians there face the threat of ISIS and all that that entails. As Christians are murdered for their belief in Christ and as churches there are destroyed in the name of Islam, we can only guess what the message is that God is sending to us in these horrific circumstances. Could it be that there really is little time before the end? Is the blowing up of the church housing the final remains of the prophet Jonah a specific warning of dire things to come at the hand of those who hate us? Only time, of course will tell, but it is our responsibility today, in the here and now, to grow our faith stronger so that when disaster suddenly befalls us we are not like those who have no hope.

Perhaps it is no accident that Paul wrote these words today to us in the future so many years ago . . . “I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.”

Amen

Sin

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The readings today have to do with the subject of our sin and how the sin we carry within us affects our spiritual relationship with God. It is of course no secret that sin is an ever present occupying force in all of our lives . . . from the most devout believer among us to the worst of murderers on death row. The Bible tells us that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God . . . and in fact there is not one of us worthy to stand before God except the one who came from God . . . our Lord Jesus Christ.

So what is sin and how do we rid ourselves of it? And if we cannot get rid of it, how do live lives worthy of God while sin is present in our lives? These are the questions we are led to ask ourselves today.

As you are aware, sin came into our lives through birth. Like a genetic disease it has been handed down from one generation to another throughout all of history until it was present in your grandparents lives, in your parents lives, and ultimately in your own life. Sin will continue to be handed down to your children and to your children’s children until the end of time. And like a genetic disease, there is no escaping it, for it infects all of us in many different ways. And because it does, sin has a controlling grip on our lives that can be compared very much to slavery . . . and in fact we as a people have been enslaved in sin to the god of this world. And that is why Jesus came into our world, so that through the power of the atonement and through giving up of his own life’s blood, he would himself, pay for your sin and my sin and for the sins of the whole world for all time. And because he did this, we who believe in the saving atonement that Jesus made on the cross for us . . . as Christians . . . we have been set free from the sin that once enslaved us all.

How is this possible, you might ask. . . and if it is, why then do I keep on sinning if I have been set free from it?

Paul writes to the Greeks to today in Corinth and explains our freedom from sin in this way . . . “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other.

What he is saying here is that because of Christ, our sin can be forgiven us . . . not only our sin today, but our sin tomorrow and our sin next year. And although we continue to sin, we are in fact set free from sin and there is nothing left that we can do that is unlawful for us because through Christ and his atonement we have already been acquitted and found not guilty.

If what Paul is telling us is true and we can do anything we want without penalty, then why don’t we? Why don’t we go out and rob banks and liquor stores and spend our lives in luxury somewhere where it’s warm? Why don’t we just, like ISIS, go out and murder people who do not agree with us? Why don’t we cheat people out of their possessions and go on a rampage like the folks in Ferguson? We can, you know . . . so why don’t we?

We don’t do these things because when we accepted Jesus into our hearts and received the Holy Spirit from God, our lives were dramatically changed forever and because of this change, we have no desire to hurt people or to rob stores or do any of the terrible things we see on television every night. Because of Jesus we desire only that which is holy, that which is good for us and that which is true. We desire only to grow in the Spirit and we search for those things that are beneficial to our growth. We don’t do these things because we choose not to.

But even so, while trying our best doing all this good stuff, we are still captive in the world and by our surroundings. The world continues to be engulfed in sin and occasionally it does rub off on us . . . and since we live in the world, we cannot escape from the world, and we are influenced by those around us . . . and so we sin . . . and we know we sin – and we hate ourselves for it.

And because we hate ourselves for falling again into sin, we come to church each week in order to receive the help we need to get up and face another week.

And for all who come each week with an open and contrite heart, help does come in the form of our fellowship and in our prayers and in the Holy Eucharist at the altar. For this is the purpose of Holy Communion . . . and of all the Sacraments of the church, to help you to live out your Christian walk . . . to renew your spirit within you and to relieve you of the guilt you feel when you fall into sin.

The Holy Eucharist, as you may know was the only sacrament of the Church instituted by Christ himself. He gave it to us in the form of a command that we should, as often as possible, celebrate his death and resurrection by the breaking of bread and the sharing of the cup. In this way, he would be continually present with us in our memory and come to us in this form so that he might live within us, sharing our lives with him so that we might share in his life with the Father.

There are many misconceptions of what the Eucharist is and isn’t among believers. Before becoming a priest, the main question that I was asked was, what do I believe the Holy Eucharist represents? . . . How is God present in it? . . . and what do I, as an priest ordained of God have to do in order that the sacrament be valid?

These are pretty tough theological questions and apparently I must have answered them all right . . . because here I am. But I think everyone here ought to have an idea of what we believe the Holy Eucharist is and why it is important that we should partake in it as often as possible.

First off, I would tell you that as Anglicans, we believe that Christ is indeed spiritually present in the elements of the communion . . . and for those who truly believe he is present . . . he is present and can be of great help to you both spiritually, physically and emotionally by accepting him into your body in this way. Also I would tell you that if you do not believe that he is present . . . he will not be present and taking communion will not be of help to you at all – in fact the Articles of religion indicate that it may be to your detriment at the Last Judgment because those who do this would be considered a false witness.

Roman Catholics believe that during the Eucharist, Jesus is sacrificed again on the altar by the priest, and because of this sacrifice, the bread and wine become physically the actual body and blood of Christ. They believe that because God became man in Jesus in human form, God can also become bread and wine in physical form. If this was the case, and a non-repentant non-believer took the physical body and blood of Christ into himself, I am not sure what would happen. They aren’t sure either . . . this is the reason they give for requiring a personal confession to a priest and absolution before going to communion.

So what is the role of the priest in the Anglican tradition? If there is no sacrifice, why even have a priest present at the altar? These have been questions made by theologians throughout our history, and at one time (and even in our own prayer book) there were no priests . . . there were only ministers of communion.

First off, technically there are no altars in Anglicanism. There are only Holy Tables, at least that is what our Prayer book calls them. The priest represents our High Priest each week at the Holy Table and breaks the bread and distributes the wine just as Jesus did in the Passover before his death. The Anglican priest, when lifting his hands to God, prays on behalf of his congregation just as Jesus prayed on behalf of his disciples and it is the priest who absolves ours sins in the place where Jesus would stand if he were here with us physically.

In our tradition the priest faces east with the people looking for the second coming of Christ with the people, because even though he represents Christ, he is also one of the people . . . so you see the priest serves two functions . . . he is both himself, a sinner of God’s own choosing, and also represents Christ with us, as our chief priest and pastor. The best way to remember the difference is when arms up he represents Christ with us – with hands folded he represents himself, a sinner in need of repentance and absolution. That is why the priest can be a sinner and yet still bless and sanctify the holy elements to be for our use in the Holy Communion.

But he can’t do it alone, for it is you, the body of Christ (the people) that provides the final blessing in the final Great Amen that finalizes the Holy Eucharist and gives power to what it truly represents. For without you and without your presence and your total acceptance in the final Amen, there can be no communion.

So the point of all this is that when you come to church, you are asking God for help and for forgiveness, willing to try again to live a life in accordance to God’s plan. And because we come in humility, Christ himself is willing come into our lives and strengthen us for his service so that we might go out again into the world to spread his love to all people. And if we know that when leaving here, that we hold Christ in our bodies just as assuredly as the ark of the covenant held God in the days of the priest, Eli, then we will be all the more strengthened to reject sin and fight against evil in all its forms. Amen

 

Epiphany

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We’ve all heard the expression, “I had an epiphany last night!”. It is a saying that kind of reminds us of the “Eureka” that Alexander Bell shouted out when he heard his telephone work for the first time. An epiphany with a little ‘e’ is about a life changing experience that happens perhaps once or twice in a lifetime that changes everything about the way we think, the way we live and the way we are. Just such an epiphany was the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan by John. But whose epiphany was it? That is the question that we are given to ponder in today’s readings.

In Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, Epiphany (with a Big ‘E’) commemorates the adoration of the infant Jesus by the Three Wise Men who had come from the East. In Eastern Orthodox churches, it celebrates the baptism of Jesus. In the Anglican tradition, we walk the fence, as usual, and celebrate both. Epiphany comes from a Greek word that means to appear or to show oneself. When we use the term ‘to have an epiphany’ we mean that God has revealed himself or something important to us.
Between the three Wise Men bearing their gifts to the Christ child in last week’s gospel and the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan in this week’s gospel, there appears to be about a thirty-year gap. We know little or nothing about the life of Jesus outside of his three years of ministry recorded in the gospels. We know he grew up as a carpenter under Joseph’s instruction. But we have little knowledge of his schooling, his teen years, his birthdays, his likes or his dislikes. There was once an additional text called The Gospel of St. Thomas that described some of this life, but it was discounted by the church fathers a long time a go as myth.

There are many church teachers who believe that Jesus had no idea that he was the Son of God until the voice from heaven revealed it the day he was baptized. They believe that this miracle caused his epiphany, and that his ministry began at this word from heaven. Others believe that Jesus always was aware of his true identity from birth and that the voice was manifested to confirm it, not to Jesus, but; to others like John and his disciples, standing by. They believe the voice of confirmation caused John to have an epiphany and confirmed his role as the Preparer of the Way, which also lead to his eventual execution by Herod. And there are still others that believe that this story was included in the gospels to confirm to you, the listener, that indeed this man Jesus, is the Son of God. In this way, and through hearing this Gospel, you too might have an epiphany of your own and believe.

Life changing experiences come in many forms and in many ways. But, unlike Jesus in today’s story, it seems least likely to occur for us at baptism (because we are usually just children when we are baptized). I have witnessed many people having life changing experiences at Cursillo. One of those was that of Bob Coykendale, a dear friend, a judge and an Historian. He came to Cursillo No. 1 in our and was totally startled into the realization that God could reveal Himself in such a profound way to him. I was his table leader, and every time I ever saw him after that time, he reminded me of the event. And that was at least 30 years ago. Others in the Cursillo movement could tell you of many, many people to whom God revealed himself.

Other life changing experiences come in times of sickness or distress. In my own life, I have nearly died twice. It should come as no surprise that God would reveal himself at our weakest, most vulnerable moments. It is at those times in our lives that He has our full attention. It is at those times that we are most receptive and open to his spirit . . . especially if we want to live.

But, there are other times . . . times of God’s own choosing, when he reveals himself to us that causes us to change our lives in mid-stream. These are the mountain top experiences that we hear about that cause a 180 degree turn in the way we live. It might come from a confirmation class, or through a hearing a sermon, or watching the news, or through something as simple as a photograph in a magazine. God uses all methods in trying to continually communicate to us, but it is up to each of us to keep our spiritual eyes and ears open in order to be aware of his presence.

I believe that, in the case of Jesus, Jesus must have grown up like any normal adolescent. I can’t be sure of that, of course, but the Bible always mentions that he was a person, a human, just like us, who lived as a man and was tempted as a man, so that he would know us and know all of our faults. And if he did this, if he truly lived like one of us, then he too, must have had his own epiphanies, perhaps one that drove him out to see John, his cousin, to take on the baptism of repentance and new life that John offered his followers. Because, it was directly after this baptism that Jesus was driven out into the wilderness for forty days to be tempted by Satan. Perhaps it was part of this epiphany or perhaps he planned it all along, no one knows for sure. But it was at this pivotal event that his life was changed and that his ministry began. And because of His epiphany, billions of believers across the centuries experienced their own epiphany and came to believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.

But that’s not where it ends . . . not in a long shot. God continues to reveal himself to all people, in all generations, so that we might inherit the story of his redemption and his love. Because, just like ripples in a pond, all of us throughout all generations affect the generation from which we came and the future generations that are yet to be born. We do this through our own individual epiphanies of celebration in the power of God to change lives. For in this way God acts and is revealed from one generation to another.

And that is why we pray today that all who are baptized into His name may keep the covenant we have made, and boldly confess Him as Lord and Savior. For in this way, the story continues forever. Amen

Good News of Great Joy

An-angel-announcing-to-the-shepherds-of-Bethlehem-the-birth-of-Jesus

The story of Christ’s birth that we celebrate tonight is in fact ‘part two’ of another story which began some thousands of years ago at the creation. You may remember from your church school days the story of Adam and Eve and how, when Eve was tempted by the devil, she ate of the forbidden fruit and then gave it to her husband to eat as well. Thus began the fall of the human race from relationship with God. But it didn’t end there, for you also may remember that God tells the serpent who lied to them “I will put enmity between you and the woman, And between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, And you shall bruise him on the heel.” Thus began a prophecy that was spoken by God himself that would eventually set things right with human race – a plan if you will – to redeem what had fallen . . . back into a state of grace.

For it is in the life of Jesus Christ that we see a second Adam . . . and in the life of Mary his mother . . . a second Eve. For as in the beginning Eve was taken out of Adam, in this our Christmas Story, Jesus, the second Adam was born of Mary, the second Eve . . . and so begins the restoration of the fall of man into the presence of God in his glorious kingdom.

And for this reason the angel was truly excited that first Christmas night and came to the shepherds saying “Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

“For to you is born a Savior, who is the Messiah” . . . and that is why we call him Our Lord. And although none of us were present at the birth of Emmanuel who came to be among us, we his Church will continue forever to hold this memory, a memory made real anew for us at each passing year. And though we are unable to fully grasp the meaning of his birth, we know in our hearts that this birth holds a reality beyond anything we may presume to know. It is nothing less than the wonder of God coming among us as a tiny human child, to live and to grow and to be one of us in the world in which we live.

And although we are mostly ignorant of the true purposes of God in this event, we do know some facts, a few temporal details that we can hold: Jesus was born in a stable in Bethlehem some two thousand years ago. At that time, Bethlehem was an obscure corner of the great Roman Empire. We also know it was nighttime. The people of that country, aside from a few shepherds, were all asleep. So it was that the Son of God was born at night in a tiny stable in a remote corner of a mighty empire.

God came to us but there was no welcome for Him, even though he was the creator of heaven and earth . . . there was no pageantry; there was no outpouring of thanks. There were only the silent stars of heaven and the love of his parents to greet . . . Him . . . who had created everything . . . and it was enough, because there really was no understanding by anyone at the time that he had even entered the world at all. But Jesus knew that world – he knew our world. He knew the world and he knows each of us far better than we ever will. And he chose to be among us, to live with us, to share all of human life with us in that time, in this world, in Bethlehem.

Christians continue to be drawn to that place each year at Christmas time. Our minds seek to understand a mystery that seems too impossible to grasp. We look at the manger scenes we see around us, trying our best to understand what happened so long ago . . . and we look at our nativity sets with awe, like little windows into the divine mystery of God’s presence with us.

And so it was that God came to us searching our world for his own . . . a people of his own choosing; a people enslaved by the dark forces that oppose God’s will . . . for in Bethlehem that night long ago heaven and all creation joined in an embrace that will never end until the lost are found and those who call upon the name of the Lord are redeemed by Jesus Christ, our messiah.

Today those same forces are gathering to eradicate every thought of God and of his Son from the public square in many places where freedom once thrived. It is entirely possible for a child today living in the United States or Europe to not know the love of Jesus Christ or the real story of Christmas. A child growing up today in our world may never in his lifetime see a manger or know of its relevance to his life; but at the same time today in the third world there live more Christians than have ever lived in the history of the mankind. Many live out their Christian belief in secret and in hiding because of rampant persecution of Christians throughout the whole world . . . and yet even so, the number of Christians continues to grow each and every day.

The enmity of which God spoke in Genesis continues to separate the seed of the woman and the seed of evil. Today we, who have chosen God as the light of our life, hold all life as sacred . . . our enemies do not . . . and so it behooves all who are believing Christians to hold no doubt about God’s purpose for your life . . . and to stand firm against evil.

For ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it . . .
. . . He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth . . . From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, He has made him known.
Amen